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Thorpe, tr., Geoffrey of Monmouth, 231“5; Allen, tr., Lawman, Brut, ll. 12426“50.

For a survey of views in Middle English literature, see Gist, Love and War, 113“46, 194.

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 311; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 261.

McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour™s Bruce, II, ll. 220“34.

The Song of Roland and the poetry of Bertran de Born provide splendid examples. In ˜Lo coms

m™a mandat e mogut™, for example, Bertran writes, ˜And nothing will keep splinters from ¬‚ying to
the sky, or taffeta and brocade and samite from ripping, and ropes and tents and stakes and shel-
ters and high-pitched pavilions™: in Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 108“9.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
destruction of so much ¬nery; in a society in which few could even imagine
such extravagance, the knights can not only wear and use ¬ne and costly cloth-
ing and equipment, they can destroy it in the great game of war.17
If the great game was not always and everywhere available for knights to
hone and demonstrate their prowess, tournament was available, even in the
absence of war, as scholars regularly point out; it became the great sport and,
in time, the great social event of chivalry.18
Early tournaments made good substitutes for war, and in both literature
and life the tournament which quickly warmed up to the temperature of bat-
tle appears prominently.19 Tournaments were at ¬rst distinguished from war
only in the prearranged nature of the combat, an absence of deliberate destruc-
tion visited on non-combatants, and the provision of some safe zones from the
¬ghting in which knights could rest and recover. Otherwise, the knights”and
accompanying bodies of footmen”ranged over the countryside, and some-
times through narrow urban streets, manoeuvring, ambushing, attacking at
will. Even though tournaments gradually restricted their scope and functioned
by ever clearer forms and rules, there can be little wonder that they were
known as ˜schools of prowess™.20
The place of tournament in knightly ideology will likewise be evident to any
reader of chivalric literature. From the time of Chr©tien de Troyes in the last
quarter of the twelfth century, descriptions of magni¬cent tournaments ¬ll
page after page of chivalric romance; they have become settings around which
plots turned, events in re¬ned literature demanded by re¬ned audiences.
Those who heard or read these works evidently could not have enough of
colourful display and valorous action. In a splendid instance of art and life
playing leapfrog, the imagined becomes the actual; the actual outdoes even the
imagined.21 Each great occasion must be decorated with its magni¬cent tour-
nament; each peerless knight errant wandering on some erratic orbit out of
touch with the solar centre of the court can only be brought home by his
admirers spreading news of a great and tempting tournament. ˜No knight
should avoid a tournament if he can get there in time™, is the straightforward
advice of an honourable vavasour in the Lancelot.22

Haidu, Subject of Violence, 46“9.

For general discussions, see Barber and Barker, Tournaments and Keen, Chivalry, 83“102.

For dangers associated with historical tournaments, see Barker and Barker, Tournaments,

139“49. A tournament of 1273 became known as the ˜Little war of Chalons™: Prestwich, Edward I,
84“5. Classic literary examples in Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 302“7; Pickens, tr., Story of
Merlin, 335“54. Literature sees dangers to the knightly caste and courtly society, rather than to the
See citations in Keen, Chivalry, 99.

See the discussion in Benson, ˜The Tournament™.

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 259; Micha, ed., Lancelot, V, 216.
Knighthood in Action 165
For nearly half a millennium (and increasingly before an audience featuring
women as well as men), tournaments become a stock feature of chivalric life
both as lived and as portrayed in literature: horse hoofs pound, lances splinter,
shields crack, swords bite into helmets”in a continuum of tourneying that
blurs chivalric ideology and practice. Passionate belief in tournament as the
ideal sport unquestionably ¬gures as one line in the creed spoken by those who
worshipped at the high altar of prowess.
Any real disparity between historical events and literary portrayals appears
when literary texts ignore the gradual safeguards that knights actually used,
especially blunted weapons for combats à plaisir, instead of the sharp lance
heads of combats à outrance. Literary tournaments are potentially deadly
affairs, with no hint of rebated weapons, perhaps to emphasize the sense of
danger and the vigour of the combatants.

The Fact of Fear? Voices for Peace?
Did they ever play the game, whether in war or tournament, with sweaty
palms and shaking hands? In any sane person the prospect of being wounded,
maimed, or killed with edged weapons in ¬erce combat would surely produce
to some degree the phenomenon of fear. That warriors in all ages have experi-
enced and more or less mastered these fears we can take as given. Replacing
fear with gritty endurance and courage or even converting it into steel-edged
battle fury must be a prime goal of any successful warrior culture.23 High
praise for honour secured through prowess and larded with visions of loot is
the ideological path usually taken. Yet the tensions are obvious. If knights sel-
dom left any record of their intimate thoughts, chivalric literature allows us
occasionally to hear amidst the trumpet-calls the small but insistent voice of
fear.24 As a battle waxes ¬erce, we learn that ˜even the bravest were afraid (li
plus hardis ot paör)™.25 The Chanson de Guillaume shows a warrior so fearful that
his loose bowels have soiled his saddle blanket.26 More traditional historical
sources make the same point. The Song of Dermot and the Earl, written at about
the turn of the thirteenth century, tells a chilling tale of two armies encamped
at night near Wexford in Ireland, expecting battle on the morrow. Suddenly a
His biographer tells us the late fourteenth-century Castilian knight Don Pero Ni±o was

instructed as a youth to emulate St James, whose body was chopped bit by bit, but who steadfastly
refused to renounce his faith: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 20“1. Geoffroi de Charny
regularly praises steady endurance: see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry. With an eye to
German chivalric literature and to the distinction between the world and the court, Stephen Jaeger
discusses fear in ˜Sociology of Fear™.
See the discussion in Verbruggen, Art of Warfare, 43 ff.

Roche-Mahdi, ed., tr., Silence, l. 5464.

Muir, tr., The Song of William, Ernest Langlois, ed., La Chanson de Guillaume, laisse 28.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
˜phantasm (un enfantesme)™ comes upon the English camp and the watch is
sure they are beset by an armed enemy. ˜St David! Barons, Knights!™ calls out
Randolf FitzRalph; men come tumbling out of the huts and Randolf (think-
ing him one of the enemy) strikes the ¬rst man he sees, bringing the fellow to
his knees. The phantom soon passes to the Irish camp, causing them, in turn,
to think that they are entrapped by their enemies. Yet in the morning the two
sides formed up and got to their martial work.27 Such phantasms of fear must
often have stalked camps and battlelines; Froissart tells a similar story of the
Flemish camp in the early morning hours before the battle of Roosebeke in
Parodies of knightly ways, of course, speak more openly of fear.29 But in his
Livre Charny, even Geoffroi de Charny, the very soul of courage, admits
plainly that a knight thinks of ¬‚eeing as arrows and lances rain down upon
him, as he sees his friends lying dead on the ground around him: ˜Is this not a
great martyrdom?™ he asks.30 Yet he knows martyrdom is the cost of honour
and he knows the rewards if fear is mastered. In his Livre de chevalerie he prag-
matically urges knights not to think what the enemy will do to them, but what
they will do to the enemy.31
Against the profound commitment to war reiterated in chivalric literature
could any reforming voices praise peace? The question touches one of the deep
paradoxes of chivalric ideology, of course, for the ideal goals of spiritual and
social peace, which the critics and reformers pressed and which some knights
must have accepted, were, ¬nally, incompatible with the widespread worship
of prowess.32 Obviously, if war is the highest expression of prowess, the best
opportunity for prowess, knights need war. When in romance a knight brings
peace to some castle, region, or kingdom, that martial achievement usually
spells the end of prowess there and thus the end of interest; the romance

Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot, 72“7.

Brereton, tr., Froissart, 243“5. Froissart reports that some thought the disturbance was the

revelling of devils delighted at the souls they would win for hell that day.
29 See Whiting, ˜Vows of the Heron™, 263“4.
30 Taylor, ˜Critical Edition™, 18“19, quotation at ll. 457“8: ˜N™est ce grant martire / Qui a tel

ouvrage s™atire?™
31 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 194“5. William of Palerne, in a fourteenth-century

English romance, calls out to his men not to ¬‚ee, even if they are afraid of the enemy: see Bunt,
ed., William of Palerne, l. 3343. He wants them to think of their lovers instead: l. 3370.
Burns, in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xvi, says the prose romances ˜attempted to combine the

irreconcilable interests of earthly chivalry and military conquest with the spiritual quest for peace™.
One example of the paradox: near the end of The Death of King Arthur Arthur laments unthink-
able losses in battle with Mordred: ˜Ah! day, why did you ever dawn, if you were to reduce the
kingdom of Great Britain to such great poverty when its heirs, who are lying here dead and
destroyed in such suffering, were so renowned for prowess?™ If these losses are unusually great, the
prowess praised at the end of his statement, of course, requires battles. Cable, tr., Death of King
Arthur, 221; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 245“6.
Knighthood in Action 167
moves on to the next adventure, the next setting for prowess, the next battle
zone. ˜That day they rode in peace,™ says the author of the Merlin Continuation,
˜¬nding nothing that one should record in a story™.33 Fighting for peace is
acceptable to these professional warriors only so long as there is no real dan-
ger of a surfeit of peace; they could scarcely cheer any smothering of chances
for displays of prowess that so well repay their hard efforts in the bright
coinage of honour (and in other coinages as well).
Yet reforming voices raised in the interests of peace can also be heard in
chivalric literature, at least as a brake on enthusiasm. They never draw on fear,
nor on the reluctance we know prudent commanders felt about risking all in
open battle. The ideals usually come, instead, from the world of clergie.
When Chr©tien de Troyes presents a world weighed down by the hero™s fail-
ure to ask the Fisher King questions which would have cured him and restored
his paci¬c rule, he reveals a cursed land that seems to be af¬‚icted by war:
Do you know what we must withstand,
if the king cannot hold his land
and for his wounds obtains no cure:
The married women will endure
their husband™s deaths, lands will be wrecked,
and orphaned maids will live abject,
with many deaths among the knights,
calamities and other plights.34

In the anonymous Perlesvaus which picks up Chr©tien™s un¬nished story, the
link is explicit: because Perceval failed 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™.35 As if to ensure that his point has registered, the author repeats
the link of grail curse, war, and universal violence shortly thereafter: the curse
means that ˜all lands were engulfed by war; whenever a knight met another in
a forest or glade they would do battle without any real cause™.36
A hermit in the continuation of the Perceval by Gerbert says that ˜God did
not make knights to kill and to make war on people, but to uphold justice and
defend Holy Church™. How knights are to achieve these high professional
goals in an imperfect and violent world without killing and making war is, of
course, not speci¬ed. Yet peace is praised. Perceval™s last secular act in this
romance, before retiring from the world as a hermit, himself, is to give an

Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 249; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 292.

Cline, tr., Perceval, ll. 4675“87.

Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 27; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 38.

Bryant, Perlesvaus, 35; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 50.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
extended peace to the land: ˜Perceval remained in his own land and for seven
years he held it in peace, free of war, untroubled by any man.™37
Sometimes the wickedness and sheer lack of wisdom in ¬ghting Christian
against Christian is stressed. Girart™s war with King Charles in Girart de
Roussillon, is stopped by divine intervention: God sends a great storm and the
banners of both sides are symbolically destroyed by ¬re.38 Several characters in
this chanson get the message and speak out for the peace God obviously wants;
Galeran de Senlis advises the king that one who ¬ghts a long and unjust war
must pay for it. The former enemies are soon, however, hard at work ¬ghting
side by side against pagan foes, Slavs, Saxons, and Frisians.39 In The Story of
Merlin, Queen Guinevere argues the same line, after a tournament at her wed-
ding has got out of hand: the knights, she says, should save their prowess for
the Saxons and not waste it in destroying one another.40 This same advice was
given to the kings of England and France in the closing years of the fourteenth
century by Philippe de M©zières: they must think whether they want to appear
before the throne of divine judgement with blood dripping from their ¬ngers
˜through following the advice of your knights, nurtured in bloodshed™.41
Could the fears have been even more comprehensive? R. Howard Bloch™s
argument for a general, brooding fear about the social cost of warfare in early
chivalric literature can be extended throughout the literature of the entire
chivalric era.42 This persistent countercurrent, however thin and infrequent,
suggests either that at some subliminal level the fear of violence gave knights
themselves some second thoughts, or that some authors were speaking their
own minds to the necessary but dangerous warriors. Whoever wrote the Vows
of the Heron (likely to have been someone interested in the peace and prosper-
ity needed by the commercial society of the Low Countries) produced a
˜grimly satirical™ text early in the Hundred Years War. This biting parody of
chivalric vows of wartime prowess links the knights with ˜unsuccessful, mean
or revolting acts™ by an author ˜who realized that only peace could bring pros-
Less savage but equally interesting critiques appear in better-known texts. If
Cador speaks out powerfully against the softening effects of peace in Geoffrey
of Monmouth™s History of the Kings of Britain, his successors Wace and
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 266, 301. Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 166.
37 38

See ibid., laisses 184, 186, 190. In fact, a leitmotif of this poem is the cost of starting and con-

tinuing wrongful war.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 352; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 333.

Coupland, ed., tr., Letter to King Richard II, 90. He at one point calls the warriors sharp-

toothed locusts, at another leeches who so greedily suck the lifeblood of the poor that they burst:
pp. 132“3.
Bloch, Medieval French Literature and Law.

Analysed, with full textual citations, in Whiting, ˜Vows of the Heron™.
Knighthood in Action 169
Lawman give a short but powerful answering speech in praise of peace to no
less a ¬gure than Gawain.44 The Mort Artu, written a century later, regularly
cautions against the danger of ˜a war which will never come to an end™, the war
which in fact destroys the Round Table by the end of this romance.45 Nearly
two centuries later, Malory carried the theme forward in the monumental clos-
ing section of his Morte Darthur. He pictures Arthur reduced to tears as he
mutters, ˜Alas, alas, that ever yet thys warre began!™46 The knights who support
Lancelot in this struggle know the cost: ˜in thys realme woll be no quyett, but
ever debate and stryff, now the felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn.™ And
Lancelot himself, undergoing the transformation that marks his character both
in the Mort Artu and here, declares that ˜better ys pees than allwayes warre™.47
Warning statements may be more indirect, and partial, yet even more dra-
matic. In an unforgettable scene in the Perlesvaus, Perceval drowns his
mother™s enemy, the Lord of the Fens, by suspending him upside-down in a
vat of his own knights™ blood, to allow the man ¬nally to get enough of the
blood of knights for which he has seemingly longed. The result is a land with
untroubled joy. Yet Perceval has, just before this, responded to his mother™s
pleas for a more peaceful solution with a ¬rm dictum: ˜ “My Lady,” he said, “it
is thus: you must make war on the warlike and peace with the peaceful.” ™48

Conduct of War
Could one not argue, however, that in the inevitable warfare of early European
history chivalry functioned as a restraining force, that war on its sliding
medieval scale of possibilities”from the dispute of two lords over a mill to the
dispute of two kings over a province”was less horri¬c because its key practi-
tioners were knights? As John Gillingham and Matthew Strickland have
shown, chivalric ideals may indeed have made ¬ghting less barbaric for the
knights themselves. Gillingham has argued strenuously that a reduction in
torture and killing of prisoners came with the advent of chivalry. Strickland
suggests even more broadly a lessening of the horrors of war for the knights;

Thorpe, tr., Geoffrey of Monmouth, 231“2; Arnold, ed., Brut de Wace, 562“4; Allen, tr.,

Lawman, Brut, 318.
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 114, 117, 123; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 114, 118, 125.

Vinaver, ed., Malory.Works, 691. The line also appears more than once in the Stanzaic Morte

Arthur, on which Malory drew. See Benson, ed., King Arthur™s Death, e.g., ll. 2204“5, 2442“3.
Lancelot often expresses a desire for peace late in this romance, e.g. ll. 2498“9, 2596“603. Even the
lords of England are said to complain that ˜Arthur loved nought but warring™: l. 2975. In her last
conversation with Lancelot, Guinevere urges that he ˜keep thy reme from war and wrake™ and
decries a world with ˜nought, / But war and strife and batail sore™: ll. 3666, 3720“1.
Benson, Morte Arthur, 699, 701.

Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 151“2, 150; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus. 234“5, 232.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
despite their martial culture, medieval warriors tried to limit the occurrence
and mortality of serious combat, granted truces and respites, treated prisoners
well, and ransomed rather than massacred them.49
Chivalric literature, especially from the thirteenth century, supports the idea
of a lively concern about the proper way knights should treat each other when
they ¬ght. Since single combats or small group encounters are pictured in
romance, the writer may have tournament in mind as much as the chaos of
battle.50 The focus is on taking unfair advantage of another; the use of horses
in combat is a topic of special importance. Can one ¬ght an unarmed or inad-
equately armed opponent? Is an opponent™s horse a legitimate target? Should
a mounted man attack one already unhorsed? Should a mounted man ride his
great warhorse over an enemy knocked ¬‚at on the ground?51
Chr©tien de Troyes, near the end of the twelfth century, tells his readers that
Yvain and the Storm Knight ˜fought most honourably™ because neither strikes
his opponent™s horse.52 Early in the next century, the biography of William
Marshal tells the vivid story of William, fully armed and acting as rear-guard
for Henry II, confronting Richard the Lion-Heart, unarmed and in active pur-
suit of his father. When Richard pointed out the disparity to William, the
Marshal simply disabled Richard™s horse with his lance.53 The courtesy here,
certainly the prudence, lay in not striking at Richard himself. In The Marvels of
Rigomer (written about the same time), important characters”and sometimes
the author himself”speak out against the idea of several ¬ghting against one,
claiming that knights in their day simply ¬ght to win, but that in the good old
days such practice was considered felony.54 Gawain, the hero of this text, is
said to want to defeat an opponent using nothing but ˜strict chivalry (droit
chevalerie)™.55 Le Bel Inconnu takes the same line, declaring that in the good old
days knights fought one-to-one, but now twenty-¬ve will attack a solitary
Over the next several decades the vast cycle of romances based on Lancelot
and the Grail provides repeated discussions of ideal martial behaviour. When,
in the Merlin Continuation, Gawain ¬ghts a knight at a ford, and knocks him

John Gillingham, ˜Introduction of Chivalry™; Strickland, War and Chivalry.

A point of view in agreement with Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 20.

The examples that follow are largely drawn from Old French literature. For many examples

drawn from Middle English texts, see Gist, Love and War, 155“90.
Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 855“8. Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 8803“49.
52 53

Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 45, 84“5, 184; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 1995“2007,

3619“798, 8511“38.
Foerster, Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 11501“3.

Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâg©, ll. 1011“24, 1066“82, 5818“21. The editor and

translator suggest a date ˜from 1191 into the ¬rst quarter of the thirteenth century™ (p. xii). The elu-
sive nature of any ˜golden age™ of chivalry is once again evident in these passages.
Knighthood in Action 171
from his saddle, he is taught proper manners: ˜Either come down on foot,™
shouts the dismounted man, gripping his lance, ˜or you will cause your horse
to be killed; then you will be completely humiliated.™ Though Gawain with
one blow splits the man™s head like a melon, he has accepted the dictum.57
Having learned, he teaches. Not long after, when Morholt, who had unhorsed
him, charges him on horseback, he cries out, ˜Morholt, if you don™t dismount,
you™ll make me kill your horse, for which the blame will be mine and the shame
yours.™ Morholt accepts the admonition at once, exclaiming, ˜You have just
taught me a courtesy so great that I will observe it all my life, provided I am
not in too bad a situation.™58 The reform quality of the passage is as clear as the
prudent quali¬er, which clings to it like a burr.
This same romance pictures Arthur, having unhorsed Pellinor, voluntarily
dismounting to ¬ght on foot, ˜something no one had yet done in the kingdom

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