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welcome his good knights, those who use this great gift well, into paradise.19
By the time he wrote, in the mid-fourteenth century, the theme had been well
developed. Promises of heavenly reward for crusaders punctuate both chansons
de geste and historical accounts of crusade preaching. This valorization, as we
will see, gradually became a blessing on all of knightly life.
The approbation of God appears time and again. Early in The History of the
Holy Grail Seraphe (though he is still a pagan) receives the gift of great
prowess from God. Fighting against the enemies of the early Christians, ˜no
feat of arms could be compared to his prowess, performed with his hands, for
he held a marvellously strong and sharp battle-axe in both hands™. Using this
weapon, ˜he cut strong shields, sliced thick hauberks, cleaved helmets and
visors; he slashed feet, legs and arms; chests, heads, ribs and thighs; he bathed
his battle-axe up to the shaft in the blood of men and horses.™ Seraphe hero-
ically keeps up the work even after he is unhorsed and trampled by two hun-
dred horsemen. Christ himself, acting through the White Knight, supplies him
with a new and even more ef¬cient axe. As the White Knight announces, hand-
ing it over, ˜Here, Seraphe, this is sent to you by the True Cruci¬ed One.™20 If
God supplies the weapons, he can also direct the blows. In the Didot Perceval
Arthur splits the Roman emperor down to the waist with a great sword stroke
delivered ˜with the aid of God™.21

Bühler, ed., Epistle of Othea, 121“4. Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 132“3.
18 19

Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 36“41. The White Knight himself, of course, performs

marvellous ˜feats of arms and chivalry™: p. 41; see also Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, I, 56“65.
Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 88; William Roach, ed., The Didot Perceval, 271.
Knights and Piety 49
The Almighty is pictured as a ¬ne judge as well as a general approver of
prowess. The Ship of Faith that he sends to the three companions in The Quest
of the Holy Grail carries a sword reserved for the knight with the greatest
prowess; its blade bears the daunting message, written appropriately in blood-
red letters, ˜that none should be so bold as to draw the sword unless he was to
strike better and more boldly than anyone else™. The penalty for a failed
attempt is injury or death.22 However much we spiritualize such a symbol, we
must stop to consider its message at the most apparent level: God provides a
test for determining the best knight, that is, the one with the greatest prowess,
the divine gift to knighthood.23
God, as he appears in chivalric literature, likes knightly doing and daring,
even if reformers were careful to picture him on their side. For his worthy
knights, moreover, God supplies opportunities. Divine power holding the
sunlight to give Charlemagne light for his bloody revenge after the death of
Roland is only the most well-known case in point.24 Finding a beautiful glade,
early in the Perlesvaus, Perceval™s immediate, almost re¬‚exive thought is that
˜two knights could joust well and handsomely on that ground™. He prays to
God: ˜in your gentleness [let a knight appear] with whom I can test whether
there is strength or valour or chivalry in me.™ God sends one of the best, in fact,
for Lancelot appears and the two nearly kill one another, though in ˜the great
rage that they bore each other and the great ardour of their will . . . they were
hardly aware of their wounds™. Providentially, a hermit appears to end this
con¬‚ict of uncle and nephew who, as always in such ¬ghts, recognize each
other only after the combat has ended.25
Divine approval of prowess is often conveyed by saints or angels. Gabriel
appears in Roland, for example, not only to carry away Roland™s soul to its
well-earned rest, but to urge on Charlemagne when his prowess slips a bit in
hand-to-hand combat with the pagan Amiral. Dazed, his skull creased by a
mighty sword blow, Charles hears Gabriel, standing like a coach by his side,
demand, ˜ “Great King, what are you doing?” ™ Charlemagne quickly recovers
and spills his opponent™s brains.26 The Virgin Mary retrieves Rainouart™s great

Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 77“8, 83; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 121“4, 133“4.

This is King David™s sword, put on the marvellous ship by King Solomon. Divine power later
wounds Nascien for drawing the sword unworthily. Chase, ibid., 97; Sommer, ibid., 163. Cf
Matarasso, tr., Quest, 212“20; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 200“8. The scabbard also bears a warning
that ˜He who wears me shall do greater deeds than any other™, before it continues with a concise
sermon on chastity.
23 For symbolic interpretations, see Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 65“7. Obviously, no

unbelievers need apply; yet within the subset of the elect, the test involves prowess as well as piety.
24 See Brault, ed., tr. Chanson de Roland, laisse 176.
25 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 92“3; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 139“42.
26 Brault, Chanson de Roland, laise 261.
The Link with Clergie
cudgel for him on a battle¬eld in the Chanson de Guillaume, when he has
unfortunately left it behind.27 In one popular story, the Virgin even jousted for
a knight who missed a tournament because of his devotions to her.28 The mil-
itary saints similarly do more than approve or enable the warriors, of course:
both chronicle and chanson de geste depict them joining in the ¬ght.29
Such an accommodation of the Christian God within the ideas of knighthood
thus provides a third crucial element in the tough metallic alloy of chivalry,
adding strength to further fusions we will explore in detail later: prowess alloyed
with honour (secured with the catalyst of loyalty), with high status, and with
love; knights conceived of chivalry as a practised form of religion, not merely as
knighthood with a little pious and restraining overlay. Through the practice of
chivalry, the heroic life and ideals, which carried a strong sense of independent
moral standards, combined with selected principles of medieval Christianity;
through chivalric ideas and practices, warriors fused their violent way of life and
their dominance in society with the will of God.
Moreover, there was another bene¬t to the bargain, powerfully present even
if seldom stated explicitly. Knights know that God will understand and forgive
the slips that mar their moral scorecards, especially since the very toughness of
their lives functions as a form of penance.
This knightly belief appears classically in Gawain™s attitude on the Grail
quest; Malory tells us Gawain heard more about his sins (especially his
killings) from a hermit-confessor than he wanted, and so hurried off, using the
excuse that his companion, Sir Ector, was waiting for him. He had already
explained to the hermit that he could accept no penance: ˜I may do no
penaunce, for we knyghtes adventures many tymes suf¬r grete woo and
payne.™30 The tendency, then, was for knights to believe that they had a private
arrangement with the Lord God (not dissimilar from that with the lord king):
their hard lives, bravely chosen and followed through all hardships, all but pro-
vided penance enough for their inevitable sins. A hermit who hears Gaheriet™s
confession in the Merlin Continuation, for example, ˜gave him such penance as
he thought he could do along with his labour at arms™.31
This attitude is resisted in the thirteenth-century Quest of the Holy Grail,
probably because it was common. Malory seems much more comfortable with
Muir, tr., Song of William, McMillan, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, laisse 160. Archbishop

Turpin rebukes the Virgin (in the Middle English Sege of Melayne) when she allows Roland to be
temporarily defeated; see the lines quoted in Gist, Love and War, 140.
28 Story cited in Keen, Chivalry, 98.
29 See, e.g., Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, and Brandin, ed. Chanson d™Aspremont, laisses

425“6, for military saints helping out on the battle¬eld.
30 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 535, 563.
31 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 46; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie,

Knights and Piety 51
the idea of a bargain between God and merely ˜earthly chivalry™ than with the
insistence on ˜heavenly chivalry™ in the Quest.32 Geoffroi de Charny, too,
would have at least understood Gawain, for all the piety he wrote into his Book
of Chivalry, for all the reverence of the clergy he insisted upon in its pages.
Knightly lay piety, in short, involved an appreciable degree of practical lay
independence; chivalry took on the valorizing mantle of religion without fully
accepting the directive role claimed by ecclesiastics; it virtually absorbed reli-
gion for its own purposes, in no small measure on its own terms. Knights did
not simply and obediently bow before clerical authority and, bereft of any
ideas of their own, absorb the lessons and patterns for their lives urged by their
brothers, sisters, and cousins bearing tonsures and veils. Knights thought they
had an understanding with God, a contract which ¬nally bypassed the trou-
blesome clerics, even while paradoxically acknowledging their essential sacer-
dotal role.
The particular nature of their piety, then, and the way in which it combined
their power in the world with the valorization of other-worldly approval helps
explain the strength of chivalry. Admittedly, some men in any age seem to
need no justi¬cation beyond the imperious surge of their own will; but per-
haps most men in most ages act more con¬dently when they can feel that what
they want to do is not so distant from what they should do. Such reassurance
in chivalry came largely from the knightly appropriation of religion; chivalric
piety acted not simply as a force in opposition to main currents of knightly life,
but in consonance with them.
The appropriation shows up clearly in historical texts such as biographies
and chronicles, and not merely in those relating crusading history. In the Song
of Dermot and the Earl, a chronicle of the late twelfth-century English invasion
of Ireland, the English leader more than once urges his knights to sally forth
˜in the name of the Almighty Father™. The poet himself tells us that as the
knights rush into battle from a coastal fort they are sent by ˜the good Jesus™.
Miles de Cogan calls upon them in another ¬ght (in words that could be bor-
rowed from the Song of Roland) to ˜Strike, in the name of the Cross! / Strike,
barons nor delay at all, / In the name of Jesus the son of Mary!™ His country-
man Raymond le Gros often invoked St David in his very martial speeches.33
This language can be heard century after century. Froissart says the English
launched their crossing of the Somme, in the campaign leading to the ¬eld at
Cr©cy (1346), invoking ˜the name of God and St George.™34 The Black Prince,

See Vinaver™s comments in Malory. Works, 758“60.

Orpen, ed., tr., The Song of Dermot, ll. 1443, 1471, 1883“4, 1924“6, 1937“40. When a cowled

monk kills an Irish lord with an arrow, the man is much praised: see ll. 2005“10.
Brereton, tr., Froissart, 60.
The Link with Clergie
before his great battle at Najera (1367), uttered an equally revealing prayer,
with clasped hands raised to heaven:
True, sovereign Father, who hast made and created us, as truly as Thou dost know that
I am not come here save for the maintenance of right, and for prowess and nobility
which urge and incite me to gain a life of honour, I beseech Thee that Thou wilt this
day guard me and my men.35

God, the author of prowess and honour, is expected to understand.
The strong element of lay independence in chivalry appears most blatantly
in blistering anticlericalism. Sometimes the imagined attacks even go beyond
the verbal to become directly physical.36 In The Coronation of Louis, for exam-
ple, a cleric tells William that some of his fellow clerics are involved in a plot
against the young king Louis. This loyal informer suggests that William
behead them, despite their order, and for his part offers to take upon himself
the sin of desecrating the Church in this way. ˜Blessed be the hour that such a
cleric was nurtured™, William replies in wonder and gratitude, though he
¬nally decides on a lesser sacrilege: he will simply beat the tonsured traitors
and toss them out of the building, commending them to eighty devils.37
If the abuse directed at clerics in chivalric literature is more often verbal, it
is no less informative. Denunciation of priests as greedy and lecherous is stan-
dard practice, but the interesting broader goal in chivalric literature is to
demonstrate the equality or even superiority of the loyal and necessary
knightly function in society. Chr©tien has Gawain say:
. . . a man can give good advice to another
who cannot heed advice himself,
just like those preachers
who are sinful lechers,
but who teach and preach the good
that they have no intention of practicing themselves!38

Rainouart in Aliscans tells William, who has just forcibly conquered countless
pagans, that he converts so well he should be a cleric; the knife slips in soon,
however, for he then describes their soft and dissolute life in terms that bring
general laughter.39 The biography of William Marshal refers pointedly to those
standard ¬gures of anticlerical satire, Saints Al¬nus and Rubinus (i.e. Blessed
Silver and Gold), and says that they are much honoured at the papal court.40
Pope and Lodge, eds., The Black Prince, ll 3172“83.

Noble provides a highly useful sampling of anti-clerical sentiments in a number of chansons:

˜Anti-Clericalism™, 150“8.
Hoggan, tr., ˜Crowning of Louis™, 35“7; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 53“6.

Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 2537“43.

Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d™Orange, 274; Wienbeck et al., eds. Aliscans, 505.
Knights and Piety 53
The author of the Song of Roland, after gazing in wondering admiration at the
feats of the knight/archbishop Turpin on the battle¬eld, asks, rhetorically,
˜Where is the priest who drove his body to do such mighty deeds?™41 The ques-
tion would appeal to Geoffroi de Charny, who would make the same point in
only slightly altered form several centuries later. Comparing the ease of a
priestly career with the rigours of the knightly life, Charny notes that the cler-
ics ˜are spared the physical danger and the strenuous efforts of going out onto
the ¬eld of battle to take up arms, and are also spared the threat of death™.42 The
author of Roland was even more explicit in his answer, however, and he pre-
sents Archbishop Turpin himself to state the case. Asking what a knight is
worth who is not strong and ¬erce in battle, he answers his own question
unambiguously, ˜not . . . four pennies . . . / Instead he should be in one of
those monasteries / Praying all the time for our sins.™43
At one point William of Orange similarly and pointedly reminds King Louis
that the French thought he was of little worth and wanted to make him a
cleric.44 In another text in the same cycle William tells Louis, who has failed to
take up his father™s offer of the crown with vigor, that he might as well be a
monk.45 On the arrival of Enide™s father for her wedding to Erec, Chr©tien
assures his audience that the bride™s father ˜did not have a troop of chaplains /
or of silly or gaping folk, / but of good knights.™46 Never trust a priest except
at confession time, says the author of the Chanson d™Aspremont.47 The state-
ment has the ring of a popular maxim.

Chivalric Mythology
Yet the religious strength of chivalry is best seen in the steady con¬dence
expressed in the inherent value of the knightly life rather than in the cut and
thrust of anticlericalism. In its sacred mythology chivalry is older than the cler-
ical hierarchy, having emerged in the age and circle of Christ. The element of
independence is obvious, as is the associative piety and valorization drawn

Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 11354 ff.

Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland ll. 1606“7. Similar comparisons of the chivalric and monas-

tic life appear in Moniage du Guillaume, quoted and discussed in Subrenat, ˜Moines mesquins™.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 166“7.

Brault, Chanson de Roland, ll. 1876“82. For similarly anti-clerical remarks from Turpin, see

Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, 9“10, and Brandin, ed., Chanson d™Aspremont, laisse 15.
Price, tr., The Waggon-Train, 64; McMillan, ed., Charroi de N®mes, 66. The French text says

they wanted to make him ˜clers ou ab© ou prestres™.
Hoggan, tr., ˜Crowning of Louis™, 3; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 4.

Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, l. 6530.

Newth, Song of Aspremont and Brandin, Chanson d™Aspremont, laisse 87.
The Link with Clergie
from links with priestly mythology”correlations and allusions, similarities in
These links appear vividly in stories about Perceval, Galahad, and the Grail.
The blood lines of Perceval and Galahad go back to that great knight Joseph
of Arimathea, who cared for the entombment of that most precious relic in the
world, the body of Christ, and who cared as well for that most famous sacer-
dotal object, the Holy Grail. In fact, in the loose and allusive way in which
these romances so often suggest parallels with sacred mythology, Perceval and
Galahad recall the functions of Christ himself, or at least those of his functions
which would appeal most readily to knights. They spread true faith and con-
quer the forces of evil.
These are knights for whom God performs miracles. Towards the end of the
Quest Galahad brings healing to a man lame for ten years.49 Even Lancelot™s
blood performs, if not quite a miracle, a marvellous cure when it restores
Agravain in the Lancelot do Lac.50 In Malory™s Mort Darthur Lancelot heals the
grievously wounded Sir Urr© by a laying-on of hands.51
Earlier, rough-hewn examples stand behind these Christ-like scenes. The
retired William of Orange has learned from his abbot that he must not ¬ght
with weapons, but only with ¬‚esh and blood. Confronted by robbers in a for-
est, he rips a leg off a packhorse and uses it as a club. Feeling pity for the pack-
horse after the fact, he replaces the leg and prays; the horse becomes whole
An atmosphere of at least pious power thus hangs over these knights. The
result is reverence. In the Lancelot, at a time when Lancelot is thought to have
perished, his battered shield is kept in the centre of a courtyard, with crowds
of ladies, maidens, and knights dancing round it; ˜and every time the knights
or ladies came to face it, they would bow before it as before a holy relic™.53
Again, in the Mort Artu, Lancelot™s shield becomes an object of veneration.
Sent to the cathedral in Camelot before he leaves Logres, it soon hangs by a
silver chain in the middle of the church where it is ˜honoured as if it had been
a holy relic™ by the populace which ¬‚ocks to see it. The value of this evidence

Ecclesiastics must have felt deep ambiguity about the independent directions knightly piety

could take, an uneasiness similar to the reception clerics gave mysticism, which also claimed
authentic religious inspiration irritatingly free from direct clerical control. Burns comments on
clerical opposition to stories about Lancelot and the Grail in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xxx.
Matarasso, tr., Quest, 281; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 275“6.

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 370; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 539.

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 663“71.

Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d™Orange and Cloetta, ed., Deux Redactions, laisse 25.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 326; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 144.

Characteristically, a quarrel over its possession leads to a ¬ght, which brings to mind the ¬ghts that
broke out over the possession of relics.
Knights and Piety 55
increases when we realize that some battered shields and banners from the very
real world hung in churches in memory of knights who carried them.54
The knights themselves can receive such veneration. After Galescalin has
freed the castle of Pintadol, in the Lancelot, he is greeted ˜with the greatest pos-
sible joy™ by a thankful crowd. ˜And as he passed in front of them, they all fell
to their knees as if before an altar.™55 Those freed by Lancelot™s splendid success
at Escalon the Dark, in the same romance, welcome him ˜as joyously as they
would have hailed God himself ™.56
The same could be said of the Grail, which (whatever Chr©tien de Troyes
intended), later writers identify with the platter that served Christ™s Passover
lamb, the vessel for the wine, or the vessel that received his blood; they like-
wise identify the bleeding lance with the lance of Longinus which pierced
Christ™s side as he hung on the cross. In other words, the objective of this
imagined knightly questing is nothing less than attainment of Eucharistic or
mystical union with the divine; the knights strive to come to the Lord™s table,
there to feed on the bread of heaven dispensed by Christ himself.
This quest and union are effected by the knights and their God, with only
minimal sacramental mediation by priests. As we will see shortly, hermits
stand like signposts on the way, pointing questing knights in the right direc-
tions, spiritually as well as spacially. But in the ¬nal moments a few elect
knights who have earned the apotheosis meet God and commune with him in
a blaze of light.
We have been prepared for this moment by the unmistakable lay Pentecosts
and Grail appearances in The History of the Holy Grail and especially in The
Quest of the Holy Grail.57 In the latter text, at dinner on the feast of Pentecost,
˜After they had eaten the ¬rst course, an extraordinary event took place; all the
doors and windows of the palace closed by themselves, without anyone touch-
ing them. However, the room was not darkened.™ A venerable man in white
appears, leading into the company of veteran knights a young knight dressed
in red and white, the colours of Christ. ˜Peace be with you™, is his greeting. The

Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 152“3; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 162. Joinville hung his cru-

sading uncle™s shield in his chapel, with a tablet of explanation: Shaw, tr., Joinville and
Villehardouin, 18. Coss notes that ˜English churches seem to have been literally festooned with
armorial glass and depictions of donors™: The Knight, 89. Ayton cites banners deposited in
churches, in addition to representations in windows, altar cloths, and the like: Ayton and Price,
eds., Medieval Military Revolution, 87. The practice is illustrated inversely in the ¬ve hundred pairs
of gilded spurs Froissart says the Flemings hung in the church of Notre Dame of Courtrai, hav-
ing taken them from dead French knights on the ¬eld of battle outside that city in 1302: see
Brereton, tr., Froissart, 251.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 294; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 227. Holdsworth cites a case

from life: ˜Ideas and Reality™, 76.
Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 303; Micha, Lancelot, I, 265.

Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 23; Hucher, ed., Saint Graal, II, 168“72.
The Link with Clergie
young newcomer soon establishes his unique status by taking the Perilous Seat
at the Round Table (doom for anyone else), by drawing the sword from the
stone ¬‚oating in the river beside the palace, and by defeating all comers in a
celebratory tournament. At the end of the day, announced by a thunderclap
and illuminated by intense rays of light, the Grail appears and provides each
knight with his most desired food. The knights swear to quest for the Holy
Medieval Christians would not miss the parallel between this scene in
chivalric myth and scenes from sacred history”a blending of the ¬rst appear-
ance of the risen Christ to the disciples in the upper room with the original
Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came in a rushing wind to the apostles in a
closed room, to set them on their great mission in the world. Christ™s colours
were red and white; his greeting in the upper room was ˜Peace be with you™.
In fact, the author later makes the parallelism explicit, more than once.
Perceval™s aunt, a pious recluse, draws the connections for him point by

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