Weird History
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13 Of The Dumbest Things Pop Culture Has Us Believe About Medieval Knights

Updated October 22, 2020 1.7k votes 313 voters 70.6k views13 items

List RulesVote up the stupid tropes people are convinced are real.

The bounty of films, television shows, and video games about the Middle Ages proves without a doubt that pop culture loves knights. But a historically realistic medieval knight is often hard to find. Pop culture recycles inaccurate tropes about medieval knights so much that people actually believe they are true, and many of these tropes are so unfounded that they defy logic. 

What did knights wear in the Middle Ages? What was armor made of in the Middle Ages, and how clunky was it? What did knights really think of peasants? By and large, film, TV, and video games that take place during the Middle Ages or a faux-medieval world don't answer these questions accurately. They often sacrifice fact for entertainment. But what about productions that claim to be historically grounded? For example, is TV series Knightfall historically inaccurate? Even supposedly accurate productions deploy head-scratching tropes about knights.

Whether it's inaccurate knights' armor or misrepresentations about how knights lived and fought, ridiculous historical inaccuracies about medieval knights saturate pop culture.

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    When They Weren't Fighting, Knights Went On Adventurous Quests

    When They Weren't Fighting, Knights Went On Adventurous Quests
    Photo: Excalibur / Warner Bros. Pictures

    The Trope: Heroic knights-errant embark on quests to rescue a damsel in distress, track down the Holy Grail, or defeat a monstrous villain.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Historical knights were warriors, land owners, and politicians - they didn't have time to embark on semi-mythic quests. Knights may have invoked a higher purpose for their fights; the Crusades, for example, were framed in religious terms. Knights could also go on pilgrimages to holy sites in places such as Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and Canterbury. But the idea of a knight-errant journeying on a personal quest is more fiction than fact.

    Notable Offenders: The trope of the questing knight-errant can be traced back to medieval literature and the tales of fictional knights like Perceval and Sir Gawain. Filmmakers deployed this old trope in movies and TV series like ExcaliburKnightfall, and Quest for Camelot. The trope even got a modern spin in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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  • 2

    The Mounted Knight Was The Most Important Force On Every Battlefield

    The Mounted Knight Was The Most Important Force On Every Battlefield
    Photo: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King / New Line Cinema

    The Trope: Knights were the medieval military's VIP fighters who could make or break a conflict.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Knights were undoubtedly a crucial component of medieval military tactics. Armies that lacked armored knights were often overwhelmed by opponents who used them, such as when mounted Norman knights defeated English foot troops at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But knights weren't invincible. By the late Middle Ages, better technology had made knights more vulnerable, since instruments like longbows, crossbows, and eventually arms could penetrate their armor. During the 100 Years' War, for example, the English longbow was an important tool in some of England's victories. Knights weren't always deciding factors in acts of conflict, either. Sieges relied on a variety of troops and technologies.

    Notable Offenders: Thanks to courtly romances and Arthurian legends, pop culture - including films like Ironclad and First Knight and television shows like Knight Fight - fixates on knights as the ultimate medieval fighter. Video games that enable players to adopt the POV of knights further invoke this trope.

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  • 3

    Knights Only Wielded Heavy, Mighty Swords

    Knights Only Wielded Heavy, Mighty Swords
    Photo: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword / Warner Bros. Pictures

    The Trope: Whether carrying, wielding, or wearing it, a knight isn't a knight without a sword. Knights revered swords so much that they gave their tactical tools names.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Knights really did value swords, especially since they were often status symbols, and some historical figures named their instruments, like Charlemagne's Joyeuse. Medieval swords weren't as heavy as most people imagine, though. After all, a sword that was too heavy to swing wouldn't be useful. Though they could be found in different varieties, a typical sword for conflict wouldn't weigh more than 10 pounds. Medieval knights also relied on a menu of tactical gear, including lances, axes, and daggers. In fact, lances and spears were usually the first tools knights would use on the battlefield. When Norman knights successfully infiltrated England in 1066, they wielded spears.

    Notable Offenders: The trope of a knight and his sword has its roots in medieval literature. The 11th century's The Song of Roland, for instance, spotlights the relationship between a Frankish knight and Durendal, his divine sword. King Arthur's legendary sword, Excalibur, appears in Arthurian stories ranging from Sir Thomas Malory's 15th-century text Le Morte d'Arthur to 20th-century films like The Sword in the Stone and Excalibur.

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  • 4

    Knights Would Spin Around While Dueling And Blindly Slash At Their Opponents

    Knights Would Spin Around While Dueling And Blindly Slash At Their Opponents
    Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO

    The Trope: Medieval knights fought duels with a flourish.

    Why Is It Inaccurate?: Since duels were draining, knights would not have wasted precious energy on acrobatics. Duels were a means for knights to settle personal and legal disputes and display their prowess. Indeed, knights were skilled, trained fighters: The emphasis was on aggressive, rather than defensive, moves. Duels also involved bloody hand-to-hand combat.

    Notable Offenders: Though the television series Game of Thrones is fantasy, it draws from the medieval world - but that doesn't mean it's accurate. For example, Oberyn Martell's high-flying theatrics during a duel bear little resemblance to how European knights actually fought. On the other end of the spectrum, the History Channel's Knight Fight is more interested in brawls than demonstrating the masterful skill that medieval knights would have honed during their many years of training - the show wrongly presents knights as unskilled brutes.

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