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mother. Confronting them before she learns of their identity, the mother
curses the two knights, damning the day they were born. They have, she
claims, killed her men or held them for ransom, harassed her to the point of
death, ravaged her land so that nothing worth six pennies remains standing
outside forti¬ed spots. ˜They waged the entire war. They are the most evil on
earth.™ Of course, once she learns the two are her sons, all is forgiven. William,

Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisses 113, 121, 283, 320, 356 (especially ll. 5528“31), 413“15,
102

521, 525, 633 (the pope™s sermon, especially from l. 9384), 606.
103 Yunck, tr., Eneas, 125“31: Grave, ed., Eneas.
Knighthood in Action 179
her husband, has already told them that their warfare has been at once treach-
erous (to their mother) and loyal (to their lord). The contradictions in
knightly warfare could scarcely be presented more starkly.104
Such estimates of the warfare conducted by knights are common. In the
Didot Perceval Arthur™s men land in France ˜and ran through the land and took
men and women and booty and you may be sure that never before had a land
been so dolorous.™105 In the Chevalier du Papegau we encounter ˜a great cry and
noise made by people ¬‚eeing before a knight who was laying waste to all the
district™.106
The language itself can be instructive. In more than one romance, war
appears in the telling guise of a great and destructive storm. Early in Chr©tien™s
Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion, a frightening storm descends whenever any
knight pours water over a stone at a magic spring. When the Storm Knight,
defender of the spring, chastises Calogrenant for causing the storm, he speaks
the language of knightly war:
Vassal, greatly have you
shamed and injured me, without proper challenge.
You ought ¬rst to have challenged me.
if you had just cause,
or at least sought amends,
before you brought war against me. . . .
He who is injured has the right to complain;
and I complain and with justice,
that you have driven me from my house
with lightning and rain;
you have wronged me
and cursed be he who ¬nds it good,
for against my woods and my castle
you have levelled such an attack
that great towers and high walls
would have been of no avail to me. . . .
But know from now on
you will have no truce or peace from me.107

After Yvain has killed the Storm Knight, Lunete counsels her widowed lady,
Laudine, to seek advice on how to defend the spring, for failure will bring

Staines, tr., Romances of Chr©tien de Troyes, 486, 488; Holden, ed. Guillaume d™Angleterre, ll.
104

2934“6, 3041“58.
Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 71“2.
105

Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 14; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du papegau, 14.
106

Kibler, tr., Knight with the Lion, ll. 491“516. The Old French crackles with legal terminology
107

of de¬ance, plaint, etc.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
180
utterly destructive war.108 Laudine presents this view to her court through her
seneschal, in justi¬cation of her decision to marry her husband™s conqueror:
My lords, war is upon us:
not a day passes that the king isn™t
making preparations as fast as he can
to come lay waste to our lands.
Before these two weeks are over
everything will be laid waste
unless a good defender be found.109

Near the end of the romance, Yvain™s own words again explicitly link the storm
and war. He decides that to win back his lady™s affection he will return
and wage war at her spring;
and there he™d cause so much
thunder and wind and rain
that she would be compelled
to make her peace with him.110

William of England identi¬es war with storm in even more explicit fashion.
During a terrifying storm at sea, the author says the four winds are at war, act-
ing ˜as do lords of the land who burn and ravage castles for their pleasure™. This
comparison is possible, says the poet, because the lords ˜devastate the world,
just as the winds devastate the waves™.111
This impressionistic linkage of knightly violence with at least quasi-natural
forces also appears in the pedestrian Chevalier du Papegau. Arthur, here a
young hero, confronts a hideous ¬sh-knight who grows his own armour as a
monstrous hide. This creature™s approach causes a commotion ˜as great as any
storm™, and in the course of the ¬ght he whirls like a tornado through ¬elds
and meadows. After defeating him, Arthur and his friends trace the monster™s
trail to the sea where a ¬erce storm batters the search party so severely they fear
for their lives.112
In the continuation of Chr©tien™s Perceval by Gerbert de Montreuil, and in
the Perlesvaus, the dread Knight of the Dragon besieges his enemies, ˜destroy-
ing castles and cities and knights and whatever he can attack™, not only with a
mortal army, but with a shield which features a ¬re-spewing dragon™s head as
a boss; he consumes his opponents with this sulphurous medieval forerunner

Kibler, tr., Knight with the Lion, ll. 1627“9, 1640“1.
108

Ibid., ll. 2085“91. Ibid., ll. 6524“9: the verb is guerroier.
109 110

Staines, tr., Romances of Chr©tien de Troyes, 478“9; Holden, ed., Guillaume d™Angleterre, ll.
111

2302“12.
Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 14“25; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du papegau, 14“24.
112
Knighthood in Action 181
of a ¬‚amethrower, supplied, we ¬nd it no surprise to learn, from the arsenal of
Hell.113
This popular Perceval legend connects war to a haunting and socially com-
prehensive image”the terre gaste, the land laid waste.114 In his Perceval,
Chr©tien pictures entire regions desolated by knightly warfare. The beautiful
Blanche¬‚or tells Perceval, who seeks lodging in her castle, that she has been
besieged ˜one winter and one whole summer™. Her garrison of 310 knights has
been cut down by violent death and capture to 50. This terror is the work of
˜one knight: Clamadeu of the Isles™ cruel seneschal Anguingueron™. His siege
has produced a veritable wasteland in this region:
For if, without, the youth had found
the ¬elds were barren, empty ground,
within there was impoverishment;
he found, no matter where he went,
the streets were empty in the town.
He saw the houses tumbled down
without a man or woman there.
...
The town was wholly desolate.115

The initial setting of the poem lies in the forest soutaine, the ˜lone and wild for-
est™, to which Perceval™s mother has ¬‚ed from the chaos and warfare that swept
the land following the death of Uther Pendragon, the future King Arthur™s
father. With her husband badly wounded and Perceval™s two elder brothers
both slain on the very day they were made knights, Perceval™s mother hopes to
keep him from the world of knightly combat. The ¬rst time he utters the word
knight she falls in a faint.116
Chivalric biography is even less reticent about the realities of knightly war-
fare. The Chandos Herald, writing the life of the Black Prince late in the four-
teenth century, tells his readers how his master™s host behaved between the
Seine and the Somme during their invasion: ˜the English to disport themselves

Bryant, tr., Perceval, 245“55; idem, tr., Perlesvaus, 153, 162“4; Williams and Oswald, eds,
113

Gerbert de Montreuil, ll. 8906“10153; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 237, 250“4. Such texts
remind us that in many minds strong, intuitive bonds linked war”on any scale”and ¬re, its
inevitable accompaniment, with hell¬re and demons.
Bloch, Medieval French Literature.
114

Cline, tr., Perceval, 51“2, ll. 1749“55, 1773; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval. The continuator
115

Gerbert of Montreuil thought that the devastation of a siege would be so complete that
Gorneman, Blanche¬‚or™s kinsman, could scarcely recognize her land when he saw it restored to
prosperity: ˜Gorneman was bewildered, for he had not been there since Clamadeus had laid waste
the land and the country all around; but now it was as splendid a sight as you have heard from my
description™: Bryant, Perceval, 229.
Bryant, Perceval, 1“7; Roach, Roman de Perceval, ll. 69“634.
116
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
182
put everything to ¬re and ¬‚ame. There they made many a widowed lady and
many a poor child orphan™.117 It is helpful to remember that this passage
appears in a laudatory life, setting forth the prowess and piety of Edward, the
Black Prince, son of Edward III.
Nearly two centuries earlier, the biographer of William Marshal, it is true,
pictured William, during the burning of Le Mans, helping a woman drag her
possessions from her ¬‚aming home; William nearly suffocated on the smoke
which entered his helmet. But the action was scarcely typical of the times or
even of the hero™s life. The biography tells us that the mature William advised
Henry II to delude the French king into thinking he had disbanded his army,
but then to carry devastation into French territory. Of warfare between Henry
II and his sons, the biographer observed that many places in his day still
showed the scars of that war. These scars, in other words, had yet to heal after
forty years.118
Chronicles, less concerned with the mix of prescription and description than
imaginative literature, point speci¬cally and repeatedly to knights as the bane
of their author™s hopes for a more orderly life. The historian Matthew Paris
tells a striking story of Hubert de Burgh leading a troop harrying the lands
belonging to King John™s enemies in England; looting as thoroughly as they
could and destroying what they could not carry off, even churches seemed fair
game. But then Christ himself appeared to Hubert in a dream, admonishing
him to spare and worship the cruci¬x when next he saw it. The very next day
a priest whose church was being looted ran up to Hubert carrying a large
cruci¬x. Remembering the warning, Hubert fell to his knees, adored the cross,
and restored the looted goods to the priest.119 Such worthy restraint led to the
telling of the story; the common practice, of course, looms in the background.
Orderic Vitalis tells an even more striking story in Book XII of his
Ecclesiastical History. His account deserves quotation in full, for the unfor-
getable picture it paints is worth many words of more abstract analysis. On a
raiding expedition which yielded an important prisoner and much booty,
Richer de Laigle ˜did something that deserves to be remembered for ever™:
While country people from Grace and the villages around were following the raiders
and were planning to buy back their stock or recover it somehow, the spirited knights
(animosi milites) wheeled round and charged them, and when they turned tail and ¬‚ed
continued in pursuit. The peasants had no means of defending themselves against a
˜Mais les Englois poier iaux esbatre / Misent tout en feu et a ¬‚ame. La ¬rent mainte veve
117

dame / Et maint povrae enfant orfayn™: Pope and Lodge, eds., The Black Prince, ll. 236“9.
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 2193“2222. Unvarnished accounts of devastation also appear promi-
118

nently in the ¬fteenth-century biography of Don Pero Ni±o: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight.
Paris, Chronica Majora, III, 290“1, cited and discussed in Cazel, ˜Religious Motivation™,
119

109“10.
Knighthood in Action 183
mailed squadron and were not near any stronghold where they could ¬‚y for refuge, but
they saw a wooden cruci¬x by the side of the road and all ¬‚ung themselves down
together on the ground in front of it. At the sight Richer was moved by the fear of God,
and for sweet love of his Saviour dutifully respected his cross. He commanded his men
to spare all the terri¬ed peasants and to turn back . . . for fear of being hindered in some
way. So the honourable man, in awe of his Creator, spared about a hundred villagers,
from whom he might have extorted a great price if he had been so irreverent as to cap-
ture them.120

Not seizing the bodies of the peasants whose homes he has already looted (out
of respect for the potent symbol of the cross) earns him the adjective hon-
ourable or noble (nobilis); indirectly, Orderic speaks volumes about ordinary
practice.121 Not that he is reluctant to speak his mind directly. Often he
describes casual brutality outright. In the course of feudal warfare carried on
right through the holy season of Lent, Count Waleran, ˜raging like a mad boar,
entered the forest of Bretonne, took prisoner many of the peasants he found
cutting wood in the thickets, and crippled them by cutting off their feet. In this
way he desecrated the celebration of the holy festival rashly, but not with
impunity.™122 Orderic describes the followers of Robert, the future Duke of
Normandy, as ˜of noble birth and knightly prowess, men of diabolical pride
and ferocity terrible to their neighbours, always far too ready to plunge into
acts of lawlessness™.123 Of lords such as Robert of Bellême and William of
Mortain, he writes, ˜It is impossible to describe the destruction wrought by
vicious men of the region; they scarred the whole province with slaughter and
rapine and, after carrying off booty and butchering men, they burnt down
houses everywhere. Peasants ¬‚ed to France with their wives and children.™124
When this same Robert fought with a neighbour, Rotrou, over the boundaries
of their lands, Orderic says:
they fought each other ferociously, looting and burning in each other™s territories and
adding crime to crime. They plundered poor and helpless people, constantly made


Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 250“1.
120

The author of Girart de Roussillon tells us, with disapproval, that Girart and Boson slaugh-
121

tered a hundred knights gathered around a wayside cross in search of sanctuary during battle.
Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 413. The poet says God turned the war against Girart™s
side after this.
Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, VI, 348“9. Ibid., III, 102“3.
122 123

Ibid., VI, 58“9. This description might be compared with the actions of the giant knight
124

Malduit who ravages the land because Yvain has insulted his shield: ˜He rode wherever he thought
he might ¬nd people, knocking down tents and pavilions and shelters, destroying whatever he
encountered, killing knights and ladies and maidens, sparing only the dogs™: Kibler, tr., Lancelot
Part V, 175“7; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 250“61. Malduit appears to be a symbol of knightly war;
the victims, however, are here made exclusively knights and ladies, rather than villagers and
townspeople.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
184
them suffer losses or live in fear of losses, and brought distress to their dependants,
knights and peasants alike, who endured many disasters.125

Knightly ferocity and brutal acquisitiveness likewise appear when we cross
the Channel. Outright private war was less likely in England, where it was for-
mally forbidden by law, but some English knights took every opportunity that
crown weakness presented and did what they could at other times. William
Marshal™s father, to take a well-known example, was during the civil war as
thoroughgoing a robber baron as any lord denounced by Orderic. William™s
Histoire praises John Marshal as ˜a worthy man, courtly, wise, loyal, full of
prowess (preudome corteis e sage . . . proz e loials)™; it also shows him collaborat-
ing with a Flemish mercenary, dividing up regions of southern England for
exploitation like any Ma¬oso; it further tells us that at this time England knew
great sadness, great war, great strife, because there was no truce, no agree-
ment, no justice while the warfare lasted.126
The Anglo-Saxon chronicle similarly evaluated conditions in another part of
the country, East Anglia:
For every man built him castles and held them against the king; and they ¬lled the land
with these castles. They sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced
labour on these castles; and when the castles were built they ¬lled them with devils and
wicked men. By night and day they seized those whom they believed to have any
wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold and silver they
put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures. . . . When the
wretched people had no more to give, they plundered and burnt all the villages, so that
you could easily go a day™s journey without ever ¬nding a village inhabited or ¬eld cul-
tivated . . . and men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.127

At the end of the fourteenth century even Froissart was still inserting into
his narratives admonitory tales of what happened to church violators. An
English squire who seized a chalice from a priest™s hands at the altar in a raid
on the village of Ronay (and then gave the celebrant a backhanded blow to the
face) soon whirled out of control on the road and, screaming madly, fell with
broken neck and was reduced to ashes. His fearful companions swore never to
rob or violate a church again. ˜I do not know whether they kept their promise™,
comments Froissart.128


Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 396“7.
125

Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 27, 31“8, 63 on John Marshal, 125“30 on the state of England. Crouch
126

says John and his men ˜issued regularly from the de¬les of those grey hills [of north-east
Wiltshire], demanding tribute and obedience from all those lowlanders who had no protection of
their own™: William Marshal, 12.
127 Quoted in Davis, King Stephen, 83“4. 128 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 162“3.
Knighthood in Action 185
His contemporary, Honor© Bonet, knew. In his famous Tree of Battles he
tells the French king that ˜nowadays . . . the man who does not know how to
set places on ¬re, to rob churches and usurp their rights and to imprison the
priests, is not ¬t to carry on war™.129 Far from protecting the helpless, the war-
riors loot them without mercy, ˜for in these days all wars are directed against
the poor labouring people and against their goods and chattels. I do not call
that war, but it seems to me to be pillage and robbery.™130 One is reminded of
Merigold Marches, the routier leader executed in Paris in 1391. He had seized
people for ransom, burned and looted in wartime France; his claim that he had
acted as one should in a just war was brushed aside; his crime was not the activ-
ities themselves, however, but simply that he, a mere mercenary, had lacked
proper status and authority.131
Chivalry brought no radical transformation in medieval warfare, as it
touched the population as a whole; above all, it imposed no serious check on
the looting, widespread destruction, and loss of non-combatant lives that
seem to have been the constant companions of warfare. Recent historical
scholarship suggests that we have no reason to think that chivalry should have
transformed war in this broad sense, nor that knights were somehow unchival-
rous cads for not attempting it. As a code, chivalry had next to nothing to do
with ordinary people at all.132


Loyalty
Yet knighthood needed to emphasize its own internal cohesion, its own man-
agement of the highly competitive force of prowess. From its origins, chivalry
had shown a collective dimension; it placed the particular knight within the
entire group or class of knights, all”in idealistic plan”living by something
like a common ethos. If chivalry was to be more than a purely individualistic,
even radically anarchic force, a corresponding military virtue was needed to
bind the individual to the collective ethos. That virtue was loyalty and it was
attached as ¬rmly as possible to prowess in chivalric ideology. Loyalty func-
tioned as the rudder which steered the great vessel of prowess into acceptable
channels.

Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 189.
129

Ibid. A few years later Philippe de M©zières called contemporary warriors leeches who
130

sucked the blood of the poor until they burst, though he piously hoped that the victims would be
better off, having less distracting wealth: Coupland, Letter to King Richard II, 58“9, 132.
Discussed in Keen, Laws of War, 97“100.
131

See, e.g., Strickland, War and Chivalry, passim; Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 1“12,
132

231“43; Hewitt, Organisation of War, 93“140; Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 184“269;
Keen, ˜Chivalry, Nobility™; Gillingham, ˜War and Chivalry™; idem, ˜William the Bastard™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
186
As this practical, working corollary to prowess, however, loyalty is easily
misunderstood as essentially political and highly idealistic. Beginning students
often mistake it for nothing short of steadfast devotion to king and country,
or to the church as a holy abstraction. We might better attach it to the broad-
est conception of law, intending by that term what it so often means in
literature: the entire body of beliefs that guide practice and provide self-
de¬nition.133 In the Vulgate Cycle of romances, loyalty often means adherence
to the oath taken by all Round Table knights.134
We could almost say the focus of a knight™s loyalty was chivalry itself, since
chivalry provided such guides, such an identity. ˜A knight who is treasonous
and disloyal™, announces a knight in the Lancelot do Lac, ˜is one who has
renounced knighthood.™135 A guilty knight brought to the point of death by
Lancelot, in the Lancelot, in effect begs for mercy by arguing that the hero
would be disloyal to chivalry to refuse: ˜Noble knight, have mercy on me!
Indeed, it would be disloyal and brutal to kill me after I™d admitted defeat and
begged for mercy.™136 The danger lurking here, as so often, is a distorting
romanticization in which knights appear in pastel hues, fervently believing in
all the ideals, in each of the reform plans that emanated from the worlds of
clergie and royaut©. Of course, knights were not unfailingly loyal to kings, not
endlessly obedient sons of Holy Mother Church, and seldom appeared in life
in pastel hues.
But they could show behaviour consistent with ideals of their own group
and thus behave predictably; they could be loyal, then, in the sense of being
held trustworthy both by their social and political superiors and inferiors (at
least down through the ranks of knights, that is). Adherence to the sworn
word, to obligation, is crucial to the reliability and predictability that stand at
the heart of loyalty. ˜Sir knight,™ says an old woman to Yvain in one of his
adventures, ˜if there™s any loyalty in you, keep your promise to me. . . . Truly,
if you were a knight, you wouldn™t break your oath, even if it meant your
life.™137 The statement could almost stand as a de¬nition of loyalty, but it
scarcely stands alone. ˜God help me,™ Hector says to Marganor (who has
arranged a ¬ght between one of his knights and Hector in the Lancelot), ˜I

Roland, for example, speaks out ˜following the law of chivalry (Dunc ed parled a lei de cheva-
133

lerie)™: Brault, ed., Chanson de Roland, l. 752.
As noted by Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 9, n. 2. Examples appear in this text and in

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