You couldn't throw a brick during the Middle Ages without having it land in one battle or another, typically a princely turf squabble, though the size might increase anywhere up to a crusade. Into these frays rode the knight upon his battle horse, and Baker (The Gladiator, 2001) tells his readers how such near-mythic beings were groomed and ordained and what vows they took in military service to the liege lord. If there is a certain colorlessness to Baker's writing, it nonetheless offers gobbets of hard information and stories to give it life. The author first takes on the feudal system and breaks it down into regions, thereby giving a taste of the localized character of the period's political, economic, and military power structure. He explains the purpose of jousting tournaments and describes a weeklong jousting challenge that took place in France. The development of weaponry is covered, as are castle architecture and foodstuffs, from the great feasts with entrees of swan and porpoise, to the humble beans and peas that were the daily fare of page and squire. Baker captures the nature of siege warfare through stories of the great operations against Antioch, Nicaea, and the castle of Richard the Lionhearted. He lavishes considerable time on the knights and their relationship to the crusades, in part because notions of virtue and honor are inextricably entangled with the recapture of the Holy Land, and the religious aspects of courtly love came to be identified with knighthood. Finally came the decline: when mercenaries took over the knight's role, and gunpowder spelled the end of swordplay and lancework.
A blessing for any fancier of knights, from the smitten 12-year-old to the older guy who can't believe his bad luck at having been born 900 years too late. ("Kirkus Reviews," December 15, 2002)
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