March 28, 2001
Jimi Jo Story wrote:
Where did the term knight errant come from? It conjures up visions of King Arthur, but is this the actual origin? It now seems to be used for "knight in shining armor" as well.
The King Arthur association is correct as long as you're thinking of the King Arthur of the medieval romances and not his semi-legendary sixth-century Celtic prototype.
The first use of errant and, therefore, of knight errant, is found in the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown author late in the 14th century. When Sir Gawain, who was one of the knights of Arthur's court, arrived at the castle of Sir Bercilak de Haudesert, "He calde, and sone ther com /A porter pure plesaunt, ... / And haylsed the knygt erraunt." (He called, and soon there came a gracious porter... and hailed the knight errant.)
Let's skip ahead to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, written in 1470: "Here maye ye see what auentures befallen oftyme of erraunte knyghtes." In 1884, Mark Twain read Malory and wrote the following in his notebook: "Dream of being a knight errant in armor in the middle ages." That was the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).
Sir Gawain had set out to answer a challenge, and the typical knight errant of Arthurian romance wandered in search of adventure and of chances to prove his bravery and his chivalry. The word errant comes from French, which also has the term chevalier errant. In this phrase, both in English and in French, errant means 'wandering or traveling'. The term has sometimes been used in ridicule, especially in allusion to the most famous post-Arthurian-romance knight errant, Cervantes' Don Quixote, who went about tilting at windmills.
We also find errant used by itself: "Errant those, Exiles and wanderers... / Who, with their burthen, traverse hill and dale..." (Wordsworth, "The Excursion," 1814). Tennyson spoke of a man's "errant eyes" in Idylls of the King (1859-85).
Errant has another meaning in English, however: it can also mean 'deviating from the proper course' or 'erring'. That's what Shakespeare meant in this line from Troilus and Cressida: "As knots, by the conflux of meeting sap, / Infect the sound pine and divert his grain / Tortive [twisting] and errant from his course of growth...."
Both of these senses of errant go back to the Indo-European root er- meaning 'to go', but they came into English from two separate Old French words that were spelled the same but had different meanings. One came from Latin iter 'a journey' (from which we also get words as diverse as itinerary, coitus, and obituary!) and the other from Latin errare, which, in addition to having the 'wandering' sense, could mean 'to stray or err'.
Err originally meant simply 'to stray or wander': "O wery ghost, that errest to and fro" (Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, c1385). It came to mean 'to go astray' and then 'to go astray morally.' The General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer (1552) contains the following line: "We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep."
The English word arrant, meaning 'thoroughgoing, utter', or 'flagrant', is a variant of errant. It has been used most often since the 16th century to emphasize how very bad something or someone is: "arrant traitor," "arrant coward," and "arrant fool."
I think that a knight errant is, by definition, what we would now call "a knight in shining armor" -- someone who comes to the rescue. There is an 1870 painting called "The Knight Errant" by John Everett Millais that portrays an armored knight using his sword to cut the bonds of a naked woman who had been tied to a tree by some arrant knave.
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