another of his chansons, an irate William again threatens to kill King Louis,
who has here scorned William in his great need.38 Would William have
replaced him as king, rather than leaving the kingdom without its titular head?
Ordonnances, VII, 611, quoted in Strayer, Philip the Fair, 195: â˜pacis fractio, portacio armo-
rum . . . generaliter pertinent domino rege in solidum per totum regnum Francie racione sue supe-
rioritatis, eciam in locis ubi alii domini habent merum imperium.â™
34 Discussed, with sources cited, in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 231â“60.
35 As in Philip IVâ™s great reform ordinance, 1302: Ordonnances, I, 354â“6.
36 Evidence provided in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 184â“268.
37 Price, tr., Wagon-Train, laisses 11, 17; McMillan, ed., Charroi de NĂ®mes.
38 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume dâ™Orange, laisse lxv; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans.
Chevalerie and RoyautĂ© 103
In Raoul de Cambrai the erring King Louis is cursed as the cause of trouble and
told by a baron he is â˜not worth a buttonâ™.39
Yet such statements represent the growlings of particular dissatisfaction
more than any sober attempts at a theory of governance. In fact, learned stud-
ies have argued that many of the chansons de geste must be linked to the waxing
of royal power which these texts support.40 Some romances show the same
ideological inclination, a good example being ChrĂ©tienâ™s Erec, with its self-
conscious associations with Angevin kingship in its famous coronation
scene.41 Kings are accepted; these works simply projected characteristics essen-
tial to an ideal and emphasized them by vividly illustrating the problems
caused by their absence. The problem of governance, in short, was not located
in the very fact of kingship, but was blamed, instead. on bad or inept men try-
ing to ď¬ll the role.42
Of course, a true king was in no small degree welcomed in this literature
because he possessed one of the chief chivalric qualities: prowess. A good king
was a good knight and could cleave helmets and thrust lances with the best.
The Perlesvaus presents a classic scene of Arthur and Gawain riding side by side
into the action of a great tournament:
Their horses were now decked in their trappings, and the king and Sir Gawain
mounted, fully armed, and charged into the tournament with such fury that they
smashed right through the biggest companies, felling horses and knights and whatever
they met. Then the king caught sight of Nabigan who was riding forward in all of his
ď¬nery; the king struck him such a furious blow that he sent him crashing from his horse
and broke his collar-bone.43
Riding side by side into actual war is, of course, better still. In the Mort Artu,
as Arthur and his knights ď¬ght their tragic battle against the forces of Lancelot,
Arthur proves his worth as a knight in the best manner:
That day King Arthur bore arms, and did it so well that there was no man of his age in
the world who could have equalled him; indeed the story afď¬rms that on his side there
was no knight, old or young, who bore arms as well as he did. Through the example of
Kay, ed., tr. Raoul de Cambrai, laisses CCXXV, CCXXIV.
General discussions in Boutet and Strubel, LittĂ©rature, politique et sociĂ©tĂ©, 39â“67; Boutet, â˜La
politique et lâ™histoireâ™; and â˜Chansons de gesteâ™. The theme in particular works: Hunt, â˜Lâ™inspira-
tion idĂ©ologiqueâ™; Combarieu, â˜La violenceâ™; Flori, â˜SĂ©mantique et idĂ©ologieâ™.
Topsď¬eld, ChrĂ©tien de Troyes, 52; Schmolke-Hasselmann, â˜Henry II PlantagenĂŞtâ™. Cf.
Holzermayr, â˜Le âmytheâ dâ™Arthurâ™; Boutet, â˜Carrefours idĂ©ologiqueâ™.
Peters discusses the complexities and tensions associated with the rex inutilis theme in The
Shadow King; for tensions in the portrayal of King Arthur (and Charlemagne), see Elspeth
Kennedy, â˜King Arthurâ™.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 189; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, II, 294.
The Link with RoyautĂ©
his ď¬ne chivalry all his men fought so well that the men from the castle would have been
conquered if it had not been for Lancelot.44
Another royal trait idealized in chivalric writing may seem merely unre-
markable piety. Who could be surprised to read time and again that a king
must be a good Christian? The Duke of Burgundy, in the Song of Aspremont,
begins his speech on ideal kingship along just these lines: â˜The type of man
who seeks a crown on earth, / Should look to God and in his faith be ď¬rm; /
He should both honor and serve the Holy Church.â™45 Is this insistence,
encountered so often, simply the reď¬‚ex response of the cleric or quasi-cleric
who penned the text?
This trait is unlikely to be rooted in clericalism alone. More likely, it also
reď¬‚ects age-old beliefs that the religious standing of the king signiď¬cantly
determines the fate of the group or, in time, of the kingdom.46 Such beliefs
were much older than the Gregorian Reform that sought to diminish their
force; they also proved to be more durable than clerical critics expected. In
chivalric literature, kings, in company with other great laymen, often domi-
nate churchmen and church property in just the ways the Gregorians had vig-
orously denounced for a century or more. We need only recall how dominant
and even sacerdotal a role Charlemagne plays in The Song of Rolandâ”blessing
in Jesusâ™s name and in his own, conversing with his companion angels, con-
vincing God to extend the daylight (in order to effect his revenge).47 As Marc
Bloch pointedly observed, â˜Clearly the Gregorian reform had not yet passed
Royal piety is, moreover, often linked with the basic obligation of the king
to right fundamental wrongs in human society, especially to succour widows
and orphans. Signiď¬cantly, such duties were also a staple of the chivalric ethos.
In the Lancelot do Lac the Worthy Manâ™s blistering critique of Arthurâ™s king-
ship includes the charge that â˜[t]he right of widows and orphans has perished
under your dominionsâ™. He threatens Arthur with the warning: â˜God will call
you most cruelly to account for this, for He Himself said through the mouth
of His prophet David that He is the guardian of the poor and sustains the
orphans and will destroy the ways of the sinners.â™49
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 144; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 115.
See ll. 7160â“62 in Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, and Brandin, ed., Chanson dâ™Aspremont.
Bloch, SociĂ©tĂ© FĂ©odale, tr. Manyon, II, 379â“83; Chaney provides an interesting case study in
Cult of Kingship.
Laisses 26, 179 in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, For the anti-Gregorianism in the
Chanson dâ™Aspremont, see the opening section of Chapter 11 below.
SociĂ©tĂ© FĂ©odale, I, 96 n.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 238; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 283.
Chevalerie and RoyautĂ© 105
The idea that the king must do his utmost to give impartial justice to all,
regardless of rank, is tirelessly emphasized in chansons and romances. Arthur
states the position plainly in ChrĂ©tienâ™s Erec:
I am the king . . .
I should not wish in any way
to commit disloyalty or wrong,
no more to the weak than the strong;
it is not right that any should complain of me . . .50
In fact, chivalric authorsâ™ interest in the full social range of impartial royal just-
ice often quickly narrowed to the ranks of privileged society and to the
speciď¬cs of feudal relationships.51 More than one poem in the Cycle of William
of Orange turns on that point, and it is a similar failure of the king to provide
feudal justice that animates the savage cycles of knightly feuding in Raoul de
One key policy is for the king to free himself of low-born advisers and rely
solely on the only people who count, that is, on men of â˜the right bloodâ™,
whether they are clerics or laymen. In the Crowning of Louis, Charlemagne
advises his son Louis â˜not to take a lowborn man as your counsellor, the son of a
lordâ™s agent or of a bailiff. These would betray their trust in a minute for
money.â™53 The Duke of Burgundy in the Song of Aspremont speaks to the choice
of both clerical and lay ofď¬cials and counsellors; combining self-conscious anti-
Gregorianism with chivalric rectitude, he insists that all come from â˜good familyâ™:
You should keep by your side men of good birth;
From their good counsel you may ď¬nd out and learn
The way to govern your own soul and self ď¬rst: . . .
Make not a bishop of the son of your shepherd;
Take a kingâ™s son, or dukeâ™s or countâ™s, I tell you.
Or vavassorâ™s, though his family be penniless . . .
Archbishops seven bear ofď¬ce in my shires
And thereâ™s not one, so strict Iâ™ve scrutinized,
Whom either king or high duke has not sired . . .54
This ideal must have produced sage nods of agreement from those assembled
in a royal or baronial hallâ”some low-born ofď¬cials perhaps prudently paying
more attention to their wine goblets for a moment.
Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 1757, 1764â“7. 51 Larmat, â˜Lâ™orphelin.
Larmat recognizes the social constrictions on the royal concern for orphans and widows: see
ibid. Raoul de Cambrai will be discussed below, Chapter 11.
53 Hoggan, tr., â˜Crowning of Louisâ™ 5; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 7.
54 See ll. 11236â“8, 11214â“16, 11310â“12, in Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, and Brandin, ed.,
Chanson dâ™Aspremont. DignitĂ©s is the word translated as â˜shiresâ™.
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Yet if this ideal court is a centre of ď¬ne chivalry and a useful forum, in all
instances disputes are brought to the king by a suitorâ™s choice, not by royal
claims to jurisdiction. Supervised arbitration is the process, not clearly sover-
eign adjudication, a picture that largely matches twelfth-century political and
legal reality. As John Baldwin has shown, slightly more than a third of the cases
coming into the royal court under Philip II between 1179 and 1223 received
imposed royal judgements; somewhat more than half were settled by simple
agreements between the parties.55 Like Charlemagne or Arthur, Philip
Augustus offered a service to those who chose to take advantage of it. Yet
Philipâ™s reign was, as Baldwin also argues, a turning-point in French history:
â˜The French king was no longer merely reacting to his great vassals . . . He was
now able to seize the initiative to win supremacy. . . . Beneď¬ting from the
resources of a rich kingdom, Philip laid the foundations of French royal power
in the Middle Ages.â™56
Chivalric literature was highly reluctant to recognize such direct royal juris-
diction over major issues of justice and even more reluctant to recognize a
working royal monopoly over licit violence.57 The pages of chanson and
romance generally refuse even to register the existence of a centralizing,
bureaucratic administration with a system of courts energized by insistent and
expanding jurisdiction, with proceeds of taxation collected through adminis-
trative mechanisms looming ever larger over the local horizon. Historical
records occasionally preserve the puzzled and offended surprise which greets
royal constraint. On the way to the gallows in 1323, at the end of a remarkable
career of deď¬ant private warfare, Jourdain de lâ™Isle Jourdain confessed that his
actions on several counts merited the death penalty; yet, the record reveals, he
added a signiď¬cant coda of failed self-justiď¬cation in each case: â˜but he said that
it was in warâ™.58
Baldwin, Philip Augustus, 37â“44. â˜We can only conclude that the technique of allowing con-
tending parties to arrive at their own decisions, then to be conď¬rmed by royal authority, was the
preferred method for resolving disputes in the royal courtsâ™ (p. 43).
56 Ibid., 423.
Coming to terms with royalty was a particular theme in the chansons de geste. Kaeuper, War,
Justice, and Public Order, 315â“25.
58 Statement in Langlois and Lanhers eds, Confessions et jugements, 37â“9. Discussion of the case
and career in Cutler, Law of Treason, 46, 144â“5; Kicklighter, â˜Nobility of English Gasconyâ™.
ENGLISH KINGSHIP, CHIVALRY
A L T H O U G H a part of common patterns of medieval civilization,
England regularly shows fascinating and instructive differences from
societies across the Channel. By the â˜age of chivalryâ™ one of the most signiď¬cant
differences is the long-term growth of royal power. Real meaning infused the
widespread idea that the king of England was responsible for order and justice
in his realm; from an early date this royalist ideal appeared regularly in docu-
ments by which ofď¬cials remembered and acted.
Royal Ideology and Enforcement
Statements announcing the beginning of a kingâ™s reign provide a rich source.
At his somewhat uncertain accession to the throne in 1100, Henry I trumpeted
his intention in terms of royal peace: â˜I establish my ď¬rm peace through my
entire realm and order it to be kept henceforth.â™1 When Edward I acceded, on
his fatherâ™s death in 1272, his administrators unambiguously announced on his
behalf (since he was on crusade): â˜We are and will be prepared, by the author-
ity of God, to give full justice to each and every person in all cases and matters
concerning them against any others great or small.â™2 Similarly, the administra-
tion of Edward III, at the time of his fatherâ™s supposed abdication in 1327,
stated on behalf of the young king:
We command and ď¬rmly enjoin each and every one, on pain of disherison and loss of
life or members, not to break the peace of our said lord the king; for he is and shall be
ready to enforce right for each and every one of the said kingdom in all matters and
against all persons, both great and small. So if any one has some demand to make of
another, let him make it by means of [legal] action, without resorting to force of
Stubbs, Select Charters, 119. Stubbs, Select Charters, 439.
Stephenson and Marcham, English Constitutional History, 205.
The Link with RoyautĂ©
Such sentiments echo throughout the Dialogue of the Exchequer, by Richard
FitzNigel, the ď¬rst administrative treatise written in Western European history
(c. 1179). Although the work is mainly concerned with the technical operation
of the royal exchequer, comments on the kingâ™s role in keeping the peace sur-
face frequently. Of Henry II, the author says: â˜from the beginning of his rule
he gave his whole mind to crushing by all possible means those who rebelled
against peace and were âfrowardâ â™.4 Rebelling against the king appears to this
ofď¬cial as rebellion against peace itself. Of the Assize of Clarendon, FitzNigel
says: â˜nobody must venture to oppose the kingâ™s ordinance, made as it is in the
interest of peaceâ™.5 He is sure royal power is sufď¬cient to see that offenders will
be punished and quotes approvingly a rhetorical question ď¬rst asked by Ovid
and picked up by more than one medieval writer: â˜Have you forgotten that
kingsâ™ arms are long?â™6
Preambles to statutes offer the carrot as well as the stick. Henry III
announced in the Statute of Marlborough (1267) his intention to â˜provide for
the better estate of his realm of England, and for the more speedy administra-
tion of justice, as belongs to the ofď¬ce of a kingâ™. Henryâ™s son, Edward I, like-
wise announced in his Statute of Gloucester (1278) a fuller administration of
justice â˜as the good of the kingly ofď¬ce demandsâ™. The ď¬rst Statute of
Westminster (1285) worried over â˜the peace less kept and the laws less used, and
the offenders less punished than they ought to be, so that the people feared the
less to offendâ™. The king announced in the opening clause that the peace of the
Church and of the land will henceforth be guarded and that common right will
be done to all, rich and poor.7
When royal authority had been challenged, as in the mid-century baronial
wars of the reign of Henry III, the language recording a recovery of the royal
powers can become especially forceful and speciď¬c. The Dictum of Kenilworth
(1266) declared in its ď¬rst clause:
the most noble prince Henry, illustrious king of England shall have, fully receive and
freely exercise his dominion, authority and royal power without impediment or con-
tradiction of any one, whereby, contrary to the approved rights and laws and long
established customs of the kingdom, the regal dignity might be offended; and that to
the same lord king and to his lawful mandates and precepts full obedience and humble
attention shall be given by all and singular the men of the same kingdom, both greater
and lesser. And all and singular shall through writs seek justice in the court of the lord
Johnson, ed., tr., Dialogus de Scaccario, 75. The text contains many passing references on the
royal duty of preserving the peace; e.g., p. 63.
5 Ibid., 101. See also p. 102 where the king is again identiď¬ed with the interests of peace.
6 Ibid., 84. As we saw in Chapter 1, Suger also used this image.
7 Statutes of the Realm, I, 19, 45, 26.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 109
king and shall be answerable for justice, as was accustomed to be done up to the time
of the recent disorders.
Clause 38 of this document is even more explicit about private quarrels. The
royal government asserts: â˜no one will take private revenge on account of the
disorders, nor will he procure or consent or tolerate that private revenge
should be taken. And if any one takes private revenge, let him be punished by
the court of the lord king.â™8
The most revealing piece of evidence comes, however, from a simple phrase
which began to appear during the ď¬rst quarter of the thirteenth century in
writs of trespass and in informal legal complaints asking the crown to provide
justice. One prospective plaintiff after another stated that some wrongdoer
had come â˜by force and arms and against the lord kingâ™s peace (vi et armis et
contra pacem domini regis)â™. Such litigants knew that these magic words would
bring their cases into the royal courts.9 The message had ď¬ltered through: the
king would maintain his peace throughout the realm; his governance would
supervise the use of arms within the realm.
Of course it was not really true; the kingâ™s government could not do all that
it claimed. The phrase came sometimes to be used as a key to open courtroom
doors for cases that involved mere gentle fraud or illegal apple-picking, with
no edged weapons glinting in the sunlight.10 The point remains, however, that
royal claims became quite clearly recognized, even if only partially enforced.
RoyautĂ© within the realm of England meant sovereignty and a working mono-
poly of the means of violence associated with war.
That the English crown was serious about sovereignty of this sort appears
in its efforts to control tournaments, to require licences for building castles,
and to outlaw any insular version of the continental practice of â˜privateâ™ war.
For a time it succeeded in making England seem to the high-spirited and
chivalrous a dreary place without a good tournament circuit, as the oft-quoted
passages from the biography of William Marshal state explicitly.11 But the
maintenance of so hard a royal line was only temporary; by the fourteenth cen-
tury English kings were joining in and leading the sport rather than continu-
ing to prohibit so powerful a practice.12 Nevertheless, the English crown had
at least taken steps to regulate this simulacrum of war.13
The royal insistence on licences â˜to crenelateâ™â”that is, to fortifyâ”had more
long-range success. A staggering number of illicit or â˜adulterineâ™ castles were
pulled down, especially in the reign of Henry II; the policy of formal licences,
Ibid., I, 12â“17. Harding, â˜Plaints and Billsâ™. Ibid.
8 9 10
Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 1533â“48. Cf. Barber and Barker, Tournaments, 19â“26.
Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 199â“211, and the sources cited there.
Keen, Nobles, Knights, 83â“99. Cf. Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 199â“211.
The Link with RoyautĂ©
a recognition of the royal right to regulate, had become viable by the time of
The policy against war within the realmâ”that is, open warlike violence or
even carrying offensive arms and riding with unfurled banners in full and joy-
ous expectation of combatâ”met with greater success still, except, of course,
for those times when an over-governed England erupted in civil war. With
that exception, however, the concept of the kingâ™s peace had real content and
showed (within limitations inherent in medieval government) a genuine effort
to translate royal ideals into fact.15
Did English knights cooperate? Chivalric ideas, whatever qualiď¬cations
about royal control they embodied, did little to prevent English knighthood
from serving the crown regularly and loyally. If their military service is obvi-
ous, they also gave essential and unpaid help in law and administration; they
sat on juries and inquests, on commissions of oyer and terminer, on commis-
sions of roads and dikes, or of array; they acted as tax assessors and collectors.
Some served as sheriffs, some as justices. Many of them eventually went to
Westminster to sit in Parliament as Knights of the Shire. This range of services
has been fully investigated in many historical studies.
Other facets of English knightly life, however, have been less often treated
and have sometimes been denied. Although English knighthood could not
claim a legal right of war within the realm, as in France, lords and knights
turned to formally illegal acts of violence, on any scale they could manage,
when the law did not serve or when the sense of urgency was simply too great.
The results for public order could look rather like those we have noted for
In late thirteenth-century England three particular witnessesâ”King
Edward I, the chronicler Pierre Langtoft, and the anonymous author of a
broadside poemâ”commented from their quite different vantage points that
the violence troubling the country seemed like the outbreak of war. Edward I
added, signiď¬cantly, that this illicit warlike violence â˜ď¬‚outed the lordship of the
Legal records show us that the knightly violence so prevalent in chivalric lit-
erature was (in somewhat more prosaic form, but without loss of essential
enthusiasm) practised in everyday life, with serious consequences for public
order. Only very slowly, only with mixed success, could the crown declare
such action illegal; only more slowly still could the crown take effective action
actually to restrict knightly violence within the realm.
Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 211â“25.
Ibid., 225â“67. Waugh provides a good case study in â˜Proď¬ts of Violenceâ™.
Sources and discussion in Kaeuper, â˜Law and Orderâ™.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 111
Of course, a search of records surviving from royal courts uncovers case
after case of some villager or townsman attacking another with varying degrees
of success and consequence; the margins of the parchment rolls are dotted
with the letter â˜sâ™ combined with a ligature, indicating that the accused was
hanged (suspendatur) after conviction. These unfortunates were assuredly of
sub-knightly status. In fact there can be no suggestion that court records on
either side of the Channel mainly document crown action against the knightly.
We need feel no surprise. The dockets of courts in most societies are surely
not ď¬lled with cases against those occupying the highest ranks in that society,
charging them with some form of behaviour that they stoutly maintain is licit.
Rather, we should take note that such cases appear at all in medieval royal
records. The crown gradually sought to deď¬ne the warlike violence of the priv-
ileged as illicit and to take steps against it. Chivalric literature records the obvi-
ous sensitivities to such control.17
The Evidence of Literature
The particularities of medieval civilization in England produced not only a
unique royautĂ© and chevalerie, they generated a literature written in three lan-
guages: Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English. This literary evi-
dence is complicated by questions about the groups or social levels that
enjoyed these stories about kings, knights, and yeomen.18
Understanding this issue of audience means again recognizing a unique fea-
ture of medieval England: social structure was much more ď¬‚uid, much less
rigidly hierarchical than that across the Channel. Lines of demarcation in the
upper social ranks tended to blur, producing more community of feeling
among all ranks of the privileged, from great lords through country knights
and squires (sometimes even a notch below) and not excluding the more
important mercantile layers.19 The pattern of landholding helps to explain this
characteristic of English society; even the great held estates scattered widely by
continental standards, where relatively compact territorial holdings were more
common. A lord or a lordling who held a single manor here, partial rights to
See the evidence and interpretation in Harding, â˜Early Trailbaston Proceedingsâ™; Kaeuper,
War, Justice, and Public Order, 184â“268.
The theme of Englandâ™s differences is developed in Maddicott, â˜Why was England
Different?â™ and in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 315â“47. The theme of audience is dis-
cussed in Mehl, Middle English Romances, 2â“13; Barron, English Medieval Romance; Crane, Insular
Romance; Green, Poets and Princepleasers; and Coss, â˜Cultural Diffusionâ™.
It is striking, for instance, to note the ease with which Sir John Clanvowe, a knight at the
court of Edward III and Richard II, used mercantile images in his treatise, â˜The Two Waysâ™: see
Scattergood, ed., Sir John Clanvowe, 60â“1.
The Link with RoyautĂ©
another there, and half a mill in another county would have a highly developed
interest in the royal role in peacekeeping and in the details of the emerging
common law. Kingship, the common law coming into being and into effect
through royal courts, a particular pattern of estatesâ”all helped to make the
social and political context in England different from that on the other side of
It comes as no surprise, then, to ď¬nd that the literature of this society
reď¬‚ected and helped to generate and generalize this unusual degree of royal
capacity and social ď¬‚uidity. These factors surely help to explain, in turn, why
there is less attention paid in English than in French literature to those trou-
blesome, talented men of modest social status who carried wands of ofď¬ce and
issued orders, no doubt in a voice just a bit too shrill. It certainly helps to
explain why English literature, unlike French romances, does not stress the
social and cultural separation of knights from everyone else.
The unusual qualities of the literature, however, have led some scholars to
suggest that romances were written in twelfth- and thirteenth-century
England for bourgeois audiences, or for even humbler groups raising tankards
in some tavern. Others have suggested, more convincingly, that the inď¬‚uence,
as so often in the Middle Ages, came from the top of society, but that it is here
mediated and diffused downward throughout privileged society generally by
unique features of English social, tenurial, and political life.20
If we step aside from the details of such discussions, the important fact
seems to be that there was not an exclusively chivalric literature in England on
the pattern we have just considered in France, a literature which reinforced a
strong sense of a caste or class of knights as different as they could imagine
themselves to be from the sub-knightly. To the contrary, in England a
â˜knightlyâ™ point of view must be considered within a broader consensus of
views informing the minds of those in the upper social layers, from substantial
village landowners up the scale to the very great. In short, we must ask what
privileged society in generalâ”knights includedâ”thought of the power of
kingship advancing so inexorably and of the framework of law that kings and
their advisers at least claimed to elaborate and enforce. Framing our questions
in these terms, the literature patronized can show us the ideas celebrated, the
This reading recalls another important historical fact: though kings and
knights had differing agendas, only their cooperation allowed the early con-
struction of something like sovereign power in England. Whatever quarrels
This is one of the themes of Crane, Insular Romance. For extended discussion of this issue in
a single romance, see Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, 17â“19.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 113
were writ large in tumults and civil wars, kings and knights found much com-
mon ground, in concert with all other privileged groups in society.
The most famous tale from medieval Britain provides our best evidence.
The oldest surviving tale of Robin Hood, the Geste, merges the social ranks of
the knights with sturdy yeomen and places issues of law and justice ď¬rmly in
the foreground.21 Robin Hood is not a knight; the text pointedly calls him â˜a
gode yemanâ™. But he shows many qualities we associate with ideal knighthood.
His prowess is constantly displayed and is never in question. His loyalty, seen
in his steadfastness, contrasts with the Sheriff of Nottingham who breaks his
sworn word. Robin dispenses largesse with an open hand, never mind that the
wherewithal comes from othersâ™ purses. The text showsâ”and comments onâ”
his courtesy time and again; he regularly removes his hood and drops to one
knee in the presence of those of more exalted rank. He is devoted to the
Blessed Virgin and will harm no company in which ladies are present. He
dines not only on the royal venison, but on swans, pheasants, and other fowlâ”
all elegant fare. In a faint parallel to King Arthur himself (who always delayed
dinner until he learned of some marvel or adventure), he will not sit down to
table before he has found some guest. His piety also requires him to hear three
masses before dining.
Moreover, one axis around which the story revolves is Robinâ™s aiding a
knight, Sir Richard atte Lee, who, if poor, is clearly the genuine article, much
admired. When Robin Hood, learning of his poverty, thinks out loud that his
entry into knighthood must have been recent, that he has been forced into the
rank (by â˜distraint of knighthoodâ™) or has wasted his resources foolishly or
wickedly, Sir Richard answers stoutly:
â˜I am none of those.â™ sayd the knyght.
â˜By God that made me;
An hundred wynter here before
Myn auncestres knyghtes have be.â™22
It comes as no surprise that Sir Richardâ™s prowess, and that of his family, is
quickly asserted. Financial troubles arose because his son killed â˜a knyght of
Lancaster and a squyer boldeâ™ in a tournament; the ď¬nancial drain of the effort
â˜For to save hym in his rightâ™â”legal costs, bribes, or an out-of-court settle-
ment, we must assumeâ”has devastated his resources. The father has matched
his sonâ™s valour. Sir Richard has been a crusader and is considering it as an
honourable outlet should he lose his lands to the wicked Abbot of St Maryâ™s,
as he fears. Called a false knight by the Abbot, he bristles:
Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood. Ibid., ď¬t 47.
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â˜Thou lyest,â™ then sayd the gentyll knyght,
Abbot, in thy hall;
False knyght was I never. . . .
In ioustes and in tournement
Full ferre than have I be,
And put my selfe as ferre in press
As ony that ever I se.â™23
He has endangered his body with the best, thrusting himself into the press of
opposing warriors in the most worshipful way. Who can justly call a man of
Yet justice is far to seek, a state of affairs which has, of course, made Robin
and his men outlaws in the ď¬rst place. The effective agents of the king in the
region, the sheriff of the county, and the â˜hye justyce of Englondeâ™ are false to
the core; the latter is even in the pay of Sir Richardâ™s dread enemy, the Abbot
of St Maryâ™s, and wears his livery, as he openly tells the knight: â˜I am holde
with the abbot, sayd the justyce, / Bothe with cloth and fee.â™25 Robin Hoodâ™s
largesse saves Sir Richard from ruin and their combined righteous violence
checks the sheriff and his men. Yet the only hope for a lasting solution, even
after Robin has put a clothyard shaft through the sheriff â™s body, rests with the
king himself, with â˜Edward our comly kyngeâ™.26
Of course, once the king and the king of outlaws meet, in famous scenes of
disguise and game-playing, all goes well. The king, recognizing Robinâ™s qual-
ities and his unfeigned devotion, forgives all and takes him back to court.
Despite all local corruptions, the fountain of justice runs pure at the centre.
Good yeomen (marked by chivalric qualities), a good knight, a good king,
have brought right order back into the world.27
This concern for justice within several layers of society, coupled with an
abiding belief in the role of the king, also appears prominently in the body of
tales traditionally known as the Matter of England romances. These tales, writ-
ten in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, show a consistent fascination
with political arrangements and a concern for good royal governance
grounded in law. In no small measure they are stories about kingship.28
Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood, ď¬ts 114, 116.
For prowess linked to loyalty and other qualities, see the discussion in Chapter 7.
Knight and Ohlgren, Robin Hood, ď¬t 107.
Ibid., ď¬t 353.
This being an outlaw tale, Robin tires of court and goes back to the greenwood, and to his
murky end as a victim of the Prioress of Kirklees. Yet the sense of basic resolution of justice and
of peace between Robin and the king remains.
For general discussions see Barron, English Medieval Romance, 63â“89, and Crane, Insular
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 115
Order is secured by strong and wise kings: the theme appears indirectly, in
speeches by leading characters, or directly, in outright admonitions to the
audience. The author of Havelok the Dane, in a classic example that merits
extensive quotation, gives his audience an idyllic picture of the conditions
obtaining in a well-governed realm:
It was a king by are dawes,
That in his time were gode lawes
He dede maken and full well holden;
He lovede God with all his might,
And holy kirke and soth and right
Wreyeres and wrobberes made he falle
And hated hem so man doth galle;
Utlawes and theves made he binde,
Alle that he might ď¬nde,
And heye hengen on gallwe-tree;
For hem ne yede gold ne fee;
In that time a man that bore
Well ď¬fty pund, I wot, or more,
Of red gold upon his back,
In a male white or black,
Ne funde he non that him missaide,
Ne with ivele on hond layde.
Thanne was Engelond at aise;
Michel was swich a king to praise
That held so Englond in grith!
(There was a king in former days who made and fully kept good laws. . . . With all his
might he loved God and Holy Church and truth and right. . . . Traitors and robbers he
brought low and hated them as much as gall; he bound all the thieves and outlaws he
could catch and hanged them high on gallows, taking no gold or goods [in bribes]; at
that time a man carrying ď¬fty pounds of gold or more in a black or white bag on his
back found no one troubled him nor lay an evil hand on him. . . . Then was England at
ease; such a king should be much praised, who held England in peace.)29
This imagined ď¬‚ower of English kingship (â˜Engelondes blomeâ™, l. 63) so
loved right himself and so hated wrong in others that he did uncompromising
justice on anyone who dared trouble the fatherless, â˜Were it clerk or were it
Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, ll. 27â“30, 35â“6, 39â“50, 59â“61; my translation. An inter-
esting argument for the importance of local legend in the origins of the text is given by Bradbury,
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knightâ™ (l. 77). Any man who troubled widows, â˜Were he nevre knight so
strongâ™ (l. 80), was soon fettered and jailed. Whoever shamed virgins swiftly
The references to knights catch our eye, and they continue. The king him-
self was â˜the beste knight at nede / That evere mighte riden on stede / Or
wepne wagge or folk ut ledeâ™ (or bear weapons or lead folk out to war).30 Yet
his licit mastery over other knights is explicitly and fulsomely praised:
Of knight ne havede he nevere drede
That he ne sprong forth so sparke of glede,
And lete him knawe of his hand-dede
Hu he couthe with wepne spede;
And other he refte him hors or wede,
Or made him sone handes sprede
And â˜Loverd merci! loude grede.â™
(He feared no knight, so that he could spring forth like a spark from the coals and make
him know the strength of his hand and how he handled weapons; he either deprived
the knight of horse or harness or made him cry out loudly, with hands outspread [in
submission], â˜Mercy, Lord!â™)31
In these passages royal correction of wrong serves to stabilize medieval
English society. Yet many Anglo-Norman and Middle English poems deal-
ing with kingship stress the other side of the coin and show instead the dan-
gers of strong kings distorting the framework of the law as they blatantly
effect their private will rather than communal good. In these tales, the hero,
not the king, embodies this common good even as he pursues his own pri-
vate ambition; only his triumph will bring back ideal stability and the good
Yet the hero usually becomes king himself, in the process reinforcing the
valid and essential role of kingship: only let the right man wear the gold
crown. Havelokâ™s right could scarcely be in doubt: he emits a marvellous light
while sleeping and bears a glowing birthmark in the shape of a cross on his
Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, ll. 87â“99. The poem similarly praises Birkabein, King
of Denmark, as â˜A riche king and swithe stark. / . . . He havede many knight and swain; / He was
fair man and wight, / Of body he was the beste knight / That evere mighte leded ut here / Or stede
onne ride or handlen spere.â™ (ll. 341â“470)
Ibid., ll. 90â“7; my translation. The importance of hands as agents of prowess (or of submis-
sion) is noteworthy. See the discussion in Chapter 7.
A more complex and much darker view appears in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, written in
the late fourteenth century. See Brock, ed., Alliterative Morte Arthure. A good introductory sam-
ple of scholarly opinion appears in GĂśller, Alliterative Morte Arthure.
Sands, Verse Romances, ll. 586â“610.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 117
Villains often hold the throne at the start of the tales, however, and they can
use the powerful and characteristic English machinery of government to
ď¬‚atten all opposition. Early in Havelok, on the death of good king Athelwold,
the throne is seized by Earl Goodrich (intended, perhaps, to evoke memories
of the historical Earl Godwin and his son Harold late in Edward the
Confessorâ™s reign). He puts trusted knights into key castles, and requires oaths
of loyalty from â˜erles, baruns, lef and loth, / Of knightes, cherles, free and
theweâ™. The administrative apparatus is then oiled and set in motion to trans-
mit his will from the centre out into the green countryside:
Justises dede he maken newe
All Engelond to faren thorw
Fro Dovere into Rokesborw.
Schireves he sette, bedels, and greives,
Grith-sergeans with long gleives,
To yemen wilde wodes and pathes
Fro wicke men, that wolde don scathes,
And forto haven alle at his cry,
At his wille, at hise mercy,
That non durste been him again,
Erl ne barun, knight ne swain.
(He made new justices to ride through all England from Dover to Roxbourgh. He
established sheriffs, beadles and stewards, peace serjeants with long swords to control
wild woods and roads against evil men who would do harm, and to have all at his word,
at his will, at his mercy, that none dare be against him, earl, baron, knight, or servant.)34
Here is the problem in a nutshell: a king who provides justices, sheriffs, peace-
keepers, an entire force against â˜wicke menâ™, is himself one of the wicked. In
effect, the plot reinforces the point, for Denmark, which also ď¬gures largely in
the tale, represents a kingdom ruled by a wicked regent, Godard. It requires a
remarkable hero to right matters on both sides of the seas, as Havelok does, in
the end killing the wicked regent and burning Goodrich on earth as he was
undoubtedly expected to burn in eternity.
The king may in other tales be legitimate and of good will, but badly
informed or ill-served by local ofď¬cials and corrupted law in the countryside.
In the mid-fourteenth-century Tale of Gamelyn, for example, a hero whose
birth puts him just at the margins of knightly status can only recover his landed
heritage by three heroic displays of violence, ď¬nally overwhelming his evil
brother John, who can manipulate the local agents of royal administration and
Ibid., ll. 263â“73; my translation.
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justice. In the process, the tale manages to hint at some complexities of atti-
tude regarding the violence so integral to its story.35
Yet a belief in licit violence carried out by the right people and rewarded in
the end by the highest authority was surely the overwhelming sentiment. The
parallels with tales in which bold Robin Hood, outlaw and vanquisher of the
sheriff, receives the kingâ™s forgiveness, friendship, and royal ofď¬ce are obvious
Thus the message of all of these texts is clear: a proper king is good; his law
properly enforced is good for society as a whole. This is the advice to his
daughter put into the mouth of the Roman Emperor in William of Palerne:
bi ti lif, as tou me lovest dere,
tt never te pore porayle be piled for ty sake,
ne taxed to taliage; but tentyď¬‚i tou help
tat al ts lond be lad in lawe as it ouyt
tan wol al te pore puple preie for te yerne.
(on your life, as you love me, you will never rob the poor for your own ends, nor tal-
lage them, but attentively see to it that all this land be led in law as it should be; then
all the common people will gladly pray for you.)36
Yet violent self-help, a show of prowess carried out even against local royal
ofď¬cials and law, is licit, even praiseworthy, whenever the king or the law does
not merit obedience. If the English framework of powerful kingship and com-
mon law was widely approved; that is, its operation and especially its person-
nel needed occasional adjustment carried out with sword, staff, noose, or
Matter of England romances and Robin Hood tales have shown a basic
respect for kingship and royal law, a reserved sphere of licit violence despite
the kingâ™s law or its agents, and worries over the balance between recourse to
courts and outright brutality. The same pattern emerges clearly from the
Arthurian tradition in Geoffrey of Monmouthâ™s History of the Kings of Britain
(c. 1136, Latin), refashioned especially in Waceâ™s Roman de Brut (1155, French)
and Lawmanâ™s Brut (c. 1199â“1225, Middle English).
Each book sings the praises of wise kings who provide good laws and secure
order. One imagined king after another works this causal sequence, culminat-
ing in the great Arthur, of whom Geoffrey says â˜[he] fostered justice and peace,
the maintenance of the laws and decent behaviour in all matters throughout
his kingdomâ™. Constantine, according to Geoffrey, â˜maintained justice among
his people, moderated the rapacity of footpads, put an end to the oppressive
Text and analysis in Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood. Cf. Kaeuper, â˜Tale of Gamelynâ™.
Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 5123â“6; cf. this theme in ll. 1311â“15, 1371, 5238â“49, 5475â“84.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 119
behaviour of local tyrants and did his utmost to foster peace everywhereâ™.37
Wace pictures Arthur, in conquered France, spending nine fruitful years
putting down the proud (mainte orguillus home) and restraining felons.38
Writing about actual historical time in his Roman de Rou, he pictures Anglo-
Saxon courtiers similarly stressing kingship in the maintenance of peace and
justice.39 Lawman is even more enthusiastically positive.40 Of the dawn of
British kingship under Dunwallo he notes,
[He] was the ď¬rst man whom they put a golden crown on,
Here within Britain since Brutusâ™s men came here.
He made such a peace, he made such a truce,
And laws which were good and [long] afterwards stood;
He established a settlement and with oaths he secured it,
So that each peasant at his plough had peace like the king himself.44
Lawman links proud and competitive knighthood with disorder. One early
king, he says, disliked his knights because they kept desiring war. Another king
lost his good fortune when all his noble earls and all his great barons fomented
unrest: â˜they refused altogether to keep the kingâ™s peaceâ™â”a phrase echoing the
pax domini regis from the legal language of Lawmanâ™s own day, of course. The
succeeding ruler then
settled the land, he worked for peacefulness,
He established strong laws; he was stern with the foolish
But he loved those people whose lives were law-abiding;
Every single good man he honoured with property;
He enforced peace and truce upon pain of limb and life.42
Lawmanâ™s most striking passage about knights and order comes in his expla-
nation of the origin of the Round Table. Before its construction, Arthurâ™s mid-
winter feast had been disrupted by quarrels over precedence: blows were
struck, loaves of bread and even goblets full of wine ď¬‚ew through the air as
missiles; knight seized knight by the throat. Arthur retired to his chamber to
think of a solution and the knights got their hands on the carving knives; sev-
ered heads hit the ď¬‚oor amidst â˜an enormous blood-shed, consternation in the
Thorpe, tr, Geoffrey of Monmouth, 124, 132. Local tyrants appear more than once in the writ-
ing of this period. See the comments of Suger on tyrants in Chapter 1 above.
Arnold, ed., Brut de Wace, II, 532â“3: â˜Es nuef anz que il France tint / Mainte merveille le
avint, / Maint orguillus home danta / E meint felun amesura.â™
Holden, ed., Rou de Wace, II, 100â“1.
Allen notes that Lawmanâ™s contribution to the story creates â˜a picture of âmerry Britainâ
where law and order create a world in which populations thrive and society achieves stability and
securityâ™. Lawman, Brut, xxiii.
Ibid., ll. 2121â“6. Ibid., ll. 1311 ff; 1391 ff; 1403 ff.
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courtâ™. A stern and kingly Arthur ordered justice done on all offenders (and
even on their female relatives). All must swear to take no revenge, to take part
in no future brawls. Weeks later he introduced his solution: a Round Table
which could seat 1,600 knights, so that none should have precedence over
another. The craftsman who has made it assures Arthur, â˜you never need be
afraid in all the wide world / That ever any proud knight would at your table
start a ď¬ght.â™43 The Round Table came into being as both a sign of the unity
between king and knights and a means to stop disruptive knightly violence.
The poet who wrote the Life of William Marshal at one point complains that
his world is being spoiled by the decay of chivalry, meaning the very reforms
praised by Lawman; what worries him is a shift away from prowess and
largesse and a commitment to mere courtroom litigation:
But now the high lords have imprisoned chivalry for us; by their lethargy and because
of greed, largesse is thrown into prison. And the knights errant and the tourneyers have
been transformed into courtroom litigants.44
This image of chivalry wrongly imprisoned and prowess conď¬ned to the court-
room contrasts strongly with Lawmanâ™s praise of Arthurian royalism sup-
pressing knightly violence in his own house. The gold of chivalry has been
transmuted into lead, so it seems.45 This sentiment anticipates by four cen-
turies a seventeenth-century complaint that the country was so well governed
there was â˜no employment for heroickal spiritsâ™.46
Yet if Marshal began life as a knight errant, hurrying from England to the
continent, where knighthood was less restrained, he ended his career as regent
of England and chief prop to the crown in a time of crisis. Alongside complaint
against royal restrictions on chivalry, we must set the broad course of
Williamâ™s life to illuminate the complex pattern of chivalry, literature, and
kingship we have found in England.
Allen, tr., Lawman, Brut, 11367 ff.
My translation, from Meyer, ed., Histoire, I, ll. 2686â“92:
Mais or nos ront mise en prison
Chevalerie le halt home:
Par perece qui les asome
E par conseil de coveitise
Nos ront largesse en prison mise,
E lâ™esrer e le torneir
Si sunt tornĂ© al plaidier
Lawman is, of course, no paciď¬st; he waxes enthusiastic for the right kind of violence, at the
right time, by the right people.
46 Quoted in Benson, Maloryâ™s Morte Darthur, 177.
THE AMBIVALENT FORCE OF
N E A R the opening of his Cliges, ChrĂ©tien de Troyes, speaking directly to
his audience in words now become famous, confidently announces the
translatio of ancient civilization to the world of medieval France via the linked
agencies of chivalry and learning:
These books of ours have taught us that Greece once stood pre-eminent in both
chivalry and learning. Then chivalry proceeded to Rome in company with the highest
learning. Now they have come into France. God grant that they be sustained here
and their stay be so pleasing that the honour that has stopped here in France never
Speaking for many in his age, this influential author declares chivalry an essen-
tial element of civilization; he even suggests that it functions as one of the two
components which take the measure of a civilization. He is enough a citizen of
the world of clergie to include learning (the learning of the clerks, that is)
alongside chivalry, but he gives chivalry equal rank, and first mention, as the
key to honour.
Several centuries later the biography of the much-admired Jean de
Boucicaut, marshal of France, Le Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre,
dit Boucicaut, announced, in words clearly recalling ChrĂ©tienâ™s:
Two things have been established in the world, by the will of God, like two pillars to
sustain the orders of divine and human laws . . . and without which the world would
be like a confused thing and without any order . . . These two flawless pillars are
Chivalry and Learning, which go very well together.2
For something like half a millennium of European history such evaluations
of the importance of chivalry produced basic agreement among virtually all the
laity whose opinion counted in this society and among most clerics as well;
beneath helmets and tonsures, wimples and mitres, all heads nodded sagely, all
thought chivalry was virtually equivalent to civilization, or at least stood as one
Staines, tr., Romances of ChrĂ©tien de Troyes, 87; Luttrell and Gregory, eds, ChrĂ©tien de Troyes,
Lalande, ed., Jehan le Maingre, 6â“7: â˜Deux choses sont, par la voluntĂ© de Dieu, establies au
monde ainsi comme .II. pillers a soustenir les ordres des loys divines et humaines . . . et sanz
lesquielz seroit le monde ainsi comme chose confuse et sanz nul ordre. . . . Yceulz .II. pillers, sanz
faille, sont Chevalerie et Science qui moult bien se couviennent ensemble.â™ Lalande notes some-
what similar expressions appear elsewhere in the book. We will see below (Chapter 13) that in the
thirteenth century Ramon Llull took a similar view in his much-read book on chivalry.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
of its essential components, certainly that it was the model for the lives of lay
Characteristic praise flows in the biography of William Marshal. In the final
scenes, as William lay dying, the monk-knight who came to receive him into
the Order of the Temple praised him unstintingly as the greatest knight in the
world, with the most prowess, â˜sensâ™, and loyalty. He announced with cer-
tainty that God would receive William in heaven. Similar praise for Williamâ™s
ideal chivalric career echoed in the laudatory sermon preached by an arch-
bishop beside his bier and, again, in the approving oral obituary composed in
the conversation of the French royal court. He was, simply, â˜the best knight in
the world (Le meillor chevalier del monde)â™.3 For all of these speakers it seemed
that no more need be said.
Yet of course there was much more to be said on the subject of chivalry;
medieval writers regularly spoke, however more subtly and indirectly, to their
fundamental fears of the violence and disruption carried out in the world by
â˜the chivalryâ™. Early in his Perceval ChrĂ©tien de Troyes provides a classic case in
point. The young, absolutely naive, and primitive hero, hunting alone in the
forest, for the first time sees knights in splendid and shining armour emerge
from the green curtain of trees. Almost stunned, Perceval asks their spokesman
the arresting question, â˜Are you God? (Nâ™iestes vos Dieux?)â™4 Was this a ques-
tion ChrĂ©tien wanted the knights of his society to consider? Were they, like the
first sinners in Eden, setting themselves up in the place of divinity, arrogating
to themselves God-like power? The danger certainly seems to have been in the
mind of Percevalâ™s mother, for when he tells her he has seen shining angels in
the forest she replies, â˜I commend you to God, dear son, for Iâ™m deeply afraid
for you. I do believe youâ™ve seen the angels who cause people such grief, killing
whoever they come across.â™ He assures her that she is wrong, that the strangers
told him they were knights. Hearing this word, she faints.5 It is hard not to
read this passage as a telling criticism of the chivalry of ChrĂ©tienâ™s own day; his
romances abound in trenchant social criticism and suggestions for an
See Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 18351â“end of text.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 3; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval, 6. This attraction is elaborated in the Post-
Vulgate Cycle: see Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 8; Bogdanow, ed., â˜Folie Lancelotâ™, 83.
Bryant, Perceval, 5; Roach, Roman du Perceval, ll. 306â“400. She has good reason to fear: her
husband has been maimed in knightly combat and her two older sons killed the very day of their
knighting. Similar evaluations can be found in much lesser works. A questing Lancelot, seeking
shelter in The Marvels of Rigomer, comes upon a monstrous old woman beside a fire he is sure is
magical. Snoring on all fours like a beast, she badly frightens both Lancelot and his horse. When
he identifies himself as a knight she threatens him, declaring that for a thousand years she has
heard that knights are the worst things in the world who kill just as they like. Kay notes that
women are often given a role as social critics and counter-narrative agents: Chansons de Geste, 138,
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry 125
improved chevalerie that might truly stand alongside ideal clergie as a prop to
The tensions are inherent: chivalry will be praised as a solution to the prob-
lem of which it is so integral an element. The grounds for this widespread pat-
tern become immediately apparent if we consider chivalry in its broadest sense
of ethos or ideal. A code to guide dominant laymen would necessarily do
major social work: it would provide guidelines for basic questions confronting
a society that was expanding its intellectual as well as its physical, social, and
Did chivalry in fact address basic social questions? As an experiment, I have
for years asked students in seminars to draw up a list of the primary issues that
societies must confront, once they have secured the fundamentals of living
space and sustenance. Although the list produced by such a discussion varies
somewhat, it regularly includes the following social needs: principles of dis-
tributive justice, means for resolving disputes, rules about licit and illicit vio-
lence and its practitioners, guides for regulating social hierarchy, standards for
relationships between the sexes, means both for satisfying spiritual longings
and regulating the authority of the spiritual in the temporal world.
Such a list is fascinating and instructive, for we can see at once that all of
these issues closely involve chivalry. How were the dominant layfolk to live,
love, fight, practise piety, merit their high status and its considerable rewards?
All such lines of thought led to chivalry. Like some social analogue to the
molecular structures of organic chemistry, chivalry results from the powerful
bonding of prowess to honour, piety, status, and love. Yet these bonds, if
strong, are complex and even conflicted; medieval people interpreted them in
particular ways and argued over their ideal nature and content. Is prowess an
unalloyed good? Does it unerringly reveal status? Is it blessed by God? Does
it lead to love? Simply to state a few such questions points to the issues in the
chapters to follow. The importance of such questions helps us to understand
how chivalry could for so many centuries stand at the centre of so much belief
and debate. Any medieval writer interested in any one of these issues might
well want to valorize his or her point of view by identifying it with the great
code which formed a capstone of the arch of civilization.
Was there, then, only one point of view, the single â˜ideal chivalryâ™ of uni-
versity survey courses, against which any thought or action could be mea-
sured? Medieval Europe, despite what some textbook writers and some
romantics want to imagine, does not look like a society with a single set of
answers with regard to chivalryâ”or much else. The extensive literature of
For ChrĂ©tienâ™s work as social criticism or reform, see Topsfield, ChrĂ©tien de Troyes; Frappier,
ChrĂ©tien de Troyes; Krueger, Women Readers, 33â“68.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
chivalry scarcely appears as an unproblematic literature of agreement or cele-
bration, of praise for a single code, universally accepted as â˜true chivalryâ™.
Debate, criticism, and competing reform ideas surge through these texts.
The subject need not thus disintegrate or slip from our hands. As scholars
such as Maurice Keen, Georges Duby, and Jean Flori have argued, there is
enough continuity to allow us to discuss chivalry as a recognizable phenomenon
over the centuries. From some point in the twelfth century a core of ideas and
practices persisted among knights. William Marshal in the late twelfth century,
Geoffroi de Charny in the mid-fourteenth century, and Thomas Malory at the
end of the fifteenth century can be imagined sitting down together to discuss
such a core of ideal beliefs and practices rather comfortably.7
Yet their works criticize as well as praise the ideas and practices of fellow
knights; and others, too, would have their say. When we move beyond the
inner circle of practising knights into the vast realms of chivalric literature of
all stripes, we can hear polyphonyâ”at times, perhaps, cacophony; the tension
crackles, and we encounter fears, doubts, and debate, as well as agreeable cel-
ebration. This is surely a literature of contending views on basic issues.
Of course, debate encouraged valorization: chivalry won social power not
only as the framework for the ideals of dominant laymen, but from repeated
efforts at reform, each praising an ideal to meet some set of interests.
Dissatisfaction with chivalry in the sense of a body of men who wielded very
real weapons in the world, or with the disruptive nature of their violent work
in an emerging civilization, could be most usefully and discretely expressed as
praise for the ideal code favoured by the writer. But we will do well to remem-
ber that social criticism and ideas of reform are as real as the praise, even if less
Chapter 7 helps to explain why. Knights worshipped at the shrine of the
demi-god prowess and practised violence as an esteemed and defining entitle-
ment. The primary constituent in chivalry was prowess which wins honour,
weapons in hand. What this meant on the tourney field, in a raiding party, on
the battlefield, is taken up in Chapter 8.
The fundamental bond of prowess and honour was strengthened, as noted
above, by the addition of three further bonds: a practised form of piety
(already explored in Chapter 3), an assertion of high status (Chapter 9), and a
troubled link with love and gendered relations (Chapter 10). The lavish eulo-
gies sung to chivalryâ”and the worries more prudently expressedâ”can
scarcely be understood without recognizing its bonds to these crucially impor-
tant social issues.
Discussed in Chapter 13.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry 127
Chapters 11 and 12 take up chanson de geste and quest patterns, respectively,
with a double goal: first, to get a closer look into highly useful evidence and,
second, to demonstrate that the ambivalent role of chivalry in issues or order
appears forcefully in entire works no less than in passages selected from many
Finally, Chapter 13 considers the critical and reformist views of the knights
themselves. Again using specific works, we can see that ideas for change and
improvement did not all come from the non-knightly. If model knights loudly
and predictably praised chivalry, their fears and reformist ideals were real and
their carefully chosen words are audible and significant.
THE PRIVILEGED PRACTICE OF VIOLENCE:
WORSHIP OF THE DEMI-GOD PROWESS
D U R I N G the Battle of Mansourah in the crusade of Louis IX (1250),
Joinville, St Louisâ™s companion and biographer, sought refuge with his
men in a ruined house surrounded by their enemies. Saracens who climbed the
broken roof thrust lances literally into the French knightsâ™ faces. Two knights
suffered multiple facial wounds and another took a lance blow between the
shoulders â˜which made so large a wound that the blood poured from his body
as if from the bung-hole of a barrelâ™. In this crisis, Ărard de Siverey spied
French forces in neighbouring ď¬elds; but before riding for help he asked
Joinville if he could do this without loss of honour, repeating his earnest ques-
tion to all the others. â˜I said to him,â™ Joinville reports, â˜ âMy dear man, it seems
to me you would win great honour for yourself if you went for help to save
our lives,â â™ adding, â˜ âyour own, by the way, is also in great danger.â â™ Ărard
brought help, but later died from a wound that had left his nose dangling over
The vivid story told by Joinville rushes us into the vortex of the world of
chivalry: we see bloody hand-to-hand combat, and hear serious talk of hon-
our. Prowess and honour are closely linked in the knightsâ™ minds, for the prac-
tice of the one produces the other, a theme tirelessly expounded in all chivalric
literature. Malory (as always, an ideal spokesman) writes repeatedly and
enthusiastically of the worshyppe owed to men of valour and won by them.2
Honour is the veritable currency of chivalric life, the glittering reward earned
Wailly, ed., Histoire de Saint Louis, 93â“5; Shaw, tr., Joinville and Villehardouin, 220â“1.
Tristram, preparing to ď¬ght two Round Table knights who have beaten his cousin, says â˜have
ye no doute but I woll have ado with them bothe to encrece my worshyp, for hit is many day syt-
then I dud any armysâ™: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 248. Malory is not alone. In the Stanzaic Morte
Arthur, Bors calls for his companions to test their worship â˜With spere and sheld and armes
brightâ™: Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, ll. 1550â“5. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation Gawain
wonderingly observes a stranger knight knock ten challengers from their saddles, each with a sin-
gle blow. He not only proclaims the victor â˜the best jouster I may ever seeâ™, but adds, â˜For indeed,
he should never lack honor, since he wins it so wellâ™. Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 3;
Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift, 20.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
by the valorous as a result of their exertions, their hazarding of their bodies. It
is worth more than life itself.
Yet even if we keep the importance of honour ď¬rmly in our minds, we
should not forget that the prowess from which it springs is the fundamental
quality of chivalry. Prowess was truly the demi-god in the quasi-religion of
chivalric honour; knights were indeed the privileged practitioners of violence
in their society.
In the Lancelot do Lac the young hero learns from the Lady of the Lake that
â˜knighthood was not created and set up . . . because some men were originally
more noble or of higher lineage than others, for all people are descended from
one father and one motherâ™. Given this common descent, he asks rhetorically,
how would one become noble except through prowess? Once evil had entered
this world, the corrective could only be found by selecting as knights â˜the big
and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valor-
ous and the courageousâ™.3 Nearly two centuries later Froissart, the ardent
chronicler of chivalry at work in the Hundred Years War, asserted that, â˜as
ď¬rewood cannot burn without ď¬‚ame, neither can a gentleman achieve perfect
honour nor worldly renown without prowessâ™.4
In the real world, to be sure, overweight lords with rusting armour but vast
acreage and good lineage might command the respect given to rich and lordly
patrons in any age. And important clerics who were lords of men and lands
could be quite clear about their honour, even though they were formally pre-
vented by their order from the display of prowess in combat. But in chivalric
ideology, tension between lineage and prowess is suppressed; the assumption,
almost without exception, is that honour originates, is merited, proved, and
increased sword in hand by those whose lineage leads them to such deeds.5
Pharian, in Lancelot, speaks of â˜the honour of this world, towards which all
prowess strugglesâ™.6 Youths of noble birth, such as the young Gareth or
Perceval, are drawn almost mystically to the armour and weapons of knight-
hood.7 Havelok the Dane, nearly lost beneath kitchen grease and soot, soon
comes to his true vocation, warrior as well as king.8 In the chansons, even a
Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 110â“11, 142; tr. from Corley, Lancelot of the Lake, 52.
Luce, Chroniques, I, 2: â˜Si comme la busce ne poet ardoir sans feu, ne poet le gentilz homs
venir a parfait honneur ne a la glore dou monde sans proece.â™
See the useful discussion in Elspeth Kennedy, â˜Quest for Identityâ™.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 39; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 164. Elspeth Kennedyâ™s text
reads somewhat differently at this point: Lancelot do Lac, 92.
Malory pictures the young Gareth arriving at court eager to witness jousting. Kay is unim-
pressed by his ď¬rst humble request for sustenance: â˜for and he had be come of jantyllmen, he wolde
have axed horse and armourâ: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 178â“9. Gist provides a number of
Middle English examples of the noble urge to exercise prowess overcoming circumstances of
upbringing: Love and War, 140, n. 13.
â˜Havelock the Daneâ™, in Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 131
great cleric such as Archbishop Turpin must ď¬ght as a knight (contrary to the
prohibitions of church reformers) and is valued accordingly.9
A knightâ™s nobility or worth is proved by his hearty strokes in battle. Seeing
Oliver cut a pagan in half, for example, Roland sings out â˜The Emperor loves
us for such blows.â™10 Seeing Rainouart in Aliscans throw a squire who has tor-
mented him against a pillar, breaking all the young manâ™s limbs at once,
William of Orange says in admiring wonder, â˜By St Denis, heâ™s to be
respected.â™11 Wounded by Hector in a tournament, in the Stanzaic Morte
Arthur, Lancelot at ď¬rst promises repayment (causing Hector to blanche in
fear), but soon forgives Hector and tells him he loves him more for his hard
blow: â˜But ever the betyter love I thee, / Such a dint that thou can smite.â™12 Kay
and Bedevere, Arthurâ™s court ofď¬cials, hit so hard in battle in The Story of
Merlin that their Roman opponents cry out, â˜God, what a seneschal! . . . God,
what a constable! Here are goodly ministers for a kingâ™s court!â™ Gawain (called
here by his affectionate diminutive, Gawainet) makes a similar estimate of the
status of the warrior who is in fact the Saxon king Brandon:
And when Sir Gawainet saw what he was doing and the great slaughter of his people,
he was certain that he was a highborn man of mighty stock, and he showed by the way
he fought that he was a king or a prince; Sir Gawainet highly esteemed him, and would
have been very glad if he had been a Christian.13
In one of his earliest combats Lancelot â˜admired the prowess of the man who
had just dealt him the best blow that he had ever receivedâ™.14 Later, a kind host
who takes in Lancelot (temporarily fallen into madness) knows him to be a
noble knight because of the blow he receives: â˜he dealt me a blow on my hel-
met, the like of which I never received from any man since I was knighted. For
that reason Iâ™m sure he used to be a good knight and of noble condition.â™15
Malory tells us in the Morte Darthur that when Lamorakâ™s strokes fail to
defeat his opponent (a disguised King Mark) quickly, he â˜doubled his strokys,
for he was of the nobelyste of the worldeâ™.16 As Lancelot and Gawain ď¬ght near
the end of the Mort Artu, â˜whoever could have seen the blows given and
See classic expressions of Turpinâ™s prowess in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisses 114,
121, 155, and in Newth, ed., tr., the Song of Aspremont, especially 202â“3, 222.
Brault, Chanson de Roland, l. 1377.
Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume dâ™Orange, 231; Wienbeck et al., eds., Aliscans, 184.
Benson, ed., Morte Arthure, ll. 464â“500.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 409, 385; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 438, 394.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 93; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 174â“5; Elspeth Kennedy,
ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 225. Lancelot is, in fact, sorry that he has killed the man, putting his lance
right through his â˜insidesâ™.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 320; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 211.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 355.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
received would have realized that the two men were of great nobilityâ™.17 An
exceptionally strong and able lance thrust or sword stroke, in fact, often reveals
a heroâ™s identity despite his attempt at disguise by wearing unaccustomed
armour. Lancelotâ™s great prowess regularly puts him in this situation. Tristram
and others have the same problem.
Galahad delivers what may be the ultimate sword blow in the complex ď¬ght-
ing between incognito knights in the Post-Vulgate Quest. Bors, unhorsed by
Galahad, challenges him to a sword ď¬ght: â˜Come test me with the sword, and
then I will see that you are a knight.â™ He gets more than he bargained for.
cut through his shield, the pommel of his saddle, and the horseâ™s withers, so that half
the horse fell one way and half the other in the middle of the road, and Bors was left on
foot, holding his naked sword, and half his shield, the other half having fallen in the
A badly frightened Bors calls out, â˜I see by this blow youâ™re the best knight I
To be the best knight in the world, as we can read time and again in chival-
ric literature, means not to be the greatest landlord but to show the greatest
prowess. The wise Merlin tells Arthur, about to choose new knights for the
King, choose from all the land the ď¬fty best knights you know, and if you know any
poor knight, valiant in person and courage, do not fail to include him because of his
poverty. And if anyone who is nobly born and of high lineage wants to be included, but
he is not a very good knight, take care not to let him be included. For a single person
who is not of such great chivalry would shame and degrade the chivalry of the whole
Of course acquiring land and wealth is assumed to follow naturally, and is
welcomed as an enhancement of honour. Any deep gulf between the acquisi-
tion of wealth and the practice of chivalry is a modern myth; gold and glory in
fact made a ď¬ne amalgam in the medieval knightly view. William Marshal was
taught that lesson early in his model chivalric career and he was long troubled
by the slight reward in terms of land that his great prowess had earned him. In
time, of course, it won him ď¬efs almost beyond his dreams. Moreover,
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 179â“80; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 196. The French term, in
fact, is preudomes. This general sentiment appears repeatedly and again in the Vulgate and Post-
Asher, tr., Quest, 137; Bogdanow, Folie Lancelot, 119â“20. Kay and Gawain soon second this
sentiment. Hector later receives a similar blow from Galahad, and comes to the same conclusion,
as does the watching Sagramore: Asher, ibid., 189; Bogdanow, ibid., 356â“7.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 223; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 201.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 133
prowess is the quality hymned without cease in his biography, and in every
other piece of chivalric literature. Lancelotâ™s grandfather, as we learn in the
Lancelot, was not a kingâ™s son, but he was chosen as king â˜because of his
prowessâ™.20 Lancelot himself later declares, when he sees Bors in battle, that
this young knight should be given landsâ”he would defend them so well.21
In fact, in chivalric literature prowess can come close to conveying the
meaning of a manâ™s life, or even of life itself. In the Perlesvaus God stops the
ď¬ght between Perceval and Gawain because he did not want those good
knights to kill one another; his wish was that each â˜should know the otherâ™s
worthâ™.22 The Lady of the Lake tells Guinevere she raised the young Lancelot
â˜because of the great prowess that was to manifest itself in this knightâ™.24
Hearing of a great deed of prowess after a period of captivity, the mature
Lancelot hopes to God that the valiant knight who is talked of will appear,
â˜Because, sir,â™ he tells Galehaut, â˜we have been imprisoned here for a very long
while, and it has been a long time since we saw jousting or knightly deeds, and
we are wasting our time and our lives. As God is my true witness, if he comes,
I shall ď¬ght with him.â™24 In the Chevalier de Papegau, a work of very different
tone and quality, the same sentiment appears; the parrot (an enthusiastic and
frequently heard voice for prowess) explains that to be lacking in valour is the
worst prison for a knight.25 Gawain is reluctant to kill Nascien who will not
surrender although defeated (in a tournament turned deadly): â˜ âI do not want
to kill you,â said Sir Gawainet. âThat would truly be a shame, for you are most
worthy.â â™26 His worth has, of course, been demonstrated by prowess. Boson,
boasting in Girart de Roussillon about the prowess of the men on Girartâ™s side
in his war with the king, proudly declares that none of their fathers died in
their beds.27 King Arthur, holding the severed head of Lamorat in his hands,
laments the knight in the classic formula: â˜Indeed, itâ™s too bad that he is dead
so soon, for had he lived a long time he would have surpassed in chivalry all
those of his lineage.â™28 In Maloryâ™s â˜Tale of Arthur and Accolonâ™, the Damsel of
the Lake saves Arthur in his ď¬ght with Accolon because she saw â˜how full of
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 239; Micha, ed., Lancelot, V, 123.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation 306; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 111.
22 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 129; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 197, emphasis supplied.
Equating prowess with worth is common. A wise dwarf tells a questing Tor he need not fear delay
by accepting a joust: â˜a valiant man cannot lose by delay,â™ he assures Tor, â˜and here you can ď¬nd
out if you are worth anythingâ™. Asher, Merlin Continuation, 234; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin,
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 232; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 556.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 359; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 531.
Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 33; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du Papegau, 32.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 336; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 304.
Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, 401.
Asher, Merlin Continuation, 82; Bogdanow, â˜Folie Lancelotâ™, 80.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
prouesse his body wasâ™ and has pity lest â˜so good a knyght and such a man of
worship sholde so be destroyedâ™. The view of Sir Outlake is similar: â˜that is
grete pytĂ© that ever so noble a man as ye ar of your dedis and prouesse, that
ony man or woman myght fynde in their hertes to worche ony treson aghenst
Great prowess so expresses the meaning of life that after an unsurpassed day
of battle the sated, triumphant knight may yearn for death to close his career
on such a high point. In the war to recover Lancelotâ™s inheritance from
Claudas, young Claudin, his son, knows that he has fought so magniď¬cently,
that he tells a companion, â˜Truly, dear friend, were it not for my fatherâ™s great
loss, I wouldnâ™t care if I died in this battle, for I believe Iâ™ll never again accom-
plish what weâ™ve done today, you and I.â™30 Near the end of the Lancelot do Lac,
King Yder, wonderfully successful on the battleď¬eld, hopes that God will â˜give
him death, for he would never again have such an excellent dayâ™.31
Certainly, prowess is the prominent virtue, and sometimes nearly the exclu-
sive virtue, in the summing-up of a great manâ™s life at its close. Mourning her
dead husband, King Bors, early in the Lancelot, Queen Elaine twice laments
â˜the great acts of prowess of her lord (les granz proesces son seignor)â™. Only his
prowess and his (unspeciď¬ed) kindnesses merit mention in the queenâ™s
lament.32 When Gawain is shown a badly wounded knight in a castle hall, he
comments on how unfortunate his condition is, since the man is so handsome.
â˜You would truly say it was a misfortuneâ™, says the lady caring for the knight,
â˜if you knew how great his prowess was.â™33 When later in this text Lancelot
goes mad because of his imprisonment in Saxon Rock, Queen Guinevere
laments the apparent end of â˜his feats of arms, his jousting, his swordsman-
shipâ™.34 The maiden, whose knowledge of herbs saves the poisoned Lancelot
later in this cycle, tells her worried brother, â˜I can assure you that if God grants
that he come through strong and healthy, heâ™ll yet deliver many ď¬ne blows
with sword and lance.â™35 The queen, fearing that she has lost Lancelotâ™s love,
in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, hopes that she will still hear of his deeds of
prowess.36 An untrue report of Arthurâ™s death, when he is under the power of
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 87, 89.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 304; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 103â“4.
31 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 385; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 550.
32 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 8; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 14â“15; Sommer, ed.,
Vulgate Version, III, 14.
33 Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 414; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 313; Carroll, tr.,
Lancelot Part II, 172â“3.
34 Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 231; Micha, Lancelot, VIII, 455.
35 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 147; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 137.
36 Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, ll. 752â“9. Even after his conversion to the religious life as a her-
mit, his death elicits from Bors this lament and summation: â˜The beste knight his life hath lorn /
That ever in stour [battle] bestrode steed!â™ ll. 3892â“3.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 135
the False Guinevere, causes the queen to cry out, â˜Dear Lord God, now all
prowess is gone and all joy turned to sorrow.â™37 A knight, who has heard a sim-
ilar rumour about Lancelot, cries out for his own death: â˜I have no desire to
live any longer now, when the knight who was supposed to surpass all earthly
prowess has died.â™ As he carries Galehautâ™s dead body to burial at the Dolorous
Guard, a weeping Lancelot laments his great friendâ™s â˜prowess and valourâ™.38 A
lady falsely informed by Sir Gawain that her lover, Sir Pelleas, has been slain,
intones the formula: â˜that is grete pytĂ© for he was a passynge good knyght of
his bodyâ™. She adds that any lady should love Gawain, since he is well born and
of such prowess.39
Perhaps the most striking instance appears, however, late in Maloryâ™s Morte
Darthur. The king, learning ď¬nally beyond doubt of the liaison between
Lancelot and the queen, is told how they were taken together, how Lancelot
escaped by ď¬ghting his way out against numerous would-be captors:
â˜Jesu mercy!â™ seyde the kynge, â˜he ys a mervaylous knyght of proues. And alas,â™ seyde
the kynge, â˜me sore repentith that ever sir Launcelot sholde be ayenste me, for now I
am sure the noble felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn for ever, for wyth hym woll
many a noble knyght holde. An now hit ys fallen so,â™ seyde the kynge, â˜that I may nat
with my worshyp but my quene muste sufď¬r dethe,â™ and was sore amoved.
Without diminishing our sense of the kingâ™s feelings, or of the deeply moving
prose with which Malory sets forth this crisis in the story of Arthurian knight-
hood, we can only note that Arthur comments here ď¬rst on Lancelotâ™s great
prowess, second on the impending collapse of the great fellowship of knights,
and third on his ineluctable judgement on his queen. As he says shortly after,
it is the loss of the knights, not the loss of the queen, that makes him sorry.40
Identiď¬cation of Chivalry with Prowess
Only after reading scores of works of chivalric literature can we fully appreci-
ate the utterly tireless, almost obsessional emphasis placed on personal
prowess as the key chivalric trait.41 Not simply one quality among others in a
list of virtues, prowess often stands as a one-word deď¬nition of chivalry in
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 266; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 114.
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 61, 83; Micha, Lancelot, II, 218, 309.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 102. Ibid., 682, 685.
My impression is reinforced by the careful study of Burgess, â˜The Term âchevalerieâ â™. Burgess
ď¬nds the term is speciď¬c, rather than abstract, and generally refers to deeds of prowess and the
mentalitĂ© which produces them. I owe thanks to Alan Lupak for this reference.
Emphasized even when a knightâ™s other qualities are disreputable. Blioblieris, in Le Bel
Inconnu, is described as harsh, cruel, proud, and wicked, â˜but no one ever saw a better knightâ™:
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
This identiď¬cation appears regularly in chansons de geste. Folchers rides out
into battle â˜seeking great chivalryâ™ in Girart de Roussillon. He achieves it,
putting his lance through the heart of â˜the valliant Count Routrouâ™.43
Characters in the Chanson de Roland link chivalry with deeds of prowess, as, for
instance, does Ganelon (a great knight, even if a traitor) when speaking with
Marsilion. If the pagan leader can kill Roland, he assures him, â˜then you will
have done a noble feat of arms [literally a noble act of chivalry, gente cheva-
lerie]â™.44 William, in the Chanson de Guillaume, observes Rainouart smash a
Saracenâ™s head into four fragments: â˜You should be a knightâ™, he shouts
Statements linking chivalry with prowess in the vast Vulgate and Post
Vulgate cycles almost defy sampling.46 In a tournament at Pomeglai,
[Lancelot] drew out his sword like an expert swordsman and delivered heavy blows to
the right and to the left, felling knights and horses with blows of the sword blade and
by the hilt. He grabbed men by the hoods of mail and by the edge of their shields; he
pulled helmets from heads; and he hit and shoved and pounded and struck with his
limbs and his horse, for he was very skilled in doing all that a great knight must do.
Those who witness Lancelotâ™s work with edged weapons regularly pronounce
him â˜the ď¬‚ower of chivalryâ™. Arthur, for example, declares that Lancelot has
earned the status of best knight after a tournament at Camelot, and a defeated
Gawain agrees; the stump of Lancelotâ™s spear has just been extracted from his
side, and he is beginning a month of recuperation.47
A knight who has seen Lancelot perform in a tournament (in the Lancelot)
can scarcely ď¬nd words sufď¬cient to praise his prowess:
[I]t takes a lot more to be a worthy man than I thought it did this morning. Iâ™ve learned
so much today that I believe thereâ™s only one truly worthy man in the whole world. I
saw the one Iâ™m talking about prove himself so well against knights today that I donâ™t
Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de BĂ˘gĂ©, ll. 36â“41. At the opening of the Lancelot do Lac we
meet Claudas, â˜a king, and an excellent knightâ™ who was â˜very clever and very treacherousâ™: Elspeth
Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 1; Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 3. Of many cases in Malory, note
Helyus and Helake who â˜were men of grete prouess; howbehit that they were falsse and full of tre-
son, and were poore men born, yet were they noble knyghtes of theire hondysâ™: Vinaver, ed.,
Malory. Works, 437. For examples from a chanson, Girart de Roussillon, see Mary Hackett, â˜Knights
43 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 159, particularly ll. 2744â“5.
44 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, 38â“9.
45 Muir, tr., The Song of William, 193; Suard, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, 197â“8.
46 In addition to the passages quoted below, see, e.g., Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 34; Kibler,
tr., Lancelot Part V, 180, 203, 204, 215; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 280, 312; the corresponding
passages in Micha, ed., Lancelot are II, 115, IV, 273â“4, 385, 387; V, 36; and VI, 8, 138.
Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 30, 32, 38; Part V, 204â“5; Micha, Lancelot, II, 99 (emphasis sup-