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King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: fiction, but also embodied many of the values and aspirations of medieval European elites

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, original manuscript

A gentlewoman and a knight

Knights originally served as hired soldiers, protecting different manors (large estates) and the barons who owned them.

From militia force to entertainment source: knights as cultural ideal

As the division of land into different manors (aka the “manorial system�) broke down, and kings took responsibility for more law enforcement and property protection, the need for knights as hired militia diminished. But their cultural influence, especially the ideals of chivalry knights embodied, remained quite strong.

Chivalry and Courtly Love

By establishing ideals of masculinity, knighthood also established ideals of femininity. Finally, codes of chivalry, influenced heavily by Christianity, created rules for how women and men ought to interact.

puppy sword, to show knightly courage


This “court culture,� from about 1200 on, produced a body of literature that established the rules for how to be a good, proper, Christian gentlewoman and gentleman. Its legacy extended through the 1800s, and one could reasonably argue its influence still exists today.

Europe’s courtly literature crucially influenced Europeans’ images of themselves. Compared to Europeans’ self-perception as civilized, graceful, and restrained, the outside world appeared “primitive,” odd, and “savage”

This book, though originally written by Pliny the Elder around 77 CE, enjoyed a revival in medieval and early modern Europe, becoming a major source of many Europeans’ views of the outside world

From Pliny the Elder’s Natural History

From Pliny the Elder’s Natural History

From Pliny the Elder’s Natural History

Note the replication of some of the same figures illustrated in Pliny the Elder’s work

A map of “the world,” c. 15th century

Other “depictions” of non-Europeans

Other “depictions” of non-Europeans

Knighthood, Masculinity, and the European Imagination  

A history of the influence of chivalric codes on European self-perception.

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