Since the Middle Ages
As the feudal system disintegrated, knight service was with growing frequency commuted into cash payments. In England the payment was known as scutage. Many landowners found the duties of knighthood too onerous for their meager resources and contented themselves with the rank of squire. This was particularly true in England, where gentlemen landowners are still termed squires. The military value of a cavalry consisting of heavily armored knights lessened with the rise of the infantry, artillery, and mercenary armies. In Germany, where the institution of knighthood persisted somewhat longer than in Britain and France, knighthood in its feudal meaning may be said to have come to an end in the early 16th cent. with the defeat of Franz von Sickingen.
The title knight (Ger. Ritter, Fr. chevalier ) was later used as a noble title in Germany and France. In the French hierarchy of nobles the title chevalier was borne by a younger son of a duke, marquis, or count. In modern Britain, knighthood is not a title of nobility, but is conferred by the royal sovereign (upon recommendation of the government) on commoners and nobles alike for civil or military achievements. A knight is addressed with the title Sir (e.g., Sir John); a woman, if knighted in her own right, is addressed as Dame.
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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.