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where law and order create a world in which populations thrive and society achieves stability and
security™. Lawman, Brut, xxiii.
Ibid., ll. 2121“6. Ibid., ll. 1311 ff; 1391 ff; 1403 ff.
41 42
The Link with Royaut©
court™. A stern and kingly Arthur ordered justice done on all offenders (and
even on their female relatives). All must swear to take no revenge, to take part
in no future brawls. Weeks later he introduced his solution: a Round Table
which could seat 1,600 knights, so that none should have precedence over
another. The craftsman who has made it assures Arthur, ˜you never need be
afraid in all the wide world / That ever any proud knight would at your table
start a ¬ght.™43 The Round Table came into being as both a sign of the unity
between king and knights and a means to stop disruptive knightly violence.
The poet who wrote the Life of William Marshal at one point complains that
his world is being spoiled by the decay of chivalry, meaning the very reforms
praised by Lawman; what worries him is a shift away from prowess and
largesse and a commitment to mere courtroom litigation:
But now the high lords have imprisoned chivalry for us; by their lethargy and because
of greed, largesse is thrown into prison. And the knights errant and the tourneyers have
been transformed into courtroom litigants.44

This image of chivalry wrongly imprisoned and prowess con¬ned to the court-
room contrasts strongly with Lawman™s praise of Arthurian royalism sup-
pressing knightly violence in his own house. The gold of chivalry has been
transmuted into lead, so it seems.45 This sentiment anticipates by four cen-
turies a seventeenth-century complaint that the country was so well governed
there was ˜no employment for heroickal spirits™.46
Yet if Marshal began life as a knight errant, hurrying from England to the
continent, where knighthood was less restrained, he ended his career as regent
of England and chief prop to the crown in a time of crisis. Alongside complaint
against royal restrictions on chivalry, we must set the broad course of
William™s life to illuminate the complex pattern of chivalry, literature, and
kingship we have found in England.

Allen, tr., Lawman, Brut, 11367 ff.

My translation, from Meyer, ed., Histoire, I, ll. 2686“92:

Mais or nos ront mise en prison
Chevalerie le halt home:
Par perece qui les asome
E par conseil de coveitise
Nos ront largesse en prison mise,
E l™esrer e le torneir
Si sunt torn© al plaidier
Lawman is, of course, no paci¬st; he waxes enthusiastic for the right kind of violence, at the

right time, by the right people.
46 Quoted in Benson, Malory™s Morte Darthur, 177.
N E A R the opening of his Cliges, Chr©tien de Troyes, speaking directly to
his audience in words now become famous, confidently announces the
translatio of ancient civilization to the world of medieval France via the linked
agencies of chivalry and learning:
These books of ours have taught us that Greece once stood pre-eminent in both
chivalry and learning. Then chivalry proceeded to Rome in company with the highest
learning. Now they have come into France. God grant that they be sustained here
and their stay be so pleasing that the honour that has stopped here in France never

Speaking for many in his age, this influential author declares chivalry an essen-
tial element of civilization; he even suggests that it functions as one of the two
components which take the measure of a civilization. He is enough a citizen of
the world of clergie to include learning (the learning of the clerks, that is)
alongside chivalry, but he gives chivalry equal rank, and first mention, as the
key to honour.
Several centuries later the biography of the much-admired Jean de
Boucicaut, marshal of France, Le Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre,
dit Boucicaut, announced, in words clearly recalling Chr©tien™s:
Two things have been established in the world, by the will of God, like two pillars to
sustain the orders of divine and human laws . . . and without which the world would
be like a confused thing and without any order . . . These two flawless pillars are
Chivalry and Learning, which go very well together.2

For something like half a millennium of European history such evaluations
of the importance of chivalry produced basic agreement among virtually all the
laity whose opinion counted in this society and among most clerics as well;
beneath helmets and tonsures, wimples and mitres, all heads nodded sagely, all
thought chivalry was virtually equivalent to civilization, or at least stood as one

Staines, tr., Romances of Chr©tien de Troyes, 87; Luttrell and Gregory, eds, Chr©tien de Troyes,

ll. 30“9.
Lalande, ed., Jehan le Maingre, 6“7: ˜Deux choses sont, par la volunt© de Dieu, establies au

monde ainsi comme .II. pillers a soustenir les ordres des loys divines et humaines . . . et sanz
lesquielz seroit le monde ainsi comme chose confuse et sanz nul ordre. . . . Yceulz .II. pillers, sanz
faille, sont Chevalerie et Science qui moult bien se couviennent ensemble.™ Lalande notes some-
what similar expressions appear elsewhere in the book. We will see below (Chapter 13) that in the
thirteenth century Ramon Llull took a similar view in his much-read book on chivalry.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
of its essential components, certainly that it was the model for the lives of lay
Characteristic praise flows in the biography of William Marshal. In the final
scenes, as William lay dying, the monk-knight who came to receive him into
the Order of the Temple praised him unstintingly as the greatest knight in the
world, with the most prowess, ˜sens™, and loyalty. He announced with cer-
tainty that God would receive William in heaven. Similar praise for William™s
ideal chivalric career echoed in the laudatory sermon preached by an arch-
bishop beside his bier and, again, in the approving oral obituary composed in
the conversation of the French royal court. He was, simply, ˜the best knight in
the world (Le meillor chevalier del monde)™.3 For all of these speakers it seemed
that no more need be said.
Yet of course there was much more to be said on the subject of chivalry;
medieval writers regularly spoke, however more subtly and indirectly, to their
fundamental fears of the violence and disruption carried out in the world by
˜the chivalry™. Early in his Perceval Chr©tien de Troyes provides a classic case in
point. The young, absolutely naive, and primitive hero, hunting alone in the
forest, for the first time sees knights in splendid and shining armour emerge
from the green curtain of trees. Almost stunned, Perceval asks their spokesman
the arresting question, ˜Are you God? (N™iestes vos Dieux?)™4 Was this a ques-
tion Chr©tien wanted the knights of his society to consider? Were they, like the
first sinners in Eden, setting themselves up in the place of divinity, arrogating
to themselves God-like power? The danger certainly seems to have been in the
mind of Perceval™s mother, for when he tells her he has seen shining angels in
the forest she replies, ˜I commend you to God, dear son, for I™m deeply afraid
for you. I do believe you™ve seen the angels who cause people such grief, killing
whoever they come across.™ He assures her that she is wrong, that the strangers
told him they were knights. Hearing this word, she faints.5 It is hard not to
read this passage as a telling criticism of the chivalry of Chr©tien™s own day; his
romances abound in trenchant social criticism and suggestions for an

See Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 18351“end of text.

Bryant, tr., Perceval, 3; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval, 6. This attraction is elaborated in the Post-

Vulgate Cycle: see Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 8; Bogdanow, ed., ˜Folie Lancelot™, 83.
Bryant, Perceval, 5; Roach, Roman du Perceval, ll. 306“400. She has good reason to fear: her

husband has been maimed in knightly combat and her two older sons killed the very day of their
knighting. Similar evaluations can be found in much lesser works. A questing Lancelot, seeking
shelter in The Marvels of Rigomer, comes upon a monstrous old woman beside a fire he is sure is
magical. Snoring on all fours like a beast, she badly frightens both Lancelot and his horse. When
he identifies himself as a knight she threatens him, declaring that for a thousand years she has
heard that knights are the worst things in the world who kill just as they like. Kay notes that
women are often given a role as social critics and counter-narrative agents: Chansons de Geste, 138,
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry 125
improved chevalerie that might truly stand alongside ideal clergie as a prop to
civilized life.6
The tensions are inherent: chivalry will be praised as a solution to the prob-
lem of which it is so integral an element. The grounds for this widespread pat-
tern become immediately apparent if we consider chivalry in its broadest sense
of ethos or ideal. A code to guide dominant laymen would necessarily do
major social work: it would provide guidelines for basic questions confronting
a society that was expanding its intellectual as well as its physical, social, and
economic boundaries.
Did chivalry in fact address basic social questions? As an experiment, I have
for years asked students in seminars to draw up a list of the primary issues that
societies must confront, once they have secured the fundamentals of living
space and sustenance. Although the list produced by such a discussion varies
somewhat, it regularly includes the following social needs: principles of dis-
tributive justice, means for resolving disputes, rules about licit and illicit vio-
lence and its practitioners, guides for regulating social hierarchy, standards for
relationships between the sexes, means both for satisfying spiritual longings
and regulating the authority of the spiritual in the temporal world.
Such a list is fascinating and instructive, for we can see at once that all of
these issues closely involve chivalry. How were the dominant layfolk to live,
love, fight, practise piety, merit their high status and its considerable rewards?
All such lines of thought led to chivalry. Like some social analogue to the
molecular structures of organic chemistry, chivalry results from the powerful
bonding of prowess to honour, piety, status, and love. Yet these bonds, if
strong, are complex and even conflicted; medieval people interpreted them in
particular ways and argued over their ideal nature and content. Is prowess an
unalloyed good? Does it unerringly reveal status? Is it blessed by God? Does
it lead to love? Simply to state a few such questions points to the issues in the
chapters to follow. The importance of such questions helps us to understand
how chivalry could for so many centuries stand at the centre of so much belief
and debate. Any medieval writer interested in any one of these issues might
well want to valorize his or her point of view by identifying it with the great
code which formed a capstone of the arch of civilization.
Was there, then, only one point of view, the single ˜ideal chivalry™ of uni-
versity survey courses, against which any thought or action could be mea-
sured? Medieval Europe, despite what some textbook writers and some
romantics want to imagine, does not look like a society with a single set of
answers with regard to chivalry”or much else. The extensive literature of
For Chr©tien™s work as social criticism or reform, see Topsfield, Chr©tien de Troyes; Frappier,

Chr©tien de Troyes; Krueger, Women Readers, 33“68.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
chivalry scarcely appears as an unproblematic literature of agreement or cele-
bration, of praise for a single code, universally accepted as ˜true chivalry™.
Debate, criticism, and competing reform ideas surge through these texts.
The subject need not thus disintegrate or slip from our hands. As scholars
such as Maurice Keen, Georges Duby, and Jean Flori have argued, there is
enough continuity to allow us to discuss chivalry as a recognizable phenomenon
over the centuries. From some point in the twelfth century a core of ideas and
practices persisted among knights. William Marshal in the late twelfth century,
Geoffroi de Charny in the mid-fourteenth century, and Thomas Malory at the
end of the fifteenth century can be imagined sitting down together to discuss
such a core of ideal beliefs and practices rather comfortably.7
Yet their works criticize as well as praise the ideas and practices of fellow
knights; and others, too, would have their say. When we move beyond the
inner circle of practising knights into the vast realms of chivalric literature of
all stripes, we can hear polyphony”at times, perhaps, cacophony; the tension
crackles, and we encounter fears, doubts, and debate, as well as agreeable cel-
ebration. This is surely a literature of contending views on basic issues.
Of course, debate encouraged valorization: chivalry won social power not
only as the framework for the ideals of dominant laymen, but from repeated
efforts at reform, each praising an ideal to meet some set of interests.
Dissatisfaction with chivalry in the sense of a body of men who wielded very
real weapons in the world, or with the disruptive nature of their violent work
in an emerging civilization, could be most usefully and discretely expressed as
praise for the ideal code favoured by the writer. But we will do well to remem-
ber that social criticism and ideas of reform are as real as the praise, even if less
Chapter 7 helps to explain why. Knights worshipped at the shrine of the
demi-god prowess and practised violence as an esteemed and defining entitle-
ment. The primary constituent in chivalry was prowess which wins honour,
weapons in hand. What this meant on the tourney field, in a raiding party, on
the battlefield, is taken up in Chapter 8.
The fundamental bond of prowess and honour was strengthened, as noted
above, by the addition of three further bonds: a practised form of piety
(already explored in Chapter 3), an assertion of high status (Chapter 9), and a
troubled link with love and gendered relations (Chapter 10). The lavish eulo-
gies sung to chivalry”and the worries more prudently expressed”can
scarcely be understood without recognizing its bonds to these crucially impor-
tant social issues.

Discussed in Chapter 13.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry 127
Chapters 11 and 12 take up chanson de geste and quest patterns, respectively,
with a double goal: first, to get a closer look into highly useful evidence and,
second, to demonstrate that the ambivalent role of chivalry in issues or order
appears forcefully in entire works no less than in passages selected from many
Finally, Chapter 13 considers the critical and reformist views of the knights
themselves. Again using specific works, we can see that ideas for change and
improvement did not all come from the non-knightly. If model knights loudly
and predictably praised chivalry, their fears and reformist ideals were real and
their carefully chosen words are audible and significant.

D U R I N G the Battle of Mansourah in the crusade of Louis IX (1250),
Joinville, St Louis™s companion and biographer, sought refuge with his
men in a ruined house surrounded by their enemies. Saracens who climbed the
broken roof thrust lances literally into the French knights™ faces. Two knights
suffered multiple facial wounds and another took a lance blow between the
shoulders ˜which made so large a wound that the blood poured from his body
as if from the bung-hole of a barrel™. In this crisis, Érard de Siverey spied
French forces in neighbouring ¬elds; but before riding for help he asked
Joinville if he could do this without loss of honour, repeating his earnest ques-
tion to all the others. ˜I said to him,™ Joinville reports, ˜ “My dear man, it seems
to me you would win great honour for yourself if you went for help to save
our lives,” ™ adding, ˜ “your own, by the way, is also in great danger.” ™ Érard
brought help, but later died from a wound that had left his nose dangling over
his lips.1
The vivid story told by Joinville rushes us into the vortex of the world of
chivalry: we see bloody hand-to-hand combat, and hear serious talk of hon-
our. Prowess and honour are closely linked in the knights™ minds, for the prac-
tice of the one produces the other, a theme tirelessly expounded in all chivalric
literature. Malory (as always, an ideal spokesman) writes repeatedly and
enthusiastically of the worshyppe owed to men of valour and won by them.2
Honour is the veritable currency of chivalric life, the glittering reward earned
Wailly, ed., Histoire de Saint Louis, 93“5; Shaw, tr., Joinville and Villehardouin, 220“1.

Tristram, preparing to ¬ght two Round Table knights who have beaten his cousin, says ˜have

ye no doute but I woll have ado with them bothe to encrece my worshyp, for hit is many day syt-
then I dud any armys™: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 248. Malory is not alone. In the Stanzaic Morte
Arthur, Bors calls for his companions to test their worship ˜With spere and sheld and armes
bright™: Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, ll. 1550“5. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation Gawain
wonderingly observes a stranger knight knock ten challengers from their saddles, each with a sin-
gle blow. He not only proclaims the victor ˜the best jouster I may ever see™, but adds, ˜For indeed,
he should never lack honor, since he wins it so well™. Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 3;
Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift, 20.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
by the valorous as a result of their exertions, their hazarding of their bodies. It
is worth more than life itself.
Yet even if we keep the importance of honour ¬rmly in our minds, we
should not forget that the prowess from which it springs is the fundamental
quality of chivalry. Prowess was truly the demi-god in the quasi-religion of
chivalric honour; knights were indeed the privileged practitioners of violence
in their society.
In the Lancelot do Lac the young hero learns from the Lady of the Lake that
˜knighthood was not created and set up . . . because some men were originally
more noble or of higher lineage than others, for all people are descended from
one father and one mother™. Given this common descent, he asks rhetorically,
how would one become noble except through prowess? Once evil had entered
this world, the corrective could only be found by selecting as knights ˜the big
and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valor-
ous and the courageous™.3 Nearly two centuries later Froissart, the ardent
chronicler of chivalry at work in the Hundred Years War, asserted that, ˜as
¬rewood cannot burn without ¬‚ame, neither can a gentleman achieve perfect
honour nor worldly renown without prowess™.4
In the real world, to be sure, overweight lords with rusting armour but vast
acreage and good lineage might command the respect given to rich and lordly
patrons in any age. And important clerics who were lords of men and lands
could be quite clear about their honour, even though they were formally pre-
vented by their order from the display of prowess in combat. But in chivalric
ideology, tension between lineage and prowess is suppressed; the assumption,
almost without exception, is that honour originates, is merited, proved, and
increased sword in hand by those whose lineage leads them to such deeds.5
Pharian, in Lancelot, speaks of ˜the honour of this world, towards which all
prowess struggles™.6 Youths of noble birth, such as the young Gareth or
Perceval, are drawn almost mystically to the armour and weapons of knight-
hood.7 Havelok the Dane, nearly lost beneath kitchen grease and soot, soon
comes to his true vocation, warrior as well as king.8 In the chansons, even a
Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 110“11, 142; tr. from Corley, Lancelot of the Lake, 52.

Luce, Chroniques, I, 2: ˜Si comme la busce ne poet ardoir sans feu, ne poet le gentilz homs

venir a parfait honneur ne a la glore dou monde sans proece.™
See the useful discussion in Elspeth Kennedy, ˜Quest for Identity™.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 39; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 164. Elspeth Kennedy™s text

reads somewhat differently at this point: Lancelot do Lac, 92.
Malory pictures the young Gareth arriving at court eager to witness jousting. Kay is unim-

pressed by his ¬rst humble request for sustenance: ˜for and he had be come of jantyllmen, he wolde
have axed horse and armour”: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 178“9. Gist provides a number of
Middle English examples of the noble urge to exercise prowess overcoming circumstances of
upbringing: Love and War, 140, n. 13.
˜Havelock the Dane™, in Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 131
great cleric such as Archbishop Turpin must ¬ght as a knight (contrary to the
prohibitions of church reformers) and is valued accordingly.9
A knight™s nobility or worth is proved by his hearty strokes in battle. Seeing
Oliver cut a pagan in half, for example, Roland sings out ˜The Emperor loves
us for such blows.™10 Seeing Rainouart in Aliscans throw a squire who has tor-
mented him against a pillar, breaking all the young man™s limbs at once,
William of Orange says in admiring wonder, ˜By St Denis, he™s to be
respected.™11 Wounded by Hector in a tournament, in the Stanzaic Morte
Arthur, Lancelot at ¬rst promises repayment (causing Hector to blanche in
fear), but soon forgives Hector and tells him he loves him more for his hard
blow: ˜But ever the betyter love I thee, / Such a dint that thou can smite.™12 Kay
and Bedevere, Arthur™s court of¬cials, hit so hard in battle in The Story of
Merlin that their Roman opponents cry out, ˜God, what a seneschal! . . . God,
what a constable! Here are goodly ministers for a king™s court!™ Gawain (called
here by his affectionate diminutive, Gawainet) makes a similar estimate of the
status of the warrior who is in fact the Saxon king Brandon:
And when Sir Gawainet saw what he was doing and the great slaughter of his people,
he was certain that he was a highborn man of mighty stock, and he showed by the way
he fought that he was a king or a prince; Sir Gawainet highly esteemed him, and would
have been very glad if he had been a Christian.13

In one of his earliest combats Lancelot ˜admired the prowess of the man who
had just dealt him the best blow that he had ever received™.14 Later, a kind host
who takes in Lancelot (temporarily fallen into madness) knows him to be a
noble knight because of the blow he receives: ˜he dealt me a blow on my hel-
met, the like of which I never received from any man since I was knighted. For
that reason I™m sure he used to be a good knight and of noble condition.™15
Malory tells us in the Morte Darthur that when Lamorak™s strokes fail to
defeat his opponent (a disguised King Mark) quickly, he ˜doubled his strokys,
for he was of the nobelyste of the worlde™.16 As Lancelot and Gawain ¬ght near
the end of the Mort Artu, ˜whoever could have seen the blows given and

See classic expressions of Turpin™s prowess in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisses 114,

121, 155, and in Newth, ed., tr., the Song of Aspremont, especially 202“3, 222.
Brault, Chanson de Roland, l. 1377.

Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d™Orange, 231; Wienbeck et al., eds., Aliscans, 184.

Benson, ed., Morte Arthure, ll. 464“500.

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 409, 385; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 438, 394.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 93; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 174“5; Elspeth Kennedy,

ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 225. Lancelot is, in fact, sorry that he has killed the man, putting his lance
right through his ˜insides™.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 320; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 211.

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 355.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry

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