The conduct of medieval knights was regulated by a strict code of discipline known as chivalry. This governed almost every aspect of their lives, including the way they greeted each other.
A medieval knight in full armor was hard to recognize as friend or foe. To get around this problem a ritual form of greeting was adopted where a knight would raise his right hand to his helmet and lift his visor, in a form of salute, to reveal his face and true identity.
Medieval knights would greet each other differently according to where and how they met, but the greeting was always formal and always deferential. In battle, a greeting could be a matter of life and death. In jousting and fencing, the greeting was one of the rules of the game.
The Age of Chivalry
Knights were not always gallant or honorable. The first knights in the eleventh century were little more than thugs with weapons who not only protected their noble warlords but terrorized the local population.
As society evolved, this savagery had to be tempered and a system of rules was put in place to control their behavior. A medieval knight’s life came to be ruled by these increasingly elaborate codes of conduct known as chivalry.
This chivalric code regulated every part of their lives from bravery in battle, loyalty to their masters, piety to God, and gallantry towards women. It even controlled the way they greeted each other.
The First Salute
A knight in full armor would be hard to recognize, even if he was festooned with colorful heraldry to show his allegiance to one side or another. Without seeing his face, it was impossible to tell whether a knight was a true friend or foe.
There could easily be an imposter in false colors beneath that helmet. As a way of getting around this problem, helmets were fitted with visors that allowed knights’ faces to be revealed.
As a gesture of friendship, an approaching knight would raise his right hand to his helmet and lift his visor so that everyone could see who he was. The problem was solved, and the military salute was invented.
Sword fighting was an essential skill for knights. They spent years honing their battle skills in practice bouts and tournaments.
A complex set of rules and procedures evolved to regulate the sport. Knights needed to have the skills to be lethal in battle, as well as the techniques to avoid killing their opponents in friendly competition.
At the start of each bout, the fencers would greet each other with a salute. Without this formal greeting, a swordsman was in danger of being caught off guard and accidentally killed or injured.
Greeting at Full Tilt
The joust was the pinnacle of ceremonial play fighting, but with real jeopardy. Two knights fought each other on horseback, with the aim of striking or unseating their opponent with long lances.
This was a dangerous game that could end fatally. Clearly, losing your best fighters was not ideal and the rules of the game were highly codified to minimize this risk.
Before setting off it was imperative that the two knights were fully alert. They had to formally acknowledge each other across the length of the field, before charging down the tilt rail to inflict their blows.
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
If things started to get personal and a matter of honor needed to be settled, then a knight might greet another by throwing down his gauntlet. This was a grave insult that could not go unanswered.
To preserve honor, the other knight had to take up the gauntlet and accept the challenge. The code of chivalry meant the two knights could not just set to but had to follow this elaborate ritual before engaging in mortal combat.
Friend or Foe?
These ritual greetings formed a strict honor code. Sticking to the rules could gain a knight favor and advancement but violating them could lead to dishonor and exclusion from the elite.
All that, of course, assumes that the knights who are greeting each other are on the same side. In the field of battle, opposing knights were more likely to greet each other with a blow to the head or a sword through the liver.
But that is another story.