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man (and his three subordinates), promising to kill him, if he can catch him
outside the household of his patroness, the Lady of the Lake.33
The young Arthur gives another case in point. As claimant to the throne
(having pulled the sword from the stone), Arthur is shown ˜all kingly things
and things that a man might lust after or love, to test whether his heart was
greedy or grasping™. But he treats all these things nobly, giving them all away
appropriately. His actions win him regard and support: ˜They all whispered

Paden et al., eds, Poems of the Troubadour, 298“9.

Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 6689“864.

See the discussion in Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot and the Grail, 15.

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 30“7; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 41“7. Cf.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 20“1; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 35“40.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
behind their hands that he was surely of high birth, for they found no greed in
him: as soon as anything of worth came his way, he put it to good uses, and
all his gifts were fair according to what each one deserved.™34
Clearly, this virtue sets men like Arthur apart from the grasping, retentive,
bourgeois, or”God forbid”from any among the nobles who might stoop to
such base behaviour. It is interesting to note that the scruffy townsmen and
their money appear only faintly and in the background in this literature,
almost as part of the scenery. They now and then put up knights for a tourna-
ment or house the over¬‚ow crowd gathered for a colourful royal occasions;
they are called forth by the author to cheer when a hero frees a town from some
evil custom through his magni¬cent prowess.
Of course largesse not only keeps the ambitious townsmen out of the club,
in the hands of a great lord or king it becomes a crucial buttress to dominance,
a tool of governance. Repeatedly in The Story of Merlin Arthur™s largesse to
poor, young knights secures their loyalty and provides him with armed force.
Early in his career, ˜[h]e sought out ¬ghting men everywhere he knew them to
be and bestowed on them clothing, money, and horses, and the poor knights
throughout the country took him in such love that they swore never to fail him
even in the face of death.™ After his forces have been joined by those of King
Ban and King Bors, ˜King Arthur bestowed gifts of great worth on those in the
two kings™ households according to their rank, and he gave them warhorses,
saddle horses, and beautiful, costly arms . . . and they swore that never, ever in
their lives, would they let him down.35
Ideally, it was warfare, not simply the income from one™s own vast estates,
that produced the wherewithal for such lavish generosity. After a great battle
with the Saxons, Arthur hands out all of the wealth garnered from them, and
he let it be known throughout the army that if there were any young knights who
wanted to win booty and would go with him wherever he would lead them, he would
give them so much when they came back that they would never be poor another day in
their lives. And so many of them came forward from here and there that it was nothing
short of a wonder, for many wished always to be in his company because of his open-

In his great encounter with Galehaut, an alarmed Arthur ¬nds his knights
deserting him.37 The Wise Man explains the causes of this crisis and presents a
list of reforms which features a return to generosity: Arthur is to ride a splen-

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 215; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 87.

Pickens, Story of Merlin, 220, 223; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 96, 102.

Pickens, Story of Merlin, 300; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 242“3.

When Arthur™s largesse lags early in the Perlesvaus, the knights similarly begin to drift away

from his court: see Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 26.
Social Dominance of Knights 197
did horse up to the poor knight and ˜give him the horse in consideration of his
prowess and the money so that he may spend freely™; the social hierarchy must
be reaf¬rmed by a downward ¬‚ow of largesse producing an upward ¬‚ow of
loyalty; the queen and her ladies and maidens must likewise cheerfully show
largesse; all are to remember that ˜none was ever destroyed by generosity, but
many have been destroyed by avarice. Always give generously and you will
always have enough.™38 This advice in romance reappeared in a bold motto on
the wall of the Painted Chamber in Westminster Hall during the reign of
Henry III: ˜He who does not give what he has will not get what he wants.™39
In romance the goods were given out according to two scales, which, we are
not surprised to ¬nd, always smoothly merged: high status and exemplary
prowess. Asked to distribute the loot taken from the Saxons at one point in
The Story of Merlin, Gawain defers to Doon of Carduel, explaining that ˜he can
divide it up and distribute it better than I can, for he knows better than I do
who the leading men are and the worthiest™.40
Sometimes the pious ¬ction of funding knighthood with booty snatched
from the unworthy hands of pagans slips a bit. In the Lancelot do Lac Claudas™s
son Dorin looks remarkably like one of the disruptive ˜youths™ whose role in
French society Georges Duby analysed so tellingly.41 Like these young men,
Dorin admits no check on his vigour and will, and spends with even less
The only child [Claudas] had was a very handsome, fair boy almost ¬fteen years old,
named Dorin. He was so arrogant and strong that his father did not yet dare make him
a knight, lest he rebel against him as soon as he was able; and the boy spent so freely
that no one would fail to rally to him.42

Claudas, moreover, learns from his own brother by what means Dorin has
acquired the wealth he dispenses so grandly: ˜Dorin had caused great harm in
the land, damaging towns, seizing livestock, and killing and wounding men.™
Yet Claudas plays the great chivalric lord even more than the indulgent father
in his response: ˜I am not troubled by all that. . . . He has the right, for a king™s
son must not be prevented from being as generous as he may like, and royalty
cannot allow itself to be impoverished by giving.™43 The attitude was, of

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 122; Elspeth Kennedy, ed. Lancelot do Lac, I, 288“9.

Colvin, gen. ed., History of the King™s Works, I, The Middle Ages, 497: ˜Ke ne dune ke ne tine

ne prent ke desire.™
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 243; Sommer ed., Vulgate Version, II, 140.

Duby, ˜Dans la France du Nord-Ouest™.

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake; Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 15.

Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 38; Rosenberg, Lancelot Part I, 18. Claudas is a morally

complex ¬gure in this romance; yet his advice here does not seem to contradict common practice
and attitude.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
course, not limited to royalty, as many villagers and merchants in many cen-
turies of medieval European history could testify. Knightly prowess and
largesse went hand in hand throughout the countryside. Some feud, skirmish,
or war could regularly be counted on to provide opportunity for despoiling
the wealth available in ¬elds or villages, or hoarded in merchants™ town houses.
One of the ¬ve villages attacked in a private war by Gilles de Busigny in 1298
lost (Robert Fossier estimated) the equivalent of 40,000 man hours of work
by a labourer such as a mason, roofer, or harvester.44 Loot from such raids
could be distributed grandly, and according to well-established rules, as
Maurice Keen has shown.45
Thus the great virtue of largesse is enabled by the great virtue of prowess.
Knights know how to get money and how to spend it. ˜Lords, pawn your cas-
tles and towns and cities before you stop making war!™ Bertran de Born cries
out in one of his poems.46 Largesse falls like ripe fruit from the tree of prowess
into the strong hands of the worthy.
Might these two great chivalric qualities prove rivals? Competition usually
turns thin and unconvincing on close inspection. Largesse wins high formal
praise, for example, early in Chr©tien™s Clig©s where it appears as the queen of
virtues enhancing all others; largesse by itself can make a man worthy, the old
Emperor of Constantinople tells the young hero Alexander, though nothing
else can (rank, courtesy, knowledge, strength, chivalry, valour, lordship).47 Yet
in this romance, as in so many others, the glittering prizes are won by prowess.
Not by largesse does Alexander win the battle outside Windsor, seize the cas-
tle itself, and earn the love of Soredamor; nor does his son Clig©s by largesse
defeat the nephew of the Duke of Saxony (and kill him in a later encounter),
unhorse and behead the Duke™s most vigorous knight, foil the Saxon ambush
of the Greeks, rescue Fenice from her captors, defeat the Duke of Saxony in
single combat, carry off the prize in King Arthur™s great four-day tournament
(¬ghting even Gawain to a draw), and range all over Britain doing feats of
chivalry, before returning to the Eastern Empire and a ¬nal triumph. In the
reception that Arthur™s knights give Clig©s after he has won the great tourna-
ment at Oxford, near the end of the story, they crowd around him in great joy,
telling him how much they value him, declaring that his prowess outshines
theirs as the sun outshines little stars.48

Fossier, ˜Fortunes et infortunes™. Keen, Laws of War.
44 45

Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 344“5.

Luttrell and Gregory, eds., Chr©tien de Troyes, ll. 192“217,

Ibid., ll. 4983“95. Chr©tien is more willing than most writers of chivalric romance to allow

his characters to solve important issues by means other than sheer prowess. Cleverness, rather than
prowess, alone, effects the bond of Clig©s and Fenice at the end of Chr©tien™s Clig©s; yet prowess
retains its importance.
Social Dominance of Knights 199

The Role of Chivalric Mythology (Revisited)
If the knights ¬rst strode swiftly away from the rustics and then at least kept
the bourgeois at arm™s length (while funding loyalty among fellow knights),
they always had the clerics to contend with as social rivals. The issue was com-
plicated, as we have already noted, by the clerics™ sacerdotal role and by the
close link they claimed with their supernatural chief. Yet thinking in pragmatic
and worldly terms, knights could never forget that the clerks often came from
the same social levels, even from the same families as they themselves; some
clerics, of course, could claim little or no status by birth.
Prudently and piously recognizing the essential clerical role in the economy
of salvation, the signi¬cant voices of both Ramon Llull and Geoffroi de
Charny grant that the clerks merit high status in the world; both state outright
that the clerics form the highest order in Christian society. Each wants, how-
ever, to give chivalry a secure place, to yoke clergie and chevalerie as the twin
motive forces of their society. And Charny™s statement of clerical superiority
has a somewhat formal ring; he soon betrays his sense that the great role
chivalry must play in the world gives it a special status. Like William Marshal
a century before, he is happiest when religion comes heavily blended with
chivalry; again in company with the Marshal, he most heartily endorses clerics
who perform all the needed rites and then stand aside for the magni¬cent work
with sword and lance.
In fact, as Maurice Keen has emphasized, the knightly demonstrated their
autonomy vis-à-vis clerics by elaborating a chivalric mythology.49 It came
complete with stories of origins, lists of men worthy of reverence, and great
texts produced in language that was sometimes sonorous and solemn, some-
times wonderfully witty and sophisticated. We have seen that all this distinctly
lay culture functioned not so much as a form of anticlericalism as a complex
and autonomous borrowing and parallel process of creation, using clerical
symbolism to draw the veil of accepted piety over the rigours of knightly life.
Chapter 3 examined this mythology as evidence for the complexities of
knightly lay piety in the face of clerical claims to directive power. This mythol-
ogy also allows us to see related, knightly efforts to secure their social status in
the face of clerical claims as primary ordo in Christendom.
Valorizing ideas are important even if propaganda often is intended as much
to reinforce the morale of the group as to win over outsiders in debate. In
effect, the knights imagined a mirror version of the world as conceived by
clergie”that is, themselves in control and the priests reduced to specialist

Keen, Chivalry, 102“24.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
(though necessary) functionaries. They posited an independent chivalric
mythology and learning (cast always in the most pious hues) standing along-
side if not actually in place of the clerical learning of the schools, with manly
violence ensuring all that is sound and sacred. This line of thought justi¬ed
their self-assurance that the role of knights matched or even overshadowed
that of the less than heroic clerics, for all their claims. The task was not oner-
ous; they simply created an origin for chivalry as old or even older than that
claimed by the ecclesiastics for their own order.
Chr©tien de Troyes imagined a genealogy of chivalry (virtually equated with
civilization) that reached back into classical Greek and Roman history.50
Anonymous works, like the Romance of Eneas, the Romance of Alexander, the
Romance of Troyes, pictured ¬gures and events from ancient history and legend
in chivalric dress and spirit. The glory of the classical world stemmed in no
small measure from its ¬ne chivalry.51 Knights contemporary to Chr©tien
could trace their functional if not their biological lineage back to great heroes.
Precise de¬nition (characteristic of high medieval Europe) came with the
famous Nine Worthies, unexcelled champions, extending chivalric roots
beyond the classical past into ancient Israel. Using sacred threes, writers pre-
sented three sets of three heroic knights: medieval (Arthur, Charlemagne, and
the crusader Godfrey de Bouillon); classical (Hector, Alexander, and Julius
Caesar); and Jewish (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus). This fusion of
Judaeo“Christian and classical history gave chivalry the most ancient and most
venerable lineage possible.52
Sometimes the same effect was achieved not by anchoring accounts of ori-
gins in historical time and personage, but by moving them outside of time. In
his vastly in¬‚uential book on chivalry, Ramon Llull (who had been a knight
before he became a quasi-cleric) presented a human fall from virtue redeemed
by the creation of chivalry in just such a distant, misty past. To ensure order
and virtue, the human race was divided into thousands and the knight was
chosen as literally one out of a thousand as the most noble and most ¬t to rule
and ¬ght.53
The author of the Lancelot do Lac presents a similar account (probably the
model for Llull) in the form of advice given by the Lady of the Lake to the

Luttrell and Gregory, eds., Chr©tien de Troyes, ll. 30 “ 9.

Grave, ed., Eneas; James, ed., Romance of Alexander, a facsimile of the French manuscript;

Constans and Faral, eds, Roman de Troie, an abridged prose version of the original metrical French
There were local variants. Writing the life of Don Pero Ni±o in the late fourteenth century,

Gutierre Diaz de Gamez lists nine worthies with the classical trio omitted, Charles Martel substi-
tuted for Arthur, and three Castilian heroes added: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 8“9.
Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 14 ff.
Social Dominance of Knights 201
young Lancelot, though here the myth is loosely attached to more standard
Christian chronology and to a somewhat surprising populism.54 Originally, all
men were equal, being offspring of one set of parents:
but when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome
justice . . . [and] the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong,
they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the
peaceful and to maintain their rights and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing
and outrageous behaviour.

Thus, knighthood was given to those who, ˜in the opinion of the common
people™, were most worthy; that is, to ˜the big and the strong and the hand-
some and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those
who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body.™55
Similar qualities set apart noble knights in Christine de Pisan™s myth, laid
out in her account of the deeds of the French king Charles V. Once evil and
disorder entered the world, laws and various professional groups were formed
to provide structure and order. The knights came into being ˜pour garder et
deffendre le prince, la contr©e et le bien commun™ (to guard and uphold the
prince, the country, and the common good).56
The life of the great fourteenth-century Castilian knight Don Pero Ni±o
simply concentrates on how good ¬ghting men (functionally equated with
nobles) were ¬rst found. The ˜Gentiles™ and ˜the People of the Law™ followed
different courses. The Gentiles ¬rst relied on carpenters and stonemasons who
could give great blows in battle; but their courage and resolve failed, as did
that of the next group, the butchers, chosen because they were inured to blood
and slaughter. So a third group was chosen: those who were observed to be
resolute and strong in battle became the knights, their sons following them in
an hereditary and privileged concentration on ¬ghting.57 Among the Jews,
nobility/knighthood originated differently, as the Old Testament shows. With
divine direction, Gideon chose an elite set of warriors: rejecting those who
drank with mouths in the water like animals, without shame, he chose the
good men who drank with their hands, guided by reason. As he assures his
readers, ˜noble renown is a matter be¬tting knights and those who pursue
the calling of War and the art of Chivalry, and not any others whatsoever™.
They are only a little lower than the angels, for God ˜has set three orders of

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 52; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142“3.

Corley, Lancelot, 52; Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 142.

Solente, ed., Livre des fais, I, 111“16, quotation at 116.

A little classical patina is added, as knights lead their thousands (a miles in charge of a mille)

and a duke, called a legionary, commands a legion of six thousand, six hundred and sixty men.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
knighthood™: the angels who warred with Lucifer in heaven, the martyrs who
fought the good ¬ght on earth and gave their lives for faith, and the good kings
and knights, for whom heaven will be the reward.58
More commonly, an author simply tells readers that God™s will is manifest
in knightly origins. In the famous Sword in the stone episode (in The Story of
Merlin), the worthy archbishop explains to all who have seen the marvel of
Arthur drawing out the sword:
[W]hen our Lord established law and order on the earth, He set them in the sword.
The rule that was over the laity must come from a layman, and must be by the sword,
and the sword was, at the beginning of the three orders, entrusted to knighthood to
safeguard Holy Church and uphold true law and order.59

As we have seen, the Grail stories bring the knightly and priestly mytholo-
gies into much closer conjunction, integrating the account of chivalric origins
more fully into salvation history, in the process creating unmistakable and
signi¬cant parallels. The History of the Holy Grail, for example, provided
knights with a non-ecclesiastical story of the coming of Christianity to their
own region, with much emphasis on the need for knightly virtues in ¬ghting
for the Grail and the new faith.
In this and other prose romances which tell the Grail story, a powerful trini-
tarian formulation appears. Three fellowships, gathered round three tables,
have marked the history of the world, which means, of course, the history of
chivalry: the table of Christ and his disciples; the table of ˜that worthy man and
perfect knight, Joseph of Arimathea™ (to whom the Grail was given); and,
¬nally, the Round Table of King Arthur. However tenuous this linkage may
seem to modern sensibilities, more than one romance draws this line from
Christ, through the ¬rst Grail-keeper and the later Round Table fellowship to
the ¬‚esh and blood knighthood of the High and Late Middle Ages.60
Perhaps fourteenth-century founders of chivalric orders such as the
English king Edward III or his cousin of France, John the Good, thought of
the fellowships they created as latter-day additions to this glorious tradition,
although it meant adding to the sacred three. In many minds another addi-
tion seemed sure. Certainly, many of those who wrote about chivalry,
Geoffroi de Charny prominent among them, looked forward to joining a

Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 4“7.

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 213; Micha, ed. Merlin, 271. The divergence from the usual cler-

ical theory of two swords is noteworthy here.
60 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 97“9; Pauphilet, Queste, 74“7; Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 4“5; Hucher,

ed., Le Saint-Graal, I, 417; Pickens, Story of Merlin, 196“7; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 54.
The quotation about Joseph comes from Matarasso, Quest, 151.
Social Dominance of Knights 203
¬nal chivalric fellowship at God™s table in paradise, and spoke of heaven in
just such terms.61
Genealogies created for heroes of the Grail stories make a ¬nal link between
myths of knighthood and the standard sacred history. Joseph of Arimathea, as
loyal burier of Christ™s body in the New Testament accounts and ¬rst keeper
of the Holy Grail in chivalric accounts, plays a crucial bridging role. The links
in the chain of Grail knights are formed by his successors as keepers of the
Grail or their close associates. Perceval, though his father is not named in
Chr©tien™s Grail romance, becomes the son of Alain, a Grail-keeper, by the
early thirteenth century (in the Didot Perceval and the Perlesvaus). For Galahad,
who enters the tradition at about the same time, a more oblique attachment to
the main line had to be found. According to The Quest of the Holy Grail, after
divine commandment sent him away from Jerusalem, Joseph of Arimathea
met and converted a pagan king (who took the baptismal name Mordrain) by
helping him obtain God™s aid in beating his enemy in battle. Mordrain
becomes one of the standard ¬gures in the Grail stories and an important agent
in the mythical conversion of Britain. One splendid and pious knight begets
the next until Lancelot enters the world and, ¬nally, through his union with
the daughter of the Fisher King (a Grail-keeper), the Good Knight Galahad
Chivalric literature, then, shows us in how many ways chevalerie both aped
and rivalled the pretensions of clergie. Moreover, this literature was in itself a
signi¬cant body of learning, a key element in the collection of texts which
knighthood came gradually to set alongside the sacred texts controlled by the
priesthood. The tales of chivalric literature, after all, present themselves as his-
tory and claim the venerable authority owed to ancient accounts penned by
eyewitnesses; repeatedly, chivalric authors assure us such manuscripts stand
behind the thoroughly stylish, modern, versi¬ed, or prose texts written in the
vernacular which they now presented to an appreciative audience in the form
of chanson or romanz.
Sometimes, the bridging, literate cleric responsible for the text is Turpin,
knight and archbishop. The Chanson d™Aspremont relates that Turpin witnessed
the important meeting between Girart and Charlemagne, and recorded it, in
Latin, while on horseback.62
But clerics”even when simultaneously knights”are not always needed.

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