Muir, tr., The Song of William, Ernest Langlois, ed., La Chanson de Guillaume, laisse 28.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
‚Ä˜phantasm (un enfantesme)‚Ä™ comes upon the English camp and the watch is
sure they are beset by an armed enemy. ‚Ä˜St David! Barons, Knights!‚Ä™ calls out
Randolf FitzRalph; men come tumbling out of the huts and Randolf (think-
ing him one of the enemy) strikes the Ô¬Ārst man he sees, bringing the fellow to
his knees. The phantom soon passes to the Irish camp, causing them, in turn,
to think that they are entrapped by their enemies. Yet in the morning the two
sides formed up and got to their martial work.27 Such phantasms of fear must
often have stalked camps and battlelines; Froissart tells a similar story of the
Flemish camp in the early morning hours before the battle of Roosebeke in
Parodies of knightly ways, of course, speak more openly of fear.29 But in his
Livre Charny, even Geoffroi de Charny, the very soul of courage, admits
plainly that a knight thinks of Ô¬‚eeing as arrows and lances rain down upon
him, as he sees his friends lying dead on the ground around him: ‚Ä˜Is this not a
great martyrdom?‚Ä™ he asks.30 Yet he knows martyrdom is the cost of honour
and he knows the rewards if fear is mastered. In his Livre de chevalerie he prag-
matically urges knights not to think what the enemy will do to them, but what
they will do to the enemy.31
Against the profound commitment to war reiterated in chivalric literature
could any reforming voices praise peace? The question touches one of the deep
paradoxes of chivalric ideology, of course, for the ideal goals of spiritual and
social peace, which the critics and reformers pressed and which some knights
must have accepted, were, Ô¬Ānally, incompatible with the widespread worship
of prowess.32 Obviously, if war is the highest expression of prowess, the best
opportunity for prowess, knights need war. When in romance a knight brings
peace to some castle, region, or kingdom, that martial achievement usually
spells the end of prowess there and thus the end of interest; the romance
Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot, 72‚Ä“7.
Brereton, tr., Froissart, 243‚Ä“5. Froissart reports that some thought the disturbance was the
revelling of devils delighted at the souls they would win for hell that day.
29 See Whiting, ‚Ä˜Vows of the Heron‚Ä™, 263‚Ä“4.
30 Taylor, ‚Ä˜Critical Edition‚Ä™, 18‚Ä“19, quotation at ll. 457‚Ä“8: ‚Ä˜N‚Ä™est ce grant martire / Qui a tel
31 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 194‚Ä“5. William of Palerne, in a fourteenth-century
English romance, calls out to his men not to Ô¬‚ee, even if they are afraid of the enemy: see Bunt,
ed., William of Palerne, l. 3343. He wants them to think of their lovers instead: l. 3370.
Burns, in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xvi, says the prose romances ‚Ä˜attempted to combine the
irreconcilable interests of earthly chivalry and military conquest with the spiritual quest for peace‚Ä™.
One example of the paradox: near the end of The Death of King Arthur Arthur laments unthink-
able losses in battle with Mordred: ‚Ä˜Ah! day, why did you ever dawn, if you were to reduce the
kingdom of Great Britain to such great poverty when its heirs, who are lying here dead and
destroyed in such suffering, were so renowned for prowess?‚Ä™ If these losses are unusually great, the
prowess praised at the end of his statement, of course, requires battles. Cable, tr., Death of King
Arthur, 221; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 245‚Ä“6.
Knighthood in Action 167
moves on to the next adventure, the next setting for prowess, the next battle
zone. ‚Ä˜That day they rode in peace,‚Ä™ says the author of the Merlin Continuation,
‚Ä˜Ô¬Ānding nothing that one should record in a story‚Ä™.33 Fighting for peace is
acceptable to these professional warriors only so long as there is no real dan-
ger of a surfeit of peace; they could scarcely cheer any smothering of chances
for displays of prowess that so well repay their hard efforts in the bright
coinage of honour (and in other coinages as well).
Yet reforming voices raised in the interests of peace can also be heard in
chivalric literature, at least as a brake on enthusiasm. They never draw on fear,
nor on the reluctance we know prudent commanders felt about risking all in
open battle. The ideals usually come, instead, from the world of clergie.
When Chr√©tien de Troyes presents a world weighed down by the hero‚Ä™s fail-
ure to ask the Fisher King questions which would have cured him and restored
his paciÔ¬Āc rule, he reveals a cursed land that seems to be afÔ¬‚icted by war:
Do you know what we must withstand,
if the king cannot hold his land
and for his wounds obtains no cure:
The married women will endure
their husband‚Ä™s deaths, lands will be wrecked,
and orphaned maids will live abject,
with many deaths among the knights,
calamities and other plights.34
In the anonymous Perlesvaus which picks up Chr√©tien‚Ä™s unÔ¬Ānished story, the
link is explicit: because Perceval failed in his moment of trial, ‚Ä˜all lands are now
rent by war; no knight meets another in a forest but he attacks him and kills
him if he can‚Ä™.35 As if to ensure that his point has registered, the author repeats
the link of grail curse, war, and universal violence shortly thereafter: the curse
means that ‚Ä˜all lands were engulfed by war; whenever a knight met another in
a forest or glade they would do battle without any real cause‚Ä™.36
A hermit in the continuation of the Perceval by Gerbert says that ‚Ä˜God did
not make knights to kill and to make war on people, but to uphold justice and
defend Holy Church‚Ä™. How knights are to achieve these high professional
goals in an imperfect and violent world without killing and making war is, of
course, not speciÔ¬Āed. Yet peace is praised. Perceval‚Ä™s last secular act in this
romance, before retiring from the world as a hermit, himself, is to give an
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 249; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 292.
Cline, tr., Perceval, ll. 4675‚Ä“87.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 27; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 38.
Bryant, Perlesvaus, 35; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 50.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
extended peace to the land: ‚Ä˜Perceval remained in his own land and for seven
years he held it in peace, free of war, untroubled by any man.‚Ä™37
Sometimes the wickedness and sheer lack of wisdom in Ô¬Āghting Christian
against Christian is stressed. Girart‚Ä™s war with King Charles in Girart de
Roussillon, is stopped by divine intervention: God sends a great storm and the
banners of both sides are symbolically destroyed by Ô¬Āre.38 Several characters in
this chanson get the message and speak out for the peace God obviously wants;
Galeran de Senlis advises the king that one who Ô¬Āghts a long and unjust war
must pay for it. The former enemies are soon, however, hard at work Ô¬Āghting
side by side against pagan foes, Slavs, Saxons, and Frisians.39 In The Story of
Merlin, Queen Guinevere argues the same line, after a tournament at her wed-
ding has got out of hand: the knights, she says, should save their prowess for
the Saxons and not waste it in destroying one another.40 This same advice was
given to the kings of England and France in the closing years of the fourteenth
century by Philippe de M√©zi√®res: they must think whether they want to appear
before the throne of divine judgement with blood dripping from their Ô¬Āngers
‚Ä˜through following the advice of your knights, nurtured in bloodshed‚Ä™.41
Could the fears have been even more comprehensive? R. Howard Bloch‚Ä™s
argument for a general, brooding fear about the social cost of warfare in early
chivalric literature can be extended throughout the literature of the entire
chivalric era.42 This persistent countercurrent, however thin and infrequent,
suggests either that at some subliminal level the fear of violence gave knights
themselves some second thoughts, or that some authors were speaking their
own minds to the necessary but dangerous warriors. Whoever wrote the Vows
of the Heron (likely to have been someone interested in the peace and prosper-
ity needed by the commercial society of the Low Countries) produced a
‚Ä˜grimly satirical‚Ä™ text early in the Hundred Years War. This biting parody of
chivalric vows of wartime prowess links the knights with ‚Ä˜unsuccessful, mean
or revolting acts‚Ä™ by an author ‚Ä˜who realized that only peace could bring pros-
Less savage but equally interesting critiques appear in better-known texts. If
Cador speaks out powerfully against the softening effects of peace in Geoffrey
of Monmouth‚Ä™s History of the Kings of Britain, his successors Wace and
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 266, 301. Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 166.
See ibid., laisses 184, 186, 190. In fact, a leitmotif of this poem is the cost of starting and con-
tinuing wrongful war.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 352; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 333.
Coupland, ed., tr., Letter to King Richard II, 90. He at one point calls the warriors sharp-
toothed locusts, at another leeches who so greedily suck the lifeblood of the poor that they burst:
Bloch, Medieval French Literature and Law.
Analysed, with full textual citations, in Whiting, ‚Ä˜Vows of the Heron‚Ä™.
Knighthood in Action 169
Lawman give a short but powerful answering speech in praise of peace to no
less a Ô¬Āgure than Gawain.44 The Mort Artu, written a century later, regularly
cautions against the danger of ‚Ä˜a war which will never come to an end‚Ä™, the war
which in fact destroys the Round Table by the end of this romance.45 Nearly
two centuries later, Malory carried the theme forward in the monumental clos-
ing section of his Morte Darthur. He pictures Arthur reduced to tears as he
mutters, ‚Ä˜Alas, alas, that ever yet thys warre began!‚Ä™46 The knights who support
Lancelot in this struggle know the cost: ‚Ä˜in thys realme woll be no quyett, but
ever debate and stryff, now the felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn.‚Ä™ And
Lancelot himself, undergoing the transformation that marks his character both
in the Mort Artu and here, declares that ‚Ä˜better ys pees than allwayes warre‚Ä™.47
Warning statements may be more indirect, and partial, yet even more dra-
matic. In an unforgettable scene in the Perlesvaus, Perceval drowns his
mother‚Ä™s enemy, the Lord of the Fens, by suspending him upside-down in a
vat of his own knights‚Ä™ blood, to allow the man Ô¬Ānally to get enough of the
blood of knights for which he has seemingly longed. The result is a land with
untroubled joy. Yet Perceval has, just before this, responded to his mother‚Ä™s
pleas for a more peaceful solution with a Ô¬Ārm dictum: ‚Ä˜ ‚ÄúMy Lady,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúit
is thus: you must make war on the warlike and peace with the peaceful.‚ÄĚ ‚Ä™48
Conduct of War
Could one not argue, however, that in the inevitable warfare of early European
history chivalry functioned as a restraining force, that war on its sliding
medieval scale of possibilities‚Ä”from the dispute of two lords over a mill to the
dispute of two kings over a province‚Ä”was less horriÔ¬Āc because its key practi-
tioners were knights? As John Gillingham and Matthew Strickland have
shown, chivalric ideals may indeed have made Ô¬Āghting less barbaric for the
knights themselves. Gillingham has argued strenuously that a reduction in
torture and killing of prisoners came with the advent of chivalry. Strickland
suggests even more broadly a lessening of the horrors of war for the knights;
Thorpe, tr., Geoffrey of Monmouth, 231‚Ä“2; Arnold, ed., Brut de Wace, 562‚Ä“4; Allen, tr.,
Lawman, Brut, 318.
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 114, 117, 123; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 114, 118, 125.
Vinaver, ed., Malory.Works, 691. The line also appears more than once in the Stanzaic Morte
Arthur, on which Malory drew. See Benson, ed., King Arthur‚Ä™s Death, e.g., ll. 2204‚Ä“5, 2442‚Ä“3.
Lancelot often expresses a desire for peace late in this romance, e.g. ll. 2498‚Ä“9, 2596‚Ä“603. Even the
lords of England are said to complain that ‚Ä˜Arthur loved nought but warring‚Ä™: l. 2975. In her last
conversation with Lancelot, Guinevere urges that he ‚Ä˜keep thy reme from war and wrake‚Ä™ and
decries a world with ‚Ä˜nought, / But war and strife and batail sore‚Ä™: ll. 3666, 3720‚Ä“1.
Benson, Morte Arthur, 699, 701.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 151‚Ä“2, 150; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus. 234‚Ä“5, 232.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
despite their martial culture, medieval warriors tried to limit the occurrence
and mortality of serious combat, granted truces and respites, treated prisoners
well, and ransomed rather than massacred them.49
Chivalric literature, especially from the thirteenth century, supports the idea
of a lively concern about the proper way knights should treat each other when
they Ô¬Āght. Since single combats or small group encounters are pictured in
romance, the writer may have tournament in mind as much as the chaos of
battle.50 The focus is on taking unfair advantage of another; the use of horses
in combat is a topic of special importance. Can one Ô¬Āght an unarmed or inad-
equately armed opponent? Is an opponent‚Ä™s horse a legitimate target? Should
a mounted man attack one already unhorsed? Should a mounted man ride his
great warhorse over an enemy knocked Ô¬‚at on the ground?51
Chr√©tien de Troyes, near the end of the twelfth century, tells his readers that
Yvain and the Storm Knight ‚Ä˜fought most honourably‚Ä™ because neither strikes
his opponent‚Ä™s horse.52 Early in the next century, the biography of William
Marshal tells the vivid story of William, fully armed and acting as rear-guard
for Henry II, confronting Richard the Lion-Heart, unarmed and in active pur-
suit of his father. When Richard pointed out the disparity to William, the
Marshal simply disabled Richard‚Ä™s horse with his lance.53 The courtesy here,
certainly the prudence, lay in not striking at Richard himself. In The Marvels of
Rigomer (written about the same time), important characters‚Ä”and sometimes
the author himself‚Ä”speak out against the idea of several Ô¬Āghting against one,
claiming that knights in their day simply Ô¬Āght to win, but that in the good old
days such practice was considered felony.54 Gawain, the hero of this text, is
said to want to defeat an opponent using nothing but ‚Ä˜strict chivalry (droit
chevalerie)‚Ä™.55 Le Bel Inconnu takes the same line, declaring that in the good old
days knights fought one-to-one, but now twenty-Ô¬Āve will attack a solitary
Over the next several decades the vast cycle of romances based on Lancelot
and the Grail provides repeated discussions of ideal martial behaviour. When,
in the Merlin Continuation, Gawain Ô¬Āghts a knight at a ford, and knocks him
John Gillingham, ‚Ä˜Introduction of Chivalry‚Ä™; Strickland, War and Chivalry.
A point of view in agreement with Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 20.
The examples that follow are largely drawn from Old French literature. For many examples
drawn from Middle English texts, see Gist, Love and War, 155‚Ä“90.
Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 855‚Ä“8. Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 8803‚Ä“49.
Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 45, 84‚Ä“5, 184; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 1995‚Ä“2007,
Foerster, Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 11501‚Ä“3.
Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de B√Ęg√©, ll. 1011‚Ä“24, 1066‚Ä“82, 5818‚Ä“21. The editor and
translator suggest a date ‚Ä˜from 1191 into the Ô¬Ārst quarter of the thirteenth century‚Ä™ (p. xii). The elu-
sive nature of any ‚Ä˜golden age‚Ä™ of chivalry is once again evident in these passages.
Knighthood in Action 171
from his saddle, he is taught proper manners: ‚Ä˜Either come down on foot,‚Ä™
shouts the dismounted man, gripping his lance, ‚Ä˜or you will cause your horse
to be killed; then you will be completely humiliated.‚Ä™ Though Gawain with
one blow splits the man‚Ä™s head like a melon, he has accepted the dictum.57
Having learned, he teaches. Not long after, when Morholt, who had unhorsed
him, charges him on horseback, he cries out, ‚Ä˜Morholt, if you don‚Ä™t dismount,
you‚Ä™ll make me kill your horse, for which the blame will be mine and the shame
yours.‚Ä™ Morholt accepts the admonition at once, exclaiming, ‚Ä˜You have just
taught me a courtesy so great that I will observe it all my life, provided I am
not in too bad a situation.‚Ä™58 The reform quality of the passage is as clear as the
prudent qualiÔ¬Āer, which clings to it like a burr.
This same romance pictures Arthur, having unhorsed Pellinor, voluntarily
dismounting to Ô¬Āght on foot, ‚Ä˜something no one had yet done in the kingdom
of Logres, although later many a valiant man would do it‚Ä™.59 Such basic lessons
are preached repeatedly: not only do good men disdain mounted advantage,
they refuse to Ô¬Āght several against one, and (as Lancelot instructs Mordred)
they will not Ô¬Āght, armed, against an unarmed man.60
Yet all these romances show somewhat more ambiguity on the question of
riding over prostrate opponents. The valiant Bors rides his horse over a
Ô¬‚attened opponent, for example, until the trampled man yields. Even Lancelot
can appear graciously dismounting to Ô¬Āght an unhorsed enemy in one passage
and then shortly thereafter ride over another‚Ä™s body ‚Ä˜until he had completely
broken it‚Ä™ so that ‚Ä˜the knight fainted in his great agony‚Ä™.61 Debate and ambi-
guity continue through the texts of the post-vulgate cycle of romances.62 A
similar tension can be found in Malory‚Ä™s Morte Darthur.63
On one aspect of knightly Ô¬Āghting chivalric literature is quite unambiguous:
the standard display of all-important prowess takes the form of combat on
horseback, at least as long as the knights could keep their saddles. Malory has
Sir Lamerok say to his brothers, unhorsed on the sixth day of the great tour-
nament at Surluse:
Bretherne, ye ought to be ashamed to fall so of your horsis! What is a knyght but whan
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 231; Paris and Ulrich, eds, Merlin, II, 84‚Ä“5.
Asher, Merlin Continuation, 272; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 375.
Asher, Merlin Continuation, 179‚Ä“80; Paris and Ulrich, Merlin, II, 191. These ‚Ä˜later‚Ä™ displays of
courtesy have, of course, actually already appeared in romances that preceeded this one in date of
E.g. Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 44, 61, 93; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 152, 221, 347; IV, 69;
V, 207‚Ä“8; Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 130; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 257.
Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 44, 34‚Ä“5; Micha, Lancelot, II, 152‚Ä“3, 116‚Ä“17.
See, e.g., Asher, Merlin Continuation, 13, 17, 27‚Ä“8; Quest, 190, 275; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift,
42, 53, 76; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 361; Piel, ed., Demanda, 396.
Examples can be found in Stroud, ‚Ä˜Malory and the Chivalric Ethos‚Ä™, 336.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
he is on horseback? For I sette nat by a knyght whan he is on foote, for all batayles on
foote ar but pyllours in batayles, for there sholde no knyght fyghte on foote but yf hit
were for treson or ellys he were dryvyn by forse to fyght on foote. Therefore, bretherne,
sytte fast in your sadyls, or ellys fyght never more afore me!64
This link between a focus on mounted prowess in all ideological statements
and the changing role of heavy cavalry in actual combat provides us with a fact
of considerable importance. Many scholars have argued that chivalry began to
take on recognizable form at roughly the time a basic set of changes appeared
in the favoured mode of Ô¬Āghting. Mounted shock combat had arrived.65 With
feet planted in sturdy platform stirrups and lance Ô¬Ārmly tucked under the arm,
an individual knight or a thundering line of knights could be expected to
deliver the decisive blow on the tournament Ô¬Āeld or the battleÔ¬Āeld. In fact,
such a charge delivered at lance point all the combined force of man and
mount. Two lines of such units clashing produced a roar of battle so deafen-
ing that, as one medieval writer after another swears, ‚Ä˜you could not hear
We now know that the dominance of heavy cavalry on medieval battleÔ¬Āelds
was much less total than was once thought.67 Moreover, war typically took the
form of the less-than-heroic raid, or the grind of siege operations, and even set-
piece battles might depend on dismounted knights rather than the sweeping
cavalry charge, pennons snapping in the wind. The knights themselves, most
famously the English in the course of the Hundred Years War, could Ô¬Āght with
much success on foot. Some of the most famous engagements of even the
twelfth century had been won by dismounted knights.68 Moreover, specialist
footmen with crossbows and eventually with longbows, engineers with
increasingly powerful forms of counterweight artillery, throwing ‚Ä˜stinking
Greek Ô¬Āre‚Ä™69 or sizeable projectiles, sappers with humble picks and shovels‚Ä”
all actually formed essential elements of military victory.70
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 408. This same knight is surprised when Palomides wants to
Ô¬Āght him on foot: ‚Ä˜hit wolde beseme a knyght to juste and to fyght on horsebacke‚Ä™ (p. 367).
A discussion of the classic thesis of Heinrich Brunner, with an emphasis on the signiÔ¬Ācance
of the stirrup, appears in White, Medieval Technology, 1‚Ä“38.
See comments in D. J. A. Ross, ‚Ä˜Pleine sa hanste‚Ä™, and idem, ‚Ä˜L‚Ä™originalit√© de ‚ÄúTuroldus‚ÄĚ ‚Ä™.
See especially DeVries, Infantry Warfare.
Strickland, War and Chivalry, 23; Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 19‚Ä“20.
Muir, tr., Capture of Orange, 113; R√©gnier, ed., Prise d‚Ä™Orange, l. 1118.
For the most recent and thorough overviews, see Prestwich, Armies and Warfare; Strickland,
War and Chivalry; Bachrach, ‚Ä˜Caballus and Caballarius‚Ä™. The actual breeding of suitable horses is
explored in R. H. C. Davis, Medieval Warhorse; the relationship between military technology and
military service in Ayton, Knights and Warhorses.
Knighthood in Action 173
Yet the powerful strata of medieval society maintained and projected in the
literature they patronized a belief in the superiority of the mounted warriors
who were chivalry.71 The Lancelot do Lac, playing with cheval and chevalier,
states that when knighthood originated ‚Ä˜as the Scriptures reveal, no one was
so bold as to mount a horse, if he was not a knight; and that is why they were
called knights‚Ä™.72 In his equally mythical account of the origins of chivalry,
Ramon Llull places the choosing of the horse as the knight‚Ä™s characteristic
beast immediately after his account of the selection of the knight for his char-
One literary passage after another links chivalric ideology with mounted
shock combat. Boson, in Girart de Roussillon, we learn, is ready to Ô¬Āght any-
one, once he was on his horse.74 Having discovered the liaison between his
queen and Lancelot, Arthur, in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, pragmatically
doubts if Lancelot can be taken ‚Ä˜Yif he were armed upon his steed‚Ä™.75 The
author of the Perlesvaus tells us that Lancelot, besieged by robber knights in a
hall, ‚Ä˜would have cared little for their threats if he had had his horse with him,
but in combat he was not so sure of himself on foot as on horseback, nor has
any good knight ever been‚Ä™.76 Being Lancelot, he, of course, accounts for him-
self well, breaking out of the hall, cutting off the leg of one of his mounted
opponents at the thigh, and getting the essential horse, ‚Ä˜and at once he felt
more assured‚Ä™.77 If we want a real-life parallel‚Ä”though with a less successful
conclusion‚Ä”we need only consider Richard Maluvel, a twelfth-century
Scottish knight, who did marvellous feats of arms in a battle at Alnwick: ‚Ä˜As
long as he was on his horse he feared nothing; he had a splendid horse and he
was splendidly accoutred; but once his horse was slain, he promptly surren-
Horses are, of course, signiÔ¬Ācant characters in early chivalric literature;
those ridden by heroes are often named and may be as individualized as any
other character. Aliscans, for example, features Vivien‚Ä™s horse which even
The same mounted self-image appears in manuscript illuminations and on seals. As Ayton
points out, the illustrations in the Ellesmere manuscript shows the knight and squire mounted not
on the palfreys they would have routinely ridden, but on their status horses, the great beasts they
would ideally ride into battle: Knights and Warhorses, 31‚Ä“2. Rezak surveys chivalric use of seals in
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 53; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 143. This text
mentions in passing a signiÔ¬Ācant bit of imagined chivalric history, the Ô¬Ārst appearance of a
warhorse covered in protective iron. Corley, ibid., 384; Kennedy, ibid., 550.
Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 15. He later feels compelled, signiÔ¬Ācantly, to remind
his reader that chivalry lies not in horse and arms, but in the knight himself: p. 114.
Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, ll. 6289‚Ä“90.
Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, l. 1751.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 135; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 206.
Bryant, Perlesvaus, 139; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 213.
Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 328. Michel, ed., tr., Chronicle, ll. 1878‚Ä“86.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
understand‚Ä™s the hero‚Ä™s conversation.79 In more than one story about William
of Orange, the great hero Ô¬Āghts with an interesting mixture of motives: the
desire to defeat pagans threatening Christendom and the desire to possess his
opponent‚Ä™s marvellous horse.80 Two centuries later the register of the Black
Prince provides the proud names of some of his destriers: Grisel de Cologne,
Morel de Burghersh, Bayard de Brucell, Bayard Dieu.81 Such horses possess
equine prowess. In Yder we hear warhorses captured by the hero making a ter-
rible racket as they neigh and try to injure one another.82 In the alliterative
romance William of Palerne, the warhorse that had served the hero‚Ä™s father rec-
ognizes the returning son, bows down on its forelegs before him, and carries
him proudly into battle, conscious of the knight‚Ä™s valour.83
French knights seem to have prided themselves on a particular act of
knightly horsemanship, quick turns for a second charge against a surprised foe.
Turning ‚Ä˜in the French style‚Ä™ is mentioned admiringly in more than one chan-
son de geste.84
The author of the Mort Artu (a man much interested in tactical details)
informs his readers that King Arthur, on his way to the climactic battle against
the traitor Mordred, wisely went at a pace that would not tire the warhorses
for the critical moment of battle.85 Whoever wrote The Story of Merlin was like-
wise fascinated with horses and comments closely on the details of mounted
The staple of all combat in all chivalric literature, of course, is the encounter
of two mounted knights, lances ‚Ä˜straight out‚Ä™ in the words of the Chanson de
Roland.87 Many thousands of these combats appear in works that were listened
Ferrante, tr., Guillaume d‚Ä™Orange, 201; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 35. Don Pero Ni√±o‚Ä™s
biographer asserts that ‚Ä˜horses [have] been found that in the thick of battle have shewn themselves
as loyal to their masters as if they had been men‚Ä™. They are so ‚Ä˜strong, Ô¬Āery, swift and faithful, that
a brave man, mounted on a good horse, may do more in an hour of Ô¬Āghting than ten or mayhap
a hundred could have done afoot‚Ä™: Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 11. He later describes such
a horse, ridden by his hero against the Moors. Hit by many stones, the horse half-wheeled, caus-
ing Pero Ni√±o to feel shame at turning from his foe. But the horse, ‚Ä˜which was gallant and loyal,
returned to the charge, feeling the will of its rider, amd thrust itself into the midst of the Moors‚Ä™:
80 Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 77. In the Crowning of Louis, William likewise covets his
pagan opponent‚Ä™s great horse: see Hoggan, tr., Crowning of Louis, 15; Langlois, Couronnement de
Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 30‚Ä“1. Adams, ed., tr., Romance of Yder, 76‚Ä“7.
Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 3282‚Ä“95.
Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 199, 206. Muir, tr., Song of William, 195; Suard, ed.,
Chanson de Guillaume, 204.
Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 205; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 226.
E.g. Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 240; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 135: ‚Ä˜Right away the
squires ran to put their armour on. They got on their horses and lined up by rows and then
squeezed right together, just as the knights showed them to do.‚Ä™ This text and others provide
numerous battleÔ¬Āeld scenes which turn on procuring horses for unhorsed comrades.
Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, l. 1204.
Knighthood in Action 175
to or read for centuries. Audiences seemingly never tired of the details: one
lance pierces shield, hauberk, and body; or both lances splinter spectacularly,
perhaps leaving the two knights unhorsed and temporarily dazed, soon to rise
and go at each other with their sharp swords. Tens of thousands of lines of
poetry and later of prose are devoted to the variations on this pattern. The rare
comic scenes only make the same point more obliquely: the huge pre-knightly
Rainouart in the William of Orange cycle mounted on a charger for the Ô¬Ārst
time‚Ä”backwards‚Ä”or learning the economical use of the sword as opposed to
his beloved but rather undiscriminating club (which crushes both the enemy
and his valuable horse).88 In literature, chivalry Ô¬Āghts its battles with lance,
shield, and sword astride a cheval. Virtually every problem that arises in the
great bulk of chivalric literature is solved by the outcome of such encounters.
The yawning gap between ideal and practice seems signiÔ¬Ācant. If knights
often‚Ä”and by the later Middle Ages increasingly‚Ä”fought on foot, but appear
without fail as mounted Ô¬Āghters in chivalric literature, is this not a good case
for discounting the evidence of imaginative literature? In fact, though the lit-
erary portrayal is not a guide to battleÔ¬Āeld practice in this regard, it is assuredly
an important window into chivalric mentalit√©. The evidence of romance is, we
should note, redoubled by that of historical writing (Froissart, the Chandos
Herald) and of manuscript illumination (Sir Geoffrey Luttrell in the Luttrell
Psalter): in all representations of themselves knights want to be seen mounted
on great chargers, a noble man atop a noble beast, literally above common-
ers.89 Purveying this image must have been considerably more important than
getting the particulars of battle right.
Moreover, the image was less far off than might seem, if we think of the
entire range of deeds in a life of prowess and not just moments of full-scale
battle. Tournaments Ô¬Ālled more days than such battles and usually meant a
classic mounted encounter. Even during campaigns jousts √† outrance were
fought before or in place of battle, as individual knights or small groups chal-
lenged each other to these ‚Ä˜jousts of war‚Ä™, lovingly described by chroniclers and
biographers. Hunting, too, meant horsemanship, another species of prowess,
another active display of lordship. Even funerals make the Ô¬Ānal point, as one
or more caparisoned warhorses preceded the warrior‚Ä™s body in procession.90
The literary accounts may also reveal a congruence in timing between
romance writing and military technique. Michael Prestwich suggests that after
some signiÔ¬Ācant experience of Ô¬Āghting on foot in the twelfth century, English
Muir, tr., Song of William, 196; Suard, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, 206; Wienbeck et al., eds,
Aliscans, 251, 261.
89 Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 13, provides the scene from the Luttrell Psalter.
90 Ayton provides a good discussion in Knights and Warhorses, 20‚Ä“39.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
knights became reluctant to dismount on thirteenth-century battleÔ¬Āelds. They
had to relearn a willingness to Ô¬Āght on foot in warfare with the Scots in the
early fourteenth century.91 The Ô¬‚ourishing of chivalric literature and the set-
ting of its conventions would Ô¬Āt nicely into this chronology. The physical,
social, and military superiority of the knight atop his huge warhorse could eas-
ily have become a Ô¬Āxed theme in the heyday of the writing of chivalric works.
Looting and Destruction
If chivalry made warfare better for knights, what of everyone else? Historians
have long been tempted to believe that knights tried to limit damage to non-
combatants; some have attributed the horrors of medieval warfare to common
soldiers who could simply not be regulated by their social superiors in brighter
armour.92 What does the ‚Ä˜historical‚Ä™ and ‚Ä˜literary‚Ä™ evidence show?
In the second half of the twelfth century the poetry of Bertran de Born glo-
ries in the very opportunities for looting non-combatants that war brings the
knightly. Hoping that strained relations between Richard the Lion-Heart and
Alfonso de Castile will bring war in the late twelfth century, he writes, in
words that have become well known:
Trumpets, drums, standards and pennons and ensigns and horses white and black we
soon shall see, and the world will be good. We‚Ä™ll take the usurers‚Ä™ money, and never a
mule-driver will travel the roads in safety, nor a burgher without fear, nor a merchant
coming from France. He who gladly takes will be rich.93
His poetry joins other works that show the knight‚Ä™s hand holding the torch
that Ô¬Āres peasant homes, bourgeois shops, even churches. Bertrand declared
that ‚Ä˜War is no noble word when it‚Ä™s waged without Ô¬Āre and blood‚Ä™.94 The
English king Henry V agreed; speaking three centuries later he declared that
‚Ä˜War without Ô¬Āre is like sausages without mustard.‚Ä™95 This sentiment was far
from theoretical: accounts of one fourteenth-century English chevauch√©e after
another show that English commanders seldom denied themselves their mus-
tard while campaigning in the French countryside. We also know that the
royal Ô¬‚eet which carried Edward III and his army to Brabant in 1338 indis-
Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 317‚Ä“19.
Idealist writers of the time could hope the same; Philippe de M√©zi√®res wrote in 1395 that
‚Ä˜countless ills and cruelties . . . occur in war, against and outside the laws of chivalry‚Ä™: see
Coupland, Letter to King Richard II, 52‚Ä“3, 126.
Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 398‚Ä“9.
Ibid., 358‚Ä“9. He says in another poem; ‚Ä˜War wants you to shed blood and set Ô¬Āre and never
avoid giving, or tire of it‚Ä™ (pp. 454‚Ä“5).
Quoted in Gillingham, ‚Ä˜Richard I‚Ä™, 85.
Knighthood in Action 177
criminately plundered merchant shipping in the Channel.96 Private wars in all
ages regularly caused widespread arson.97
This association of warfare with destruction by Ô¬Āre appears as a common-
place in many chansons. Near the end of the twelfth-century Coronation of Louis,
William of Orange hopes that his seemingly endless Ô¬Āghting for king and
Christendom may be over: ‚Ä˜But that was not to be for as long as he lived, for
the Frenchmen took to rebelling again, making war against each other and act-
ing like madmen, burning down towns and laying waste the countryside. They
would not restrain themselves at all on Louis‚Ä™s account.‚Ä™98 In the Chanson
d‚Ä™Aspremont, Girart, Duke of Burgundy, refers to such local warfare almost
casually in a speech to his knights:
If my neighbor starts a quarrel with me,
With Ô¬Āre burns my land to cinders;
And I, his, on all sides;
If he steals my castles or keeps,
Then so it goes until we come to terms,
Or he puts me or I put him in prison;99
‚Ä˜Then so it goes.‚Ä™ Girart is simply recalling the facts of raid, arson, and counter-
raid at home, as a contrast to the great battle to the death they are facing now,
against a pagan host.
The language of Raoul de Cambrai speaks to the same subject with charac-
teristically brutal clarity: ‚Ä˜Then they cross the boundary of Vermandois; they
seize the herds and take the herdsmen prisoners; they burn the crops and set
Ô¬Āre to the farms.‚Ä™100
Girart de Roussillon, another chanson, presents the same picture, although
with greater epic exaggeration. When Fouque, speaking for Girart, warns
King Charles that his baronial style of war is to burn every town, hang every
knight, and devastate every land taken, the royal response is to promise even
worse by way of revenge. When the sage Fouque stays in an abbey while on a
mission to the king, he is so pleased with their hospitality that he gives the
monks a revealing promise: the bourg where the monastic house is located will
not be destroyed or ruined in the coming war.101 As warfare goes on for years
in this chanson, the knights cut down vines and trees, destroy wells, and turn
See Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 98, and the sources cited there. Though only
one example from among hundreds, this case is interesting because ships of all nationalities
suffered‚Ä”not simply those of the enemy.
E.g. the raid discussed in ibid., 82‚Ä“3.
Hoggan, tr., Crowning of Louis, 56; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 83.
ll. 5012‚Ä“17; my translation. Kay, ed., tr., Raoul, laisse 59.
Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, 113, 121‚Ä“2.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
the land into a desert; they pillage and destroy even churches and monasteries.
One monastery goes up in Ô¬‚ames with a thousand royalist refugees inside.
Those captured in the war, the poet tells us, are hanged or mutilated. Charles
later claims that Girart has killed or wounded 100,000 of his men and that he
has ravaged and devastated his realm: ‚Ä˜His great valour is only wickedness
(mauvaistez).‚Ä™ Merchants who hear a false report of Girart‚Ä™s death respond
with joy, since his war always heaped evils upon them. Fleeing from the victo-
rious king at the nadir of his fortunes, Girart and his wife must endure similar
maledictions from a widow and daughter in a household which lost knightly
father and son in Girart‚Ä™s war. Even Girart‚Ä™s wife tells him that he has killed
and despoiled more men than he can reckon, earning the rebuke of God. King
Charles is not spared criticism himself, however; the Bishop of Saint-Sauveur
rebukes the king for having burned 10,000 churches on his own, causing
monks and priests to Ô¬‚ee. In his sermon denouncing the war, late in the poem,
the pope tells the warriors that God is angry; they have burned churches and
their clergy; they have caused great suffering among simple folk; they have
destroyed towns and caused great sorrows. They must make restitution for
their own souls and those of their ancestors. At the end of his life, Girart,
thinking about making Ô¬Ānal amends, proposes grants to support 500 poor
people and 1,000 monks; but he hears that it is not enough, for he has driven
100,000 people from their homes and his father‚Ä™s earlier warfare has actually
killed no fewer.102
Epic exaggeration, of course. Yet the knightly role in warfare appears much
the same in works traditionally classiÔ¬Āed as romance. Despite its fashionably
classical setting, the Eneas attributes knightly warfare to imagined Trojans and
Latins. The Trojan knights ‚Ä˜dispersed the peasantry, who were not trained for
battle,‚Ä™ sacked a nearby castle, and ‚Ä˜set out for home, gathering booty from the
countryside. They plundered and seized everything and they burdened a thou-
sand sumpter horses with wheat.‚Ä™103
Two knights in William of England enthusiastically conduct war against the
lady whose lands border those of their lord, not knowing that this lady is their
mother. Confronting them before she learns of their identity, the mother
curses the two knights, damning the day they were born. They have, she
claims, killed her men or held them for ransom, harassed her to the point of
death, ravaged her land so that nothing worth six pennies remains standing
outside fortiÔ¬Āed spots. ‚Ä˜They waged the entire war. They are the most evil on
earth.‚Ä™ Of course, once she learns the two are her sons, all is forgiven. William,
Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisses 113, 121, 283, 320, 356 (especially ll. 5528‚Ä“31), 413‚Ä“15,
521, 525, 633 (the pope‚Ä™s sermon, especially from l. 9384), 606.
103 Yunck, tr., Eneas, 125‚Ä“31: Grave, ed., Eneas.
Knighthood in Action 179
her husband, has already told them that their warfare has been at once treach-
erous (to their mother) and loyal (to their lord). The contradictions in
knightly warfare could scarcely be presented more starkly.104
Such estimates of the warfare conducted by knights are common. In the
Didot Perceval Arthur‚Ä™s men land in France ‚Ä˜and ran through the land and took
men and women and booty and you may be sure that never before had a land
been so dolorous.‚Ä™105 In the Chevalier du Papegau we encounter ‚Ä˜a great cry and
noise made by people Ô¬‚eeing before a knight who was laying waste to all the
The language itself can be instructive. In more than one romance, war
appears in the telling guise of a great and destructive storm. Early in Chr√©tien‚Ä™s
Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion, a frightening storm descends whenever any
knight pours water over a stone at a magic spring. When the Storm Knight,
defender of the spring, chastises Calogrenant for causing the storm, he speaks
the language of knightly war:
Vassal, greatly have you
shamed and injured me, without proper challenge.
You ought Ô¬Ārst to have challenged me.
if you had just cause,
or at least sought amends,
before you brought war against me. . . .
He who is injured has the right to complain;
and I complain and with justice,
that you have driven me from my house
with lightning and rain;
you have wronged me
and cursed be he who Ô¬Ānds it good,
for against my woods and my castle
you have levelled such an attack
that great towers and high walls
would have been of no avail to me. . . .
But know from now on
you will have no truce or peace from me.107
After Yvain has killed the Storm Knight, Lunete counsels her widowed lady,
Laudine, to seek advice on how to defend the spring, for failure will bring
Staines, tr., Romances of Chr√©tien de Troyes, 486, 488; Holden, ed. Guillaume d‚Ä™Angleterre, ll.
Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 71‚Ä“2.
Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 14; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du papegau, 14.
Kibler, tr., Knight with the Lion, ll. 491‚Ä“516. The Old French crackles with legal terminology
of deÔ¬Āance, plaint, etc.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
utterly destructive war.108 Laudine presents this view to her court through her
seneschal, in justiÔ¬Ācation of her decision to marry her husband‚Ä™s conqueror:
My lords, war is upon us:
not a day passes that the king isn‚Ä™t
making preparations as fast as he can
to come lay waste to our lands.
Before these two weeks are over
everything will be laid waste
unless a good defender be found.109
Near the end of the romance, Yvain‚Ä™s own words again explicitly link the storm
and war. He decides that to win back his lady‚Ä™s affection he will return
and wage war at her spring;
and there he‚Ä™d cause so much
thunder and wind and rain
that she would be compelled
to make her peace with him.110
William of England identiÔ¬Āes war with storm in even more explicit fashion.
During a terrifying storm at sea, the author says the four winds are at war, act-
ing ‚Ä˜as do lords of the land who burn and ravage castles for their pleasure‚Ä™. This
comparison is possible, says the poet, because the lords ‚Ä˜devastate the world,
just as the winds devastate the waves‚Ä™.111
This impressionistic linkage of knightly violence with at least quasi-natural
forces also appears in the pedestrian Chevalier du Papegau. Arthur, here a
young hero, confronts a hideous Ô¬Āsh-knight who grows his own armour as a
monstrous hide. This creature‚Ä™s approach causes a commotion ‚Ä˜as great as any
storm‚Ä™, and in the course of the Ô¬Āght he whirls like a tornado through Ô¬Āelds
and meadows. After defeating him, Arthur and his friends trace the monster‚Ä™s
trail to the sea where a Ô¬Āerce storm batters the search party so severely they fear
for their lives.112
In the continuation of Chr√©tien‚Ä™s Perceval by Gerbert de Montreuil, and in
the Perlesvaus, the dread Knight of the Dragon besieges his enemies, ‚Ä˜destroy-
ing castles and cities and knights and whatever he can attack‚Ä™, not only with a
mortal army, but with a shield which features a Ô¬Āre-spewing dragon‚Ä™s head as
a boss; he consumes his opponents with this sulphurous medieval forerunner
Kibler, tr., Knight with the Lion, ll. 1627‚Ä“9, 1640‚Ä“1.
Ibid., ll. 2085‚Ä“91. Ibid., ll. 6524‚Ä“9: the verb is guerroier.
Staines, tr., Romances of Chr√©tien de Troyes, 478‚Ä“9; Holden, ed., Guillaume d‚Ä™Angleterre, ll.
Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 14‚Ä“25; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du papegau, 14‚Ä“24.
Knighthood in Action 181
of a Ô¬‚amethrower, supplied, we Ô¬Ānd it no surprise to learn, from the arsenal of
This popular Perceval legend connects war to a haunting and socially com-
prehensive image‚Ä”the terre gaste, the land laid waste.114 In his Perceval,
Chr√©tien pictures entire regions desolated by knightly warfare. The beautiful
BlancheÔ¬‚or tells Perceval, who seeks lodging in her castle, that she has been
besieged ‚Ä˜one winter and one whole summer‚Ä™. Her garrison of 310 knights has
been cut down by violent death and capture to 50. This terror is the work of
‚Ä˜one knight: Clamadeu of the Isles‚Ä™ cruel seneschal Anguingueron‚Ä™. His siege
has produced a veritable wasteland in this region:
For if, without, the youth had found
the Ô¬Āelds were barren, empty ground,
within there was impoverishment;
he found, no matter where he went,
the streets were empty in the town.
He saw the houses tumbled down
without a man or woman there.
The town was wholly desolate.115
The initial setting of the poem lies in the forest soutaine, the ‚Ä˜lone and wild for-
est‚Ä™, to which Perceval‚Ä™s mother has Ô¬‚ed from the chaos and warfare that swept
the land following the death of Uther Pendragon, the future King Arthur‚Ä™s
father. With her husband badly wounded and Perceval‚Ä™s two elder brothers
both slain on the very day they were made knights, Perceval‚Ä™s mother hopes to
keep him from the world of knightly combat. The Ô¬Ārst time he utters the word
knight she falls in a faint.116
Chivalric biography is even less reticent about the realities of knightly war-
fare. The Chandos Herald, writing the life of the Black Prince late in the four-
teenth century, tells his readers how his master‚Ä™s host behaved between the
Seine and the Somme during their invasion: ‚Ä˜the English to disport themselves
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 245‚Ä“55; idem, tr., Perlesvaus, 153, 162‚Ä“4; Williams and Oswald, eds,
Gerbert de Montreuil, ll. 8906‚Ä“10153; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 237, 250‚Ä“4. Such texts
remind us that in many minds strong, intuitive bonds linked war‚Ä”on any scale‚Ä”and Ô¬Āre, its
inevitable accompaniment, with hellÔ¬Āre and demons.
Bloch, Medieval French Literature.
Cline, tr., Perceval, 51‚Ä“2, ll. 1749‚Ä“55, 1773; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval. The continuator
Gerbert of Montreuil thought that the devastation of a siege would be so complete that
Gorneman, BlancheÔ¬‚or‚Ä™s kinsman, could scarcely recognize her land when he saw it restored to
prosperity: ‚Ä˜Gorneman was bewildered, for he had not been there since Clamadeus had laid waste
the land and the country all around; but now it was as splendid a sight as you have heard from my
description‚Ä™: Bryant, Perceval, 229.
Bryant, Perceval, 1‚Ä“7; Roach, Roman de Perceval, ll. 69‚Ä“634.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
put everything to Ô¬Āre and Ô¬‚ame. There they made many a widowed lady and
many a poor child orphan‚Ä™.117 It is helpful to remember that this passage
appears in a laudatory life, setting forth the prowess and piety of Edward, the
Black Prince, son of Edward III.
Nearly two centuries earlier, the biographer of William Marshal, it is true,
pictured William, during the burning of Le Mans, helping a woman drag her
possessions from her Ô¬‚aming home; William nearly suffocated on the smoke
which entered his helmet. But the action was scarcely typical of the times or
even of the hero‚Ä™s life. The biography tells us that the mature William advised
Henry II to delude the French king into thinking he had disbanded his army,
but then to carry devastation into French territory. Of warfare between Henry
II and his sons, the biographer observed that many places in his day still
showed the scars of that war. These scars, in other words, had yet to heal after
Chronicles, less concerned with the mix of prescription and description than
imaginative literature, point speciÔ¬Ācally and repeatedly to knights as the bane
of their author‚Ä™s hopes for a more orderly life. The historian Matthew Paris
tells a striking story of Hubert de Burgh leading a troop harrying the lands
belonging to King John‚Ä™s enemies in England; looting as thoroughly as they
could and destroying what they could not carry off, even churches seemed fair
game. But then Christ himself appeared to Hubert in a dream, admonishing
him to spare and worship the cruciÔ¬Āx when next he saw it. The very next day
a priest whose church was being looted ran up to Hubert carrying a large
cruciÔ¬Āx. Remembering the warning, Hubert fell to his knees, adored the cross,
and restored the looted goods to the priest.119 Such worthy restraint led to the
telling of the story; the common practice, of course, looms in the background.
Orderic Vitalis tells an even more striking story in Book XII of his
Ecclesiastical History. His account deserves quotation in full, for the unfor-
getable picture it paints is worth many words of more abstract analysis. On a
raiding expedition which yielded an important prisoner and much booty,
Richer de Laigle ‚Ä˜did something that deserves to be remembered for ever‚Ä™:
While country people from Grace and the villages around were following the raiders
and were planning to buy back their stock or recover it somehow, the spirited knights
(animosi milites) wheeled round and charged them, and when they turned tail and Ô¬‚ed
continued in pursuit. The peasants had no means of defending themselves against a
‚Ä˜Mais les Englois poier iaux esbatre / Misent tout en feu et a Ô¬‚ame. La Ô¬Ārent mainte veve
dame / Et maint povrae enfant orfayn‚Ä™: Pope and Lodge, eds., The Black Prince, ll. 236‚Ä“9.
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 2193‚Ä“2222. Unvarnished accounts of devastation also appear promi-
nently in the Ô¬Āfteenth-century biography of Don Pero Ni√±o: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight.
Paris, Chronica Majora, III, 290‚Ä“1, cited and discussed in Cazel, ‚Ä˜Religious Motivation‚Ä™,
Knighthood in Action 183
mailed squadron and were not near any stronghold where they could Ô¬‚y for refuge, but
they saw a wooden cruciÔ¬Āx by the side of the road and all Ô¬‚ung themselves down
together on the ground in front of it. At the sight Richer was moved by the fear of God,
and for sweet love of his Saviour dutifully respected his cross. He commanded his men
to spare all the terriÔ¬Āed peasants and to turn back . . . for fear of being hindered in some
way. So the honourable man, in awe of his Creator, spared about a hundred villagers,
from whom he might have extorted a great price if he had been so irreverent as to cap-
Not seizing the bodies of the peasants whose homes he has already looted (out
of respect for the potent symbol of the cross) earns him the adjective hon-
ourable or noble (nobilis); indirectly, Orderic speaks volumes about ordinary
practice.121 Not that he is reluctant to speak his mind directly. Often he
describes casual brutality outright. In the course of feudal warfare carried on
right through the holy season of Lent, Count Waleran, ‚Ä˜raging like a mad boar,
entered the forest of Bretonne, took prisoner many of the peasants he found
cutting wood in the thickets, and crippled them by cutting off their feet. In this
way he desecrated the celebration of the holy festival rashly, but not with
impunity.‚Ä™122 Orderic describes the followers of Robert, the future Duke of
Normandy, as ‚Ä˜of noble birth and knightly prowess, men of diabolical pride
and ferocity terrible to their neighbours, always far too ready to plunge into
acts of lawlessness‚Ä™.123 Of lords such as Robert of Bell√™me and William of
Mortain, he writes, ‚Ä˜It is impossible to describe the destruction wrought by
vicious men of the region; they scarred the whole province with slaughter and
rapine and, after carrying off booty and butchering men, they burnt down
houses everywhere. Peasants Ô¬‚ed to France with their wives and children.‚Ä™124
When this same Robert fought with a neighbour, Rotrou, over the boundaries
of their lands, Orderic says:
they fought each other ferociously, looting and burning in each other‚Ä™s territories and
adding crime to crime. They plundered poor and helpless people, constantly made
Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 250‚Ä“1.
The author of Girart de Roussillon tells us, with disapproval, that Girart and Boson slaugh-
tered a hundred knights gathered around a wayside cross in search of sanctuary during battle.
Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 413. The poet says God turned the war against Girart‚Ä™s
side after this.
Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, VI, 348‚Ä“9. Ibid., III, 102‚Ä“3.
Ibid., VI, 58‚Ä“9. This description might be compared with the actions of the giant knight
Malduit who ravages the land because Yvain has insulted his shield: ‚Ä˜He rode wherever he thought
he might Ô¬Ānd people, knocking down tents and pavilions and shelters, destroying whatever he
encountered, killing knights and ladies and maidens, sparing only the dogs‚Ä™: Kibler, tr., Lancelot
Part V, 175‚Ä“7; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 250‚Ä“61. Malduit appears to be a symbol of knightly war;
the victims, however, are here made exclusively knights and ladies, rather than villagers and
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
them suffer losses or live in fear of losses, and brought distress to their dependants,
knights and peasants alike, who endured many disasters.125
Knightly ferocity and brutal acquisitiveness likewise appear when we cross
the Channel. Outright private war was less likely in England, where it was for-
mally forbidden by law, but some English knights took every opportunity that
crown weakness presented and did what they could at other times. William
Marshal‚Ä™s father, to take a well-known example, was during the civil war as
thoroughgoing a robber baron as any lord denounced by Orderic. William‚Ä™s
Histoire praises John Marshal as ‚Ä˜a worthy man, courtly, wise, loyal, full of
prowess (preudome corteis e sage . . . proz e loials)‚Ä™; it also shows him collaborat-
ing with a Flemish mercenary, dividing up regions of southern England for
exploitation like any MaÔ¬Āoso; it further tells us that at this time England knew
great sadness, great war, great strife, because there was no truce, no agree-
ment, no justice while the warfare lasted.126
The Anglo-Saxon chronicle similarly evaluated conditions in another part of
the country, East Anglia:
For every man built him castles and held them against the king; and they Ô¬Ālled the land
with these castles. They sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced
labour on these castles; and when the castles were built they Ô¬Ālled them with devils and
wicked men. By night and day they seized those whom they believed to have any
wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold and silver they
put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures. . . . When the
wretched people had no more to give, they plundered and burnt all the villages, so that
you could easily go a day‚Ä™s journey without ever Ô¬Ānding a village inhabited or Ô¬Āeld cul-
tivated . . . and men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.127
At the end of the fourteenth century even Froissart was still inserting into
his narratives admonitory tales of what happened to church violators. An
English squire who seized a chalice from a priest‚Ä™s hands at the altar in a raid
on the village of Ronay (and then gave the celebrant a backhanded blow to the
face) soon whirled out of control on the road and, screaming madly, fell with
broken neck and was reduced to ashes. His fearful companions swore never to
rob or violate a church again. ‚Ä˜I do not know whether they kept their promise‚Ä™,
Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 396‚Ä“7.
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 27, 31‚Ä“8, 63 on John Marshal, 125‚Ä“30 on the state of England. Crouch
says John and his men ‚Ä˜issued regularly from the deÔ¬Āles of those grey hills [of north-east
Wiltshire], demanding tribute and obedience from all those lowlanders who had no protection of
their own‚Ä™: William Marshal, 12.
127 Quoted in Davis, King Stephen, 83‚Ä“4. 128 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 162‚Ä“3.
Knighthood in Action 185
His contemporary, Honor√© Bonet, knew. In his famous Tree of Battles he
tells the French king that ‚Ä˜nowadays . . . the man who does not know how to
set places on Ô¬Āre, to rob churches and usurp their rights and to imprison the
priests, is not Ô¬Āt to carry on war‚Ä™.129 Far from protecting the helpless, the war-
riors loot them without mercy, ‚Ä˜for in these days all wars are directed against
the poor labouring people and against their goods and chattels. I do not call
that war, but it seems to me to be pillage and robbery.‚Ä™130 One is reminded of
Merigold Marches, the routier leader executed in Paris in 1391. He had seized
people for ransom, burned and looted in wartime France; his claim that he had
acted as one should in a just war was brushed aside; his crime was not the activ-
ities themselves, however, but simply that he, a mere mercenary, had lacked
proper status and authority.131
Chivalry brought no radical transformation in medieval warfare, as it
touched the population as a whole; above all, it imposed no serious check on
the looting, widespread destruction, and loss of non-combatant lives that
seem to have been the constant companions of warfare. Recent historical
scholarship suggests that we have no reason to think that chivalry should have
transformed war in this broad sense, nor that knights were somehow unchival-
rous cads for not attempting it. As a code, chivalry had next to nothing to do
with ordinary people at all.132
Yet knighthood needed to emphasize its own internal cohesion, its own man-
agement of the highly competitive force of prowess. From its origins, chivalry
had shown a collective dimension; it placed the particular knight within the
entire group or class of knights, all‚Ä”in idealistic plan‚Ä”living by something
like a common ethos. If chivalry was to be more than a purely individualistic,
even radically anarchic force, a corresponding military virtue was needed to
bind the individual to the collective ethos. That virtue was loyalty and it was
attached as Ô¬Ārmly as possible to prowess in chivalric ideology. Loyalty func-
tioned as the rudder which steered the great vessel of prowess into acceptable
Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 189.
Ibid. A few years later Philippe de M√©zi√®res called contemporary warriors leeches who
sucked the blood of the poor until they burst, though he piously hoped that the victims would be
better off, having less distracting wealth: Coupland, Letter to King Richard II, 58‚Ä“9, 132.
Discussed in Keen, Laws of War, 97‚Ä“100.
See, e.g., Strickland, War and Chivalry, passim; Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 1‚Ä“12,
231‚Ä“43; Hewitt, Organisation of War, 93‚Ä“140; Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 184‚Ä“269;
Keen, ‚Ä˜Chivalry, Nobility‚Ä™; Gillingham, ‚Ä˜War and Chivalry‚Ä™; idem, ‚Ä˜William the Bastard‚Ä™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
As this practical, working corollary to prowess, however, loyalty is easily
misunderstood as essentially political and highly idealistic. Beginning students
often mistake it for nothing short of steadfast devotion to king and country,
or to the church as a holy abstraction. We might better attach it to the broad-
est conception of law, intending by that term what it so often means in
literature: the entire body of beliefs that guide practice and provide self-
deÔ¬Ānition.133 In the Vulgate Cycle of romances, loyalty often means adherence
to the oath taken by all Round Table knights.134
We could almost say the focus of a knight‚Ä™s loyalty was chivalry itself, since
chivalry provided such guides, such an identity. ‚Ä˜A knight who is treasonous
and disloyal‚Ä™, announces a knight in the Lancelot do Lac, ‚Ä˜is one who has
renounced knighthood.‚Ä™135 A guilty knight brought to the point of death by
Lancelot, in the Lancelot, in effect begs for mercy by arguing that the hero
would be disloyal to chivalry to refuse: ‚Ä˜Noble knight, have mercy on me!
Indeed, it would be disloyal and brutal to kill me after I‚Ä™d admitted defeat and
begged for mercy.‚Ä™136 The danger lurking here, as so often, is a distorting
romanticization in which knights appear in pastel hues, fervently believing in
all the ideals, in each of the reform plans that emanated from the worlds of
clergie and royaut√©. Of course, knights were not unfailingly loyal to kings, not
endlessly obedient sons of Holy Mother Church, and seldom appeared in life
in pastel hues.
But they could show behaviour consistent with ideals of their own group
and thus behave predictably; they could be loyal, then, in the sense of being
held trustworthy both by their social and political superiors and inferiors (at
least down through the ranks of knights, that is). Adherence to the sworn
word, to obligation, is crucial to the reliability and predictability that stand at
the heart of loyalty. ‚Ä˜Sir knight,‚Ä™ says an old woman to Yvain in one of his
adventures, ‚Ä˜if there‚Ä™s any loyalty in you, keep your promise to me. . . . Truly,
if you were a knight, you wouldn‚Ä™t break your oath, even if it meant your
life.‚Ä™137 The statement could almost stand as a deÔ¬Ānition of loyalty, but it
scarcely stands alone. ‚Ä˜God help me,‚Ä™ Hector says to Marganor (who has
arranged a Ô¬Āght between one of his knights and Hector in the Lancelot), ‚Ä˜I
Roland, for example, speaks out ‚Ä˜following the law of chivalry (Dunc ed parled a lei de cheva-
lerie)‚Ä™: Brault, ed., Chanson de Roland, l. 752.
As noted by Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 9, n. 2. Examples appear in this text and in
other works in this cycle.
Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 222; see the same sentiment in Rosenberg, tr.,
Lancelot Part I, 91, Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 172. In the romance of Yder, Kei is said to
have no chivalric virtue because he lost it through disloyalty: Adams, ed., tr., Romance of Yder,
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 190; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 322.
Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 173; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 244.
Knighthood in Action 187
consider you a loyal knight because you made the knight respect the compact
you had with me.‚Ä™138 Lancelot is, of course, the great exemplar: returning from
the tournament at Pomeglai to hateful captivity, as he had promised, Lancelot
is greeted by Meleagant‚Ä™s worried seneschal as ‚Ä˜the most loyal knight in the
world‚Ä™.139 Lancelot even denounces Fortune as ‚Ä˜traitorous and disloyal‚Ä™, for
being so Ô¬Āckle, ‚Ä˜ever changing like the wind!‚Ä™140
‚Ä˜Loyal‚Ä™ is not surprisingly one of the most common terms of virtue applied
to knights in chivalric literature. The prowess of the loyal was exercised in the
proper manner and for the right causes; their violence was predictable as well
as praiseworthy. Pharian‚Ä™s nephew, early in the Lancelot, makes the link of loy-
alty and prowess explicit: ‚Ä˜disloyalty turns a good knight into a bad one, and a
knight who is true Ô¬Āghts well and conÔ¬Ādently even if he has never done so
before.‚Ä™141 A worthy opponent of Lancelot later in this romance echoes this
point of view clearly in the exact words we have already noted from the
Lancelot: ‚Ä˜A knight who is treacherous and disloyal is one who has renounced
knighthood.‚Ä™142 Gawain expresses surprise that a treacherous heart can show
great prowess.143 He heroically bears being bound and whipped by the evil
Caradoc in Lancelot, but ‚Ä˜almost went out of his mind‚Ä™ when he was called a
traitor, that is, when accused of disloyalty. Kay of Estral announces in this
same text, ‚Ä˜I have always feared being disloyal more than dying.‚Ä™ And Pharian,
in Lancelot, cautions Claudas against ‚Ä˜some act of disloyalty or treachery that
would lose him the honour of this world, towards which all prowess struggles,
and the honour of the other, everlasting one, which is the great joy of
Heaven‚Ä™.144 The author of the Lancelot even states that Meleagant‚Ä™s disloyal
nature spoiled his commendable prowess: ‚Ä˜he would have been quite valiant if
he had not been so disloyal.‚Ä™145
A great show of prowess is taken, conversely, to mean corresponding loy-
alty. Bors tells the model knights Claudin and Canart (captured in the war
against Claudas): ‚Ä˜in God‚Ä™s name . . . you will not be placed in chains or irons,
but keep your word on your honour as worthy knights, for the great prowess
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 190; Micha, ed., Lancelot VIII, 294 (a section of the romance
much concerned with issues of oaths and loyalty to obligations).
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 29; Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 221.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 187; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 302‚Ä“3.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 14. I have substituted the term ‚Ä˜knight‚Ä™ for the ‚Ä˜warrior‚Ä™ in
the translation, since this is what the text says.
Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 205.
Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 288; 314; Part I, 39.
Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 5 (using her footnote to alter the translation); Micha, Lancelot, II,
8‚Ä“9: ‚Ä˜kar preus estoil il ass√©s, s‚Ä™il ne fust si desloials‚Ä™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
God has given you would be put to ill use indeed if you committed any act of
disloyalty or treachery.‚Ä™146
In all these texts prowess and loyalty are bonded as solidly as prowess and
honour. This important fusion helped to create chivalry and give it great
strength. Yet chivalry itself was an ambivalent force where a peaceful life and
public order were concerned. Its strengthening did not radically transform the
general conduct of war as Europeans of all social ranks experienced it so boun-
tifully in these centuries.
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 314; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 147.
SOCIAL DOMINANCE OF KNIGHTS
M E N who possessed and exercised the right to Ô¬Āght and who enjoyed the
blessing of God on their hard way of life easily came to believe that they
were, or deserved to join, the social elite; they readily demanded recognition
of their rising status. Assertion of a right to social dominance thus provides
another crucial component for the fusion that made chivalry and gave it such
power in medieval society. Over time, knights rose in status and even the
nobility decided to wear the chivalric mantle.1
Chivalry and Nobility
The knights initially had to separate themselves from anything suggesting cul-
tivation of the soil and the smell of manure, for many of those who became the
knights were at Ô¬Ārst not fully and not always differentiated from villagers,
tillers of the soil, even the unfree.2 At the opening of our period, when a Ô¬Āght-
ing man was termed miles (plural milites)‚Ä”the word which will come to des-
ignate knight‚Ä”the meaning often carried a distinct sense of subservience and
could be used of warriors of rather low social status. Many owned no land and
few could have claimed to be possessors of political power.3 In fact, the term
miles in this early period had no clear connotation of status and referred sim-
ply to function. Yet over time knighthood fused with nobility as a result of
common military function, the decline of effective royal power over much of
The frame for current historical discussion was set by Duby, ‚Ä˜Origines de la chevalerie‚Ä™,
Chivalrous Society. General discussions in Keen, Chivalry, especially 18‚Ä“43, 143‚Ä“61; Coss, The
Knight; Crouch, Image of Aristocracy; Barber, Knight and Chivalry, 3‚Ä“46; Jackson, Chivalry, 37‚Ä“84;
Strickland, War and Chivalry, 19‚Ä“30, 143‚Ä“9; Flori, Essor de la chevalerie; Hunt, ‚Ä˜Emergence of the
Knight‚Ä™; Poly and Bournazel, Feudal Transformation; Barbero, L‚Ä™aristocrazia. Useful essays on par-
ticular subjects appear in Contamine, ed., La Noblesse au Moyen Age; Keen, Nobles, Knights; and
Duby, Chivalrous Society.
2 In a document from the decade before the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror
thought it necessary to specify that he was referring to ‚Ä˜free knights‚Ä™: Marie Fauroux, ed., Recueil
des actes des ducs de Normandie, cited in Strayer, Medieval Statecraft, 67. Many chansons de geste care-
fully specify that the knights are free men.
3 Strayer, Medieval Statecraft, 655‚Ä“9.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
continental Europe, the increasing valorization of knighthood via ecclesiasti-
cal efforts for peace and crusade, and the inÔ¬‚uence of romance literature.4
Though the process was far from uniform, in most regions of France knight-
hood and noble status began to fuse in the course of the twelfth century;
knighthood became the ‚Ä˜common denominator of the aristocracy‚Ä™.5 The rise of
knights was slower in German lands and took a different turn in England,
where a distinct legal nobility never emerged; in Italy it gradually accommo-
dated with swiftly reviving urbanism.6 But everywhere the right to commit
warlike violence whenever honour was at stake became a sign of superior sta-
tus; in time, it hardened into noble right over much of Europe.
By the early thirteenth century, The Romance of the Wings, a popular ver-
nacular manual for knights (c. 1210), says ‚Ä˜their name, rightly speaking, is the
true name of nobility‚Ä™.7 This century, as Maurice Keen notes, shifted emphasis
away from entry into knighthood via the ceremony of dubbing towards eligi-
bility via noble lineage.8
Works of literature show the conviction that chivalric qualities are rooted in
genetic inheritance. Ceremonies welcoming back Lancelot to the Arthurian
court (in the Lancelot) include a procession which orders the great men
‚Ä˜according to their valour and lineage‚Ä™.9 The assumption, of course, is that
these two scales exactly coincide. In fact, knights in chivalric literature who fail
to show the highest qualities may turn out to have a bad genetic line or other
ignoble formation. Antor assures Arthur in The Story of Merlin that Kay‚Ä™s
unpleasant ways must have come from the peasant girl who nursed him.10 In
The History of the Holy Grail from the same cycle, a bad knight, we learn, was
born ‚Ä˜the son of a vile peasant, descended from a bad line and bad seed‚Ä™. He
was not the king‚Ä™s son he had been thought to be.11 Inversely, Tor‚Ä™s prowess,
in the Merlin Continuation, proves his nobility; he was not the son of the peas-
ant who had raised him; his mother had been raped by Pellinor, a great chival-
ric Ô¬Āgure. Arthur has sensed the lineage from the start, as he tells Tor: ‚Ä˜I believe
that if nobility had not come to you from somewhere, your heart would never
have drawn you to something as exalted as knighthood.‚Ä™12
Flori, L‚Ä™Id√©ologie du glaive; Hunt, ‚Ä˜Emergence of the Knight‚Ä™.
The phrase used by both Bur and Ch√©deville, quoted in Contamine, La Noblesse au Moyen
6 Barber, Knight and Chivalry, 41; Larner, ‚Ä˜Chivalric Culture‚Ä™.
7 Busby, ed., Ordene de chevalerie, l. 39. 8 Keen, Chivalry, 143.
9 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 283; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 20. See Elspeth Kennedy, ‚Ä˜Quest
10 Pickins, tr., Story of Merlin, 214; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 84.
11 Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, I, 113; Sommer, Vulgate Version, I, 197.
12 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 225; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 208. Once Arthur has evi-
dence of Tor‚Ä™s prowess, he argues that ‚Ä˜the son of a cowherd and a peasant could not have had such
a noble start . . . heredity and true nobility have led and taught him in a short time‚Ä™: Asher, ibid.,
Social Dominance of Knights 191
The young Gawain, at the tender age of eleven, likewise shows heroic genes
at work. Standing by his father‚Ä™s graveside, he vows revenge on the killer, King
Pellinor, in terms that elicit much admiration: ‚Ä˜Please God, my lord, may I
never earn praise for knightly deeds until I have taken appropriate vengeance
and killed a king for a king.‚Ä™ Those within hearing marvel at his words, ‚Ä˜for
they were noble, especially for a child‚Ä™.13
Nobility was likewise proved by physical beauty. In their literature knights
portrayed themselves tirelessly as more beautiful than other mortals. A well-
proportioned body and a comely face identify the truly chivalrous, even if the
young man is unknown, in disguise, or in rags.
When the Lady of the Lake brings the young Lancelot to be knighted by
Arthur, the king at Ô¬Ārst resists her request to knight him wearing the armour
and robes she has provided; he only knights men dressed in his own robes, he
explains. Yvain, however, urges Arthur to make an exception: ‚Ä˜you mustn‚Ä™t
just let him go, not a Ô¬Āne fellow like this! I don‚Ä™t remember ever seeing such a
good-looking young man.‚Ä™ His advice is accepted and the Lady of the Lake
leaves Lancelot at court. Her parting advice to him links moral and physical
beauty with prowess: ‚Ä˜Take care to be as beautiful in your heart as you are in
body and limb, for you have as much beauty as God could bestow on any child
and it would be a great wrong if your prowess did not prove its equal.‚Ä™14
Some reality may even have supported the idea of superior physical form
among the chivalrous. Surely not every villager or townsperson was unattrac-
tive, but better diet, better living conditions, and the catalyst of conÔ¬Ādence
might have produced distinct physical improvements in appearance. In their
literature they are the beautiful people, the perfection of their bodies enhanced
by contrast with the dwarves who so regularly appear in their menial service
and who are usually as uncourtly in speech and manners as they are unlovely
As knighthood continued its social rise, the term knight even took on a
more restrictive meaning than the term noble. Knighthood, in the close sense
of those who had actually been dubbed and become active, strenuous knights,
became a minority, a subset, even among the nobility.
The case is clear from England. The number of men called knights in the
England of William the Conqueror stood at about 6,000; by the mid-
thirteenth century actual or potential knights numbered only about 3,000,
237; Roussineau, ibid., 251. Merlin reinforces the sentiment soon: ‚Ä˜if you were of peasant stock,‚Ä™
he tells Tor, ‚Ä˜the desire to be a knight would not have seized you, but nobility must show itself, be
it ever so deeply hidden.‚Ä™ Asher, ibid., 243; Roussineau, ibid., 272.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 199; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, I, 263.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 63; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 154; Micha, ed.,
Lancelot, VII, 269.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
with about 1,250 actually having been dubbed.15 Perhaps three-quarters of a
typical fourteenth-century English army was composed of men below the rank
of knight.16 The cost of the ceremony of dubbing, of horses, and more elabo-
rate armour restricted the group. Obligations to participate in local activities
of royal governance supply another reason, adding to the economic costs of
taking up knighthood the investment of time and the sheer bother of serving
on the judicial and administrative inquests so characteristic a feature of
In France, also, the cost of active participation in chivalric life rose, and the
number of dubbed knights fell accordingly; knighthood as a speciÔ¬Āc status
ceased to encompass all those who were recognized as noble. Fewer than half
the French nobles had actually been dubbed in the early fourteenth century.17
To read any documents relating to this nobility is to encounter many esquires
(damoiseaux) alongside the knights and great lords.18 Strenuous knights were
only a core of the medieval French nobility, as they were only a core of a
medieval French army. Such an army meant a small body of belted knights
accompanied by a much larger company of men-at-arms.19
Does this trend mean a waning of the inÔ¬‚uence of chivalric ideas? On the
contrary, the chivalric ethos in fact generalized to all who lived by arms,
whether of noble family or not; chivalry served as a source of inspiration even
beyond the ranks of lords and active, strenuous knights; it touched all men-at-
arms. In theory, chivalry might best be exempliÔ¬Āed in the conduct of those for-
mally noble or the practising milites, but several social rings beyond this inner
circle aspired to the status and beneÔ¬Āts it conferred.20
Christine de Pisan wanted the ideal of chivalry extended to all warriors.
Geoffroi de Charny endorsed the aspirations of those below the social level of
knights; the key to the honoured and honourable life inherent in chivalry, he
thought, ought to guide all who lived by the honest practice of arms.21 He
would have been less happy with the aspirations of those bourgeois families
that kept arms and armour and showed devotion to tournament and romance
Denholm-Young, ‚Ä˜Feudal Society‚Ä™. Prestwich suggests stability in numbers for a century
after the 1270s, followed by rapid decline: Armies and Warfare, 52.
16 Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 5, 228‚Ä“9. 17 Cazelles, Societ√© politique, 66.
Examples appear plentifully in Actes du Parlement.
Contamine, Warfare in the Middle Ages, 80‚Ä“6.
Keen, Chivalry, 145. He notes: ‚Ä˜The shift of emphasis away from the taking of knighthood
towards nobility of blood . . . clearly did not, in any signiÔ¬Ācant degree, undermine the conception
of the essential role of the secular aristocracy as being a martial one‚Ä™ (pp. 152‚Ä“3). Cf. Ayton, Knights
and Warhorses, 3‚Ä“6, and Ayton and Price, eds, Medieval Military Revolution, 81‚Ä“103.
On Christine, see the comment of Willard, ‚Ä˜Christine de Pisan‚Ä™, 511, and the passages quoted
at length from Christine‚Ä™s Le Livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V, in ibid., 518‚Ä“19. On
Charny, see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry: in his text Charny regularly praises and gives
advice to both knights and men at arms.
Social Dominance of Knights 193
literature.22 Yet their interest, too, makes the point, valuable for our enquiry,
that to all who wanted any share of power and inÔ¬‚uence, any recognition of
high status, showing signs of a chivalrous life was crucially important.
This fact would not be lost on those wearing mitres, tonsures, or cloth hats
rather than iron helms. A powerful show of prowess could add an accepted,
perhaps necessary layer of respectability to high status grounded in ecclesiasti-
cal ofÔ¬Āce or the unheroic possession of moneyed wealth. A town facing a for-
mal declaration of war by the lord of the nearby castle, a religious house
threatened or attacked by a knight who contested some monastic rights, a
bishop defending his rights as a great lord‚Ä”all would quickly appreciate the
power of chivalry as prowess, the valorization of vigorous action taken with
arms in defence of honour.
Public order was a problem of such urgency in high medieval society pre-
cisely, that is, because the capacity to use arms in this manner and a belief in its
efÔ¬Ācacy, even in its nobility, were such characteristic features at the top of soci-
ety. The Abbot of Saint-Nicholas-au-Bois presumably had such thoughts in
mind as he led an armed troop against the town of Crespy in Laonnais in the
early fourteenth century; as his troop attacked the outskirts of the town, cry-
ing ‚Ä˜Kill, kill! Death to the louts from Crespy!‚Ä™, the abbot wounded one man
with his own hand and then rode his horse over another.23 For their part,
French townspeople claimed the characteristic chivalric right to private war;
French knights indirectly recognized such rights by issuing formal challenges
of war against these collective lordships.24 The number of men who claimed
the social status of knighthood and who went to the wars as practising war-
riors undoubtedly declined during the Middle Ages; yet the code of knights,
with its strong focus on prowess as the key to honour, cast its mantle over a
widening circle of believers.
The Role of Largesse
Even as the knights soared far beyond any fear of identiÔ¬Ācation with mere rus-
tics, they still had to close ranks and watch another Ô¬‚ank as well. SigniÔ¬Ācant
social and economic change, as always, created problems with an existing hier-
archy: noble or knightly rank did not always equate with wealth.25 Given the
See, for example, the evidence provided by Juliet Vale, Edward III, 40.
Actes du Parlement, 6147.
24 Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 190, and sources there.
25 Honor√© Bonet thinks it necessary in 1387 to insist, in his famous treatise, that ‚Ä˜a knight must
not till the soil, or tend vines, or keep beasts, that is to say, be a shepherd, or be a matchmaker, or
lawyer; otherwise, he must loose knighthood and the privileges of a knight‚Ä™: see Coupland, ed.,
tr., Tree of Battles, 131.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
commercial and urban boom that so marked the High Middle Ages, knights
became more keenly aware of the need to establish distance between them-
selves and the elite townsmen. For the bourgeois were most anxious to join
them on the social summits and would take on identifying characteristics of
chivalry as swiftly as they were able. It proved impossible to keep them from
holding tournaments of their own, from showing coats of arms, from mar-
riage alliances with proud but impecunious knights. What could prevent them
from reading chivalric literature and imitating Ô¬Āne manners? Perhaps it was all
the more necessary to stress chivalric distance from such folk, as knights actu-
ally broke the code themselves, mingled with the middling classes, relied
on their loans, their commercial expertise and management, and married
their daughters.26 The great chivalric exemplar William Marshal worked at
proÔ¬Ātable urban development on his estates and was no stranger to London
moneylenders.27 The family of Ramon Llull, author of the most popular ver-
nacular treatise on chivalry‚Ä”which emphasized the link between nobility and
chivalry‚Ä”was only a few decades away from bourgeois origins in Barcelona.28
Of course the knights raised as many barriers as they could. The distance
between their exclusive, chivalrous life and the lives of the sub-chivalric bour-
geoisie could be clearly established by a quality tirelessly praised in all chival-
ric literature: only they could truly display the magniÔ¬Ācent, great-hearted
generosity known as largesse. This great virtue could then, especially in France,
appear in sharpest contrast to the mean-spirited acquisitiveness of the mer-
On this line, moreover, chevalerie and clergie could join forces. Images of the
bourgeoisie tainted by disgusting avarice and sinful usury appear frequently in
medieval art, as Lester Little has shown. All those with noble bloodlines could
agree, whether clerics or knights: Avarice looks like a merchant; he counts and
hoards his coins (when he is not depicted defecating them); he has assuredly
not learned to broadcast his wealth to the deserving with grand gesture,
conÔ¬Ādent that valour can always replenish the supply.29
The southern French poet Bertran de Born sings the praises of largesse and
links it with prowess and love. All these traits necessarily connect; they all sep-
arate the one who possesses them in his eternal youthfulness from ordinary
As noted by Keen, Chivalry, 147. Cf. Stanesco, ‚Ä˜Le chevalier dans la ville‚Ä™, and the numerous
sources cited there.
Crouch, William Marshal, 168‚Ä“70. Cardona, ‚Ä˜Chevaliers et chevalerie‚Ä™, 142.
Little, ‚Ä˜Pride Goes before Avarice‚Ä™. The more Ô¬‚uid social hierarchy in England and developed
urbanism in Italy made for differences, of course.
Social Dominance of Knights 195
Young is a man who pawns his property, and he‚Ä™s young when he‚Ä™s really poor. He
stays young while hospitality costs him a lot, and he‚Ä™s young when he makes extrava-
gant gifts. He stays young when he burns his chest and coffer, and holds combats and
tourneys and ambushes. He stays young when he likes to Ô¬‚irt, and he‚Ä™s young when
minstrels like him well.30
No miserly merchant need apply. In fact, townsmen are often pictured in
chivalric literature as fair game for the knightly lions, who will put the booty
to nobler use. The biography of the great William Marshal passes over his