Dr. Richard Abels,
Medieval chivalry is
best defined as an aristocratic ethos that prescribed what qualities and
attributes a knight ought to possess, and which helped distinguish the military
Medieval chivalry, or at least the nineteenth-century understanding of it, has influenced modern, romantic conceptions of honor, especially military honor. Marine Corps seems especially attune to this, as evidenced by its recruiting commercials: 'Once there were men who knew the meaning of honor [visual: closeup of a knight and his sword]--there still are, the Marines! [knight's sword becomes Marine sword, closeup of a Marine]. The ideal of chivalry has attracted generations of young people to the military life. It underlies such movies as "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Top Gun," and even "Rambo."
Chivalry, in each of its incarnations, is an ethical system that emphasizes personal honor. As Maurice Keen wrote: "the most important legacy of chivalry to later times was its conception of honour ... Transaction of honour, a contemporary anthropologist has said, 'provide ... a nexus between the ideals of society and their reproduction in the actions of individuals--honour commits men to act as they should'... Chivalry's most profound influence lay in just this, in setting the seal of approbation on norms of conduct, recognized as noble when reproduced in individual act and style." (Chivalry 249) Chivalry helped fashion the nineteenth-century ideal of the 'gentleman,' in which concepts of courtliness/courtesy, skills in games and war, courage (especially in combat), loyalty to friends, personal honor (public approbation/esteem tied to the avoidance of anything shameful and commitment to doing the right thing, even if it meant risking life and limb), the idea of the 'constant quest to improve on achievement' (M. Keen 15), and individualism were tied together. Chivalry also shaped one aspect of romantic love: the idea that the male could win/be worthy of his 'lady love' by winning approbation through noble/honorable acts.
I. POPULAR MODERN CONCEPTION OF CHIVALRY AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY. Chivalry today is often used as a term for “gentlemanly” behavior, manifested through courtesy toward the 'fair sex,’ honor, courage, loyalty, physical prowess (the Marine Corps commercials), fighting 'fair' (movies in which hero disarms opponent during a duel, only to hand him back his sword--parodied in Monty Python).
The modern popular idea of 'chivalry' derives from a Romantic image of the Middle Ages created in the late eighteenth century by novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe) and developed in the nineteenth-century by gentlemen enthusiasts such as Kenelm Henry Digby and artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites. It reflected dissatisfaction with modernity, a repudiation of the Enlightenment ideas of rationality, progress, and science and the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. "Chivalry" was associated with nostalgia for a passing or passed age of aristocratic sensibility. This is what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote of the beheading of Marie Antoinette:
thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge
even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette, the French Queen] with
insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and
calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of
Historical evaluation of
the popular conception:
This Romantic conception of chivalry influenced the views on the subject even by professional academic historians in the first half of the twentieth century, who tended to idealize chivalry. Sidney Painter’s French Chivalry: Ideals and Practices in Mediaeval France (1957) is perhaps the best book on chivalry in the traditional vein (even though Painter’s understanding of chivalry was much more sophisticated and infinitely more nuanced than that of Gautier).
The reason that Painter, one
of the finest historians of his generation, could be influenced by the Romantic
conception of chivalry is that this conception is broadly correct and is
derived from the sources. But, as Painter understood, the popular conception of
chivalry as the code of a “gentleman” in the modern sense of that
word misstates and misinterprets the purposes and meaning of chivalry. Chivalry
was an aristocratic ethos, a mode of
behavior that distinguished the European nobility from their social inferiors.
In the Middle Ages to be a "gentle man" was a matter of birth rather
than behavior. Courtesy meant proper behavior at court; it included the ability
to please and amuse ladies, but the operant word here is "ladies"
(it's a class thing). Loyalty and faith were essential elements, but chivalric
loyalty was feudal and Christian. More recent historians such as John
Gillingham, David Crouch, Matthew Strickland, Maurice Keen, and Richard Kaeuper
have challenged the Victorian conception of chivalry in more basic ways.
Perhaps the most important insight made by modern historians, beginning with Painter and elaborated upon by both Keen and Kaeuper, is that chivalry was a contested ethos. There was never one agreed upon “code of chivalry.” For some recent historians “chivalry” is best understood as a modern historical construct, not unlike “feudalism.” In the words of Constance Bouchard,
There was no single standard (or “code”) which people of the [twelfth century] always meant when they referred to chivalrous (or courteous) behavior. … In fact, the idea of a fixed “code of chivalry” which medieval aristocrats all knew and tried to observe is a modern, not a medieval invention. Some idealized standard for aristocrats first appeared in literary works at the very beginning of the twelfth century (about a hundred years after the appearance of knights and castles) and had become a common motif by the last decades of that century, but there were no conscious attempts to create explicit definitions of chivalry until the second half of the thirteenth century. … [However] over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries both the authors of the literature and the nobles themselves seemed to be moving toward a vague consensus. (Bouchard, Strong of Body 104, 109)
consensus” included a set of qualities generally acknowledged as
enhancing the honor (public reputation) of a knight and necessary for him to be
deemed a preudomme (the most common
term used to designate a chivalric knight): prowess, loyalty, courage,
courtesy, mesure (self restraint), a
concern for honor, and piety.
Chivalric qualities, however, could and did come into conflict and in those
cases which of them ought to take precedence was a matter of discussion and
debate. Essentially, each medieval author of a romance, chanson de geste (epic poem), or handbook of chivalry had his or her
own conception of what ‘perfect chivalry’ entailed. The success of
that author depended on how well he or she could convince the target audience,
a noble court, of the rightness of that conception. Again, rather than think of “chivalry”
as an established 'code,' it is best to understand it as an evolving and
disputed ethos that lacked a single agreed upon meaning. The advocates of royal
and clerical authority tried to shape it, but the ultimate shapes that it took
in practice were due to the choices made by the knights themselves.
II. BASIC CONCEPTS AND TERMS FOR MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY:
armored horse soldier serving a lord, a member of the medieval nobility). In
the ideal twelfth-century tripartite division of society, knights were
"those who fight for us.”
Although the Latin term miles
(literally, ‘soldier’), usually translated in the medieval context
as ‘knight,’ had a functional connotation in the tenth and eleventh
centuries, denoting a man who fought on horseback, by the early twelfth century
knighthood had become associated with nobility. In thirteenth-century
Feudalism: much debated historical construct of a socio-political system characterized by a warrior ruling elite bound to one another hierarchically through a web of personal bonds (lordship) reinforced by tenurial bonds (fiefs, i.e. property held by a subordinate noble (‘vassal’) from a superior, his lord, in return for the service, in particular the service of an owed quota of knights). Medieval historians now tend to avoid the term ‘feudalism.’
Courtesy: behavior and manners appropriate to members of a court.
Reciprocity (ethos that obliges people to treat others as they themselves have been treated: benefit friends, injure enemies);
Honor (one's public status, reputation--also refers to one's lands and rights).
Basic medieval framework: hierarchy, custom/tradition, corporate rather than individualistic, Christianity, personal rather than abstract relations
III. MEDIEVAL MEANINGS OF 'CHIVALRY', c. 1100-c.1500
1. The term 'chivalry' derives
from the French word for knight, chevalier, an aristocratic
warrior, presumably of noble-birth, equipped with heavy armor and warhorse.
The warhorse is essential; the literal meaning of chevalier is horsemen.
Medieval chivalry was a) martial, b) aristocratic, c) courtly. It also was French.
Though the 'code of chivalry' prevailed throughout Western Europe in the
thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, it was
2. The earliest usage of 'chivalry' (in eleventh- and early twelfth-century texts) was to denote the collective body of chevaliers. The "chivalry" of a prince was the troop of knights who served him. By extension, "chivalry" denoted the knighthood as a separate and specific order within the Christian community. In the latter sense "the chivalry" was synonymous with knighthood.
3. By the early twelfth century the term 'chivalry' also came to stand for the values, ethos, and manners appropriate to the knightly class. These mores derived from 1) feudal obligations, 2) demands made by life in princely courts, 3) the teachings of the Christian clergy. By the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century the ideal of the loyal, courageous, and effective warrior had been refashioned into the IDEAL OF THE KNIGHTLY COURTIER--MANNERS, ELOQUENCE, URBANITY, MUSICAL AND LINGUISTIC ABILITY, AND KNOWLEDGE OF HOW TO SPEAK TO AND PLEASE LADIES became essential aspects of the chivalric knight (see Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, c. 1210, and the works of Chretien de Troyes, e.g. Yvain, ca. 1180).
4. FULL-BLOWN MODEL OF CHIVALRIC VALUES, ETHICS, AND MORALS (fusion of feudal/martial, courtly, and Christian values): RAYMOND LULL (1235-1315), courtier, poet, theologian, mystic, and missionary, SUMMED UP the qualities of the Chivalric knight in his BOOK ON THE ORDER OF CHIVALRY (ca. 1270). The right reason to become a knight is to do right; the wrong reason is for advantage and rank. A proper chivalric knight MUST be 1. able-bodied; 2. of good lineage; 3. have sufficient wealth to support his rank; 4. wise (to judge his inferiors and supervise their labors; to advise his lord); 5. generous (holds open house within the limits of his means); 6. loyal; 7. courageous; 8. honorable. His ethical duties are 1. to defend the Christian faith, 2. to defend his lord, 3. to protect the weak (women, children); 4. to exercise constantly by hunting and jousting in tournaments; 5. to judge the people and supervise their work (the knight acts here as a royal agent and servant); 6. to pursue robbers and evil-doers. A chivalrous knight must avoid 1) pride, 2) lechery, 3) false oaths, 4) and especially treachery (=betraying one's lord, sleeping with his wife, or surrendering his castle).
5. LATE MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY. The basic aspects of thirteenth-century chivalry remained unchanged into the sixteenth century. The 'practice' of chivalry, however, became more and more elaborate. Tournaments evolved from war games into pageants, princes created chivalric orders with elaborate ceremonies, rituals, and show, noble lineage was emphasized through the science of heraldry, and the chivalric knight conformed to a model of behavior that, as one historian put it, was 'exhibitionist and extravagant--often to the point of vulgarity.' BUT the 15th and 16th centuries were still an age in which ritual was vital to expressing social obligations. The flamboyance and munificence of the displays, moreover, was an expression of the dignity of the noble estate; it reflected in economic terms a growing divide between a small noble elite of vast wealth and a much larger petty nobility that sought to make up for sagging seigneurial revenues through service in court (pensions, wages, livery, gifts). It also emphasized the gulf in values between those who fought and those who worked, even if the latter happened to be wealthier than the former.
6. MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY fused three essential aspects of medieval knighthood: WAR, CHRISTIANITY, NOBILITY.
IV. HISTORICAL CONTEXT FOR THE FORMATION OF THE FRENCH KNIGHTHOOD: THE THUGARCHY BECOMES A SELF-CONSCIOUS ARISTOCRACY.
1. By the year 1000 churchmen
such as Bishop Adalbero of Laon had divided Christian society into three
orders based upon function: those who pray (for us), those who fight (for us),
and those who work (for us). The second of these "orders" (or
"estates," as they were to be called in
2. The knighthood as a social
class/order (as opposed to a theoretical construction) came into being in
France during the course of the eleventh century through the fusion of
two groups: a) the great magnates who claimed descent from the Carolingian
(i.e. Charlemagne's) nobility (termed nobiles) and who possessed
enormous landed wealth; b) a petty nobility of warrior-retainers (milites),
whose "freedom" (i.e., privileges and exemptions from tribute and
labor services) derived from the military service they rendered to the
magnates. By 1100 in much of
3. The historical context for the fusion of these groups into the "knighthood" was the emergence of the heavily armored horse soldier as the dominant force in warfare ca. 1000. This was a byproduct of the adoption of the stirrup in the 8th century, which permitted horse soldiers to become effective shock troops, and of the reorganization of political society along local regional lines as a consequence of the collapse of central authority in the tenth century under the pressure of the Viking invasions. Power was based, ca. 1000 in France, upon the possession of a castle and the military resources to garrison it, to keep the local peasantry in line, and to defend one's 'lordship' (the territory controled by the castle) against other predators. The result was a sort of 'thugarchy' in which landed noblemen relied upon warrior retainers, often household men, to dominate and exploit the peasants. Thus the lord's knights would conduct cavalcades upon horseback through the villages 'to show the flag' to the peasants.
4. The horse as a symbol of nobility is understandable in light of the cost of specially bred warhorses (a warhorse in the 15th century cost a knight the equivalent of six-month wages in royal service) and of the training necessary to fight effectively on horseback.
5. By 1100 the 'thugarchy' had stabilized. Nobles tied themselves hierarchically to one another through the bonds of feudalism, which complemented and even superseded ties of kinship. The result was a political society of aristocratic, warrior landholders who formed a nobility of service. Every nobleman held land from a superior, whom he served in war. In theory noble society was stratified into various levels--king, dukes/earls/counts, viscounts, barons, landed knights, household knights--, but the reality was a fluid society in which one's status derived not only from birth and personal qualities but from the ability to maintain and increase familial wealth and resources.
6. The medieval knight, then, was above all else, a horseman, a soldier, a retainer (vassal), and a nobleman. Chivalry was the code of behavior of this class. In essence, it represents the ethos of a military, Christian aristocracy.
Chivalry helped differentiate the military, landed aristocracy from the
wealthy burghers of the new towns/cities that were emerging in the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries. Interestingly, in
The knight's hostility to the merchant and to his commercial ethos is best represented by the Poitevin baron-troubador Bertran de Born (ca. 1185): "And it will be good to live [when the princes go to war], for one will take the property of usurers and there will no longer be a peaceful pack-horse on the roads, all the townsmen will tremble; the merchant will no longer be safe on the road to France."
BUT one must distinguish here between the
public ethos of knights and barons and the actual attitudes and economic
practices of the great twelfth- and thirteenth-century barons. Historian David Crouch
points out that early in the twelfth century “the highest of Norman
aristocrats, Waleran, count of Meulan, did not find it beneath him to take an
active interest in the wine trade which passed through his lands on the way to
V. THE FORMATION OF CHIVALRIC VALUES
1. THE MARTIAL/FEUDAL ELEMENT: LOYALTY AND PROWESS. Chivalric values reflected the needs of a feudal society. The key values here was loyalty, specifically loyalty to one's lord, and martial skill. In the central ritual of feudalism, the ceremony of homage and fealty, a vassal (subordinate noble) swore on holy relics to be loyal to his lord. This pledge of loyalty often occurred within the context the acceptance of a fief, i.e. land or some other source of revenue held by a vassal from his lord in return for specified military service. An important point to be made here is that the lord-vassal relationship was governed by the ethos of reciprocity. One ought not to think of the bond as contractual; rather it established a social relationship of 'friendship,' of mutual aid and benefits.
PROWESS meant the ability to fight well on horseback, a critically important quality in this society of warrior retainers. The measure of a chivalrous knight was his ability to fight and his willingness to subordinate his own will and interests to those of his sworn lord. The highest compliment that could be paid to a knight was to call him preux, a man of proved prowess. This aspect of chivalry had its own poet, the late twelfth-century troubadour knight Bertran de Born. One of his poems, “War Cry,” expresses well the love of violence that a knight was supposed to have:
And it pleases me too
when a lord is first to the
attack on his horse, armed,
without fear; for thus he
inspires his men with valiant
courage. when the battle is
joined, each man must be
ready to follow him with
pleasure, for no one is
respected until he has taken
and given many blows.
At the beginning of the
battle we shall see clubs
and swords, colorful
helmets, shields pierced
and smashed, and many
vassals striking together, so
that horses of the dead and
wounded will wander
aimlessly. And when he
enters the fray, let every
man of rank think only of
hacking heads and arms,
for a dead man is worth
more than a live loser.
I tell you, eating or drinking
or sleeping hasn't such
savor for me as the
moment I hear both sides
shouting "Get 'em!" and I
hear riderless horses
crashing through the
shadows, and I hear men
shouting "Help! Help!" and
I see the small and the
great falling in the grassy
ditches, and I see the dead
with splintered lances,
decked with pennons,
through their sides.
The importance of prowess cannot be overemphasized. In all models of medieval chivalry, whether aristocratic, clerical, or royal, prowess is an essential characteristic. As both Maurice Keen (Chivalry) and Richard Kaeuper (Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe) observe, chivalry was not an attempt to end violence but to channel it. In doing so, it legitimized violence.
The reason that loyalty was emphasized was that, in
practice, the interests of a lord and his vassals often came into conflict.
This was especially true among lords and their landed vassals. In a world that
had no effective central authority to enforce contracts, trustworthiness was a
key value. In the homage and fealty ceremony vassals pledged their loyalty upon
holy relics in an attempt to reinforce the public promise through supernatural
sanctions. Modern marriage, in which spouses pledge lifelong fidelity to one
another in the presence of God, provides a good analogy here. Because marital
fidelity is a matter of individual choice and is not enforced by the state
through its laws and police, adultery is not uncommon in our society, though it
may be looked upon with disapproval. Nor are marriages always for life, no
matter what has been pledged during the marriage ceremony. Similarly, feudal
loyalties were often ignored as nobles pursued their own familial interests,
and, on occasion, the lordship bond itself was renounced. "
2. THE COURTLY COMPONENT: COURTLINESS (CORTOISIE), MODERATION, AND LARGESSE. Chivalric values also reflect the needs of a courtly society. The 12th century witnessed the rebirth of court life. This new culture of the court meant that the knight had to know how to conduct himself in the drawing room as well as on the battlefield. A "gentle man," a man of noble birth, now came to mean a courtly man, one who knows how to behave politely as befits a courtier. The skills of the chivalrous knight: kill one's enemy and please the ladies.
The qualities of courtliness. Courtesy, or courtliness, was the behavior deemed proper for court life. The central ideal was "elegance/beauty of manners" (Gottfried of Strassburg, Tristan), the elements of which were SELF-RESTRAINT, CALCULATED UNDERPLAYING OF TALENTS (the point of which is to magnify these accomplishments by first concealing and then minimizing them, so that onlookers will respond with awe and admiration), CONSIDERATENESS, AFFABILITY, GENTLENESS OF SPIRIT/HUMILITY (mansuetudo: benevolent passivity to friends and foes alike, willingness to suffer abuse patiently, an affectation of humility associated with aristocratic deference (source was Cicero) ELOQUENCE, SKILL IN LANGUAGES AND MUSIC. (N.B. similarity to Castiglione's courtier; Renaissance did NOT invent the 'courtier'!)
3. CHRISTIAN CHIVALRY. The Christian contribution to chivalry involved the redefinition of warfare and knighthood. The Peace and Truce of God movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries attempted to define peace as the natural condition of the Christian community. War was to be limited both in scope and duration (selective pacifism). The other side of the coin was Crusade, the sanctification of war against the enemies of God (Holy War/Crusade).
Like the twelfth-century
kings, dukes, and counts, the Christian clergy were interested in domesticating
the military nobility and moderating their violence. The "New
Chivalry" (a term coined ca. 1128 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the
great Cistercian abbot and Church reformer) were to be the soldiers of Christ:
the knight who fights for religion commits no evil but does good for his people
and himself. He dies a martyr and gains heaven; if he kills his opponent, he
avenges Christ. Win/win. The personification of the “New Chivalry”
for St. Bernard was the new Military
Orders of “monk-knights,” in particular the Order of the
Knights of the
Knightly piety, however, differed significantly from clerical piety, even St. Bernard’s ideal of the “New Chivalry” and Ramon Lull’s more secularized version of it. Certainly, knights felt the tension between the pull of chivalry, with its emphasis upon prowess exhibited through warfare and in tournament, and the clerical condemnations of both violence perpetrated upon other Christians, whether in war or in tournaments. One of the explanations for the popularity of Crusading among the medieval nobility was that it was penitential warfare that promised remission of sins not by renouncing violence but by directing it against the enemies of God and the Church. The unease that nobles in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries felt about engaging in noble pursuits such as war, tournaments, feasting, and sexual liaisons that the clergy taught them would condemn them to hell if left unatoned lay behind the establishment of and patronage given to monasteries by these lords. The expectation was that the monks would respond to the generosity of their benefactors by naming them in their prayers and interceding with the monastery’s saint on their behalf. Some nobles even sought to enter monasteries in their old age or assume the monastic habit upon their deathbed in order to be granted the privilege of being buried among the monks in the monastic cemetery. Richard Kaueper has shown (Holy Warrior: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry, 2009), however, that this unease is only one part of the story. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the lay nobility developed their own conception of “knightly piety” that valorized all military service to lords, earthly as well as divine, as penitential. In this ideology, the knight “imitated Christ” by exposing himself to hardships, injury, and possible death in the performance of his knightly duties. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century nobles, moreover, often regarded their own order, ‘those who fight for us,’ as socially superior to the clergy. Clergy and monks were looked down upon because they lacked masculine chivalric qualities. The necessity of the sacraments for salvation was, of course, acknowledged, but some nobles treated their household chaplains like the ‘auto mechanics’ of the soul, as servants providing them with spiritual tune-ups.
William Marshal’s ‘art of dying’ provides insight into the piety of one early thirteenth-century English baron who during his life was considered to be “the best knight in the world:
William Marshal (1147-1219) was an English household knight who distinguished himself through his prowess in war and in tournament and through a reputation for unfailing loyalty (see below, section VII). Marshal’s loyal service to King Henry II earned him the hand of a wealthy heiress, Isabel de Clare, from King Richard the Lionheart and the title of Earl of Pembroke from King John. His loyalty to the latter led the dying John to name William as guardian and regent to his young son King Henry III. William proved successful in leading the armies of the young king to success against the invading French. In March of 1219 William fell very ill. Realizing that he was dying, William accompanied by his eldest son William and his household knights retired to his estate at Caversham (Oxfordshire), where he summoned a meeting of the magnates of the realm, including Henry III, the papal legate, and the royal justiciar (Hugh de Burgh), and Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester (the young king's guardian). Rejecting the bishop's claim to the regency, William entrusted the young king into the care of the papal legate.
Marshal’s deathbed gifts to the Church. Marshal during his life had founded three monasteries, two of them in
Marshal and the demands of the clergy
A couple of weeks before he died, he was lying in bed surrounded by his household knights. One of them, Henry fitzGerold reminded William that he should be thinking about his soul and that the clerks taught that one cannot be saved unless one gives back all that he has taken from others. “Henry, do not be too hard on me,” responded William Marshal, “the clerks are very severe on us and shave us too close. I have captured 500 knights in my lifetime and have kept their arms, their charges and their harness. But now I can do no more than give myself to God, repenting for all the wrong that I have done. If God’s kingdom is withheld from me on this account I must resign myself. Unless the monks wish to banish me altogether, they must pursue me no further. Either their argument is false or no man can be saved.” John of Earley responded to this, “what you say is true and I can guarantee that not one of your neighbors could say as much at the end of his life. Crosland 148-9.
The day before William died one of his
chaplains, Philip, advised him to sell his rich robes in the wardrobe and to
use the money for charity to benefit his soul. "Be silent mischievous
man," William berated the cleric. "You have not the heart of a
gentleman, and I have had too much of your advice. Pentecost is at hand, and my
knights ought to have their new robes. This will be the last time that I will
supply them, yet you seek to prevent me from doing it." Marshal then
ordered that more robes be purchased in
Midday 14 May 1219. To John of Earley: "Summon the countess and the knights, for I am dying. I can wait no longer, and I wish to take leave of them." To wife and household: "I am dying. I commend you to God. I can no longer be with you. I cannot defend myself from death."
The abbot of
The body was carried to
Postscript: years later, about 1240 or so, the body was moved and the tomb opened. The body was putrid with decay. Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler who wrote around 1260, regarded this as evidence of William's sins. William Marshal had died an excommunicant (by the Irish Bishop of Ferns). While John of Earley had no doubt about William's final resting place, it is obvious that not all of his contemporaries agreed.
VI. ORIGINS OF COURTLY VALUES: HISTORICAL CONTEXT FOR CORTOISIE (COURTLINESS)
The emergence of “courtly” aristocratic society in the second half of the twelfth century.
By the twelfth century feudal society revolved around the courts of kings, counts, and other barons. These courts moved with the lord as he peregrinated through his various estates and castles (a necessity for 1) keeping order and control, and 2) for feeding a household that could number in the hundreds). A lord's court included his close kin (wife, children, brothers--those who slept in the chambers of the castle), other members of his household (bachelor knights, chaplains, domestic servants), and landed vassals whom he had summoned to escort or serve him. The status of a lord was reflected by the size and magnificence of his household. Tournaments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were opportunities for lords to display their wealth and position. Their social standing was enhanced by their displays, their largesse, and by the success of their knights in the competition. Vassals, on the other hand, earned these rewards through chivalric deeds and performances.
As David Crouch observed about these knightly courtiers, “Ambition and the need for security were the motivating forces that kept courtiers in attendance on their lord, and shaped their behavior” (191). The twelfth century was a period of economic growth and monetary inflation. The higher nobility, kings, counts, dukes, earls, were able to benefit from these economic changes, as they founded or improved towns and markets on their lands and made arrangements with merchants that enriched both sides. It is little wonder that among the greatest patrons of chivalry were the counts of Flanders and Champagne, the former the center of a thriving textile industry, and the latter, the setting for the great Fairs of Champagne at which merchants from Flanders and Italy met and made commercial deals. Lesser noblemen, those with only one or a few castles, on the other hand, lost out. Because the rents they received from their tenants were fixed by custom, they could not benefit from the rise in food prices and the growth of a commodity market. Indeed, many converted their demesne lands into rented land because they needed ready cash. The signs of nobility—clothing, food, armor—had become more expensive at the same time that the lesser nobility had become poorer. Many of these knights were much poorer than merchants and other members of the urban patriciate, although they continued to view them as “serfs” and “peasants.” (The troubadour knight Bertran de Born once again sums up the feelings of this class of castellans: “It pleases me immensely when I see rotten rich people suffer, the ones who make trouble for noblemen, and it pleases me when I see them destroyed, twenty or thirty from day to day, when I find them without clothes, and begging for bread. A peasant has the habits of a pig, for he is bored by noble living; when a man rises to great riches, his wealth drives him mad. So you must keep his pockets empty in all seasons, spend what's his, and expose him to wind and rain. Whoever doesn't ruin his peasant sustains him in disloyalty. So a man's a fool.”
The best economic hope for these lesser nobles was the patronage of magnates, which is one reason that even landed knights attended the courts of their lords. The greater the noble, the more wealth and patronage he had at his disposal, and the more splendid the court as measured by the quality of men he attracted to it.
An important obligation of vassalage was attendance upon command in the lord's court (reflected in the King Arthur stories). Vassals were supposed to provide their lords with good advice and to help arbitrate disputes among the lords' vassals. Of equal importance to the lord was keeping tabs on those to whom he had given land and upon whose support he depended for his own security. In return for their good service in court, knights could expect gifts and rewards. The greater the lord, the greater his resources for patronage.
Landed vassals would come and go, but the heart of the lord's court, other than his blood relations, was his household (or bachelor) knights. These were often younger sons who inherited status but not property; they served in hopes of earning rewards (gifts, robes, horses, etc.) and, if very fortunate, fiefs. Great men, counts, dukes, and earls, often counted lesser landed knights among their household retainers.
In addition to the household
knights one would also find young children in court. These were foster sons,
the children of other noblemen sent to the lord's court to learn the art of
being a knight. The ties of foster parentage created additional bonds that
supplemented those of kinship and feudalism.
Courts were supposed to reflect the power and glory of a lord. Those who entered a noble's household came within the sphere of his protection. To injure one under a lord's protection was to insult that lord. The problem faced by lords was how to maintain peace and order within large households, filled with belligerent young men competing with one another for favor. One solution was to punish harshly those who broke the peace. Another was to foster a code of behavior that was conducive to the maintenance of peace. Cortoisie (courtliness) was a set of behaviors that permitted constant competition among young knights while restraining them from killing each other. It moderated the ethos of revenge. It served to domesticate the knights while preserving their martial values.
A. THE ROMANO-GERMAN
SOURCES OF COURTLINESS: CICERO REINTERPRETED: Though "courtesy" was associated strongly with
French culture in the twelfth and thirteenth century, recent research (by
Stephen Jaeger) has traced the origins of courtliness to German episcopal
courts (i.e. the households of bishops) in the tenth and eleventh
centuries. German bishops were imperial servants, who were trained for
their offices through service as chaplains in the emperor's household. Jaeger
summarized his views by saying: "courtliness is medieval
B. LARGESSE. Largesse meant generosity to one's friends (lords, vassals, kinsmen, colleagues) and charity to the poor and the Church. Generosity was an essential quality of the chivalric knight. It was an ethical demand that arose from the ethos of reciprocity: friends were to be rewarded and aided, just as wrongs were to be avenged and enemies hurt. It was also an essential demand of courtly life. Lords imposed their will over their men and demonstrated their power and authority through the distribution of gifts and favors. Vassals, in turn, demonstrated their love of their lord and gratitude for his favors by serving him loyally and by magnifying his reputation through their deeds. The great English household knight William Marshal (1147-1219) was noted for his spontaneous generosity; he acquired wealth in order to distribute it to friends. Bertran de Born, Marshal's contemporary, wrote poems in which he praised generosity above all other chivalric virtues except for prowess (but, then again, he was of a class that depended upon the patronage of counts and kings).
VII. PRACTICAL CHIVALRY IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY: WILLIAM MARSHAL. (Based on John Gillingham, “War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal", Thirteenth Century England v.2 (1991): 1-13; David Crouch, William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn. London: Longman, 2002)
William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz
Gilbert, hereditary marshal of--keeper of the horses-- of the Anglo-Norman kings . William was born ca. 1147, John's second son by his
second wife, Sybil (whom he married in 1145), the sister of Earl Patrick of
William Marshal has received a great deal of attention from modern historians; there have been four major biographies of him since 1933. The reason for this is an extraordinary primary source, the Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, a long (19,214 line) poem composed by "John the Troubador" c. 1224-6 for William's son Earl William II. The poem had been long lost and was only rediscovered in 1860. The author's intention, of course, was to glorify William Marshal and to present him as the "flower of chivalry," and the reader of the poem needs to remember that this is a literary work rather than an historical study. None the less, the author did the necessary research, interviewing members of the dead Earl's mesnie (household), most notably John of Earley (or Erley), William's squire, household knight, and closest friend. He also appears to have consulted charters and perhaps even contemporary chronicles. In short, this is an extraordinary source, one of the few biographies of a non-king or non-saint written in the thirteenth century, which explains why William has attracted so much historical attention. Excerpts from this poem dealing with war and tournaments are posted by the "De Re Militari Society" (the Society's webpage is by far the best online resource for medieval warfare). At present there is only a French translation of the poem, but the first complete English translation by Stewart Gregory with the assistance David Crouch has been published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society.
The Histoire presents William Marshal as a preudomme, in the words of David Crouch, as a “practised, intelligent soldier
and man of affairs” (Crouch 187).
The poet (and undoubtedly William himself) attributed his success to his
possession of exceptional chivalric qualities. Most visible were the feudal
qualities: prowess and loyalty. William was an exceptional warrior, who
demonstrated his extraordinary prowess
in combat (demonstrated both in tournaments and in warfare). He also cultivated
a reputation for loyalty by
faithfully serving until the bitter end a series of lords on the losing side.
He was at the deathbeds of both the Young King Henry and his father King Henry
II, and in the case of the former, he even fulfilled the Young King’s vow
to go on crusade. (But see below for a more nuanced view of Marshal’s
vaunted loyalty.) William’s
“chivalry” was performed also in his lords’ courts. The Histoire portrays William as the
consummate coutier. He is praised on several occasions as corteis (courtly), raisnables (reasonable in his behavior),
and prudent or wise. He was affable to his lords and his peers, and apparently
was accomplished at telling self-deprecating stories about his accomplishments
(which both emphasized his accomplishments and took the curse of them by
laughing at himself). Above all William demonstrated mesure, the quality of
self-restraint and moderation in word and deed—the quality that Raoul of Cambrai
so conspicuously lacked in the epic named after him. When asked to sing by a
group of ladies at a tournament, William, like Tristan in Gottfried von
Strassburg’s poem, at first demurred but when he finally gave him, he
sang beautifully. William demonstrated a
different type of mesure in his
dealings with King John. William came into conflict with King John in 1204
because of William’s perceived double-dealing with John’s enemy
King Philip Augustus of
The career of William Marshal reveals the complexities of twelfth-century aristocratic society and the pragmatic aspects of chivalry. For the latter, we may consider two stories in the Histoire:
1. The author of the Histoire tells a story about how William
Marshal, on his way to rendezvous near
In 1203-1204 King Philip Augustus of
William Marshal’s “chivalry”
was martial. Modern biographers of William Marshal have focused on his career
as a tournament knight, and, accordingly, have portrayed the tournament as the
arena in which Marshal displayed the qualities that made him the “flower
of chivalry.” John Gillingham, however, has, calculated that of the19,214 lines comprising “The History of William Marshal”
8,350 describe warfare and only 3150 are about tournaments. War, not
tournaments, was the main focus of the poet and his audience, the court of
William Marshal’s son. The type of warfare depicted in the “History,”
furthermore, is not what one might expect from a chivalrous knight. Battles are rare in the poem. The poet
describes only three or four battles, in two of which William fought (Bouvines
in 1214 and Lincoln in 1217), as compared with seventeen sieges (
If ambushes, deception, and raids
designed to ravage the countryside, destroying the enemy’s economic
resources were all accepted military activities, then, asks Gillingham, what,
if anything, was considered unchivalric by the poet and his audience? For the
poet it came down to killing an unarmed knight and abandoning a town that one
is obliged to defend. Otherwise, all was fair in war, “a deliberately
destructive type of warfare, a warfare characterized
by watchfulness, deviousness, and sudden swoops” (
Although a staple of chivalric
literature. All of the Arthurian romances depict heroes as champions at
tourneys (e.g., Ywain). Although their were probably similar sorts of war games
in the 10th century, tournaments as such seem to have arisen toward the end of
the 11th or beg. of 12th century as part of the developments that created the
SECOND FEUDAL AGE. By 1125 tournamets were pop. in France (esp. northern
William Marshal's career reflects the importance of tournaments for knights. The History of William the Marshal mentions sixteen tournaments in which William participated between 1167 and 1183. As David Crouch points out, most late twelfth-century tournaments were small scale, with about 20 or so knights divided into two teams. William Marshal was a professional tournament knight. Between 1177 and 1179 he entered into a formal partnership with Roger de Gaugie, another “bachelor” (landless knight) in the Young King Henry’s household, to go on the tournament circuit and split their takings. According to a list kept by Wigain, the Young King's clerk, the two between them captured 103 knights in the course of 10 months. In one tournament William Marshal captured ten knights along with their twelve horses.
The great lords, such as the Counts of
Champagne and Flanders, gained reputation and prestige from their patronage of
tournaments, while the ordinary knights gained fame, glory, possibility of
material gain (in the form of horses, trappings, armor, and ransom)--or loss--,
and an arena in which to prove their worth to potential lords (for wh read
'employers'). TOURNAMENTS SERVED AS TRAINING GROUNDS FOR WAR, AS OPPORTUNITIES
FOR OBTAINING BOOTY AND PRESTIGE, AS SOCIAL GATHERINGS OF THE ARISTOCRACY, AS
ARENAS FOR THEATER, CEREMONY AND 'PLAY'. In essence, the tournament helped the
nobility to define itself, and changed as the nobility's self image changed.
B. EVOLUTION OF THE TOURNAMENT:
The history of the tournaments
mimics the social history of the medieval aristocracy. The tournment of the
twelfth century was largely a military affair, meant to give knights practice
in fighting in units. Actual battlefield tactics, based on CONROIS of knights
(cohesive, feudal tactical units) operating in conjuction with FOOT-SOLDIERS,
were employed. Tournaments of the 12th and 13th centuries were dangerous and
rough affairs--they were, in essence, war games meant to reflect actual
conditions of battlefield combat and were distinguishable from actual warfare
only by the presence of roped off 'refuges' where knights could take time out
to rest or repair their equipment. Otherwise, they were no holds barred
affairs. On occasion a tournament could even substitute for warfare. The counts
The 13th century witnessed a gradual transformation in the tournament, as its pageantry began to become more elaborate, and as JOUSTING began to complement the MELEE. THE EXPENSE OF TOURNEYING ROSE AS THE TOURNAMENT BECAME 'THEATER', a public arena in which barons could show-off their prowess, their chivalric qualities, and their WEALTH. Feasts and pageantry (songs, dances, and formal processions) took up more and more time, and the presence of ladies became an accepted and necessary aspect of the games (knights by the middle of the thirteenth century would fight bearing the sleeves of ladies). This added the proceedings an erotic undercurrent, which might help explain the growing popularity of JOUSTING. Jousting, which emphasized individual martial skills, did not prepare a soldier as well for warfare as did the melee, but it did allow him to be the focus of attention as he demonstrated his prowess. In essence, the purpose of the tournament was changing. Though tournaments never completely lost their military value, they became increasingly stages for chivalric pageantry, demonstrations of chivalry and aristocracy. The tournament was the place in which a nobleman could distinguish himself from a burgher.
This process is perhaps best
understood through a weird example, that of the Bavarian knight ULRICH VON
LICHTENSTEIN who wrote a pseudo-autobiography in which he described his
VENUSFAHRT (1227) and his ARTUSFAHRT (1240). For the former, he dressed up as
"Frau Venus", in full armor with woman's clothing over it, and
wearing a blong woman's wig. He travelled from
By the 14th century the
tournament had become theater as well as war-games, and by the 15th century the
tourn. had assumed a complex form with 3 distinct types of combat: the joust,
the melee, and the hand-to-hand combat on foot. Jousts and hand-to-hand combat
would either precede or follow the melee (known as a tournoi). Jousts
'of peace', an innovation of the thirteenth century, in which rebated lances
were used, became more and more popular. The object of such a joust was NOT to dismount
one's opponent but to splinter as many lances as possible. To protect the
participants tournament armor, which emphasized safety over mobility, was
employed, and, by the 16th century, the knight's saddle had become so high that
it virtually imprisoned him. Lance rests even obviated the need to lower one's
lance, and 'tilts' (barriers erected down the length of the lists, first
introduced ca. 1420) prevented knights from accidently running into one
another. This sort of joust remained popular into the 17th century, though the
death of Henry II of
The most 'chivalrous' as well as artificial form taken by the tournament was the PAS D'ARMES, in which an individual knight would make the beau geste of setting up a pavilion on a cross-roads and challenge all who passed by to joust with them (parodied by the Black Knight episode in Monty Python). An early form of the pas d'armes is described by Froissart. In March and April 1390 Marshal Boucicaut, the flower of French chivalry, and two of his companions, bored out of his mind by a truce with the English, took up residence for a month at St. Inglevert on the frontier betw Boulogne and the English held town of Calais. Three months before this they had sent out herald announcing their intention to meet all challengers on any day except Friday. The challenger could choose to fight with either pointed or abated lances. Each contest was to last 5 tilts. Boucicaut set up four magnificent tents, one reserved for the opponent, and placed on the branches of an oak tree a shield with the coat of arms of the three French knights, a horn to summon them from their tents, and a supply of blunted and pointed lances. All one had to do was blow the horn, pick up a lance, and point to the coat of arms of the opponent that one wished to fight. In the course of a month, the three knights jousted against a total of 120 English knights and 40 knights from other lands. Froissart says that the French knights wounded many challengers, though they themselves emerged unscathed (and with a unmatched reputation for prowess and chivalry).
The pas d'armes, like the
tournament itself, became more and more elaborate, as ceremony and ritual came
more and more to dominate it. The best example of this is the pas d'armes of
the Flemish hero JACQUES DE LALAING, held between 1 November 1449 and 1 October
1450. Jacques was the beau ideal of the Burgundian knight. He came from an
ancient noble family that had distinguished itself on the Crusade of St. Louis.
He served Philip the Good of Burgundy in the conquest of
In Nov 1448 Lalaing announced
that he would set up a pavilion on the
C. ATTEMPTS TO MODERATE VIOLENCE:
I. ROYAL ATTEMPTS. Popes and kings were both made nervous by the popularity of tournaments. Kings saw such gatherings as political threats. The dukes and counts who hosted tournaments used them as opportunities to forge alliances and to solidify their hold over their own vassals. They also provided the perfect cover for launching conspiracies. The opponents of King John and of his son Henry III used tournies to assemble their forces and to plan their rebellions. Kings also resented having to compete with tournaments for their knights' service when they were planning war. But royal opposition proved completely ineffectual, in part because kings themselves were noblemen who, policy aside, enjoyed tournaments and found them, at times, very useful. By the 14th century English and French kings were staging tournaments in order to enhance their own royal prestige.
Still, even those kings and
princes who approved of tournaments were disturbed by their unrestrained
violence. Here they proved more successful. The curbing of the tournament's
violence is paralleled by the successful imposition of the 'king's peace'
i. use of special tournament armor of padded leather and blunted (bated) weapons.
ii. JUDGES (diseurs)
who awarded special prizes to those who most distinguished themselves (e.g.
William Marshal's winning of a fish--a giant pike--at the tournament at Pleurs
iii. Confined tournament fields
iv. Presence of noble ladies becomes a fixture at tournaments by the middle of the 13th century, as the affectations of courtly love literature more and more influence the language and ethos of chivalry.
v. The movement from melee to
jousting reduces the dangers of the tournament, especially with the increasing
popularity of jousts of peace.
b. ENGLISH KINGS IN 13TH
CENTURY TRIED TO CURB EXCESSES OF TOURNAMENTS. RICHARD THE LIONHEART (who loved
tournaments) tried to reduce the bloodshed by issuing rules and ordinances. RI
licensed tournaments at 5 specified areas, all in open countryside, and charged
a fee on all those participating--20 marks for an early, 10 for baron, 4 for
landed and 2 for landless knights. RI formed a baronial board of control, which
required all those participating to pay fees in advance and to swear to keep
the peace. EDWARD I at the end of the 13th century made the rules more
stringent, limiting number of followers that baron could bring, ordering the
use of only blunted ('bated') weapons, and insisting that grooms and footmen
carry only defensive weapons.
D. ECCLESIASTICAL CONDEMNATION.
CHIVALRY CREATED TENSIONS IN
SOCIETY BECAUSE OF ITS MIXED ORIGIN. THE RELIGIOUS AND MARTIAL ASPECTS OF
CHIVALRY OFTEN DID NOT SIT WELL TOGETHER. This tension is best seen in the
debate over the TOURNAMENT.
CHURCH'S CONDEMNATION OF TOURNAMENTS: Innocent II at Second Council of Clermont (1130) denounced 'those detestable markets and fair, vulgarly called tournaments, at wh knights are wont to assemble, in order to display their strength and rash boldness' and PROHIBITED CHRISTIAN BURIAL TO those who died in tournaments. This injunction was repeated at other Church councils (in 1139, 1148, 1157, 1179, 1215, 1245, 1279, 1313) down to 1316, when Pope John XXII gave up the fight and bestowed his blessings on them.
ecclesiastical writers preached against tournaments. One reported that demons
were heard and seen in the form of vultures and crows at tourn. of
High Middle Ages (ca. 1050-1300)
Song of Roland (ca. 1100). Themes & issues: the struggle between Christians (=good) and Muslims/Pagans (=bad); Christian knighthood; loyalty and honor; nature of kingship. Brutal, violent, focused on war.
Typical sentiments (spoken by Roland): “Here we stand, definding our great king. / This is the service a vassal owes his lord: / To suffer hardships, endure great heat and cold / And in battle to lose both hair and hide. / Now every Frank prepare to strike great blows--/ Let’s hear no songs that mock us to our shame! / Pagans are wrong, the Christian cause is right. / A bad example I’ll be in no man’s sight.” (Song of Roland, trans. Patricia Terry, Library of Liberal Arts: lines 1009-1016).
Raoul of Cambrai (ca. 1180). Themes & issues: loyalty to feudal lord versus loyalty to kin; honor; vengeance; nature of kingship; necessity of moderation as complement to martial prowess. About 70 pages long--brutal, violent, focused on war.
Chretien de Troyes, The Knight with the Lion (Yvain). Wonderfully readable late 12th-century romance about a knight's attempt to regain the lost love of his wife. Good on courtly manners, courtly love, the meaning of honor. In Arthurian Romances (Penguin).
Sidney Painter, William
Marshal. Modern biography of successful medieval knight who, in the late
twelfth and the early thirteenth century, rose from being a household retainer
to a great baron and, eventually, regent of
Sidney Painter, French Chivalry. A wonderfully easy read that examines the feudal, courtly, and Christian elements of 'chivalry.' (Perhaps overly influenced by the romantic conception of chivalry.)
Crouch, David. William
Marshal. 2nd revised edition. Longmans, 2002. Excellent
biography of a knight with an interesting rethinking of the question of
feudalism. Crouch includes a chapter on the chivalry of William Marshal that
derives from an important article on the subject by John Gillingham. Both
Richard W. Kaeuper & Elspeth Kennedy, tans. A Knight's Own Book: Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny, Pennsylvania U.P.: a handbook of chivalry written around 1350 by a famous French knight.
Late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1500)
Froissart, Chronicles. Late fourteenth-century 'history' of the Hundred Years War (written ca. 1390) emphasizing the 'good stories' (i.e., chivalric accomplishments). What is neat about this work is that Froissart may say that he wishes to honor the memory of those who did great deeds, but he also allows us to see how chivalry served to unify the European aristocracy and preserve their lives on the battlefield. The brutality of war keeps on showing its face, despite Froissart's best efforts.
Tirant lo Blanc. Late medieval chivalric romance that swallows whole earlier 'orders of chivalry.' Chivalry at its most flamboyant. This was the book that Don Quixote was reading when he went mad.
Sir Gawain and the Green
14th-century English metrical romance. Good for courtly manners. Issue of
integrity of Gawain in face of certain death.
Barber, Richard. The Knight and Chivalry. revised edition. Boydell and Brewer, 1996. Good, basic overview.
Bouchard, Constance. Strong of Body, Brave & Noble. Chivalry
and Society in Medieval
David. William Marshal: Knighthood, War
and Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn.
William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry.
approach to William's deathbed scene by one of
http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/pdfs/gillingham1.pdf. A seminal article that argues convincingly that 1) the Histoire is concerned more with Marshal's activities in war, both as general and soldier, rather than as "knight-errant" on the tournament circuit; and 2) that the warfare described in the Histoire was the typical warfare of the period, marked by battle avoidance, ravaging of the countryside to deprive the enemy of economic resources and to destroy morale, followed up by sieges. Written in refutation of Duby’s book.
Huizinga, J. The Waning of the Middle Ages. 1919. Influential thesis: late medieval chivalry was aesthetic and emotional ideal that had become completely divorced from reality by the 14th and 15th centuries.
Jaeger, Stephen. Origins of Courtliness. UPA, 1985. A book that has restructured all discussion on the origins of chivalry. Jaeger traces the ethos of courtliness back to 10th century German episcopal courts and emphasizes its Classical Roman roots.
Kaeuper, Richard. Chivalry and Violence (1999). A brilliant study of chivalry as portrayed in medieval vernacular romances. Kaeuper, like Painter, examines how nobles themselves viewed chivalry, and how royalty and clergy attempted to shape the ethos to their liking. The basic thesis is summed up by the title: prowess was the capstone value of chivalry, and, rather than moderating or curbing violence, the ideal of chivalry legitimized it.
Kaueper, Richard. Holy Warrior: The Religious
Ideology of Chivalry. (The Middle Ages Series.)
Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. Yale, 1984. The standard scholarly work on the subject.
Sidney. William Marshal: Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of
This is the first full biography of William Marshal written by one of the great American medieval historians. Painter was a first-rate scholar and knew his sources. The biography, however, is very much colored by Painter's romantic conception of twelfth-century chivalry. Readable and sound (with the above caveat).
Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry: Ideals and Practices in
Matthew. War and Chivalry: The Concept
and Perception of War in