Medieval History: The Vigil Of Arms

A look at the Vigils, its origins and ceremony as it applied to knighthood. Information about traditions and historical significance.

In Medieval myth and legend, nothing has held more fascination or mystique than the tradition-shrouded ceremony which preceded a knighting ceremony. This initiation ceremony, known as the Vigil of Arms, has captured the fantasy of knighthood long after the actual practice became an anachronism. But what was this forgotten ceremony, and what made it an intrical part of Medieval society?

There are two forms of vigil which were performed in correspondence to knighthood in the Middle Ages. The first was a standard vigil, a trial run for the lesser-experienced combatants on the night before a tourney or joust. The other was the ceremonious Vigil of Arms, which a squire was required to keep the night before he became a knight. It is this latter ceremony which is the focus of so much secrecy and significance.

Originally, during the Dark Ages, knighting was done on the battlefield, or shortly thereafter. If a squire performed some act of high bravery, he was knighted by his liege-lord directly after the day's battle, with no pomp or ceremony. Then, around the year AD 1200, the Catholic Church took over the dubbing of knights and imposed its rituals and obligations on the event, turning the knighting into both a ceremony and a sacrament.



Under the Church's two-day ritual, the candidate for knighthood took a symbolic bath, donned symbolic garments, and stood or knelt for ten to twelve hours in a night-long sacred watch, or at prayer. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of nobles. The candidate's sponsors then presented him to his feudal lord, and gave him his armour and weaponry after a prayer and blessing had been said over each piece of equipment. Then, the soon-to-be knight's sponsors attached his spurs. Then he knelt before his feudal lord and swore homage before he was officially granted the rank of knight. The knighting itself was straightforward, and is well-documented and public. But what did this mysterious Vigil of Arms involve, and who was it for?

Any squire who had been deemed worthy of receiving his spurs (hence the saying "to earn one's spurs") and who had obtained a worthy sponsor, could be offered knighthood once he had undergone his Vigil of Arms. Every part of this vigil had a significance, and no part of it could be skipped, or the candidate would be declared unworthy of the honour and responsibilities of knighthood. Every action of the candidate, during the vigil, must reflect spiritual purity and integrity, and his worthiness of the rewards of Paradise.

There were six basic actions of the Vigil of Arms, every one of them required for knighthood. First, the hair of the candidate was cut, since sacrificing one's hair was seen as a sign of devotion to God. Generally, the cutting of a single lock was considered sufficient, but some of the more holy orders of knights required their candidates to be shorn in the fashion of a priest's tonsure.

After his hair was cut, the candidate was bathed and put in a bed, symbolising his having been cleansed of his past sins. Then, as a symbol of his new purity, the candidate was dressed in a long white tunic. A red garment with long sleeves and a hood was then placed over the white tunic, indication that the candidate was now prepared to shed his own blood in God's service and the service of his liege-lord. Then, a close-fitting black coat was put on over top everything else to remind him that everyone eventually meets death, and that a knight should never fear that death. Then, as the final preparation for his night-long watch, the knight-to-be was required to fast for twenty-four hours. This final step was meant to purify his body and soul, humble him into his humanity, and remind him to always champion the poor and meek. Then, prepared at last, he would enter the chapel, kneel or stand before his weapons which were displayed on the altar, and further humble himself before God in a holy watch of no less than ten hours.

The purpose of the Vigil of Arms was to purify the future knight and always remind him that his duty to God and Church superseded all worldly duties or possessions. After that, he was responsible to the duty imposed on him by his liege-lord, then by his sponsors. He was also to champion the poor and misused, and to hold all of these things above himself.

Whether for good or ill, the practice of the Vigil of Arms died out of use along with feudalism in most parts of the world, and knighthood became little more than a title of honour. However, the basis of the Vigil of Arms remains in effect for some, including candidates for the Papal Swiss Guard.

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