<< . .

. 27
( : 39)

. . >>

same text (Pickens, ibid., 257; Sommer, ibid., 165) presents Yvain the Bastard, son of King Urien
who kept his seneschal™s wife in his castle, by force, for ¬ve years.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 75. Cf. Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 208; Micha, ed., Lancelot,

V, 7.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 108“9; Bogdanow, ed., ˜Folie Lancelot™, 150“511:

Perceval tellingly lectures the other Round Table knights on the ideal: ˜A knight who is courteous
should never think of taking a maiden away by force, for truly it™s the most ignoble thing a valiant
man can do, to lay a hand on a maiden against her will.™
Knights, Ladies, and Love 229
it did her no good, for the king did what he wanted anyway.™72 Under threat
of decapitation by her father, the weeping maid tells all. Her wrathful father
charges Arthur with dishonouring him; yet he well knows he cannot take stan-
dard revenge against his sovereign so he merely rejects the king™s offer of a rich
marriage and keeps his daughter under watch, to see if she has been impreg-
nated by Arthur. Yet the knight™s show of outrage is quickly compromised, for
he soon rapes his own daughter-in-law, kills his son, and kills his daughter as
well, when she protests his actions.73
Sometimes the ladies are only too happy to give their bodies to the
knights.74 Not a few times a desirable lady offers herself as the prize to be
awarded the winner of a much-advertised tournament or some pas d™armes. But
the general attitude seems to be that valiant knights should not be denied,
whatever the lady™s personal inclinations. Watching Sagremore ¬ght in a
rough tournament, the ladies in the window of the great hall state this creed:
˜he is a handsome knight in body and limb, he is yet a better knight in spirit.
And she who has him can well boast that she has one of the best knights in the
court; likewise, she would be uncourtly and unwise who refused the love of
such a knight.™75 For the truly reluctant women in chivalric literature, unless
Merlin is conveniently at hand to cast a spell dissolving resistance,76 the threat
of sexual violence looms large. It seems more than symbolic that the verb
esforcer is used in this literature, even within the same literary work, both in the
military sense of ˜to strive, to make a great effort™, and in the sense of ˜to rape™.77
This is no argument, obviously, that most knights were rapists.78 Yet is it
not likewise unlikely that knights simply protected ladies who were endlessly
grateful? to imagine that this medieval world was (unlike all other worlds of
which we have any knowledge) blissfully happy and without con¬‚ict in the
arena of relations between the sexes? Surely we might guess that in life as in lit-

Asher, tr., Quest, 215; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 473. For Mordred™s desire to rape

a passing maid, and the disastrous consequences, see Asher, ibid., 192“4; Bogdanow, ibid., 370“6.
73 Arthur the Less has already been born from Arthur™s sexual union with this maid.

E.g. the lady who yields to the urgings of Gir¬‚et, or the daughter of the King of North

Wales, who says, when Gawain ¬nally manages to get into her bed, ˜now I have what I have always
desired™: Carroll, tr., Lancelot, 202, 212; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 365“6; Elspeth
Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 485, 509.
75 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 347; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 324.
76 As he was, famously, in the sexual union of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, which produces

Arthur (Pickens, Story of Merlin, 204; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 67“8) and, less famously, in
the union of Arthur and Lisanor, which produces Loholt (Pickens, ibid., 235; Sommer, ibid.,
77 Tobler and Lommatzsch, Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch, 3: ll. 1045“6.
78 It would even be dif¬cult to establish any exact sense of the incidence of rape in society gen-

erally, let alone that committed by knights, even in England, with its miles of surviving court rolls.
As Hanawalt asks rhetorically, ˜Who can say how many masters raped servants or lords raped peas-
ant women?™ Crime and Con¬‚ict, 106.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
erature knights played more complex and more ambiguous roles, that trou-
bling problems cried out for solutions as a warrior aristocracy ¬tted itself into
a framework of social and public order; if this order was largely acceptable and
somewhat of their own making, sometimes it crimped a bit. Their literature
stands in clear witness to such problems and to the ideal solutions that were
eagerly put forward for the knights™ education and edi¬cation.79
We can, in short, recognize in such ideals new attempts to ¬t the relation-
ships between males and females”at least those who ranked within the privi-
leged, lay, social strata”into the knightly frame of life based especially on
prowess and honour. The point of view was congenial to most males in this
privileged group, though they must have been aware of an undercurrent of
reform ideas aimed at modifying aspects of their behaviour.
Thus we can recognize that this literature not only heaped upon chivalry a
great measure of idealized responsibility for the protection of women and for
the elimination of the most coarse and brutal forms of subjection; it also
endowed knights with an even greater valorization of their powerful place in
society in general, and especially with regard to women. These works offered
the knights a more re¬ned form of male dominance as one powerful element
of their chivalry. Knighthood was here, as always, both challenged and but-
tressed by reform ideas.

Examples are plentiful in Middle English literature, no less than in the Old French texts

largely cited above. See Gist, Love and War, 75“84, 111.

M E D I E V A L France was the veritable home of chivalry and the birth-
place of the chanson de geste, a body of texts especially concerned with
emerging institutions of governance.1 How this literature portrayed the rela-
tionship of chivalry to Capetian royalty and to the reformed Church is thus
worth a close look.2
To sample this vast body of literature we can turn to a well-known division
suggested in a thirteenth-century poem.3 The entire corpus of chansons, this
text suggests, can be divided into three broad cycles, today generally known as
the Cycle of the King, the Cycle of William of Orange (or of Garin de
Monglane, his ancestor), and the Cycle of the Barons in Revolt.4 We will look
brie¬‚y at one example from each.
Though written in the twelfth century, each is set in the Carolingian era, the
monarch in each case being Charlemagne or his son Louis. Scholars have long
recognized that these twelfth-century poems re¬‚ect society and issues of their
time of composition, not those of the eighth- or ninth-century setting in
which the action takes place.5

See Chapter 2, footnote 3.

See Kay, Chansons de Geste; Calin, Old French Epic; Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order,

315“25, and sources cited there; Flori, ˜L™Historien™; Boutet, ˜Chansons de geste™; Boutet and
Strubel, Litt©rature, politique et soci©t©, 39“68; Rossi, ˜Le duel judiciaire™; Hackett, ˜Girart de
As Rossi notes, in research on the role of kingship, family quarrels, and private wars, ˜le cor-

pus fran§ais des chansons de geste [est] en d©¬nitive peu exploit©™: Essor et fortune, I, 264.
Yeandle, ed., Girard de Viane, ll. 11“80.

Writing of the Couronnement de Louis, Frappier notes that ˜La c©r©monie dans la chapelle

d™Aix ©voke le sacre de Louis VII à Reims en 1131 autant ou plus que l™©v©nement de 813™: Chansons
de geste, II, 141. He suggests (p. 158) that the text creates a double reference, uniting the Capetian
present with memories of the Carolingian past. As Rossi says, ˜les personnages carolingiens et tout
un arsenal de st©r©otypes narratifs sont utilis©s pour narrer des ©v©nements pseudo-historiques
qui, en fait, renvoient à la r©alit© et aux problèmes du royaume cap©tien des XIIe et XIIIe siècles™:
Essor et fortune, I, 264.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry

The Song of Aspremont
The Song of Aspremont (Chanson d™Aspremont), an anonymous poem from the
Cycle of the King, probably written late in the twelfth century,6 tells the story
of an imagined pagan invasion of Italy in the time of Charlemagne. These
invaders are overcome only after horri¬c battles won by the Christian host
under Charlemagne, aided by Duke Girart of Burgundy.
The author constantly buttresses the justi¬cation, even the sacralization, of
the knightly role. In his mind, only one standard measures human conduct
and achievement. The young Roland and his friends, for example, embody the
noble urge to demonstrate their prowess on the battle¬eld. Though only boys,
they nearly kill the man set to keep them safely away from the combat, soundly
beat another set of men in order to obtain the warhorses they need, and cause
appreciative laughter when their tale is heard by seasoned warriors.7
Even the clerics, specialists in mediatory piety though they may be, must
show as much participation in chivalry as is possible, if they are truly to rank
in the author™s estimation. Archbishop Turpin, we learn, is not only a well-
bred man, and a dispenser of largesse, he also personally commands a large
host. He boasts proudly of being both a priest and a knight, and shows his
knightly qualities in the most accepted manner on the battle¬eld. When Pope
Milon wants a man to carry a piece of the true cross into battle, and encoun-
ters refusals from two knights who think they serve better with hands free to
use their own knightly weapons, Turpin accepts the mission”on condition
that the pope bless his dual role.8 So much for Gregorianism.9
The pope himself leads a large contingent of knights in Charlemagne™s host,
sermonizes all in that host to ¬ght mightily as penance for their sins, and
promises absolution without confession. In the crisis of the ¬ght he pledges
his own willingness to die alongside the knights.10
The sacralization of knighthood, however, works most clearly because of
their role as proto-crusaders; through the hard strokes the knights give and
receive in action against the pagan foe, they merit the welcome that God pre-
pares for them in paradise. Adroitly avoiding the anachronism of crusaders
before there were crusades, the author pictures his Christian warriors placing

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are from Newth, ed., tr., Song of

Aspremont; Brandin, ed., Chanson d™Aspremont.
Laisse 77.

Laisses 420“3. Turpin later gives up the relic to use his own arms.

See Noble, ˜Anti-Clericalism™. He notes, p. 149, that ˜In these poems the clergy are of little

importance, particularly as an organized force. The church seems to have little authority as such,
although individual churchmen may be able to exercise some in¬‚uence.™
Ll. 1614, 1700, 4271“311.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 233
red crosses on their hauberks, ostensibly so that they can recognize each other
in the confusion of combat.11
The clerics cannot praise the knights too highly or give to them too gener-
ously from their spiritual treasury or from ecclesiastical coffers. As the
Archbishop tells the Pope,
It is our duty to cherish all brave knights;
For when we clerics sit down to eat at night,
Or in God™s service sing matins at ¬rst light,
These men are ¬ghting for our lands with their lives;
So Abbot Fromer here and you and I
Should empty all our coffers for their supplies;
Each one of us should give so much alike
They™ll honor us and serve us all the time.12

The pope is in full agreement. He pours forth assurances that the knights™ hard
service merits paradise, and guarantees the truth of his assertion with his own
hope of salvation:
Brave Christian knights, God keep you in his strength!
Well might you say that you are lucky men,
That in your lifetime you can your faith defend;
You who are born in sin and wickedness,
For which you all are damned and your souls dead,
By striking blows with blades of steel unchecked
Your sins will be absolved and your souls blessed;
There is no doubt of this”you have my pledge;
Rise up at once sweet Jesus to avenge!
You will be saved”or may I go to Hell!13

Some variant of this speech encourages the warriors time and again, whether
from the sermons and speeches of the pope on the battle¬eld,14 or from the lay
leaders, Charlemagne15 and Girart.16 The ghostly presence of famous military
saints on the battle¬eld drives the point home.17 Those who have already
earned paradise with their swords join in the work of those still ¬ghting the
good ¬ght.
The knights accept the explicit exchange stated outright more than once:
Christ died for them; they must be willing to die for him.18 They know the
reward. Richer, a knight asked to take a message seeking Charlemagne™s help,

See especially laisses 213, 236, 244, 288. Laisse 5.
11 12

Laisse 46. E.g. laisses 244, 288, 455.
13 14

E.g. laisse 244. E.g. laisses 213, 276.
15 16

Laisse 425. See, for example, ll. 9380“1.
17 18
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
refuses. To leave the ¬ghting, he objects, would be ˜to lose my soul for my
body™s protection™.19
Wearing the crusading cross, then, the knights can apparently do no wrong.
Yet the author knows the realities of the knightly life as lived day by day at
home. Negative tones intrude insistently and discordantly into his hymning of
˜Onward Christian Soldiers™.
Girart provides much of the negative evidence in his attitudes and actions.
At ¬rst, he plans to attack France while Charlemagne is warring with the
pagans. His wife thinks he should rather do penance with his sword and aid
the great king.20 Her view of his motivation, acquired in long years of married
observation, is telling:
You never were happy or felt any real mirth
If you weren™t killing people or causing hurt;
A century back you took me for your wife
And each day since you™ve spent committing crimes;
You™ve robbed and burned and plundered all the time.21

Though he accepts his wife™s advice to aid in the holy war, his own view of the
common, everyday ¬ghting at home remains positive; it is just business as
usual, he says in a later speech to his men:
If my neighbour starts a quarrel with me,
With ¬re burns my land to cinders;
And I, his, on all sides;
If he steals my castles or keeps,
Then so it goes until we come to terms,
Or he puts me or I put him in prison.22

Girart never denies clerics their essential function, despite all their trouble-
some strictures. He simply thumbs his nose at the high claims of Gregorianism
and lives in the old mental world of lay domination.
Sometimes his opposition is a bit more active, as when he tries to knife
Archbishop Turpin who has been sent, early in the story, to enlist his help in
the coming campaign. Turpin, no slouch at action with blades himself, avoids
the blow skilfully and warns Girart that Charlemagne will take vengeance and
that the pope will place all Burgundy under interdict. The duke™s reply is a clas-

˜Se je pert l™ame por le cors espargnier™: l. 3949. Laisse 81
19 20

Ll. 1478“80, 1483“5. Kay, Chansons de Geste, 46“8, 60“76, notes the role of women especially

in speaking a ˜counternarrative™ against some dominant ideals in the text.
Ll. 5012“17; my translation.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 235
sic speech of lay independence: anti-Gregorianism combined with feudal
de¬ance of kingship:
Now if my memory™s clear,
There are three thrones chosen and set apart:
One is called Constantinople,
Rome is another, and this city makes three”
The fourth is Toulouse which is part of my heritage;
Across my own realm I have my own priests;
Never for baptisms or any Christian service
do we need the pope™s authority;
I™ll make a Pope myself, should I so please!
In all my possessions whatsoever
I hold not the value of one shelled egg
from any earthly man, but from the Lord God alone.
Your king will never be loved by me
Unless he is kneeling down at my feet!23

Although Turpin and Girart easily agree that all power comes from God,
the archbishop quickly stresses a different conception of the hierarchical medi-
ation of that power. In what we might safely take as the theme of reform in this
text, Turpin announces to Girart an inescapable fact: ˜You won™t be without a
lord for long.™ The importance of the announcement is underscored by Girart™s
reaction; ˜full of hate™, he threatens to break the archbishop™s neck if he does
not ¬‚ee at once.24
In the programme of this text, then, a primary valorization of knightly vio-
lence as idealized warfare against the enemies of the faith is in some measure
balanced by a message that urges restraint and a need for subjection to more
than local authority. The authority steadily praised is an ideal kingship,
sancti¬ed (though not controlled) by ecclesiastics.
The point is clearly made in Girart™s ¬rst meeting with Charlemagne. The
duke realizes at once that the great king really is deserving of his loyalty and
respect; royaut© and chevalerie meet in amity. As they converse, Turpin, here
representing the world of clergie, in need of knightly services, skilfully records
the scene with black ink on white parchment”while on horseback, no less.25
Several speeches on good kingship which appear later in the text seem
designed as much to advertise the merits of sound rule to the knightly audi-
ence as to sermonize kings about their duties. Greeting Girart ˜in love and in
faith™, Charlemagne asks him why he is not a king. Girart answers that he had

Ll. 1164“77; my translation.

For Turpin™s warning, see ll. 1187“8; for Girart™s reaction, ll. 1189“94; my translations.

Laisses 230“5.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
not the worth nor the power (˜ne val tant ne n™en ai le pouoir™), and then deliv-
ers a classic speech on good kingship:
The type of man who seeks a crown on earth,
Should look to God and in his faith be ¬rm;
He should both honour and serve the Holy Church;
He should cast out bad laws and break their curse,
And champion good ones, and try to make them work;
He should help orphans and feed them from his purse,
Look after widows and their safety preserve.
The wicked man he should try to convert,
But none the less destroy if he grows worse;
He should keep by his side men of good birth,
For from their counsel he may ¬nd out and learn
The way to govern his own soul and self ¬rst;
To promise little and give much in return
Will move the heart of everyone he serves;
A wicked man who seeks his fellows™ hurt,
He who would try to steal another™s serf,
Who would rob churches, then violate and burn,
Oppress the poor and tread them in the dirt,
That sort of man should not for kingship yearn.

Once again, such sentiments are quickly covered with the highest ecclesiastical
blessing: ˜The Pontiff speaks: “You deserve to be heard; / He who seeks wis-
dom may ¬nd it in your words;” ™26 Girart seems to have moved some distance
from his earlier casual view of quotidian violence and counterviolence at
home, coupled with a ¬erce determination not to yield so much as ˜one shelled
egg™ to anyone else claiming power and authority over him.
As if to underscore his reform, Girart repeats this speech almost verbatim
near the close of the chanson, as part of a longer speech of advice to his father-
in-law, Florent, whom Charlemagne has named king of Apulia. To the earlier
list of wrongdoing to be punished by kings he now adds an explicit warning
about those who would usurp a neighbour™s ¬ef to add to their own domain;
such men the king should banish for seven years as an example for the others.27
In a curious way the message delivered by Girart™s conversion to reformed
practice is heightened by his apostasy at the very end of the text. Suddenly, he
announces his adherence to his old views of utter independence of the clerical
hierarchy headed by the pope, and the emerging power of the state headed by

Ll. 7159“82.

The entire speech comes in ll. 11178“268; ll. 11229“54 largely reproduce the previous speech.

The author also strongly advises against putting peasants™ sons in high position.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 237
the king; he explains that his cooperation and submission to any authority
beyond himself and short of God was only temporary. First, he denies the
claims of the Gregorian papacy:
I have my own clerks, wise enough and wealthy;
Never do they need nor seek the pope
for belief or authority
for baptisms or any Christian rite.

The claims of kingship are next denied:
Whatever™s mine, my wealth, my land, my might,
I™ll hold from no one except Lord God on High;
Ah, Charlemayn, the truth I will not hide;
In this campaign we have both won this time;
Your leadership therein I™ve recognized
And my own lips have called you Lord and Sire;

<< . .

. 27
( : 39)

. . >>