The institution of knighthood underwent a transformation during the Middle Ages, beginning as an upper class of mounted warriors in the service of feudal lords and kings to an order based on the virtues of chivalry and influenced by Christian ethics. The question is why did this occur, who was involved in this transformation, and what was the ideal Christian knight supposed to look like? What virtues did he possess and how was he supposed to live out his life within his vocation?
Chretien de Troyes, a 12th century French poet, wrote a number of romances dealing with the concepts of chivalry and knighthood, one of the most famous of which is Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. This epic poem concerns the nature of courtliness and chivalry, and one main event of the story describes a transformation that occurs within the character of Yvain as he eventually becomes the ideal knight. By looking at Yvain’s transformation, we can see how a true knight is supposed to live his life, which is important because Chretien is arguing that a true knight should not be selfish but that he should live according to a higher calling that is selfless and virtuous, seeking to help others who cannot help themselves, and how it mirrors the transformation of the concept of knighthood itself.
Jaeger argues that Chretien was almost certainly a cleric whose romances attempted to influence the laity by putting forth a model of behavior that a knight should follow while chastising the worldly aspects of knighthood. And after Chretien, poet-knights such as Hartmann von Au and Wolfram von Eschenbach would write their own romances in an attempt to influence their own class. These poets had a profound sense of the ideals of a more civilized knighthood, one with a spirit of courtliness that would restrain a warrior class that was given over to excesses. This new code of chivalry was now more of an inner law imposed on each knight individually, instead of some law enforced by legal courts, and the instruments of enforcement were within the psyche, not outside in the form of threatened punishment. Each knight was supposed to hold himself to these ethical laws, and to break them would punish himself by violating his own values, bringing psychological punishment, and loss of self-respect. This very thing can be seen in Yvain when Yvain goes mad after he is rejected by Laudine for breaking his promise to her and is forced to live in the forest naked, almost as a form of penance for what he has done. Other authors from the knightly class such as Henry of Lancaster and Geoffrey de Charny would later write about how the harsh lifestyle of the knight was itself a form of penance, meritorious suffering that was pleasing and acceptable in the eyes of God as satisfaction for sin, and in its own way was a form of imitating the suffering of Christ. For these authors, Christ himself was like a knight who fought in a tournament and won, securing life for humanity.
After his miraculous healing by the magic ointment of the noblewoman, Yvain transforms into a more virtuous figure who sets out on one adventure after another, helping various characters along the way, including the noblewoman, the lion who will become his companion, Lunette (his wife’s servant who helped him previously), and the woman who was trying to get her inheritance. In all of these scenarios, Yvain fights not for his own glory, but because he sees that these people are truly in need, and he seeks to help them because it is the virtuous thing to do. When he comes upon Lunette, who is sentenced to be burned at the stake unjustly, Yvain vows to rescue her though it may cost him his life by saying “Expect me tomorrow, ready to do what I can, offering my body for your freedom, as indeed I ought to do.”
Similar to the story of Yvain is that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a knightly romance that places special emphasis on the Christian virtue of fortitude or courage. In the story the Green Knight is portrayed as having the perfection of fortitude, in that while Sir Gawain possesses the virtue when he is attacking a foe, the Green Knight possesses it in its true form, fortitude in the face of death or martyrdom.
Eventually these knightly romances would take on a form that resembled hagiography, as many of Arthur’s knights in the Grail stories perform miracles as a testament to God’s favor in their vocations, and these Grail legends served to invest chivalry with a religious authority that was independent of the established religious hierarchy. There developed an analogy between knighthood and the priesthood, for just as the priest received a special grace from God by means of the apostolic laying on of hands, so too did the knight receive a special grace from God by the means of knightly dubbing. Unlike Holy Orders, however, which is conferred regardless of the moral worth of the priest, Ramon Lull assumed that only a virtuous knight could confer this grace upon another knight, and that an unworthy knight could not confer the grace of knighthood to another.
There is also a strong motif of justice that runs through the poem, as Yvain originally acted unjustly towards Laudine in the beginning, but after his “rebirth” he is concerned with righting the wrongs that he encounters on his adventures. He saves a young maiden from being taken by the giant, and he even says that God would not suffer the giant to have the maiden. He then takes it upon himself to defend not only her but the entire village as well, knowing that he may die in the process, taking it upon himself to ensure that justice is accomplished. According to authors like Ramon Lull, all knights, from kings or the Holy Roman Emperor down to the most humble of knights were called upon to do justice in God’s name by virtue of their office and their order. Knighthood is thus seen as a type of religious vocation, with a higher calling towards the virtue of justice in the world. By the end of the poem, Yvain completes his adventures and is finally reconciled to Laudine, having been “born again” by his trials into the truly ideal knight who is selfless and keeps his word, though it may even cause his death. He thus displays courage and justice when he is defending those who cannot help themselves, and he puts the needs of others before himself.
 C. Stephen Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 242.
 Ibid., 243.
 Chretien de Troyes, Yvain: the Knight of the Lion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 88-89.
 Richard W. Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: the Religious Ideology of Chivalry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 41.
 Chretien, Yvain, 112.
 David N. Beauregard “Moral Theology in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Pentangle, the Green Knight, and the Perfection of Virtue.” Renascence 65, no. 3 (Spring 2013): 148-150.
 Nigel Saul, Chivalry in Medieval England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 202-203.
 Beverly Kennedy, Knighthood in the Morte Darthur (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1992),31.
 Chretien, Yvain, 124-125.
Kennedy, Knighthood in the Morte Darthur, 14-15.