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armour, on horseback, with lance and sword.52
His admiration stands forth most clearly and without competing distrac-
tions in the early tales of his book, full of the ˜noble chere of chevalry™ equated
with ˜the hardyeste fyghters that ever they herde other sawe™. Malory says
Arthur, ¬ghting with Accolon, has lost so much blood that he can barely
stand, ˜but he was so full of knighthood that he endured the pain™. Kay is con-
temptuous of Gareth™s ¬rst, simple request of Arthur, a request for sustenance,
˜for an he had be come of jantyllmen, he wolde have axed [i.e. asked for] horse
and armour™.53
This admiration for prowess, so evident in Malory™s accounts of Arthur™s
wars to establish and expand his realm, scarcely disappears or lessens through-
out the rest of the book, even though other themes (the Grail, the love of

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 110, 726. For a recent extended defence of the Thomas Malory

of Newbold Revel as the author, see Field, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Mahoney
comments that Malory™s book ˜is full of touches that demonstrate his practical knowledge of the
¬ghting life™: ˜Malory™s Morte Darthur™, 530.
Another similarity is that Malory makes of chivalry an ideal as it was in the Marshal biogra-

phy and Charny™s book. Since the world can never quite live up to any such ideals, Malory™s book,
like the others, is a work of chivalric reform.
In addition to the quotations which follow, all taken from Vinaver, Malory. Works, see the

many examples drawn from Malory in Chapter 7.
Ibid., 198, 24, 86, 178.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Lancelot and Queen Guinevere) take on prominence. For it is through the
practice of prowess that the knights win worship”probably the highest
human good in Malory™s view, and a chief ingredient in nobility. Characters
who have seen good displays of ¬ghting say they have seen noble knight-
Throughout the book worship is proved on other men™s bodies. Balin says
to his brother that they will attack King Rion with just this in mind: ˜kynge
Ryons lyeth at the sege of the Castell Terrable, and thydir woll we draw in all
goodly haste to preve our worship and prouesse uppon hym.™55 The many bat-
tle scars on Lancelot™s body, evident when for a time he runs naked and mad
in the woods, prove to those who see him that he is a man of worship. To fail
in a ¬ght is to get no worship from an opponent.56
Malory so values the military side of knighthood and the worship produced
by ¬ghting well that he emphasizes the life of prowess even at the expense of
the romantic love so evident in his French sources. As scholars have argued for
some time, Malory speaks in the most positive terms of stability in love, of
affection arising naturally and enduring steadfastly; but he seems unhappy and
even irritable when love becomes highly mannered and formalized in a cult in
the manner of French ¬n amors.57
His recasting of the tale of Tristram and Isolde makes the point nicely.
Though he tells us Tristram could not live without Isolde, ˜Malory™s own state-
ment™, P. E. Tucker argues, ˜is not made plausible. On the other hand, much
is made of Tristram™s other virtues as a knight.™58 Eugène Vinaver similarly
thinks that ˜love is not allowed to interfere with the customs of knight-
errantry. As a true knight-errant, what Tristram values above all is not the pres-
ence of his beloved, nor the joy of sharing every moment of his life with her,
but the high privilege of ¬ghting in her name.™59 Tucker identi¬es what may be
Malory™s key interest in the matter of the love between knight and lady.
Malory ˜is concerned largely with stability, that is, loyalty in love. . . . Malory
¬nds ¬delity in love praiseworthy in itself”ultimately, perhaps, because it is a
form of loyalty.™60 Sadly, love in his own day does not meet Malory™s high stan-
dards: ˜And ryght so faryth the love nowadays, sone hote sone colde. Thys ys
no stabylyt©. But the olde love was nat so.™61
E.g. Vinaver ed., Malory. Works, 277.

Ibid., 44.
56 Ibid., 499, 330, 370.
57 See the cogent argument of Tucker, ˜Chivalry in the Morte™. Cf. Edwards, ˜Place of Women™.
58 ˜Chivalry in the Morte™, 73. In general this essay has much of interest to say on the entire issue

of chivalry in Malory™s view.
59 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 750.
60 ˜Chivalry in the Morte™, 81. Cf. Peter Waldron, ˜ “Vertuouse Love”, 54“61.
61 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 649.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 291
The issue leads to a point of basic importance to understanding Malory™s
view of chivalry in relation to our earlier exemplars. As Tucker has noted,
prowess, too, is praiseworthy in itself, and ˜[a]part from its inherent worth,
prowess is admirable because it brings a knight reputation and honour, or
what Malory calls “worship” ™.62 The chief qualities which are praiseworthy in
themselves and which lead to other virtues are thus identi¬ed as prowess and
loyalty, the twin pillars which upheld so much of the structure of Charny™s
book, the interlinked set of qualities so important to William Marshal™s suc-
cessful career.
˜Stabylyt©™, Malory thinks, should be embodied in good love. Lancelot and
Guinevere are true lovers because of their constant loyalty, their stability,
despite all obstacles, despite doubts, misunderstandings, and quarrels.
˜Stabylyt©™ should likewise, Malory thinks, be embodied in sound politics.
Just as loyalty should bind two true lovers, the knight and his lady, so should
loyalty bind together the king and his knights.63 Lancelot, the great knight,
upholds Arthur, the great king, who, in reciprocation, supports knighthood.
With this great bond mortared in place like a capstone in an arch, all the
realm will be whole. Could Charny have read Malory™s view, would he not
have agreed wholeheartedly, possibly adding one of his exclamations of ˜He,
Dieu!™ to underscore the point? Furthermore, Charny would have agreed
with Malory that to the great pairing of prowess and honour must be added
the essential loyalty that makes love prosper, that makes political society
As the Arthurian world collapses, Malory speaks out directly and with force
to his audience, presenting a clear view of the problem and at least by implica-
tion a simple solution:
Lo ye all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste
kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshyp of noble
knyghtes, and by hym they all were upholdyn, and yet myght nat thes Englysshemen
holde them contente with hym. Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe,
and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom. Alas! thys ys a greate
defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.65

Tucker, ˜Chivalry in the Morte™, 65.

The splendid praise of political stability which Malory addresses to his readers (˜Lo ye all

Englysshemen™: see Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 708) can be compared, with some interest, to a
long passage in Sir Thomas Gray™s Scalacronica (in Maxwell, tr., 75“6), and to a political sermon-
ette on unity in Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (in Thorpe, tr., 264“5).
It would perhaps not be pressing a point too far to note that loyalty is here taking on more

of a royalist cast, serving as a signpost to the greater emphasis on the crown as the focus of loyalty
and source of honour in the centuries to come.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 78.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
A stable political society might have a chance, in Malory™s view, if it were
headed by a great king who was supported by great knights. The participation
of them all in the High Order of Knighthood is the key ingredient. Men of
worship all working together might make the world right.
The contrast Malory draws between the kingship of Mark and of Arthur
speaks to this theme repeatedly. Mark is a felon, no supporter of knights, no
discriminating judge of worship in men, no personal practitioner of prowess.
This heavy judgement is delivered against him by one character after another.
Berluse tells him to his face that he is ˜the most vylaunce knyght of a kynge that
is now lyvynge, for ye are a destroyer of good knyghtes, and all that ye do is
but by treson.™ Dynadan adds to the charges:
ye ar full of cowardyse, and ye ar also a murtherar, and that is the grettyst shame that
ony knyght may have, for nevir had knyght murtherer worshyp, nother never shall
have. For I sawe but late thorow my forse ye wolde have slayne sir Berluses, a better
knyght than ever ye were or ever shall be, and more of proues.66

The quality of prowess in a king is, of course, a key. When Lancelot learns that
Mark had murdered his own knight, he opposes him; Mark ˜made no differ-
ence but tumbled adowne oute of his sadyll to the erthe as a sak, and there he
lay stylle™. Mark™s lack of the essential trait of knighthood could scarcely be
clearer. Lacking prowess, he must resort to the trickery that causes Lancelot to
label him ˜Kynge Foxe™.67
Arthur splendidly reverses all these qualities in his practice of kingship.
Some of the qualities praised in earlier English works reappear. The young
Arthur, holding in his hands the sword just pulled from the stone, promises
justice to all; he hears ˜complayntes™, clearly the plaints or querelae which
brought so much judicial work to real-life English kings.68
Yet the emphasis is not placed on Arthur as governor. Malory is much more
inclined to praise Arthur as ˜the ¬‚oure of chevalry™, and to assure his readers
that ˜all men of worship seyde hit was myrry to be under such a chyfftayne that
wolde putte hys person in adventure as other poure knyghtis ded™.69 Speaking
directly to King Mark, Gaheris later sums up this essential element in Arthur™s
rule, in words conveying a telling contrast: ˜the kynge regnys as a noble
knyght™. Arthur knows, as Mark does not, that ˜a kynge anoynted with creyme
[chrism] . . . sholdest holde with all men of worship™.70

Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, 357, 358. Ibid., 365, 380.
66 67

Ibid., 10. Cf. Harding, ˜Plaints and Bills™.

Vinaver, Malory. Works, 362, 36. The tradition of the knightly king was venerable. A classic

example appears in Sir Degar©, ll. 9“18: see Laskaya and Salisbury, eds, Breton Lays.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 333, 335.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 293
Malory states the need for this bond between monarchy and chivalry time
and again. Even the queenship of Guinevere is evaluated by this same stan-
dard. Accused of killing Sir Patrice with poisoned fruit (the unfortunate fellow
˜swall sore tyll he braste™), her innocence is defended by Bors, who justi¬es her
in terms of her overall relationship to knighthood:
Fayre lordis . . . never yet in my dayes knew I never ne harde sey that ever she was a
destroyer of good knyghtes, but at all tymes, as far as ever I coude know, she was a
maynteyner of good knyghtes; and ever she hath bene large and fre of hir goodis to all
good knyghtes, and the moste bownteuous lady of hir gyftis and her good grace that
ever I saw other harde speke off.71

Here, queenly largesse stands in for the prowess which bonds the king to his
A veritable chorus of knights makes the case for the other half of the for-
mula, the role of the knights themselves. The realm needs great knighthood,
they say, to quote only one classic statement:
˜For we all undirstonde, in thys realme woll be no quyett, but ever debate and stryff,
now the felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn. For by the noble felyshyp of the
Rounde Table was kynge Arthur upborne, and by their nobeles the kynge and all the
realme was ever in quyet and reste. And a grete parte,™ they sayde all, ˜was because of
youre moste nobeles, sir Launcelot.™72

Though Lancelot mutters polite disclaimers, the truth has been spoken.
The king and his knights, then, are joint practitioners of the religion of hon-
our, backed, of course, by the God of Christianity. The king runs the court in
which this sun shines, its rays touching knights everywhere. Knights who are
at the court or who are sent out from the court settle all problems. The great
ideal of the privileged is imaginatively maintained: they have a personal bond
with the monarch; they basically act out of free choice; few purely royal con-
straints affect them.73 A good example is set by the king and the great knights;
those who will not learn lose their worship at the tip of a lance or the edge of
a sword.
Regality plus knighthood yields order. The quotidian reality barely appears
at all: if Malory mentions a parliament or the commons once in a while, there
is nothing of the work of legal and ¬scal administration, of sheriffs and coro-
ners, of taxation, of justices and parchment rolls closely etched with the crabbed
Latin record of lawsuits”all of the administrative apparatus which helped
run medieval England and which had at least left its traces in earlier works of
Ibid., 617. Ibid., 699.
71 72

We will encounter this sense of personal contract or bond as late as the seventeenth century

in the Epilogue.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
literature in England. Did Malory, perhaps, take all this for granted in the late
¬fteenth century? Or was he, rather, looking behind it to what appeared to him
a deeper layer of problems? He seems to be going back to what he must have
considered fundamentals, stressing kingship which looks rather like warlord-
ship writ large, alongside knighthood armed with prowess and crowned with
worship. If only they would work together, the administrative apparatus
(hardly ¬t subject for his book, and not in his sources in any case) could work
quietly in the background while the trumpets sound and the horses™ hoofs
pound the earth as they carry their proud warriors to deeds of worship.
The tragedy, of course, is that he knows it does not really work, either in the
books he reads or in the world he inhabits. But he must tell the story: Arthur
and the Round Table move with unstoppable momentum towards the cliff
edge, towards the fall of both the ˜moste kynge™ and the fellowship of the
greatest knights. His book ends”despite these magni¬cent exemplars”in
human imperfection and utter destruction.
Worship and stability are the great goals celebrated in Morte Darthur. Their
realization, however, always seems temporary and fragile, always threatened;
and in the end the great structure collapses in a cataclysm of jealousy, treach-
ery, and murderous civil war. This bittersweet ¬‚avour of Malory™s great book
has surely contributed to its enduring popularity; readers have always
responded to its juxtaposition of high ideals with the realities of shattered
dreams. For our analysis this combination suggests at least an indirect impulse
at work in the interests of reform, conceived in the broadest sense. Malory™s
admiration for a world of chivalry and worship, of stability in true love, and
honourable governance, is so heartfelt that he need not explicitly advocate a
reform programme; as in the model biography of William Marshal, the glow-
ing description of the ideal (and constant reminders of its neglect or inversion)
may be enough. Contemporary readers could well ¬nish the text with a sense
that their world should more closely approximate this ideal, that chivalry could
provide a moral as well as a military and societal structure. Medieval and
Tudor readers found the book deeply satisfying and hopeful. Belief in the
grandeur and possibilities of linking chevalerie with royaut©, blessed by the
understanding practitioners of clergie, was far from moribund in the late
¬fteenth century.
Certainly, William Caxton thought so as the sheets of Malory™s book came
out of his printing press. As Caxton famously advised his readers in his preface
to the printed book, ˜Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you
to good fame and renomee.™74 Whatever his doubts about the historicity of

Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, xv.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 295
Arthur, he said outright in his edition of Morte Darthur that Malory could be
read as a text of reform as well as a paean of praise:
And I, accordyng to my copye, have doon sette it in enprynte to the entente that noble
men may see and lerne the noble actes of chyvalrye, the jentyl and vertuous dedes that
somme knyghtes used in tho dayes, by whyche they came to honour, and how they that
were vycious were punysshed and ofte put to shame and rebuke; humbly bysechyng al
noble lordes and ladyes with al other estates, of what estate or degree they been of, that
shal see and rede in this sayd book and werke, that they take the good and honest actes
in their remembraunce, and to folowe the same. . . . Doo after the good and leve the
evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renomee.75

Reform to ensure Malory™s ideal of knighthood is not only built into the
structure and spirit of the entire work but appears in speci¬c messages scat-
tered throughout its pages. Malory gives continual signposts along the high
road to worship. There are rules to be followed in the ¬ghting; men who yield
are to be spared; women are to be protected; jealousy is no part of true wor-
ship. Tristram announces uncompromisingly that ˜manhode is nat worthe but
yf hit be medled with wysdome™.76 Lancelot is shocked when he is told about
a vile knight: ˜ “What”, seyde sir Launcelot, “is he a theff and a knyght? And a
ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the Order of Knyghthode, and con-
trary unto his oth. Hit is pyt© that he lyvyth!” ™77 The ˜oth™ to which Lancelot
refers is that which Arthur required of his knights at every Pentecost. At the
feast which originated the custom:
the kynge stablysshed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys; and charged
them never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to ¬‚e treson, and to gyff
mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of for¬ture of their worship and lord-
ship of kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allways to do ladyes, damesels, and jantil-
women and wydowes socour; strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them,
uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for
no love ne for no worldis goodis.78

It is a practical oath. The reform goals are not wild: no outrages, murder, trea-
son, no ¬ghting for immoral causes in hope of gain, no rape (at least none
committed against gentlewomen); knights are, instead, to help ladies.
All such efforts, ¬nally, came with the stamp of divine approval. Malory, no
less than William Marshal and Geoffroi de Charny, combines a belief in God

Printed in ibid. A characteristic English social broadening is at work here; reformed chivalry

is not limited to an exclusive caste, but is considered a guide to life for all honourable men.
Ibid., 428. The powerful pull of prowess appears a few pages later, however, when Malory

tells us that two brothers ˜were men of grete prouesse; howbehit that they were falsse and full of
treson, and but poore men born, yet were they noble knyghtes of their handys™: p. 437.
Ibid., 160. Ibid., 75.
77 78
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
as the author of chivalry with a fairly independent attitude towards speci¬c
clerical restraints. He knows God can have no quarrel with prowess per se. As
the quest for the Holy Grail begins, no knight, Malory says, found a ˜braunche
of holy herbe that was the signe of the Sancgreall . . . but he were a good lyver
and a man of prouesse™.79 The combination of virtues calls to mind Charny™s
belief in living ˜by force of arms and good works™.80
Malory is willing at times in this tale to follow his sources and to emphasize
absolute faith over prowess. Lancelot, coming to the entrance to Corbenic,
guarded by lions, has the sword he has drawn struck from his hand. A voice
tells him: ˜O, man of evylle feyth and poure byleve! Wherefore trustist thou
more on thy harneyse than in thy Maker? For He myght more avayle the than
thyne armour, in what servyse that thou arte sette in.™81 Yet Malory™s Grail
quest is not that of his thirteenth-century French source (examined in Chapter
12), with its strict and judgemental comparison of mere earthly chivalry with
the true, heavenly chivalry.82 As Richard Barber observes, if he thinks of the
Grail quest as ˜the greatest of all the quests undertaken by Arthur™s knights™, it
˜still remains an adventure, and not an integral part of the Table™s purpose.
And this tells us a great deal about Malory™s attitude to chivalry.™83 He may
think of chivalry as ideally a high order, with genuine mission and high dig-
nity, but (as P. E. Tucker observes) his ideal is more like a great secular order
than the celibate and highly ecclesiastical Order of the Temple as catechized by
St Bernard of Clairvaux. In Malory™s view, chivalry may be right or wrong in
its practice, and stands thus in need of constant reform, yet it is all ˜worldly™
chivalry to him. The division falls, in other words, not between earthly and
heavenly, but between right chivalry and wrong chivalry in the world.84
In fact, like so many late medieval Englishmen, Malory™s concern for reli-
gion regularly translates into an attempt to practise morality in the quotidian
world. A hermit tells Gawain that ˜whan ye were ¬rst made knyght ye sholde
have takyn you to knyghtly dedys and vertuous lyvyng™.85 This is exactly what
Malory™s Lancelot tries to do. As a fallible man in the world, he fails, of course,
but that failure does not diminish him in Malory™s eyes. The goal remains a vir-
tuous life in the practice of chivalry”in the world. The perfection of Galahad,
much though it must be admired, is not for most men, and so is not really a

Vinaver ed., Malory, Works, 81. Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 160.
79 80

Vinaver, Malory. Works, 596.

For a range of points of view, see ibid., 758“60; Benson, Malory™s Morte Darthur, 205“22;

Mahoney, ˜Truest and Holiest Tale™; Atkinson, ˜Malory™s Lancelot™; Shichtman, ˜Politicizing the
Barber, ˜Chivalry™, 34. Tucker, ˜Chivalry in the Morte™.
83 84

Vinaver, Malory. Works, 535. The parallel with being a ˜good lyver and a man of prouesse™,

quoted just above, is striking.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 297
practical model for knights trying to live in the world.86 It is to encourage and
steer these noble knights living in the very real world that Malory wrote.

Texts that are especially close to knighthood in the world, then, show us again
that the chivalry of strenuous knights was not simply practice”how knights
acted”but also how they thought about practice, and with what enthusiasm
they spoke their hopes for an ideal that was so largely of their own making”
or at least of their own choosing. Emphases changed over time as our writers
responded to perceived changes in their society. Charny focused on a decline
in prowess in an age marked by disastrous defeats of French knighthood.
Malory said much about loyalty and political stability in an age of dynastic
strife in England, and much about personal morality at a time when the focus
of lay piety was directed at virtuous living in the world.
Yet the similarities linking William Marshal™s Histoire, Charny™s manual, and
Malory™s great summa are instructive. These three works particularly value the
prowess that secures honour; the knights in these texts live by loyalty, the
needed complement to prowess; if love of a lady is not the centre of their lives,
they accept, or even praise love as a spur to prowess, as its just reward; and if
they stoutly keep watch over their rights where the clerics are concerned, they
thank God heartily as the source of the highest patronage given so freely to
those who live the strenuous life and hazard their bodies, their honour, their
all, in the great game of chivalry.
Both Ramon Llull and Raoul de Hodenc likewise testify to this conception
of chivalry, though they both oppose it. Their books reveal lively fears that
active, practising knights will place excessive belief in prowess. Raoul de
Hodenc worries that the constellation of beliefs centred on prowess will
smother liberality and courtesy; from ¬rst-hand experience, Llull fears that
prowess will engender pride and disruptive violence.
For William Marshal, Geoffroi de Charny, and Sir Thomas Malory, how-
ever, this set of values rightly shapes the world they ¬nd honourable. Their
books offer praise for that world and press forward the hope that all will be
well if only their fellow knights adhere to such ideals even more closely.

See the thoughtful discussion of Tucker in ˜Chivalry in the Morte™.

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