Our modern concept of leadership has been inspired by the heroes of history. Take the heroes of the Arthurian romances (also known as knights). Many of their enemies were knights as well. In medieval Europe, who became a knight, and how? And what rules did all knights have to obey?
The word knight comes from the Anglo-Saxon cniht, meaning “household follower,” and that is what the first knights were: men attached to the households of powerful lords, with duties to them that included fighting. When men started to fight on horseback and wear elaborate armor, it became an expensive privilege to be a knight. So knighthood soon turned into an exclusive club for professional fighting men. To enter it, a young man needed not only to be well-born and well-off, but to have trained and learned the rules. These rules are ideals most knights fell far short of, and the word we use to describe them is chivalry.
The first step on the road to knighthood was to become a page. A father and mother sent their son at the age of seven to live in the household of another knight, just as some parents today send their children to boarding schools. There the young boy began to learn archery and swordsmanship,to hunt and hawk, and to learn good manners, or courtesy. (The motto to Winchester College, a famous boys’ school founded in the Middle Ages, is “Manners make the man.”)
After an apprenticeship of eight or nine years, the page became a squire, and sometimes still lived away from home. Now, he learned how to carve and serve at table; he trained with full-sized sword and lace; and he accompanied his father or lord to tournaments, or even abroad and into battle.
At the age of twenty or twenty-one, the apprentice entered knighthood: Sometimes the ceremony of knighthood was simple, sometimes elaborate, with the squire keeping nightlong vigil in church, fasting, and putting on special clothing, Any knight could give another man knighthood by tapping his neck with a sword and pronouncing, “I dub you knight,” and the ceremony could take place almost anywhere–on a battlefield, after a tournament, or in the peaceful great hall of a castle.
What is clear is the gap between ideal and reality. In real life and in romances, some knights were gentlemen, others were brutes. Furthermore, the heroes of history were not born as knights but needed to develop their skills for success. Female heroes developed their skill set with time and practice, too. The same is true for the leaders of the present and future.