Thought on Role-Playing Knights and Knighthood
You might've heard a nasty rumor, that goes something like this....
The myths of Knights and Knighthood are frauds and lies. Real Knights were vile, evil people at worst, or selfishly pragmatic to the point of evil at best – hypocrites who oppressed peasants. Chivalry never really existed, or if it did, it mostly was about class warfare – the upper class against the rest of us. Knightly skill in battle was also a lie – the Knights won in battle by mere ferocity, not skill. Medieval fantasies of noble Knights are just that: fantasies at best, lies at worst. You see this view of Knights all over the place, from the “Medieval Lives” documentary series to “Game of Thrones” (television series and book series).
Sadly, I must admit there is some truth to this rumor. Some.
Therefore, despite the Knight's iconic status in fantasy, you might feel hesitant to roleplay a Knight in UO. After all you have other options for good guy fantasy archetypes, without the historical baggage. So why bother with Knights?
Well...I was pleased to learn, after extensive reading, that the old myths and legends are also partly true. That through the years we've over-compensated for the partially-negative truth by making things out to be worse than they were, and by forgetting that the good parts existed. But, exist they did. Knights and Chivalry were real, and class solidarity among the Knights was only part of Chivalry, not the whole story. Gallantry, honor, battlefield prowess, loyalty, all were real. Knightly combat was as much as or more about skill than mere ferocity. There were many detailed treatises on Knightly combat that have survived and there likely were a lot more, older treatises that didn't survive. Knights did oppress peasants, but also felt they owed those same peasants their protection and their best efforts to be responsible rulers. There were detailed treatises on that stuff too – essentially “how to take care of the peasants while oppressing them, and how to oppress the peasants while taking care of them.” The Medieval mind just didn't see the contradiction the way we should. But the point is that the Good existed.
You need not apologize for playing a Knight. You need not feel hypocritical for utilizing this important fantasy archetype to RP a character. This article seeks to provide some food for thought for those of you who choose to do just that.
So let's start at the beginning....
What is a Knight?
“Knight” is a European term, but many other Ancient or Medieval cultures (India, Japan, Mexico, Middle East, Rome, etc.) had something very similar. Through my reading I've identified some common elements among all these groups and, as it turns out, a lot of those common elements make good RP inspiration. (Please note that when you do you're own historical reading you'll find that not all writers agree with me on what these common elements are, or if they exist at all.)
--Knights, first and foremost, were elite warriors. Fighting and killing was their job, and they were good at it. (Note that I'm excluding one important thing from consideration here: The horse.)
--Knights were are official in some way. They were authorized and certified to fight and kill by some authority like a government, a church, or something like that. Or, they WERE that authority. (Outlaw and Knight usually are different fantasy archetypes, though of course you may have a character that begins as one, and becomes the other over time – like some of the Robin Hood stories. Ancient China also had one fascinating, very much real warrior class that combined both in a way that can really fire the fantasy imagination....But I'm not writing about them today.)
--Knights tried very hard to follow a code of conduct that incorporated loyalty, honor, and battlefield prowess.
--The complex web of competing loyalties and values in the Knights' culture could be difficult to navigate, and sometimes one value had to be placed over another. You could pretty much say that the heart of Knightly Chivalry was learning how to navigate these conflicting loyalties.
OK, now I'll go over these characteristics each in turn and try to give you some RP inspiration, grounded in each characteristic.
In a UO context this might just mean that your character is better than the NPCs, so I'm not saying that only the very best players with the very best characters should bother trying to be Knights. Even among Knights, some were better than others, and that's ok. (Though I do encourage you to push your and your Knightly character's gameplay abilities – be as best as you can especially when you're playing your Knight.)
Everything I've read suggests that being an elite warrior was part of the Knights' collective self-identity. Therefore, your character's relationship to the battlefield prowess expected of Knights might be important to his or her character and might lead to some interesting roleplay opportunities. Further, in real life, Knights' belief in their own prowess led some to indiscipline and foolishness on the battlefield – and a sense of Pride that might, in UO put them in stark contrast to the Virtue of Humility.
Some body, group, or power gave your Knight his or her the right to be one. For example, the Crown itself, or perhaps a Church, a town, or a recognized territory. Your Knight might be a servant of some higher authority, or might actually BE that higher authority (in real life, in Europe and Japan at least, the Knights were the rulers), or at least might represent that higher authority. You should work out which it is. A Knight that's a servant of a higher authority might behave differently than one who IS a higher authority, someplace. (“Where I come from I am a Lord. You are a Lord nowhere. I need not bow to you, anywhere.” “Where you come from, you are a Lord. Here in Nujel'M, you are no one, and I stand for the Sultan of Nujel'M. You will bow, as you would for the Sultan.”)
Here are some examples, from both fantasy and history, of Knights bound to serve a higher authority.
--Charlemagne's Paladins (fantasy)
--Housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England (history)
--Mamluks of the Medieval Middle East (history – indeed these warriors legally were slaves)
--Dupre the Paladin (fantasy – seemed good to have an Ultima-specific example)