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Blamour™s brother, Bleoberis, agrees that ˜though sir Trystrames hath beatyn
his body, he hath nat beatyn his harte, and thanke God he is nat shamed this
day™.136 In this view defeat rests in the fallible body, but shame is locked out of
an infallible heart.
A knight whom Tor defeats in the Merlin Continuation takes just this line:
˜Certainly, I™d rather die a hundred times, if that were possible,™ he declares,
˜than one single time to say or do something that looked like cowardice.™ He
repeats his stand even after Tor ¬‚attens him, driving the links of mail into his
head, even after Tor beats his head with the pommel of the sword, so that ˜he
made the blood ¬‚ow all down his face™.137

A conversation between the Lady of the Lake and the young Lancelot (in the
Lancelot do Lac and Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle) may well be, as Elspeth
Kennedy has suggested, the fountainhead for all later discussions about bal-
ance between prowess and other qualities in chivalry. Responding to his lady™s
Socratic questions, Lancelot says:
It seems to me that a man can have the qualities of the heart even if he cannot have those
of the body, for a man can be courteous and wise and gracious and loyal and valorous
and generous and courageous”all these are virtues of the heart”though he cannot be
big and robust and agile and handsome and attractive; all these things, it seems to me,
are qualities of the body, and I believe that a man brings them with him out of his
mother™s womb when he is born.138

Here the ideal qualities of the chivalrous are pressed to the fore, and prowess”
competitive, bloody work with edged weapons”is veiled in softening and
restraining virtues, as it is, again, when the Lady of the Lake tells Lancelot
about the origins of chivalry. Each of the ¬rst knights, she says, knew:
[that he] should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compas-
sionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and
prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or
hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to
further wrong.

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 256.

Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 236“7; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 247“8. The sentiment is

bold, but the defeated knight suddenly loses resolve. A maiden appears to whom Tor grants a
favour: she wants the knight™s head; Tor (though the knight now pleads for his life from the
maiden) swings so stoutly that the man™s head ¬‚ies six feet from his body.
Quotation from Corin Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 51; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do

Lac, I, 141. Cf. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 59; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 248.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
˜A knight™, she says, summing up, ˜should not, for fear of death, do anything
which can be seen as shameful; rather he should be more afraid of shame than
of suffering death.™ She then proceeds elaborately to explain the signi¬cance of
knightly arms and armour in terms of desirable qualities, especially protecting
the Holy Church.139
All of the great issues, all of the tensions and paradoxes, lie just out of sight
in this splendid discourse”just beneath the surface here and echoed in famous
books by Geoffroi de Charny and Ramon Llull.140 Knights are presented as the
righteous armed force of Christendom, the practitioners of licit force, the fair
judges in society, wise men motivated and restrained by high ideals, bravely
avoiding shame. Courtesy, generosity, the strong helping the weak against
robbers and killers”such ideals resonate as much today as they did eight cen-
turies ago.
Yet we need to remember how much these are reform ideas, prescriptive
rather than descriptive. We know they do not describe how knights actually
behaved. The evidence as a whole shows a core ideal of prowess, belief in sheer
aptitude with arms, animated by courage, mildly, ideally, tempered by reason,
wise restraint, and strategic pragmatism.
After he has seen Lancelot perform on the battle¬eld, Galehaut ¬nally man-
ages to meet him for the ¬rst time, and to ask him who he is. Lancelot replies:
˜Good sir, I am a knight, as you can see.™ ˜ “Indeed”, said Galehaut, “a knight
you are, the best there is, and the man I would most wish to honour in all the
world.” ™141 Galehaut has seen prowess personi¬ed. It has manifested itself in
almost miraculous work with ashen lance and sharp-edged sword. The battle-
¬eld is strewn with slashed and mangled bodies lying in bloody proof. The vast
body of literature about Lancelot regularly takes just such work as its focus”
not all of the other ¬ne qualities so praised by the Lady of the Lake. We are
tirelessly shown Lancelot thrusting lance and swinging sword, not Lancelot
defending the personnel and tithes of Mother Church or playing the fair judge.
What other characters in the romances praise repeatedly is his awe-inspiring
¬ghting, not abstract ideals.142
We have already considered evidence showing the fear inspired by the estate
of medieval warriors, often expressed with prudent indirection. Open devalu-

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 52“6; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142“5;

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 59“61; Micha, ed., Lancelot, 248“58.
See discussion in Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 67, 69“74.

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 135; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 320. This formula

is repeated in the Post-Vulgate Quest of the Holy Grail. Tristan, who has seen Galahad™s prowess
in a tournament, asks him to identify himself. ˜I™m a knight™, Galahad says simply. ˜I know quite
well that you™re a knight™, Tristan responds, ˜and you™re the best in the world™: Asher, tr., Quest,
217; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 484.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 157
ations of prowess are rare, indeed, but a writer like Walter Map is capable of
at least declaring it morally neutral. ˜Goodness only makes a man good™, he
writes; ˜prowess makes him either.™143 An intensely religious knight such as Sir
John Clanvowe could stand traditional chivalric values on end:
ffor byfore God alle vertue is worsshipe and alle synne is shame. And in tis world it is
euene te reuers, ffor te world holt hem worsshipful tat been greete werreyours and
¬ghteres and tat distroyen and wynnen manye loondis.
(for in God™s sight all virtue is worship and all sin is shame. But the world always
reverses this, for the world holds as worshipful those who have been great warriors and
¬ghters who destroy and win many lands.)144

The tension between sheer prowess and the restraint of reason or wisdom
animates major texts, most famously in the Song of Roland. ˜Roland is full of
prowess, Oliver of wisdom™, sings the author of that text, as he unfolds for his
audience the complex consequences.145 Raoul de Cambrai more than once
warns that ˜an unbridled man passes his days in sorrow™.146 Near its end The
Story of Merlin pointedly praises a Roman leader as ˜a very good knight, wor-
thy and bold™, who ˜knew how to fall back and turn about, and . . . knew how
to storm in among foes™.147 Malory, through Sir Tristram, says that ˜manhode
is nat worthe but yf hit be medled with wysdome™.148 The wise Pharian tells his
nephew, Lambegue, in Lancelot, ˜almost never do we see great intelligence and
great prowess lodged together in a youth. And it is true that for your age you
have unusual prowess, enough, in fact, to dim your view of wisdom.™149 Yet we
should note that he goes on to urge unbridled prowess in the right situations,
matched by quiet restraint in council:

The household of two hermits term Lancelot ˜the valiant man, who by his chivalry made all

the world tremble before him™: Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 69; Bogdanow, ed., ˜Folie
Lancelot™, 45. Earlier, the ladies on the Island of Joy witnessed Lancelot unhorse a good challenger
so forcefully that the man™s neck is nearly broken and he faints in agony. Their response is to bow,
sing, and dance before his shield, and proclaim him the best knight of the world. Asher, 78;
Bogdanow, 70. A maiden late in the Perlesvaus tells her lady he is ˜the violent Lancelot who killed
your brother. It is no lie that he is one of the ¬nest knights in the world, but because of the vigour
and worth of his chivalry he has committed many an outrage.™ Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 201; Nitze
and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 312.
143 M. R. James, ed., tr., Walter Map, 416“17.
144 Scattergood, ed., Sir John Clanvowe, 69.
145 ˜Rollant est proz e Oliver est sage™, the opening line of laisse 87, in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson

de Roland.
146 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses, 24, 104; and see the related sentiment in laisse 90.
147 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, I, 406; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 434.
148 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 428.
149 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 36; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 151“2. Cf. Meyer, ed., Girart de

Roussillon, 94ff: Girart says to his nephew, ˜Beau neveu, vous êtes preux; votre ardeur juv©nile
serait bonne, si vous aviez la sagesse.™
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
in battle or combat or in lists where the ¬nest knights are gathered, take care to stand
aside for no one, whether younger than yourself or older, but spur your horse on before
all the others and strike the best blow you can. When it comes to arms, you see, no man
need yield to young or old to gain fame and honor; but in important deliberations
young men should attend to their elders. The truth is that there is great honor in dying
boldly and bravely in combat, but only shame and reproach can come from foolish
speech and thoughtless counsel.150

King Bademagu takes another corrective line on prowess as he tells his evil son
Meleagant, jealous of Lancelot and anxious to ¬ght, that ˜size of body and
limbs is not what makes a good knight, but greatness of heart™.151
Even in those passages that praise some hero™s prowess interesting elements
of doubt, or at least cautionary lines of thought, put in an appearance. Gawain
twice fails to have a transforming experience (in the Lancelot) when the Grail
comes into his presence: once he cannot keep his eyes off the beautiful maiden
carrying it and, in recompense, is not served; the second time he is so worn out
with ¬ghting a mysterious knight in the hall of the Grail castle that he is lying,
wounded and almost in a stupor on the ¬‚oor. Through the very presence of
the Grail heals his wounds, he fails to recognize it. A hermit tells him later that
his failure was ˜[b]ecause you were not humble and simple™.152
In the Lancelot ¬ve sons of a duke, ¬ghting their father, convince Lancelot
by lies to join their side. He characteristically goes to work ˜killing whatever he
hit™, and wins the day, even sending the duke™s head ¬‚ying with one of his great
sword strokes. He is greeted with the usual effusive celebration in the winner™s
castle as ˜the best knight in the world™. Yet, the text tells us, this victory was a
pity, for Lancelot has been ¬ghting on the wrong side, against members of the
Round Table who were aiding the duke.153
We can only wonder at the way in which, with or without conscious intent,
authors give us curiously shaded descriptions of Lancelot and other heroes in
full battle fury. Lancelot is not only compared to a raptor, a wolf, or lion, but
more than once to an ˜evil demon™, ˜the Devil himself ™, ˜Death itself ™. Bors and
even Perceval can likewise be termed ˜demon™.154 William of Palerne is
described by enemies who feel the force of his chivalry as ˜sum devel degised
tat dot al tis harm (some disguised devil who does all this harm)!™155
Balain™s great prowess likewise produces deep ambivalence. The Merlin
Continuation asserts that Balain was the most praised knight on a battle¬eld,
for ˜he practised a chivalry so expert, wherever he went, that everybody

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 36; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 151“2.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 260; Micha, Lancelot, I, 87.

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 100“2; Micha, Lancelot, II, 376“88.

Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 152“3; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 159“64.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 159
watched him marvelling™. Wondering observers, however, say he is no
mortal, but a ˜monster™ or ˜devil™. Even King Arthur said that ˜he was not a
knight like other mortal knights, but a man born on earth for human destruc-
Those who would reform chivalry knew that they had to come to terms
with prowess. They all hoped to channel or change the force and energy of
this great virtue. Some even harboured futile hopes of substituting another
quality in the uppermost slot. But prowess holds centre stage; it is essential
to the chivalry with which the reformer must deal, however he or she wants
to channel or change it. A layman lacking prowess might show other quali-
ties in the textbook chivalric list; but at least in the realm of chivalric litera-
ture no one would particularly notice, because no one would particularly
care. The chief virtue must come ¬rst. It is probable that complex ¬gures in
chivalric literature, such as Roland himself, or even darker ¬gures, such as
Raoul in Raoul de Cambrai, Claudas in the Lancelot do Lac, or Caradoc in
Lancelot, were so interesting to their contemporaries in medieval society
because of the tension between their admirable prowess and other qualities
warped or missing in them.157
We must recognize how strongly chivalric literature acknowledges the
impulse to settle any issue”especially any perceived affront to honour”by
couching the lance for the charge or swiftly drawing the sword from the scab-
bard. Force is regularly presented as the means of getting whatever is wanted,
of settling whatever is at issue.158 Accusations of a more or less judicial nature,
of course, lead to a ¬ght, as does assertion of better lineage. But so does asser-
tion that one™s lady is fairer than another knight™s lady, a request for a knight™s
name or even an answer to the question, ˜Why are you so sad?™ Of course, as
often as not the ¬ght is over no stated question at all, but simply seems a part
of the natural order of the imagined world of chivalry: two knights meet in the

Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 160, 198, 204; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 193, 359“61, 388; VI, 150,

160, 195“6; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 315, 317, 326; Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 104;
Bogdanow, ed., ˜Folie Lancelot™, 139.
Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, l. 3888.
156 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 197; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 107“8.

Claudas, has, for example, given up love and shows no interest in largesse; his loyalty clearly

leaves something to be desired. Yet he is elaborately praised by Pharian as the ¬nest knight in the
world. Rosenberg, tr. Lancelot Part I, 34; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 78. Caradoc is
described as ˜the cruelest and most disloyal of all men who had ever borne arms™. Yet he is also ˜of
great prowess and strength beyond measure™: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 282. Micha,
Lancelot, I, 182“3. Raoul de Cambrai will be discussed in Chapter 11.
Honor© Bonet provides an instructive list of foolish reasons why knights ¬ght: over which

country has the best wine or the most beautiful women, which country has the best soldiers, which
man has the better horse, the more loving wife, the greater success in love, more skill in dancing
or ¬ghting: see Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 207.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
forest, they ¬ght.159 The vast and complex literature of chivalry celebrates
knightly violence even as it attempts to reform or de¬‚ect it into channels where
it would produce less social damage.

Classic examples from Malory: Sir Pelleas ˜wente thereas the lady Ettarde was and gaff her

the cerclet and seyde opynly she was the fayreste lady that there was, and that wolde he preve
uppon only knyght that wolde sey nay™: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 100. Sir Gareth asserts to the
Black Knight that he has a higher lineage, ˜and that woll I preve on they body!™ (p. 185). The King
of Ireland, summoned to Arthur™s court on a charge of treasonous murder, decides ˜there was
none other remedy but to answere hym knyghtly™ (p. 252). Pellinor, wanting to know Tristram™s
name, decides he will ˜make hym to telle me hys name, other he shall dye therefore™ (p. 314). Sent
by Arthur to discover why a passing knight is sorrowful, Balain tells this knight, ˜I pray you make
you redy, for ye muste go with me othir ellis I muste fyght with you and brynge you by force™
(p. 50).

S I N C E the greatest opportunity for exercising prowess was war, a delight
in war becomes an important corollary to the worship of prowess at the
centre of chivalric ideology. Such an emphasis raises fascinating if dif¬cult ques-
tions. Did knights love war so fully they could engage in it without fear? Does
chivalric literature accurately portray their conduct of war? Did their chivalric
ideas and ideals modify warfare, making it a somewhat kinder, gentler enter-
prise? Does chivalric literature accommodate any countercurrent voices for
peace? If chivalric literature praises loyalty, to what were knights loyal?

A Delight in War and Tournament
If Geoffroi de Charny, the renowned warrior and theoretician of chivalry in
mid-fourteenth-century France, praised war as the ultimate chivalric enter-
prise, he echoed an even more enthusiastic and unrestrained voice sounded
nearly two centuries earlier in the poetry of Bertran de Born. Bertran™s glow-
ing account of the coming of spring quickly modulates into praise for the joys
of displaying prowess in war:
The gay time of spring pleases me well, when leaves and ¬‚owers come; it pleases me
when I hear the merriment of the birds making their song ring through the wood; it
pleases me when I see tents and pavilions pitched on the meadows; and I feel great hap-
piness, when I see ranged on the ¬elds knights and horses in armour.
And it pleases me too when a lord is ¬rst to the attack on his horse, armed, without
fear; for thus he inspires his men with valiant courage. When the battle is joined, each
man must be ready to follow him with pleasure, for no one is respected until he has
taken and given many blows.
I tell you, eating or drinking or sleeping hasn™t such savour for me as the moment I
hear both sides shouting ˜Get ™em!™ and I hear riderless horses crashing through the
shadows, and I hear men shouting ˜Help! Help!™ and I see the small and the great falling
in the grassy ditches, and I see the dead with splintered lances, decked with pennons,
through their sides.1
Paden et al., eds, Poems of the Troubadour, 338“43.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
In abbreviated form, this sentiment appears again in the thirteenth-century
Story of Merlin:
Mild weather had come back with the pleasant season when the orchards and wood-
lands are in leaf, when the birds sing sweetly and softly and the blossoming, leafy forests
ring with their singing, when the meadows are thick with grass and the gentle waters
go back into their beds”and when it is better to make war than any other time of the

˜Peace™, as Maurice Keen notes concisely, ˜was not regarded in the middle
ages as the natural condition of states.™3 Writing to the French king Charles VI
in 1387, Honor© Bonet observed that ˜it is no great marvel if in this world there
arise wars and battles, since they existed ¬rst in heaven™.4 Explicit assertions
that the coming of peace saddened the knights, that they preferred war, appear
throughout chivalric literature. When peace is made between Arthur and
Galehaut in the Lancelot do Lac and the Lancelot, ˜[m]any, who preferred war,
were saddened by this™.5 Of course, some of the motives of actual knights may
have been purely economic, stemming from their need for booty; but usually
it is the delight in prowess that is openly praised.6 In the First Continuation of
the Perceval, a knight announces, ˜my name is Disnadaret: I™m much more
fond of war than peace, and never tire of doing battle.™7 Boson in Girart de
Roussillon is described as a man whose ˜taste for war™ is ˜always new™.8 The
author of the Middle English romance William of Palerne relates of the young
hero William, newly knighted, that there ˜was no glader gom tat ever God
made™ when he learned of an impending war between the Roman Emperor
and the Duke of Saxony.9 When Claudas announces that war with Arthur is
coming, ˜The good and bold knights were happy and joyful at this, for they felt

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 309; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 256

Keen, Laws of War, 23.
4 Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 81. Bonet refers, of course, to Satan™s rebellion and soon also

discusses the wars chronicled in the Old Testament. He is, in fact, deeply troubled by the issue of
war and divine will. He argues (pp. 118“19) that peace is all but impossible, that war is built into
the stars, men, and animals, though he admits God might be able to bring about peace and that
good men can be lords over the power of heavenly bodies. Yet he soon declares that God, as lord
and governor of battles, has instituted war, that it is in accord with all law, human and divine, and
that soldiers are the ¬‚ails of God™s righteous (if hidden) justice (pp. 125“6, 157).
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 138; Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 328; Sommer, Vulgate Version,

III, 250.
In Girart de Roussillon (Meyer, ed., tr.) the problem with ending the war is seen in the plight

of poor knights. How will they live without war? The answer is easily found in a new war, not of
Christian versus Christian, but against the pagans. See laisse 633. Again, in laisse 672, the solution
for knights who want to prove their worth is clear: let them ¬ght pagans.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 114. Cf. Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 116“17, 244“5, 262“3,

298“9, 364“5 (˜A peace such as this does not enhance prowess, nor any other peace™), 372“3, 398“9,
460“1; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 296.
Meyer, Girart de Roussillon, laisse 474. Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, l. 1092.
8 9
Knighthood in Action 163
they had been at peace too long. But it grieved the mean-spirited and the cow-
ardly, who preferred peace to war.™10
The sentiment is often repeated. Knights in the twelfth-century Chanson
Gaydon ˜have no desire to make peace, they have always heard the war-cry, and
they love war more than Nones or Compline. They would rather one town
burned than two cities surrendered without a struggle.™11 Classic warrior
speeches urging immediate and vigorous war against the Romans are given to
the notables of Arthur™s court by Geoffrey of Monmouth (in his History of the
Kings of Britain), and by Lawman (in the Brut).12 The theme of warriors laud-
ing war was venerable on this side of the Channel, as on the other.13
If knights liked piling up honour and the material rewards of battle, at least
some of them also sensed an aesthetic element in war. The author of The Story
of Merlin, shortly after he had declared spring as being the best time for war,
pictured Arthur and his knights after they had rampaged in near darkness
through the encampment of their enemies, in the campaign to relieve the siege
of Trebes: ˜Then it was broad daylight and the sun began to rise. The sun
shone on the armour, which ¬‚ashed in the light, and it was so beautiful and
pleasing to look at that it was a delight and a melody to watch.™14 In this text,
as in many others, the author wants his readers to see colourful banners, rich
pavilions and costly armour. The biographer of Robert Bruce similarly pauses
to admire the massed English chivalry at the outset of the battle of Loudon
Hill in 1307; the morning sunlight gleamed on shields and polished helmets:
their spears, pennons and shields illuminated the entire ¬eld with light, their best and
embroidered bright banners and various horse trappings and varied coat armour and
hauberks that were white as ¬‚our made them glisten as if they were angels from
heaven™s realm.15

Yet the text may bring such trappings into view just as sword strokes and lance
thrusts destroy them.16 Peter Haidu has made the interesting suggestion that
we are observing a celebration of conspicuous consumption in the wanton

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 288; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 42. Later in this same work

Mordred, in a conversation with Kay, denounces the young Perceval: ˜He looks like a simple
knight . . . who prefers peace to war.™ Kay agrees, noting that Perceval™s shield bears no signs of
¬ghting: Carroll, ibid., 325; Micha, ibid., 192.
Ll. 4802 ff, quoted in Daniel, Heroes and Saracens, 26.

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