After the Roman Empire declined, Western Europe had no countries. Numerous tribes fought for domination over territories, but there were no central governments or national armies. The Frankish tribes set up control over vast territories, and one Frankish king, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) ruled a considerable chunk of Europe -- from northern Spain and Italy through France, Germany and Poland. To control such a substantial territory, Charlemagne instituted a feudal system of government. In feudalism, the king owned all of the land.
The king granted fiefs (portions of land) to nobles (lords or barons) in exchange for loyalty, protection and service. The king could also offer fiefs to vassals (knights) in return for military service. Many knights were professional warriors who served in the lord's army. In return, the lord provided the knight with lodging, food, armour, weapons, horses and money. Peasants, or serfs, farmed the land and provided the vassal or lord with wealth in the form of food and products. The peasants were bound to the land, so it was in the vassal's interest to protect them from invaders. Fiefs -- and the obligation to serve the king -- were inherited by the eldest son of the ruling nobleman.
Feudalism allowed large territories to be governed in the absence of a central government. Each lord or vassal raised an army to defend his fief and to serve the king as needed. One drawback to this system was that the nobles were very powerful because they controlled the armies. In fact, nobles often warred amongst themselves over territories.
When you think of knights, you might imagine King Arthur, Sir Lancelot or the Black Knight. We often see heroic knights in shining armour battling with swords or riding their horses on missions. Our images of knights have changed over centuries by romance authors (like T.H. White and Sir Walter Scott) and by movies like "Ivanhoe," "Excalibur," "A Knight's Tale," "Camelot" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." But what were knights actually like? Did they kill dragons and save damsels in distress? What were the conflicts like?
Medieval knights were predominantly warriors. They prepared for military service from a young age. Actually, the word "knight" derives from "cniht," an old Anglo-Saxon term for "boy." Knights arose in the eighth century under the feudal system established by the French emperor Charlemagne.
Knights were best known for battling on horseback, but they also fought on foot. Heavy cavalry of mounted knights with lances and swords broke the lines of many armies in the middle ages. They were considered a significant advantage in battle. The use of knights in warfare became increasingly popular throughout the Middle Ages, and knights were important to armies in Europe. However, with the arrival and increasing use of gunpowder and firearms in the 1500s, the skills of knights became disused for warfare. Knighthood soon became more of a ceremonial honour than a genuine military profession.