Knight is a term
to refer to a warrior or nobleman in former times, or today to refer to
a person who has been given a royal recognition. The female form of the
latter is usually Dame. Although the roots of the word knight are connected to the Old English cniht,
meaning page boy, or simply boy, or German knecht, or servant, the ideas
of knighthood are arguably more closely tied to the Roman equites.
These virtues became more idealized as time went on. Changes in military tactics, such as the successful use of the longbow against the French cavalry in the battles of Crécy and Agincourt lessened the importance of the cavalry. (However, the true end of the knight was brought about by the use of gunpowder and guns.) In times of peace throughout the later Middle Ages and as late as the end of the 16th century, the role of the knight was promoted and extolled through highly stylized tournaments that bore little resemblance to the bloody warfare in which the "typical knight" had once participated. (Early tournaments were actually very similar to war. They originally included many participants battling each other at once in a chaotic mock war, though they later evolved to the popular, one-on-one jousting we all know.)
When even the tournaments went out of fashion, knighthood became less
and less tied to warfare, and increasingly indicated social status.
Presumably there are other monarchies that also follow the practice. Modern knighthoods are typically awarded in recognition for services rendered to society, services which are no longer necessarily martial in nature. The musician Elton John, for example, is entitled to call himself Sir Elton. The female equivalent is a Dame.
Accompanying the title is the given name, and optionally the surname. But can never be the surname and the title alone. So, Elton John may be called Sir Elton or Sir Elton John, but never Sir John. Similarly, actress Judi Dench D.B.E may be addressed as Dame Judi or Dame Judi Dench, but never Dame Dench.
Related Links:The Black Plague
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