this author and work, see Life, Sir Thomas Malory.
Useful general approaches appear in Brewer, ‚Ä˜Malory‚Ä™; idem, ed., Malory, ‚Ä˜Introduction‚Ä™; and
Benson, Malory‚Ä™s Morte Darthur. On Malory and chivalry, see Tucker, ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™;
McCarthy, Morte Darthur, 76‚Ä“93; Barber, ‚Ä˜Chivalry‚Ä™. Beverly Kennedy, Knighthood, argues a
highly schematic typology of knighthood in Malory.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 289
Yet there are sound reasons for making Malory‚Ä™s book our Ô¬Ānal text, as we
consider reform of chivalry by the knightly. One of the few facts about Sir
Thomas Malory that can be advanced without igniting instant controversy is
that he was a knight himself, and very probably a practising or strenuous
knight. He clearly tells us in the pages of the Morte Darthur that he is a knight;
the favourite scholarly candidate among the several Thomas Malorys advanced
as the author of this great book appears to have had an active career in
Moreover, he shows concern for the themes that we have already encoun-
tered in the life of William Marshal and in the manual of Geoffroi de Charny.
In company with the other knight-authors, that is, Malory shows a vast admi-
ration for prowess (the key to honour, if practised properly), a concern for the
crucial role of loyalty, a somewhat subordinate interest in romantic love, and
an unswerving belief that God blesses the entire chivalric enterprise. We will
examine each of these points.51
Could any reader of Morte Darthur doubt that Malory admires prowess?
The only danger seems to be the modern tendency to hurry past this virtue in
an effort to infuse it with deeper and less physical meanings, or quickly to qual-
ify it with checks and softening qualities more to our modern taste. But
Malory likes prowess. He vastly admires men who can beat other men in
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 ‚Ä˜noble chere of chevalry‚Ä™ equated
with ‚Ä˜the hardyeste fyghters that ever they herde other sawe‚Ä™. Malory says
Arthur, Ô¬Āghting with Accolon, has lost so much blood that he can barely
stand, ‚Ä˜but he was so full of knighthood that he endured the pain‚Ä™. Kay is con-
temptuous of Gareth‚Ä™s Ô¬Ārst, simple request of Arthur, a request for sustenance,
‚Ä˜for an he had be come of jantyllmen, he wolde have axed [i.e. asked for] horse
This admiration for prowess, so evident in Malory‚Ä™s accounts of Arthur‚Ä™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‚Ä™s book ‚Ä˜is full of touches that demonstrate his practical knowledge of the
Ô¬Āghting life‚Ä™: ‚Ä˜Malory‚Ä™s Morte Darthur‚Ä™, 530.
Another similarity is that Malory makes of chivalry an ideal as it was in the Marshal biogra-
phy and Charny‚Ä™s book. Since the world can never quite live up to any such ideals, Malory‚Ä™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‚Ä”probably the highest
human good in Malory‚Ä™s view, and a chief ingredient in nobility. Characters
who have seen good displays of Ô¬Āghting say they have seen noble knight-
Throughout the book worship is proved on other men‚Ä™s bodies. Balin says
to his brother that they will attack King Rion with just this in mind: ‚Ä˜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.‚Ä™55 The many bat-
tle scars on Lancelot‚Ä™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 Ô¬Āght is to get no worship from an opponent.56
Malory so values the military side of knighthood and the worship produced
by Ô¬Āghting 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 Ô¬Ān 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, ‚Ä˜Malory‚Ä™s own state-
ment‚Ä™, P. E. Tucker argues, ‚Ä˜is not made plausible. On the other hand, much
is made of Tristram‚Ä™s other virtues as a knight.‚Ä™58 Eug√®ne Vinaver similarly
thinks that ‚Ä˜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 Ô¬Āghting in her name.‚Ä™59 Tucker identiÔ¬Āes what may be
Malory‚Ä™s key interest in the matter of the love between knight and lady.
Malory ‚Ä˜is concerned largely with stability, that is, loyalty in love. . . . Malory
Ô¬Ānds Ô¬Ādelity in love praiseworthy in itself‚Ä”ultimately, perhaps, because it is a
form of loyalty.‚Ä™60 Sadly, love in his own day does not meet Malory‚Ä™s high stan-
dards: ‚Ä˜And ryght so faryth the love nowadays, sone hote sone colde. Thys ys
no stabylyt√©. But the olde love was nat so.‚Ä™61
E.g. Vinaver ed., Malory. Works, 277.
56 Ibid., 499, 330, 370.
57 See the cogent argument of Tucker, ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™. Cf. Edwards, ‚Ä˜Place of Women‚Ä™.
58 ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™, 73. In general this essay has much of interest to say on the entire issue
of chivalry in Malory‚Ä™s view.
59 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 750.
60 ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™, 81. Cf. Peter Waldron, ‚Ä˜ ‚ÄúVertuouse Love‚ÄĚ, 54‚Ä“61.
61 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 649.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 291
The issue leads to a point of basic importance to understanding Malory‚Ä™s
view of chivalry in relation to our earlier exemplars. As Tucker has noted,
prowess, too, is praiseworthy in itself, and ‚Ä˜[a]part from its inherent worth,
prowess is admirable because it brings a knight reputation and honour, or
what Malory calls ‚Äúworship‚ÄĚ ‚Ä™.62 The chief qualities which are praiseworthy in
themselves and which lead to other virtues are thus identiÔ¬Āed as prowess and
loyalty, the twin pillars which upheld so much of the structure of Charny‚Ä™s
book, the interlinked set of qualities so important to William Marshal‚Ä™s suc-
‚Ä˜Stabylyt√©‚Ä™, 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.
‚Ä˜Stabylyt√©‚Ä™ 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‚Ä™s view, would he not
have agreed wholeheartedly, possibly adding one of his exclamations of ‚Ä˜He,
Dieu!‚Ä™ 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, ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™, 65.
The splendid praise of political stability which Malory addresses to his readers (‚Ä˜Lo ye all
Englysshemen‚Ä™: see Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 708) can be compared, with some interest, to a
long passage in Sir Thomas Gray‚Ä™s Scalacronica (in Maxwell, tr., 75‚Ä“6), and to a political sermon-
ette on unity in Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (in Thorpe, tr., 264‚Ä“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‚Ä™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 ‚Ä˜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.‚Ä™ 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 ‚Ä˜made no differ-
ence but tumbled adowne oute of his sadyll to the erthe as a sak, and there he
lay stylle‚Ä™. Mark‚Ä™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 ‚Ä˜Kynge Foxe‚Ä™.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 ‚Ä˜complayntes‚Ä™, 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 ‚Ä˜the Ô¬‚oure of chevalry‚Ä™, and to assure his readers
that ‚Ä˜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‚Ä™.69 Speaking
directly to King Mark, Gaheris later sums up this essential element in Arthur‚Ä™s
rule, in words conveying a telling contrast: ‚Ä˜the kynge regnys as a noble
knyght‚Ä™. Arthur knows, as Mark does not, that ‚Ä˜a kynge anoynted with creyme
[chrism] . . . sholdest holde with all men of worship‚Ä™.70
Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, 357, 358. Ibid., 365, 380.
Ibid., 10. Cf. Harding, ‚Ä˜Plaints and Bills‚Ä™.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 362, 36. The tradition of the knightly king was venerable. A classic
example appears in Sir Degar√©, ll. 9‚Ä“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
‚Ä˜swall sore tyll he braste‚Ä™), her innocence is defended by Bors, who justiÔ¬Āes 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:
‚Ä˜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,‚Ä™ they sayde all, ‚Ä˜was because of
youre moste nobeles, sir Launcelot.‚Ä™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
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 Ô¬Āscal administration, of sheriffs and coro-
ners, of taxation, of justices and parchment rolls closely etched with the crabbed
Latin record of lawsuits‚Ä”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.
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
Ô¬Āfteenth 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 Ô¬Āt 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‚Ä™ 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 ‚Ä˜moste kynge‚Ä™ and the fellowship of the
greatest knights. His book ends‚Ä”despite these magniÔ¬Ācent exemplars‚Ä”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 Ô¬‚avour of Malory‚Ä™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‚Ä™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 Ô¬Ānish 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
Certainly, William Caxton thought so as the sheets of Malory‚Ä™s book came
out of his printing press. As Caxton famously advised his readers in his preface
to the printed book, ‚Ä˜Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you
to good fame and renomee.‚Ä™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‚Ä™s ideal of knighthood is not only built into the
structure and spirit of the entire work but appears in speciÔ¬Āc messages scat-
tered throughout its pages. Malory gives continual signposts along the high
road to worship. There are rules to be followed in the Ô¬Āghting; men who yield
are to be spared; women are to be protected; jealousy is no part of true wor-
ship. Tristram announces uncompromisingly that ‚Ä˜manhode is nat worthe but
yf hit be medled with wysdome‚Ä™.76 Lancelot is shocked when he is told about
a vile knight: ‚Ä˜ ‚ÄúWhat‚ÄĚ, seyde sir Launcelot, ‚Äúis 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!‚ÄĚ ‚Ä™77 The ‚Ä˜oth‚Ä™ 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 Ô¬‚e treson, and to gyff
mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of forÔ¬Āture 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 Ô¬Āghting for immoral causes in hope of gain, no rape (at least none
committed against gentlewomen); knights are, instead, to help ladies.
All such efforts, Ô¬Ānally, 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 ‚Ä˜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‚Ä™: p. 437.
Ibid., 160. Ibid., 75.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
as the author of chivalry with a fairly independent attitude towards speciÔ¬Āc
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 ‚Ä˜braunche
of holy herbe that was the signe of the Sancgreall . . . but he were a good lyver
and a man of prouesse‚Ä™.79 The combination of virtues calls to mind Charny‚Ä™s
belief in living ‚Ä˜by force of arms and good works‚Ä™.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: ‚Ä˜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.‚Ä™81 Yet Malory‚Ä™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 ‚Ä˜the greatest of all the quests undertaken by Arthur‚Ä™s knights‚Ä™, it
‚Ä˜still remains an adventure, and not an integral part of the Table‚Ä™s purpose.
And this tells us a great deal about Malory‚Ä™s attitude to chivalry.‚Ä™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‚Ä™s view, chivalry may be right or wrong in
its practice, and stands thus in need of constant reform, yet it is all ‚Ä˜worldly‚Ä™
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‚Ä™s concern for reli-
gion regularly translates into an attempt to practise morality in the quotidian
world. A hermit tells Gawain that ‚Ä˜whan ye were Ô¬Ārst made knyght ye sholde
have takyn you to knyghtly dedys and vertuous lyvyng‚Ä™.85 This is exactly what
Malory‚Ä™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‚Ä™s eyes. The goal remains a vir-
tuous life in the practice of chivalry‚Ä”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.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 596.
For a range of points of view, see ibid., 758‚Ä“60; Benson, Malory‚Ä™s Morte Darthur, 205‚Ä“22;
Mahoney, ‚Ä˜Truest and Holiest Tale‚Ä™; Atkinson, ‚Ä˜Malory‚Ä™s Lancelot‚Ä™; Shichtman, ‚Ä˜Politicizing the
Barber, ‚Ä˜Chivalry‚Ä™, 34. Tucker, ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™.
Vinaver, Malory. Works, 535. The parallel with being a ‚Ä˜good lyver and a man of prouesse‚Ä™,
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‚Ä”how knights
acted‚Ä”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‚Ä”
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‚Ä™s Histoire, Charny‚Ä™s manual, and
Malory‚Ä™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 Ô¬Ārst-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 Ô¬Ānd 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 ‚Ä˜Chivalry in the Morte‚Ä™.
N E A R the end of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‚Ä™s Court, Twain‚Ä™s
time traveller, backed by a force of only Ô¬Āfty-two boys in a cave strong-
hold, confronts the host of twenty-Ô¬Āve thousand knights that has come to
wipe out the source of trouble in Camelot. EfÔ¬Ācient military technology
destroys the knights en masse. Attacking in the darkness, they die in droves on
concentric rings of electriÔ¬Āed fences; others are shot down from platforms
mounting electric lights and rapid-Ô¬Āring Gatling guns; Ô¬Ānally, all that remain
drown when a mountain stream is directed into the great ditch Ô¬Ālled with the
Whatever the complexities of Twain‚Ä™s views regarding knighthood and
‚Ä˜modern‚Ä™ technology by this stage in his own life,1 this horriÔ¬Āc and unforget-
table tableau captures the popular, simplistic explanation of the end of
chivalry: knighthood died with its shining armour blackened by gunpowder.
The technology of the unheroic killed off the heroes from a prudent distance.2
Of course a contrary popular view, though probably a minority opinion,
suspects that despite improved military technology, chivalry was never quite
done in, or at least was never so safely interred as to be immune from one
revival or another. ‚Ä˜Chivalry is not dead‚Ä™: the old tag is usually said in a voice
caught between the mockery and nostalgia we feel for ideas and behaviour that
seem so immovably a part of our past. In this view chivalry took a leisurely
route to its own quasi-demise in the post-medieval European world, expiring
slowly and in such good form that the process recalls the slow and stately end
of its great twelfth-century exemplar William Marshal, as told unforgettably
by Georges Duby.3 Even an image of death almost operatic in its pace and
See Kaplan, Mr. Clemens, which elaborates the linkage between Twain‚Ä™s view of technology
in this novel and the failure of the typesetter in which he had invested heavily.
2 At the scholarly level, however, debate over the role of technology in late medieval and early
modern warfare is anything but simplistic, though the debate is beyond the scope of this book.
For an overview, with many citations, see Rogers, ed., The Military Revolution Debate. Evaluation
of the debate from a late medieval perspective, is provided by Rogers‚Ä™s essay in this volume, ‚Ä˜The
Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War‚Ä™, by the introduction of Ayton and Price, eds.,
The Medieval Military Revolution, and by Prestwich, Armies and Warfare. Cf. claims for an even
earlier period in Bartlett, ‚Ä˜Technique militaire‚Ä™.
3 Duby, Guillaume le Mar√©chal, 1‚Ä“23.
formality may be too abrupt, for who would not be reluctant to sign a speciÔ¬Āc,
dated death warrant to mark the end of so persistent and so complex a phe-
Explaining this process of transformation need not be attempted here. But
brieÔ¬‚y following our lines of investigation to their conclusion in the post-
medieval period will help us to see the issues more fully, by seeing their entire
lifespan. What happened to the complex and powerful mixture of knighthood,
public order, licit violence, lay piety, ecclesiastical authority, and royal sover-
eignty? Two incidents transpiring within a generation of each other early in
the seventeenth century will help to direct our enquiry.
The Essex Rebellion and the Bouteville Affair
The famous revolt of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, in 1601, has been
termed ‚Ä˜the last honour revolt‚Ä™ and interpreted as the swansong of chivalric
culture by Mervyn James.4 Essex himself was a famous soldier and a magnet
for the iron of chivalry in others. Even among the London crowd he was pop-
ular as a paragon of chivalry, a reputation that was enhanced by cheap chival-
ric romance in circulation. Some romantics expected him to lead a great
crusade. Chapman‚Ä™s Ô¬Ārst instalment of Homer, that bible of honourable vio-
lence, was dedicated to him. His body of supporters included many duellists
and showed in general a ‚Ä˜strongly military orientation‚Ä™, including as it did a
‚Ä˜considerable representation of swordsmen with a taste for violence‚Ä™. Through
Essex these men ‚Ä˜made contact with the glamorous overtones of Tudor
monarchical chivalry in which the earl played a prominent part‚Ä™.5
There were three great professions, Essex wrote: arms, law, and religion.
That he belonged proudly to the Ô¬Ārst in this list with all its ‚Ä˜pains, dangers, and
difÔ¬Āculties‚Ä™,6 makes him the ghostly heir of the mid-fourteenth-century writer
Geoffroi de Charny, as he was more obviously the ideological companion of
the contemporary poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney.
The solidarity of the Essex group, James argues, was based on honour, even
on honour as it had operated in the Middle Ages, with all the competition and
latent violence, thinly cloaked in elaborate courtesy, that such a code entails.
Since this culture of honour likewise ‚Ä˜points to the importance of will and the
emphasis on moral autonomy‚Ä™, it leads to ‚Ä˜the uneasiness of the man of hon-
our in relation to authority, seen as liable to cabin, crib and conÔ¬Āne this same
James, ‚Ä˜At a Crossroads‚Ä™. Cf. idem, ‚Ä˜English Politics‚Ä™, and McCoy, ‚Ä˜ ‚ÄúA Dangerous Image‚ÄĚ ‚Ä™.
James, ‚Ä˜At a Crossroads‚Ä™, 428‚Ä“9.
Ibid., 429. James, ‚Ä˜English Politics‚Ä™, 314.
When his revolt failed miserably, Essex at Ô¬Ārst spoke the proud and deÔ¬Āant
language of this culture of honour. It was, as we have already seen, the lan-
guage of Ganelon in the Song of Roland, going back to the late eleventh or
twelfth century, the language of the knight Bertelay in The Story of Merlin,
from the thirteenth century.8 Essex justiÔ¬Āed his degree of autonomous action
in the honourable pursuit of a private feud; he noted that even natural law
allowed force to repel force, after all. He had done nothing against the queen
herself, or against God. He was merely ‚Ä˜the law‚Ä™s traitor, and would die for it‚Ä™.9
Yet almost as soon as he was condemned, Essex abandoned the language
and culture of honour utterly, and all the way to the scaffold embraced a view
which Lacy Baldwin Smith found common to those defeated in attempts to
overthrow or severely constrain the Tudor monarchy: he adopted whole-
hearted submission with a sense that his revolt had been judged and defeated
by the will of the Almighty.10 He thus became a late convert to what James
calls providentialist religion, a believer in the divine purpose that could be
effected as England achieved wholeness under its queen. Honour was hers to
distribute, not his to win in showy independence; even those as chivalrous and
great-hearted as he could not act as autonomous agents. His only success was
posthumous. Later writers portrayed Essex as almost saintly, a victim of the
pedantic snares of the law and of jealous enemies, a true chivalric and
Protestant hero in the service of his country.
James‚Ä™s argument is powerful and fascinating. Even without entering into
all its implications, students of medieval chivalry may take the Essex revolt of
1601 as a signiÔ¬Ācant signpost. It points away from ideas whose societal effects
we have studied; it points toward basic transformations of those ideas by the
early seventeenth century.
Our French incident, taking place a quarter of a century later, shows fascinat-
ing similarities. The Bouteville affair of 1627 began with a duel and ended with
two French noblemen going to the scaffold.11 Not only did the Comte de
Bouteville and his cousin the Comte des Chapelles Ô¬Āght in violation of the royal
prohibition against duelling (a law on the books since 1602), they chose to
thumb their nose at such regulation by conducting their Ô¬Āght in the Place
Royale, the largest square in the capital and one with clear royalist associations.
This was the twenty-second duel the twenty-eight-year-old Bouteville had
fought in defence of his honour, but Ô¬Āghting in the Place Royale (rather than in
some remote alley or rural lane) showed a deliberate deÔ¬Āance of the laws.
Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisse 273; Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 339‚Ä“41; Sommer,
ed., Vulgate Version, II, 310‚Ä“13.
James, ‚Ä˜At a Crossroads‚Ä™, 455. Smith, Treason.
Billacois, Le Duel, 247‚Ä“75.
In the Ô¬‚ood of argument and petition that reached Louis XIII and Cardinal
Richelieu on behalf of the young noblemen before their execution, the line of
defence taken by their fellow nobles is highly revealing. The two had done
nothing against the king or the state, these appeals stated. There had been no
fracture of the essential and honourable man-to-man bond uniting king and
nobleman. The two duellists had simply violated an edict (a distinction recall-
ing Essex‚Ä™s claim that he was merely ‚Ä˜the law‚Ä™s traitor‚Ä™, not a traitor to his sov-
ereign). Surely, their essential noble service as warriors ready for the king‚Ä™s
service ought to count for more than breaking of such regulations. The effort
was unsuccessful. This time the pardon so frequently sought and so regularly
obtained was not forthcoming.
After their deaths the two men were highly praised by all (including the
royal administration, with one eye on their inÔ¬‚uential families and friends);
some even managed to portray them as ideal Christians undergoing a species
of martyrdom. During his trial des Chapelles had told his judges that he was
willing to shed his blood, if that sacriÔ¬Āce was necessary for the king to estab-
lish his kingdom. Yet he added that he did know that ‚Ä˜in antiquity [he means
the Middle Ages] men had fought and that kings of France had tolerated it up
to the present‚Ä™.12
This trial and the somewhat mystiÔ¬Āed statement of the condemned des
Chapelles will remind us of a trial that took place in Paris three hundred years
earlier. In 1323 Jourdain de l‚Ä™Isle Jourdain, lord of Casaubon, a notorious vio-
lator of the peace, was Ô¬Ānally brought to justice after he had killed two men
under royal safeguard and then murdered the unfortunate royal serjeant sent
to arrest him. On his way to the gallows (denied the nobler death by behead-
ing allowed the men of 1627), Jourdain confessed repeatedly that he deserved
death for his many misdeeds; but in each case he added, with a puzzlement like
that of des Chapelles, his quasi-defence based on old custom: ‚Ä˜but it was in
war‚Ä™. Though there was no movement to consider Jourdain anything like a
martyr, he carried cherished relics on his body as he went to his death, includ-
ing what he believed to be a piece of the true cross.13
‚Ä˜Ledit sieur dit que . . . si‚Ä™l faut que le Roy establisse son royaume par le sang, il se sacriÔ¬Āe.
Mais qu‚Ä™il est vrai que . . . dans l‚Ä™antiquit√© on se battoit, et que cela a dur√© jusques √† maintenant et
les Roys de France l‚Ä™ont toler√©‚Ä™: ibid., 274‚Ä“5.
Langlois and Lanhers, Confessions et jugements, 37‚Ä“9, print the confession; cf. Cutler, Law of
Treason, 46, 144‚Ä“5, and Kicklighter, ‚Ä˜Nobility of English Gascony‚Ä™. Kicklighter notes that his exe-
cutioners clad Jordain in a robe bearing the papal arms to mock the papal efforts for a pardon.
Dissolving the Fusion of Chivalric Elements
Chivalry came into being as a powerful, mutually reinforcing fusion of several
major functions, roles, and rights. Above all, the chivalrous defended honour
through the violence of personal prowess; to this fusion they added a formal
and rather independent piety, asserting God‚Ä™s blessing on their demanding
and violent lives; they claimed an elite, usually noble, status and established
their nobility by the practice of a chivalric way of life; they sought to regulate
relationships between males and females on their own terms, exclusively link-
ing love, too, with prowess and honour.
As in Gothic of another sort, many buttresses supported these chivalric struc-
tures. The chivalrous claimed they were set apart from others by the loyalty
which guided their prowess, by the largesse which prowess supplied: they pos-
sessed castles, or at least fortiÔ¬Āed dwellings of some sort; they pictured them-
selves Ô¬Āghting from the backs of noble warhorses; they enthusiastically
participated in the deÔ¬Āning sport of tournament; they displayed appropriately
reÔ¬Āned manners in a court, or in a bedroom; they provided patronage and audi-
ence for literature of a speciÔ¬Āc, and ideally exclusive sort. Equally important, all
these traits showed and helped form a generous measure of lay independence,
even a powerful degree of autonomy in the face of developing institutions of
governance. We saw this autonomy in the belief that knights could join the
emerging state on their own terms, that they could practise a piety only par-
tially controlled by the clerical caste, and that the cultural space in their lives
could in no small measure be furnished with ideas of their own choosing.
Between the Ô¬Āfteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, this durable syn-
thesis of power, status, piety, and cultural ideas came apart. Some elements
largely disappeared, others underwent considerable transformation, but above
all the interlocking, mutually strengthening fusion of elements dissolved. It is
this dissolution rather than the disappearance of any one characteristic that marks
the demise of chivalry. The revivals could only breathe life into selected aspects
of chivalry; they could not revitalize the complex and powerful organic whole.
The long survivals claim our attention Ô¬Ārst. Since chivalry had long func-
tioned as the distinguishing badge of the elite, it is not surprising that some of
its more showy secondary characteristics continued into the period well
beyond the traditional Middle Ages. Chivalric literary forms provide a clear
case in point. Many old chivalric texts were reworked and issued in print for
even wider audiences; new chivalric works were written to meet the demand
from obviously avid readers.14 Notions of ‚Ä˜courtly love‚Ä™ seem to have lasted so
Cooper concluded that ‚Ä˜far from waning, interest in things chivalric increased manifold dur-
ing the sixteenth century in France‚Ä™. He supports this assertion with an outline bibliography of
long and carried enough chivalric glamour that some modern literary treat-
ments of the culture of post-medieval Europe seem almost to assume that this
is what chivalry was.
Jousting and the tournament, likewise, though in increasingly stylized
form, survived well beyond the Ô¬Āfteenth century. The monarchs who had once
prohibited tournaments or regulated them closely, fearing their show of
armed independence and nervous about their potentialities for disorder,
became in the end their proud sponsors, having converted tournaments into
celebratory ceremonies of regality. ‚Ä˜The tournament survived into the second
decade of the seventeenth century in a form which the knights of three cen-
turies earlier might still have recognized as their favourite sport‚Ä™, Richard
Barber and Juliet Barker note, but they add that on the continent the Thirty
Years War (1618‚Ä“48) and the changing attitudes of princes brought an end to
Towards the close of its life, tournament was undoubtedly being trans-
formed not only in degree but in kind; parade and spectacle outweighed com-
bat, which itself gradually became only the mock combat of the ‚Ä˜carrousel‚Ä™ or
the ‚Ä˜horse ballet‚Ä™. One so-called tournament held at night in the courtyard of
the Louvre in 1606 involved ‚Ä˜pure spectacle, symbolism and just a little real
In England, Henry VII and Henry VIII likewise sponsored numerous tour-
naments, and Queen Elizabeth was honoured by Accession Day Jousts. The
association of English kings with tournament lingered on a while longer, in
fact, before dying out only in the early years of Charles I.17
Ideas and forms unmistakably recognizable as chivalric thus survived as
late as the seventeenth century. But the changes are more important for basic
issues of public order. How had essential elements in the formative chivalric
fusion‚Ä”responsible for its seemingly endless strength‚Ä”weakened and sepa-
rated? Meltdown in the chivalric alloy was not sudden; the furnaces had actu-
ally been fuelled by the very medieval efforts to constrain and reform chivalry
which we have followed throughout this book. The trial of Jourdain de l‚Ä™Isle
Jourdain noted above, reinforces that point. But as trends already clear in the
Middle Ages (such as the growth of state power) continued in the new
conditions of early modern Europe (especially the changes in its social
hierarchy), chivalry itself was utterly transformed. We can observe this
works on chivalry printed in France before 1600; the list runs to forty-six pages: ‚Ä˜Nostre histoire
renouvel√©e‚Ä™, quotation at 175.
Barber and Barker, Tournaments, 209.
Gunn, ‚Ä˜Chivalry‚Ä™; McCoy, Rites of Knighthood; Ferguson, Chivalric Tradition.
transformation in three of the constitutive elements, or fusions of elements,
that had created chivalry.18
Prowess and Honour
In the Ô¬Ārst place, the essential linkage of violence with honour slipped. The
value of honour, of course, did not diminish. Who could doubt that belief in
honour continued in early modern European society, or that it drew strength
from its medieval predecessor? ‚Ä˜The Renaissance cult of honour and fame‚Ä™,
Malcolm Vale observes, ‚Ä˜owed more than it was prepared to acknowledge to
the medieval cult of chivalry.‚Ä™19 The argument here is, rather, that prowess was
no longer so regularly fused to this concept of honour, no longer the univer-
sally praised personal means of attaining honour, edged weapons in hand.
State-formation played a key role in this change, probably aided by changes
in military technology. Stated in the baldest terms, the state Ô¬Ānally achieved
the working monopoly of licit violence within the realm that had been its dis-
tant goal for centuries‚Ä”or at least it came to a new and undoubtedly
signiÔ¬Ācant step on its movement towards that victory.20 Much larger armies,
equipped with siege trains of much larger cannon, Ô¬Āgure prominently in most
analyses.21 Historian are, of course, wisely cautious about hurrying noblemen
off the stage too precipitously. As Malcolm Vale has noted, ‚Ä˜the nobility in
England and on the Continent adapted themselves to changes dictated by new
The fourth key to chivalric strength (suggested in Chapter 10) was the role of chivalry in
establishing relationships between the genders. This Epilogue suggests basic changes in the view
taken of prowess and in its links with honour, piety, and status. The link between love and
prowess, too, must have altered in the post-medieval era; but it would be prudent to leave treat-
ment of such a topic for specialists in the history of gender relationships in early modern Europe.
19 Vale, War and Chivalry, 174.
20 The classic argument appears in Stone, Crisis of the Aristocracy, 199‚Ä“270. Even if current schol-
arship opposes the general thesis of a crisis, and of royalist triumph, the evidence Stone mustered
in support of growing royal control of the means of violence seems signiÔ¬Ācant. Bonney, Political
Change, 441, suggests that ‚Ä˜[t]he nobles were defeated as a political force acting independently of
the crown and resorting to the sanction of armed rebellion‚Ä™. In Rebels and Rulers, II, 221, Zagorin,
speaking of the princes and grands, argues that ‚Ä˜if they still possessed substantial social and politi-
cal power over their inferiors, they had largely lost their ability and will to maintain armed resis-
tance against royal sovereignty‚Ä™. Hale writes of the ‚Ä˜civilizing‚Ä™ and ‚Ä˜demilitarizing‚Ä™ of the ‚Ä˜armoured
castes of western Europe: War and Society; Schalk suggests (to a medievalist, perhaps too starkly)
a move from a medieval view of nobility linked with the function of Ô¬Āghting to a view, by the late
sixteenth century, of nobility as pedigree: From Valor to Pedigree. James argues that the Tudor state
monopolized chivalric violence: ‚Ä˜English Politics‚Ä™.
21 For the military revolution and state formation in various countries, see Downing, The
Military Revolution. Black argues for the importance of the period after 1660 (i.e. beyond the usual
terminal date for the military revolution) and for the absolutist state as a cause of military change
rather than a consequence: A Military Revolution? On the role of military innovation, see Rogers,
‚Ä˜Military Revolution‚Ä™; Parker, The Military Revolution; Eltis, The Military Revolution.
techniques of war and military organization‚Ä™.22 Even when belief in the key
role of heavy cavalry in warfare had succumbed to battleÔ¬Āeld facts, the chival-
rous could still happily command units (even infantry units, supplied with
Ô¬Ārearms) in the ever-larger national armies raised to Ô¬Āght the king‚Ä™s wars. If
standing armies were coming into being on the continent from the mid-
Ô¬Āfteenth century, the crown continued to rely on militant nobles to raise sol-
diers, put down internal rebellion, and act as military governors.23
Historians likewise recognize that the generous measure of state triumph in
warlike violence involves the way people thought as well as the way they
waged war. Beyond recruitment and supply, taxes, tactics, and technology, we
need to consider the altered self-deÔ¬Ānition of the nobles, their increasing
acceptance of a cluster of ideas about violence and honour.24 The Duc de
Tr√©moille in mid-seventeenth-century France copied into his letterbook a
description of the Duke of Parma, a famous captain of the previous genera-
tion; he notes that the duke was engaged in ‚Ä˜making war rather with his wits
and speeches than with the force of his arms‚Ä™.25 The nobles were even coming
to see chivalry (whether vocation or status) as closely linked to the crown; it
meant service in what might almost be termed a ‚Ä˜national chivalry‚Ä™.26 This was
the lesson learned by the Earl of Essex, the Comtes de Bouteville and des
Chapelles, as we have seen, only at the very end of their lives. Honour need not
be acquired and defended by personal acts of violence; it comes from the sov-
ereign rather than from autonomous displays of prowess.
The very assumptions and actions of men like Bouteville and des Chapelles
may, however, seem to deny these changes. From roughly the mid-sixteenth
century a veritable cult of duelling stands as a remembrance of things past that
is all but immovable in the face of all other changes taking place. Tournament
was gone, or as near as mattered, and judicial combat was likewise on its way
into memory, but autonomous individuals could still remove any stain to
their sacred honour by spilling an opponent‚Ä™s blood in the duel, the obvious
descendant of these forms. Duelling certainly demonstrates at least a partial
Vale, War and Chivalry, 162. Hale, War and Society, 94‚Ä“5, similarly argues that ‚Ä˜[i]t has been
suggested that the adoption of unchivalrous gunpowder weapons and the declining importance
of cavalry led to a decreasing appetite for military service among the aristocracies of Europe.
Neither assumption can be taken seriously.‚Ä™ Hale likewise discounts ‚Ä˜the case for the suggestion
that artillery was an instrument centralizing power‚Ä™: p. 248.
Hale, War and Society, 247‚Ä“8; Vale, War and Chivalry, 162‚Ä“3.
Discussed in Vale, War and Chivalry, 100‚Ä“74; Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, 132‚Ä“72.
Quoted in Dewald, Aristocratic Experience, 57. Of course, many medieval captains used their
wits well, but the shift of emphasis away from prowess is fascinating. Some contemporary observers
noted the same phenomenon, but were on the other side. At Elizabeth‚Ä™s court, the poet Samuel
Daniel regretted the lowered ‚Ä˜virilitie‚Ä™ of an age in which ‚Ä˜more came to be effected by wit than by
the sword‚Ä™ and decried ‚Ä˜all-drowning Sov‚Ä™raintie‚Ä™. Quoted in McCoy, Rites of Knighthood, 105, 118.
Keen, Nobility, Knighthood, 167‚Ä“70.
continuance into the early modern era of the old chivalric theme of a defence
of honour through violence, and the old chivalric sense of political and even
ethical autonomy as well. This survival of the chivalric obsession with honour
and the perhaps even heightened assertion of personal independence seemed
to the participants not so much an illegal as an extra-legal practice, a statement
of their freedom from troublesome restraints in important matters of their
Of course the institutional force of both Church and State formally opposed
the duel, and sometimes even took genuine steps to restrain it. The pattern will
look familiar to anyone who has studied the arguments and measures directed
at other troublesome chivalric practices, such as private war or the early tour-
nament. The sense of a genuine opposition of ideals is obvious, as is the cau-
tion that the governors knew must accompany any clash with the deeply held
beliefs of those whose support was still essential to successful governance.
Royal legislation sometimes explicitly raised the issue of sovereignty and (as
we have seen) royal administrations sometimes insisted that spectacular viola-
tors suffer the full punishment of the law; but the crown seldom pressed the
issue to its logical and rigorous conclusion. As Fran√§ois Billacois suggests con-
cisely, ‚Ä˜Duel is the supreme afÔ¬Ārmation that aristocracy and monarchy are
essentially opposed associates in a coherent political system.‚Ä™28
Yet we must recognize that duelling is not the same social practice as its
ancestor, private war. Perhaps the crown was all the more willing to look the
other way because duel involved only individuals in private combat; the days
of calling out a veritable army of armoured relatives and tenants and going to
war, pennants Ô¬‚ying, had come down to a few men with pistols or rapiers in a
dark alley or a convenient Ô¬Āeld. Public order was, of course, still threatened in
theory, but was obviously less threatened in fact; the public stance of those in
charge could be maintained by growling and occasionally making examples of
In fact, insistence on the right to duel may inversely illustrate the degree of
success the state was achieving in the separation of prowess and honour.
Duelling, from this point of view, represents a reaction to growing royal con-
trol over violence on a grander scale. Such a view is Ô¬Ānely illustrated in the
statement of a sixteenth-century French nobleman, appropriately named
Guillaume de Chevalier, that duelling had increased among his contempo-
raries because nobles were doing less Ô¬Āghting on the battleÔ¬Āelds as a result of
See in general Billacois, Le Duel; Kiernan, The Duel; Schalk, From Valor to Pedigree, 162‚Ä“74.
Billacois, Le Duel, 391.
Quoted in Schalk, From Valor to Pedigree, 169‚Ä“70. Cf. Vale, War and Chivalry, 165‚Ä“7.
Prowess and Piety
Another limitation on duelling brings us to analyse a second fusion of
basic chivalric elements. The Church and religion, no less than the State,
opposed duelling. Although some friends of the duel might claim religious
justiÔ¬Ācations (interpreting the Ô¬Āght of David and Goliath as a duel being one
of the more imaginative arguments), attempts to win religious backing in fact
won few successes. Billacois‚Ä™s comment is once again pithy: duelling ‚Ä˜is not a
counter-religion; it is another religion‚Ä™.30 Evidently most duellists confronted
with religious criticism simply shrugged their shoulders and went on, show-
ing the most sturdy sense of the lay autonomy and independence which by
now was centuries old.
Yet we should take special note. This independence is not simply a contin-
uance of a chivalric trait. In fact, a change of the greatest signiÔ¬Ācance has taken
place: the link between piety and prowess, always present if always under ten-
sion in the Middle Ages, has stretched to breaking point. The medieval
Church had blessed knightly personal prowess, though at times with hands
clasped in hope, arguing only that the violence must be directed towards
proper ends. No one by the post-medieval period really thought duelling was
one of those proper ends. Duelling, in other words, represents the totally sec-
ular end point of a long and tension-laden interplay between personal piety
and personal violence. Since this connection of personal prowess with honour
and with piety had formed one of the truly signiÔ¬Ācant strengths of chivalry, the
breaking of this bond represents one of the clearest causes for the general
transformation of chivalry. If an old bond is snapped, a new one is created; a
signiÔ¬Ācant shift in the beneÔ¬Āciary of the religious valorization of violence has
taken place. We have seen that clerics long suffered doubts about the blessing
of God claimed for the violence inherent in chivalry. Over time their doubts
all but disappeared, however, as the claim to licit violence came from the State.
In one part of Europe after another, royal administrations more effectively and
more globally asserted their supervision over licit violence; by the seventeenth
century the process represented half a millennium of gradual pressure and a
signiÔ¬Ācant degree of success.
Constant clerical insistence on reform and restraint where chivalric violence
was concerned contrasts signiÔ¬Ācantly with the clerical willingness to sanctify
one royal campaign after another through the later Middle Ages and early
Billacois, Le Duel, 391, 350.
Of course the king‚Ä™s wars, no less than any knight‚Ä™s warlike violence, had to
be just. Yet it was even harder, more futile, more clearly at odds with the divine
plan to doubt the royal justiÔ¬Ācations than to debate those of the knights. Thus
the Church, which had once in the distant past relied on pious rulers
(Christian Roman emperors, Carolingian kings), could return‚Ä”after the
Ô¬Āreworks of the Gregorian Reform and the struggle over investiture‚Ä”to an
easy reliance on royal power. Were kings not God‚Ä™s anointed rulers for all the
business involving bloodshed and violence, sadly necessary in an imperfect
world? Were robbers not to be apprehended and hanged? Were the robbers
who happened to wear crowns in neighbouring kingdoms not similarly to be
stopped from evil?
Noble descendants of the medieval chivalrous might still play key roles in
the military, but the change of religious valorization is signiÔ¬Ācant. Religious
justiÔ¬Ācation for violence now descended not on the blessed ranks of the
chivalry, but on agents of the State and, in theory and over time, of the nation.
Prowess and Status
In one Ô¬Ānal way we can see the breakdown of the durable fusions that had
formed medieval chivalry. Chivalry ceased to function as the undoubted indi-
cator of nobility.
The trappings of chivalry were at least in part appropriated by increasing
numbers of people from non-noble social levels. The process was old and had
already made considerable strides‚Ä”and created signiÔ¬Ācant tensions‚Ä”within
medieval centuries. Each effort to use chivalric culture as a barrier against lesser
beings naturally generated even more interest on the part of the sub-chivalric to
scale or breach that wall. Borrowed chivalric forms unmistakably reappeared
beyond the inner circle of those who could proudly claim to be knightly or
noble; aspirants in surrounding social circles eagerly brought these forms into
their lives. Bourgeois interest in reading romance, in jousting, and in heraldry
is well known. In the mid-fourteenth-century crisis of French chivalry, brought
about most directly by repeated battleÔ¬Āeld defeat, Geoffroi de Charny heaped
praise‚Ä”and urged greater valour‚Ä”upon all those who lived by the profession
of arms, not on the nobles alone. In England the Ô¬Āfteenth-century readers of
Sir Thomas Malory‚Ä™s great work, though far from simply the bourgeois body
once claimed, seem to have covered a wide social range. By the seventeenth cen-
tury even London apprentices described themselves in chivalric language and
participated in what William Hunt has termed civic chivalry.31
Hunt, ‚Ä˜Civic Chivalry‚Ä™.
As the social pyramid broadened, increasing numbers of the elite originated
in legal and administrative families ‚Ä˜of the robe‚Ä™ rather than the older military
families ‚Ä˜of the sword‚Ä™ (to use language from France).32 Service to the State
(even in the humdrum matters of diplomacy and administration, as well as in
the rigours of war) proved to be an acceptable means of continuing inÔ¬‚uence.
Living well, in comfortable and costly, if unfortiÔ¬Āed, country houses, or at
court, even proved to be a seductive substitute for the very rigours of cam-
paign and combat that Charny extolled in the mid-fourteenth century as the
key to true superiority. Even education might be desirable; and if medieval
aristocrats would have laughed at the idea that they were not educated, know-
ing that they had carefully learned what they needed to know, their late
sixteenth- or seventeenth-century successors would have meant something dif-
ferent by the term.33
Thus chevalerie and its complex relationships with clergie and royaut√©, which
have formed the core of this study, were transformed. The autonomy of
chivalry and its private violence gradually disappeared, swallowed up by the
growth of state power and public violence, blessed by the Church.34 These
processes were not, let it be said again, sudden and post-medieval, but, rather,
the outcome of trends at work for half a millennium of European history. In
one dimension the process left a stubbornly resistant residue of autonomous
violence in the devotion to the duel. But the State had progressed towards sov-
ereign control of warlike violence within the realm and the Church had made
its peace with the sort of war that the State continued to lead with enthusiasm
beyond its borders. After the break-up of the medieval Church, any lingering
impulse for crusade could well be absorbed in the holy war against Christians
with incorrect theological views.
Like a massive steel cable gradually coming unwound, the strands of
chivalry, twisted tightly into place from the twelfth century, were pulled apart
by the host of cumulative changes so actively at work. Change was evident in
such diverse agencies as royal courts and armies, political and religious
thought, mercantile companies, battleÔ¬Āeld techniques, the classroom, the
myriad of forms marking the social hierarchy. Over several centuries the
See the similar language of Sir Robert Naunton at Elizabeth I‚Ä™s court in England: he claims
her nobles were divided into militi and togati: see McCoy, Rites of Knighthood, 10.
Schalk argues, for example, that the mid-sixteenth-century French nobility was not educated
(in a bookish sense) and that only gradually did education become a marque de noblesse; by the
mid-seventeenth century the nobles were associated with the culture that comes with education:
From Valor to Pedigree, 174‚Ä“5. Hale notes the endless popularity of Castiglione‚Ä™s The Courtier and
the founding of military academies from the 1560‚Ä™s: War and Society, 97‚Ä“8. Cf. Motley, Becoming
a French Aristocrat: the education of court nobility, 1580‚Ä“1715 (Princeton, 1990).
The independent piety of knights obviously intersects with Reformation themes. I am work-
ing on a general study of the religion of knights.
cumulative effects of these forces altered the self-conception of the lay, male,
elite. If the nobility had several centuries of active life ahead of it as this cable
unwound in the early modern period, it would not be as an elite that was
chivalric in any way that could have been fully recognized or approved by
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