<< . .

. 22
( : 39)

. . >>


other works in this cycle.
Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 222; see the same sentiment in Rosenberg, tr.,

Lancelot Part I, 91, Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 172. In the romance of Yder, Kei is said to
have no chivalric virtue because he lost it through disloyalty: Adams, ed., tr., Romance of Yder,
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 190; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 322.

Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 173; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 244.
Knighthood in Action 187
consider you a loyal knight because you made the knight respect the compact
you had with me.™138 Lancelot is, of course, the great exemplar: returning from
the tournament at Pomeglai to hateful captivity, as he had promised, Lancelot
is greeted by Meleagant™s worried seneschal as ˜the most loyal knight in the
world™.139 Lancelot even denounces Fortune as ˜traitorous and disloyal™, for
being so ¬ckle, ˜ever changing like the wind!™140
˜Loyal™ is not surprisingly one of the most common terms of virtue applied
to knights in chivalric literature. The prowess of the loyal was exercised in the
proper manner and for the right causes; their violence was predictable as well
as praiseworthy. Pharian™s nephew, early in the Lancelot, makes the link of loy-
alty and prowess explicit: ˜disloyalty turns a good knight into a bad one, and a
knight who is true ¬ghts well and con¬dently even if he has never done so
before.™141 A worthy opponent of Lancelot later in this romance echoes this
point of view clearly in the exact words we have already noted from the
Lancelot: ˜A knight who is treacherous and disloyal is one who has renounced
knighthood.™142 Gawain expresses surprise that a treacherous heart can show
great prowess.143 He heroically bears being bound and whipped by the evil
Caradoc in Lancelot, but ˜almost went out of his mind™ when he was called a
traitor, that is, when accused of disloyalty. Kay of Estral announces in this
same text, ˜I have always feared being disloyal more than dying.™ And Pharian,
in Lancelot, cautions Claudas against ˜some act of disloyalty or treachery that
would lose him the honour of this world, towards which all prowess struggles,
and the honour of the other, everlasting one, which is the great joy of
Heaven™.144 The author of the Lancelot even states that Meleagant™s disloyal
nature spoiled his commendable prowess: ˜he would have been quite valiant if
he had not been so disloyal.™145
A great show of prowess is taken, conversely, to mean corresponding loy-
alty. Bors tells the model knights Claudin and Canart (captured in the war
against Claudas): ˜in God™s name . . . you will not be placed in chains or irons,
but keep your word on your honour as worthy knights, for the great prowess

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 190; Micha, ed., Lancelot VIII, 294 (a section of the romance

much concerned with issues of oaths and loyalty to obligations).
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 29; Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 221.

Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 187; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 302“3.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 14. I have substituted the term ˜knight™ for the ˜warrior™ in

the translation, since this is what the text says.
Ibid., 91.

Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 205.

Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 288; 314; Part I, 39.

Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 5 (using her footnote to alter the translation); Micha, Lancelot, II,

8“9: ˜kar preus estoil il ass©s, s™il ne fust si desloials™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
God has given you would be put to ill use indeed if you committed any act of
disloyalty or treachery.™146
In all these texts prowess and loyalty are bonded as solidly as prowess and
honour. This important fusion helped to create chivalry and give it great
strength. Yet chivalry itself was an ambivalent force where a peaceful life and
public order were concerned. Its strengthening did not radically transform the
general conduct of war as Europeans of all social ranks experienced it so boun-
tifully in these centuries.

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 314; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 147.

M E N who possessed and exercised the right to ¬ght and who enjoyed the
blessing of God on their hard way of life easily came to believe that they
were, or deserved to join, the social elite; they readily demanded recognition
of their rising status. Assertion of a right to social dominance thus provides
another crucial component for the fusion that made chivalry and gave it such
power in medieval society. Over time, knights rose in status and even the
nobility decided to wear the chivalric mantle.1

Chivalry and Nobility
The knights initially had to separate themselves from anything suggesting cul-
tivation of the soil and the smell of manure, for many of those who became the
knights were at ¬rst not fully and not always differentiated from villagers,
tillers of the soil, even the unfree.2 At the opening of our period, when a ¬ght-
ing man was termed miles (plural milites)”the word which will come to des-
ignate knight”the meaning often carried a distinct sense of subservience and
could be used of warriors of rather low social status. Many owned no land and
few could have claimed to be possessors of political power.3 In fact, the term
miles in this early period had no clear connotation of status and referred sim-
ply to function. Yet over time knighthood fused with nobility as a result of
common military function, the decline of effective royal power over much of
The frame for current historical discussion was set by Duby, ˜Origines de la chevalerie™,

Chivalrous Society. General discussions in Keen, Chivalry, especially 18“43, 143“61; Coss, The
Knight; Crouch, Image of Aristocracy; Barber, Knight and Chivalry, 3“46; Jackson, Chivalry, 37“84;
Strickland, War and Chivalry, 19“30, 143“9; Flori, Essor de la chevalerie; Hunt, ˜Emergence of the
Knight™; Poly and Bournazel, Feudal Transformation; Barbero, L™aristocrazia. Useful essays on par-
ticular subjects appear in Contamine, ed., La Noblesse au Moyen Age; Keen, Nobles, Knights; and
Duby, Chivalrous Society.
2 In a document from the decade before the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror

thought it necessary to specify that he was referring to ˜free knights™: Marie Fauroux, ed., Recueil
des actes des ducs de Normandie, cited in Strayer, Medieval Statecraft, 67. Many chansons de geste care-
fully specify that the knights are free men.
3 Strayer, Medieval Statecraft, 655“9.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
continental Europe, the increasing valorization of knighthood via ecclesiasti-
cal efforts for peace and crusade, and the in¬‚uence of romance literature.4
Though the process was far from uniform, in most regions of France knight-
hood and noble status began to fuse in the course of the twelfth century;
knighthood became the ˜common denominator of the aristocracy™.5 The rise of
knights was slower in German lands and took a different turn in England,
where a distinct legal nobility never emerged; in Italy it gradually accommo-
dated with swiftly reviving urbanism.6 But everywhere the right to commit
warlike violence whenever honour was at stake became a sign of superior sta-
tus; in time, it hardened into noble right over much of Europe.
By the early thirteenth century, The Romance of the Wings, a popular ver-
nacular manual for knights (c. 1210), says ˜their name, rightly speaking, is the
true name of nobility™.7 This century, as Maurice Keen notes, shifted emphasis
away from entry into knighthood via the ceremony of dubbing towards eligi-
bility via noble lineage.8
Works of literature show the conviction that chivalric qualities are rooted in
genetic inheritance. Ceremonies welcoming back Lancelot to the Arthurian
court (in the Lancelot) include a procession which orders the great men
˜according to their valour and lineage™.9 The assumption, of course, is that
these two scales exactly coincide. In fact, knights in chivalric literature who fail
to show the highest qualities may turn out to have a bad genetic line or other
ignoble formation. Antor assures Arthur in The Story of Merlin that Kay™s
unpleasant ways must have come from the peasant girl who nursed him.10 In
The History of the Holy Grail from the same cycle, a bad knight, we learn, was
born ˜the son of a vile peasant, descended from a bad line and bad seed™. He
was not the king™s son he had been thought to be.11 Inversely, Tor™s prowess,
in the Merlin Continuation, proves his nobility; he was not the son of the peas-
ant who had raised him; his mother had been raped by Pellinor, a great chival-
ric ¬gure. Arthur has sensed the lineage from the start, as he tells Tor: ˜I believe
that if nobility had not come to you from somewhere, your heart would never
have drawn you to something as exalted as knighthood.™12
Flori, L™Id©ologie du glaive; Hunt, ˜Emergence of the Knight™.

The phrase used by both Bur and Ch©deville, quoted in Contamine, La Noblesse au Moyen

Age, 26.
6 Barber, Knight and Chivalry, 41; Larner, ˜Chivalric Culture™.
7 Busby, ed., Ordene de chevalerie, l. 39. 8 Keen, Chivalry, 143.
9 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 283; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 20. See Elspeth Kennedy, ˜Quest

for Identity™.
10 Pickins, tr., Story of Merlin, 214; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 84.
11 Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, I, 113; Sommer, Vulgate Version, I, 197.
12 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 225; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 208. Once Arthur has evi-

dence of Tor™s prowess, he argues that ˜the son of a cowherd and a peasant could not have had such
a noble start . . . heredity and true nobility have led and taught him in a short time™: Asher, ibid.,
Social Dominance of Knights 191
The young Gawain, at the tender age of eleven, likewise shows heroic genes
at work. Standing by his father™s graveside, he vows revenge on the killer, King
Pellinor, in terms that elicit much admiration: ˜Please God, my lord, may I
never earn praise for knightly deeds until I have taken appropriate vengeance
and killed a king for a king.™ Those within hearing marvel at his words, ˜for
they were noble, especially for a child™.13
Nobility was likewise proved by physical beauty. In their literature knights
portrayed themselves tirelessly as more beautiful than other mortals. A well-
proportioned body and a comely face identify the truly chivalrous, even if the
young man is unknown, in disguise, or in rags.
When the Lady of the Lake brings the young Lancelot to be knighted by
Arthur, the king at ¬rst resists her request to knight him wearing the armour
and robes she has provided; he only knights men dressed in his own robes, he
explains. Yvain, however, urges Arthur to make an exception: ˜you mustn™t
just let him go, not a ¬ne fellow like this! I don™t remember ever seeing such a
good-looking young man.™ His advice is accepted and the Lady of the Lake
leaves Lancelot at court. Her parting advice to him links moral and physical
beauty with prowess: ˜Take care to be as beautiful in your heart as you are in
body and limb, for you have as much beauty as God could bestow on any child
and it would be a great wrong if your prowess did not prove its equal.™14
Some reality may even have supported the idea of superior physical form
among the chivalrous. Surely not every villager or townsperson was unattrac-
tive, but better diet, better living conditions, and the catalyst of con¬dence
might have produced distinct physical improvements in appearance. In their
literature they are the beautiful people, the perfection of their bodies enhanced
by contrast with the dwarves who so regularly appear in their menial service
and who are usually as uncourtly in speech and manners as they are unlovely
in body.
As knighthood continued its social rise, the term knight even took on a
more restrictive meaning than the term noble. Knighthood, in the close sense
of those who had actually been dubbed and become active, strenuous knights,
became a minority, a subset, even among the nobility.
The case is clear from England. The number of men called knights in the
England of William the Conqueror stood at about 6,000; by the mid-
thirteenth century actual or potential knights numbered only about 3,000,
237; Roussineau, ibid., 251. Merlin reinforces the sentiment soon: ˜if you were of peasant stock,™
he tells Tor, ˜the desire to be a knight would not have seized you, but nobility must show itself, be
it ever so deeply hidden.™ Asher, ibid., 243; Roussineau, ibid., 272.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 199; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, I, 263.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 63; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 154; Micha, ed.,

Lancelot, VII, 269.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
with about 1,250 actually having been dubbed.15 Perhaps three-quarters of a
typical fourteenth-century English army was composed of men below the rank
of knight.16 The cost of the ceremony of dubbing, of horses, and more elabo-
rate armour restricted the group. Obligations to participate in local activities
of royal governance supply another reason, adding to the economic costs of
taking up knighthood the investment of time and the sheer bother of serving
on the judicial and administrative inquests so characteristic a feature of
medieval England.
In France, also, the cost of active participation in chivalric life rose, and the
number of dubbed knights fell accordingly; knighthood as a speci¬c status
ceased to encompass all those who were recognized as noble. Fewer than half
the French nobles had actually been dubbed in the early fourteenth century.17
To read any documents relating to this nobility is to encounter many esquires
(damoiseaux) alongside the knights and great lords.18 Strenuous knights were
only a core of the medieval French nobility, as they were only a core of a
medieval French army. Such an army meant a small body of belted knights
accompanied by a much larger company of men-at-arms.19
Does this trend mean a waning of the in¬‚uence of chivalric ideas? On the
contrary, the chivalric ethos in fact generalized to all who lived by arms,
whether of noble family or not; chivalry served as a source of inspiration even
beyond the ranks of lords and active, strenuous knights; it touched all men-at-
arms. In theory, chivalry might best be exempli¬ed in the conduct of those for-
mally noble or the practising milites, but several social rings beyond this inner
circle aspired to the status and bene¬ts it conferred.20
Christine de Pisan wanted the ideal of chivalry extended to all warriors.
Geoffroi de Charny endorsed the aspirations of those below the social level of
knights; the key to the honoured and honourable life inherent in chivalry, he
thought, ought to guide all who lived by the honest practice of arms.21 He
would have been less happy with the aspirations of those bourgeois families
that kept arms and armour and showed devotion to tournament and romance

Denholm-Young, ˜Feudal Society™. Prestwich suggests stability in numbers for a century

after the 1270s, followed by rapid decline: Armies and Warfare, 52.
16 Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 5, 228“9. 17 Cazelles, Societ© politique, 66.

Examples appear plentifully in Actes du Parlement.

Contamine, Warfare in the Middle Ages, 80“6.

Keen, Chivalry, 145. He notes: ˜The shift of emphasis away from the taking of knighthood

towards nobility of blood . . . clearly did not, in any signi¬cant degree, undermine the conception
of the essential role of the secular aristocracy as being a martial one™ (pp. 152“3). Cf. Ayton, Knights
and Warhorses, 3“6, and Ayton and Price, eds, Medieval Military Revolution, 81“103.
On Christine, see the comment of Willard, ˜Christine de Pisan™, 511, and the passages quoted

at length from Christine™s Le Livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V, in ibid., 518“19. On
Charny, see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry: in his text Charny regularly praises and gives
advice to both knights and men at arms.
Social Dominance of Knights 193
literature.22 Yet their interest, too, makes the point, valuable for our enquiry,
that to all who wanted any share of power and in¬‚uence, any recognition of
high status, showing signs of a chivalrous life was crucially important.
This fact would not be lost on those wearing mitres, tonsures, or cloth hats
rather than iron helms. A powerful show of prowess could add an accepted,
perhaps necessary layer of respectability to high status grounded in ecclesiasti-
cal of¬ce or the unheroic possession of moneyed wealth. A town facing a for-
mal declaration of war by the lord of the nearby castle, a religious house
threatened or attacked by a knight who contested some monastic rights, a
bishop defending his rights as a great lord”all would quickly appreciate the
power of chivalry as prowess, the valorization of vigorous action taken with
arms in defence of honour.
Public order was a problem of such urgency in high medieval society pre-
cisely, that is, because the capacity to use arms in this manner and a belief in its
ef¬cacy, even in its nobility, were such characteristic features at the top of soci-
ety. The Abbot of Saint-Nicholas-au-Bois presumably had such thoughts in
mind as he led an armed troop against the town of Crespy in Laonnais in the
early fourteenth century; as his troop attacked the outskirts of the town, cry-
ing ˜Kill, kill! Death to the louts from Crespy!™, the abbot wounded one man
with his own hand and then rode his horse over another.23 For their part,
French townspeople claimed the characteristic chivalric right to private war;
French knights indirectly recognized such rights by issuing formal challenges
of war against these collective lordships.24 The number of men who claimed
the social status of knighthood and who went to the wars as practising war-
riors undoubtedly declined during the Middle Ages; yet the code of knights,
with its strong focus on prowess as the key to honour, cast its mantle over a
widening circle of believers.

The Role of Largesse
Even as the knights soared far beyond any fear of identi¬cation with mere rus-
tics, they still had to close ranks and watch another ¬‚ank as well. Signi¬cant
social and economic change, as always, created problems with an existing hier-
archy: noble or knightly rank did not always equate with wealth.25 Given the

See, for example, the evidence provided by Juliet Vale, Edward III, 40.

Actes du Parlement, 6147.
24 Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 190, and sources there.
25 Honor© Bonet thinks it necessary in 1387 to insist, in his famous treatise, that ˜a knight must

not till the soil, or tend vines, or keep beasts, that is to say, be a shepherd, or be a matchmaker, or
lawyer; otherwise, he must loose knighthood and the privileges of a knight™: see Coupland, ed.,
tr., Tree of Battles, 131.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
commercial and urban boom that so marked the High Middle Ages, knights
became more keenly aware of the need to establish distance between them-
selves and the elite townsmen. For the bourgeois were most anxious to join
them on the social summits and would take on identifying characteristics of
chivalry as swiftly as they were able. It proved impossible to keep them from
holding tournaments of their own, from showing coats of arms, from mar-
riage alliances with proud but impecunious knights. What could prevent them
from reading chivalric literature and imitating ¬ne manners? Perhaps it was all
the more necessary to stress chivalric distance from such folk, as knights actu-
ally broke the code themselves, mingled with the middling classes, relied
on their loans, their commercial expertise and management, and married
their daughters.26 The great chivalric exemplar William Marshal worked at
pro¬table urban development on his estates and was no stranger to London
moneylenders.27 The family of Ramon Llull, author of the most popular ver-
nacular treatise on chivalry”which emphasized the link between nobility and
chivalry”was only a few decades away from bourgeois origins in Barcelona.28
Of course the knights raised as many barriers as they could. The distance
between their exclusive, chivalrous life and the lives of the sub-chivalric bour-
geoisie could be clearly established by a quality tirelessly praised in all chival-
ric literature: only they could truly display the magni¬cent, great-hearted
generosity known as largesse. This great virtue could then, especially in France,
appear in sharpest contrast to the mean-spirited acquisitiveness of the mer-
On this line, moreover, chevalerie and clergie could join forces. Images of the
bourgeoisie tainted by disgusting avarice and sinful usury appear frequently in
medieval art, as Lester Little has shown. All those with noble bloodlines could
agree, whether clerics or knights: Avarice looks like a merchant; he counts and
hoards his coins (when he is not depicted defecating them); he has assuredly
not learned to broadcast his wealth to the deserving with grand gesture,
con¬dent that valour can always replenish the supply.29
The southern French poet Bertran de Born sings the praises of largesse and
links it with prowess and love. All these traits necessarily connect; they all sep-
arate the one who possesses them in his eternal youthfulness from ordinary

As noted by Keen, Chivalry, 147. Cf. Stanesco, ˜Le chevalier dans la ville™, and the numerous

sources cited there.
Crouch, William Marshal, 168“70. Cardona, ˜Chevaliers et chevalerie™, 142.
27 28

Little, ˜Pride Goes before Avarice™. The more ¬‚uid social hierarchy in England and developed

urbanism in Italy made for differences, of course.
Social Dominance of Knights 195
Young is a man who pawns his property, and he™s young when he™s really poor. He
stays young while hospitality costs him a lot, and he™s young when he makes extrava-
gant gifts. He stays young when he burns his chest and coffer, and holds combats and
tourneys and ambushes. He stays young when he likes to ¬‚irt, and he™s young when
minstrels like him well.30

No miserly merchant need apply. In fact, townsmen are often pictured in
chivalric literature as fair game for the knightly lions, who will put the booty
to nobler use. The biography of the great William Marshal passes over his
father™s career as a robber baron, it is true, and paints no scene of William loot-
ing merchants in glad war; but it does picture him taking money from a priest
who is running off with a lady of good family. The money which the priest
intended to put to usury William spends more nobly, as his biographer
proudly tells us, on a feast for a circle of knightly friends. His friends™ only dis-
satisfaction with William is that he failed to take the horses as well.31
Largesse pointedly reinforces high social status in the early life of Lancelot.32
Out of innate nobility he gives his own horse to a young man of noble birth
who has been ambushed, his horse incapacitated: without Lancelot™s gift he
would miss a chance to confront a traitor in court. Lancelot™s generosity pre-
serves him from shame.
Meeting an aged vavasour shortly after, Lancelot politely offers him some of
the meat of a roebuck he has shot. The man, who has had poorer luck in his
own hunting, had been trying to put food on the wedding table of his daugh-
ter. Lancelot, learning that he is talking to a knight, tells him that the meat
˜could not [be] put to better use than to let it be eaten at the wedding of a
knight™s daughter™. He graciously accepts the gift of one of the vavasour™s grey-
hounds in return. But Lancelot™s tutor”one of the sub-knightly, insensible to
such ¬ne points of generosity”refuses to believe Lancelot™s truthful account;
he slaps the lad, and whips the greyhound. In a rage, Lancelot drives off the

<< . .

. 22
( : 39)

. . >>