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Pauline Matarasso describes the anonymous author of The Quest of the Holy

Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 196“9. After one of his escapes from temptation in

the Quest, Perceval prays that he may never ˜forfeit the company of His knights above™: Matarasso,
tr., Quest, 113; Pauphilet, Queste, 92.
Newth, tr., Song of Aspremont and Brandin, ed., Chanson d™Aspremont, laisse 232.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Grail as ˜most likely . . . one of that great army of clerks who wandered anony-
mously in that no-man™s land between the lay and ecclesiastical worlds™.63
Occasionally, authors of chivalrous learning are straightforward laymen, as
Geoffroi de Charny was. The heralds who rose with the institution of the tour-
nament and gradually won a secure place for themselves in chivalrous society
by the later thirteenth century were certainly laymen; Maurice Keen has
termed them ˜a lay priesthood™ for the cult of chivalry ˜and an educated, liter-
ate lay priesthood to boot™.64
And we should note that from the early years of the thirteenth century this
historical mythology of chivalry was written, signi¬cantly, in prose. This, as
E. Jane Burns has noted, ˜carried for many medieval writers a truth-telling
value absent from the rhetorical arti¬ce of purely literary verse accounts™.65 The
medieval translator of the Chronique de Pseudo-Turpin, rendering that work
into French prose, declared ¬‚atly, ˜No rhymed story is true.™66
The authors of Arthurian and Grail stories, in other words, claimed histor-
ical authenticity and buttressed such claims time and again with careful
descriptions of the sure and certain manner in which their story got from
actual events to the written page. The knights themselves become authors in a
sense, for we are told more than once how they swore to recall all their adven-
tures on their return from the quest; Arthur had clerks to set them down in
detail in a book.67 Merlin is author of other parts of the tale, and is frequently
shown dictating the story to his clerk, Blaise.68 At some points ˜the story™ even
asserts that it has been written by God or Christ himself.69 Merely human
authors include Walter Map, a ¬gure at the court of the great king Henry II,
who was himself, of course, linked with the Arthurian legend.70
Perhaps the most powerful combination of authority, however, appears in
The History of the Holy Grail, whose author tells us not only that he has been
given his book from God, but that he has divinely learned of his own descent
from ˜so many valorous men that I hardly dare say or acknowledge that I am
descended from them™. This ideal combination, of course, unites divinity with
the demi-god prowess.71

Matarasso, tr., Quest, 27.

Keen, Chivalry, 142. For the importance of heraldry in general as a species of knightly learn-

ing see, pp. 125“42.
In Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xvi. Quoted in Kelly, Perlesvaus, 18.
65 66

See, for example, Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 298, 406, 571; Pickens, tr., Story of

Merlin, 345; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 321; III, 227, 307, 429; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II,
126, 169, 238.
Pickens, Story of Merlin, passim; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, passim.

E.g. Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 4, 76; Hucher, ed., Le Saint-Graal, II, 13, 438.

See the comments of Burns, in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, Introduction.

Chase, History of the Holy Grail, 4; Hucher, Le Saint Graal, II, 12“13.
Social Dominance of Knights 205

The Role of Formal Manners
As natural lay leaders in society, knights display the ideal behaviour to be
expected of them. They know just how to speak to each person in the elabo-
rate social hierarchy; they know when to speak, and when to fall politely silent.
They know how to receive orders as graciously as they accept hospitality or
¬ne gifts. They are now unmovably resolute, now overcome and swooning as
their ¬ne emotions take hold. As if seated in an opera house, we may feel that
the measured gestures should be accompanied by music, the monologues and
choruses being sung to tunes we simply no longer hear.
Agreement on the importance of ¬ne manners among medieval contempo-
raries is impressive. Non-¬ctional works of instruction for knights provide the
same point of view as that of so many works of imaginative literature. Yet so
much seeming agreement raises interesting questions.
We might especially ask about the origin and intent of all this tireless
emphasis on proper behaviour in various social settings and in dealings with
various social levels. Was this instruction an attempt by those outside the caste
to remake knights, to change their thinking and, in time, their behaviour? Did
knights themselves resist, only reluctantly accepting a somewhat cramped
framework for behaviour, or did they think that following such behaviour was
important to their social dominance? Did the concern for manners and courtly
behaviour actually civilize the knights in the exact sense of reducing their vio-
lence and integrating them into a more ordered society?
These are large questions that have attracted the attention of distinguished
scholars. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Johan Huizinga and
Norbert Elias pictured the rough warrior being slowly civilized as the early
modern gentleman.72 More recently, Stephen Jaeger has convincingly located
the origins of courtliness”which would become so important in French
romance and in all the vernaculars it touched”in the German court tradition
beginning in the tenth century.73 No one, moreover, would deny that basic
changes in aristocratic behaviour and aristocratic violence took place between
(say) the later tenth and the later seventeenth century.
Recognizing the force and attractiveness of all this work, it is possible to
consider chivalry at best as an unsteady ally of the complex forces at work
producing these great changes. The evidence brought into play in this book
reinforces a view that chivalry was no simple force for restraint.74 The worship
of prowess makes chivalry a poor buttress to a unilinear progressive view of

Huizinga, Autumn of the Middle Ages, Elias, The Civilizing Process.

Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.

I am developing this theme in a forthcoming article.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
civilization. In fact, the formally polite modes of behaviour seem less an intru-
sive check on knighthood than an expression of the knights™ own high sense of
worth, of rightful dominance in society; good manners were less a restraint on
knightly behaviour than they were its characteristic social expression. These
forms of good behaviour, after all, informed the entire span of knightly life and
set it apart from anything common. Much knightly violence itself was
enthroned in good manners, not prohibited by them. As the anthropologist
Julian Pitt-Rivers wrote so succinctly, ˜the ultimate vindication of honour lies
in physical violence™.75 The range of this good behaviour, as we have seen,
extended from bloody deeds of prowess on the ¬eld of battle or in the tourna-
ment, through a piety which never lost its degree of lay independence, to
polite behaviour and correct speech among mixed company whether in a great
court or humble vavasour™s hall.
We need only think of the scene repeated hundreds if not thousands of times
in chivalric literature. A wandering knight comes conveniently to some castle
or forti¬ed house at the end of a hard day of riding and ¬ghting. The knight
meets with a gracious reception from the good man in charge, who welcomes
him into his home with open-handed hospitality; the host inevitably has a
beautiful daughter who removes the knight™s armour, and dresses him in a soft
robe of ¬ne stuff; they converse most politely while the tables are set and the
roast ¬nishes. The next morning, after mass in the chapel, the knight is again
on his way to adventure, which quite often means freeing his hosts from some
dread peril which has become evident during his brief stay. In gratitude the
host offers the victorious knight his beautiful daughter, an offer which is
acknowledged with many thanks, but must be turned down with apologies
because of a pressing quest or an earlier claim on the knight™s heart.76
This scene celebrates the formal and superior chivalric manners under dis-
cussion. The knight is most polite in speech and action with everyone in this
setting, male and female, even the enemy whose defeat will free the gracious
host from an evil custom or a siege. Having unhorsed this enemy and hacked
him into submission, the knight rips off his foe™s helmet and turns down the
mail ventail (protecting the vulnerable throat), perhaps pounds the fellow™s
face a bit with the pommel of his sword; then, bloody sword blade at the
ready, he politely offers a choice of surrender or decapitation. If the foe yields,
the victor cuts not.
What scholars traditionally term courtoisie is much in evidence here, and in
all the knight™s social relations. The scene likewise indirectly praises the largesse

Pitt-Rivers, ˜Honour and Social Status™, 29.

For a discussion of hospitality and good manners as aristocratic rites of uni¬cation, see

Chênerie, Le Chevalier errant, 503“91.
Social Dominance of Knights 207
of the host who freely gives what is his to the worthy knight. All show an inter-
est in amors. If the knight makes no sexual advances to the daughter (or resists
hers, if she is more forward) he has demonstrated loiaut© by not repaying his
host™s good with ill. The mass heard in the castle chapel shows the hero is pius.
Even if no mortal combat is actually portrayed, from either wing of this
domestic stage set, like summer thunder, come the echoes of the knight™s
Sometimes courtliness and ¬ne manners even seem subsumed within
prowess, despite our sense (rooted in etymology) that they represent gentler
virtues that internalize restraints.78 As Norman Daniel observes, ˜the sense of
cortois seems to extend to any expedient favourable to a knight. Giving freely is
aristocratic, and it is taking such an expedient brutally that makes it possible.™79
William Marshal™s tactical advice that King Henry should pretend to disband
his forces but then secretly reassemble them and suddenly ravage French terri-
tory elicits from the king a telling compliment: ˜By God™s eyes, Marshal, you
are most courteous [molt corteis] and have given me good advice. I shall do
exactly as you suggest.™80 In the opening of his Yvain, Chr©tien refers to Arthur
˜whose prowess taught us to be brave and courteous™.81 When Perceval con-
verts the Coward Knight to prowess in the Perlesvaus, he gives him the new
name of Bold Knight, ˜for that is a more courtly name than the other™.82 At one
point in the Lancelot do Lac Arthur rebukes Gawain for interrupting his reverie
at a meal; his thoughts were courtly because they were about a man of great
prowess: ˜Gawain, Gawain, you have shaken me out of the most courtly
thoughts I ever had . . . for I was thinking about the best knight of all men of
valour. That is the knight who was the victor at the encounter between
Galehot and me.™83
Certainly any denial or neglect of the accepted forms will quickly acquaint
the miscreant with the cutting edge of prowess. Chivalric texts invariably note
that two honourable people meeting each other exchange greetings; any fail-
ure is a signi¬cant event. Thus a squire riding disconsolate in the Lancelot
(troubled by the news that his brother has been slain) commits a serious

Burgess, Contribution, discusses several of these key terms, their interconnections, and shifts

in their meanings towards the mid-twelfth century.
See the discussions in Frappier, ˜Vues™; Burgess, Contribution, 22“34. As noted above, the

most recent study, with a different emphasis, is that of Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.
Daniel, Heroes and Saracens, 27. He notes that in the chansons, ˜Cortois is most often used as

an indeterminate epithet in praise of someone, with no meaning more speci¬c than “civilised” (in
an aristocratic way).™
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 7738“69, discussed in Gillingham, ˜War and Chivalry™, 6.

Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 1“3.

Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 157; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 243.

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 255“6; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 296“7.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
offence when he neglects to greet another squire waiting before some tents he
passes; the offended squire attacks and mortally wounds him. A lapse of cour-
tesy has cost him his life.84
Denial of hospitality can easily be fatal if it touches Lancelot. Near the end
of the Lancelot, the hero seeks lodging in a pavilion, but is refused by the
maiden within, who tells him her knight will return and will object. He
announces he is staying regardless, for he has no other lodging. Her knight
does return, denies Lancelot hospitality, and orders him out with threats.
Lancelot arms and tells the knight he will die for this dishonour. His ¬rst
sword stroke cuts off the man™s arm. Both the mortally wounded knight and
his lady faint. When the knight™s brother tries to take vengeance, Lancelot
stuns him with another great sword stroke, rips off his helmet, and beats him
nearly to death with it. He spares the man™s life on condition of pardoning him
for the death of his brother. It then emerges that there was a hermitage nearby;
the battered brother takes Lancelot there.85 For the audience of this romance,
was the point not that hospitality must not be denied?
Chivalric largesse, mythology, and re¬ned manners certainly purveyed
social power. They created an image of knights as naturally superior to all
other laymen and on a par with the clerics; pious and appropriately violent,
they are splendidly re¬ned in life and love.
These chivalric ideas, even if they sometimes seem rather abstract in their
details, ¬‚owed into daily life through a thousand channels to became a force in
social relationships. If the process is complex and can only be seen indirectly
from our six or seven centuries of distance, the broad social result is by no
means in doubt.

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 64; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 232.

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 272“3; Micha, Lancelot, V, 274“9.

A L O N G S I D E prowess, piety, and status, a fourth major element consti-
tuting the great fusion of chivalry comes from its role as a framework for
love and the relationship between the sexes. Thoughtful men and women
pondered much about love in all of its manifestations in high medieval
Europe, but we are concerned here with romantic love, eros rather than agape
or caritas. Many modern scholars have focused on romantic love since it is this
wonderfully complex and compelling human emotion, seen here in something
like the springtime of its life in Western culture, which interests and attracts
The result has been enthusiastic and even heated scholarly debate. Since the
nineteenth century scholars have argued in particular over ˜courtly love™, dis-
puting whether it is simply a modern scholarly construct, or whether it had an
existence outside of literary texts; more recent scholarship has argued over
whether it brought an advance or a regression in the status of women, and
whether the question has meaning in such sweepingly general terms.1
The discussions have produced much interesting work, but we need not
enter the prickly thickets of controversy in order to register the power invested
in chivalry by its connections with ideas about love and, in a broader sense,
about relations between the sexes. It will serve the purposes of this book to
attempt simpler goals in this chapter: ¬rst, to show through all the evidence
presented in the sections that follow that in one of its essential dimensions
chivalry formed the frame for the important issue of gender relations; second,
to document the variety of medieval views on this subject, in the process show-
ing that chivalric literature is”in this area as in so many”a literature of criti-
cism and reform as much as a mirror to society; third, to establish the close link

See the extensive bibliography in Burns and Krueger, eds, Courtly Ideology, 375“90, which lists

earlier bibliographies as well as selected works. A general discussion on knights, ladies, and love,
published just after the foregoing bibliography, appears in Chênerie, Le Chevalier errant, 411“501.
On the opening page of this section, she notes that warrior societies are usually characterized by
˜l™attitude de gynopnobie™. Cf. Krueger, Women Readers.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
between love and gender relations on the one hand, and the key chivalric virtue
of prowess on the other; and, ¬nally, to discover in a new form the continuing
concern over the problem of violence as it relates to chivalry.

The Variety of Voices
Near the end of the thirteenth-century prose romance The Story of Merlin,
Agravain, Gaheriet, and Guerrehet”three brothers, all prominent Arthurian
knights”ride through a deep forest, enjoying a respite from their bloody bat-
tles with the invading Saxons. Since the weather is ¬ne and birds are singing
sweetly ˜in their language™, ¬rst Gaheriet and then all three brothers begin to
sing, ˜and the woodlands resounded with it™. The talk soon turns to the two
daughters of Minoras the Forester of Northumberland with whom they have
just stayed. Guerrehet asks his brothers to tell him ˜if you had one of our host™s
two daughters with you now, what would you do with her?™
The answer of Agravain, the eldest, is straightforward: ˜God help me . . . if
I felt like it, I would make love to her right now.™ By the same oath, Gaheriet
says, ˜I wouldn™t do that, but I™d take her to safety.™ Guerrehet answers his own
question more carefully: ˜I would . . . make her my lady love, if she liked, and
I would not do anything to her by force. For the game of love would not be
sweet unless it pleased her as much as me.™2
Since their father, King Lot, and their eldest brother, Gawain, have joined
them in time to hear the question and their answers, the three brothers ask for
a judgment. Who has spoken best? When his father assigns him the task,
Gawain evaluates the answers without hesitation, recognizing Guerrehet™s
position as ideal, but endorsing Gaheriet™s view as that of his own choosing:
Gaheriet spoke best and Agravain worst. For if Agravain saw anyone hurting the
women, he ought to help them, protect and defend them with all his strength. It seems
to me that there need be no one other than he! Guerrehet spoke better still, for he said
that he would not have wanted to do anything to them by force, and that can have come
to him only from love and courtliness. But Gaheriet spoke like a worthy gentleman,
and I would do what he said if it were up to me.

Despite the smiles and laughter with which the debate has proceeded, the seri-
ous undertone soon emerges. King Lot registers his disappointed surprise by
asking Agravain, ˜Would you shame your host™s daughter to satisfy your mad
cravings?™ His son™s response is revealing: ˜Sir . . . the daughters would lose nei-
ther life nor limb.™ To his father™s reply that the daughters would lose their
honour, Agravain counters that to deny himself sexual pleasure, given the
For a general discussion of this idea in medieval thought, see McCash, ˜Mutual Love™.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 211
opportunity, would be an intolerable loss to his own honour. Such a man
˜would just be the butt of jokes, and people would esteem him less because of
it™. When his father continues to denounce such views as vile, Agravain ends
his side of the argument: ˜Then there is no other way out . . . than for my
brother and me to become monks in a place where we do not see women.™3
The range of views on knightly relationships with women could scarcely be
made clearer: the scale begins with rape, with a determination to have sex
whatever the woman™s wishes, and moves on through protection, to mutual
affection. The element of reform likewise appears prominently. Willingness to
use force is denounced by two of the three debating knights and by both judg-
ing knights. Just after the passages quoted the author even alerts his readers to
Agravain™s deserved suffering for his attitudes to women, to be detailed later
in the story. Yet we should also note that the reform position is carefully tem-
pered; the high ideal of mutuality in love is acknowledged as best in theory,
but the goal of simple protection and maintenance of the knight™s own hon-
our”by avoiding giving shame either to the woman or perhaps especially to
another male protector”is stressed in Gawain™s judgement and in King Lot™s
subsequent angry conversation with Agravain. In later romances, even
Guerrehet™s record is far from a perfect match with his announced standards.
When a lady he has rescued resists his pleas for sex, he respects her wishes.
Shortly after this he climbs into bed with a sleeping lady in a tent and enjoys
sex with her, she sleepily thinking he is her husband. When this man appears,
Guerrehet kills him, forces the lady to ride off with him, kills a knight who tries
to stop him, and defeats the lady™s four brothers. When they stop in a nunnery,
she joins the order to escape him.4
Chivalric literature, then, does not establish a single ideological position,
some uniform and elaborated code, but, rather, shows intense concern with
the issue of relations between males and females. It seems impossible to press
all of these views into a single ideology and attach a label such as ˜courtly love™
or even ¬n™amors in con¬dence that we have captured the essence of ˜the
medieval view™. The texts show us not a single view, but a running debate.5
Idealization of women in many chivalric texts, of course, stands as one of
their signi¬cant features, generally noted and examined in great detail by
scholars. Scenes of Lancelot trembling and barely able to speak or to look up
when he is ¬rst in Queen Guinevere™s presence, of Lancelot genu¬‚ecting at the

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 361“2; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 350“1.

Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 120“7; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 30“52.

Interesting arguments in support of this view appear in Leclercq, ˜L™amour et le mariage™;

Gold, The Lady and the Virgin; Calin, ˜Contre la ¬n™amor?™; Krueger, ˜Misogyny, Manipulation™;
idem, Women Readers; Keen, Nobles, Knights, 20“42.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
foot of Queen Guinevere™s bed as if it were an altar, before joining her in it for
a night of bliss, provide unforgettable emblems of this worship.6 Even
Geoffroi de Charny, that scarred and experienced knight of the very real
world, urged his readers to ˜indeed honour, serve and truly love these noble
ladies . . . who inspire men to great achievement, and it is thanks to such ladies
that men become good knights and men-at-arms™.7
This point of view was not entirely theoretical. An English knight died out-
side Douglas Castle in Scotland, trying to live up to such a belief. His enemies
found he carried a letter from his lady saying he must hold the castle a year to
win her love.8 Sir Thomas Gray tells the better-known story from this part of
the world. A page whose lady-love gave him a helmet with a gilt crest, telling
him to make it famous in the most dangerous part of Britain, charged head-
long into the besieging Scots outside Norham Castle. After they ˜struck him
down, wounded him in the face, and dragged him out of the saddle to the
ground™, the garrison, on foot, rescued him as they had pledged to do.9
If love exercises great power in this literature and in this society, some writ-
ers place women on a pedestal; others spit sour misogyny. Negative views of
women can be found most readily in texts with particularly strong monastic
in¬‚uence, The History of the Holy Grail, or The Quest of the Holy Grail, for exam-
ple.10 But the chansons de geste can provide an abundant supply of evidence and
even the romances of Chr©tien have similar passages. If women are protected,
idealized, sometimes even worshipped, they may also be denounced as wily,
unstable, controlled by appetite, the very impediments to real male concerns
in the most timeless manner of anti-feminist diatribes. The classic case appears
early in Raoul de Cambrai. Raoul scornfully denounces the advice of his
mother when he decides on a course of action that will unleash feud between

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