to characters in the â˜Romance of Alexanderâ™ in bk. III, ll. 72â“92.
14 For the Perlesvaus, Kelly reached a similar conclusion: Structural Study, 20, 23. As Elspeth
Kennedy notes, male interests â˜may well have been directed towards different elements within the
romanceâ™: â˜Knight as Readerâ™, 1. Crouch suggests the young William Marshal would have known
and perhaps memorized a body of chanson de geste and romance. His father was familiar with
Geoffrey of Monmouth or one of his imitators: William Marshal, 23. Hindman notes that a scene
in the romance of Hunbaut pictures a group of ten knights and six young ladies listening to the
reading of a romance: Sealed in Parchment, 86.
Good general accounts in Painter, French Chivalry and Keen, Chivalry. For speciď¬c inď¬‚uences
seeâ”in addition to the Benson article cited in fn. 16â”three studies by Loomis: â˜Arthurian
Inď¬‚uenceâ™, â˜Chivalric and Dramatic Imitationsâ™, and â˜Edward Iâ™.
Benson, â˜The Tournamentâ™. Cf. Barber and Barker, Tournaments.
Chivalry and its Interpretation 33
own writings, and they show by their actions that they have read it and are
bringing it into their lives.
Is Chivalric Literature Hopelessly Romantic?
Such evidence makes it difď¬cult to dismiss or discount chivalric literature as
hopelessly romantic and useless in serious historical enquiry. We cannot
expect this literature, or any other, to serve as a simple mirror to social reality
in the world in which it emerged. Chivalric literature was an active social force,
helping to shape attitudes about basic questions. As such, it has immense use-
fulness, if read with care.
Above all, we need to remember that these works are, in conscious intent at
least, more often prescriptive than descriptive; they advance ideals for what
chivalry should become, in other words, more often than they mirror an ideal
already transformed into social reality.17 In The History of the Holy Grail,
Joseph of Arimathea (considered a great knight of the era of Christ) is ordered
by God to sire the son who will continue the line of knightly heroes that will
culminate in the perfect knight, Galahad. This son, the text says,
was later such a worthy man that one should certainly recall his deeds and the nobility
of his life in the hearing of all worthy men, so that the wicked will abandon their folly
and worthy men, who hold the order of chivalry, may better themselves toward the
world and God.18
The prescriptive impulse of much of this literature could scarcely be stated
Yet it is often descriptive as well, for the writers of chivalric literature regu-
larly offer up descriptions of actual knightly practices from the world around
them. These scenes are either given consciously, to show some behaviour in
need of improvement, or unconsciously, while the writer is actually focusing
on some other aspect of knightly life and behaviour.
Ordinary practice can always be recovered, if we are prepared to look care-
fully between lines written either prescriptively or descriptively. Speciď¬c cri-
tiques are directly revealing; even highly gilded passages of praise are indirectly
revealing: we seldom preach virtues to replace non-existent faults. Of course
the descriptive and prescriptive often come intertwined, almost sentence by
As Barron suggested, â˜The paradox of romance in all periods is that it expresses manâ™s need
to see life not as it is but as it might be, yet the very formulation of the ideal rests upon his aware-
ness of personal and social imperfectionsâ™: â˜Knighthood on Trialâ™, 103.
Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 119; Hucher, ed., Le Saint Graal, III, 126â“7. Galahad him-
self is later pictured as listening attentively to the stories told him by a holy hermit about his noble
ancestors: see Asher, tr., Quest.
Issues and Approaches
sentence. In fact, these categories blur readily into a third, the provocative.
Our texts often toss out challenging opinions or incidents bound to spark
debate in chamber or hall as more wine is poured and the company settles into
a conversation we would give much to hear.19
We can, likewise, only regret that no medieval writer went from one castle,
tourney ď¬eld, court, siege camp, battle line, or raiding party to another,
observing and interviewing knights of all particular social claims to record
their commonplace attitudes and beliefs; with such evidence we could easily
differentiate their attitudes in varying degrees from the ideal statements and
reform tracts which we possess in abundance.
Lacking such a record, we have no oral history of chivalry, although that is
precisely what we want. For most chivalric texts press some ideal about
chivalry to the forefront, with bright gold leaf liberally applied to the expres-
sions.20 Almost unnoticed, our assumption can easily become that this is what
chivalry was and how it actually worked in medieval society.
The hard truth is that we must reconstruct the living reality of chivalry from
the entire set of texts available: the vast corpus of imaginative chivalric litera-
ture, as well as ecclesiastical and lay legislation, legal records, contemporary
chronicles, handbooks for knights, the details of chivalric biography. Each
piece of evidence we draw into this book will add its witness to our cumula-
tive sense of just what chivalry was and just how knights thought about it. In
the process we can gradually reconstruct something like the oral history that
we would so much like to have.
Perhaps dazzled by the gold leaf, even the ď¬g leaf of idealization, textbook
accounts of chivalry often fail to distinguish between various reform plans and
actual practice; taking chivalry at the evaluation of its own idealistic texts, they
place perhaps half a dozen ideal qualities for a knight in the spotlight.
Anachronistic ideas from post-medieval revivals of chivalry easily creep into
the pattern unnoticed. Chivalry thus becomes the composite, enduring ideal
represented by courtesy, prowess (easily sanitized as moral courage), largesse,
loyalty, â˜courtly loveâ™, fairness, piety (even â˜muscular Christianityâ™). There is no
Scottâ™s paradigmâ”Dominationâ”largely applies to other circumstances; yet his description
of a â˜public transcript of dominanceâ™ ď¬ts much chivalric literature. As the â˜self-portrait of dominant
elitesâ™ (p. 18) intended to â˜awe and intimidate [subordinates] into a durable and expedient com-
plianceâ™ (p. 67), it is also aimed at â˜a kind of self-hypnosis within ruling groups, to buck up their
courage, improve their cohesion, display their power, and convince themselves anew of their high
moral purposeâ™ (p. 67). The Achilles heel comes from â˜critiques within the hegemonyâ™ (p. 105)
which are hard to deď¬‚ect because â˜they begin by adopting the ideological terms of reference of the
elite . . . which now stands accused of hypocrisy if not the violation of a sacred trustâ™ (p. 105).
Morris observes, â˜In truth one should think less of a code of chivalry than of conď¬‚icting ideals
of chivalryâ™: â˜Equestris Ordoâ™, 96.
Chivalry and its Interpretation 35
tension, no contradiction, no sense of any pressing social issues which might
have generated criticism and debate in the ď¬rst place.
This venerable technique cannot be followed if we are to understand the
broad societal role chivalry played for centuries. We must identify the major
functions of chivalry as a social force, not merely draw up a list of idealized
individual qualities, taken largely from works pressing for reforms.
Two straightforward conclusions follow. First, most medieval writing
about chivalry will show a tendency to social criticism or even a reformist cast;
it will be read more creatively and analytically with this in mind. Second, the
direction of much of this writing points us towards the fundamental issue of
securing order in society. In other words, if most chivalric literature involves
criticism, debate, and reform, much of it was written in the shadow of fears for
This is not to suggest that authors of chivalric literature were cheerless crit-
ics, taking only the odd, scowling glance out of a study window at actual
knighthoodâ”to conď¬rm their dislikeâ”while grinding out works presenting
one critique after another. To the contrary, this literature is animated by the
diverse energies found in any great literature; every text will celebrate the glo-
ries of chivalry and will often overď¬‚ow with sheer joy and appreciation for the
richness, colour, and splendour of chivalric life. In the process, texts instruct
knights how to be more suave and urbane, how to play the ideal lover as well
as the perfect knight. In fact, they claim that chivalry (if only reformed to their
liking) constitutes the very buttress which upholds civilized life.
Yet the steady social criticism, the urging of restraint and reform, can be
heard constantly and insistently, despite the variety of other themesâ”rather
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 inď¬nitely more interesting is that chivalry ď¬gures on both
Issues and Approaches
sides of the equation of orderâ”both as a part of the problem and as an ideal
solutionâ”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 â˜ordersâ™ used by medieval writers themselves: those who pray, those
who ď¬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 sufď¬cient.
Figure 1. Focal points of power and authority
We must think, instead, of a simple triadic relationship (as illustrated in
ď¬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 Tellenbachâ™s highly useful suggestion that Church reformers of the later
eleventh century were seeking to secure â˜right order in the worldâ™ 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 justiď¬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 ď¬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 efď¬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 powerâ”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. RoyautĂ© 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, 82â“3, ll. 1123â“32. The power of even Merlin and Morgan le
Fay is contained in books. Morgan is at one point termed â˜a very good woman clerkâ™: Sommer,
ed., Vulgate Version, 253, ll. 19â“20. Of Gamille, the Saxon Lady of the Rock, it is said, â˜with all her
books she could make water ď¬‚ow uphillâ™: Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II 236; Micha, ed., Lancelot,
VIII, 481â“2. Sir Kay burns all her books to ashes. The Duke of Cloyes is said to be so old and expe-
rienced that â˜he had so much knowledge that only a man knowing Latin could have moreâ™:
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 BĂ˘gĂ©, ll. 3341, 1931â“6, 4933â“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 signiď¬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 ď¬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 ď¬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, ď¬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 â˜not by the learned
written law (jus scriptum), nor by the arrogance of clerks, but by the sweat of
warâ™.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: â˜Itâ™s not for you, bishop, to teach us knights
how to ď¬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 ď¬ghting.â™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 ď¬eld. Major governing institutions in the
Paris, Chronica Majora, IV, 593: â˜regnum non per jus scriptum, nec per clericorum arrogan-
tiam, sed per sudores bellicos fuerit adquisitumâ™.
Quoted by Barrow, Robert Bruce, 144, from J. de Fordun, Chronica Gentis Scotorum, ed. W.
F. Skene (Edinburgh, 1871â“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 royautĂ© also felt the power of that
signiď¬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
ofď¬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 ď¬gures from
the worlds of both clergie and royautĂ© 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 ď¬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 ď¬t with those of the growing institutions. If a vast corpus of
literature reď¬‚ected a fascinating mass of contradictions, attractions, and repul-
sions where chivalry was concerned, similar ambivalence characterized the
relationship of chevalerie with clergie and royautĂ©. In both instances, inď¬‚uential
ď¬gures struggled to reform chivalry in accordance with their views on right
order in the world, secured by the right people.
THE LINK WITH CLERGIE
A F T E R he has observed life in Camelot for a time, Mark Twainâ™s
Connecticut Yankee delivers an unforgettable judgement, etched in an
acidic cynicism that seems to scorch the page: â˜I will say this much for the
nobility; that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious and morally rotten as they
were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.â™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 conď¬‚icts in the meaning of religion for the practitioners of
At ď¬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: â˜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 cycleâ™: â˜Timeo Baronesâ™, 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.
KNIGHTS AND PIETY
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 ď¬nal rites and prayers as their bodies were lowered into
sanctiď¬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
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 ChrĂ©tienâ™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, â˜always chafed if a
day passed without his hearing the holy ofď¬ceâ™.4 Lancelot in the Mort Artu reg-
ularly hears mass and says the proper prayers â˜as a Christian knight shouldâ™; 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, â˜Piety of the Anglo-Norman Knightly Classâ™.
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,
â˜Oh, God! Confession! The time has come!â™: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 276; Sommer, ed.,
Vulgate Version, IV, 76.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 7; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval, ll. 568â“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 inď¬‚icted wounds, take the
sacrament and beg Christ for forgiveness of their sins â˜they received their rites,
such as Christian knights should have, and . . . asked forgiveness of their
Saviour for their sins and misdeedsâ™.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 battleď¬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 dâ™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. â˜In Godâ™s name, I am called the marquis Williamâ™, announces William
of Orange to his opponent in The Crowning of Louis.9 â˜In Godâ™s name, I think
you will ď¬nd him the most comely and well-made youth you have ever seenâ™,
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 ď¬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 dâ™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., â˜Merlin Continuationâ™, 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 67â“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
dâ™Aspremont, laisses 28â“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. 12910â“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, â˜Chivalryâ™, 110.
Laisse 508, in Brandin, Chanson dâ™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 Williamâ™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 inď¬‚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 ď¬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 Marshalâ™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 ď¬‚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 Twainâ™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
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 prowessâ”with all the
ideas and practices of the quasi-religion of honourâ”was merged with
medieval Christianity. If sometimes the yawning gap separating the two
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 6171â“92, 7274â“87, 9285â“90, 18216â“406.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 38â“9. Ibid., passim.
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 Pisanâ™s Epistle of Othea
(c. 1440), Stephen Scrope assured Sir John Fastolf that God â˜ys souuerayn
cheyveten and knyght off all cheualrieâ™. Having spent most of his life in â˜dedys
of cheualrie and actis of armisâ™, Fastolf should now turn to â˜gostly cheuallrieâ™
to prepare himself for â˜the ordre of knyghthode that schal perpetuelly endure
and encrese in joye and worship endleseâ™.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 prowessâ”at least for
prowess in the right causesâ”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
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, â˜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 handsâ™. Using this
weapon, â˜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.â™ 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 efď¬cient axe. As the White Knight announces, hand-
ing it over, â˜Here, Seraphe, this is sent to you by the True Cruciď¬ed One.â™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 â˜with the aid of Godâ™.21
BĂźhler, ed., Epistle of Othea, 121â“4. Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 132â“3.
Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 36â“41. The White Knight himself, of course, performs
marvellous â˜feats of arms and chivalryâ™: p. 41; see also Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, I, 56â“65.
Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 88; William Roach, ed., The Didot Perceval, 271.
Knights and Piety 49
The Almighty is pictured as a ď¬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, â˜that none should be so bold as to draw the sword unless he was to
strike better and more boldly than anyone elseâ™. 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, Percevalâ™s immediate, almost reď¬‚exive thought is that
â˜two knights could joust well and handsomely on that groundâ™. He prays to
God: â˜in your gentleness [let a knight appear] with whom I can test whether
there is strength or valour or chivalry in me.â™ God sends one of the best, in fact,
for Lancelot appears and the two nearly kill one another, though in â˜the great
rage that they bore each other and the great ardour of their will . . . they were
hardly aware of their woundsâ™. Providentially, a hermit appears to end this
conď¬‚ict of uncle and nephew who, as always in such ď¬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 Rolandâ™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, â˜ âGreat King, what are you doing?â â™ Charlemagne quickly recovers
and spills his opponentâ™s brains.26 The Virgin Mary retrieves Rainouartâ™s great
Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 77â“8, 83; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 121â“4, 133â“4.
This is King Davidâ™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, 212â“20; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 200â“8. The scabbard also bears a warning
that â˜He who wears me shall do greater deeds than any otherâ™, before it continues with a concise
sermon on chastity.
23 For symbolic interpretations, see Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 65â“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, 92â“3; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 139â“42.
26 Brault, Chanson de Roland, laise 261.
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cudgel for him on a battleď¬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 ď¬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 beneď¬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 Gawainâ™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: â˜I may do no
penaunce, for we knyghtes adventures many tymes sufď¬r grete woo and
payne.â™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 Gaherietâ™s
confession in the Merlin Continuation, for example, â˜gave him such penance as
he thought he could do along with his labour at armsâ™.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 dâ™Aspremont, laisses
425â“6, for military saints helping out on the battleď¬eld.
30 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 535, 563.
31 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 46; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift fĂźr Romanische Philologie,
Knights and Piety 51
the idea of a bargain between God and merely â˜earthly chivalryâ™ than with the
insistence on â˜heavenly chivalryâ™ 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 ď¬nally bypassed the trou-
blesome clerics, even while paradoxically acknowledging their essential sacer-
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 justiď¬cation beyond the imperious surge of their own will; but per-
haps most men in most ages act more conď¬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
â˜in the name of the Almighty Fatherâ™. The poet himself tells us that as the
knights rush into battle from a coastal fort they are sent by â˜the good Jesusâ™.
Miles de Cogan calls upon them in another ď¬ght (in words that could be bor-
rowed from the Song of Roland) to â˜Strike, in the name of the Cross! / Strike,
barons nor delay at all, / In the name of Jesus the son of Mary!â™ 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 ď¬eld at
CrĂ©cy (1346), invoking â˜the name of God and St George.â™34 The Black Prince,
See Vinaverâ™s comments in Malory. Works, 758â“60.
Orpen, ed., tr., The Song of Dermot, ll. 1443, 1471, 1883â“4, 1924â“6, 1937â“40. When a cowled
monk kills an Irish lord with an arrow, the man is much praised: see ll. 2005â“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. â˜Blessed be the hour that such a
cleric was nurturedâ™, William replies in wonder and gratitude, though he
ď¬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. ChrĂ©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 ď¬gures of anticlerical satire, Saints Alď¬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 3172â“83.
Noble provides a highly useful sampling of anti-clerical sentiments in a number of chansons:
Hoggan, tr., â˜Crowning of Louisâ™, 35â“7; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 53â“6.
Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 2537â“43.
Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume dâ™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 battleď¬eld, asks, rhetorically,
â˜Where is the priest who drove his body to do such mighty deeds?â™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 â˜are spared the physical danger and the strenuous efforts of going out onto
the ď¬eld of battle to take up arms, and are also spared the threat of deathâ™.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 ď¬erce in battle, he answers his own question
unambiguously, â˜not . . . four pennies . . . / Instead he should be in one of
those monasteries / Praying all the time for our sins.â™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 fatherâ™s offer of the crown with vigor, that he might as well be a
monk.45 On the arrival of Enideâ™s father for her wedding to Erec, ChrĂ©tien
assures his audience that the brideâ™s father â˜did not have a troop of chaplains /
or of silly or gaping folk, / but of good knights.â™46 Never trust a priest except
at confession time, says the author of the Chanson dâ™Aspremont.47 The state-
ment has the ring of a popular maxim.
Yet the religious strength of chivalry is best seen in the steady conď¬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. 1606â“7. Similar comparisons of the chivalric and monas-
tic life appear in Moniage du Guillaume, quoted and discussed in Subrenat, â˜Moines mesquinsâ™.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 166â“7.
Brault, Chanson de Roland, ll. 1876â“82. For similarly anti-clerical remarks from Turpin, see
Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, 9â“10, and Brandin, ed., Chanson dâ™Aspremont, laisse 15.
Price, tr., The Waggon-Train, 64; McMillan, ed., Charroi de NĂ®mes, 66. The French text says
they wanted to make him â˜clers ou abĂ© ou prestresâ™.
Hoggan, tr., â˜Crowning of Louisâ™, 3; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 4.
Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, l. 6530.
Newth, Song of Aspremont and Brandin, Chanson dâ™Aspremont, laisse 87.
The Link with Clergie
from links with priestly mythologyâ”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 Lancelotâ™s
blood performs, if not quite a miracle, a marvellous cure when it restores
Agravain in the Lancelot do Lac.50 In Maloryâ™s Mort Darthur Lancelot heals the
grievously wounded Sir UrrĂ© 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 ď¬ght
with weapons, but only with ď¬‚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; â˜and every time the knights
or ladies came to face it, they would bow before it as before a holy relicâ™.53
Again, in the Mort Artu, Lancelotâ™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 â˜honoured as if it had been
a holy relicâ™ by the populace which ď¬‚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, 275â“6.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 370; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 539.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 663â“71.
Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume dâ™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 ď¬ght, which brings to mind the ď¬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 â˜with the greatest pos-
sible joyâ™ by a thankful crowd. â˜And as he passed in front of them, they all fell
to their knees as if before an altar.â™55 Those freed by Lancelotâ™s splendid success
at Escalon the Dark, in the same romance, welcome him â˜as joyously as they
would have hailed God himself â™.56
The same could be said of the Grail, which (whatever ChrĂ©tien de Troyes
intended), later writers identify with the platter that served Christâ™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
Christâ™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 Lordâ™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 ď¬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,
â˜After they had eaten the ď¬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.â™ 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. â˜Peace be with youâ™, is his greeting. The
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 152â“3; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 162. Joinville hung his cru-
sading uncleâ™s shield in his chapel, with a tablet of explanation: Shaw, tr., Joinville and
Villehardouin, 18. Coss notes that â˜English churches seem to have been literally festooned with
armorial glass and depictions of donorsâ™: 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 ď¬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 ď¬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: â˜Ideas and Realityâ™, 76.
Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 303; Micha, Lancelot, I, 265.
Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 23; Hucher, ed., Saint Graal, II, 168â“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 ď¬‚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 historyâ”a blending of the ď¬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. Christâ™s colours
were red and white; his greeting in the upper room was â˜Peace be with youâ™.
In fact, the author later makes the parallelism explicit, more than once.
Percevalâ™s aunt, a pious recluse, draws the connections for him point by
Near the end of the romance another lay Pentecost combines with a remark-
able Eucharist. Galahad, Perceval, and Bors, the three elite companions on the
quest (soon joined somewhat awkwardly by nine knights to make up the
required apostolic twelve), are seated in the castle of Corbenic. The sky dark-
ens, the stormy wind makes a great hot rush through the hall and the Grail
appears. The companions, â˜their faces wet with tears of awe and loveâ™, see
Christ appear from the Grail, miraculously to offer them the heavenly food of
his own body. They soon hear the voice of the Lord telling them:
you resemble my apostles. For just as they ate with me at the Last Supper, now you will
eat with me now at the table of the Holy Grail. . . . Just as I dispersed them through-
out the world to preach the true law, so too will I disperse your group, some here,
Religious valorization of this intensity comes from texts which walk the bor-
derâ”only as thick as a penstrokeâ”between the pious and the unthinkable.
The essential actors in this drama are God and his knights. Christ himself par-
ticipates not only as sacriď¬ce but as ofď¬ciating agent, assisted by Josephus who
dramatically descends into the scene from heaven, seated on a throne carried
by four angels. This son of Joseph of Arimathea is here called (in full disregard
of sacred priestly history) the ď¬rst bishop. Josephus conducts at least the con-
secration of the host (drawn from the Grail) into which Christ descends from
above in the form of a shining child who becomes a mature human form.
Burns, tr., Quest, 5â“8; Matarasso, tr., Quest, 36â“45; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 7â“14.
Ibid., 36â“7; 100â“1; 56â“7. Ibid., 84â“5; 273â“7; 189â“91.
Knights and Piety 57
Josephus places this consecrated host in the Grail, kisses Galahad, and van-
ishes. Christ himself emerges from the Grail to give each knight present â˜his
Lay independence hovers about this wondrous scene. If a quasi-priest
ofď¬ciates here, he is surely an unusual specimen. He has, for one thing, been
dead for three centuries, as the marvelling knights recognize when he descends
from heaven. Moreover an inscription on his brow informs the knights that he
was â˜consecrated by our Lord in Sarras, in the spiritual palaceâ™. Josephus is
decidedly not one of the clerics recognized by the priestly tradition in which
the authority of God came to Peter and subsequently, by the laying on of
hands, to each bishop and priest across the centuries. Even if he descends
clothed in bishops robes, holding a crozier, wearing a mitre, Josephus is a
ď¬gure created by knightly lay piety to begin a ritual which ends with the
appearance of Christ to feed his best knights with his own body from his own
The Quest of the Holy Grail is far from a simple valorization of knighthood,
whatever the striking parallels with sacred myth it creates for chivalry. Yet the
degree to which such a work praised an idealized knighthood is fascinating and
informative. Powerful ideas crackled like high voltage alternating current
along lines connecting chevalerie and clergie. If, as we will see, the pattern pro-
posed for knighthood in a text like this soared beyond actual knights, the
sacralization of their idealized work, replete with concessions to their sense of
independence, remains important.62
Knights and Hermits
The spectacular Grail scene at Corbenic is a culminating experience, the apoth-
eosis of an imagined spiritual quest. Lay assertion of independence from cler-
ical authority appears much more regularly in the prominence of hermits in all
chivalric literature, particularly in the romances. Hermits are clearly the chival-
ric cleric of choice. In the forests which are the setting for adventure, hermits
seem to have established their dwellings at convenient intervals of one dayâ™s
ride in order to accommodate knights errant who lodge with them regularly.
They are ď¬gures of wisdom as well as keepers of plain hostelries for the
For the consecration of Josephus, see Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 25â“8; Sommer, ed.,
Vulgate Version I, 30â“6. Here, Josephus is termed â˜sovereign bishopâ™ over his sheep, is dressed in
all the â˜things a bishop should haveâ™, is attended by angels, and is anointed and consecrated by God
â˜in the way a bishop should beâ™. He wears a mitre, holds a crozier, has a ring on his hand. He per-
forms the ď¬rst mass. Later he ordains priests and bishops. Chase, ibid., 49; Sommer, ibid., 78.
62 Clerical ideas of reform are discussed in Chapter 4, further discussion of the The Quest
appears in Chapter 12.
The Link with Clergie
chivalrous; a knight can ď¬nd an explanation for his recent adventures or his
troublesome dreams and a sure guide for his future conduct, as well as a bed,
and at least barley bread and water.
Hermits are ubiquitous in chivalric literature. A hermit starts Yvain on his
road to recovery after madness in ChrĂ©tienâ™s Yvain;63 another speaks the key
advice to Perceval on Good Friday in his Perceval.64 Scores of hermits nourish
and direct the knights throughout The Quest of the Holy Grail. In fact, hermits
will play a key religious role in romance for the next several centuries.65 And not
only in romance. The spoken advice that becomes Llullâ™s important manual on
chivalry, we must remember, likewise comes from an old hermit who is instruct-
ing a candidate for knighthood. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis pictures a hermit
foreseeing the future at the request of Queen Matilda, consort of William the
Conqueror. His elaborate vision could come from the pages of The Quest.66
To realize why this knightly preference for hermits is signiď¬cant to the lay
piety of chivalry we need to understand the kind of ď¬gure hermits represent.
Two key facts seem to stand at the heart of an answer. First, both as we ď¬nd
them in medieval society and as they were represented in chivalric literature,
hermits were closely integrated with the world around them; they were part of
lay society. In England hermits were sometimes expected to take on such mun-
dane functions as hospitality, chapel tending, work on roads and bridges, as
well as the spiritual counselling and advice to laypeople we might expect.67 In
literature they appear as especially attuned and sympathetic to knighthood, and
often have come from the same social milieu as knights, indeed have often been
knights themselves until age and waning capacity closed a chivalric career.
A second characteristic is of equal importance. Hermits were, in Angus
Kennedyâ™s words, â˜not opposed to but rather on the outskirts of the ecclesias-
tical hierarchy properâ™.68 The combination is perfect for making them ideal
purveyors of religion to the practitioners of chivalry. With thoughts of lay
independence and suspicions of clerical aggrandizement in their heads,
knights could readily appreciate the somewhat marginal position of pious
hermits within the ranks of the clergy.69
Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 2831â“90.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 67â“70; Roach, ed., Perceval, ll. 6217â“517. The didactic role plays on
unabated through the continuations to this latter romance.
Angus Kennedy provides an especially helpful overview: â˜The Hermitâ™s Roleâ™. Cf. Frappier,
Chibnall ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, III, 104â“9.
Ann Warren, â˜Self-Exclusion and Outsidership in Medieval Society: The English Medieval
Hermitâ™, paper read at the University of Rochester, 1991.
Angus Kennedy, â˜The Hermitâ™s Roleâ™, 83.
If Henrietta Leyser is correct, the hermits in the world at the time chivalric romances were
being written were already forming institutions and had moved some distance from the more soli-
tary life pictured in these texts: see Hermits and the New Monasticism.
Knights and Piety 59
Benedictine monks and some clerics understandably took offence at the her-
mitsâ™ claims and their criticisms of older monastic forms; they sometimes
directed sarcastic attacks at what they considered anarchic, orderless, headless
(i.e. leaderless) hermits.70 Their scorn and criticism, of course, make the same
point as the knightly endorsement, from an opposing direction: these men are
outsiders, not fully citizens of the world of clergie. Not all hermits were, in fact,
priests, and even those who were priests seemed more engaged in the life of
the laity and less entrenched in clergie than their fellows in monastery, parish
church, or episcopal court. As Jean Becquet wrote, if Western eremiticism was
clearly clerical, it was also lay, ď¬nding its recruits among laymen as well as
monastics, and combining them in â˜a perfect symbiosisâ™. He notes that the
master of one of the prominent eremitical orders in mid-twelfth-century
France, the order of Grandmont, was Pierre Bernard, a former knight who had
only recently become a priest.71 Some scholars are not sure that all hermits had
even received the licence from the bishop theoretically necessary for entering
the eremitical life.72
In fact, there is always a faint scent of the protest movement lingering about
hermits. Jean Leclercq notes that in the eleventh and twelfth century they rep-
resented something of a movement or reaction, especially against contempo-
rary monasticism; Angus Kennedy argues that by the fourteenth century
hermits in literary works took on the role of critics of the Church of their day.73
In short, hermits combined a maximum of recognized piety and involvement
in the life of the laity with a minimal possession or exercise of ecclesiastical
authority; to this potent brew they added a dash of criticism of the church
Their undoubted piety was buttressed by the asceticism that always regis-
tered as authentic piety in medieval consciousness. This very asceticism
showed the heroic character of the hermits, a quality which, of course, struck
a responsive chord in knights; each group undertook its characteristic adven-
tures and put the body in peril for a higher goal. Knightly recognition and
approval of this asceticism appears regularly in chivalric literature. A hermit in
the Perlesvaus, we learn, has not stepped outside his hermitage for forty years.74
Llullâ™s hermit patently shows his holy life in his worn clothing, worn body,
See the examples in Leclercq, â˜Le poĂ¨me de Payen Bolotinâ™; this article discusses and prints
a twelfth-century satire directed against hermits. See also Flori, Lâ™Essor de chevalerie, 262â“3, citing
Geroh of Reichersberg.
G. G. Meersseman, commenting on Becquetâ™s paper in Lâ™Eremitismo in Occidente, 207;
Becquetâ™s agreement appears at ibid., 209.
Ibid., 210, 594; Angus Kennedy, â˜The Hermitâ™s Roleâ™, 76â“82.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 75; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 112.
The Link with Clergie
many tears. In the â˜ď¬rst Continuationâ™ of the Perceval, a hermit keeps a vow of
silence through each night, visited by a helpful angel.75 Ascetic discipline wins
for the hermits particularly clear and direct channels to God and his angels.
Through this efď¬cient access to divine power hermits can foretell the future,
explain the past, heal the injured.76 The Mort Artu even explains Gawainâ™s mys-
terious increase of prowess at noon by the fact of his baptism by a holy hermit
at that hour.77 In the Perlesvaus, Lancelot receives from a hermit the tempting
offer to take upon himself Lancelotâ™s sin with the queen. The gesture is noble,
but Lancelot declines, conď¬dent that God will understand.78
Such powers are all the more attractive to knights when the hermits have
actually known the chivalric life and come from the proper social class. The
continuation of ChrĂ©tienâ™s Perceval by Gerbert shows us a band of twelve her-
mits led by a hermit king, all former knights.79 Lancelot and Yvain stop at a
hermitage in the Lancelot and ď¬nd â˜two good men, one who was a priest and
another who had been a knight and was the uncle of the two knightsâ™ guideâ™.80
The hermit who gives Lancelot useful information early in the Lancelot â˜was
very old and had been a knight, one of the handsomest in the world. He had
turned to religion in his prime, when he had lost within one year all twelve of
his sons.â™81 A hermit in the Perlesvaus had been a knight in King Utherâ™s house-
hold for forty years and then a hermit for another thirty years.82 Time and
again romance authors show us hermits who have long been knights and who
can thus speak to other knights on a level plane of social equality and shared
vocation.83 A hermit whom Yvain meets (in the Lancelot) had been a knight
errant even before Arthur was crowned: â˜And Iâ™d have been a member of the
Round Table, but I refused to join because of a knight member for whom I
bore a mortal hatred, and whose arms I later cut off. So after he was crowned,
King Arthur disinherited me.â™84
One hermit after another is presented as a former knight. In the Lancelot do
Lac, to pick an example almost at random, we meet a hermit who had in his
previous profession been one of the ď¬nest knights in the world.85 The hermits
â˜ď¬rst Continuationâ™ in Bryant, Perceval, 152.
Many examples in Angus Kennedy, â˜Portrayal of the Hermit-Saintâ™.
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 181; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 173. Cf. the highly effective
prayers of Percevalâ™s hermit uncle in Roach, ed., Didot Perceval, 180.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 110â“11; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 168.
Bryant, Perceval, 239â“43; Williams and Oswald, eds, Gerbert de Montreuil, I, ll. 8906â“10153.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 301; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 110.
Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 86; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 163.
Bryant, Perlesvaus, 41; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, I, 60â“1.
Many examples in Angus Kennedy, â˜Portrayal of the Hermit-Saintâ™.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 174; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 248.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 139; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, 209.
Knights and Piety 61
who are so thick on the ground in The Quest of the Holy Grail likewise prove
often to have been knights; the hermit who hears Lancelotâ™s confession in this
text at least has a brother who is a knight and who can be called upon for the
essential horse and armour Lancelot has lost.86 In the Perlesvaus a hermit does
one better and keeps a stable of warhorses ready for use by worthy knights in
need; this is the sort of cleric a chivalrous audience could really appreciate.87
Some of the hermits never quite block out the trumpet calls of their former
calling. One who keeps arms to ď¬ght against robbers and villains appears in the
Perlesvaus and later in that romance hermits enthusiastically join with Perceval
in battle.88 It is more common, of course, for hermits to consider that warfare
continues in their new lives but takes a different form; in singing their masses,
they are often said to wear â˜the armor of Our Lordâ™.89
The link becomes even stronger when we note how many heroes themselves
end their lives as hermits. Perceval becomes a hermit at the end of The Quest of
the Holy Grail; Lancelot, Bleoberis, Girď¬‚et, Hector (as well as the Archbishop
of Canterbury) are all hermits in the closing pages of the Mort Artu and, again,
in Maloryâ™s great book.90 William of Orange, who has retired from knight-
hood to become a rather unhappy monk in William in the Monastery, hears the
voice of God telling him in a dream to leave that community and become a
Some hermits even reverse the usual pattern and turn to the greatest knights
for advice or even spiritual intercession. In the Perlesvaus, for example, a hermit
takes counsel of Perceval because of his good life, and another asks Galahad (in
The Quest of the Holy Grail) to intercede with God for him.92 The projection of
knightly lay independence in chivalric literature could scarcely be clearer.
Did this portrayal of hermits and the elaboration of mythology and learning
really mean anything to a knight setting out on a countryside campaign or
Knights become hermits, see Matarasso, tr., Quest, 138, 209; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version,
VI, 86, 142; the hermitâ™s brother and Lancelotâ™s equipment, see Matarasso, ibid., 94; Sommer,
87 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 236; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, I, 367. The Post-Vulgate Quest
for the Holy Grail notes that in the good old days the kingdom was full of hermits, many of them
former knights. The custom was to bear arms for thirty or forty years and then go off into moun-
tainous solitude where they â˜performed pennance for their sins and sensualityâ™: Asher, tr., Quest,
177; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 302.
Bryant, Perlesvaus, 108, 168â“71; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, I, 164â“5, 262â“8.
e.g. Matarasso, Quest, 86, 103; Sommer, Vulgate Version, VI, 45, 59.
Matarasso, Quest, 284; Sommer, Vulgate Version, 198â“9; Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur,
226, 231â“2; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 227, 232â“5; Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 722.
Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume dâ™Orange, 304â“5; Cloetta, ed., Deux redactions, laisse 30.
Bryant, Perlesvaus, 264; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, I, 407 ; Matarasso, Quest, 256;
Sommer, Vulgate Version, VI, 176. A priest asks Bors for his prayers when the knight comes before
the Holy Grail and an abbot also asks for his prayers. Matarasso, ibid., 180, 199; Sommer, ibid.,
The Link with Clergie
even on a crusade? Would any particular knight care about an some imagined
hermitâ™s advice, about Joseph of Arimathea, the shield of Lancelot, or the mir-
acles of Galahad?
Knights need not have been primarily men of ideals to have ideals that mat-
tered to them. If chivalric literature presents critiques and hopes for the reform
of chivalry, it also reveals a good deal of the basic religious attitudes commonly
held by knights. Their piety may have been thoroughly formal and from a
modern, ideal perspective may look distressingly devoid of deep spirituality;
but it need not have been less real for all that, nor less a guide to their conduct.
These attitudes constitute a form of lay piety that was eminently practical. The
knights wanted to be pious, orthodox Christians; they also insisted on a val-
orization of their profession of arms which would link them, ď¬nally, with
divine order. Ideas that carried such weight mattered to them.
CLERGIE, CHEVALERIE, AND REFORM
S H E E R necessity as well as intellectual heritage gave the medieval Church
a tradition of ideas which opposed some but not all violence. The very sur-
vival of Christian society was no mere abstraction for people with vivid mem-
ories of the break-up of the Carolingian order, if not of the break-up of the
parent order of Rome. Continuing might of Islam, made so painfully evident
in the Holy Land, brought their memories and fears quite up to date.1 Even
within Christendom none could doubt that the evils inherent in an imperfect
world would require the use of armed force in their solution, as they always
These ever-present problems were redoubled by the interlocking set of
changes taking place so rapidly and to such signiď¬cant effect in high medieval
Europe. All three apexes of our triangle of power relationships, clergie, royautĂ©,
and chevalerie, were by the late eleventh and twelfth centuries coming into full
vigour and were taking on sharper intellectual focus. The Church was con-
fronted by the rise of knighthood, the emergence of a parent form of the
Western European State, and new socio-economic, urban, demographic pat-
terns in society (as noted in Chapter 1). Finding the right role for violence in
general and for knighthood in particular thus gave churchmen sleepless nights.
The context within which clerical ideas on violence took shape may thus be
as important as the ideas themselves, considered in the abstract. Despite the
intellectual precedents available, the actual situation in the world of the late
eleventh century seems dramatically new. The great heritage from the patristic
and Carolingian past, even Augustineâ™s ideas on just war, would have to ď¬nd
Pagans of some sort frequently appear as the threat in chansons and even in works more tradi-
tionally classed as romance.
The ultimate statement came from HonorĂ© Bonet: â˜[I]t is no great marvel if in this world
there arise wars and battles, since they existed ď¬rst in Heaven.â™ He has in mind the rebel angels
who fought against God: see Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 81. Bonet later notes (pp. 118â“19)
that the world can never be at peace, since conď¬‚ict is built into heavenly bodies, animals, and
humans, and argues that even if evil is done in war it is not in itself evil â˜but is good and virtuousâ™
The Link with Clergie
their proper ď¬t in this brave new world of papal power, crusade, and canon
law. From this complex mix of theological ideas with the exigencies of socio-
political change emerged a range of ideologies with high praise for an ideal
knighthood at one end, bitter denunciation of the evils of knighthood at the
If over time more and more inď¬‚uential voices added their signiď¬cant opin-
ion at the positive end of the scale, clerical views on chivalry were always
reform views, constantly mixing praise and denunciation to produce a society
in which the Church could live, and an armed force with which the Church
could work. With their bookish love of wordplay, the clerics perfectly captured
the stark endpoints on the scale of their thought by using two terms of oppo-
site tenor, differing in only one letter. Was chivalry, they liked to ask, the ideal
service of Godâ”militiaâ”or was it simply badnessâ”malitia?
Clerical Praise for Knightly Militia
After the Gregorian Reform, led by a vigorous line of eleventh-century popes,
had notionally drawn the world of clergie out of the somewhat smothering
embrace of secular society, papal reformers found themselves confronted by
issues of violence in all of their starkness. Could the leadership of the Church
coerce enemies who opposed its realization of the will of God? Could the
pope, only now achieving effective authority even within the Church, declare
and direct war? Should churchmen personally bear arms in good causes? If
they could not participate directly, how could ecclesiastical leadership guide
the coercive power and violence of laymen?
Scholars generally hold that the Gregorians wrought signiď¬cant changes in
ecclesiastical views on such questions; many even consider the reformersâ™
views, in particular those of Leo IX (1049â“54) and Gregory VII (1073â“85),
truly revolutionary in their willingness to consider violence and warfare in a
good cause not merely regrettable but even praiseworthy.3 Peter Damian and
Cardinal Humbert, chief counsellors of Gregory VII, argued against the use of
force even in defence of the faith or in the struggle with heretics.
Yet if both points of view continued to ď¬nd defenders, Gregory is com-
monly considered the principal single architect of subsequent medieval
Christian ideas of holy war. If soldier-saints had been canonized in earlier
As Brundage notes: â˜The really radical change in papal policy toward warfare . . . occurred
during the reign of that most warlike of pontiffs, pope Gregory VII. . . . It has been argued, with
considerable justice, that Gregory VII revolutionized the Christian view of warfare and that he
was the principal inventor of the holy war idea in medieval Christendomâ™: â˜Holy Warâ™, 104. Cf.
Erdmann, Crusade; I. S. Robinson, â˜Gregory VIIâ™; Cowdrey, â˜Genesis of the Crusadesâ™.
Clergie, Chevalerie, and Reform 65
times, this was usually despite their military calling; signiď¬cantly, Gregory
considered some contemporary knights, such as Erlembald of Milan (â˜mar-
tyredâ™ in the very physical struggle against clergy who resisted papal reform
measures), to be virtual saints because of their warring for right order in the
world. His letters crackle with martial terminology: â˜the warfare of Christâ™,
â˜the service of St Peterâ™, â˜the vassals of St Peterâ™. His enemiesâ”St Peterâ™s ene-
mies, Godâ™s enemiesâ”have to be resisted, â˜even to bloodâ™.4
At one point he chastised Abbot Hugh of Cluny for having dragged, or at
least received, Duke Hugh of Burgundy into the peace of the Cluniac order;
the abbot should rather, the pope wrote, have permitted the duke to remain in
the world to carry out his much-needed service of another sort, the legitimate
military function of a layman.5 At least brieď¬‚y he tried to enlist the knighthood
of Europe in a grandiose campaign to overawe the old Norman enemies of the
papacy in Italy and then to march off triumphantly to Eastern lands. There
they could aid the Christians in Constantinople against the unbelievers and, in
the process, enforce Roman supremacy over the Eastern church.6
Even before his calls to arms in the famous struggle with the Emperor
Henry IV, calls which a hostile archbishop characterized as declaring war
against the whole world,7 Gregory VII found his enemies accusing him of
unheard-of uses of force. The accusations could only increase during that
struggle. The antipope Wibert of Ravenna, who pictured Gregory standing
abashed at the Last Judgement asked, rhetorically, what defence he could give
â˜when the blood of the many slaughtered cries out against him, âAvenge our
blood, O Lord!â â™ Reporting the accusations circulating against Gregory,
Wenrich of Trier wrote to the pope:
They declare that . . . you incite to bloodshed secular men seeking pardon for their sins;
that murder, for whatever reason it is committed, is of small account; that the property
of St Peter must be defended by force; and to whomsoever dies in this defence you
promise freedom from all his sins, and you will render account for any man who does
not fear to kill a Christian in Christâ™s name.8
One of these critics, Sigebert of Gembloux, presented the anti-Gregorian posi-
tion with even greater succinctness in a sharp rhetorical thrust:
On military saints, see Cowdrey, â˜Genesis of the Crusadesâ™, 20. I. S. Robinson comments on
Gregoryâ™s military imagery: â˜Gregory VIIâ™, 177. Brooke notes that â˜ â[b]loodâ was a word often on
his lipsâ™: Medieval Church and Society, 62.
Letter quoted in I. S. Robinson, â˜Gregory VIIâ™, 190.
Cowdrey, â˜Gregory VIIâ™s Crusading Plansâ™, 27â“40; I. S. Robinson, â˜Gregory VIIâ™.
Quoted in I. S. Robinson, â˜Gregory VIIâ™, 174.
Ibid., 180, 183. For a general discussion, with many citations, see Erdmann, Crusade, 229â“68.
The Link with Clergie
[W]here does it come from, this novel authority by which sinners are offered freedom
from punishment for sins which they have committed, and licence to commit fresh
ones, without confession and penance? What a window of wickedness you have thus
opened up to mankind!9
Gregory and his supporters would, of course, deny and counter such
charges, but another feature of their ideology would have brought no denials
from their lips or pens. They pressed forward an effort to disarm the clergy as
a complement to directing the armed might of knighthood. The clerics might
rightly direct righteous war; they were not to participate, sword in hand.
Legislation in councils striving to reform the Church often aimed to take
weapons from the sacred hands of clerics no less than to remove women from
their eager arms. Apparently the former effort was much more successful than
the latter. In his account of the beginnings of the Gregorian movement, Orderic
Vitalis, for example, links the evil of clerical sexuality with the bearing of arms
by the clergy. He complains with practised monastic indignity that the clerks
could more readily be parted from their weapons than from their women. The
aftermath of the visit of Leo IX to Reims in 1049 made this result clear to him:
â˜From that time the fatal custom [of clerics bearing arms] began to wither away
little by little. The priests were ready enough to give up bearing arms but even
now they are loath to part with their mistresses or to live chaste lives.â™10
One of the most signiď¬cant conductors for the high voltage of reforming
ideas was the emerging science of canon law. The positive Gregorian concept
of Christian warfare entered canon law through the writings of Bishop Anselm
of Lucca, papal legate in Lombardy and publicist for the Gregorian cause. By
1140 these ideas had then moved forward another and even longer step.
Combining Anselmâ™s ideas with those of the slightly later Ivo of Chartres, and
drawing heavily on the Church fathers (Augustine in particular), the monk
Gratian created an ecclesiastical law of war â˜as a particular species of violenceâ™
in his inď¬‚uential Decretum, a work which later theologians and writers on the
canon law had always to take into account.11
In Causa 23 of this work, the ď¬rst quaestio asks pointedly, â˜Is military service
a sin?â™ Although here and elsewhere in his work Gratian quotes authorities
who would answer in the afď¬rmative, his conclusion follows Augustine in
asserting that such service is not inherently sinful. In fact, truly just warfare was
not simply acceptable, it could be pleasing in the eyes of the Almighty. Well in
advance of enthusiastic writers of vernacular manuals on chivalry and of the
great chivalric chanson and romances, Gratian even proclaimed prowess a gift
Quoted in Housley, â˜Crusades Against Christiansâ™, 19.
Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, III, 120â“3.
Brundage, â˜Holy Warâ™, 106; cf I. S. Robinson, â˜Gregory VIIâ™, 184â“90.
Clergie, Chevalerie, and Reform 67
of God; such prowess exercised in just warfare became an instrument leading
to the blessed goal of peace. If the warriors had the right motives, if the war
was called by proper authority in order to right a wrong or injury, then all was
well. Gratian was especially concerned about proper authority, but his list of
such authorities, reď¬‚ecting the situation in his world, seems to have been fairly
comprehensive: it did not absolutely exclude anyone â˜from the Emperor or
king down to the most lowly vassalâ™. Clerics were prohibited from direct par-
ticipation by bearing arms themselves, and even from directly ordering blood-
shed; but they could encourage others to defend right, correct wrongs, protect
the Church. God was, of course, the ultimate authority for violence, but his
Church could direct just war on his behalf.12
Canonists would work to ď¬ll in these broad outlines (and to confront the
myriad of questions Gratian left unanswered) for generations to come. For
our purposes, the window of opportunity opened for a clerical valorization of
knighthood is immediately obvious. The law of the Church, though with
many qualiď¬cations and caveats, accepted the need for knightly violence.
For all of its fears of the milites, the cloister, too, proved to be a source of ideas
valorizing emerging chivalry. A much-discussed parallel between knights on
the one hand and monks and hermits on the other provided one of the most
venerable means by which blessings descended upon knighthood. Churchmen
frequently asserted that knights and monks were both called to serve;
signiď¬cantly, the Latin verb they used, militare, could mean to ď¬ght as well to
serve and, in fact, they easily considered the service of both knights and monks
a form of warfare against evil, in one dimension conducted in the spirit, in the