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My name, at court, should never be reviled;
But all I™ve done I did for love of Christ;
I™m not your man nor faith to you do plight
Or ever shall all the days of my life.

As Girart proudly swings into his saddle and rides off, the French stare at each
other in bewilderment. Charlemagne indulges in one of his reveries, and then
˜between his teeth™ mutters a most royalist re¬‚ection: ˜If I may live a long life
ere I die, / The pride of one of us shall not survive.™28 Except for a closing sum-
mary of the grand events he has recounted, and a prayer for God™s mercy, the
poet ends his chanson here.
He has spoken repeatedly, if somewhat ambivalently to the topics that have
shaped our enquiry. He has clearly shown the lively and continuing need for
the reform of chevalerie vis-à-vis clergie and royaut©. Girart™s sudden af¬rmation
of old beliefs at the end of the story would surely have opened the way for spir-
ited discussion of these basic, thoroughly current questions in any audience.

The Crowning of Louis
The Crowning of Louis (Le Couronnement de Louis),29 probably written between
1131 and 1137, tells the story of the great work of William of Orange in saving
Rome from pagan invasion, in saving Louis, son of Charlemagne, from

For all of these speeches, see ll. 11333“55; the translation of the anti-Gregorian passage is my

own; the others come from Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are from Hoggan, tr., ˜Crowning of

Louis™; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
rebellion, and ¬nally in saving Rome again, this time from Guy of Germany.
As will be apparent, this text, too, speaks with great force to the issues that
concern us; it, too, bears witness to the shadows as well as to the light.30 The
reality of knightly motivation and action appears clearly, if indirectly, within
the interstices of the ideal portraits drawn. The author, we will see, has mixed
feelings about actual knightly behaviour as experienced in the world.
He can, for example, describe deeds of prowess with as loving a hand as ever
scratched pen on parchment. All serious issues in the story are solved by
knightly violence: the initial challenger to Louis™s kingly right is smashed by a
single blow of the ¬st (William remembering just in time to sheath his sword
and not spill blood in a church); the pagan threat to Rome is stopped in its
tracks when William takes on Corsolt, the unbelieving champion, and with a
great sword stroke sends the offender™s head, still encased in its helmet, ¬‚ying
off his body; only his ceaseless warfare (and another personal combat, this
time with the traitor Acelin, son of Richard of Rouen) rescues Louis and props
up his kingship; yet another single combat signals the end of the German
attack on Rome near the poem™s end. These personal encounters are jewels of
prowess set within a gilded narrative of general warfare. No sense of inappro-
priateness intrudes when William calls on God or the Virgin as sources for his
great prowess.
Yet there is worry, or at least an unblinkered realism, intertwined with the
praise. The glandular urge to violence surging just below the surface in the
warriors appears in both hero and villain; more than once they appear ˜mad
with rage™ when challenged or insulted.31 The author also knows that knightly
motivation included booty and revenge as well as pure faith and loyalty. At the
start of his combat with Corsolt, William not only prays one of his famous
prayers, ¬lled with theological verities;32 he also eyes his enemy™s horse with
frank covetousness: ˜ “Holy Mary!” he exclaimed, “what a ¬ne charger that is!
He would serve a worthy man so well that I must take care to spare him with
my weapons. May God who governs all things protect him and prevent me
from harming him with my sword!” ™ The poet adds approvingly, ˜Those were
not the words of a coward.™33 He likewise frankly describes William™s army liv-
ing by looting the countryside around Rome while they are on campaign
against Guy of Germany: ˜Count William led out the foragers into the sur-

For dating and general discussion, see Frappier, Chansons de geste, II, 51“186. On the uses of

violence in this violent text, see Combarieu, ˜La violence™, I, 126“52.
See, for example, laisses 44, 51.

Discussed by Frappier, Chansons de geste, 137“8, and Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, ˜Le

chevalier à oraison™.
Laisse 21.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 239
rounding district to spoil the countryside. They plundered the whole region,
so that the men of the army were well-off and well provided for.™34
Going beyond realism to message, the poet notes that in the course of his
warfare for King Louis, William attacked the town of Saint-Gilles one morn-
ing. Winning an easy victory, he nevertheless ˜acted in a way pleasing to Jesus™,
the audience is told pointedly, ˜when he spared the church there from being
laid waste™.35
Even more pointed is a critical description of the knighthood of France with
whom William had to contend: ˜as long as he lived . . . the Frenchmen took to
rebelling again, making war against each other and acting like madmen, burn-
ing down towns and laying waste the countryside. They would not restrain
themselves at all on Louis™ account.™36 When the acts of prowess leave the realm
of the mythic and come closer to home and to contemporary politics, the tone
clearly changes: trumpet-calls fade and talk of reform surges.
Much knightly independence with regard to the sphere of clergie, however,
receives at least tacit approval. Of course, there is the usual everyday anticleri-
calism.37 Seeing no sign of vigour in his son Louis when he ¬rst offers him the
crown, Charlemagne exclaims, ˜Let us cut off all his hair and put him into this
monastery; he can pull the bell ropes and be the sacristan, so he will have a pit-
tance to keep him from beggary.™38 But more interesting is the ideal of religion
and the clerical role.
The most revealing scene comes early in the story, when the pope is trying
to persuade William to ¬ght Corsolt. The pope must present both the most
powerful relic (the armbone of St Peter, plainly revealed without its usual gold
and silver casing) and the most powerfully attractive concessions before he
¬nally convinces William:
Look, here is St Peter, the guardian of souls; if you undertake this feat of arms today
on his account, my lord, then you may eat meat every single day for the rest of your life
and take as many wives as you have a mind to. You will never commit any sin however
wicked (so long as you avoid any act of treason) that will not be discounted, all the days
of your life, and you shall have your lodging in paradise, the place Our Lord keeps for
His best friends; St Gabriel himself will show you the way.

William can only gasp out his willingness to ¬ght, and his thankfulness for
such terms: ˜Ah! God help us! . . . never was there a more generous-hearted
cleric! Now I will not fail, for any man alive or for any pagan however foul
or wicked, to go out and ¬ght against these scoundrels™.39 In the ¬ght that
follows, when William appears to be in danger of defeat, the pope actually

Laisse 56. Laisse 50. Laisse 63.
34 35 36

See, in general, Noble, ˜Anti-Clericalism™, 149“58. Laisse 8. Laisse 18.
37 38 39
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
threatens St Peter: ˜What are you doing, then, St Peter? If he dies out there, it
will be unlucky for you: as long as I live and draw breath, there will never be
any mass sung in your church!™40
Saints™ relics were threatened and abused, especially in the earlier Middle
Ages, in order to secure some desired result.41 Yet in these remarkable passages
we can also see the clergy and the religion they more or less controlled in life
refashioned in chivalric literature to conform to an ideal knightly image. The
warrior champions of the more powerful God and his powerful saints will
overcome his enemies, the knights™ enemies, with sword and lance. The sacral-
ity of religion, protected by knighthood, blesses such chivalry and bends the
troublesome rules in payment for the knights™ hard service. The only unfor-
givable sin set in a separate category by the pope, we should note, is treason.42
One other example of the knightly beau ideal of a cleric appears later in the
person of Walter, Abbot of St Martins, who has hidden away King Louis from
eighty traitorous canons and clerics. He gives William an account of their plot
and he suggests an unambiguous response: ˜Louis is to be disinherited this
very day unless God and you yourself are prepared to protect him. Take all
their heads, I beg you in God™s name! I take all the sin of desecrating a church
upon myself, for they are all traitors and renegades.™ Hearing this bold plea,
William laughs and utters a benediction: ˜Blessed be the hour that such a cleric
was nurtured!™43
Abbot Walter™s offer points to an important fact: he presumes that this des-
ecration is both necessary and sinful, requiring his heroic offer to take the sin
upon himself. In a similar way, William spends years ¬ghting constantly for his
king, even on holy days:
for three whole years there was not a single day, however high and holy, that William
did not have his burnished helm laced on and his sword girt at his side, riding fully
armed on his charger. There was not a feastday when men should go to worship, not
even Christmas Day which should be set above all others, that he was not dressed in his
hauberk and armed. The knight suffered a great penance to support and to aid his

Laisse 27.

On humiliation and coercion of saints™ relics, see Geary, ˜L™Humiliation des saints™; idem,

Living with the Dead, 95“124; and Little, Benedictine Maledictions. By the thirteenth century the
practices described were under criticism and regulation.
˜Se tant puez faire de traison te gardes™: l. 393.

Laisse 40. The idea of a cleric taking on a knight™s necessary sin is not limited to imaginative

literature. Joinville records the offer made to Louis IX (while both were in Muslim captivity). The
aged Patriarch of Jerusalem advises Louis to swear whatever his captors require and he will take
upon himself any sin involved. Wailly, ed., Joinville, 151“2.
Laisse 46.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 241
This hard service, at once loyal and sinful, is undertaken as a penance.45 Clearly
there are duties a knight must rightly assume, even though the rules of clergie
will formally condemn him for it. In an ideal world, some right-minded cleric
would shoulder such sins himself and wipe the slate clean. The chansons de geste
create such a world.46
But they engage in reform of knighthood as well as in imaginative refash-
ioning of the clergy, and in this text one reform theme is stressed above all
others. Jean Frappier calls this text, with reason, the most political of the chan-
sons de geste.47 If chevalerie is the stalwart and essential defender of both clergie
and royaut©, it must shape that role, however uncomfortable the ¬t, into the
sometimes cramping framework of sancti¬ed, legitimate kingship. Chivalry
may like to imagine that it can take the clerics on its own terms; it may realize
with some degree of grouchiness that royal justice is not always what it should
be”˜wicked men have made justice a mask for covetousness and because of
bribery fair hearings are no longer given™, says the author48”but whatever the
problems, whatever the personal qualities of the current king, the working
principle of legitimate kingship is the essential key to an ordered society.
Valorization moves signi¬cantly in this direction in The Crowning of Louis.
William begins as a prototypical crusader, and he and his men receive the usual
assurances that the Almighty loves their work, that paradise awaits those killed
in it.49 With this aura of sanctity ¬rmly established, however, William shifts
locations and enemies smoothly. He becomes the steady defender of royalty”
in France, against domestic enemies”through the next major section of the
text (as indeed he has been in one brief incident in its earliest laisses).
Legitimate, even holy warfare against the pagans, who are here presented as
men literally engaged in feud with God, has given way to legitimate and pre-
sumably even holy warfare (or at least atoneable warfare) against Christians in
France. The glow of crusading sanctity remains, in other words, as William
shifts enemies to ¬ght against the misguided men who have failed to see the
need for legitimate kingship. Later in the text William turns to sancti¬ed war
against analogously misguided Germans who think they can capture Rome
and its bishop, before he returns to the necessary, if endless and even thank-
less, task of defending French royalty.
Of course Louis himself launched William in this role by turning to him as
soon as he has been crowned. On that occasion he appealed to knighthood as

Laisse 63.

In the Chanson d™Aspremont the pope says he will carry all the knights™ sins on his own back

as they travel to heaven, having been killed ¬ghting for God: see Brandin, ed., Chanson
d™Aspremont, l. 5469.
Frappier, Chansons de geste, 51. Laisse 4. See, e.g., laisse 18.
47 48 49
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
the buttress of kingship: ˜My father says you are a ¬ne knight, that there is no
greater warrior under the vault of heaven. I wish to entrust to you my lands
and my ¬efs so that you may protect them for me, noble knight, until I can
bear arms myself.™50
The author also gives plain speeches in praise of this high mission to two
humbler truth-tellers, a pilgrim and a porter. The pilgrim brings William news
of the plot against King Louis and asks, rhetorically, ˜Ah! God help us! . . .
where have all the noble knights gone now, and the lineage of the bold Count
Aymeri? They are the ones who always supported their lord before.™51 For his
news and his declared willingness to help Louis if only he were able, William
rewards the man with ten ounces of gold.
William makes a knight of the second speaker, the porter who shortly after
the meeting with the pilgrim delivers almost the same speech. The porter is
explaining why he will not admit William and his men to Tours, thinking they
have only come to increase the forces of rebellion:
Ah! God help us! . . . where have all the valiant knights gone now and the lineage of the
warlike Aymeri who used to support their rightful lord so well? . . . There are too many
vile traitors in here already, I do not want to increase their numbers. . . . Would to the
glorious King of Heaven that the earth might give way under your feet and that Louis
were back in his ¬ef! Then the world would be rid of evil men!52

Given Louis™s character and record, given that he is at this moment in the
story hiding timidly in a crypt of the cathedral, such con¬dence might seem
misplaced. It might seem even more misplaced after recalling the stirring lines
at the opening of the poem describing the ideal king for France:
The king who wears the golden crown of France must be an upright man and valiant
in his body. If there is any man who does him a wrong, he must leave him no peace in
plain or in forest until he has overpowered him or killed him. If he does not do this,
France loses her glory; then, history says, he was wrongfully crowned.53

The contrast with Louis could scarcely be more starkly drawn.
Yet this simple image of king as ideal warlord is only one side of the coin of
royalty struck in the text. The necessary role of legitimate kingship in securing
public order forms the other side. This power must be preserved and it must
be used positively. Charlemagne™s advice to his son (who is, like a Capetian, to
be crowned in the father™s lifetime) begins with the basic need for a moral life,
since no one can rule others if he cannot rule himself; but he quickly goes on
to a requirement that the king should justly regulate the feudal order of soci-
ety, acting fairly with regard to the granting of ¬efs, and utterly destroying

Laisse 13. Laisse 35. Laisse 36. Laisse 3.
50 51 52 53
Chanson de Geste and Reform 243
proud rebels who will not accept his authority. On the one hand this means
justice even for the poor:
a king must strike down wrongs under his feet and trample on them and stamp them
out. Towards the poor man, you must humble yourself and, if he has a plea, it should
not vex you; rather you should help him and succour him and for love of God restore
him to his rights.

On the other hand, a king must stamp out prideful rebelliousness:
Towards the proud man, you must show yourself as ¬erce as a man-eating leopard and,
if he tries to make war on you, summon throughout France all the noble knights until
you have up to thirty thousand, have him besieged in his strongest fortress and all his
land laid waste and devastated. If you can capture him or have him delivered into your
hands, show him neither mercy nor pity but have all his limbs cut off or let him be burnt
in a ¬re or drowned in water.54

This advice set in the Carolingian era forms a striking parallel to contemporary
Capetian policy, to the ceaseless policing of the Île de France by Louis VI. This
historical King Louis would undoubtedly have loved to summon the thirty
thousand noble knights of the literary Louis to join him in besieging the
strongholds of such local tyrants as Thomas of Marle; he was forced to rely,
instead, on a much smaller collection of loyal local vassals and parish militia.
The ideological point of the text, however, its reforming message, could
scarcely be more plain: whatever the foibles of the current king, the institution
of kingship needs the support of ˜noble knights™ if right order is to be main-
tained in a perilous world.
The corollary is, of course, that kings will rule with their vassals in mind and
with their vassals™ advice heeded in their courts. No low-born men need apply.
˜And another thing I want to tell you about that will be very important to you™,
Charlemagne adds to his message to Louis:
not to take a lowborn man as your counsellor, the son of a lord™s agent or of a bailiff.
These would betray their trust in a minute for money. Choose rather William, the
noble warrior, the son of proud Aymeri of Narbonne and brother of Bernard of
Brubant, the warrior; if these men are willing to support and aid you, you can com-
pletely rely on their service.55

The formula is, in theory, straightforward: when the ideal king relies on the
ideal knight the kingdom prospers. The poet knows, of course, how the real
world turns, as the closing lines of the poem detail:

Laisse 13. In a contemporary reference the poet warns that if this is not done the Normans

will be contemptuous and encouraged in their hostility.
Laisse 13.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Within a year [William] had dealt out such punishment to the rebels that ¬fteen counts
were forced to present themselves at court and do homage for their inheritance to Louis
who held command over France. . . . But when he was fully in power, he showed no
gratitude to William.

Raoul de Cambrai
The note of ambiguity echoing in the last line of this text will sound even more
discordantly in our third example of chanson de geste, Raoul de Cambrai, a poem
from the Cycle of the Barons in Revolt.56 Here is a wild story of kingly malfea-
sance and knightly feud, with no veneer of crusading sanctity57 and with even
larger question marks left hanging in mid-air.
It is a poem with a history and architecture that are complex, even for a chan-
son de geste. The ¬rst portion seems to have appeared in writing by the mid-
twelfth century; it tells the story of the violent, prideful, heedless warrior
Raoul; and it apparently used the poetic technique of assonance rather than
rhyme. Somewhere in the early years of the reign of Philip II (1180“1223) this
original, assonanced epic was rhymed and expanded by a section with focus on
Bernier, Raoul™s vassal and eventual killer. This entire rewriting is known as
Raoul I. Towards the end of Philip™s reign, another addition appeared, in asso-
nanced form, carrying the story through more adventures, feuding, and bat-
tles until ˜[t]here being no other male characters left, the story comes to an
end™.58 This early thirteenth-century section is known as Raoul II. We can draw
on the evidence of both sections, but will focus primarily on Raoul I, and
speci¬cally on that section concerned with Raoul himself, since this was the
most widespread part of the text.
The characteristics of the society portrayed in Raoul I could have formed a
model for Hobbes™s state of nature. ˜The poem has a nightmarish quality,™ as
Sarah Kay, its most recent editor and translator, has observed, ˜arising both
from the horror of the events portrayed and from the ethical opacity of the nar-
rative as it pursues alternative perspectives through unstable characters and
competing narrative strands.™59 In this world, chivalry by and large means
prowess crowned with success, an obsession with honour defended by unbeat-
able violence. The blood of characters boils regularly; they go mad with rage

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are from Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de

Cambrai. The brief description of the text which follows is based on her thorough introduction.
Cf. Calin, Old French Epic, passim; idem, ˜Raoul de Cambrai™; idem, Muse for Heroes, 37“56; Pauline
Matarasso, Recherches historiques.
The knights ¬ght no pagans in Raoul I; in Raoul II, since some pagans are good, some bad,

the force of crusading valorization is likewise missing.
Kay, Raoul de Cambrai, lv. Ibid., ix.
58 59
Chanson de Geste and Reform 245
at intervals; they demand hostages to secure each agreement reached as a tem-
porary triumph over suspicious distrust. The tensions that inevitably arise
from the ragged intersections of the great forces of the age”kingship, lord-
ship, vassalage, religion, kin ties, vengeance”repeatedly produce the recipro-
cal and bloody violence of single combat, feud, and battle.
The almost glandular impulse to violence shows up unforgettably near the
end of Raoul I when an unwise royal seneschal seats the feuding families side
by side at a Pentecost banquet. Guerri, uncle of Raoul (the latter by this time
dead and buried) is beside himself with rage and can barely be prevented from
carrying out his designs on his enemies with a huge steel knife. When he sees
the venison served, the cooked meat acts as a catalyst on his wrath and the hall
erupts in a brawl; the general violence is distilled into the standard single com-
bat, between Bernier and Gautier (Raoul™s nephew and heir). Even when these
heroes have hacked each other into disability, they seem ready to renew the
¬ght by crawling from their blood-stained beds, which have been thought-
lessly placed so that the opponents can see and hear one another.60
Raoul himself, however, stands as the great embodiment of these issues, and
was in fact renowned in the Middle Ages in just that role. Long deprived of a
great ¬ef that was rightfully his, and then wrongfully provided with a ¬ef that
should go to another, he wars to recover withheld property and to avenge
impugned honour. He scorns a counsel of caution from his companion and
vassal Bernier, and from his mother Alice, and he speci¬cally rejects her
pointed advice that his war must not destroy chapels and churches and slaugh-
ter the poor.61 He insists ˜such war be unleashed on the Vermandois that
countless churches will be burned and destroyed™.62 His men soon put his
instructions into practical effect as they ˜cross over into the Vermandois, and
seize the livestock, reducing countless men to ruin. They set ¬re to the land”
the farms are ablaze.™63
In what became the most famous scene in the poem, Raoul attacks the town
of Origny, controlled by his enemies, and announces his plans for the church
Pitch my tent in the middle of the church and my packhorses will stand in its porches;
prepare my food in the crypts, my sparrow-hawk can perch on the gold crosses, and
prepare a magni¬cent bed for me to sleep in front of the altar; I will use the cruci¬x as
a back rest and my squires can make free with the nuns. I want to destroy the place

Laisses CCXXIV“CCXXXIV. Laisse LI.
60 61

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