The Benedictio Novi Militis

December 12, 2019

The Church’s Ceremony for the Investiture of New Knights: The Benedictio Novi Militis

In the actual state of the question the Benedictio novi militis is represented by three classes of authorities. First comes the famous Ordo Vulgatus, which has been published successively by Cassander Hiltorp Ferrari and by the publishers of the Maxima Bibliotheca Patrum. It is evidently derived from the text of the Vallicellane. Secondly, there is the Pontifical of William Durand, which is conveyed almost in its entirety (its greatest honor) into the official edition of the Roman Pontifical. Thirdly and lastly, there is the valuable MS. 4748 in the Vatican, which goes no farther back than the thirteenth century, but which is the most Roman of all, and informs us categorically of the special rites performed in St. Peter’s at the creation of new knights. . . .

Francis I knight by Bayard at the battle of Marignan. Tableau de Louis Ducis, 1817.

Our readers must not be surprised if we give the foremost place to the Pontifical of William Durand, and present it as the most complete type of this magnificent rite—as that which is most completely “French.”

The Pontifical Mass is celebrated in the newly-finished cathedral: the bishop is present—the bishop who in the Middle Ages possesses the authority and weight of a crowned king. The last echoes of the concluding Alleluja are resounding through the chancel. At that moment—it is well chosen—the prelate proceeds to the benediction of the swords, which forms the first act of the liturgical drama. To bless this piece of metal, which may perhaps be drawn in the service of and to save the Truth, the bishop reads in solemn tones some of the prayers, so unjustly decried, which are the glory of the Catholic literature. “Bless this sword so that Thy servant may in future be in opposition to the cruelty of heretics and pagans; the defender of the Church, and of widows, orphans, and all those who fear God.” Then the bishop adds, “Bless this sword, holy Lord, all –powerful Father, eternal God, bless it in the name of the coming of Jesus Christ, and by the descent of the Holy Ghost. Grant that Thy servant, always possessing thy love as his armor, may tread down his enemies, and victorious may be sheltered from all harm.”

It seems to us that the most illustrious philosophers and pets of pagan antiquity would have admired such firm and noble language, but that their ideal never attained such a high pitch. What might not they have said while listening to the words which the bishop borrowed from the Old Testament. “Blessed be the Lord my God who teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight. My castle and deliverer, my defender!” Then, after a duologue between the bishop and the choir, the grave slow accents of the prelate are heard once more in the prayer—

Knighting Ceremony

“Holy God, all-powerful Father, eternal Lord, who orders and disposes all things, Who, only in order that Justice may be upheld here below, and that the fury of the wicked may be restrained, hast, by a most salutary decree, permitted man to wield the sword. For the protection of thy people Thou hast ordained the institution of Chivalry. To a child, to David, Thou didst in olden time give victory over Goliath. Thou tookest Judas Maccabeus by the hand, and led him to triumph over all those nations which had not called upon thy name. Behold now thy servant, who has bent his neck beneath the military yoke, send him from on high the strength and courage necessary for the defense of Truth and Justice. Increase his faith, strengthen his hope, enlarge his charity, give him Thy fear and love, humility and perseverance, obedience and patience. Dispose him to all that is right, and grant that with this sword he may strike none unjustly, but may with it defend all that is just, all that is good.”

Pope Alexander III hands the holy sword to the Doge of Venice, Sebastiano Ziani, who sails with his fleet against the imperial army.

Meantime the great sword was lying on the altar unsheathed. At the close of the prayer the bishop seized it, all perfumed as it was and consecrated by the almost Eucharistic contact, and placed it in the right hand of the future knight.

“Receive it,” he said, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Then he sheathed the weapon and—this was the solemn moment—girt it about the aspirant who was kneeling before him, saying: “Be thou girded with this sword, O most powerful.” Then the knight brandished the sword, and flourished it with pride and confidence, joyfully. Then he wiped it beneath his left arm as if it were already besmeared with the blood of his enemies, and returned it to the scabbard. Then the new knight and the bishop exchanged the kiss of peace, and the latter said: “Be thou a soldier—peaceful, courageous, faithful, devoted to God.” Here the “buffet,” the alapa, was administered according to the ancient ritual, yet the blow was not delivered with a brutal fist, but with the fingers, which gently touched the cheek of the cavalier. Then the bishop cried—

“Awake from dull sleep, and rise to the honor and the faith of Christ!”

St. Martin is Knighted

If any other knights were present they attached the spurs to the heels of the defender of Eternal Justice. The ceremony ended, in the Pontifical of William Durand, with the solemn benediction of the vexillum, and in the Roman Pontifical by this rubric, which is not wanting in beauty—“His dictis novus miles vadit in pace.”

In peace—and he a soldier!

 

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 254–7.

 

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