An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Knights

As an aid to students, teachers and parents, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. We’ve shared bite size introductions to historical figures, events and periods – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. K is for Knights.



E. H. Gombrich: I am sure you have heard of knights of old from the Age of Chivalry. And you have probably read books about knights and their squires who set out in search of adventure; stories full of shining armour, plumed helmets and noble steeds, blazoned escutcheons and impregnable fortresses, jousting and tournaments where fair ladies give prizes to the victors, wandering minstrels,  forsaken damsels and departures for the Holy Land. The best thing is that all of it really existed. All that glitter and romance is no invention. Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure, and people joyfully took part in that strange and wonderful game called chivalry, which was often played in deadly earnest.

But when exactly was the Age of Chivalry, and what was it really like? The word chivalry comes from the French word chevalier meaning horseman, and it was with horsemen that chivalry began. Anyone who could afford a good charger on which to ride into battle was a knight. If he couldn’t, he went on foot and wasn’t a knight. Noblemen whose lands had been bestowed on them by the king were also knights and their serfs had to provide hay for the horses. A nobleman might, in his turn, bestow part of his fief on his agent or steward, who would also be rich enough to own a fine horse even if, in other respects, he had little power. When his lord was summoned to war by the king he had to ride with him. So stewards were also knights. Only peasants and poor servants, farm-lads and labourers who went to war on foot weren’t knights.

It all began around the time of the emperor Henry IV – that is to say, after the year 1000 – and went on for several centuries, in Germany and in England, but above all in France.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Knights

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use:

BBC Bitesize (KS3)
Life in a castle
What impact did the feudal system have on society?

BBC In Our Time
“Chivalry Was Established to Keep Thuggish Medieval Knights in Check”
Eight Knights Who Changed History
The Knights Templar

Khan Academy
Chivalry in the Middle Ages (video) 

The Yale Blog
The Battle of Agincourt: Chivalry – Anne Curry

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.

A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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