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The Problem with Chivalry


The Problem with Chivalry

Aeryn ferch Ellylian ap Pwyll


In every Western European language except English the word for knight also means horseman: chevalier, Ritter, cavaliere, caballero. The English word has quite another derivation, coming from the Anglo-Saxon cniht, a servant; it is the same word as Knecht in modern German. The knight as a man on horseback is a familiar image, but the knight as servant does not fit with our preconceived ideas. Yet it is exactly this dual element, of skill in both horsemanship and service, that gives the knight and chivalry its peculiar quality Richard Barber, The Reign of Chivalry

            You would think, after all these centuries and countless studies (many of them book-length), that medieval historians and scholars would fully understand the nature and influence of chivalry by now. Apparently not so. Scholars as recently as 2007 have debated not only the definition of chivalry, but whether the chivalric ideal really existed in daily (we might say mundane) life beyond the literature of the courtly romance and the heroic quest. Scholars of literature seem to present little disagreement on the influence of the ideal of chivalry on literary works: it's pervasive. From Gawain and the Green Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Marie de France, to Malory's Morte Darthur, the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and the Chanson de Roland all texts of the high Middle Ages there are clear examples of chivalry, but perhaps even more, critiques of it. Indeed, literary scholars are more likely to disagree about what constitutes chivalry in a given time, place and text than upon its significance.

            Historians, however, are still debating the origins of the ideas of chivalry, how widely these ideas influenced various levels of society, and in fact, if such ideals had any widespread influence on society at all. From the standpoint of a military historian, the inclusion of the aspect of courtly love and service to one's lady seems highly irrelevant. Social historians are more likely to dismiss the chivalric ideal because of its very limited currency in perhaps less than 2% of the population. Still others seem skeptical of the concept of chivalry because of the very extent that it predominates in fictional texts of the period, while in nonfictional texts that often focus on topics such as battle tactics or combat ethics, the chivalric ideal is most conspicuous in its violation or complete absence. (It should be noted, however, that it was not until humanists such as Englishman Roger Ascham (1515-1568) that a  distinction between "story" and "history" seemed at all a concern. The distinction between fiction and truth is more a modern preference, unless one is speaking of reality television.)

            The literary origins of chivalry and courtly behavior begin in the troubadour lyrics of the early twelfth century in southern France. However, there is evidence of the more militaristic aspects of chivalry in the earlier chansons de geste ("songs of deeds") in the age of Charlemagne in the late 700s, namely in the French Chanson de Roland and the Spanish Cantar del Mio Cid. These epic poems stress the feats of arms, the great strength, prowess and bravery of the heroes, the loyalty and comradeship shared between knights, and the honor accorded to worthy opponents. Women, when present, are little more than the spoils of war. The contribution of the troubadour aesthetic served to define the potential of earthly love (agápe or amor) as a path to spiritual or even divine love. That is, the knight in striving to be worthy of his lady's respect and admiration will improve himself in such a way that he becomes a better person. Thus, both the lady herself and the chivalric ideal more generally became a civilizing force against the always-present and always-potential violence of warrior culture.

            If we instead look for evidence of linguistic origin, the word "chivalry" itself enters the English language with the meaning of "knights or horsemen equipped for battle," around 1300 in the epic-romance poem King Alisaunder ("He schipeth into Libie, With al his faire chivalrie," OED), from the Old French word, chevalerie. In the sense of a cavalry, it is used in Whitehorne's Arte of Warre, 1560. However it is used in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester of 1297 to mean "the position and character of a knight, knighthood," and "bravery or prowess in war," and "a feat of knightly valour; a gallant deed, exploit." While these definitions mention valor and bravery, they also mention character and gallantry. In both the Gloucester text and Chaucer's "Knight Tale" which comes much later, we learn of a knight who is the "flower of chivalry," the best example and model of chivalry. The linguistic approach may be deceptive, however. From the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the second half of the thirteenth century, the English aristocracy spoke French primarily as their native tongue and then by preference. Court and Church business was conducted in Latin. Only the commons spoke the vernacular English. Thus, the tales of chivalry composed in French, including the lais of Marie de France and romances of Chrétien de Troyes, predate the appearance of the word "chivalry" in English by at least a hundred years. Both Chrétien and Marie are more concerned with courtly and chivalric behavior than warfare and deeds of arms.

            We might look to the example of recognized, historic people known for their chivalry and courtliness, but at the same time, avoid those figures whose life achievements have become more mythic than reality by now. So while historical figures like Richard Plantagenet (Richard I, 1157-1199), also known as Richard Coeur de Lion (Lionheart), was known for his chivalry and crusading in Palestine against Saladin, or Edward III (1312-1377), patriarch of the lords who would become the factions of York and Lancaster, or his son Edward the Black Prince (d1376), a model of chivalry in his own lifetime who died before his father both known for victories at Créçy, Calais and Poitiers each of these men has become the subject of legend as much as solid history. Kings and their powerful families have a way of "rewriting" history posthumously, though they may never have lifted the quill to do so themselves. (Same thing with victors.) Instead, historic people beyond the spotlight of power and politics are more likely to provide a more realistic model of real-life, lived chivalry. One such is William Marshal, squire, servant and advisor to Henry II of England. He began as the landless younger son of a nobleman (b.1146), and ended as the Regent of England for Henry III and the first Earl of Pembroke. He was trained as a squire in the household of a count, served as tutor to the "young king" Henry, Henry II's son. He and the young king trained at tourneys for about twelve years. Marshal is considered one of the greatest jousters of his day and was described as the greatest knight who ever lived, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury. After the young king's death of fever, Marshal went on crusade to Palestine for two years. He served on the governing council thereafter while Richard Lionheart went crusading, serving in a number of small battles and raids as needed. Fallen out of favor under King John, William Marshal was later chosen Henry III's guardian and Regent, and repelled Prince Louis of France in his bid to regain lands in England. Marshal retired from public life after long service in 1219, became a member of the Order of the Knights Templar, and died "full of years and honour" a year later.  His principle training in the military arts came through squiring and his years fighting in tournaments.

            In fact, more than a few historians have argued that the chivalric ideal seems to have first developed in association with tournaments and not with actual warfare itself. In early tournament events, combatants might engage in staged mêlées and small group skirmishes, games that also functioned as war practice in times of peace. Events such as jousting, the baston course and the pas d'armes came much later. Opponents were often also comrades. Tournaments, both as war practice and in their late medieval/Renaissance incarnation as games for sport and glory, are venues to exhibit all of the elements we today associate with chivalry: prowess in the lists, honor shown to one's opponent, the pageantry and heraldry, and courtly behavior.

            While tournaments were extremely popular, both for the combatants and the spectators, early tournaments were often criticized for their excesses. For instance, the Church Council of Clermont of 1130 placed a ban on tournaments, the first of several bans, proclaiming:

            We completely forbid these detestable fairs and festivals where knights customarily gather by       agreement and heedlessly fight amongst themselves to make show of their strength and bravery,

            whence often result in men's deaths and souls' peril.

The concern over the loss of life suggests the early tourneys could be brutal, and without technological advances of reinforced tournament armor, reinforced saddles, the invention of stirrups, blunted tourney lances and helmet modifications could lead to the unnecessary loss of life in a time of peace. The Church's concern for "souls' peril" suggests in addition a rejection of the "detestable fairs and festivals," the feasting and merrymaking that accompanied the gathering of folk for the tournament spectacles. Even with the threat of excommunication, the bans did little to impede the popularity of tournaments, or knights' engagement in them. The wording of the bans is strikingly similar over the years until the last, decreed at the Lateran Council of 1215, which also decreed the Fifth Crusade:

            We are aware that tournaments have been widely forbidden by various councils on pain of            certain penalties, but now, because they greatly impede the business of crusade, we prohibit          them absolutely.

The Church seems to have realized the need for a trained and dedicated military to enable crusade, and thus, the necessity for training said military. By this time, tournaments had obviously gone far beyond the function of war practice, and what was done there was of little use to the "business of crusade." Thus, the Church decided to reform what it saw as the social irresponsibility and moral dissipation of knights (ut in doloribus alienis illicitos appetitus et extraordinarias impleant voluptates, "that they sate their illicit appetites and extraordinary desires on others' sorrows," according to Peter of Blois), engaged in tournament for self-glory instead of the glory of the Church. The reform of the knighthood was accomplished through works such as John of Salisbury's Policraticus (1159), Bernard of Clairvaux's De laude novae militiae (c 1128-1130), and Etienne of Fougères Livre des manieres (c. 1174-1178), and through creation of the militant orders such as the Templars.

            At the same time, rituals for initiation into knighthood were beginning to take on more religious overtones, even as early as 1000. By 1290, a pontifical benediction was added to the ceremony blessing the newly-made knight, which in times of peace occurred in church before the altar. While much of chivalry and the courtly graces remained secular, the influence of Christianity on knighthood and the ideal of chivalry can be seen in gestures as basic as the oath of homage to one's liege lord made before God and as complex as the centrality in Arthurian literature of the Grail Quest to the preservation of the pinnacle of chivalric (English) civilization: Camelot.

            But after all is said and done, what is it that makes the chivalric knight so much more than a hired thug? Except for those knighted (and elevated) as a reward for service or great deeds done in battle, most aspirants to knighthood were limited to those from the noble classes. While at times this could be the result of class bias, and often was, it was also the result of basic economic pragmatics: horses and their maintenance were very expensive. Whether in service or a knight errant, the knight usually required three stout, well-trained warhorses, in addition to service and pack animals to carry arms, supplies, and fodder for the warhorses. Multiply that if the knight supported a household, including squires. A knighthood also often came with a grant of an annuity or land to allow the knight to support himself in service to his lord. Such income often established the knight as "landed" nobility. Estimates suggest that it took the work of three agricultural workers to supply the grain and fodder for one warhorse for one year.

            Given the inevitable link between the nobility, including those elevated to it and expected to "fit in," and knighthood, it was perhaps inevitable that the warrior values of prowess in battle and honor to one's opponent would merge with the courtly values of respect to women, succoring the weak, honor, truth and courtesy into the chivalric ideal. Nobles at court were expected to meet certain expectations for social behavior while at court on the business of governing the realm: thus the connection between court, courtly behavior and courtesy. The religious ideals known as the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and courage) and the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) were often incorporated into the ideal of chivalry as well.

            If we turn, then, to the ideals presented in the literature of the time, consider Sir Gawain in the poem, Gawain and the Green Knight as an example of a chivalrous knight in whom all of these characteristics come together. In English tradition, Gawain is the best of knights long before Lancelot arrives on the scene.  The arming scene in the second fitt of the poem is often read as expressing Gawain's identity, both literally displaying his heraldry but also representing his inner ideals. His shield "shone all red / With the pentangle portrayed in purest gold" (l. 619-20). Red often denotes royalty, but in a Christian context, as this poem is, it also often stands for the blood of Christ. The pentangle is a five-pointed star, the sign of Solomon, and is "a token of truth." It is drawn as an endless knot. Gawain is described as, "For ever faithful five-fold in fold-fold fashion / Was Gawain in good works, as gold unalloyed, / Devoid of all villainy, with virtues adorned in sight" (l. 632-5). These virtues are both those seen in the man and those depicted through his heraldic device. He wears the symbol on coat and shield, "As to his word most true / And in speech most courteous knight" (l. 638-9). The meaning of the device is explained thus:

            And first, he was faultless in his five senses,

            Nor found ever to fail in his five fingers,

            And all his fealty was fixed upon the five wounds

            That Christ got on the cross, as the creed tells;

            And wherever this man in melee took part,

            His one thought was of this, past all things else,

            That all his force was founded on the five joys

            That the high Queen of heaven had in her child.

            And therefore, as I find, he fittingly had

            On the inner part of his shield her image portrayed,

            That when his look on it lighted, he never lost heart.

            The fifth of the five fives followed by this knight

            Were beneficence boundless and brotherly love

            And pure mind and manners, that none might impeach,

            And compassion most precious these peerless five

            Were forged and made fast in him, foremost of men.

            Now all these five fives were confirmed in this knight (640-56).

Being faultless in his five senses and his fingers never failing means that Gawain is in top physical condition: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell and strength all honed to meet his challenges. The five wounds of Christ express his Christian faith, and his force is founded upon the joys of Mary, suggesting that Gawain is also sympathetic to the feminine. It is Mary's image reproduced inside his shield that gives Gawain courage in times of difficulty. The fifth of the fives are Gawain's knightly virtues: beneficence boundless is generosity and good will toward all people. Brotherly love is that agápe (true love) or philia (virtuous love) of true friends, of family and community, which is closest to divine love. Pure mind is both freedom from ill intent and ill thought, and pure manners implies genuine courtesy. Compassion is the feeling of sympathy or empathy, and is considered one of the greatest virtues. It is these characteristics that are "forged and made fast" and "confirmed" in Gawain, the best knight in the court of Arthur.

            In the poem, Gawain rides forth to fulfill his agreement to the Green Knight, though it cost him his life, and is welcomed into the castle of Hautedesert by its lord, Bertilak. The castle inhabitants are pleased to share their table with Gawain, whom they describe as:

            ... of courage ever-constant, and customs pure,

            Is pattern and paragon, and praised without end:

            Of all the knights on earth most honored is he.

            Each said solemnly aside to his brother,

            "Now displays of deportment shall dazzle our eyes

            And the polished pearls of impeccable speech;

            The high art of eloquence is ours to pursue

            Since the father of fine manners is found in our midst" (l. 912-919).

From Gawain, the men of the court intend to learn deportment, eloquent speech and good manners. In other words, courtesy. They all agree, "Who shares his converse, sure, / Shall learn love's language true" (926-7). Significantly, it is not examples of prowess and martial deeds the castle folk hope to see, but examples of good behavior, elegant speech, and since ladies will be present, love talk.

            Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written during the late fourteenth century by a contemporary of Chaucer's from the northwest midlands of England and presumably for an aristocratic audience, though the story itself may have circulated among the folk orally for some time before that.

            What was expected of a knight also changed over time. Consider the portrait of the Knight in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, and then compare it to his son, the Squire.  

            A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man,

            That fro the tyme that he first bigan

            To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

            Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

            Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,

            And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,

            As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,

            And evere honoured for his worthynesse. (l. 43-50)

Three times in the short passage (and four times total) we are told the knight is worthy. The narrator ends by telling us, "He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght."    Of the nine and twenty pilgrims on the journey to Canterbury Cathedral, the knight is one of three characters who are the perfect model of their occupation and station in society. (The clerk and plowman are the other two.) The knight is a model of early knighthood: he fights in the service of his lord in the crusades, in Christian lands and "heathen," that is, Muslim. He rode forth in the wars, no man farther, and also fought in the lists, meaning formal challenges or tournaments.

            And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn pris;

            And though that he were worthy, he was wys,

            And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.

            He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

            In al his lyf unto no maner wight. (l. 67-71)

Besides his combat skills, the knight is commended for his manners. He loves truth (loyalty) and honor, freedom (generosity) and courtesy. Though he is worthy (respectable), he's also wise. His manner is "as meeke as is a mayde," meaning that he is both modest and quiet. And in all his life, he has never spoken rudely to, or shamefully of, another person. The word "wight" suggests both male and female, high and low. Finally, the narrator tells us,

            But, for to tellen yow of his array,

            His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

            Of fustian he wered a gypon

            Al bismotered with his habergeoun,

            For he was late ycome from his viage,

            And wente for to doon his pilgrymage. (l. 73-78)

The knight has a good horse, but it is neither showy nor fancy. Neither would do him any good in war. His gypon (tunic or surcoat) is made of fustian (cotton), not of silks or velvets, and is marked with the stains and rust from his coat of mail. He has returned very recently from his journey, and not having  taken the time to change clothing, has already begun the pilgrimage to Canterbury. The haste with which he has turned to pilgrimage has been read as either admirable piety or a sign of trouble, since pilgrims, "The hooly blisful martir for to seke / That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke." The remains of Thomas à Becket, entombed at the Canterbury Cathedral, were reported to have healed the sick and maimed shortly after his murder. Believers could pray to Saint Thomas in times of distress or illness, and would journey on pilgrimage to his shrine to venerate him and give thanks for his past intercession.

            The knight is not traveling alone, but with an entourage including his son the Squire and a man-at-arms, the Yeoman.

            Beside the worthy knight travels his son and Squire,

            With hym ther was his sone, a yong SQUIER,

            A lovyere and a lusty bacheler;

            With lokkes crulle, as they were leyd in presse.

            Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.

            Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,

            And wonderly delyvere, and of greet strengthe.

            And he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie

            In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,

            And born hym weel, as of so litel space,

            In hope to stonden in his lady grace. (l. 79-88)

The knight's son is the model of what the knight would become in the next generation, during the late fourteenth century when Chaucer wrote and well into the Renaissance. This time was past the great age of crusades. Knights would no longer fight to free the Holy Land, but instead fought in political wars in France or in tournaments all over Europe. The Squire has been "somtyme in chyvachie," riding in the  cavalry. It was common for the more lightly armed squires to ride in a cavalry formation behind the more heavily armed knights for assistance and backup. However, this squire serves not so much for God and kingdom as to earn his lady's favor.

            Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,

            Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;

            Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,

            He was as fressh as is the monthe of May.

            Short was his gowne, with sleves longe and wyde.

            Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde.

            He koude songes make, and wel endite ,

            Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write.

            So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale

            He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale.

            Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,

            And carf biforn his fader at the table. (l. 89-100)

The Squire is the model of a courtly lover, though with hair curled as if "in a presse" and dressed in a short gown with long, wide sleeves, embroidered with white and red flowers like a meadow, he's a bit of a dandy. Always singing and whistling, he can make songs and sing, ride, write, joust, dance and draw. He spends most of his time chasing the ladies. But lest we think him unworthy his position of squire, he is nevertheless courteous, modest and serves his father at table.

            The chivalrous knight must be all of these things: warrior and courtier, soldier and servant. By the Renaissance, the role of the knight became less that of the professional soldier and more of the courtier and advisor to the king. The early Renaissance was the time of the first "self help" manuals, which sought to educate the rising middle class gentry as well as the aristocracy with the duties and responsibilities of governance. Along with texts such as Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, books such as Sir Thomas Elyot's The Book Named the Governor and Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier circulated in manuscript, in translation and the original Italian. They were very popular and widely read by the growing corp of government servants necessary to run a kingdom, soon to become an empire.

            By the time of Shakespeare, the chivalrous knight must be all of these things, though we also have the example of Sir John Falstaff to show us not all knights were up to standards. A knight must be able to fight, surely, but he must also be well-spoken and educated so that he may best advise his ruler or king. He must be courteous to people of all ranks in society, male and female. He must be generous and modest, and be accomplished in many arts, including drawing, writing and dancing. He must also be as much a master of himself as he is master of his horse, a common emblematic symbol at the time for will, the passions, and luxuria. We might remember here Ophelia's description of Hamlet,

            The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,

            Th' expectation and rose of the fair state,

            The glass of fashion and the mould of form,

            The Observ'd of all observers... (III.ii.151-154).

For if nothing else, it is the chivalrous knight — the "observ'd of all observers" — who sets the example for us all.





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