|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
 IT was quite natural that the professional fighting-men of
the Middle Ages should try to establish some sort of organisation
for their mutual benefit and protection. Out of this need
for close organisation, Knighthood or Chivalry was born.
We know very little about the origins of Knighthood. But
as the system developed, it gave the world something which it
needed very badly—a definite rule of conduct which softened
the barbarous customs of that day and made life more livable
than it had been during the five hundred years of the Dark
Ages. It was not an easy task to civilise the rough frontiersmen
who had spent most of their time fighting Mohammedans
and Huns and Norsemen. Often they were guilty of backsliding,
and having vowed all sorts of oaths about mercy and
charity in the morning, they would murder all their prisoners
before evening. But progress is ever the result of slow and
ceaseless labour, and finally the most unscrupulous of knights
was forced to obey the rules of his "class" or suffer the consequences.
These rules were different in the various parts of Europe,
but they all made much of "service" and "loyalty to duty." The
Middle Ages regarded service as something very noble and
beautiful. It was no disgrace to be a servant, provided you
were a good servant and did not slacken on the job. As for
loyalty, at a time when life depended upon the faithful
per-  formance of many unpleasant duties, it was the chief virtue
of the fighting man.
A young knight therefore was asked to swear that he would
be faithful as a servant to God and as a servant to his King.
Furthermore, he promised to be generous to those whose need
was greater than his own. He pledged his word that he would
be humble in his personal behaviour and would never boast of
his own accomplishments and that he would be a friend of all
those who suffered, (with the exception of the Mohammedans,
whom he was expected to kill on sight).
Around these vows, which were merely the Ten Commandments
expressed in terms which the people of the Middle Ages
could understand, there developed a complicated system of
manners and outward behaviour. The knights tried to model
their own lives after the example of those heroes of Arthur's
Round Table and Charlemagne's court of whom the Troubadours
had told them and of whom you may read in many delightful
books which are enumerated at the end of this volume.
They hoped that they might prove as brave as Lancelot and
as faithful as Roland. They carried themselves with dignity
and they spoke careful and gracious words that they might be
known as True Knights, however humble the cut of their coat
or the size of their purse.
In this way the order of Knighthood became a school of those
good manners which are the oil of the social machinery. Chivalry
came to mean courtesy and the feudal castle showed the
rest of the world what clothes to wear, how to eat, how to ask
a lady for a dance and the thousand and one little things of
every-day behaviour which help to make life interesting and
Like all human institutions, Knighthood was doomed to
perish as soon as it had outlived its usefulness.
The crusades, about which one of the next chapters tells,
were followed by a great revival of trade. Cities grew overnight.
The townspeople became rich, hired good school teachers
and soon were the equals of the knights. The invention
of gun-powder deprived the heavily armed "Chevalier" of his
 former advantage and the use of mercenaries made it impossible
to conduct a battle with the delicate niceties of a chess
tournament. The knight became superfluous. Soon he became
a ridiculous figure, with his devotion to ideals that had no
longer any practical value. It was said that the noble Don
Quixote de la Mancha had been the last of the true knights.
After his death, his trusted sword and his armour were sold
to pay his debts.
But somehow or other that sword seems to have fallen into
the hands of a number of men. Washington carried it during
the hopeless days of Valley Forge. It was the only defence
of Gordon, when he had refused to desert the people who had
been entrusted to his care, and stayed to meet his death in the
besieged fortress of Khartoum.
And I am not quite sure but that it proved of invaluable
strength in winning the Great War.
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