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He noticed that his shield had been completely destroyed by lances and swords, and he
saw that his hauberk was broken in several spots; he looked at Sagremore himself,
bloodied with his own blood and with the blood of others. He had great respect for
him, for he thought no knight deserving of greater esteem.98



Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 30.
92

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 268; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 185. Heroes are so covered
93

by gore that their heraldic devices can scarcely be recognized.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbour™s Bruce, bk. II, 366“70; bk. X, l. 687; bk. XIII, ll. 183“5.
94

Wright, ed., Historical Works, 160.
95

Ll. 7439“40, 8964“79 in Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston
96

Paris, L™Histoire de la guerre sainte.
Maddicott, Simon de Montfort, 344.
97

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 42“3, 78; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 148“9, 291. For a parallel case
98

to the bloody banner in a Middle English text (Blanchardyn and Eglentine), see Gist, Love and War,
148.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
148
An old hermit who is a former knight tells Yvain (in the Lancelot) that the cus-
tom at Uther Pendragon™s court was that no knight could be seated unless he
had been wounded.99
Even Lancelot™s great work”often powered by his love for the queen”
necessarily involves hacking and chopping, great bloodshed, frequent decapi-
tations, and regular eviscerations. He was ¬lled with rage as he rescues a
maiden from other knights:
[Lancelot] struck the head off one, who fell dead to the ground; he took aim at another
and struck him dead. When the others saw this they were afraid of being killed them-
selves and scattered this way and that to save their lives. Lancelot pursued them, hack-
ing and eviscerating and slaying them as if they were dumb animals; behind him were
the somber traces of more than twenty slaughtered men.100

Hector and Perceval, who meet and (as is so often true of knights in chivalric
literature) fail to recognize each other, fall at once to combat:
At every moment they were so quick and so aggressive that it was a wonder to behold;
in great anguish they endured great and terrible wounds that each in¬‚icted on the other
in quick succession, like knights of great prowess, hacking apart their shields and hel-
mets with their swords and making the blood gush forth on every side.101

It is worth remembering that no great cause, no great love, is at stake in this
¬ght; the knights meet in the woods; they ¬ght. So near to death are they both
brought that only the appearance of the Grail preserves their lives.
Given its centrality, such prowess must get an early start in the young
knight™s career.102 Accounts of youthful origins of heroes stress just this pre-
cocious display of commendable violence, a harbinger of things to come. In
the Chanson de Aspremont the young Roland and his companions, kept from
battle by an overly solicitous Charlemagne, severely beat the porter guarding
the door of their chamber, and escape. They acquire the horses they need by
beating up the keepers who conduct them to the battle¬eld. Roland encour-
ages the others: ˜Young Roland says: “We™ll have these four”come on! / Nor

Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 174; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 248. Here, one of the occasional
99

notes of ambiguity can be heard, for he adds that the custom was ended in Arthur™s day, but
replaced by one equally ˜unpleasant™”that no knight be seated at a high feast who has not sworn
on relics that he has defeated a knight ˜by deeds of arms™ within the past week.
Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 191; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 328.
100

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 327; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 200“1.
101

For overviews of education in arms, see Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 181“91; Chris
102

Given-Wilson, English Nobility, 2“7. Patterson notes that ˜The biographers of both du Guesclin
and Boucicaut stress the violence of their heroes™ enfances as evidence of their single-mindedness™:
Chaucer, 176. On the other hand, the education proposed for the knight by Christine de Pisan in
L™Ep®tre d™Oth©a à Hector, as Willard notes, was ˜moral rather than military™: ˜Christine de Pisan™,
512.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 149
shall we ask them ¬rst for what we want!” / His friends reply: “With the bless-
ing of God!” ™ When the news comes to King Salemon, the owner of the
horses, that the lads have ˜killed™ the porter, stolen the horses, and beaten his
men, he laughs in warm appreciation of their valour.103
Rainouart, another hero of chanson, was angered as a boy by a beating from
his tutor; he responded by hitting the man so hard that his heart burst.104 A
tutor who fails to appreciate noble largesse and ˜who wished to dominate him™
likewise causes the young Lancelot trouble in the Lancelot do Lac. Lancelot
endures his slap in brave silence, but when the tutor strikes a greyhound he has
just received, he breaks his bow into pieces over the man™s head. Angered at
the man for his broken bow, he then beats him soundly and tries to kill the
tutor™s helpers; they all run for safety. When he tells his patroness, the Lady of
the Lake, that he will kill the tutor anywhere but in her household, ˜she was
delighted, for she saw that he could not fail to be a man of valour, with God™s
help and her own™.105 But the most striking case of early promise of prowess
comes from Tristram, in Malory™s tale. Tristram™s mother, dying as he is born,
says he is a young murderer and thus is likely to be a manly adult.106


Competition
This obsession with prowess stands behind the seemingly numberless tests the
chivalrous undergo in this literature to determine who is the best knight in the
world. Marvellous swords can be grasped, or pulled from a stone, or drawn
from a wondrous scabbard only by the best knight in the world. Shields may
only be borne by, beds may only serve the ¬nest knight in the world. We even
learn of a magical chess board which defeats all but Lancelot.107
But the supreme honour of being the best is determined primarily by ¬ght-
ing everyone else who wants that same honour. Anthropologists and histori-
ans regularly conclude that any society animated by a code of honour will be
highly competitive; it will much value the defence of cherished rights and the
correction of perceived wrongs through showy acts of physical violence. In a
classic formulation, the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers argued:



Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, 34“5; Brandin, ed., Chanson d™Aspremont, 42“3.
103

Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d™Orange, 272; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 496“7.
104

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 36“7; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 45“7; cf. p.
105

98; also see Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 29; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 55.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 230: ˜A, my lytyll son, thou haste murtherd thy modir! And
106

therefore I suppose thou that arte a murtherer so yonge, thow arte full lykly to be a manly man in
thyne ayge.™
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 205; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 393.
107
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
150
Respect and precedence are paid to those who claim it and are suf¬ciently powerful to
enforce their claim. Just as possession is said to be nine-tenths of the law, so the de facto
achievement of honour depends upon the ability to silence anyone who would dispute
the title.108

Writing about the problem of violence in early modern England, the historian
Mervyn James similarly points to ˜the root of the matter™ in the concept of hon-
our, ˜emerging out of a long-established military and chivalric tradition . . .
characterized above all by a stress on competitive assertiveness™. As he notes
concisely, ˜Honour could both legitimize and provide moral reinforcement for
a politics of violence.™109
We will ¬nd ample evidence for investigating the politics of violence; the
¬erce physical competitiveness so characteristic of what anthropologists have
called honour cultures could scarcely be better illustrated than by extensive
reading in chivalric literature.110 As a code of honour, chivalry had as much
investment in knightly autonomy and heroic violence as in any forms of
restraint, either internal or external. Asked why there is strife between the
queen™s knights and the knights of the Round Table, Merlin answers in plain
terms: ˜You should know . . . that their jealousy has done that, and they want to
test their prowess against one another.™ In the tournament held to celebrate the
wedding of Arthur and Guinevere, the knights ˜began hitting roughly, although
they were playing, because they were good knights”.111 The tournament turns
into a virtual battle, as do so many tournaments in chivalric literature.
Seeing unknown knights appearing prominently on another battle¬eld ear-
lier in this same work, Yvonet the Great and Yvonet the Bastard wonder who
they can be. Aces of Beaumont gives them answer in hard, stirring words: ˜If
you want to know who they are, ride over to them and ¬ght so well that they
ask you who you are! For it is by their valiant feats of arms that people know
who the worthies are.112

Pitt-Rivers, ˜Honour and Social Status™, 24.
108

Mervyn James, ˜English politics™, 308“9.
109
110 Hostility is assumed when an unknown knight appears. E.g. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I,

93; Carrol, tr., Lancelot Part II, 153; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 383; VIII, 145.
111 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 379, 335; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 382, 302. When

Arthur rebukes the knights they say that ˜they could not resist it, and they did not know where the
urge came from™. Similarly, Arthur the Less defends his competitiveness in the Post Vulgate Quest;
chastised by Palamedes for going about, attacking knights and considering that courtesy, Arthur
replies,
You shouldn™t blame me if I go around attacking you and the other good knights, for I™m a young man and a
new knight who needs to win praise and acclaim, and if I don™t win them now, when will I win them?
Asher, tr., 242; Magne, ed., Santa Graal II, 221.
Pickens, Story of Merlin, 273; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 194. Cf. Pickens, ibid., 232, 259,
112

287, 317, 359; Sommer, ibid., 119, 168, 220, 272, 347.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 151
Intense competition is sometimes shown, only to be criticized. Milun, in
Marie de France™s lay by that name, is so jealous of the much-praised prowess
of a young knight sweeping the tournament circuit that he searches him out
and engages in a ¬ght ˜in order to do some harm to him and his reputation™;
though he thinks he will afterwards look for his long-lost son, he is, of course,
defeated in the joust by that very son.113 Knightly competition has edged out
affection and nearly brought tragic results. Chivalric competition in Marie™s
lay ˜Le Chaitivel™ does end tragically. When four knights in love with a lady
¬ght in a tournament, three are killed and one is castrated by a lance thrust.114
Yet competition and its results are usually accepted or even highly regarded.
A real man of prowess will bear the marks of other men™s weapons on his body
for life. Running nearly naked in the woods, mad, when he thinks he has lost
the queen™s love, Lancelot is recognized as a man of worship by those who see
him simply in terms of the scars left on his body from his ceaseless combat.115
Almost from the beginning of the classic Arthurian story, as told and retold
in the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Malory™s Morte Darthur, the
rivalries and jealousies among the knights foreshadow the break-up of the
Round Table. Much of this strife originates, of course, in the ¬erce hatreds
caused by so much killing (and a certain amount of sex) within a restricted
group of warriors and their ladies. Here, in Malory™s words, is Gawain™s view,
at one point:
Fayre bretherne, here may ye se: whom that we hate kynge Arthure lovyth, and whom
that we love he hatyth. And wyte you well, my fayre bretherne, that this sir Lamerok
woll nevyr love us, because we slew his fadir, kynge Pellynor, for we demed that he slew
oure fadir, kynge Lotte of Orkenay; and for the deth of kynge Pellynor sir Lamerok ded
us a shame to our modir. Therefore I woll be revenged.116

Of course, Gawain and his brothers are revenged and the destructive feud
between the houses of Lot and Pellinore rolls on.
But the factionalism and competition in Arthurian stories often result from
simple and immediate jealousy, from resentment that someone else has won
worship. Gawain, while on the quest of the white hart, encounters two broth-
ers ¬ghting, as one of them explains, ˜to preff which of us was the bygger
knyght™.117 Tristram, or Lancelot, both of whom invariably ends up being ˜the
Hanning and Ferrante, trs, Marie de France, 171“4; for their comments, see pp. 177“80, and
113

Rychner, ed., Marie de France, 136“40.
Hanning and Ferrante, Marie de France, 183“4; Rychner, Marie de France, 145“7.
114

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 499. Ibid., 375.
115 116

Ibid., 64. In the Merlin Continuation (Asher, tr., 228“9, Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, II,
117

81“3) Gawain strongly denounces their ¬ght as foolish and gets them, as a favour, to promise peace
in the future. Malory has Gawain more simply say that brother should not ¬ght brother and then
threaten them with force if they disagree.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
152
bygger knyght™, provoke endless jealousy, which is openly discussed.118 On the
queen™s urging, Lancelot is anxious to ¬ght the Round Table in tournament:
˜he was ¬lled with joy, for he had often wanted to test himself against those
knights who had tested their own prowess against all comers™.119 Having just
witnessed Lancelot kill Tarquin, in the Morte Darthur, Gaheris pronounces
Lancelot the best knight in the world: he has just eliminated the second best.120
After Lancelot decapitates the wicked Meleagant with a great sword stroke in
the Lancelot, Kay similarly proclaims Lancelot™s well-earned status: ˜Ah, my
lord, we welcome you above all the other knights in the world as the ¬‚ower of
earthly chivalry! You have proved your valour here and elsewhere.™121
In the Lancelot Bors meets a knight (who turns out to be Agravain) who
stoutly asserts Lancelot is not the knight Gawain is. Their argument over who
is best ¬ghter is, of course, settled by ¬ghting. Bors unhorses his opponent,
and hacks him into a disabled state on the ground. When he refuses to surren-
der (˜you will take nothing more of mine away™), Bors hammers his head with
his sword pommel until blood spurts, pulls away the armour protecting the
knight™s throat, and prepares to deliver the fatal blow. Agravain, with an ugly
grimace, agrees Lancelot is the better knight.122
Bademagu leaves court in a huff when Tor gets a seat at the Round Table
before he does. Balin, during his brief perch on the top rung on the ladder of
prowess, wins so much worship that it generates reaction; after he alone can
pull the wondrous sword from its scabbard, Launceor, for example, ˜had grete
despite at Balin for the enchevynge of the swerde, that any sholde be
accompted more hardy or more of prouesse™. Balin and his brother Balaan,
when setting out to ¬ght King Rion, intend to ˜preve oure worship and
prouesse upon hym™. Worship is won by prowess which is of necessity done
unto others.123
Danger, mounted and armed, lance at the ready, thus lurks along every for-
est path, in every glade, at every river ford. Knights must ride encased in their
metal as soon as they venture forth from the castles or hermitages in which
they shelter for the night; they must assume hostility from any other knights
whom they may meet. In the prose (Didot) version of the Perceval, the hero™s
sister describes this environment plainly:
Dear brother, I have great fear for you who go thus, for you are very young and the

See, for example, Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 411.
118

Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 196; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 352“3.
119

Vinaver, Malory. Works, 159. Numerous statements of this sort appear in the pages of
120

Malory.
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 32; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 225.
121

Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 51; Micha, Lancelot, 179“82.
122

Vinaver, Malory. Works, 81, 42, 44.
123
The Privileged Practice of Violence 153
knights who go through the land are so very cruel and wicked, and be sure that if they
can they will kill you in order to win your horse; but if you trust me, dear brother, you
will leave this endeavour upon which you are entered and will dwell with me, for it is
a great sin to kill a knight, and also you are each day in great danger of being killed.124

The author of the Perlesvaus suggests that after Perceval™s failure to ask the
right questions in his moment of trial, ˜all lands are now rent by war; no knight
meets another in a forest but he attacks him and kills him, if he can™.125
But is winning all? Is not ¬ghting well just as honourable? The medieval
response to such questions seems somewhat unstable. Sometimes a text
speci¬es that the honour of the loser has not been sullied. Palomides tells
Gareth, beaten in a joust in the tournament at Lonezep, that he has lost no
honour: ˜And worshypfully ye mette with hym, and neyther of you ar dishon-
oured.™ No less an authority than Queen Guinevere declares ¬‚atly, in Malory™s
words, that ˜all men of worshyp hate an envyous man and woll shewe hym no
favoure™.126
In fact, chivalric literature may declare it an honour to die from the blows of
a man of great prowess. Owein, dying in the Quest for the Holy Grail after
Gawain (not recognizing him) has put a spear into his chest, regards his death
as ¬tting: ˜ “Then I set my death at naught,” said he, “if it comes at the hand
of so ¬ne a knight as you.” ™127 Yvain the Bastard, similarly skewered by
Gawain in the Post-Vulgate Quest, dies with the same sentiment on his lips. An
unidenti¬ed knight in this text demands a gift of Galahad: he wants Galahad
to kill him so that he can die by the hands of the greatest knight in the world.128
In the Lancelot, one of the opponents Lancelot defeats in the judicial combat
concerning the False Guinevere tells him, ˜I want to die by your hand, because
I couldn™t die by a better one.™ Lancelot obliges him with a powerful sword
stroke cutting through helmet and skull, and down into the man™s spine.129
Yet winning is undoubtedly better, for all the fair words given to trying
one™s best and losing like a gentleman. As Malory observes, ˜for oftetymes
thorow envy grete hardyness is shewed that hath bene the deth of many kyd
knyghtes; for thoughe they speke fayre many one unto other, yet whan they be
in batayle eyther wolde beste be praysed.™130 Experienced knights such as

Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 28“9. When (p. 30) her hermit uncle sees her coming with
124

Perceval, he assumes that this knight has seized and robbed her.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvans, 27; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 38.
125

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 444, 466.
126

Matarasso, tr., Quest, 168; Pauphilet, Queste, 153“4. Gawain is, of course, practising the
127

wrong kind of chivalry in the view of this text. But the sentiment expressed by Owein (in
Pauphilet, he is called Yvain) the Bastard retains its interest.
Asher, tr., Quest, 155, 125; Magne, ed., Demanda, I, 211, 57.
128

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 272; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 140.
129
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
154
Charny and Malory know that even the most capable must expect to suffer
defeat in some ¬ghts.131 If all bruises can thus be poulticed in defeat with the
knowledge of having fought well, however, winning decisively eliminates the
need. So many knights must have agreed with Malory™s Palomides, who fre-
quently appears weeping and lamenting that when a great hero such as
Lancelot or Tristram is on the ¬eld he can never win ˜worshyppe™.132
Characters who have been defeated in the initial, mounted ¬ght with lances,
often declare that they have been ˜shamed™, and want a chance to win worship
on foot with sword and shield.133 At one point in the Lancelot no fewer than
sixty-four knights of the Round Table are forced by Arthur to admit that they
have been defeated by Lancelot in a tournament; equally bad, put on oath,
none can claim to have defeated him. Having been beaten by the best does not
soften their feelings, heightened by Arthur™s praise of Lancelot. The author
tells us: ˜These words of King Arthur so embarrassed the knights of the Round
Table that ever afterwards they hated Lancelot with a mortal hatred.™134 The
hatred of the defeated is similarly directed against Bors, who has overcome
fourteen of Arthur™s court at the Forbidden Hill:
they were much more dismayed than before by the fact that they had been defeated by
Bors, who was but a youth, whereas some of them were old, experienced knights of
great strength; every one of them felt great sorrow and resentment in his heart because
they had been defeated by him, and that was one of the things for which they bore the
greatest rancour against Lancelot™s kindred.135

It is true that many knights in chivalric literature ¬nd the choice between hon-
ourable defeat and death an easy decision; one after another saves his life at the
last moment as the victor stands over his prostrate body, sword ready for the
¬nal, decapitating stroke. Yet the truly heroic prefer to die without ever yielding,
without ever once having said ˜the loath word™ of surrender. Blamour speaks in
just these terms to the triumphant Tristram, who has just defeated him:
Sir Trystrames de Lyones, I requyre the, as thou art a noble knyght and the beste
knyght that ever I founde, that thou wolt sle me oute, for I wolde nat lyve to be made
lorde of all the erthe; for I had lever dye here with worshyp than lyve here with shame.
And nedis, sir Trystrames, thou muste sle me, other ellys thou shalt never wynne the
fylde, for I woll never sey the lothe worde.

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 133“4.
130

For Charny, see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 130“3; Vinaver, Malory. Works, 318.
131

Malory™s Sir Dynadan gives the maxim, ˜he rydyth well that never felle™.
E.g. Vinaver, Malory. Works, 325, 419.
132

E.g. ibid., 355. Mark says to Lamerok, ˜I woll fyght wyth a swerde, for ye have shamed me
133

with a speare.™
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 206; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 397.
134

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 236; Micha, Lancelot, V, 112.
135
The Privileged Practice of Violence 155

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