The real origin of the Middle Ages' romantic knight

It would be instructive, I think, to pause a moment to think about this term, “merchant adventurer.” Originally, it just meant a merchant who operated outside of his own country. It was around this same time, however, at the height of the fairs of Champagne and the Italian merchant empires, between 1160 and 1172, that the term “adventure” began to take on its contemporary meaning.

The man most responsible for it was the French poet Chretien de Troyes, author of the famous Arthurian romances—most famous, perhaps, for being the first to tell the story of Sir Percival and the Holy Grail. The romances were a new sort of literature featuring a new sort of hero, the “knight-errant,” a warrior who roamed the world in search of, precisely, “adventure”—in the contemporary sense of the word: perilous challenges, love, treasure, and renown.

Stories of knightly adventure quickly became enormously popular, Chretein was followed by innumerable imitators, and the central characters in the stories—Arthur and Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Percival, and the rest—became known to everyone, as they are still. This courtly ideal of the gallant knight, the quest, the joust, romance and adventure, remains central to our image of the Middle Ages.

The curious thing is that it bears almost no relation to reality. Nothing remotely like a real “knight-errant” ever existed.
“Knights” had originally been a term for freelance warriors, drawn from the younger or, often, bastard sons of the minor nobility.

Unable to inherit, they were often forced to band together to seek their fortunes. Many of these bands became little more than roving gangs of thugs, in an endless pursuit of plunder—precisely the sort of people who made merchants’ lives so dangerous.

Culminating in the twelfth century, there was a concerted effort to bring this dangerous population under the control of the civil authorities: not only the code of chivalry, but the tournament, the joust—all these were more than anything else ways of keeping them out of trouble, as it were, in part by setting knights against each other, in part by turning their entire existence into a kind of stylized game.

The ideal of the lone wandering knight, in search of some gallant adventure, on the other hand, seems to have come out of nowhere.