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The Physicality of Service in German Ideas of Knighthood, c.1200-1500
Brown Journal of History: Vol. 7 (2013)
“Ich Jörg von Ehingen, ritter…” Close to death, a fifteenth-century Tyrolian knight by the name of Jörg von Ehingen decided to tell the story of his early days as a knight. His memoirs spin the tale of an eager young man ready to fulfill his destiny in a life of courtly service. He rises in rank, distinguishes himself in a network of princely politics, and travels throughout Europe in search of monarchs seeking voluntary service. Rarely do medieval sources come so close to the inner world of that evocative and perplexing historical figure, the medieval knight. Today, imagining knighthood draws on the long and diverse tradition of portrayals by others, whether twelfth-century clerics or nineteenth-century Romantics. Even the most romantic visions of knights largely conjure a literate or reflective individual. More likely is the frightening image of a conqueror ravaging the countryside, or perhaps a hero more interested in romancing ladies and participating in tournaments than bloodying himself in real battles.
It might be that neither impression is all that far off. Jörg himself, straddling both ends of the spectrum, is a perfect example. As a fifteenth- century knight serving in various princely courts, he was frequently obliged to take part in the fineries of courtly life – dances, feasts, pageantry. On the other hand, he traveled across the continent in search for active service in battle until finally coming to the rapidly expanding kingdoms of Portugal and Spain. Nor was the distinction between courtly and practical lifestyles black and white. He admits in his memoirs the utility of courtly games as tests of strength and exercises in martial skill, for instance. Failing to neatly fit either category, his story demonstrates that while both images of knighthood have some plausibility, neither on its own sufficiently characterizes the knight as a historical figure.