Historisk Tidsskrift
Copyright © by Den danske historiske Forening.


Thomas Kristian Heebøll-Holm

Priscorum quippe curialium, qui et nunc militari censentur nomine:
Knights in Denmark in the 12th century

(109:1, 69)

Received wisdom based on diplomatic sources has it that knighthood was introduced into Denmark between 1250 and 1300. The concept was interpreted as being inherently aristocratic and placed within the context of a culturally isolated Scandinavia. Previous studies have thus focused on knighthood as a symbol and source of wealth and power.

The present study argues that already in the 12th century knights and knighthood were constituent elements of a more broadly conceived elite community within the Danish realm. This reassessment is based on the representation of military and ideological aspects of knighthood in contemporary iconographical and narrative Danish sources, and on comparison with the development of knighthood in primarily 11th and 12th century France.

Scholarly literature on knighthood in France defines knights as elite soldiers, increasingly associated with nobility, but not necessarily restricted to, let alone recruited amongst noblemen. Among defining characteristics were a particular combat style and military honour code. Knights were highly skilled in a specialised form of mounted warfare in which the use of the lance plays a central role. Knightly virtues, expressed through an elaborate ideology, included prowess, loyalty, solidarity, largesse and Christian mercy. These stylized facts are used as a guideline in the search for knights in 12th century Denmark.

Iconographical sources, notably murals in the Danish churches, indicate the presence of a mounted military elite of native origin, wielding the lance in the same manner as French knights depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and the Maciejowski Bible. These images may or may not have an actual connection with 12th century military reality in Denmark. However, the analysis of the last books of Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus supports the notion that the pictorial representations did indeed reflect real military capabilities of the Danes. From Book 13 onwards, knights play a significant part in Danish warfare. Esbern Snare and Waldemar I and other famous noblemen as well as less well-known figures are praised for their expertise in mounted combat and for displaying knightly virtues.

Evidence in both Gesta Danorum and the annals suggests that the knightly form of combat was introduced into Denmark by German knights and Danes trained in Germany. At German courts they acquired the ideology to match. Elements of a chivalrous mindset may also, perhaps at the same time, have been introduced and cultivated by English and French monks, clerics and trouvères.

A Danish version of knightly ideology is found in Sven Aggesen’s Lex Castrensis, describing a society of knights in the service of Canute the Great with allusions to the court of King Arthur. However, on several points the Lex Castrensis diverges from standard knightly ideology; it is a hybrid form, in all likelihood a conscientious combination of features from on the one hand an older Norse warrior code and on the other hand the more recently introduced Anglo-French ideology.

The article thus asserts that knights as a mounted warrior elite – foreign as well as native born – were present in Denmark in the 12th century and played a significant role in Danish warfare. Apparently, it was a period of transition, witnessing the conflation of local and Western European military virtues and arrangements.