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it ¬rst seemed to Balain that this stroke was justi¬ed, his monumental error
becomes progressively clear. This time, he cannot ignore the voice, which
trumpets the following sentence, the entire castle trembling all the while as if
the world were coming to an end:

Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, chs 8, 10“13, 16“23; Paris and Uhlric, eds, Merlin, I, 212“25,
54

233“61, 276“80; II, 1“60. For Balain™s story in most recent French edition, see Roussineau, ed.,
Merlin, I, 65“111, 129“97. David Campbell has also translated these passages: see Tale of Balain.
Public Order and the Knights 27
Now begin the adventures and marvels of the Kingdom of Adventures which will not
cease until a high price is paid, for soiled, befouled hands having touched the Holy
Lance and wounded the most honored of princes and the High Master will avenge it
on those who have not deserved it.55

Balain has, of course, seized the sacred lance that pierced the side of Christ, the
Lance of Longinus, and has used it against the king into whose care God had
entrusted the keeping of the Holy Grail.
What follows may remind modern readers of an atomic bomb explosion,
with rings of gradually decreasing devastation. A great part of the castle wall
falls; hundreds within the castle die from pure fear; in the surrounding town
many die and others are maimed and wounded as houses tumble into rubble;
no one dares to enter the castle for several days, as a sense of divine wrath akin
to radiation lingers. Merlin ¬nally leads people back into the site, accompanied
by a priest wearing ˜the armour of Jesus Christ™, which alone will guarantee
them safe entry. Finding Balain, Merlin leads him out, even providing him
with the necessary mount. Everywhere he rides the prospect is cheerless:
As he rode through the land, he found the trees down and broken and grain destroyed
and all things laid waste, as if lightning had struck in each place, and unquestionably it
had struck in many places, though not everywhere. He found half the people in the vil-
lages dead, both bourgeois and knights, and he found laborers dead in the ¬elds. What
can I tell you? He found the kingdom of Listinois so totally destroyed that it was later
called by everyone the Kingdom of Waste Land and the Kingdom of Strange Land,
because everywhere the land had become so strange and wasted.56
So powerful and complex an incident as the Dolorous Stroke can only be
considered a polyvalent symbol. Yet we can see immediately its signi¬cance for
our enquiry. A man who is recognized as one of the best knights in the world
takes perhaps understandable vengeance for unprovoked attacks. Fleeing for
his life, weaponless, he commits the great sin. A knight, whatever his good
qualities, has laid profane hands on the weapon that pierced God in the course
of divine redemption and has used it in his private quarrel to wound one of his
fellow knights and one of God™s chosen agents. Devastation, like lightning”
like war”blots out or blights the lives of innocent people throughout an
entire region. Pure knightly prowess, highly praised at the opening of this
story, has produced these stunning results near its close.
Is such evidence representative or merely exceptional? Extensive reading in
chivalric literature provides a convincing answer, for these works are ¬lled
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 212; Bogdanow, Romance of the Grail, 246, supplies the pas-
55

sage quoted, on one of the pages of the old French text missing in Paris and Uhlric, eds. Merlin,
II.
Asher, Merlin Continuation, 214; Paris and Uhlric, Merlin, II, 30.
56
Issues and Approaches
28
with plentiful and consistent evidence along the lines of the passages already
noted. As we will see in exploring this literature, almost any text to which we
turn shows deep concern over disruptive violence in medieval society.


Conclusion
Medieval writers”historians, authors of vernacular manuals, and creators of
the ¬ction patronized at the most in¬‚uential levels of society”clearly voiced
concerns for order, fears about unrestrained violence, and hopes for some path
to improvement. It is important to locate what was the origin, in their view,
of the problem of disorder and unfettered force.
Of course, ordinary crimes of the sort to be expected”robbery, assault, and
the like”and committed by the most ordinary farmers and carpenters, clearly
received much attention in our period; sometimes public outcry or a particu-
larly vigorous lord or lord king generated new measures to stiffen the criminal
law to deal with these crimes. Likewise, the seigneurial regime itself produced
impositions that might easily lead to fears of popular rebellion, another kind
of violence. Sometimes these fears took on frightening reality. As towns
increased in size and strength, their demands for a corresponding control over
their own governance easily led to urban uprisings, even as the settling of their
internal affairs and shifting social and economic hierarchies produced seem-
ingly endless quarrels. Over time the accumulating burdens of governmental
taxation, whether royal or regional, would likewise produce fears of popular
revolt.
Yet the common concern of our evidence points unmistakably in another
direction. What particularly worries all our witnesses is not primarily common
or garden crime, not country folk attacking their lordly exploiters, not simply
urban unrest, not tax revolt, but the violence of knights. The medieval prob-
lem of order took on its particular contours because the lay elite combined
autonomy and proud violence in the defence of honour.
Of course the violence of feuding (or ˜the peace in the feud™, if we choose to
look at its ideal bene¬ts)57 can provide one formula for establishing hierarchy
and settling disputes. Yet this pattern, prominent in earlier medieval centuries,
was unlikely to continue to satisfy all expectations, especially in an era experi-
encing as much fundamental growth and change as occurred in Europe in the
Central Middle Ages. We will be especially interested in the relationships
between this autonomous, violent elite and centralizing authorities, who, on
the obvious basis of much popular support, were developing strong views
Southall, ˜Peace in the Feud™. Many scholars have studied medieval dispute resolution. See,
57

e.g., White, ˜Pactum™; Geary, ˜Vivre en con¬‚it™; Davis and Fouracre, eds, Settlement of Disputes.
Public Order and the Knights 29
about licit and illicit violence and the authority for setting those categories”
even as they enthusiastically raised banners of war themselves.
As Europeans moved into one of the most signi¬cant periods of growth and
change in their early history, they increasingly found the proud, heedless vio-
lence of knights, their praise for settling any dispute by force, for acquiring any
desired goal by force on any scale attainable, an intolerable fact of social life.
Such violence and disorder were not easily compatible with other facets of the
civilization they were forming.
We will misunderstand chivalry if we fail to set it squarely in the context of
this knightly violence so evidently in the minds of all our witnesses or if we
miss the linkage of this issue with the broader search for that degree of order
essential to the creation of high medieval society. This context sets the tone,
and, as Maurice Keen has sagely observed, the meaning of chivalry is to a
signi¬cant degree tonal.58 By placing chivalry within this context, we can move
beyond microanalysis, close attention to the evidence of chivalric ideals in the
careers of individual knights, and engage in macroanalysis, considering the
social effects of chivalry and speci¬cally its complex role in public order.
Insisting on the very complexity of that role, this book parts company with
much scholarship that has characterized chivalry in less problematic terms, as
a positive and less ambiguous force for building an ordered society. The fol-
lowing chapters will argue that medieval evidence on chivalry and order is
¬lled with tension and contradiction. Among its contemporaries, chivalry won
high praise as one of the very pillars of medieval civilization, indeed, of all civil-
ization. At the same time the practitioners of its great virtue, prowess, inspired
fear in the hearts of those committed to certain ideals of order. As they wor-
ried about the problem of order in their developing civilization, thoughtful
medieval people argued that chivalry (reformed to their standards) was the
great hope, even as they sensed that unreformed chivalry was somehow the
great cause for fear. How chivalry could be praised to the heavens at the same
time it could be so feared as a dark and sinister force with ¬‚aming weaponry
makes a topic worth investigating.

Keen, Chivalry, 2.
58
2
EVIDENCE ON CHIVALRY AND
ITS INTERPRETATION
ddd


O U R investigation can rely in part on the kinds of evidence long used by
historians”chronicles and judicial records, for example. But this book
will draw heavily on the evidence available in the vast body of chivalric literary
texts, a rich source much less frequently (and certainly less comprehensively)
used by historians. It is a species of evidence that can provoke doubts and mis-
givings.1


Did Knights Read Romance?
We must ¬rst be certain knights actually attended to works of imaginative lit-
erature, either by reading or listening.2 Of the various kinds of writing within
the rubric of chivalric literature only the works traditionally classed as romance
are in question.3 No one doubts that chivalric biography, chanson de geste, and

Elspeth Kennedy, ˜The Knight as Reader™. See also Duby, preface to Flori, L™Id©ologie du
1

glaive. Jacques le Goff, in his introduction to Boutet and Strubel, Litt©rature, politique et soci©t©, 18,
argues: ˜[L]es historiens ©prouvent de plus en plus le besoin d™integrer dans leur champ docu-
mentaire le document litt©raire et prennent conscience du double caractère de l™oeuvre litt©raire, à
la fois comme document sp©ci¬que, document de l™imaginaire, et comme document d™histoire
totale, pour peu qu™on sache y d©mêler les relations compliqu©s de la soci©t©, de la litt©rature et des
pouvoirs.™ As Spiegel writes, ˜texts both mirror and generate social realities, are constrained by and
constitute the social and discursive formations which they may sustain, resist, contest, or seek to
transform™: ˜History, Historicism™, 77. Strohm, discussing problems of reading texts, rightly calls
˜literary™ and ˜historical™ texts ˜outworn categorization™: Hochon™s Arrow, 3“9. I occasionally use
such terms in this book only as traditional categories.
More may have heard than read. As Asher notes, in the Merlin Continuation, ˜there are only
2

two references to reading the story instead of hearing it . . . (273, n. 8).™ However, as Clanchy has
demonstrated, lay literacy was much higher than we once thought: From Memory to Written
Record. Hindman discusses these issues for Chr©tien™s romances in Sealed in Parchment.
No rigid separation of chanson and romance is suggested. Current scholarship blurs older cat-
3

egories of chanson de geste and romance, emphasizing rough coincidence in time and space and
increasing broad similarities. Calin provides a good introduction to this theme, with many cita-
tions, in A Muse for Heroes and in ˜Rapport introductif ™. Cf. Kibler, ˜Chanson d™aventure™ and
Maddox, ˜Figures romanesques™. Kay argues for essential difference with a dialogic relationship
between genres: Chansons de Geste. The relationship of chivalry to growing governmental
Chivalry and its Interpretation 31
vernacular manuals of chivalry were written for knights and read or heard by
knights. But what of the extensive body of romance?
As Elspeth Kennedy has shown, knights in the very real world referred fre-
quently and familiarly to these works of literature. A ˜two-way traf¬c™ con-
nected these men of war, law, and politics with Arthurian romance no less than
chanson de geste. Many owned copies of these texts, which seem to have been
readily passed from one set of hands to another, often registering considerable
wear.4 Some, such as the father of the famous jurist Philippe de Beaumanoir,
even wrote romance themselves.5 Under Isabella and Mortimer, the English
Privy Wardrobe issued works of romance to male and female courtiers alike;
Mortimer himself borrowed twenty-three such works and must have spon-
sored a romance-reading group.6 Geoffroi de Charny, the leading French
knight of the mid-fourteenth century, apparently knew romances like the
Lancelot do Lac and wrote easily (and disapprovingly) of men who would love
Queen Guinevere only if they could boast of it.7 In addition to borrowing
heavily from the imagery of the Ordene de chevalerie (Order of Chivalry; one of
the vernacular manuals for knights), Ramon Llull, the former knight who
wrote the most popular book on chivalry in the Middle Ages, likewise drew
heavily on thirteenth-century prose romances.8
Romance and other categories become indistinguishable in the minds of
those who wrote and those who read. The authors of historical works sense no
gap between the actions they describe in chronicle or biography and those in
imaginative literature; often they stress the links between the types of writing.9
The author of the Norman-French ˜Song of Dermot and the Earl™, written
around 1200, sometimes says his work is based on a geste and refers to it both
as le chansun and l™histoire. He records Maurice FitzGerald defending an Irish
king and, like a hero from romance, swearing on his sword that anyone who

institutions is especially noticeable in chansons de geste. Works traditionally classed as romances
focus on a deepening knightly piety which must address the ¬t of its ideals with those of clergie.
Yet these themes are far from exclusive and topics inevitably overlap in particular works of chival-
ric literature. See Chapters 11, 12.
4 Kelly (Structural Study, 20) notes that manuscripts of the Perlesvaus, for example, were owned

by chivalric ¬gures, not monks. Hindman comments on borrowed and worn manuscripts of
Chr©tien™s romances in Sealed in Parchment, 3, 8“9, 46“8.
5 Gicquel, ˜Le Jehan le Blond ™.
6 Vale, Edward III, 49“50; Revard, ˜Courtly Romances™.
7 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 118“19.
8 Elspeth Kennedy, ˜Knight as Reader™ (typescript kindly provided in advance of publication).

An additional example supporting her argument appears in Gutierre Diaz De Gamez, standard-
bearer and biographer of Don Pero Ni±o, who says he has been ˜reading . . . many histories of
kings and famous knights,™ and decides to add the deeds of his master to these accounts of other
famous deeds: Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 13.
See Keen™s useful discussion of the broad question in Nobles, Knights and Men-at-Arms,
9

63“81.
Issues and Approaches
32
lays a hand on the king would have his head split.10 John Barbour (d. 1395)
terms his chronicle of Robert Bruce a ˜romanys™.11 Both Barbour and Sir
Thomas Gray assure us that if all the deeds done in Ireland by Robert™s brother
Edward Bruce were set down they would make a ¬ne romance.12 Other active
knights shared the sentiment. We even know that Robert Bruce often told
˜auld storys™ to his men in trying times, to buck them up. During a tedious pas-
sage over Loch Lomond, he merrily read out passages from the romance of
Fierabras.13
Moreover, the very content of the romances leads to the same conclusion.
Anyone who has read thousands of pages of chivalric literature knows that
either these texts were meant for men as well as women, or that medieval
women simply could not get enough of combat and war, of the detailed effects
of sword strokes on armour and the human body beneath, of the particulars of
tenurial relationships, and of the tactical manouevres that lead to victory. Such
evidence suggests that the great body of chivalric literature was aimed at
knights even more than at their ladies.14
The knights™ conduct, of course, also shows that the literature is reaching
them, as students of chivalry have shown in case after case.15 Larry D. Benson™s
examination of the tournament in the romances of Chr©tien de Troyes and in
the Histoire of William Marshal, for example, concluded that tournament
wonderfully illustrates the interplay of life and art”impossible, of course,
were knights not deeply steeped in chivalric romance as well as chanson.16
Knights, in sum, say that they have read this literature, which itself does not
distinguish genres closely; they show that they have read it by using it in their

Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot, ll. 1065, 1912, 2115“20, 2403.
10

McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds, Barbour™s Bruce, bk. I, l. 446.
11
12 Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica, 57. Gray says Bruce performed there ˜feats of arms, in¬‚icting great

destruction upon both provender and in other ways, and conquered much territory which would
form a romance were it all recounted™. What constitutes proper subject matter for romance is as
instructive as the link between romance and history. Barbour says of Edward Bruce, ˜off his hey
worschip and manheid / Men mycht a myckill romanys mak.™ McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds.
Barbour™s Bruce, bk. IX, ll. 496“7.
13 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds, Barbour™s Bruce, bk. IX, ll. 267“70, 405“65. Barbour refers

to characters in the ˜Romance of Alexander™ in bk. III, ll. 72“92.
14 For the Perlesvaus, Kelly reached a similar conclusion: Structural Study, 20, 23. As Elspeth

Kennedy notes, male interests ˜may well have been directed towards different elements within the
romance™: ˜Knight as Reader™, 1. Crouch suggests the young William Marshal would have known
and perhaps memorized a body of chanson de geste and romance. His father was familiar with
Geoffrey of Monmouth or one of his imitators: William Marshal, 23. Hindman notes that a scene
in the romance of Hunbaut pictures a group of ten knights and six young ladies listening to the
reading of a romance: Sealed in Parchment, 86.
Good general accounts in Painter, French Chivalry and Keen, Chivalry. For speci¬c in¬‚uences
15

see”in addition to the Benson article cited in fn. 16”three studies by Loomis: ˜Arthurian
In¬‚uence™, ˜Chivalric and Dramatic Imitations™, and ˜Edward I™.
Benson, ˜The Tournament™. Cf. Barber and Barker, Tournaments.
16
Chivalry and its Interpretation 33
own writings, and they show by their actions that they have read it and are
bringing it into their lives.


Is Chivalric Literature Hopelessly Romantic?
Such evidence makes it dif¬cult to dismiss or discount chivalric literature as
hopelessly romantic and useless in serious historical enquiry. We cannot
expect this literature, or any other, to serve as a simple mirror to social reality
in the world in which it emerged. Chivalric literature was an active social force,
helping to shape attitudes about basic questions. As such, it has immense use-
fulness, if read with care.
Above all, we need to remember that these works are, in conscious intent at
least, more often prescriptive than descriptive; they advance ideals for what
chivalry should become, in other words, more often than they mirror an ideal
already transformed into social reality.17 In The History of the Holy Grail,
Joseph of Arimathea (considered a great knight of the era of Christ) is ordered
by God to sire the son who will continue the line of knightly heroes that will
culminate in the perfect knight, Galahad. This son, the text says,
was later such a worthy man that one should certainly recall his deeds and the nobility
of his life in the hearing of all worthy men, so that the wicked will abandon their folly
and worthy men, who hold the order of chivalry, may better themselves toward the
world and God.18

The prescriptive impulse of much of this literature could scarcely be stated
more openly.
Yet it is often descriptive as well, for the writers of chivalric literature regu-
larly offer up descriptions of actual knightly practices from the world around
them. These scenes are either given consciously, to show some behaviour in
need of improvement, or unconsciously, while the writer is actually focusing
on some other aspect of knightly life and behaviour.
Ordinary practice can always be recovered, if we are prepared to look care-
fully between lines written either prescriptively or descriptively. Speci¬c cri-
tiques are directly revealing; even highly gilded passages of praise are indirectly
revealing: we seldom preach virtues to replace non-existent faults. Of course
the descriptive and prescriptive often come intertwined, almost sentence by

As Barron suggested, ˜The paradox of romance in all periods is that it expresses man™s need
17

to see life not as it is but as it might be, yet the very formulation of the ideal rests upon his aware-
ness of personal and social imperfections™: ˜Knighthood on Trial™, 103.
Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 119; Hucher, ed., Le Saint Graal, III, 126“7. Galahad him-
18

self is later pictured as listening attentively to the stories told him by a holy hermit about his noble
ancestors: see Asher, tr., Quest.
Issues and Approaches
34
sentence. In fact, these categories blur readily into a third, the provocative.
Our texts often toss out challenging opinions or incidents bound to spark
debate in chamber or hall as more wine is poured and the company settles into
a conversation we would give much to hear.19
We can, likewise, only regret that no medieval writer went from one castle,
tourney ¬eld, court, siege camp, battle line, or raiding party to another,
observing and interviewing knights of all particular social claims to record
their commonplace attitudes and beliefs; with such evidence we could easily
differentiate their attitudes in varying degrees from the ideal statements and
reform tracts which we possess in abundance.
Lacking such a record, we have no oral history of chivalry, although that is
precisely what we want. For most chivalric texts press some ideal about
chivalry to the forefront, with bright gold leaf liberally applied to the expres-
sions.20 Almost unnoticed, our assumption can easily become that this is what
chivalry was and how it actually worked in medieval society.
The hard truth is that we must reconstruct the living reality of chivalry from
the entire set of texts available: the vast corpus of imaginative chivalric litera-
ture, as well as ecclesiastical and lay legislation, legal records, contemporary
chronicles, handbooks for knights, the details of chivalric biography. Each
piece of evidence we draw into this book will add its witness to our cumula-
tive sense of just what chivalry was and just how knights thought about it. In
the process we can gradually reconstruct something like the oral history that
we would so much like to have.
Perhaps dazzled by the gold leaf, even the ¬g leaf of idealization, textbook
accounts of chivalry often fail to distinguish between various reform plans and
actual practice; taking chivalry at the evaluation of its own idealistic texts, they
place perhaps half a dozen ideal qualities for a knight in the spotlight.
Anachronistic ideas from post-medieval revivals of chivalry easily creep into
the pattern unnoticed. Chivalry thus becomes the composite, enduring ideal
represented by courtesy, prowess (easily sanitized as moral courage), largesse,
loyalty, ˜courtly love™, fairness, piety (even ˜muscular Christianity™). There is no


Scott™s paradigm”Domination”largely applies to other circumstances; yet his description
19

of a ˜public transcript of dominance™ ¬ts much chivalric literature. As the ˜self-portrait of dominant
elites™ (p. 18) intended to ˜awe and intimidate [subordinates] into a durable and expedient com-
pliance™ (p. 67), it is also aimed at ˜a kind of self-hypnosis within ruling groups, to buck up their
courage, improve their cohesion, display their power, and convince themselves anew of their high
moral purpose™ (p. 67). The Achilles heel comes from ˜critiques within the hegemony™ (p. 105)
which are hard to de¬‚ect because ˜they begin by adopting the ideological terms of reference of the
elite . . . which now stands accused of hypocrisy if not the violation of a sacred trust™ (p. 105).
Morris observes, ˜In truth one should think less of a code of chivalry than of con¬‚icting ideals
20

of chivalry™: ˜Equestris Ordo™, 96.
Chivalry and its Interpretation 35
tension, no contradiction, no sense of any pressing social issues which might
have generated criticism and debate in the ¬rst place.
This venerable technique cannot be followed if we are to understand the
broad societal role chivalry played for centuries. We must identify the major
functions of chivalry as a social force, not merely draw up a list of idealized
individual qualities, taken largely from works pressing for reforms.
Two straightforward conclusions follow. First, most medieval writing
about chivalry will show a tendency to social criticism or even a reformist cast;
it will be read more creatively and analytically with this in mind. Second, the
direction of much of this writing points us towards the fundamental issue of
securing order in society. In other words, if most chivalric literature involves
criticism, debate, and reform, much of it was written in the shadow of fears for
public order
This is not to suggest that authors of chivalric literature were cheerless crit-
ics, taking only the odd, scowling glance out of a study window at actual
knighthood”to con¬rm their dislike”while grinding out works presenting
one critique after another. To the contrary, this literature is animated by the
diverse energies found in any great literature; every text will celebrate the glo-
ries of chivalry and will often over¬‚ow with sheer joy and appreciation for the
richness, colour, and splendour of chivalric life. In the process, texts instruct
knights how to be more suave and urbane, how to play the ideal lover as well
as the perfect knight. In fact, they claim that chivalry (if only reformed to their
liking) constitutes the very buttress which upholds civilized life.
Yet the steady social criticism, the urging of restraint and reform, can be
heard constantly and insistently, despite the variety of other themes”rather

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