The Middle Ages weren’t all codpieces, smiting and pointy shoes. In fact, many of the principles of knightly conduct still apply today, often in surprising ways

In the week when the world’s tallest tower opened, I was browsing through my six-year-old son’s book on medieval castles. One day, perhaps, the Burj Khalifa will inspire him the same way as they do, but not quite yet. It also contained a little story about the training of medieval knights that prompted me to compare it with my own education. I was surprised to discover it took 14 years to become a knight – long enough to become not just an engineer, but a doctor, too.

The knight learned the arts of good fighting and good behaviour, both useful for me. The knight also learned how to ride a horse into battle, which is less useful. Before qualification the knight had to confess his faults – for some reason this bit wasn’t in my professional training. Then of course, all knights were trained in the code of chivalry. That said he had to be brave in battle, he had to keep his promises and he had to treat women in a courteous manner. In this last, at least, there is still much to learn.

I appreciate that there will be those of you who’ll look around your workplace and won’t be able to immediately pinpoint even a single knight. And you might need a magnifying glass to detect an iota of chivalry among some of today’s engineers and architects, but I still look misty-eyed around the design team in the hope of detecting chivalrous behaviour. Usually we just have to be satisfied with a jolly good joust, but I think that a computer mouse is less satisfying than a lance – at least for some people.

I look around the design team in the hope of finding chivalry. Usually I have to be satisfied with a joust, but I think that a computer mouse is less satisfying than a lance – at least for some people

The knight was expected to show courage, honesty, loyalty and strength. Now we have “contracts”, “management” and “collateral warranties”. I can just imagine children in 500 years looking back on these with the same awe as they do the knight’s code of chivalry, so thank goodness for such profundity, eh?

But I have met people who try, like the knights, to transfer the best of themselves to their successors. They are my mentors and they are priceless.

When I was at university I had a wonderful mentor called Peter Taylor, who was a director with Giffords in the New Forest. More interestingly for me, he was at that time the man charged with making sure that the 800-year-old structure of Salisbury cathedral didn’t fall down, a position once held by Sir Christopher Wren. Peter’s tutelage gave me an appreciation of the subtleties of gothic archi-engineering that I still use almost every day. Let’s call it a “feel” for the stones, a “feel” for the light, the fluxes and forces, a “feel” for the way we can transmute a base pile of limestone into a towering expression of belief and an exultant demonstration of a mastery of tools to do what we feel we need to.

At the very top of the cathedral spire, more than 400ft above the ground, he told me that it was in some places made of weathered stone less than five inches thick

Together Peter and I went up to the weather door at the very top of the cathedral spire, more than 400ft above the ground. There, on our precarious perch, he told me that the structure dropping away below our feet was in some places made of weathered stone less than five inches thick and that, by the way, the weight of the whole edifice had driven the foundations 10 inches into the underlying chalk. As we went back down the spire he showed me how the great timbers used for its internal scaffolding had been left there ever since it was built and were still hung from its very top to provide extra ballast against the wind. And using this as one example, he showed me how every building moves about like a living creature trying to make itself comfortable – not only nearly a foot of settlement, but in the stone arches as well. This accounted for the great cracks that I, as a novice, hadn’t noticed on the way up. He pointed them out, then, after a pause for thought, breezily dismissed them by saying “of course the tower doesn’t actually need that bit of stonework so the cracks don’t matter”. That’s another way of saying less is more, and again a lesson I remember to this day.

Apparently in medieval days the squire learned his manners from the knight’s wife and I have to say Mrs Taylor was always very polite to me. Of course, Peter knew very well the value of his own understanding, and he wanted me to have it, but I was too green to comprehend what he was telling me at the time. Through his example, he showed much about calmness, enjoyment, and particularly generosity that I still appreciate. At the time, he was in his late forties and seemed quite old and very wise. He is gone now, but in passing the flame he taught me about towers, castles and much more besides in his chivalrous way.

Original print headline - Getting medieval