It would be obvious to say that society changes over the years. Yet as the years grow farther apart we tend to forget how those before us lived their lives. These historic ways of life are thankfully preserved in literary works put down and documented centuries before us. The goal of this paper is to examine the extinct life style of chivalry and show how it relates to William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Specifically The final act and scene.
As I began researching chivalry I found that there was a lot more to it than draping my cape over a puddle for a lady. It actually began not as a way to conduct ones life but rather as a social and economic class. The word chivalry has its roots in the middle French word for horseman, chevalier. Chivalry as defined in Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary means "mounted men-at-arms." Chevalier also gave birth to a word almost identical to chivalry: cavalier. Webster's defines cavalier as "a gentlemen trained in arms and horsemanship." These are also synonymous with knight. An interesting contradiction though is that the English etymology of the word knight is trusted servant. This comes form the Anglo-Saxon word "cnyht" (De La Bere 35). The idea of a knight being a servant does not fit most people's ideas of knighthood or chivalry, but in essence that is what a knight is. A knight's duty is always to his king. The duality of these roles is what makes chivalry unique. (Barber 9).
So where did chivalry get its start? Many believe it started with the barbaric Huns or the Roman Empire. Both civilizations had soldiers who can be called knights, but there is controversy over which really influenced what we now consider chivalry. The Hun soldiers were inseparable from their horses realizing the effectiveness of mounted attack. A classical writer referred to them as "shaggy centaurs." The Romans had a class of soldiers they called the "equites." These examples are related to chivalry but different because of the way in which it began. Chivalry actually begins with the end of the empire of Charlemagne during the mid eighth century. A knight basically began as a horse mounted solider. No elaborate armor or weapon system was developed at first. Soon, changes were becoming evident. During this time most who fought in battle were free men and were called to do so only because they owed service to their leader. It was an obligation to duty, not a situation where they had to participate if they really didn't want to. Military equipment was very expensive during this time and forced men to pool their resources. Four men may pool their resources and equip a fifth (9). This is where a life of service comes into play. Notice that this warrior's sole responsibility is to render his war fighting skills to both the people who appointed him and the leader he is to fight for. This is the underlying purpose of the knight and soon shapes the traits of chivalry. The use of stirrups and horseshoes in the ninth century made the horse mounted warrior much more useful. These new technologies enabled a rider to deliver a blow with a lance at full charge while on horseback. Before this he would have been knocked off his mount due to not being able to grip onto the horses back. The horseshoe enabled him to cover long distances and rough terrain (12). With these developments weapons began to change. The lance became longer and more sophisticated. Training regiments began to emerge. One such regiment was the "practicing of mock warfare known as tournaments. Tournaments were central to the world of chivalry: they acted both as training grounds for knights….and as focal points for a literature and culture based on knighthood" (19). A knight had to be trained in all aspects of combat from horsemanship to fencing. The well equipped knighted that we tend to think of today did not appear until the very beginning of the eleventh century.
So, what made a knight during this time of chivalry? The author Sidney Painter, in his book French Chivalry, broke down the character of a knight in to four basic virtues. The first of these is prowess. Prowess is described