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like the steady continuo playing behind other instrumental voices in a baroque
concerto. This rich and contrapuntal play of praise and critique, hope and fear,
emphasizes the powerful tensions as well as the harmonies at work. These ten-
sions give a fascinating complexity to any piece of chivalric literature; the bal-
ancing act requires celebration of chivalry as the grand guide to civilized life,
while simultaneously pressing with some degree of urgency for the changes
that could make chivalry truly that force in the world. These are not purely cel-
ebratory or aesthetic works; they do not present merely the splendour of
chivalric life as it was, or the diversions of an escapist literature of life as it never
could be. These texts spoke to some of the most pressing issues of their day,
especially to the issues of social order and knightly violence, to the serious need
for chivalric reform in a world much troubled by warlike violence.
We cannot, in other words, take the line that in any problem linking knight-
hood and order, chivalry was simply the solution. What makes these issues so
much more real and in¬nitely more interesting is that chivalry ¬gures on both
Issues and Approaches
sides of the equation of order”both as a part of the problem and as an ideal
solution”even if we take chivalry to mean a code, rather than simply certain
men or their heroically violent deeds.

The Framework of Institutions and Ideas
If public order is the background issue, what focal points of power and author-
ity should we consider? Analyses of the hierarchical organization of medieval
society have focused on the three broad functional categories, the three theo-
retical ˜orders™ used by medieval writers themselves: those who pray, those
who ¬ght, and those who work. Institutional historians have, of course,
emphasized the major governing institutions of Church and State. In trying to
understand the basic issues involving order in the sense intended in this book,
however, neither of these classic formulations is suf¬cient.


chevalerie royaut©

Figure 1. Focal points of power and authority

We must think, instead, of a simple triadic relationship (as illustrated in
¬gure 1). The points on this triangle of relationships are not simply institutions
but a rather more complex set of forces: capacities for coercion pure and sim-
ple, perhaps, but also ways of looking at the world, means of organizing and
justifying a set of answers to the basic questions about order and the conven-
tions or the sheer power and legitimizing authority which might secure it.
Gerd Tellenbach™s highly useful suggestion that Church reformers of the later
eleventh century were seeking to secure ˜right order in the world™ can, in fact,
stand as the goal of each of our focal points of power.21 This is not to suggest
the primacy of abstract conceptions in the minds of those who clustered
assertively at each point of our triangle, for if each collectivity of men saw their
world ideally organized and run in a particular way, the concomitant fact was
their insistence on their own hegemony; to this end they claimed and exercised

Tellenbach, Church, State, and Christian Society.
Chivalry and its Interpretation 37
specialized functions and elaborated an ideology which spurred and justi¬ed
their power and responsibility.
Each focal point thus represents through a cluster of enabling powers and
ideas, a particular stance regarding the issue of order. Each is distinct, though
none stands exclusively, unconnected with the others. In other words,
between each pair of focal points (i.e. along each side of the triangle in ¬gure
1) strong bonds of attraction are at work, as well as powerful forces of compe-
tition, imitation as well as independence, or even outright opposition.
Clergie indicates the impressive institutional and juridical organization of
the Church from the bishop of Rome to the lowliest wearer of the tonsure. It
entails the special mediatory relationship of priests, monks, and nuns who
stand between God and the mass of humanity, the priests channelling from
God the saving means of grace through the sacraments, and all, perhaps espe-
cially the regulars, offering up to God especially ef¬cacious prayers about
pressing human needs. But clergie also entails scholarship, the Latin learning of
the schools with all the mysterious and arcane power of books and the reso-
nances from the revered and Latinate world of antiquity.22 The idea of public
order held by these men had been clear for centuries, at least when they
thought about conditions within Christendom itself; from the late tenth cen-
tury clerics had sponsored a peace movement that sought not simply the
absence of endless local strife (though it necessarily began thus), but an
embodiment of the divine will in a human society animated by harmonious
(and hierarchical) social relationships. Organization, a body of special practi-
tioners, special functions, a sphere of ideas glowing with power”all formed
part of the world of clergie, all contributed to what we will see as its stance
regarding proper order.
The second point of the triangle is not so easily labelled. Royaut© may serve
as a term, meaning the emerging lay state with all of its powers, ideology, busy
personnel, and important functions in society. These men claimed to secure
the peace which represented the divine will for the world by making and

The knightly amalgam of awe and suspicion regarding such learning appears regularly in

chivalric literature. Marsent and her nuns in Raoul de Cambrai try to stop the violence of Raoul by
processing outside town walls carrying books, one so venerable it was revered in the age of
Solomon. Kay, ed., Raoul de Cambrai, 82“3, ll. 1123“32. The power of even Merlin and Morgan le
Fay is contained in books. Morgan is at one point termed ˜a very good woman clerk™: Sommer,
ed., Vulgate Version, 253, ll. 19“20. Of Gamille, the Saxon Lady of the Rock, it is said, ˜with all her
books she could make water ¬‚ow uphill™: Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II 236; Micha, ed., Lancelot,
VIII, 481“2. Sir Kay burns all her books to ashes. The Duke of Cloyes is said to be so old and expe-
rienced that ˜he had so much knowledge that only a man knowing Latin could have more™:
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 250; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 79. The lady rescued by Guinglain
in Le Bel Inconnu had been turned into a serpent by an enchanter who touched her with a book;
the text links magic and necromancy with the study of the liberal arts: see Fresco, ed., and
Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâg©, ll. 3341, 1931“6, 4933“47.
Issues and Approaches
enforcing laws, by protecting property; in the process, they were beginning to
try to secure a working monopoly (or at least a controlling oversight) of licit
violence as well as the signi¬cant revenues that such powers inevitably entail.
They claimed as well that they protected and enabled the practice of true reli-
gion as conducted by clerics, whom they cheerfully recognized as legitimate
special functionaries. Beyond the borders of the realm their just war would
repress wrong as surely as their regular hanging of thieves did at home, one
species of violence connected to the other in kind and differing only in scale.
These men always successfully claimed divine approval for their role and won
enthusiastic clerical approbation for the practical functioning of lay political
sovereignty, whatever the current status of the contest between papacy and
kingship. In fact, in so far as the ¬rst two points of our triangle are grounded
in institutions of governance, their shared, even borrowed, features are obvi-
ous and need no further comment.
The third point of our triangle must be chevalerie, however, and it involves
a cluster of a rather different sort. Similarities to the other two clusters exist,
of course. Again, we ¬nd a collectivity of ideas, a set of special functions, a par-
ticular body of practitioners, even a sense of divine approval, in time cautiously
recognized by ecclesiastics. Yet chevalerie was rooted in different soil, growing
not out of the restrained and restraining traditions characteristic of institutions
of governance but rather from the ancient social practices and heroic ideals of
generations of warriors, ¬ercely proud of their independence, exulting in their
right to violence and in their skill at exercising it.
The chronicler Matthew Paris provides a striking illustration of this inde-
pendent and martial outlook in an entry for the year 1247. He tells us that the
French nobility asserted that their kingdom had been won ˜not by the learned
written law (jus scriptum), nor by the arrogance of clerks, but by the sweat of
war™.23 A British chronicler of the following generation provides an equally
vivid vignette. As the English cavalry manouevred at the opening of the battle
of Falkirk in 1298, Ralph Bassett, lord of Drayton, told Bishop Bek, who was
leading the English right wing: ˜It™s not for you, bishop, to teach us knights
how to ¬ght when you ought to be busy saying mass. Go back to celebrate
mass; we shall do all that needs to be done in the way of ¬ghting.™24
Of course lawmakers and clerks busily building the institutions of Church
and State were neither strangers nor uncompromising opponents of war, even
if they did not all personally take the ¬eld. Major governing institutions in the

Paris, Chronica Majora, IV, 593: ˜regnum non per jus scriptum, nec per clericorum arrogan-

tiam, sed per sudores bellicos fuerit adquisitum™.
Quoted by Barrow, Robert Bruce, 144, from J. de Fordun, Chronica Gentis Scotorum, ed. W.

F. Skene (Edinburgh, 1871“2), i, 330.
Chivalry and its Interpretation 39
history of Western Europe have always been deeply if ambiguously involved
with violence, some forms of which they have legitimized or vigorously prac-
tised themselves. But both clergie and royaut© also felt the power of that
signi¬cant strain in their ideology which stressed peace; it was obviously desir-
able in the eyes of God; it was no less obviously a congenial compulsion for
strong-willed men, whether they were tonsured or carried royal wands of
of¬ce, to exercise control of the most basic sort, in other words to prohibit
illicit violence and to regulate or even practise licit violence themselves. A prac-
tice of power rooted in jurisdiction and nourished by revenue was, of course,
the very essence of governance. The process would lead vigorous ¬gures from
the worlds of both clergie and royaut© to strive, in effect, for the needed reforms
which would bring chevalerie into consonance with their particular view of
right order in the world.
The pattern of interaction is far from simple, however; having established
our threefold clusters of men and ideas, we need to remember how porous
were the spaces separating them. Churchmen were in theory not only com-
mitted to ideas of peace and forgiveness, they were prohibited (again, in
theory) from shedding human blood; any coercion requiring this ¬nal com-
mitment to force would necessitate cooperation from laymen outside the
sphere of clergie. Similarly, the upper ranks of royal administrations ran on the
skills of not a few clerics willingly serving their kings. These kings, moreover,
were knights as well as monarchs, and thus lived, we might almost say, in two
worlds. If knights aggressively claimed their own sphere, they were also loyal
practitioners of the accepted forms of Christianity, presided over by clerics.
They were landlords, busy in the royal courts, as well as warlords. Their ser-
vice as agents of government and their support of royal governmental efforts
for order and the protection of property was real and, in fact, essential for the
indisputable growth of the State.
Yet our several focal points with their distinct powers and ways of looking
at the world remain. The body of men, practices, and ideals in chivalry was a
far from perfect ¬t with those of the growing institutions. If a vast corpus of
literature re¬‚ected a fascinating mass of contradictions, attractions, and repul-
sions where chivalry was concerned, similar ambivalence characterized the
relationship of chevalerie with clergie and royaut©. In both instances, in¬‚uential
¬gures struggled to reform chivalry in accordance with their views on right
order in the world, secured by the right people.
A F T E R he has observed life in Camelot for a time, Mark Twain™s
Connecticut Yankee delivers an unforgettable judgement, etched in an
acidic cynicism that seems to scorch the page: ˜I will say this much for the
nobility; that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious and morally rotten as they
were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.™1 Although Twain has
once again dipped his pen in vitriol to write these lines, his comment (with the
sting neutralized to the taste of the individual reader) still has point. We need
not, of course, accept his moral condemnation to be intrigued by the ambigu-
ities and potential con¬‚icts in the meaning of religion for the practitioners of
At ¬rst glance the complexity of the bond between religion and the chival-
ric layers of society may surprise some modern observers. Then or now, it
would be comforting to believe that the chivalrous were all truly motivated by
religious ideas and that they felt, in a way akin to modern conscience, deeply
spiritual impulses. It would be at least clarifyingly simple to believe, to the con-
trary, that their religion was only a form, that it was no structural component
of their lives, that there could have been absolutely no connection between
their religion and their life of arms.
What Twain suggests, however sharp and malicious his juxtapositions, is a
close connection that requires further thought. A way of life devoted in no
small measure to showy acts of bloody violence was combined with an obvi-
ous, even ostentatious practice of religion. The modern, hopeful, supposition
might be that the latter impulse would cancel the former, but here they are,
side by side.
Moreover, the tension doubles when we shift our focus from the knights to
the clerics. The view of knightly ideals and practices from the vantage point of
clergie could only be ambivalent. Clerics knew without doubt that they had to
deal with knights as a fact of social life; they relied on knightly benefactions no
less than they needed knightly sword blows against the constant menace
of pagans; in general, they blessed the legitimate use of force by the knights

A Connecticut Yankee, 82. Modern historians can also write fairly biting comments along these

lines. Emma Mason says: ˜In crude terms, they tried to buy off the consequences of their aggres-
sion by offering a share of the loot to those whose prayers would hopefully resolve their dilemma.
Such a naive attitude cannot, however, be contrasted with any superior spirituality of the cloister,
for religious houses were all too ready to cooperate in this cycle™: ˜Timeo Barones™, 67.
The Link with Clergie
acting to preserve order and property. The problem, of course, was that the
knights often acted and sometimes thought in ways that made them a part of
the problem of order, rather than its solution.
These are the issues explored in Part Two. Chapter 3 examines the tension
between an undoubted knightly piety and the considerable force of knightly
independence. Chapter 4 looks at chivalry through clerical eyes, documenting
both the high praise for ideals of behaviour and the sour condemnation of
much that knights said and did in the world.

Lay Piety, Lay Independence
In so many ways the chivalric layers of society thought and acted as conven-
tionally pious Christians; they followed the set course for life, from baptism at
the church font to the ¬nal rites and prayers as their bodies were lowered into
sancti¬ed ground. Along the way, cellular acts of piety structured the religious
component of their daily lives: they heard mass, they made confession, they
said prayers, they gave alms. Many reinforced this lifelong cycle by some major
act, going on crusade or founding a religious house. Many, likewise, sought
the surety of a religious order as intimations of mortality came forcibly into
their consciousness.1
Chivalric literature portrayed and reinforced this orthodoxy. It reminded
the knights of the undeniable function of priests in the sacramental system of
which they were willing, prudent participants. A layman, even a knight,
needed priests as conduits for divine grace, especially at critical, liminal points
in life. Knights in this literature regularly state their fear of dying without con-
In Chr©tien™s Perceval one key injunction the hero hears from his mother as
he starts out into the world is to go to church or chapel to hear mass regularly.3
Galahad, as readers of The Quest of the Holy Grail learned, ˜always chafed if a
day passed without his hearing the holy of¬ce™.4 Lancelot in the Mort Artu reg-
ularly hears mass and says the proper prayers ˜as a Christian knight should™; he
confesses to an archbishop before his single combat with Gawain.5 Balain and

Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, provides abundant examples. Cf. the excellent article

by Harper-Bill, ˜Piety of the Anglo-Norman Knightly Class™.
E.g., Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 219; Sommer, ed.,Vulgate Version, III, 396; one of many

examples in this text. In the Lancelot, Arthur himself, thinking that he is about to die, cries out,
˜Oh, God! Confession! The time has come!™: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 276; Sommer, ed.,
Vulgate Version, IV, 76.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 7; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval, ll. 568“94.

Matarasso, tr., Quest, 72; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 34.

Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 32, 178; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 12.
The Link with Clergie
his brother, dying tragically from their mutually in¬‚icted wounds, take the
sacrament and beg Christ for forgiveness of their sins ˜they received their rites,
such as Christian knights should have, and . . . asked forgiveness of their
Saviour for their sins and misdeeds™.6 Gautier similarly visits a church to pray
before his single combat in Raoul de Cambrai, though in this case the author
tarnishes the bright ideal image with a realistic comment: on this occasion
there was no joking, nothing omitted.7 In their battle¬eld prayers, knights
themselves (William and Vivian, for example, in the cycle of William of
Orange) present mini-sermons complete with summations of basic Christian
dogma, or they listen to similar sermons preached to them by clerics, as do the
knights of the Chanson d™Aspremont.8
In fact, in our literary evidence knights seem to swim in a sea of piety, using
religious language even in situations that strike modern sensibilities as purely
secular. ˜In God™s name, I am called the marquis William™, announces William
of Orange to his opponent in The Crowning of Louis.9 ˜In God™s name, I think
you will ¬nd him the most comely and well-made youth you have ever seen™,
Sir Yvain says to the queen, speaking of Lancelot in the Lancelot do Lac.10 King
Louis solemnizes over relics his obligations to give Raoul a ¬ef;11 William of
Orange swears over relics to protect King Louis;12 all knights swear constantly
by some favourite saint, or by the relics in some church near at hand; Roland
and Ganelon carry weapons bearing sacred relics within their hilts; Gawain, in
The Marvels of Rigomer has the names of the Trinity inscribed on his sword
The great waves which well up from this sea of piety are not lacking in
chivalric literature. Girart founds a monastery for three hundred monks in the
Chanson d™Aspremont.14 Of course, crusade features so largely in chivalric liter-
ature, especially in works traditionally classed as epic, as almost to defy illus-

Asher, tr., ˜Merlin Continuation™, 221; Paris and Ulrich, eds, Merlin, II, 56.

Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisse 201.
8 Muir, tr., Song of William; McMillan, ed., La Chanson de Guillaume, laisses 67“8; Hoggan,

tr., Crowning of Louis; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, laisse 22. For basic doctrine in both
prayers and sermons, see Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont and Brandin, ed., Chanson
d™Aspremont, laisses 28“9, 118, 235, 385. The hermits in The Quest of the Holy Grail sermonize the
knights at regular intervals.
Hoggan, Crowning of Louis; Langlois, Couronnement de Louis, I, laisse 22.

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 70; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 156.

Kay, Raoul de Cambrai, laisse 35.

Hoggan, Crowning, Langlois, Couronnement de Louis, II, laisse 13.

Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisses 46, 173; Vesce, ed., tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 275;

Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 12910“14. The use of relics is not merely a literary conceit.
As late as the Tudor period, kings and knights kept pieces of the skull, joints, and bones of St
George in their armour and their chapels. See Gunn, ˜Chivalry™, 110.
Laisse 508, in Brandin, Chanson d™Aspremont, and Newth, Song of Aspremont.
Knights and Piety 47
Imaginative literature is supported by more traditional historical sources.
The chivalric example par excellence in the late twelfth century, William
Marshal went on pilgrimage to Cologne, fought as a crusader, founded a reli-
gious house, and died in the robe of a Templar, having made provision to be
received into the order years before. His biographer records William™s belief
that all his knightly achievement was the personal gift of God.15
Geoffroi de Charny (more than a century later) similarly went on crusade,
and founded a religious house. Through a sheaf of papal licences, granted in
response to his requests, we can sense his piety no less than his in¬‚uence: he
had the right to a portable altar, the right to receive from his confessor a ple-
nary indulgence when facing death, the right to hear a ¬rst mass of the day
before sunrise, the right to have a family cemetery alongside the church he
founded.16 As readers of his Book of Chivalry, we know in detail how thor-
oughly he agreed with William Marshal™s belief in God as the fountainhead of
all chivalric honour. Charny sets out this formula time and again. A healthy
mixture of fear and gratitude can be the only proper response on the part of
knights. Charny, in fact, almost ¬‚oats in pieties on the pages of his book.17
Marshal and Charny were model knights, however, and not simply model
Christians. In company with all knights, they lived by the sword, and the
founder of their religion had said some troubling words about such lives.
Their violent vocation necessarily shaped their practice of religion: their piety
scarcely could be that of merchants or craftsmen. The tension between the
ideal standards of their Christianity and the daily practice of violence brings us
back to the issues raised by Twain™s harsh dichotomies.
In fact, the knightly solution seems clear and characteristic: they largely
appropriated religion; they absorbed such ideas as were broadly compatible
with the virtual worship of prowess and with the high sense of their own
divinely approved status and mission; they likewise downplayed or simply
ignored most strictures that were not compatible with their sense of honour
and entitlement.
This seeming paradox in fact formed one of the structural features of chival-
ric ideology and a great source of its strength. For in one of its essential dimen-
sions chivalry rested on the very fusion of prowess and piety; it functioned as
the male, aristocratic form of lay piety; it was itself, in other words, an embod-
iment of the religious force that worked so powerfully to shape society, at least
from the twelfth century. The worship of the demigod prowess”with all the
ideas and practices of the quasi-religion of honour”was merged with
medieval Christianity. If sometimes the yawning gap separating the two
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 6171“92, 7274“87, 9285“90, 18216“406.

Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 38“9. Ibid., passim.
16 17
The Link with Clergie
systems of belief stimulated inspired writing (as in The Quest of the Holy Grail,
or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), more often the gap was simply, willfully,
not seen. In a prologue to his translation of Christine de Pisan™s Epistle of Othea
(c. 1440), Stephen Scrope assured Sir John Fastolf that God ˜ys souuerayn
cheyveten and knyght off all cheualrie™. Having spent most of his life in ˜dedys
of cheualrie and actis of armis™, Fastolf should now turn to ˜gostly cheuallrie™
to prepare himself for ˜the ordre of knyghthode that schal perpetuelly endure
and encrese in joye and worship endlese™.18 The key trait of knightly prowess
wins divine approbation; disloyalty and anything leading to dishonour
becomes sin, a moral and not merely a social blunder.
Earning honour by prowess appears throughout most chivalric literature as
complementary to the worship of God. Approval for prowess”at least for
prowess in the right causes”comes not only from humans but descends from
highest heaven. In fact, God opens wide the doors of paradise for his brave
knights. Geoffroi de Charny cannot often enough or forcefully enough preach
that prowess, like all good things, comes as a gift of God, that the Lord will

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