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of grete chevalry and passing hardy™: ibid., 575.
57 The chronicler of Richard the Lion-Heart™s crusade praises Geoffrey of Lusignan as a

successor to Roland and Oliver for despatching ten Muslims with an axe at the siege of Acre:
Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris, L™Histoire de la guerre
sainte, ll. 4662“70.
58 Meyer, ed., Histoire, I, l. 176; my italics. As Burgess points out, this phrase appears frequently

in twelfth-century Old French imaginative literature with just the meaning suggested here: ˜The
Term “Chevalerie” ™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
dimension as a physical process. At the battle of Lincoln, writes the biogra-
pher, the French did not have to look far to ˜¬nd chivalry™, the quality here
again clearly equated with prowess on the battle¬eld. Knighting the young
king, the eldest son of Henry II, William asks God to grant him prowess and
to keep him in honour and high dignity. We are also told that it was right for
William to be the ˜master™ of the young king while he prepared for this day
because William increased his pupil™s prowess.59
Most readers of Marshal™s biography, however, will better remember the
vivid visual evidence of prowess. In the classic instance William receives the
news that he has won a tournament with his head on the blacksmith™s anvil
where the deep dents in his helmet are being suf¬ciently hammered out to
allow him ¬nally to pull the battered iron off his head.60
If Geoffroi de Charny knew this story (more than a century later), he must
have laughed in hearty approval. In his Livre de chevalerie this renowned knight
lauds prowess unceasingly and urges his contemporaries to invest their lives
and their bodies in the honourable following of arms, in individual jousts, in
tournaments, and above all in war. ˜For I maintain™, Charny writes, ˜that there
are no small feats of arms, but only good and great ones, although some feats
of arms are of greater worth than others.™61
Describing the battle of Methven (1306), John Barbour says Bruce™s men
˜Schewyt thar gret chewalry (showed their great chivalry)™; they ˜swappyt owt
swerdis sturdyly / And swa fell strakys gave and tuk / Yat all ye rank about
yaim quouk (They whipped out swords boldly and gave and took such griev-
ous strokes that all the ground around them shook.™62
Such sword blows are highly prized. Gerald of Wales obviously esteems the
knight Meiler Fitz Henry™s ¬ghting against the Irish:
[S]urrounded by the enemy on every side, [he] drew his sword and charging the band,
boldly cut his way through them, chopping here a hand and there an arm, besides hew-
ing through heads and shoulders and thus rejoined his friends on the plain unhurt,
though he brought away three Irish spears stuck in his horse, and two in his shield.

He states explicitly the value he ¬nds in John de Courcy: ˜He who had seen
how John of Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads,
and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant
Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 16830“3, I, 2088“9, 2635“6. Ibid., I, ll. 3101“44.
59 60

Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 86“7; Charny™s ideas are explored in detail in this

work. cf. Chapter 13, below.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbour™s Bruce, bk. II, 366“8.

Wright, ed., tr., Historical Works, 256, 279. In Welsh border ¬ghting, a recipient of such a

blow, Ranulf Poer, sheriff of Herefordshire, is cut through the windpipe and veins of the neck and
only manages by signs to summon a priest before he dies: p. 369.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 141
Richard the Lion-Heart regularly chops his enemies™ skulls down to the
teeth.64 Richard Marshal (second son of the famous William) with one mighty
stroke cut off both hands of the man reaching for his helmet in a close
encounter. With an even mightier blow he cut a knight down to the navel.65
Finding a young clerk who has taken revenge on three royal serjeants who
robbed him”piercing one with a crossbow bolt, with a sword cutting the leg
off the second, and splitting the head of the third to the teeth”Louis IX takes
the young man into his service ˜pour vostre proesce™, though he tells him such
prowess has closed off the road to the priesthood.66 Joinville, who tells the
story, later admires three ¬ne blows delivered by a Genoese knight in an expe-
dition to Jaffa: one enemy is run through with a lance, one™s turbaned head is
sent ¬‚ying off into the ¬eld, one lance-wielding enemy arm is cut off with a
swift back-handed sword stroke, after dodging the foe™s lance.67 Lancelot
could scarcely have done better. Robert Bruce, we learn, could hack off an
arm, or arm and shoulder, or ear, cheek, and shoulder at a single sword
If Robert Bruce™s most noted feat of prowess was to split the head of Henry
de Bohun at the opening of the battle of Bannockburn, he also defended a nar-
row river ford alone, against a large body of English knights who could only
come at him singly.69 ˜Strang wtrageous curage he had™, Barbour proclaims
proudly, as the number of bodies in the water mounts; after Bruce has killed
six men, the English hesitate, until exhorted by one of their knights who
shouts that they must redeem their honour and that Bruce cannot last. Yet he
does. When his own men ¬nally appear, they count fourteen slain. Barbour
breaks into fulsome praise:
A der God quha had yen bene by
& sene hove he sa hardyly
Adressyt hym agane yaim all
I wate weile yat yai suld him call
Ye best yat levyt in his day.69

Many examples in Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris,

L™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
Described in Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 1“2. The chronicle of the crusade of Richard the

Lion-Heart tells of a knight whose right hand is cut off in battle; he is praised for shifting his sword
to his left hand and ¬ghting on: Hubert and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 5777“86;
Gaston Paris, L™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
Wailly, ed., Joinville, 50“2. The good king has a second motive, as he explains: he will never

support royal of¬cials in evildoing.
Ibid., 230“1.

McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour™s Bruce, bk. III, ll. 114“5; bk. VI, 625“31, 644.

Ibid., bk. XII, ll. 51“61. The blow was delivered by axe rather than sword.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
(Dear God! Whoever had been there and seen how he stoutly set himself against them
all, I know well he would call him the best alive in his day.)70

Here, two centuries earlier, is Richard the Lion-Heart in action while on
Never did man such mighty deeds;
He charged among the miscreant breed
So deep that he was hid from sight . . .
Forward and back he hewed a swath
About him, cutting deadly path
With his good sword, whose might was such
That everything that it could touch,
Or man or horse, was overthrown
And to the earth was battered down.
I think ˜twas there he severed
At one stroke both the arm and head
Of an emir, an in¬del
Steel-clad, whom he sent straight to hell,
And when the Turks perceived this blow,
They made broad path before him.71

Froissart gives us Sir Robert Salle, confronted outside Norwich by English
rebels in 1381, who want to force him to be their military leader. His refusal
leads to mortal combat:
[Sir Robert] drew a long Bordeaux sword which he carried, and began cutting and
thrusting all around him, a lovely sight to see. Few dared to come near him, and of
those who did he cut off a foot or a head or an arm or a leg with every stroke he made.
Even the boldest of them grew afraid of him. On that spot Sir Robert gave a marvel-
lous display of swordsmanship. He was himself overwhelmed soon, however, and dis-

The biographer of Don Pero Ni±o records his hero™s ¬ght with a famous
opponent named Gomez Domao, who used his shield so well that no dis-
abling blow could reach him, and who returned such blows that Pero reported

McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour™s Bruce, bk. VI, ll. 67“180; l. 315 notes that fourteen

were slain ˜with his hand™.
Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 605“26; Gaston Paris, ed.,

L™Histoire de la guerre sainte. Cf. ll. 6478“530, or ll. 7349“61, where Richard ˜cut and smote and
smashed / Through them, then turned about, and slashed / And sheared off arm and hand
and head. / Like animals they turned and ¬‚ed. / But many could not ¬‚ee.™ The author (ll.
10453“66) assures his readers he is not ¬‚attering; an entire throng witnessed Richard™s blows, split-
ting his enemies to their teeth with his brand of steel. In ll. 10494“8 we learn the crusading knights
˜lopped off hands and heads and feet, / Split eyes and mouths with many a wound.™
Brereton, tr., Froissart, 222“4.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 143
later that sparks ¬‚ew from his eyes when they struck his helmet. Finally, the
great Castilian knight ˜struck Gomez so hard above the shield, that he split it
for a hands-breadth and his head down to the eyes; and that was the end of
Gomez Domao™. Pero went forward later in that ¬ght with lance stubs in his
shield, an arrow binding his neck to his armour, and a crossbow bolt lodged
in his nostrils (driven deeper by sword blows that struck it in the close ¬ght-
ing). His shield was cut to bits, his sword blade was notched like a saw and
dyed with blood. ˜And well do I think that until that day Pero Ni±o never had
been able to glut himself in an hour with the toil he craved.™73
In fact, both imaginative literature and the historical accounts of their lives
picture knights enjoying a privileged practice of violence; it suggests that they
found in their exhilarating and ful¬lling ¬ghting the key to identity.74 It would
otherwise be hard to explain the thousands of individual combats and mass
engagements that ¬ll page after page in each major category of chivalric litera-
ture: chanson de geste, romance, vernacular manual, chivalric biography, chron-
icle. Marc Bloch called these interminable combats ˜eloquent psychological
documents™.75 Clearly, the personal capacity to beat another man through the
accepted method of knightly battle”in fact the actual physical process of
knocking another knight off his horse and, if required, hacking him down to
the point of submission or death”appears time and again as something like
the ultimate human quality; it operates in men as a gift of God, it gives mean-
ing to life, reveals the presence of the other desired qualities, wins the love of
the most desirable women, determines status and worth, and binds the best
males together in a fellowship of the elect. Many writers also recognized it as
a power akin to ¬re: if noble, necessary, and useful, such violence requires
much care and control.
The ideal chivalric ¬gure is not, of course, a latter-day Viking berserker, dri-
ven by what modern evaluation might call overactive glands or psychopathic
personality. Granted, Arthurian society might well have recognized such a
comparison in Sagremore the Unruly, but he surely stands at the rough end of
the scale. When he is imprisoned, in the Lancelot, his captor, the lord of the
Castle of the Narrow March, admits that he released him lest Sagremore ˜go

Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 36“8. In a later battle he splits the iron cap and skull of

a knight who grabs his horse™s reins. From this battle he sent his notched sword, ˜twisted by dint
of striking mighty blows, and all dyed in blood™ to his ladylove: pp. 195, 196.
Chivalry regularly means either deeds of prowess or the body of knights on some ¬eld in

both Barbour™s chronicle and Sir Thomas Gray™s chronicle: Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica; McDiarmid
and Stevenson, Barbour™s Bruce. Pope and Lodge, eds, Life of the Black Prince, note that the empha-
sis of the work is on prowess and piety. Keen notes that to the combatant in the Hundred Years
War ˜[t]he ius militare meant . . . the law of chivalry . . . the law of a certain privileged class, whose
hereditary occupation was ¬ghting™: Laws of War, 19.
Bloch, Soci©t© F©odale, II, 294.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
mad because he is in an enclosed place, and he wanted to engage in battle and
¬ght with my knights™. Sagremore is justly called the Unruly, this lord says, ˜for
he showed no trace of reason in what he did, and never in all my life have I seen
a single knight perform as many feats of arms as he did™. He was, the text
announces, ˜never much of a knight nor very con¬dent until he was thor-
oughly worked up. Then he feared nothing and gave no thought to himself.™76
In Merlin Continuation he is characterized as ˜a very good knight and so unruly
when he was upset that his chivalry was highly esteemed™.77
Yet even if we grant that the knights are so much more than berserkers, there
is, nevertheless, behind great prowess an element of rage and sheer battle fury.
It is hard to imagine the one without the other. We can, of course, see this not
only in such ambivalent ¬gures as Raoul de Cambrai, but in great idols such as
Lancelot and the other Round Table knights. To read much chivalric literature
is to ¬nd admired knights regularly feeling rage as they ¬ght; their blood boils;
when honour is challenged, they nearly lose their minds.78 As the tournament
held to celebrate Arthur™s wedding becomes more heated, Gawain can scarcely
be stopped, ˜for he was hot with anger and bent on in¬‚icting pain™.79 In battle
against the Irish and Saxons, ˜Lancelot™s prowess was demonstrated, for he cut
through Saxons and Irishmen, horses and heads, shields and legs and arms™.
The author tells us ˜[h]e resembled an angry lion that plunges among the does,
not because of any great hunger it might have, but in order to show off its
ferocity and its power.™ Lionel tries to restrain him, asking, the most pragmatic
questions about prowess: ˜Do you wish to get yourself killed in a spot where
you can perform no act of prowess? And even if you did perform some act of
prowess, it would never be known. Haven™t you done enough?™ At this sug-
gestion of restraint Lancelot threatens Lionel with ˜some harm™, and is ¬nally
stopped only by an admonition in the name of the queen.80

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 187, 210; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 448“9, 506.

Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 51; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift, 131“2: ˜moult a prisier de

E.g. William of Orange and his opponents in Hoggan, tr., ˜Crowning of Louis™, 39, 40, 43,

53; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 86, 87, 94, 113. Raoul feels ˜all his blood boil™, is ˜unbri-
dled in his wrath™, goes ˜mad with anger™, and burns nuns in a ˜rage™, etc. (examples in Kay, ed.,
tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 32, 62, 68). Lancelot feels rage in his ¬rst tournament: Rosenberg,
tr., Lancelot Part I, 95; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, 231. Lancelot and even Galahad feel rage
as they ¬ght each other, incognito, just to test prowess: Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 92“3; Nitze and
Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 140“1.
79 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 336; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 307.
80 Carrol, Lancelot Part II, 234“5; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VIII, 469“474. Yvain tells him he

should not have gone on: ˜doing so would not have been boldness, but rather folly™. Yvain simi-
larly holds back the impetuous Lancelot, at the time of Gawain™s capture by Caradoc, swearing,
˜By the Holy Cross, my lord! You can™t go ahead like that! You mustn™t rush in so wildly to show
your prowess! It would be a lost cause. . . . Prowess should be shown only where it can work!™
Rosenberg, Lancelot, Part III, 281; Micha, Lancelot I, 178“9.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 145
Rage in battle is not limited to imaginative literature. Joinville describes the
Comte d™Anjou as mad with rage during a ¬ght along the Nile on St Louis™s
crusade.81 The Chandos Herald™s Life of the Black Prince tells of Sir William
Felton charging into action ˜come home sanz sens et sanz avis, a chevall la lance
baissie™.82 John Barbour reports that at Bannockburn the Scots fought as if in
a rage, ˜as men out of wit™. He describes Sir Thomas Murray, a Bruce sup-
porter, ¬ghting in Ireland ˜as he war in a rage™. Robert Bruce, to the contrary,
managed to use reason to control such impulses, inherent in chivalry: ˜And
with wyt his chewelry / He gouernyt . . . worthily.™83 Froissart says that when
Philip VI saw the English in battle formation at Cr©cy, ˜his blood boiled, for
he hated them™.84 Saladin, in Richard the Lion-Heart™s crusade chronicle, is
pictured admiring his opponent, but exclaiming,
With what rashness doth he ¬‚ing
Himself! Howe™er great prince I be,
I should prefer to have in me
Reason and measure and largesse
Than courage carried to excess.85

The frequent praise of mesure, restraint, balance, and reason in all forms of
chivalric literature can surely be read as countering a tendency that was real,
and dangerous. At a minimum, we know that knights in historical combat fre-
quently found it hard to restrain themselves and sought release in impetuous
charges, disregarding some commander™s plan and strict orders.86
Wailly, Joinville, 88. Joinville was grateful that the man was ˜hors dou sens™ and ˜courouciez™,

because his actions spared Joinville and others.
82 Pope and Lodge, The Black Prince, 84“5.
83 McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbour™s Bruce, III, bk. XIII, l. 143; bk. XVI, l. 199; bk. IX, ll.

373“6. The association of chivalry with a mental state requiring governance is notable. McKim,
˜Ideal of Knighthood™, emphasizes Barbour™s deliberate contrast between the mesure of James
Douglas as ideal knight and the foolhardiness that cost Edward Bruce victories and, ¬nally, his life.
84 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 88.
85 Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 12146“52; Gaston Paris, ed.,

L™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
On Richard I™s crusade two knights, despite his careful plan for counterattack, cannot take

the ignominy of enduring provocative attacks from the Muslims; they charge the enemy and bring
about a general assault, joined by the Bishop of Beauvais. The resulting ¬ght, with lances through
bodies, could almost come from the Song of Roland: see ll. 6421“60 in Hubert tr., and La Monte,
Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris, L™Histoire de la guerre sainte. A Templar similarly
breaks ranks and puts his lance through an enemy™s body. The author says his chivalry made him
do this: ll. 9906“46. Miles de Cogan, who cannot stand the delay during a parley over the fate of
Dublin, leads an attack which takes the city, along with much loot: Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot,
ll. 1674“711. Joinville tells a number of such stories of impetuosity from the crusade of Louis IX,
including one in which the Master of the Temple cries out, ˜For God™s sake, let™s get at them! I
can™t stand it any longer!™ His charge provokes a general action unintended by the French king:
Wailly, ed., Joinville, 78. Froissart says the royal plan of battle at Cr©cy could not be carried out
because French lords wanted no restraint and pressed forward to show their power: Brereton,
Froissart, 86.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
All this violence was effected by a knight™s own skilled hands; chivalry was
not simply a species of of¬cership more distanced from the bloody work with
swords and spears. This is no argument that the medievals knew no general-
ship; we have been taught how skilfully medieval knights could carry out
impressive tactical and strategic plans.87 But we must also note that chivalric
literature emphasizes personal might, courage, and skill in hand-to-hand
Summing up hundreds of years of this tradition, Malory refers time and
again to the wondrous work done by his knights™ hands, ¬rmly gripping their
weapons.89 We are assured that Lancelot has won Joyeuse Garde, his refuge,
˜with his owne hondis™, that Arthur ˜was emperor himself through dignity of
his hands™, that he awaits a tournament where ˜[the knights] shall . . . preve
whoo shall be beste of his hondis™. We hear Outelake of Wentelonde proudly
stating his claim to a lady: ˜thys lady I gate be my prouesse of hondis and armys
thys day at Arthurs court™. Such hands wield a lance or sword well. Seeing
King Pellinore cut Outelake down to the chin with a single sword stroke,
Meliot de Logurs declines to ¬ght ˜with such a knyght of proues™.90
Chronicle and biography speak the same language and show the same
emphasis. John Barbour praises Edward Bruce as ˜off [of ] his hand a nobill
knycht™, and assures us that Robert Bruce slew all the fourteen Englishmen at
the ford, noted above, ˜vif [with] his hand™.91 In his ¬rst ¬ght Don Pero Ni±o,
as his biographer tells us, ˜accomplished so many fair feats with his hands that

See Gillingham: ˜Richard I™; ˜War and Chivalry™; and ˜William the Bastard™.

Gerald of Wales is capable of clearly distinguishing between personal, knightly valour and

generalship. For his description of these qualities in John de Courcy, see Wright, tr., Historical
Works, 281, 318.
89 Many other writers could be cited widely. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation a poor

knight asking a lady™s hand of her father, promises that ˜If in one day I can™t bring . . . ten knights
to defeat with my own hands, and you afterwards”all knights renowned for prowess”I don™t want
you to consider me a knight.™ Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 64; Bogdanow, ed., ˜Folie
Lancelot™, 33; emphasis supplied. Inverse cases”fears of the work done by knights™ hands” like-
wise appear in this work; see Asher, ibid., 100; Bogdanow, ibid., 127.
90 The examples in Malory almost defy citation. Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, 415“16, 111, 72“3.

Malory draws on long-held belief. The vast Vulgate cycle, written more than two centuries earlier,
repeatedly emphasizes hands-on prowess. Lancelot, learning of the defeat of so many Arthurian
knights at the Forbidden Hill, declares, ˜he who defeated them can truly say that there is great
prowess in him, if he defeated them with his own hands.™ Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 232; Micha,
ed., Lancelot, V, 96. There is a similar statement from Lambegue in Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV,
71; Micha, Lancelot, I, 260. In a later crisis Guerrehet™s valour saved the day, ˜for he killed four of
them with his own hands and wounded six, including the ¬rst whose arm he had severed™: Kibler,
tr., Lancelot Part V, 118; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 21. In the Middle English William of Palerne, the hero
in his ¬rst battle does wonders ˜wit his owne hond™, killing six prominent enemies and overcom-
ing the enemy leader: Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 1195, 1230“54. In the Alliterative Morte
Arthure (Benson, ed., tr., 52), Arthur greets Cador after a battle with the words, ˜You have done
well, Sir duke, with your two hands.™
McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour™s Bruce, II, bk. IX, l. 486; bk. VI, l. 313.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 147
all spoke well of him™. The biographer is proud that ˜none did so much with
their hands as he™.92
This hands-on work of chivalry was very bloody. The young Arthurian
heroes in The Story of Merlin (Sagremore, Galescalin, Agravain, Gaheriet,
Guerrehet) have fought so well in a battle against the Saxons ˜that their arms
and legs and the heads and manes of their horses were dripping with blood and
gore™. They are described as having done ˜many a beautiful deed of knighthood
[mainte bele cheualier] and struck many a handsome blow, for which everyone
should hold them in high esteem™.93
Similarly, in his biographical chronicle John Barbour stresses the bloody
character of such ¬ghting: grass red with blood, swords bloody to the hilt,
heraldic devices on armour so smeared with blood they cannot be read.94
Gerald of Wales unforgettably characterized Richard I of England as not only
˜¬erce in his encounters in arms™, but ˜only happy when he marked his steps
with blood™.95 The historian of the Lion-Heart™s crusade more than once
records Richard hewing off enemy heads and displaying them as trophies, or
riding into camp after a night of skirmishing with more Muslim heads hang-
ing from his saddle.96 Such trophies were not limited to crusading; after the
bloody battle of Evesham in the English civil war of Henry III™s reign, the
head and testicles of the defeated Simon de Montfort were sent as a gift to
Lady Wigmore.97
The incident might not be too gruesome for romance. A maiden whose
rights Bors defends in Lancelot has given him a white banner to attach to his
lance. After combat with her enemy, Bors ˜saw that the banner which had been
white before, was scarlet with blood, and he was overjoyed™. A little later in the
same text an opponent evaluates Sagremore in revealing terms:

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