I'm trying to get inside the heads of historical actors of the period. I'm sure the martial class was just as diverse as any social group, but give me the best summation that you can.

I'll expand a little on the question below:

What kind of education would a young knight have growing up in 12th/13th century England? Would it be purely martial? Would it, in some cases, include tactics or even abstract disciplines like history or theology? Would they have been acquainted with a literature or oral tradition, such as the courtly love poetry coming out of France, or local epics like Beowulf or The Battle of Maldon? Would they be taught a variety of practical skills, or would they basically just know how to mount a horse and point a lance? What kinds of cultural notions might they naturally imbibe, and would they have had any any universal formative experiences?

That probably covers it. Thanks for your time.

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    Were young knights a sufficiently large (and sufficiently homogeneous) group that we can establish an 'average' education for them? I'm not sure that a knight who grew up on the Scottish border would have had the same kind of education as one growing up in a southern city. Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 19:57
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    @KillingTime: Knights of the time are gentlemen farmers, not townsfolk, by definition of the term. The local vulgar language or dialect may change, but the education to be all of a successful manager, businessman, military commander, judge, and counselor for one's liege lord is remarkably homogenous, probably across most of Europe. Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 21:50
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    @MarkC.Wallace: See my answer. Charlemagne founded schools across his empire precisely so that his subjects could become educated as well as literate. Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 21:54
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    Note that Early Medieval knights (on the continent, if not England) were notorious for bad, and even atrocious, tactical decisions made from pride: from Crecy to Horns of Hattin. Education not withstanding, it is very unlikely that a one of them knew their Caesar or Fabius. Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 7:20
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    So no stories of Achilleus & Odysseus in their childhood. Just checked and didn't get to France until 15th century. The Song of Roland was probably the inspiration for bumbling knights. Meant to be satirical, it had a lot of foolish tactics in it but was quite a story - guess they didn't understand the satire. Not much else have I seen that aren't stories of a magical nature, that had good information for military endeavors. Song of Roland was popular in England in 12th Century as were other stories of Charlemagne.
    – Hebekiah
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 9:03

3 Answers 3


First, let's remember that a knight is not just an armoured soldier on horseback; he is a knight precisely because of being in receipt of a knight's fee under knight-Service, with military (and/or financial, see scutage) obligations to his lord in exchange for possession of land, a manor, deemed sufficient to support not only the knight and his family, but also his required retinue in war. This retinue would have included several horses (At least two full-grown war horses and a riding horse each for the knight himself, his sons if old enough, and perhaps for one or two senior men-at-arms.) and men-at-arms, squires, grooms for the horses, etc. As such, by the twelfth century, a knight was a gentleman farmer, small businessman, and junior military leader all in one. This makes the twelfth century knight (when not also a baron) as much a member of the emerging middle-class as of the aristocracy. Certain assumptions are reasonable to make about the prerequisites of success in these multiple endeavours.

Martial Requirements

An essential skill in warfare is identifying friend from foe. In Medieval Europe this science was heraldry, and was conducted in Latin. The descriptions of arms was in Latin, as were their oft-associated mottos. Note that the art-work of a coat-of-arms is, to an extent, arbitrary; provided that it satisfies the recorded description for the arms.

Survival in warfare frequently being dependent on split-second reflexes and decisions, thinking in Latin sufficiently well to recognize arms never seen before from their heraldic description is a survival skill. One can assume that, at a minimum, the knights with a tendency to survive in battle would be those with a solid (not necessarily fluent) knowledge of Latin vocabulary and grammar.

Further, the language of the Royal and baronial courts was still Anglo-Norman French in the twelfth century. Fulfilling the feudal obligation of providing counsel to his liege-lord would have required fluent knowledge of the court's language, making our successful knight at least marginally trilingual in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and the vulgar tongue(s) (be it an English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish dialect) of his own vassals.

The twelfth century is the great age of both cathedral- and castle-building; and the construction and besieging of such lies at the heart of todays Civil and Mechanical Engineering disciplines. Fundamental to both is geometry. While the advanced study of that is part of the quadrivium (of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), a basic knowledge would have been immediately beneficial to our hypothetical knight; and easily recognized as such.

While the founding of Free Masonry still lies several hundred years in the future, the origins of speculative masonry lies in the admission of, paying, honourary members to masons guilds, from the middle- and upper-class, at about this time. In exchange for their contributions, these members received education in the geometric underpinnings to the mason's art and science.

Campaign planning further requires a basic understanding of where one is in the world. How many days march is it to London, Rouen, Paris and Jerusalem is useful knowledge for one's liege-lord, and makes one a more competent knight counselor. Perhaps not all knights have this education, but the more successful ones are learning it.

Business and Agricultural Requirements

To finance his military service obligations our knight had to run a successful manor. He holds a manorial court, adjudicating cases that are not violations of the King's Peace (ie civil and non-felony cases). Adoption of three-field rotation over two-field is occurring at this time, and decisions on specific crops for each phase need to be made. Smiths and tradesmen need to be located and hired for the village arising around the manor. Budgets need to be drawn up and adhered to. All of this requires management skills, fluency in the local vulgar tongue, and sound reasoning ability. An upwardly-mobile knight does well to at least ensure that his sons have this knowledge, even if he hasn't.

Medieval Education in General

The trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic was throughout Western Europe of this time taught in Latin, its Lingua Franca. By 1100 several (residential) grammar schools have already been established for sons of the elite, a number of which have survived to the present day. It is likely that every sizeable town also possessed one or more non-residential grammar schools. Increasing supply of education presupposes a matching increase in demand, at least some of which is likely to have been from upwardly mobile knights.

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    A good read on the demands of knighthood. +1
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 22:32
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    @Pieter Geerkens - We were writing simultaneously and many similar observations, cool. I wonder if you know if there were any characteristic differences distinguishing English knighthood from their continental European counterparts? Also, while I believe Scandinavian influences were widespread, was there any "Viking" influence particular to English Knights? Or Irish, Scots, other Celt peculiarities that are notable?
    – Hebekiah
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 23:36
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    @Hebekiah: Viking influences would have been almost completely through the Norman Invasion I believe. William remade England in many ways after the conquest, including a complete overhaul of how feudalism would work, in England, going forward. Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 7:08
  • @Hebekiah The approximate time when knighthood got first established would be important in this consideration too.
    – jjack
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 8:27

(I forgot about "English" in the title so this is more general.)

I'm reading Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe and just previous to your time frame one wasn't born anything; just a greater likelihood of receiving a title due to family and/or wealth, though it had to be earned and kept. Hereditary titles and a nobility were sometimes used especially in newly conquered areas; but any grant of land (in exchange for military service) was costly to the income of the king, count, lord, and so were given sparingly (widespread use of taxes was yet to come and that led to a hired standing army that changed everything). Military skill and managing farms would have been most important to education of knights. Holding the land was conditional on military service (many sources say 40 days a year was common) and if they couldn't fight well, they died. Administering their land well decided whether they would eat and be able to afford the trappings of knighthood.

Also important and left out of much popular history is that during this pre-Enlightenment era Greek language was frequently used in the deep administrative backbone of the Roman empire and in post-Roman leading societies - not Latin, thus suggesting education was Greek in nature. Not that education was largely conducted in Greek; Latin or local language were used; I'm referring to the trend setters.
So perhaps use Alexander's tutoring by Aristotle, Socratic dialogues, Ptolemy & Euclid, general classical Greek culture as examples. As far as I recall, T.H. White's Sword in the Stone is fairly consistent with this sort of pedagogy and even Game of Thrones follows the model.

Here we go; High Medieval Period in Wikipedia is worth a read and says Anselm of Canterbury had reformed/reintroduced education just like I said (mild surprise that my inference from Wickham's work was so accurate). The children were just looked after until age 7 (when according to Greek custom they were really people) then began some work and education. 12 yrs old they were introduced to Euclid as geometry and The Elements was considered the building blocks of all rational thought (children under that age mostly mimic, not grasp conceptual information).

Once again, fighting and farming being paramount of required skills. Interesting to note is that this period before the Black Death was quite prosperous and populations in Europe increased much. I would guess then that people skills were not to be ignored. Local knights (or whatever level of nobility administering an area) were also often required to serve as judges (depending on issue, along with local religious leader) and with rising population this would require more time and familiarity with Law.
(interesting is that Honor (and loyalty and all that) determined legal standing and so was often more important than wealth because without legal standing one couldn't defend one's self against allegations; if one person with standing said the other (without) had been paid for 40 sheep and not delivered, too bad for person without honor/legal standing even when untrue)

Of course religion was big, the Crusades during much of this period was conducted in Europe and was mostly inter-Christian slaughter. Basically if you wanted to eliminate competition or take someone's lands (perhaps to pay more knights via land grant) you paid your fee and applied for permission from Pope who would (after checking their counteroffers) declare them heretics for getting the number of angels dancing on a pin wrong and you get to slaughter and steal (liberate). So some religious training would be important, not necessarily much actual education as training in how not to get into trouble with the Church (whoever was eventually going to win though not so sure at the time which version would come out on top) was pertinent. I don't know if knights had much power here as they were sworn to whichever lord and rose or fell with him. Papal bulls promising get-oughta-hell-free cards to knights participating in Crusades was often meant to allow knights to abandon their sworn lord without losing honor and standing (during European Crusades era). Most likely these knights were never trusted again and eventually had to be shipped off to war in Muslim lands no matter what the Pope had said (I tracked the ebb and flow of inter-Christian crusading with external Muslim crusading and this did seem to be the pattern). However "holy" the motive, disloyalty was akin to "betray your family" accusation that is difficult to wash off no matter the circumstances. Perhaps some formal religious education would have helped if dealing with a powerful ambitious local clergy. (I have referred to European Crusades without intending to include Spain as during the OP's timeframe this was a stalemate).

Knights needed education/training in Fighting, Farming, Law, People Management, and luck in religion.

Update: Adelard of Bath worked out a whole Liberal Arts curriculum (grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy) around 1120 CE though it appears mostly kept to scholars until 13th century. This does allow for the possibility of a highly educated knight if he had access to Bath Cathedral (115 miles west of London in southern England near Bristol). Adelard wanted to educate everyone but printing wasn't available yet and books quite expensive. (thanks Pieter Geerkens for asking right questions)

  • One particular note - my understanding is that the trivium (of grammar, logic and rhetoric) was taught in Latin, likely exclusively, but the quadrivium (of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) was taught in a mixture of Greek and Latin. Originally the English term grammar school, equivalent to American High School, referred to an institution that taught the trivium, while the universities taught the *quadrivium. Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 7:05
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    Pieter, I've been looking and Greek was indeed rare in most of Europe, like a secret society. The Church didn't promote it either wanting to limit any other interpretation of Biblical text. By the 14th Century there was more translation from Greek to Latin, Latin to French, French to Old or Middle English. Mostly the English had to content themselves with scary stories of Grendel's mother and Vortigern, the most evil man in history!
    – Hebekiah
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 9:22
  • It would be interesting to note when Euclid's Elements were first translated into (or otherwise available in) either Latin or the local vulgar tongue, anywhere west of say Vienna or Budapest. I haven't been able to track that down yet. Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 10:44
  • @PieterGeerkens - all I found was first english translation 1570 (jstor.org/stable/2308296?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) from the Greek. Boethius prepared a Latin translation ~500CE but stayed East. " the Elements was lost to Western Europe until about 1120, when the English monk Adelard of Bath translated it into Latin from an Arabic translation." (Wikipedia) Wow, Adelard was a busy guy and worked out a whole liberal arts curriculum. This may change the answer entirely (though unknown how widespread it was or affect on a knight's education).
    – Hebekiah
    Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 23:34

They were not educated in the modern sense. They were not taught to read or write or philosophy. To become a Knight was a long and demanding task all by itself. It required years of training but that training was more practical. It was about horsemanship, archery, using a lance, a sword, a mace. How to take care of armor. How to walk, ride and fight in armor. Knighthoods were not bestowed. A young person, typically of nobel birth, would have started as a page, and then progressed as a squire. Young persons left their homes at early ages and entered into the service of great lords who could afford to train them. They would spend their lives in the service of their liege lord. So they had trained for years, even decades to learn what they needed to know to become knights and reading and writing were not among the requisite skills.

  • Knights owed their liege lord 40 days of military service a year. No more, no less. That's more like a weekend hobby than a career. You have been watching the Disney version of Sword and the Stone too much. Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 4:11
  • Knights were men. The question is about the education they got as pages and squires which were not 40 day a year commitments.
    – user27618
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 4:29

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