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German Knighthood Was Different

The Kingdom of Germany, and its dukedoms, counties, and baronies operated differently than the familiar British and French kingdoms. First, the King was elected by a council of dukes, counts, and clergy. Often, the kingdom was passed down to a son or relative of the previous king as he was named during the monarch’s lifetime. In those cases, the “election” was more of a confirmation.

The knightly class, referred to in the primary documents as Ministerales, were unfree warriors attached to a particular duke, count, bishop, or abbot. Their lord provided each knight with a fief to support himself and his family. The knight was not allowed to marry outside his lord’s familiae (retinue of the lord).

Second, while many British and French lords discouraged marriage because the lord would have to provide for the knight’s family, the German lords did encourage their knights to marry within the familiae and have many children. This caused the lord’s retinue to increase, and many lords became powerful in this manner. Support came from each knight’s fief.

Most of the fiefs were only for a lifetime, and reverted back to the lord upon the knight’s death. Some knights gained favor with their lords and acquired additional fiefs as allods, which passed on to their children.

By good stewardship of their fiefs and allods, some knights became wealthy, and were able to purchase additional fiefs and allods for themselves and their children. Men who could not manage their property well were not choice picks for marriage to wealthy, healthy, educated, and beautiful women.

Most of this information is from Benjamin Arnold’s book, German Knighthood 1050-1300. I am still learning about German customs, and look forward to your comments and questions!

Knightly Customs

Knights were required to provide, of course, military service. That was, after all, their primary vocation. Their oath of fealty to a lord would include a promise to protect their lord’s life, honor, and property.

Besides fighting on horseback during battle, a knight might also do duty at the lord’s garrison, act as an arbiter or even a judge in minor grievances, and proffer advice and counsel to his master on a variety of issues. It was common for knights to be assigned administrative tasks such as garnering supplies.

In return, the lord would defend the knight and his family from their enemies, and avenge wrongs. The lord would grant fiefs of land, access to forests, rents from houses, and income from a plethora of sources such as mills and mines. The fiefs were given to support the knight’s family and military needs such as horses, squires, training, and additional stores.

Usually the fiefs were hereditary, and passed to the knight’s children, but not always. For example, if a knight was assigned as castellan (governor of a castle), the lord could take that fief away, particularly if there was rebellion in the knight’s family.

It was not uncommon for knights to swear fealty to more than one lord, acquiring more fiefs in the process. Many ministerales became wealthy by such devices, and tiptoed around conflicting oaths with difficulty. Lords were not always averse to such practices, as they could turn to their wealthy knights for financial support in waging war or providing ransom for kidnapped familae.

The penalties for breaking the knightly code were severe. Confiscation of fiefs was the customary punishment. Depending on the gravity of the offense, he could lose his wife, his children, and be cast an outlaw, whereby no one was allowed to assist him in any way.

On the other hand, lords who did not fulfill their duty suffered little consequence. If it was an ongoing problem or widespread across all of the lord’s retinue, rebellions did occur. Royal courts might have to be involved and that outcome usually was to neither parties’ benefit, but rather to the royal household itself. Thus, the incentive was to settle matters within the familae and maintain the peace.

Marriage for German Knights

As I explained in my last post, marriage was encouraged by German nobility, as long as it was within the familiae. If the marriage was outside the lord’s retinue, the children of that marriage belonged to the mother’s lord. Therefore, the father’s lord would be gaining nothing by the union.

In some cases, two lords would negotiate a marriage, and divide the children between them. This was particularly true if the knight’s fiefs were allods passed down to his children. Often, daughters were given allods from either their fathers or their mothers, and could be very valuable. Therefore, marriage arrangements became a swapping of people and property, each lord bargaining for the better deal.

Knights could also marry outside the knightly class, by wedding a free woman. In this case, the resulting children were also free. Free persons residing in a lord’s demesne did not have to provide a corvee (service of labor for a specified time), but did have to pay a head tax, similar to our income tax. So, few lords were inclined to approve such a marriage, unless the free woman agreed to relinquish her children’s freedom to the knight’s lord. Another enticement to the lord is that the free woman and her family would pay an agreed sum for the loss of the children.

It was not unusual for free persons to seek marriage into a familiae, to be relieved of the head tax, and to learn the ways of the fighting knightly class. Children of such a union almost always received a fief from the lord, particularly male children who were training to be warriors.

Often, mixed marriages between familiae or free and unfree resulted in later arguments, litigation, and outright kidnappings or violent skirmishes. Only the highest bishopric or ducal courts could make decisions in such cases, and seldom were bothered to do so. The might of the warrior class almost always won with or without the courts.