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Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 281
knight who will dare all”a great ¬ef, royal patronage, a good lady, seemingly
endless admiration.
The key quality is in no doubt: William™s life-story unfolds as a ceaseless
hymn to prowess, the demi-god.25 The reader learns that William never gave
in to idleness but followed prowess all his life, and is admonished that ˜a long
rest is a cause for shame in a young man (lonc sejor honist giemble homme)™, that
men know that you must look among the horses™ legs for the brave (who, in
their boldness, will sometimes be unhorsed). Like a hero in a romance,
William goes off seeking ˜pris et aventure™, especially in the tournament circuit
available only on the continent (ll. 1883“8, 1894, 2402, 6090“2). Page after
page of the text details feats of enviable prowess done primarily in war”the
war of raid and counter-raid, of siege and manoeuvre”and secondarily in the
tourney.26 William is given the honour of knighting King Henry™s eldest son
even though he is landless and ˜has nothing but his chivalry™. He becomes what
the text calls the ˜lord and master™ of the young king; this position was appro-
priate, we learn, since he increased the lad™s prowess (ll. 2102, 2634“6).
Loyalty is also praised by the Histoire as a de¬ning quality of the Marshal,
and thus of the ideal chivalric hero. William appears time and again as the
steady, reliable, and stalwart warrior, directing his great prowess in hon-
ourable and predictable causes.27 That one of these causes was his own
advancement and that of his family is accepted.28 If ambition leads William (as
it had led his father) away from loyalty sketched out in bold black and white,
and into the grey, the text goes murky or silent. Of course, because he is pri-
marily an Anglo-Norman knight, baron, and earl, an account of his loyalty
must also be a story of touchy relations with the lord king”of whom it could
be said, as of a yet greater ruler, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away.
William managed to earn all his rewards with his sword and his loyal counsel,
despite the complicated politics dominated by Henry II and his sons Richard
and John. If William™s masterful negotiations over ¬efs on both sides of the
Channel add a shaded note of realism, the Histoire completely obscures what
Crouch terms John Marshal™s ˜quicksilver loyalties™ during the civil war of

We should note Crouch™s warning that William™s career was more military in focus than

many of his contemporaries: William Marshal, 3, 22“3. The argument is simply that the emphasis
in the Histoire is not out of line with that in books by Geoffroi de Charny and Sir Thomas Malory,
and that prowess as a key element in the general ethos of chivalry was important even to men who
did not devote as much of their time to military enterprises as William did.
See the discussion in Gillingham, ˜War and Chivalry™.

Even on behalf of King John, ˜because he always loved loyalty™: Meyer, ed., Histoire,

l. 14590.
The emphasis on prowess coincided easily with the idea of courtliness, coming into vogue in

an era with new forms of patronage. See Crouch, William Marshal, 39“40; Southern, Medieval
Humanism; and Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Stephen™s reign.29 Yet the message of the text is clear: William™s prowess and
his careful and prudent loyalty, continually proved, earned him essential royal
patronage. In the last stage of his active life, blessed by the papal legate,
William acted as no less than guardian of the young Henry III and of his realm
(tutor regis et regni).
Through this young Henry™s wonderful largesse to valiant young knights,
the poet assures his readers, chivalry will be revived (ll. 2635“86). Much
admired by poets and writers who lived on its fruits, the quality of largesse, in
fact, frequently appears among the signature qualities of chivalry displayed by
the Marshal and the young king, son of King Henry. Gentility, we read, was
nourished in the household of largesse (ll. 5060“5). As his prowess and loyalty
won him prize after prize on the tournament ¬eld, the battle¬eld, and the
council chamber, William did the right thing and gave generously, openly, and
with a sense of style.
William™s piety is likewise manifest, though it is sketched rather quickly and
with broad brush strokes. We see him knighted in a ceremony without eccle-
siastical overtones. He goes on pilgrimage to the shrine of the Three Kings of
Cologne. He goes on crusade, but we are left without the detail we would
expect.30 On his deathbed he is accepted into the Order of the Temple. A note
or two of anticlericalism surfaces: we hear of Saints Silver and Gold who are
much honoured at the court of Rome. But William has no doubts about the
relationship between God and chivalry: on the tourney ¬eld and on the bat-
tle¬eld, his cry was ˜On! God help the Marshal (Ça! Dex aie al Mar©chal).™
Piety and prowess merge in the same battlecry.
Even as the great Marshal waited out his ¬nal days, the deeply rooted sense
of lay independence is apparent. On his deathbed he con¬dently denied the
validity of clerical criticisms of knightly practice”speci¬cally of the pro¬t from
Listen to me for a while. The clerks are too hard on us. They shave us too closely. I have
captured ¬ve hundred knights and have appropriated their arms, horses, and their
entire equipment. If for this reason the kingdom of God is closed to me, I can do noth-
ing about it, for I cannot return my booty. I can do no more for God than to give
myself to him, repenting all my sins. Unless the clergy desire my damnation, they must
ask no more. But their teaching is false”else no one could be saved.31

Crouch, William Marshal, 13; he repeatedly points out the gaps and distortions in the

Histoire. Regarding sovereign claims and land on either side of the Channel, Crouch is less censo-
rious than Painter: see pp. 86“7.
David Crouch, however, makes a good case for thinking that the experience marked

William: William Marshal, 51“2.
Quoted in translation by Painter, William Marshal, 285“6. For the original French, see

Meyer ed., Histoire, ll. 18480“96.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 283
With eternity stretching before him from the foot of his deathbed, the great-
est knight of his age calmly brushed aside clerical strictures on the career that
had given him so pleasing a combination of wealth and honour.
In this same conversation he likewise rejected the pious advice that he sell all
the ¬ne robes kept in his household and give alms to secure forgiveness for his
sins. First, he ordered, let each member of his household have his robes in the
accustomed manner; then those left over could go to the poor (ll. 18725“34).
Women usually appear only on the margins of this masculine story.32
According to Georges Duby, ˜[t]he word love, throughout the entire chanson,
never intervenes except between men.™33 Rumours circulated, it is true, that
William was the lover of Margaret, wife of the young king Henry, son of
Henry II. In a confrontation at court, William offered to ¬ght any three
accusers in turn, even to cut off a ¬nger from his right hand”his sword
hand”and ¬ght any accuser with that handicap. Here in life”or at least in the
written Histoire patronized by his heirs”the great knight plays Lancelot from
the pages of romance. The coincidence is hardly surprising. This biography of
the Marshal and the great prose romances spinning out the life of Lancelot
may be separated by only a decade and a half. Rival knights in this scene from
life are as prudent as those who remained silent in the face of Lancelot™s chal-
lenges in the imagined courts of romance. Though William knows he must
leave the court, since the prince™s love has vanished, he is soon recalled in order
to get on with the real work of prowess, serving in his master™s team for the
tournament. The biography of the Marshal does not focus on women; the
Marshal himself does not look like a devotee of ˜courtly love™.34
On the whole this biography takes an optimistic tone with regard to
chivalry. There are no problems”at least no problems are openly recognized.
The great example of chivalry simply must be followed. Even John Marshal,
William™s father, who at times played as ruthless and unprincipled a robber
baron as ever wore armour, is praised by the author as ˜a worthy man, courte-
ous and wise (preudome corteis e sage)™, who was ˜animated by prowess and loy-
alty (proz e loials)™ (ll. 27, 63).35 The work is, of course, what moderns would

Discussed in Duby, Guillaume le Mar©chal, 38“55, and Crouch, William Marshal, 99, 172“3.

Benson even suggests that the appearance of women at some tournaments in the story is anachro-
nistic, that the author here drew upon his own lifetime rather than on events half a century ear-
lier: see ˜The Tournament™, 7.
Duby, Guillaume le Mar©chal, 48. Crouch believes the incident which follows, involving the

young king™s wife, was made up by the poet in imitation of contemporary romance: see William
Marshal, 45“6.
Crouch seems justi¬ably critical of Painter on this point: see William Marshal, 172.

John does say that he cannot tell us all of John™s deeds: he does not know them all. Crouch,

William Marshal, 9“23, provides the best discussion of the career and character of John Marshal,
and insists he was more of a baron than a robber.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
call an authorized biography. The appearance of the standard virtue words
may, however, interest us as much as their sometimes problematic attribution
to John or even William; showing prowess and courtesy, piety, largesse and
loyalty are the ideals. Great successes won by the key quality of prowess cov-
ers any gaps in the ideal framework, even if they are wide enough for a
mounted knight to ride through. The father did what he had to do; the son did
all. Be advised.

Geoffroi de Charny, Livre de chevalerie
Geoffroi de Charny, a practising knight and author of a major vernacular text
on chivalry ranked among the most renowned knights of his age. His Livre de
chevalerie (Book of Chivalry),36 written about 1350, upholds the glittering goal of
¬ne chivalry no less eagerly than Marshal™s biography, and presents it as
embodied no less clearly in and effected by martial deeds. The leitmotif of
Charny™s book is ˜he who does more is of greater worth™. Though he is at pains
to emphasize that all feats of arms are honourable, he calibrates an ascending
scale of knightly prowess: those who ¬ght in individual jousts deserve great
honour; those who ¬ght in the more vigorous mêl©e merit yet more praise;
but those who engage in warfare win highest praise, since war combines joust
and mêl©e in the most demanding circumstances. It seems to Charny ˜that in
the practice of arms in war it is possible to perform in one day all the three dif-
ferent kinds of military art, that is jousting, tourneying and waging war™.37
William Marshal would surely have loved this scale; he lived by it.
In Marshal™s case the all-important pursuit of honour through prowess even
subordinated love as a major component in the knightly life. We saw in
Chapter 10 that Charny ¬nds romantic love a spur to prowess, stating, for
example, that ˜men should love secretly, protect, serve and honour all those
ladies and damsels who inspire knights, men-at-arms and squires to undertake
worthy deeds which bring them honour and increase their renown™. These
˜activities of love and of arms™ overlap easily in his prose; they ˜should be
engaged in with the true and pure gaiety of heart which brings the will to
achieve honour™.38

Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry; Kennedy™s translation of Charny™s text will be

quoted in the following pages.
Ibid., 84“91. Another of Charny™s works, his Demandes pour les jout, les tournois et la guerre, a

series of questions for debate on intricate issues of chivalric practice, similarly emphasizes actual
war; he provides twenty questions on joust, twenty-one on mel©e, but ninety-three on war. See
Taylor, ˜Critical Edition™.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry 120“3.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 285
Yet this acceptance and validation of love, joyful and worldly as it is, does
not form the centre of Charny™s book. As one admired choice, rather than the
sole path for the knight, it is not the single great goal for which prowess exists.
Romantic love is wonderful because it promotes prowess and striving for hon-
our; yet the prowess and the striving take ¬rst rank.
But Charny is willing to qualify his praise of prowess in the best reform
manner. The ¬nest laymen will combine the very best of three types not only
of prowess, but of worth and intelligence as well. Worth may begin with a kind
of innocence, and progress to pious formalities such as giving alms and attend-
ing mass, but its peak is loyally serving God and the Virgin. Likewise, intelli-
gence involves only malicious cleverness at the lowest level, progresses to the
ingenious but overly subtle, and appears at its best in the truly wise. Prowess
is seen initially in those with courage and skill who are, however, thoughtless;
it appears to better advantage in those who perform great deeds of arms per-
sonally, but do not act as leaders or advisers; and it is best found in those brave
men who also command and direct other knights.39
Charny™s omnipresent piety shows as he gives thumbnail sketches of great
men from the past who have missed the highest status because they failed to
recognize their debt to God. But he presents ˜the excellent knight™ Judas
Maccabaeus from the Old Testament as the model. Those who want to reach
such high honours, ˜which they must achieve by force of arms and by good
works (par force d™armes et par bonnes euvres)™, should pattern themselves on
him.40 Thus Charny™s book is much more explicitly a work of reform than
Marshal™s biography. He knows that he must address real problems, however
carefully he coats every suggestion for improvement with the gleaming white-
wash of generous praise.
Reform is absolutely necessary, Charny knows, because the chief problem is
of such central importance: he fears that French knights of his day have lost
their vital commitment to prowess; and with this centre weakened the entire
arch of chivalry threatens to fall about the heads of all. At the time Charny
wrote, the English and their allies had defeated French knights repeatedly, and
were threatening further devastating incursions. When they most needed to
risk all and bear all hardships, the knights of France, incredible as it seemed to
Charny, appeared to prefer the soft life and the safe life, blind to the grand
vision of an existence vested in vigorous deeds, come what may, a life of hon-
our blessed by divine favour.
Ibid., 146“55.

Ibid., 160, line 143. Charny™s phrase can be compared to two statements from Malory,

quoted fully in the next section: Malory endorses the knight who is ˜a good lyver and a man of
prouesse™, and he suggests, through a speech given to a hermit, that the goal of a knight is
˜knyghtly dedys and vertuous lyvyng™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
For a few pages of his book Charny puts aside the whitewash pot and brush
altogether and speaks with curled lip of the timid, cowardly men who call
themselves knights, but who really care only for bodily comforts and safety:
As soon as they leave their abode, if they see a stone jutting out of the wall a little fur-
ther than the others, they will never dare to pass beneath it, for it would always seem
to them that it would fall on their heads. If they come to a river which is a little big or
too fast ¬‚owing, it always seems to them, so great is their fear of dying, that they will
fall into it. If they cross a bridge which may seem a little too high or too low, they dis-
mount and are still terri¬ed lest the bridge collapse under them, so great is their fear of
dying. . . . If they are threatened by anyone, they fear greatly for their physical safety
and dread the loss of the riches they have amassed in such a discreditable way. And if
they see anyone with a wound, they dare not look at it because of their feeble spirit.
. . . Furthermore, when these feeble wretches are on horseback, they do not dare to use
their spurs lest their horses should start to gallop, so afraid are they lest their horses
should stumble and they should fall to the ground with them. Now you can see that
these wretched people who are so fainthearted will never feel secure from living in
greater fear and dread of losing their lives than do those good men-at-arms who have
exposed themselves to so many physical dangers and perilous adventures in order to
achieve honour.41

Later he denounces a second group, those unworthy of the great calling of
bearing arms ˜because of their very dishonest and disordered behaviour under
these arms™. If one set of men utterly lack the foundation of prowess, these men
possess that great gift, but misuse it: ˜it is these men who want to wage war
without good reason, who seize other people without prior warning and with-
out any good cause and rob and steal from them, wound and kill them.™42 He
knows what to call such men: they are ˜cowards and traitors™. It does not mat-
ter if they maintain formal proprieties by abstaining from such behaviour
themselves, only sending their men to do the dirty work. Whether doers or
consenters, such men, in Charny™s view, ˜are not worthy to live or to be in the
company of men of worth™. They ˜have no regard for themselves™, and so,
Charny asks rhetorically, ˜how could they hold others in regard?™43 It seems he
would agree with the assessment of V. G. Kiernan that ˜All military ©lites face
opposite risks: some of their members cannot stop ¬ghting, others”far more,
probably”lapse too readily into sloth.™44
If a failure or misuse of prowess is the chief issue for Charny, it comes as no
surprise to ¬nd this critical problem redoubled by the absence of its essential
companion, loyalty. As prowess withers or mutates, loyalty likewise declines;
faction and treachery seem to ¬‚ourish in their place. Any sentient observer
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 124“9.

Ibid., 176“7. Ibid., 176“81. Kiernan, The Duel, 37.
42 43 44
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 287
could already have seen what so troubled Charny: ambition, regionalism, and
anti-royal politics were already at work in mid-fourteenth century France; they
ensured that the Hundred Years War would become a veritable civil war.
Charny™s book was apparently a part of a royal campaign for reform of gover-
nance in the interest of unity, a campaign in which chivalry in general and the
king™s new royal chivalric order, the Company of the Star, in particular, were
to play a role of obvious importance. In his book Charny dedicated three chap-
ters speci¬cally to outlining the nature of true princely rule.45 Here were
reform ideas modern historians might call ˜top down™: kings must act for the
common pro¬t through vigorous good governance.
Yet the crisis showed with painful clarity how much the chivalric ethos was
needed. Charny thus offered a set of ideas we might characterize as ˜bottom
up™, understanding that the ¬‚ooring here rests under the knights and men-at-
arms and is in effect a ceiling for the great mass of Frenchmen. Charny™s solu-
tion is direct and uncomplicated: the code must simply be followed. The
knightly”indeed, all men living by the honourable profession of arms”must
do their duty manfully, even joyously, knowing the rewards awaiting them
when they next walk into a court to a murmur of praise, followed by the soft
eyes of the ladies, as in time they will know the rewards awaiting them as they
are welcomed into the court of heaven by the God of battles.
The answer seems so obvious to him: practice prowess, show loyalty. This
is what God wants; this is what God will reward. Charny seems almost to
exhaust even his immense energy, telling the essentials to his audience time
and again, in the hope that even the obvious slackers of his own generation will
¬nally see the plain truth.
In a time of crisis, as disaster threatened the very kingdom of France, Jean
II and his great knight saw eye to eye on reform of the chief military force in
the realm. But we, for our part, need to see that if chevalerie and royaut© trav-
elled the same path here (as they often could and did), the reform suggested
by Charny is, in fact, much more elementary, much slighter than the ideas for
reform which royaut© generally thrust at chivalry. Charny™s plan is something
different, the standard knightly view, understandably recommending itself
powerfully at this moment to the French king. In mid-fourteenth century
France a clarion call for an augmented display of prowess and loyalty, but-
tressed by the certitude of divine favour, could sound like a ¬ne reform pro-
gramme to a monarch facing a military and political crisis.

Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 138“47, provides the relevant text and translation;

pp. 53“5, 59“63, provide historical context.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Charny closes his great effort with (to borrow Maurice Keen™s characteriza-
tion once again46) a combination prayer and war cry: ˜Pray to God for him
who is the author of this book . . . Charni, Charny.™ The statement recalls
Marshal™s war cry, which likewise sounded his own name and called
con¬dently upon God™s aid. Charny™s piety is more explicit and certainly more
voluble. Yet the basic assumptions are similar. Knights who do their hard duty
with loyalty and honesty can be assured of divine favour. God will receive
them into an eternity of blissful reward. There can be no question whether or
not a man can save his soul by the profession of arms; there can be no danger
to the soul in ¬ghting for the right causes”in just wars, to protect one™s kin
and their estates, to protect helpless maidens, widows, and orphans, to protect
one™s own land and inheritance, to defend Holy Church. The list is generous,
and accepts no cavils or criticisms.47 The divine blessing on reformed chivalry
is clear.
Even Charny™s statement of clerical superiority has a somewhat formal ring;
he soon betrays his sense that the great role that chivalry must play in the world
gives it a special status. Like William Marshal a century before, he is happiest
when religion comes heavily blended with chivalry; again in company with the
Marshal, he most heartily endorses clerics who perform all the needed rites and
then stand aside for the magni¬cent work with sword and lance.

Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur
How can we add Malory™s Morte Darthur,48 a work of imaginative chivalric lit-
erature, to the model biography and the treatise composed by a practising
knight? This book will, of necessity, be quite different from our ¬rst two
sources, primarily because it is a highly original reworking of a mass of literary
texts, English as well as French. These texts bring with them many currents of
thought about chivalry (including some of the most intense efforts to infuse
chivalry with monastic values), locked in con¬‚ict with developed French ideas
about amors. In addition, because of these numerous sources drawn into
Malory™s work, and often given new shape there, his book is vastly larger and
more complex than the two we have so far considered in this chapter.49

Keen, Chivalry, 14. Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 154“67.
46 47

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works. For an introduction to the enormous body of scholarship on

this author and work, see Life, Sir Thomas Malory.
Useful general approaches appear in Brewer, ˜Malory™; idem, ed., Malory, ˜Introduction™; and

Benson, Malory™s Morte Darthur. On Malory and chivalry, see Tucker, ˜Chivalry in the Morte™;
McCarthy, Morte Darthur, 76“93; Barber, ˜Chivalry™. Beverly Kennedy, Knighthood, argues a
highly schematic typology of knighthood in Malory.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 289
Yet there are sound reasons for making Malory™s book our ¬nal text, as we
consider reform of chivalry by the knightly. One of the few facts about Sir
Thomas Malory that can be advanced without igniting instant controversy is
that he was a knight himself, and very probably a practising or strenuous
knight. He clearly tells us in the pages of the Morte Darthur that he is a knight;
the favourite scholarly candidate among the several Thomas Malorys advanced
as the author of this great book appears to have had an active career in
Moreover, he shows concern for the themes that we have already encoun-
tered in the life of William Marshal and in the manual of Geoffroi de Charny.
In company with the other knight-authors, that is, Malory shows a vast admi-
ration for prowess (the key to honour, if practised properly), a concern for the
crucial role of loyalty, a somewhat subordinate interest in romantic love, and
an unswerving belief that God blesses the entire chivalric enterprise. We will
examine each of these points.51
Could any reader of Morte Darthur doubt that Malory admires prowess?
The only danger seems to be the modern tendency to hurry past this virtue in
an effort to infuse it with deeper and less physical meanings, or quickly to qual-
ify it with checks and softening qualities more to our modern taste. But
Malory likes prowess. He vastly admires men who can beat other men in

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