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What is a Courtier?

In contrast with the late medieval ideal of knighthood as a hereditary military caste, the Renaissance saw the rise of the courtier. Increasingly, common-born professional soldiers (such as the Italian condottieri, Welsh bowmen, and Swiss pikemen) replaced knights as the primary military unit in national armies. The rising nation state required numerous and cheap infantry--not expensive, hard-to-maintain aristocratic knights.

Another factor bringing about the demise of the knight was improving military technology. Although the church condemned the use of crossbows, these popular mechanisms allowed even untrained peasants to shoot down men in chainmail. That led to the use of platemail. Then, as alchemists perfected gunpowder, increasingly early guns and cannon developed the ability to penetrate platemail--rendering the armored knight obsolete. Finally, improvements in sword-making techniques led to fast, swift, and deadly sabers and rapiers. These replaced the bulky, slow, and heavy swords. Early knights favored two-handed swords and bastard swords because their sheer weight would allow them to cut through enemy armor through sheer force. However, a skilled swordsmen with a delicate, thin rapier or saber could be trained to quickly stab through even tiny chinks in armor (or even through slits in a visor!) to dispatch a heavily armored foe before he could even begin to swing the heavier weighted sword.

So, what do all those aristocrats change into if they are no longer suitable as the primary unit in an army? They become courtiers. Suddenly, the dominant traits of the knight change.

Consider the modern quotation below. It is not a contemporary document, but it illustrates something of the change from the knight to the courtier:

"My heart delights to see the young nobles at feasts!
How gracefully they dance! How smooth their motions!
Their wit displays itself in a thousand jests,
And they sing a thousand songs with lute and mandolin.
Young ladies at court sigh, for honey drips from their lips.
They speak all polite languages of Greek and Roman tongues,
And know the ways of France and Italy.
Their discourse is filled with zest and wisdom
They have skill in chess and backgammon,
And they write letters adorned with every pleasantry.
They know arithmatic and logic as well as any clerk.
They have their lord's left ear,
And they serve the count as his right arm."
--attributed to Guido de Pisan

While early medieval knights recieved praise for their military exploits, their great-great grandchildren recieve praise for their manners, diplomacy, and education in a courtly setting. Of course, bravery is still valuable, and courtiers still involve themselves in duels (using rapiers rather than jousting lances)--but for the most part, they are bureaucrats, scholars, and poets rather than warriors. They appear at court to win favor with more powerful government officials and receive posts in national offices. Their skill at multiple languages, their ability to engage in harmless flirtation with the wives of ambassadors and allies, and their ability to entertain with music, poetry, and dance are seen as vital skills. The meaning of nobility has definitely changed from the twelfth century.

 

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