This is a sort-of sequel to the fantastic Legionary Unofficial Manual, by Philip Matyszak (I’ve just seen there’s a Gladiator Manual out as well, also by Matyszak). Like Legionary, it’s a light-hearted, entertaining, concise but nevertheless intelligent book crammed with juicy titbits.
My knowledge of knights and the medieval period is essentially rubbish, so a lot of the stuff in Knight was new to me. The book covers a lot of ground, including how to become a knight, how to impress at tournaments and jousts and how to conduct sieges and battles.
The bits I found most interesting were about armour, siege weapons and retinues. Like most people, I knew the basics of armour but didn’t know about different suits for tournaments and battles and enjoyed reading about the advantages of plate armour, chainmail and boiled leather armour. Similarly, the trebuchet wasn’t new to me but there were a number of siege engines that were. Formations/units seem far less formal than in Greek/Roman armies, with a knight often having one or more squires, likewise pages and some servants plus numerous horses.
Throughout the book, (which is a nice solid hardback), there are oodles of medieval pictures and numerous quotations from medieval works (some of them by knights themselves).The author also does a good job of comparing many different knights and their fortunes and styles. John Hawkwood, for example, was born not only a commoner but a bastard, rose to become Florence’s favourite (and most expensive) mercenary and had a glittering career slightly besmirched by an unsound approach to spending money.
Prestwich also highlights the interesting doublethink of the chivalric code. Honour matters above all, yet peasants seem to be strangely exempt and are fair game for extortion, murder and all manner of general unpleasantness.
The book blends the serious stuff of history with rather more witty remarks and snippets of information (I particularly enjoyed the bits about football being a peasant’s game, and the penalty for suicide being death).
Knight, like Legionary, is an excellent sort of book, suitable for history buffs or those who enjoy light reads peppered with mirth. I learnt a lot more from this than did I from Legionary, though this is probably because I know sod all about the medieval period (similarly, I prefer Legionary, but only because ancient history interests me more than recent stuff).
The only real problem I have is that when checking the spelling of Matyszak’s name for the purpose of writing this review I stumbled across the recently released Gladiator Unofficial Manual. Damn, you Matyszak! Don’t you have enough of my money already?
[Incidentally, for those wanting a strictly serious but nevertheless excellent book on gladiators I can recommend Fik Meijer’s Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport].