Knight is the English term for a social position. Knighthood is a non-heritable (with a few rare exceptions) form of gentility, but not of nobility. In the High and Late Middle Ages, the principal duty of a knight was to fight as, and lead, heavy cavalry (see serjeanty); more recently, knighthood has become a symbolic title of honour given to a more diverse class of people, from mountain climber Edmund Hillary to musician Paul McCartney. By extension, "knight" is also used as a translation of the names of other honourable estates connected with horsemanship, especially from classical antiquity.
The history of knighthood involves, therefore, the history of the social institution, which began somewhat differently in the various European regions; the history of the word, and the corresponding terms in French and Latin; and the history of the technology which made heavy cavalry possible.
Knighthood is designated by the title Sir (e.g. Sir Elton John) or Dame (e.g. Dame Judi Dench) within the British Commonwealth of Nations. The French title "Chevalier" or the German "Ritter" are usually used in Continental Europe. Outside the Commonwealth, the title is respected but may carry less gravitas, and thus may or may not appear, for example, in the mass media and other publications. There are technically differing levels of knighthood (see Order of the British Empire), but in practice these are even more symbolic than the title itself today and thus only express the greatness of the recipient's achievements in the eyes of the monarch. German names that have the word "von" in them designate knighthood, or a higher form of nobility.
The word knight derives from Old English cniht, meaning page boy, or servant (as is still the case in the cognate Dutch knecht and German Knecht for servant), or simply boy. Knighthood, as Old English cnihthad, had the meaning of adolescence, i.e. the period between childhood and manhood. The sense of (adult) lieutenant... [continues]
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