Avoiding anachronism: titles, knights, etc in 11th, 12th, 13th century

+12 votes
A discussion started on the named profile about use of the term "knight bachelor" which has a Wikitree category. I suggested that this is inappropriate in the 12th century (or earlier), and I would go further and say that even terms like knight and lord and baron are over-used on wikitree in a pre-1300 profiles, and for pre-1200 I doubt they should ever be used in our fields. I thought it best to write notes here instead of continuing discussion on that profile. The focus is England 1066-1300, in other words Anglo Norman titles. Perhaps it might be helpful for writing up recommendations etc. (If it is not all covered somewhere already.)

First, please note that I am aware of the following:

*There are already some recommendations around Wikitree. (But here I am focusing on specific early periods, where things were changing, and where also one very reasonable option is going to be simply avoiding titles. I am guessing we might be able to refine concerning that.)

*Modern writers, including here on Wikitree, can not always be 100% "authentic" in the naming systems they use for historical people who lived in times when names and titles were changing and unclear. Clear communication is of course a good aim in itself. (But we should never forget that it is important that we never make the communication easier by making the information being communicated wrong or misleading. Otherwise we make a fool of ourselves and the people who trust wikitree.)

So here are some notes based on David Crouch, (1992) The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300.

1. First, the highest titles are relatively clear in sources, and there were very few people in England who had any such titles: A King, the ideas of Princes and Dukes, an evolving concept of Earls based on European Counts, etc. (Duke and Prince were known titles, normally only used for foreigners.) Use good sources such as Complete Peerage.

Note on Complete Peerage: if you are working on things like this you should have downloaded all of the 2nd edition on to your hard drive from familysearch. There is no excuse not to.

2. Barons. This is where things get messy. There really is no simple definition at all for the three centuries we are talking about. Kings did not start declaring people to be barons until later. The term was still a bit flexible, and though it had legal and taxation implications, these were mainly all seen as being flexible rules. In practice:

a. The easy ones are the parliamentary barons, who get defined in Complete Peerage. There are no parliamentary barons in the 11th or 12th century. In the 13th century after Magna Carta, it begins in fits and starts, people start being recognized as being of an important enough inheritance to automatically be invited to parliament. It was still messy and unclear, not a real system, but again we have a good reference work we can defer to. (Is it perfect and never anachronistic? No. If you read Complete Peerage it is full of qualifications, such as "and thus he is held to have become Lord Smith, according to modern doctrine".)

Comment on titles, such as Lord Such-and-such. Whatever our rules are for parliamentary barons, I suppose it is hard to avoid they can apply to these folks.

b. Before those invitations start giving us the Parliamentary barons, there are attempts especially by Sanders (English Baronies) to define an earlier type of baron. There is no simple consensus among historians about this, but Sanders is a reasonably standard list. Everyone working in this area should understand that this is not a clear system of titles. The word "baron" in this period can be thought of as similar in meaning to "magnate", a "big man".

The debatable and flexible ways of defining them used by people like Sanders depend on such things as (a) how much land did they possess (b) did they possess it direct from the king or at least a very important magnate such as a Bishop (c) did they get called baronies in things like fiscal records.

What titles to use? I would say none. These are not the Lords Such and such of Complete Peerage anymore. These are people who were seen as being important in several different fuzzy ways. Baron was not yet a real title at all but just a word for a mature man: the senior members of a specific group or community. I think we can better identify them using good categories and by careful writing and sourcing.

This is the background indeed to my recent work on the Early English Feudal Baronies category. Some of these lead to parliamentary baronies. In the 1200s some men who started life as a feudal baron ended up being parliamentary baron.

c. Knights. I believe there is really no call for "Sir knights" in this period. It might seem strange but in most of the real middle ages a knight was a military man, mostly someone serving others for reward and pay. They were respected sometimes and disrespected as violent men other times. For the Norman aristocracy at least it was no insult to be called a knight, because they were proud soldiers, but being a knight was not what made you noble. It seems the French speaking aristocracy were also developing initiation ceremonies for their fighting sons, but these were not initially for the majority of knights, so not what made most people a knight. Many knights held no land. The church, legal advisors to all of Europe, who did not like knights much at first, saw an opportunity with the Crusades to start turning them into christian orders, and this trend intertwined with the initiation ideas of the richer knights, and slowly a concept developed of a knight being a kind of lowest level noble. It took a long time.

Still for the period we are talking about many knights were not really noble, and so a concept developed which is now basically forgotten of knights who had their own banners: bannerets.

When the parliamentary invitations for barons started, it was sometimes mentioned that they were going out not only to barons, but also to bannerets. Crouch thinks barons were people powerful enough that if you left them off the list as king you might regret it, whereas with bannerets you could be on and off with your favours.

So bannerets are an area where I have no clear advice. But these were certainly seen as people of a higher class. It was not yet a perfectly clear system, and it disappeared. Furthermore, we also have no Complete Peerage or Sanders to help us define them. It was a kind of temporary phase. Later as a system developed in the 14th century, the banneret families tended to be slotted into the increasingly clear baronial class, or else the new knightly class which finally started to exist only then

The poor knights who did not manage to step up into one of these new categories are a semi-forgotten class. If you could not afford to be a knight of independent financial means, then people tended not to consider you a knight anymore, because ideas had changed.

But to come back to the original concern, before 1300 (roughly) there were poor knights. Being a knight did not make you noble. It made you a military man. All the later ideas of different orders and types of knight was a completely different world.
WikiTree profile: Richard de Clare
in Policy and Style by Andrew Lancaster G2G6 Pilot (108k points)
Andrew, this is a little outside of your subject above, but what to do about a noble that has been attained? Are we still using titles for nobility who forfeited their titles (for whatever reason, whether just or not)? So, if a duke forfeits his title by an act of treason, does he retain his title on WikiTree. (I know I could go and look it up, but I am a little weary today, so I’m foisting that off you you, sorry.)
Hi Pip, you mean attainted - in other words people who had their titles taken. I think logically we are making one short profile per person, and no person has their title for their whole life. So when we remark titles in any field or special place on any profile this is always to a person who had that title for PART of their life.

Yeah, that word! cheeky 

So, the highest rank, no matter what, is what they get on their profile? And lesser titles in the bio? (Andrew, I have no axe to grind; just asking.)

Pip I would personally see that as a format thing where I will follow any reasonable convention, but yes I would assume it is like that more or less. Maybe your concern is that people sometimes want to add all titles all over the place on profiles?
I believe you may have touched on something that has baffled me when looking Euroaristo profiles: the very lengthy profile names. I know we often have difficulties when coming up with LNABs, but the multiple “aka’s” and such do make for a very crowded profile name. It can often be confusing.

I wonder if titles are necessary in the name... if these can be out in the bio. However, I also understand that there has to be some way to differentiate between the many people who shared the same name, even in the same generation. Still, sometimes I think we go to far, and those lengthy profile names don’t help.

I am just talking here without making a suggestion. At this point, a lot of work has gone into the naming process for Euroaristo profiles, and I’d not like to be known as one trying to upend the cart. I’m just stating what I feel is the condition of things as I see them. Your 2b para 3 above seems to be a type of solution for lesser “nobility.” Plenty enough room in the bio for such.
Well I think what you are saying is not necessarily something Euroaristo members would disagree with. I think there is very little on wikitree which anyone should be thinking of as perfect.
I am SO behind on my to-do list!!

Catching up with this thread and followup needed in regard to the category for Knights bachelor, anyone born before 1300 should not be in that category, right?


3 Answers

+2 votes
Thank you, Andrew.  This is helpful.
by Robin Anderson G2G6 Mach 4 (40.4k points)
+3 votes

Thank you, Andrew, for starting this thread. Just on knights, I note that Shaw’s Knights of England, which attempts to give a list of knights, starts for Knights Bachelor with a very few names from 1257, and it was only in 1336 that there start to be any significant number of named knights bachelor, with 20 created when the Black Prince was made Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall: https://archive.org/details/knightsofengland02shawuoft/page/n13. But there are a number of earlier Wikitree profiles placed in the Knights Bachelor category and this appears to be an anachronism. Wikipedia starts its list of knights banneret in 1346, with only 3 names in the reign of Edward III and then no more until the reign of Edward IV - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_knights_banneret_of_England. All this suggests to me that the safest thing is not to place any pre-1300 English profile in a knightly category - with the obvious exception of those who were members of the Knights Templar or Knights Hospitaller, for which there are dedicated categories. As you say, in the Norman and Plantagenet period, knight just meant a certain type of fighting man, without any automatic connotation of social dignity.

by Michael Cayley G2G6 Pilot (122k points)
edited by Michael Cayley
+2 votes

Good points, on 2bc, feudalism in England revolved around manors held by knights fees, and it is interesting that knight became more noble over time, while at first it was just a well equipped soldier, it became an honor without any military service.

Shaw in Knights of England v.1 does mention that the more elaborate ceremonies for Knights of the Bath were in use before the 13th century, with the qualifier they prob. started during the reign of Henry I with an example of his prospective son in law Geoffrey, son of Fulk count of Anjou, and common by the reign of King Edward III, after the Model Parliament. Probably like barons, there were knights who were much more important than others.

by Kirk Hess G2G6 Mach 6 (64.3k points)
One of the reasons I like Crouch is that he also gives a lot of perspective about how the literature has developed, and also the different ways it has developed in France and England, so I recommend him for anyone interested in these subjects.


1. Feudalism has become a somewhat controversial term among historians, by which I mean they apparently no longer feel confident that it is a usefully clear term, at least in many of the contexts it is traditionally used.

2. Knights according to Crouch did exist as a recognized group quite early in French speaking areas, and probably not far off 1066 the richer types of knights seem to have been developing the initiation ceremonies you mention. So the ceremonies had old roots, but that does not mean these ceremonies were for every knight.

3. It is interesting that for a long time there were many knights without land at all. (Of course they were never completely poor. They needed a horse and armour.) In a sense people gradually started to see such knights as hardly being knights at all? This corresponds to the idea the idea also developing that knights have a certain amount of nobility just for being a knight. Indeed the whole idea of nobility being something special beyond respectability was new and unusual.

I'll track down Crouch - I was browsing this book which I thought was interesting since it was about land tenure: "In France, it became a custom with the early kings to create titles of knighthood purely as an honor...No such usage became common in England before John." Baldrich, James. The Scutage and Knight Service in England, xix

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