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described as plunging his sword into the victim™s breast.
The emperor says of the White Knight at the third banquet that no knight could be as good
50

as he, no living man so ¬lled with prowess: ll. 3797“3800. Even the emperor™s daughter is once
described as ˜prous™ (ll. 2380), and his ancient bloodhound is praised as formerly ˜prous™
(ll. 1089“90). When praise ¬‚ows, prowess seems naturally to command a space in the encomium.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
272
exercised in unparalleled wickedness; all change his practice of violence by the
end, and transform him into something much more socially and spiritually
desirable, the proportions in the reformed knight varying with the author.

Not every romance pressed a plan of improvement upon knighthood with the
intensity and the skill of those we have considered in this chapter. The quest
pattern could easily become an interlace of episodic adventures without the
spiritual or social critique or the hopes for reform evident in our several exam-
ples. Yet the idea of quest remains basic, and the tension between sets of high
ideals and the obviously more tawdry reality in need of reform is nearly always
present, always working, in romance. As W. R. J. Barron writes:
To the fundamental human concerns of the folk-tale, the romance proper adds a social
ideal based not upon life as it is known through the senses but as the imagination,
inspired by a vision of what might be rather than by objective fact, dreams of it. . . . It
is not satis¬ed with the trappings of realism but strives for the conviction that the world
it projects has existed in some past golden age, or will be in some millennium to come,
or might be if men were more faithful to ideals than experience suggests them capable
of being.51


Barron, English Medieval Romance, 4.
51
13
CHIVALRIC SELF-CRITICISM AND REFORM
ddd


P R E V I O U S chapters have shown knights absorbing ideas and cooperat-
ing with practices from the spheres of clergie and royaut©, while ¬ltering
through their own high sense of power, privilege, and calling any ideas and
practices that seemed constricting or intrusive. Yet reform was not simply
forced upon knighthood from outside, by those who were not knights or not
primarily knights. The knights themselves clearly had ideals. Even had clerics
and royal career administrators ceased to direct a steady stream of exhorta-
tions, some of the chivalrous would have found a continual reform pro-
gramme necessary and desirable. Many knights knew that the great ideal could
be better implemented in the world and, to the extent that it was, that the
world would be a better, nobler place. The warriors themselves agreed that
there was, in other words, ideal chivalry, though they might have debated the
details; they thought that dif¬cult and imperfect men must try to do better.
Clergie or royaut©, of course, held that chivalry would still need reform even if
it were practised according to the ideals sketched in this chapter.
We can best discover the ideals of the knights themselves in works written
by them or by those quite close to them. The vernacular manuals or hand-
books written to instruct knights provide a classic source. The Book of Chivalry
by Geoffroi de Charny and The Book of the Order of Chivalry by Ramon Llull
are especially important.1 But before considering these it will be helpful to
glance at the programme in an earlier work.


The Romance of the Wings
The Romance of the Wings (Le Roman des Eles), written by Raoul de Hodenc in
about 1210, shows a clear reforming intent from its opening page, even if this
intent is wrapped, as always, in extravagant praise of chivalry as an ideal.2

As emphasized by Keen, Chivalry, 6“17.
1

Busby, ed., Ordene de Chevalerie. Translations of quotations in this section from pp. 161“75.
2
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
274
Raoul says that the very name chevalerie is full of ˜such loftiness and dignity™,
that, ˜rightly speaking, [it] is the true name of nobility™. Only knights drink
from the inexhaustible, divine fountain of courtesy: ˜it came from God and
knights possess it™ (ll. 11“15, 25).
Because of its very loftiness, it stands so far above all other lofty names, that if they were
to recognize its lofty nature, they would not dare to do some things they now do.”
Why?”Out of shame. But they are not aware of the exigencies of their name, for a man
may take himself for a knight though he know not what appertains to the name, save
only ˜I am a knight™. (ll. 40“9)

He thinks it ˜indisputably true that they should be such as their name says™. Yet
˜many have no understanding of knighthood™. He is speci¬cally worried that
the dominance of prowess in the thinking of knights will drive out two other
qualities that he wants to see held in great esteem: liberality and courtesy. He
tries to be careful, but his enthusiasm carries him along:
Do I mean to say that there is such a thing as a wicked knight? By no means, but some
are at the least worth more than the others, whatever the case; and there are many such
who are so superior in prowess that they do not deign to exercise liberality, but rather
trust so much to their prowess that pride strikes them at once.™ (ll. 27“8, 116“26)

He imaginatively recreates the thinking of such a man: ˜Why give? What can
they say about me? Am I not he of the great shield? I am he who has conquered
all, I am the best of my kind, I have surpassed Gavain in arms™ (ll. 128“34). To
such prideful knights, obsessed with prowess, Raoul responds:
Ah, lords, whatever anyone may say, it is no part of knighthood for a knight to despise
liberality on account of his prowess, for to tell the truth, no-one can rise to lofty esteem
by means of prowess unless that prowess has two wings; and I will tell you what the
matter and manner of those two wings ought to be. (ll. 135“43)

The treatise does just that, providing detailed explanations of seven feathers on
the right wing of liberality, seven on the left wing of courtesy.
Raoul fears that an excessive belief in prowess in his own time will reduce
the largesse so important to chivalry; signi¬cantly, his great enemy is the
miser, where Geoffroi de Charny™s is the cowardly and inactive man. From the
right wing the knight learns that he must be courageous in liberality, give to
rich and poor alike, spend without care for landed wealth (saying, ˜A knight,
God protect me, will not rise to great heights if he enquires of the value of
corn™), give what is promised, promptly and liberally, and provide ¬ne feasts.
The left wing is also composed of seven feathers, each a speci¬c component
of courtesy. The knight must honour and guard Holy Church, avoid pride;
refrain from boasting (he should ˜strike high and talk low™), enjoy good enter-
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 275
tainment, avoid envy, avoid slander (since simultaneous physical and verbal
feats are an impossibility), and be a lover and love truly for love™s sake (ll.
144“end).3
As Keith Busby, the editor of the text, has suggested, the message is ˜largely
social, and it concentrates on telling knights how to behave rather than elabo-
rating on the symbolic signi¬cance of knighthood™. Though the poem makes
its case in religious and moral terms, it ˜could not be called essentially reli-
gious™.4 So close is its link with topics we have discussed that we might safely
call the poem reformist.


The Book of the Order of Chivalry
Ramon Llull wrote the most popular handbook, The Book of the Order of
Chivalry, probably between 1279 and 1283.5 It reached a wide readership in its
original Catalan (Libre qui es de l™ordre de cavalleria); in French translation
(Livre de l™ordre de chevalerie) it reached an even wider audience, before being
translated into English and transcribed into print by Caxton (The Book of the
Ordre of Chyvalry) in the last quarter of the ¬fteenth century.6
Llull was the ideal person to write a handbook for knights. He began his
adult life as a knight himself and was thoroughly immersed in chivalric culture
and literature before experiencing the great conversion, probably in 1263, that
sent him on a radically new course. After recurrent divine visitations he
became a mystic, a systematic and proli¬c philosopher, a missionary for the
conversion of Muslims and Jews, and one of the founding ¬gures of Catalan
literature. But he apparently never became a cleric, however close he was to the
Franciscans in thought and life.7
The showy, easily remembered, and often quoted statements in his book are
all in praise of knighthood, even of the sort of knighthood that clerical critics
might view through narrowed eyes as merely ˜earthly chivalry™. Llull likes and
praises it all: jousts and tournaments, war in defence of one™s lord, the liberal
life of hall and hunting.
The thin story frame for his treatise is built around that stock ¬gure the wise
old hermit who”we learn with no surprise”turns out to be a former knight.
A young seeker after chivalry encounters him by his fountain, asks questions,
and receives not only a lecture but also a reading assignment, a little book that
Busby speculates that Raoul may have been ˜a knight of slender means . . . employed as a min-
3

strel™, who might well praise open-handed generosity on the part of the wealthy.
Ibid., 18. Bonner, Selected Works, II, 1262.
4 5

Ramon Llull, Obres essencials; Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry.
6

For accounts of Llull™s life, see Hillgarth, Ramon Lull and Lullism, 1“43; Bonner, Selected
7

Works, I, 3“52.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
276
he will take to court for the instruction of all. It is, of course, the very book the
reader holds. The hermit, now pale and ascetic, had formerly been the sort of
hero with whom any knight could identify: ˜[He] had long maintained the
order of chivalry and done so by the force and nobleness of his high courage
and wisdom and in adventuring his body had maintained just wars, jousts and
tourneys and in many battles had many noble and glorious victories.™8
On such honourable men Llull can scarcely lavish enough praise. They form
an ordo alongside that of the clerics and rank only a little lower than those
whose hands produce God™s body on the altar. If only these two high orders
could be free of error, Llull says, the world would be all but free from error.
The knights, if anything, ought to be advanced in honour. Ideally, each knight
should have a kingdom or province to rule, an honour prevented only by the
unfortunate shortage of suitable territories. Certainly, knights would make
excellent judges, if only they were learned, and chivalry is, in itself, so high a
subject that it ought to be taught in schools. There can be no doubt that
knights are the natural counsellors for kings and princes; to advance the non-
knightly to such positions is an offence against chivalry, which produces the
men best quali¬ed for rule, best ¬t for distributing justice. In his Ars Brevis,
Llull in fact de¬nes chivalry as ˜the disposition with which the knight helps the
prince maintain justice™.9
Llull introduces his general theme by telling a myth of origins. It is a story
of a fall and a redemption through chivalry.10 At issue are all the basic matters
concerned with securing right order in the world. The myth relates that at
some point in the swirling mists of the past the great virtues”charity, loyalty,
truth, justice, and verity”had fallen, producing injuries, disloyalty, and false-
ness, with social consequences of error and trouble in the world. Fearing dis-
order and injustice, the populace divided itself into thousands and from each
chose the best man to be a knight; they likewise selected the horse as the best
beast to carry him in his work.11 From that time forward the knight has carried
out a high and essential mission: he secures order in the world. For fear of him
the common people hesitate to do wrongs to each other; for fear of him they
till the soil. Just as the clerks (who are brought into the myth without expla-

My translation of Caxton, in Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 3“4.
8

Bonner, Selected Works, I, 624. See also his knight™s comment (to a hermit questioning him)
9

in the Arbre de Ciencia: ˜Dix lo cavaller que ell mantenia cavalleria ab l™espasa del rei, qui fa estar
comuna la sua corona™: Ramon Llull. Obres Essenciales, I, 903.
The similarity between this account and that in the earlier pre-cyclic prose Lancelot is inter-
10

esting. See Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142.
Any medieval reader familiar with contemporary learning on the Corpus Juris Civilis might at
11

this point hear echoes of the Lex Digna Vox, which asserted that at some point in the mythic past
the people had given up their natural sovereignty to the Roman emperors. See Byles, Book of the
Ordre of Chyvalry, 113. for an even more strikingly similar statement by Llull.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 277
nation, since it is not their myth) incline the people to devotion and the good
life, the knights ensure the order that makes civilized life possible.12
Llull makes this same point in slightly different terms in his Felix (though
here he reverses the roles of hermit and knight). In response to the hermit™s
quizzing him about what a knight is, ˜the knight replied that a knight was a
man chosen to ride on horseback to carry out justice and to protect and safe-
guard the king and his people so that the king could reign in such a manner
that his subjects could love and know God™.13 Yet such praise is only half the
picture. Although Llull nearly worshipped chivalry as an ideal, his ¬rst-hand
knowledge of knighthood as it worked in the world shaped everything he says
about it. In fact, his love for chivalry as it might be never eradicates his deep
fear of chivalry as social fact. In the Book of Contemplation, for example, he
refers to knights as ˜the Devil™s ministers™, and asks pointedly, ˜Who is there in
the world who does as much harm as knights?™14 At one point in the Tree of
Science he pictures a hermit asking a knight if he understands the order of
chivalry. The knight explains that in the absence of a book on the subject he
does not, in fact, understand chivalry. Were there such a book, the knight
adds, ˜many knights would be humble who are prideful, and just who are crim-
inal [injurioses], and chaste who are licentious, and brave who are cowardly,
and rich who are poor, and honourable who are dishonourable™.15 Llull here,
of course, clearly if indirectly announces a rationale for the book on chivalry
which he himself wrote; in the process, he explicitly establishes the reforming
nature of his book. Knights can and must be made better in basic categories of
their lives.
Llull knows that he is in a sense whistling past the graveyard in The Book of
the Order of Chivalry. It will be dif¬cult to refashion the men who cause so
much disorder into effective upholders of order. Each gilded wine goblet that
Llull raises to toast knighthood thus contains a bitter residue of criticism. The
basic dichotomy appears in advice given by the hermit within the very myth of
origins:
Beware, squire, who would enter into the order of chivalry what you shall do. For if
you become a knight you receive honour and the servitude due to the friends of

The myth is elaborated in Llull™s second chapter.
12

Bonner, Selected, II, 668“9. In his Ars Brevis, Llull says in the same vein: ˜Chivalry is the dis-
13

position with which the knight helps the prince maintain justice™: in ibid., I, 624.
Quoted in Hillgarth, The Spanish Kingdoms, 60. The Catalan, kindly supplied in correspon-
14

dence from Professor Hilgarth, reads: ˜E doncs, Sènyer, qui ©s lo mon qui tant de mal fa§a com
cavallers?™
Ramon Llull. Obres Essencials, 903: ˜Dix lo cavaller que ell no sabia l™ordre de cavaleria, e blas-
15

mava son pare qui escrit no l™havia; car si era fet un libre de l™art de cavalleria, molts cavallers serien
humils qui son ergulloses, e justs qui son injurioses, e casts qui son luxurioses, e ardits qui son
volpells, e rics qui son pobres, e honrats qui son deshonrats.™
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
278
chivalry. For of so much as you have more noble beginnings and more honour, just so
much are you more bound to be good and agreeable to God and also to the people.
And if you are wicked you are the enemy of chivalry and contrary to its commandments
and honours.16

Following this pattern, Llull™s discussion of each chivalric virtue so lauded in
the book quickly inverts to become a sermonette against the vice it corrects.
The virtues of the body (such as jousting, tourneying, hunting) must not be
exercised at the expense of the virtues of the soul. A knight must protect
women, widows, orphans, and weak men; to force women and widows, to
rob and destroy the feeble, to injure the poor, is to stand outside the high
order of chivalry. A knight must have castle and horse so that he can patrol the
roads, deliver justice in towns and cities, and encourage useful crafts there; to
play the highway robber, to destroy castles, cities, towns, to burn houses, cut
down trees, slay beasts, is disloyal to chivalry. A knight must seek out and pun-
ish robbers and the wicked; to thieve himself or to sustain other robber
knights is to miss the basic point that honour is the supreme good, in¬nitely
more valuable than mere silver and gold. The list runs on in this vein, one
worry after another balanced on the knife edge of reform which stands
between fulsome praise and dark warnings.
Llull does, it is true, move at one point beyond the undifferentiated com-
pany of knighthood to stress the importance of hierarchy. He opens his trea-
tise with the familiar parallel between social and political hierarchy in human
society and natural hierarchy in the created world. As God rules the planets
which in turn control the earth, so beneath God the kings, princes, and great
lords rule the knights, who, in their turn, rule the common people.17
On the whole, however, the thrust of his book is to reform chivalry by
enlightening individual knights, by changing the way they think, rather than
by stressing the exterior force of any institutions or by placing them in a dis-
tinctly subordinate layer in the hierarchy. In some instances he speci¬cally
urges the body of right-thinking knights to act as a policing agency themselves,
admonishing them even to be willing to kill those knights who dishonour the
order of chivalry, as in the case (which so obviously troubles him) of knights
who are thieves and robbers, wicked and traitorous.18 His formal hope, what-
ever his private estimate, remains the correction of each knight through edu-
cation, reason, and exhortation.


Byles, Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 18. Ibid., 1“2.
16 17

Ibid., 48. Judging from the number of references to robber knights in various romances,
18

their authors shared Llull™s worries. See, e.g., Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, passim; Vesce, tr.,
Marvels of Rigomer; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, passim.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 279
The prominence of clerical ideas will be as striking to the reader as the total
absence of any idea of clerical institutional power. Many pages of the treatise
are ¬lled with what most modern readers will consider tenuous moral mean-
ings attributed to each piece of the knightly equipment, with summary
accounts of the theological and cardinal virtues, with warnings against the
seven deadly sins.
Yet the treatise preserves a character that is not, ¬nally, clerical.19 It accepts
too many aspects of the chivalric life that were questioned or even condemned
by ecclesiastics. Though it formally sets up the clerical ordo as highest, it edges
chivalry nearly to the same mark. The hermit who dispenses wisdom is appar-
ently a layman and former knight, not a cleric; and he is found at a forest foun-
tain, not in any church. Llull™s reform draws on the ideas of clergie, in other
words, without compromising the degree of lay independence so essential to
the knightly self-conception.
Likewise, although he portrays knights as the chief props and active agents
of royal power, his book is not really royalist. If only the earth were big
enough, after all, each of his idealized and reformed knights would properly be
a king, or something very close to that high rank. He never fully confronts the
tension between the formal statement of hierarchy which opens his book and
his continued portrayal thereafter of an idealized society of knightly equals”
powerful and busy men, carving away evil from the world with their
broadswords and even doing away with the rotters who give chivalry a bad
name. The earthly social hierarchy which parallels that of the heavens seems
quickly to recede and to become almost a backdrop; it certainly does not func-
tion as the key mechanism for providing ordered life.
In short, like the men for whom he wrote, Llull was deeply immersed in the
contradictions chivalry brought to the complex and dif¬cult issues of public
order. He wanted to be a reformer of chivalry, not merely a singer of its
praises. Yet he was a pragmatic man; his popular book urged reform that came
wrapped in gold leaf and that argued its case along lines that most in his audi-
ence could ¬nd tolerable. We can take instruction both from the book™s pop-
ularity and from Llull™s mixed hopes and fears.

Useful as Llull™s Book of the Order of Chivalry and his other works are, we can
draw on texts by other authors that seem even closer to the world of knight-
hood, less altered by a clerical programme. Three works”all written, in effect,
by practising knights”can best show us the impulse for reform among
the knights themselves. They can remind us of the great investment in an

See the useful comments in Keen, Chivalry, 11.
19
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
280
enduring ideal in whose service such reform was to work. We will turn ¬rst to
the biography of William Marshal, the greatest knight of the late twelfth cen-
tury, then to another of the vernacular manuals, the Book of Chivalry written by
Geoffroi de Charny, one of the greatest knights of the mid-fourteenth century,
and ¬nally to the evidence of the Morte Darthur, the splendid summing up and
shaping of chivalric ideas from literature by another knight, Sir Thomas
Malory, in the late ¬fteenth century. As we will see, the chivalric ideal held by
these knights maintains a programme of its own. The changing settings in
which the ideal was to work, however, required adjustments in the particular
emphases of reform in order to ¬t basic ideals to new circumstances.


L™Histoire de Guillaume le Mar©chal20
William Marshal died in 1219. His biography was completed at least seven
years later, after information had been carefully collected, by a man known to
us only as John (Jean); the cost was underwritten by his oldest son. This John,
Georges Duby suggests, ˜might well be one of those heralds-of-arms who
arranged the jousts on the tournament grounds, identi¬ed the protagonists by
their insignia, and by singing their exploits boosted the reputation of the
champions™.21 John tells us that his raw material came from his own knowledge
and that of two others: the Marshal™s eldest son, and especially his companion
John of Earley. Some information may already have been set down in writing,
some household documents may have been available; the rest came from liv-
ing memory. Georges Duby argues that from this evidence we hear William
Marshal™s own memories, that we read, in essence, an autobiography.22 David
Crouch reminds us that this is the ¬rst biography of a layman below the rank
of king.23
This text shows the ideal of chivalry in its spring colours. Yet it is a very
pragmatic, quotidian notion of chivalry that we ¬nd in the Histoire, not some-
thing abstract.24 Criticism or reform ¬gures in this story only indirectly, by set-
ting out an ideal working model for those who would follow the great
exemplar, by embodying an ideal of chivalry in a life lived grandly and with
success. The rewards of this good life are implicit: all things are possible to the

Text and discussion in Meyer, ed., Histoire; unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this sec-
20

tion come from this edition. Modern biographies: Painter, William Marshal; Crosland, William
the Marshal; Duby, Guillaume le Mar©chal; Crouch, William Marshal.
Duby, Guillaume le Mar©chal, 33. Ibid., 30“7.
21 22

Crouch, William Marshal, 2.
23

Chivalry in the Histoire is discussed by Gillingham, ˜War and Chivalry™, and by Crouch,
24

William Marshal, 171“84. Both scholars make telling criticisms of the views of Sidney Painter and
Georges Duby.

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