#5 Everyone Smelled Like Complete Shit
I’ve covered this topic before. I’m really big into letting everyone know that medieval people bathed and washed their clothes.
#4 Knights Were Honorable, Chivalrous Warriors
They’re right about this, too. The code of chivalry didn’t extend in actuality to peasants, Jews, Muslims, pagans, or heretics, and sometimes it didn’t even apply to your noble-born enemy. That’s not to say that there weren’t some knights who were fair and just to everyone, but that was the exception, not the rule.
The medieval code of chivalry was rather like the Constitution in 1800. The Constitution guaranteed freedom and equality, but blacks were slaves and women couldn’t vote. It took a while for society to meet its own standards. Likewise with the code of chivalry in the middle ages. It really wasn’t until a revival of interest in the middle ages during the Victorian period that you see a desire to hold to all the rules of chivalry, which is where we get our modern ideas about how knights (and gentlemen) are supposed to behave.
In the real middle ages, you were considered chivalrous, really, by how you acted in battle and at tournament. Acts of bravery (of the “forlorn hope” variety) were popular.
King John the Blind of Bohemia was 50 years old and almost completely blind (what we today would call “legally blind”) when he went to fight with the French at the Battle of Crecy. He asked his company of knights to lead him into battle, and they tied their horses together and rode out to meet the enemy. According to a chronicler at the time, the King did strike down some men before he and his company were overcome. It is said that the Black Prince found his body on the field afterwards and adopted his crest and motto (“I serve”) in tribute.
Standing your ground and holding a line were also ways to show your chivalry. Also at Crecy, the 16-year-old Black Prince went into battle leading his own detachment of men for the first time. When his section of the line came under attack, advisers to the king told him he needed to send in reinforcements to protect the prince, but the king said, “let him earn his spurs,” and did not send help. The Prince and his men beat back the French and he was knighted after the battle, triumphant.
Random Fact: Believe it or not, I have seen a few people on the internet who have tried to claim that the Black Prince was really black… as in African.
The Black Prince came by his nickname because he wore black armor and clothing (see above painting). Black is actually a very hard color to make from natural dyes, and it usually takes multiple dye baths of various colors to make it. And even once you have it, the sun and rain fade it quickly, so it requires re-dying. Blackened armor also required special steps to create (if you ask really nice, my husband might leave a comment telling how it was made). In short, black was expensive and no one but the occasional monk went around wearing nothing but black. So what better color for a wealthy prince to wear?
The prince’s mother, Philippa of Hainault, was referred to as “black” by some contemporary historians, and this has also been held up as proof that she was of African origin. However, we know her genealogy, and it ran through pretty much every king and prince and duke of importance in Europe; no Africans. Likely she was referred to as “black” because she had black hair and dark eyes. Several of her immediate ancestors were from Eastern Europe, where people tended to be darker than those born in England.
That may sound like a stretch, but actually the same term has been used to describe Irish people. The “black” Irish are not actually black of skin, but rather black-haired. My own name, Keri, is derived from the County Kerry, and the word means “dark.” That portion of Ireland was famous for its dark-haired and dark-eyed people–aka the black Irish.
William the Marshal is reckoned to be the most chivalrous knight of the middle ages (as judged by his contemporaries and later medieval historians). During one melee tournament, which ranged over a large section of the countryside, he and some friends stopped at an alehouse to refresh themselves. A knight on the opposing side came limping into town with a broken leg. William saw him, went outside, picked him up, carried him into the alehouse, and deposited him on the table, telling his companions that the meal and drink was on him (because of the money he would receive as ransom for the injured knight). They ate their fill, made the injured knight pay for it, then left him with the innkeeper and went back out to fight. He won great acclaim for this act. (Everyone likes a man who buys them food and beer.)
Further Information: There’s a nice little Q&A on medieval myths at Soc.History.Medieval.