ing merchants in glad war; but it does picture him taking money from a priest
who is running off with a lady of good family. The money which the priest
intended to put to usury William spends more nobly, as his biographer
proudly tells us, on a feast for a circle of knightly friends. His friendsâ™ only dis-
satisfaction with William is that he failed to take the horses as well.31
Largesse pointedly reinforces high social status in the early life of Lancelot.32
Out of innate nobility he gives his own horse to a young man of noble birth
who has been ambushed, his horse incapacitated: without Lancelotâ™s gift he
would miss a chance to confront a traitor in court. Lancelotâ™s generosity pre-
serves him from shame.
Meeting an aged vavasour shortly after, Lancelot politely offers him some of
the meat of a roebuck he has shot. The man, who has had poorer luck in his
own hunting, had been trying to put food on the wedding table of his daugh-
ter. Lancelot, learning that he is talking to a knight, tells him that the meat
â˜could not [be] put to better use than to let it be eaten at the wedding of a
knightâ™s daughterâ™. He graciously accepts the gift of one of the vavasourâ™s grey-
hounds in return. But Lancelotâ™s tutorâ”one of the sub-knightly, insensible to
such ď¬ne points of generosityâ”refuses to believe Lancelotâ™s truthful account;
he slaps the lad, and whips the greyhound. In a rage, Lancelot drives off the
man (and his three subordinates), promising to kill him, if he can catch him
outside the household of his patroness, the Lady of the Lake.33
The young Arthur gives another case in point. As claimant to the throne
(having pulled the sword from the stone), Arthur is shown â˜all kingly things
and things that a man might lust after or love, to test whether his heart was
greedy or graspingâ™. But he treats all these things nobly, giving them all away
appropriately. His actions win him regard and support: â˜They all whispered
Paden et al., eds, Poems of the Troubadour, 298â“9.
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 6689â“864.
See the discussion in Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot and the Grail, 15.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 30â“7; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 41â“7. Cf.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 20â“1; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 35â“40.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
behind their hands that he was surely of high birth, for they found no greed in
him: as soon as anything of worth came his way, he put it to good uses, and
all his gifts were fair according to what each one deserved.â™34
Clearly, this virtue sets men like Arthur apart from the grasping, retentive,
bourgeois, orâ”God forbidâ”from any among the nobles who might stoop to
such base behaviour. It is interesting to note that the scruffy townsmen and
their money appear only faintly and in the background in this literature,
almost as part of the scenery. They now and then put up knights for a tourna-
ment or house the overď¬‚ow crowd gathered for a colourful royal occasions;
they are called forth by the author to cheer when a hero frees a town from some
evil custom through his magniď¬cent prowess.
Of course largesse not only keeps the ambitious townsmen out of the club,
in the hands of a great lord or king it becomes a crucial buttress to dominance,
a tool of governance. Repeatedly in The Story of Merlin Arthurâ™s largesse to
poor, young knights secures their loyalty and provides him with armed force.
Early in his career, â˜[h]e sought out ď¬ghting men everywhere he knew them to
be and bestowed on them clothing, money, and horses, and the poor knights
throughout the country took him in such love that they swore never to fail him
even in the face of death.â™ After his forces have been joined by those of King
Ban and King Bors, â˜King Arthur bestowed gifts of great worth on those in the
two kingsâ™ households according to their rank, and he gave them warhorses,
saddle horses, and beautiful, costly arms . . . and they swore that never, ever in
their lives, would they let him down.35
Ideally, it was warfare, not simply the income from oneâ™s own vast estates,
that produced the wherewithal for such lavish generosity. After a great battle
with the Saxons, Arthur hands out all of the wealth garnered from them, and
he let it be known throughout the army that if there were any young knights who
wanted to win booty and would go with him wherever he would lead them, he would
give them so much when they came back that they would never be poor another day in
their lives. And so many of them came forward from here and there that it was nothing
short of a wonder, for many wished always to be in his company because of his open-
In his great encounter with Galehaut, an alarmed Arthur ď¬nds his knights
deserting him.37 The Wise Man explains the causes of this crisis and presents a
list of reforms which features a return to generosity: Arthur is to ride a splen-
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 215; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 87.
Pickens, Story of Merlin, 220, 223; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 96, 102.
Pickens, Story of Merlin, 300; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 242â“3.
When Arthurâ™s largesse lags early in the Perlesvaus, the knights similarly begin to drift away
from his court: see Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 26.
Social Dominance of Knights 197
did horse up to the poor knight and â˜give him the horse in consideration of his
prowess and the money so that he may spend freelyâ™; the social hierarchy must
be reafď¬rmed by a downward ď¬‚ow of largesse producing an upward ď¬‚ow of
loyalty; the queen and her ladies and maidens must likewise cheerfully show
largesse; all are to remember that â˜none was ever destroyed by generosity, but
many have been destroyed by avarice. Always give generously and you will
always have enough.â™38 This advice in romance reappeared in a bold motto on
the wall of the Painted Chamber in Westminster Hall during the reign of
Henry III: â˜He who does not give what he has will not get what he wants.â™39
In romance the goods were given out according to two scales, which, we are
not surprised to ď¬nd, always smoothly merged: high status and exemplary
prowess. Asked to distribute the loot taken from the Saxons at one point in
The Story of Merlin, Gawain defers to Doon of Carduel, explaining that â˜he can
divide it up and distribute it better than I can, for he knows better than I do
who the leading men are and the worthiestâ™.40
Sometimes the pious ď¬ction of funding knighthood with booty snatched
from the unworthy hands of pagans slips a bit. In the Lancelot do Lac Claudasâ™s
son Dorin looks remarkably like one of the disruptive â˜youthsâ™ whose role in
French society Georges Duby analysed so tellingly.41 Like these young men,
Dorin admits no check on his vigour and will, and spends with even less
The only child [Claudas] had was a very handsome, fair boy almost ď¬fteen years old,
named Dorin. He was so arrogant and strong that his father did not yet dare make him
a knight, lest he rebel against him as soon as he was able; and the boy spent so freely
that no one would fail to rally to him.42
Claudas, moreover, learns from his own brother by what means Dorin has
acquired the wealth he dispenses so grandly: â˜Dorin had caused great harm in
the land, damaging towns, seizing livestock, and killing and wounding men.â™
Yet Claudas plays the great chivalric lord even more than the indulgent father
in his response: â˜I am not troubled by all that. . . . He has the right, for a kingâ™s
son must not be prevented from being as generous as he may like, and royalty
cannot allow itself to be impoverished by giving.â™43 The attitude was, of
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 122; Elspeth Kennedy, ed. Lancelot do Lac, I, 288â“9.
Colvin, gen. ed., History of the Kingâ™s Works, I, The Middle Ages, 497: â˜Ke ne dune ke ne tine
ne prent ke desire.â™
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 243; Sommer ed., Vulgate Version, II, 140.
Duby, â˜Dans la France du Nord-Ouestâ™.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake; Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 15.
Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 38; Rosenberg, Lancelot Part I, 18. Claudas is a morally
complex ď¬gure in this romance; yet his advice here does not seem to contradict common practice
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
course, not limited to royalty, as many villagers and merchants in many cen-
turies of medieval European history could testify. Knightly prowess and
largesse went hand in hand throughout the countryside. Some feud, skirmish,
or war could regularly be counted on to provide opportunity for despoiling
the wealth available in ď¬elds or villages, or hoarded in merchantsâ™ town houses.
One of the ď¬ve villages attacked in a private war by Gilles de Busigny in 1298
lost (Robert Fossier estimated) the equivalent of 40,000 man hours of work
by a labourer such as a mason, roofer, or harvester.44 Loot from such raids
could be distributed grandly, and according to well-established rules, as
Maurice Keen has shown.45
Thus the great virtue of largesse is enabled by the great virtue of prowess.
Knights know how to get money and how to spend it. â˜Lords, pawn your cas-
tles and towns and cities before you stop making war!â™ Bertran de Born cries
out in one of his poems.46 Largesse falls like ripe fruit from the tree of prowess
into the strong hands of the worthy.
Might these two great chivalric qualities prove rivals? Competition usually
turns thin and unconvincing on close inspection. Largesse wins high formal
praise, for example, early in ChrĂ©tienâ™s CligĂ©s where it appears as the queen of
virtues enhancing all others; largesse by itself can make a man worthy, the old
Emperor of Constantinople tells the young hero Alexander, though nothing
else can (rank, courtesy, knowledge, strength, chivalry, valour, lordship).47 Yet
in this romance, as in so many others, the glittering prizes are won by prowess.
Not by largesse does Alexander win the battle outside Windsor, seize the cas-
tle itself, and earn the love of Soredamor; nor does his son CligĂ©s by largesse
defeat the nephew of the Duke of Saxony (and kill him in a later encounter),
unhorse and behead the Dukeâ™s most vigorous knight, foil the Saxon ambush
of the Greeks, rescue Fenice from her captors, defeat the Duke of Saxony in
single combat, carry off the prize in King Arthurâ™s great four-day tournament
(ď¬ghting even Gawain to a draw), and range all over Britain doing feats of
chivalry, before returning to the Eastern Empire and a ď¬nal triumph. In the
reception that Arthurâ™s knights give CligĂ©s after he has won the great tourna-
ment at Oxford, near the end of the story, they crowd around him in great joy,
telling him how much they value him, declaring that his prowess outshines
theirs as the sun outshines little stars.48
Fossier, â˜Fortunes et infortunesâ™. Keen, Laws of War.
Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 344â“5.
Luttrell and Gregory, eds., ChrĂ©tien de Troyes, ll. 192â“217,
Ibid., ll. 4983â“95. ChrĂ©tien is more willing than most writers of chivalric romance to allow
his characters to solve important issues by means other than sheer prowess. Cleverness, rather than
prowess, alone, effects the bond of CligĂ©s and Fenice at the end of ChrĂ©tienâ™s CligĂ©s; yet prowess
retains its importance.
Social Dominance of Knights 199
The Role of Chivalric Mythology (Revisited)
If the knights ď¬rst strode swiftly away from the rustics and then at least kept
the bourgeois at armâ™s length (while funding loyalty among fellow knights),
they always had the clerics to contend with as social rivals. The issue was com-
plicated, as we have already noted, by the clericsâ™ sacerdotal role and by the
close link they claimed with their supernatural chief. Yet thinking in pragmatic
and worldly terms, knights could never forget that the clerks often came from
the same social levels, even from the same families as they themselves; some
clerics, of course, could claim little or no status by birth.
Prudently and piously recognizing the essential clerical role in the economy
of salvation, the signiď¬cant voices of both Ramon Llull and Geoffroi de
Charny grant that the clerks merit high status in the world; both state outright
that the clerics form the highest order in Christian society. Each wants, how-
ever, to give chivalry a secure place, to yoke clergie and chevalerie as the twin
motive forces of their society. And Charnyâ™s statement of clerical superiority
has a somewhat formal ring; he soon betrays his sense that the great role
chivalry must play in the world gives it a special status. Like William Marshal
a century before, he is happiest when religion comes heavily blended with
chivalry; again in company with the Marshal, he most heartily endorses clerics
who perform all the needed rites and then stand aside for the magniď¬cent work
with sword and lance.
In fact, as Maurice Keen has emphasized, the knightly demonstrated their
autonomy vis-Ă -vis clerics by elaborating a chivalric mythology.49 It came
complete with stories of origins, lists of men worthy of reverence, and great
texts produced in language that was sometimes sonorous and solemn, some-
times wonderfully witty and sophisticated. We have seen that all this distinctly
lay culture functioned not so much as a form of anticlericalism as a complex
and autonomous borrowing and parallel process of creation, using clerical
symbolism to draw the veil of accepted piety over the rigours of knightly life.
Chapter 3 examined this mythology as evidence for the complexities of
knightly lay piety in the face of clerical claims to directive power. This mythol-
ogy also allows us to see related, knightly efforts to secure their social status in
the face of clerical claims as primary ordo in Christendom.
Valorizing ideas are important even if propaganda often is intended as much
to reinforce the morale of the group as to win over outsiders in debate. In
effect, the knights imagined a mirror version of the world as conceived by
clergieâ”that is, themselves in control and the priests reduced to specialist
Keen, Chivalry, 102â“24.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
(though necessary) functionaries. They posited an independent chivalric
mythology and learning (cast always in the most pious hues) standing along-
side if not actually in place of the clerical learning of the schools, with manly
violence ensuring all that is sound and sacred. This line of thought justiď¬ed
their self-assurance that the role of knights matched or even overshadowed
that of the less than heroic clerics, for all their claims. The task was not oner-
ous; they simply created an origin for chivalry as old or even older than that
claimed by the ecclesiastics for their own order.
ChrĂ©tien de Troyes imagined a genealogy of chivalry (virtually equated with
civilization) that reached back into classical Greek and Roman history.50
Anonymous works, like the Romance of Eneas, the Romance of Alexander, the
Romance of Troyes, pictured ď¬gures and events from ancient history and legend
in chivalric dress and spirit. The glory of the classical world stemmed in no
small measure from its ď¬ne chivalry.51 Knights contemporary to ChrĂ©tien
could trace their functional if not their biological lineage back to great heroes.
Precise deď¬nition (characteristic of high medieval Europe) came with the
famous Nine Worthies, unexcelled champions, extending chivalric roots
beyond the classical past into ancient Israel. Using sacred threes, writers pre-
sented three sets of three heroic knights: medieval (Arthur, Charlemagne, and
the crusader Godfrey de Bouillon); classical (Hector, Alexander, and Julius
Caesar); and Jewish (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus). This fusion of
Judaeoâ“Christian and classical history gave chivalry the most ancient and most
venerable lineage possible.52
Sometimes the same effect was achieved not by anchoring accounts of ori-
gins in historical time and personage, but by moving them outside of time. In
his vastly inď¬‚uential book on chivalry, Ramon Llull (who had been a knight
before he became a quasi-cleric) presented a human fall from virtue redeemed
by the creation of chivalry in just such a distant, misty past. To ensure order
and virtue, the human race was divided into thousands and the knight was
chosen as literally one out of a thousand as the most noble and most ď¬t to rule
The author of the Lancelot do Lac presents a similar account (probably the
model for Llull) in the form of advice given by the Lady of the Lake to the
Luttrell and Gregory, eds., ChrĂ©tien de Troyes, ll. 30 â“ 9.
Grave, ed., Eneas; James, ed., Romance of Alexander, a facsimile of the French manuscript;
Constans and Faral, eds, Roman de Troie, an abridged prose version of the original metrical French
There were local variants. Writing the life of Don Pero NiĂ±o in the late fourteenth century,
Gutierre Diaz de Gamez lists nine worthies with the classical trio omitted, Charles Martel substi-
tuted for Arthur, and three Castilian heroes added: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 8â“9.
Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 14 ff.
Social Dominance of Knights 201
young Lancelot, though here the myth is loosely attached to more standard
Christian chronology and to a somewhat surprising populism.54 Originally, all
men were equal, being offspring of one set of parents:
but when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome
justice . . . [and] the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong,
they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the
peaceful and to maintain their rights and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing
and outrageous behaviour.
Thus, knighthood was given to those who, â˜in the opinion of the common
peopleâ™, were most worthy; that is, to â˜the big and the strong and the hand-
some and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those
who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body.â™55
Similar qualities set apart noble knights in Christine de Pisanâ™s myth, laid
out in her account of the deeds of the French king Charles V. Once evil and
disorder entered the world, laws and various professional groups were formed
to provide structure and order. The knights came into being â˜pour garder et
deffendre le prince, la contrĂ©e et le bien communâ™ (to guard and uphold the
prince, the country, and the common good).56
The life of the great fourteenth-century Castilian knight Don Pero NiĂ±o
simply concentrates on how good ď¬ghting men (functionally equated with
nobles) were ď¬rst found. The â˜Gentilesâ™ and â˜the People of the Lawâ™ followed
different courses. The Gentiles ď¬rst relied on carpenters and stonemasons who
could give great blows in battle; but their courage and resolve failed, as did
that of the next group, the butchers, chosen because they were inured to blood
and slaughter. So a third group was chosen: those who were observed to be
resolute and strong in battle became the knights, their sons following them in
an hereditary and privileged concentration on ď¬ghting.57 Among the Jews,
nobility/knighthood originated differently, as the Old Testament shows. With
divine direction, Gideon chose an elite set of warriors: rejecting those who
drank with mouths in the water like animals, without shame, he chose the
good men who drank with their hands, guided by reason. As he assures his
readers, â˜noble renown is a matter beď¬tting knights and those who pursue
the calling of War and the art of Chivalry, and not any others whatsoeverâ™.
They are only a little lower than the angels, for God â˜has set three orders of
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 52; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142â“3.
Corley, Lancelot, 52; Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 142.
Solente, ed., Livre des fais, I, 111â“16, quotation at 116.
A little classical patina is added, as knights lead their thousands (a miles in charge of a mille)
and a duke, called a legionary, commands a legion of six thousand, six hundred and sixty men.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
knighthoodâ™: the angels who warred with Lucifer in heaven, the martyrs who
fought the good ď¬ght on earth and gave their lives for faith, and the good kings
and knights, for whom heaven will be the reward.58
More commonly, an author simply tells readers that Godâ™s will is manifest
in knightly origins. In the famous Sword in the stone episode (in The Story of
Merlin), the worthy archbishop explains to all who have seen the marvel of
Arthur drawing out the sword:
[W]hen our Lord established law and order on the earth, He set them in the sword.
The rule that was over the laity must come from a layman, and must be by the sword,
and the sword was, at the beginning of the three orders, entrusted to knighthood to
safeguard Holy Church and uphold true law and order.59
As we have seen, the Grail stories bring the knightly and priestly mytholo-
gies into much closer conjunction, integrating the account of chivalric origins
more fully into salvation history, in the process creating unmistakable and
signiď¬cant parallels. The History of the Holy Grail, for example, provided
knights with a non-ecclesiastical story of the coming of Christianity to their
own region, with much emphasis on the need for knightly virtues in ď¬ghting
for the Grail and the new faith.
In this and other prose romances which tell the Grail story, a powerful trini-
tarian formulation appears. Three fellowships, gathered round three tables,
have marked the history of the world, which means, of course, the history of
chivalry: the table of Christ and his disciples; the table of â˜that worthy man and
perfect knight, Joseph of Arimatheaâ™ (to whom the Grail was given); and,
ď¬nally, the Round Table of King Arthur. However tenuous this linkage may
seem to modern sensibilities, more than one romance draws this line from
Christ, through the ď¬rst Grail-keeper and the later Round Table fellowship to
the ď¬‚esh and blood knighthood of the High and Late Middle Ages.60
Perhaps fourteenth-century founders of chivalric orders such as the
English king Edward III or his cousin of France, John the Good, thought of
the fellowships they created as latter-day additions to this glorious tradition,
although it meant adding to the sacred three. In many minds another addi-
tion seemed sure. Certainly, many of those who wrote about chivalry,
Geoffroi de Charny prominent among them, looked forward to joining a
Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 4â“7.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 213; Micha, ed. Merlin, 271. The divergence from the usual cler-
ical theory of two swords is noteworthy here.
60 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 97â“9; Pauphilet, Queste, 74â“7; Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 4â“5; Hucher,
ed., Le Saint-Graal, I, 417; Pickens, Story of Merlin, 196â“7; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 54.
The quotation about Joseph comes from Matarasso, Quest, 151.
Social Dominance of Knights 203
ď¬nal chivalric fellowship at Godâ™s table in paradise, and spoke of heaven in
just such terms.61
Genealogies created for heroes of the Grail stories make a ď¬nal link between
myths of knighthood and the standard sacred history. Joseph of Arimathea, as
loyal burier of Christâ™s body in the New Testament accounts and ď¬rst keeper
of the Holy Grail in chivalric accounts, plays a crucial bridging role. The links
in the chain of Grail knights are formed by his successors as keepers of the
Grail or their close associates. Perceval, though his father is not named in
ChrĂ©tienâ™s Grail romance, becomes the son of Alain, a Grail-keeper, by the
early thirteenth century (in the Didot Perceval and the Perlesvaus). For Galahad,
who enters the tradition at about the same time, a more oblique attachment to
the main line had to be found. According to The Quest of the Holy Grail, after
divine commandment sent him away from Jerusalem, Joseph of Arimathea
met and converted a pagan king (who took the baptismal name Mordrain) by
helping him obtain Godâ™s aid in beating his enemy in battle. Mordrain
becomes one of the standard ď¬gures in the Grail stories and an important agent
in the mythical conversion of Britain. One splendid and pious knight begets
the next until Lancelot enters the world and, ď¬nally, through his union with
the daughter of the Fisher King (a Grail-keeper), the Good Knight Galahad
Chivalric literature, then, shows us in how many ways chevalerie both aped
and rivalled the pretensions of clergie. Moreover, this literature was in itself a
signiď¬cant body of learning, a key element in the collection of texts which
knighthood came gradually to set alongside the sacred texts controlled by the
priesthood. The tales of chivalric literature, after all, present themselves as his-
tory and claim the venerable authority owed to ancient accounts penned by
eyewitnesses; repeatedly, chivalric authors assure us such manuscripts stand
behind the thoroughly stylish, modern, versiď¬ed, or prose texts written in the
vernacular which they now presented to an appreciative audience in the form
of chanson or romanz.
Sometimes, the bridging, literate cleric responsible for the text is Turpin,
knight and archbishop. The Chanson dâ™Aspremont relates that Turpin witnessed
the important meeting between Girart and Charlemagne, and recorded it, in
Latin, while on horseback.62
But clericsâ”even when simultaneously knightsâ”are not always needed.
Pauline Matarasso describes the anonymous author of The Quest of the Holy
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 196â“9. After one of his escapes from temptation in
the Quest, Perceval prays that he may never â˜forfeit the company of His knights aboveâ™: Matarasso,
tr., Quest, 113; Pauphilet, Queste, 92.
Newth, tr., Song of Aspremont and Brandin, ed., Chanson dâ™Aspremont, laisse 232.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Grail as â˜most likely . . . one of that great army of clerks who wandered anony-
mously in that no-manâ™s land between the lay and ecclesiastical worldsâ™.63
Occasionally, authors of chivalrous learning are straightforward laymen, as
Geoffroi de Charny was. The heralds who rose with the institution of the tour-
nament and gradually won a secure place for themselves in chivalrous society
by the later thirteenth century were certainly laymen; Maurice Keen has
termed them â˜a lay priesthoodâ™ for the cult of chivalry â˜and an educated, liter-
ate lay priesthood to bootâ™.64
And we should note that from the early years of the thirteenth century this
historical mythology of chivalry was written, signiď¬cantly, in prose. This, as
E. Jane Burns has noted, â˜carried for many medieval writers a truth-telling
value absent from the rhetorical artiď¬ce of purely literary verse accountsâ™.65 The
medieval translator of the Chronique de Pseudo-Turpin, rendering that work
into French prose, declared ď¬‚atly, â˜No rhymed story is true.â™66
The authors of Arthurian and Grail stories, in other words, claimed histor-
ical authenticity and buttressed such claims time and again with careful
descriptions of the sure and certain manner in which their story got from
actual events to the written page. The knights themselves become authors in a
sense, for we are told more than once how they swore to recall all their adven-
tures on their return from the quest; Arthur had clerks to set them down in
detail in a book.67 Merlin is author of other parts of the tale, and is frequently
shown dictating the story to his clerk, Blaise.68 At some points â˜the storyâ™ even
asserts that it has been written by God or Christ himself.69 Merely human
authors include Walter Map, a ď¬gure at the court of the great king Henry II,
who was himself, of course, linked with the Arthurian legend.70
Perhaps the most powerful combination of authority, however, appears in
The History of the Holy Grail, whose author tells us not only that he has been
given his book from God, but that he has divinely learned of his own descent
from â˜so many valorous men that I hardly dare say or acknowledge that I am
descended from themâ™. This ideal combination, of course, unites divinity with
the demi-god prowess.71
Matarasso, tr., Quest, 27.
Keen, Chivalry, 142. For the importance of heraldry in general as a species of knightly learn-
ing see, pp. 125â“42.
In Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xvi. Quoted in Kelly, Perlesvaus, 18.
See, for example, Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 298, 406, 571; Pickens, tr., Story of
Merlin, 345; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 321; III, 227, 307, 429; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II,
126, 169, 238.
Pickens, Story of Merlin, passim; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, passim.
E.g. Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 4, 76; Hucher, ed., Le Saint-Graal, II, 13, 438.
See the comments of Burns, in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, Introduction.
Chase, History of the Holy Grail, 4; Hucher, Le Saint Graal, II, 12â“13.
Social Dominance of Knights 205
The Role of Formal Manners
As natural lay leaders in society, knights display the ideal behaviour to be
expected of them. They know just how to speak to each person in the elabo-
rate social hierarchy; they know when to speak, and when to fall politely silent.
They know how to receive orders as graciously as they accept hospitality or
ď¬ne gifts. They are now unmovably resolute, now overcome and swooning as
their ď¬ne emotions take hold. As if seated in an opera house, we may feel that
the measured gestures should be accompanied by music, the monologues and
choruses being sung to tunes we simply no longer hear.
Agreement on the importance of ď¬ne manners among medieval contempo-
raries is impressive. Non-ď¬ctional works of instruction for knights provide the
same point of view as that of so many works of imaginative literature. Yet so
much seeming agreement raises interesting questions.
We might especially ask about the origin and intent of all this tireless
emphasis on proper behaviour in various social settings and in dealings with
various social levels. Was this instruction an attempt by those outside the caste
to remake knights, to change their thinking and, in time, their behaviour? Did
knights themselves resist, only reluctantly accepting a somewhat cramped
framework for behaviour, or did they think that following such behaviour was
important to their social dominance? Did the concern for manners and courtly
behaviour actually civilize the knights in the exact sense of reducing their vio-
lence and integrating them into a more ordered society?
These are large questions that have attracted the attention of distinguished
scholars. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Johan Huizinga and
Norbert Elias pictured the rough warrior being slowly civilized as the early
modern gentleman.72 More recently, Stephen Jaeger has convincingly located
the origins of courtlinessâ”which would become so important in French
romance and in all the vernaculars it touchedâ”in the German court tradition
beginning in the tenth century.73 No one, moreover, would deny that basic
changes in aristocratic behaviour and aristocratic violence took place between
(say) the later tenth and the later seventeenth century.
Recognizing the force and attractiveness of all this work, it is possible to
consider chivalry at best as an unsteady ally of the complex forces at work
producing these great changes. The evidence brought into play in this book
reinforces a view that chivalry was no simple force for restraint.74 The worship
of prowess makes chivalry a poor buttress to a unilinear progressive view of
Huizinga, Autumn of the Middle Ages, Elias, The Civilizing Process.
Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.
I am developing this theme in a forthcoming article.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
civilization. In fact, the formally polite modes of behaviour seem less an intru-
sive check on knighthood than an expression of the knightsâ™ own high sense of
worth, of rightful dominance in society; good manners were less a restraint on
knightly behaviour than they were its characteristic social expression. These
forms of good behaviour, after all, informed the entire span of knightly life and
set it apart from anything common. Much knightly violence itself was
enthroned in good manners, not prohibited by them. As the anthropologist
Julian Pitt-Rivers wrote so succinctly, â˜the ultimate vindication of honour lies
in physical violenceâ™.75 The range of this good behaviour, as we have seen,
extended from bloody deeds of prowess on the ď¬eld of battle or in the tourna-
ment, through a piety which never lost its degree of lay independence, to
polite behaviour and correct speech among mixed company whether in a great
court or humble vavasourâ™s hall.
We need only think of the scene repeated hundreds if not thousands of times
in chivalric literature. A wandering knight comes conveniently to some castle
or fortiď¬ed house at the end of a hard day of riding and ď¬ghting. The knight
meets with a gracious reception from the good man in charge, who welcomes
him into his home with open-handed hospitality; the host inevitably has a
beautiful daughter who removes the knightâ™s armour, and dresses him in a soft
robe of ď¬ne stuff; they converse most politely while the tables are set and the
roast ď¬nishes. The next morning, after mass in the chapel, the knight is again
on his way to adventure, which quite often means freeing his hosts from some
dread peril which has become evident during his brief stay. In gratitude the
host offers the victorious knight his beautiful daughter, an offer which is
acknowledged with many thanks, but must be turned down with apologies
because of a pressing quest or an earlier claim on the knightâ™s heart.76
This scene celebrates the formal and superior chivalric manners under dis-
cussion. The knight is most polite in speech and action with everyone in this
setting, male and female, even the enemy whose defeat will free the gracious
host from an evil custom or a siege. Having unhorsed this enemy and hacked
him into submission, the knight rips off his foeâ™s helmet and turns down the
mail ventail (protecting the vulnerable throat), perhaps pounds the fellowâ™s
face a bit with the pommel of his sword; then, bloody sword blade at the
ready, he politely offers a choice of surrender or decapitation. If the foe yields,
the victor cuts not.
What scholars traditionally term courtoisie is much in evidence here, and in
all the knightâ™s social relations. The scene likewise indirectly praises the largesse
Pitt-Rivers, â˜Honour and Social Statusâ™, 29.
For a discussion of hospitality and good manners as aristocratic rites of uniď¬cation, see
ChĂŞnerie, Le Chevalier errant, 503â“91.
Social Dominance of Knights 207
of the host who freely gives what is his to the worthy knight. All show an inter-
est in amors. If the knight makes no sexual advances to the daughter (or resists
hers, if she is more forward) he has demonstrated loiautĂ© by not repaying his
hostâ™s good with ill. The mass heard in the castle chapel shows the hero is pius.
Even if no mortal combat is actually portrayed, from either wing of this
domestic stage set, like summer thunder, come the echoes of the knightâ™s
Sometimes courtliness and ď¬ne manners even seem subsumed within
prowess, despite our sense (rooted in etymology) that they represent gentler
virtues that internalize restraints.78 As Norman Daniel observes, â˜the sense of
cortois seems to extend to any expedient favourable to a knight. Giving freely is
aristocratic, and it is taking such an expedient brutally that makes it possible.â™79
William Marshalâ™s tactical advice that King Henry should pretend to disband
his forces but then secretly reassemble them and suddenly ravage French terri-
tory elicits from the king a telling compliment: â˜By Godâ™s eyes, Marshal, you
are most courteous [molt corteis] and have given me good advice. I shall do
exactly as you suggest.â™80 In the opening of his Yvain, ChrĂ©tien refers to Arthur
â˜whose prowess taught us to be brave and courteousâ™.81 When Perceval con-
verts the Coward Knight to prowess in the Perlesvaus, he gives him the new
name of Bold Knight, â˜for that is a more courtly name than the otherâ™.82 At one
point in the Lancelot do Lac Arthur rebukes Gawain for interrupting his reverie
at a meal; his thoughts were courtly because they were about a man of great
prowess: â˜Gawain, Gawain, you have shaken me out of the most courtly
thoughts I ever had . . . for I was thinking about the best knight of all men of
valour. That is the knight who was the victor at the encounter between
Galehot and me.â™83
Certainly any denial or neglect of the accepted forms will quickly acquaint
the miscreant with the cutting edge of prowess. Chivalric texts invariably note
that two honourable people meeting each other exchange greetings; any fail-
ure is a signiď¬cant event. Thus a squire riding disconsolate in the Lancelot
(troubled by the news that his brother has been slain) commits a serious
Burgess, Contribution, discusses several of these key terms, their interconnections, and shifts
in their meanings towards the mid-twelfth century.
See the discussions in Frappier, â˜Vuesâ™; Burgess, Contribution, 22â“34. As noted above, the
most recent study, with a different emphasis, is that of Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.
Daniel, Heroes and Saracens, 27. He notes that in the chansons, â˜Cortois is most often used as
an indeterminate epithet in praise of someone, with no meaning more speciď¬c than âcivilisedâ (in
an aristocratic way).â™
Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 7738â“69, discussed in Gillingham, â˜War and Chivalryâ™, 6.
Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 1â“3.
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 157; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 243.
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 255â“6; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 296â“7.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
offence when he neglects to greet another squire waiting before some tents he
passes; the offended squire attacks and mortally wounds him. A lapse of cour-
tesy has cost him his life.84
Denial of hospitality can easily be fatal if it touches Lancelot. Near the end
of the Lancelot, the hero seeks lodging in a pavilion, but is refused by the
maiden within, who tells him her knight will return and will object. He
announces he is staying regardless, for he has no other lodging. Her knight
does return, denies Lancelot hospitality, and orders him out with threats.
Lancelot arms and tells the knight he will die for this dishonour. His ď¬rst
sword stroke cuts off the manâ™s arm. Both the mortally wounded knight and
his lady faint. When the knightâ™s brother tries to take vengeance, Lancelot
stuns him with another great sword stroke, rips off his helmet, and beats him
nearly to death with it. He spares the manâ™s life on condition of pardoning him
for the death of his brother. It then emerges that there was a hermitage nearby;
the battered brother takes Lancelot there.85 For the audience of this romance,
was the point not that hospitality must not be denied?
Chivalric largesse, mythology, and reď¬ned manners certainly purveyed
social power. They created an image of knights as naturally superior to all
other laymen and on a par with the clerics; pious and appropriately violent,
they are splendidly reď¬ned in life and love.
These chivalric ideas, even if they sometimes seem rather abstract in their
details, ď¬‚owed into daily life through a thousand channels to became a force in
social relationships. If the process is complex and can only be seen indirectly
from our six or seven centuries of distance, the broad social result is by no
means in doubt.
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 64; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 232.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 272â“3; Micha, Lancelot, V, 274â“9.
KNIGHTS, LADIES, AND LOVE
A L O N G S I D E prowess, piety, and status, a fourth major element consti-
tuting the great fusion of chivalry comes from its role as a framework for
love and the relationship between the sexes. Thoughtful men and women
pondered much about love in all of its manifestations in high medieval
Europe, but we are concerned here with romantic love, eros rather than agape
or caritas. Many modern scholars have focused on romantic love since it is this
wonderfully complex and compelling human emotion, seen here in something
like the springtime of its life in Western culture, which interests and attracts
The result has been enthusiastic and even heated scholarly debate. Since the
nineteenth century scholars have argued in particular over â˜courtly loveâ™, dis-
puting whether it is simply a modern scholarly construct, or whether it had an
existence outside of literary texts; more recent scholarship has argued over
whether it brought an advance or a regression in the status of women, and
whether the question has meaning in such sweepingly general terms.1
The discussions have produced much interesting work, but we need not
enter the prickly thickets of controversy in order to register the power invested
in chivalry by its connections with ideas about love and, in a broader sense,
about relations between the sexes. It will serve the purposes of this book to
attempt simpler goals in this chapter: ď¬rst, to show through all the evidence
presented in the sections that follow that in one of its essential dimensions
chivalry formed the frame for the important issue of gender relations; second,
to document the variety of medieval views on this subject, in the process show-
ing that chivalric literature isâ”in this area as in so manyâ”a literature of criti-
cism and reform as much as a mirror to society; third, to establish the close link
See the extensive bibliography in Burns and Krueger, eds, Courtly Ideology, 375â“90, which lists
earlier bibliographies as well as selected works. A general discussion on knights, ladies, and love,
published just after the foregoing bibliography, appears in ChĂŞnerie, Le Chevalier errant, 411â“501.
On the opening page of this section, she notes that warrior societies are usually characterized by
â˜lâ™attitude de gynopnobieâ™. Cf. Krueger, Women Readers.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
between love and gender relations on the one hand, and the key chivalric virtue
of prowess on the other; and, ď¬nally, to discover in a new form the continuing
concern over the problem of violence as it relates to chivalry.
The Variety of Voices
Near the end of the thirteenth-century prose romance The Story of Merlin,
Agravain, Gaheriet, and Guerrehetâ”three brothers, all prominent Arthurian
knightsâ”ride through a deep forest, enjoying a respite from their bloody bat-
tles with the invading Saxons. Since the weather is ď¬ne and birds are singing
sweetly â˜in their languageâ™, ď¬rst Gaheriet and then all three brothers begin to
sing, â˜and the woodlands resounded with itâ™. The talk soon turns to the two
daughters of Minoras the Forester of Northumberland with whom they have
just stayed. Guerrehet asks his brothers to tell him â˜if you had one of our hostâ™s
two daughters with you now, what would you do with her?â™
The answer of Agravain, the eldest, is straightforward: â˜God help me . . . if
I felt like it, I would make love to her right now.â™ By the same oath, Gaheriet
says, â˜I wouldnâ™t do that, but Iâ™d take her to safety.â™ Guerrehet answers his own
question more carefully: â˜I would . . . make her my lady love, if she liked, and
I would not do anything to her by force. For the game of love would not be
sweet unless it pleased her as much as me.â™2
Since their father, King Lot, and their eldest brother, Gawain, have joined
them in time to hear the question and their answers, the three brothers ask for
a judgment. Who has spoken best? When his father assigns him the task,
Gawain evaluates the answers without hesitation, recognizing Guerrehetâ™s
position as ideal, but endorsing Gaherietâ™s view as that of his own choosing:
Gaheriet spoke best and Agravain worst. For if Agravain saw anyone hurting the
women, he ought to help them, protect and defend them with all his strength. It seems
to me that there need be no one other than he! Guerrehet spoke better still, for he said
that he would not have wanted to do anything to them by force, and that can have come
to him only from love and courtliness. But Gaheriet spoke like a worthy gentleman,
and I would do what he said if it were up to me.
Despite the smiles and laughter with which the debate has proceeded, the seri-
ous undertone soon emerges. King Lot registers his disappointed surprise by
asking Agravain, â˜Would you shame your hostâ™s daughter to satisfy your mad
cravings?â™ His sonâ™s response is revealing: â˜Sir . . . the daughters would lose nei-
ther life nor limb.â™ To his fatherâ™s reply that the daughters would lose their
honour, Agravain counters that to deny himself sexual pleasure, given the
For a general discussion of this idea in medieval thought, see McCash, â˜Mutual Loveâ™.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 211
opportunity, would be an intolerable loss to his own honour. Such a man
â˜would just be the butt of jokes, and people would esteem him less because of
itâ™. When his father continues to denounce such views as vile, Agravain ends
his side of the argument: â˜Then there is no other way out . . . than for my
brother and me to become monks in a place where we do not see women.â™3
The range of views on knightly relationships with women could scarcely be
made clearer: the scale begins with rape, with a determination to have sex
whatever the womanâ™s wishes, and moves on through protection, to mutual
affection. The element of reform likewise appears prominently. Willingness to
use force is denounced by two of the three debating knights and by both judg-
ing knights. Just after the passages quoted the author even alerts his readers to
Agravainâ™s deserved suffering for his attitudes to women, to be detailed later
in the story. Yet we should also note that the reform position is carefully tem-
pered; the high ideal of mutuality in love is acknowledged as best in theory,
but the goal of simple protection and maintenance of the knightâ™s own hon-
ourâ”by avoiding giving shame either to the woman or perhaps especially to
another male protectorâ”is stressed in Gawainâ™s judgement and in King Lotâ™s
subsequent angry conversation with Agravain. In later romances, even
Guerrehetâ™s record is far from a perfect match with his announced standards.
When a lady he has rescued resists his pleas for sex, he respects her wishes.
Shortly after this he climbs into bed with a sleeping lady in a tent and enjoys
sex with her, she sleepily thinking he is her husband. When this man appears,
Guerrehet kills him, forces the lady to ride off with him, kills a knight who tries
to stop him, and defeats the ladyâ™s four brothers. When they stop in a nunnery,
she joins the order to escape him.4
Chivalric literature, then, does not establish a single ideological position,
some uniform and elaborated code, but, rather, shows intense concern with
the issue of relations between males and females. It seems impossible to press
all of these views into a single ideology and attach a label such as â˜courtly loveâ™
or even ď¬nâ™amors in conď¬dence that we have captured the essence of â˜the
medieval viewâ™. The texts show us not a single view, but a running debate.5
Idealization of women in many chivalric texts, of course, stands as one of
their signiď¬cant features, generally noted and examined in great detail by
scholars. Scenes of Lancelot trembling and barely able to speak or to look up
when he is ď¬rst in Queen Guinevereâ™s presence, of Lancelot genuď¬‚ecting at the
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 361â“2; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 350â“1.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 120â“7; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 30â“52.
Interesting arguments in support of this view appear in Leclercq, â˜Lâ™amour et le mariageâ™;
Gold, The Lady and the Virgin; Calin, â˜Contre la ď¬nâ™amor?â™; Krueger, â˜Misogyny, Manipulationâ™;
idem, Women Readers; Keen, Nobles, Knights, 20â“42.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
foot of Queen Guinevereâ™s bed as if it were an altar, before joining her in it for
a night of bliss, provide unforgettable emblems of this worship.6 Even
Geoffroi de Charny, that scarred and experienced knight of the very real
world, urged his readers to â˜indeed honour, serve and truly love these noble
ladies . . . who inspire men to great achievement, and it is thanks to such ladies
that men become good knights and men-at-armsâ™.7
This point of view was not entirely theoretical. An English knight died out-
side Douglas Castle in Scotland, trying to live up to such a belief. His enemies
found he carried a letter from his lady saying he must hold the castle a year to
win her love.8 Sir Thomas Gray tells the better-known story from this part of
the world. A page whose lady-love gave him a helmet with a gilt crest, telling
him to make it famous in the most dangerous part of Britain, charged head-
long into the besieging Scots outside Norham Castle. After they â˜struck him
down, wounded him in the face, and dragged him out of the saddle to the
groundâ™, the garrison, on foot, rescued him as they had pledged to do.9
If love exercises great power in this literature and in this society, some writ-
ers place women on a pedestal; others spit sour misogyny. Negative views of
women can be found most readily in texts with particularly strong monastic
inď¬‚uence, The History of the Holy Grail, or The Quest of the Holy Grail, for exam-
ple.10 But the chansons de geste can provide an abundant supply of evidence and
even the romances of ChrĂ©tien have similar passages. If women are protected,
idealized, sometimes even worshipped, they may also be denounced as wily,
unstable, controlled by appetite, the very impediments to real male concerns
in the most timeless manner of anti-feminist diatribes. The classic case appears
early in Raoul de Cambrai. Raoul scornfully denounces the advice of his
mother when he decides on a course of action that will unleash feud between
powerful families for generations:
Devil take the noblemanâ”what a coward he must beâ”who runs to a woman for advice
when he ought to go off ď¬ghting! Go and loll about in bedrooms and drink drinks to
fatten your belly, and think about eating and drinking, for youâ™re not ď¬t to meddle with
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 65; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 157â“8; Kibler, ed., tr.,
ChrĂ©tien de Troyes, Lancelot, ll. 4583â“684.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 95. We might note, of course, how much his view is
characteristically focused on women as the inspiration for the great virtue, prowess.
McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbourâ™s Bruce, bk. VIII, ll. 490â“9.
Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica, 61â“2.
See the â˜Legend of the Tree of Lifeâ™ section of The Quest of the Holy Grail, for example.
Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisse LIV. As Gold notes, Raoul is showing the demesure
that will cause so much trouble in this story. The Lady and the Virgin, 12â“18.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 213
ChrĂ©tien de Troyes would never give his characters such crude language, yet
he can tell us that changeable women have a hundred hearts, and says of the
but she had in her the same folly
that other women have:
nearly all of them are obstinate
and refuse to accept what they really want.12
The constant goal across the entire spectrum of views is to establish for
males the right way to understand and to relate to these creatures who seem so
different from themselves, standing outside the code of practising prowess in
the quest for honour. Pero NiĂ±oâ™s biographer, praising his heroâ™s temperance,
quickly slides into characterizing male/female differences: â˜he said that sharp
words should be left to women, whose vice and custom they were, and that
men would do better to come to blows, which are their virtue and calling; but
no man ever cared about coming to blows with him.â™13
The honour involved is usually focused on the male. In the â˜Tale of Balainâ™,
when Balain suddenly decapitates the lady who has come to ask a favour of the
king, Arthurâ™s response is directed to his own honour: his complaint is that
Balainâ™s act has shamed him, tarnished his honour, violated the protection
offered by his court.14 In the Perlesvaus Lancelot enforces a marriage promise
on a knight who is trying to renege on his agreement; Lancelot threatens the
man with death, but speciď¬cally states that he acts,
not so much for the maidenâ™s sake as to overcome the wickedness in you, lest it be an
object of reproach to other knights; for knights must keep a vow made to a lady or a
maiden and you claim to be a knight; and no knight should knowingly act wickedly.
And this is a greater wickedness than most, and whatever the maiden may say I will not
permit it; if you do not do as you promised, I will kill you lest it bring reproach upon
Modern scholars reading such evidence can observe not only the reform ideal
of knights keeping their word to ladies, but also the clear and exclusive focus
of concern on knighthood itself.
Perceval later encounters the unhappy couple, sees this knight reviling his
lady, and is told he can have lodging with them if he makes no criticisms. He
responds that â˜since she is yours you may do as you please with her, but in all
Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 1644â“8. 13 Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 203.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, chs 8, 10â“13, 16â“23; Paris and Uhlric, eds, Merlin, I, 212â“25,
233â“61, 276â“80; II, 1â“60 tell the story of Balain. Campbell has also translated these passages: see
Tale of Balain. Of course, honour is focused on the leading male even when another male is killed
in his presence, as Balain is when the invisible knight slays those under his protection.
15 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 113; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 172â“3.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
things one should keep oneâ™s honour.â™ This knight, who now forces his wife to
eat with the squires, away from high table, has become a leper. In a tourna-
ment Perceval wins the gold cup that is coveted by this knight and sends it to
the patient, long-suffering wife, whose views on knighthood we do not
In Raoul II, Bernier, who has been presumed dead, returns to ď¬nd that his
wife Beatrice hasâ”with the aid of a wondrous herbâ”prevented Erchambaut,
the new husband forced upon her, from consummating the marriage. â˜I have
managed him like this for a whole yearâ™, Beatrice informs Bernier proudly.
â˜When Bernier hears this he gives a heartfelt sigh and says in a whisper so that
no one can hear, âAll honour to you Father of glory, that my wife has not
brought shame on me.â â™17
Geoffroi de Charny asks rhetorically:
Which one of two ladies should have the greater joy in her lover when they are both at
a feast in a great company and they are aware of each otherâ™s situation? . . . Is it the one
who loves the good knight and she sees her lover come into the hall where all are at
table and she sees him honoured, saluted and celebrated by all manner of people and
brought to favourable attention before ladies and damsels, knights and squires, and she
observes the great renown and the glory attributed to him by everyone?
The second lady has nothing, Charny thinks, because her lover lacks the essen-
tial deeds of arms:
Ah God! what small comfort and solace is there for those ladies who see their lovers
held in such little honour, with no excuse except lack of will! How do such people dare
to love when they do not know nor do they want to know about the worthy deeds that
they should know about and ought to perform. . . .18
Sometimes, readers of chivalric literature will even encounter the view,
implicitly or explicitly, that knights are the only humans who truly count,
worth much more than any women. The Lord of the Fens says just this to
Hector in the Lancelot, as Hector is about to ď¬ght on behalf of the manâ™s niece:
â˜ âShe is my niece,â said the lord of the Fens, âbut donâ™t do it for that reason,
for God help me if I did not prefer her death to yours; more is lost in the death
of one worthy knight than in the death of all the maidens in a land.â â™19
Better known, but stating the same view, is King Arthurâ™s assessment of the
loss of Guinevere compared with the loss of the Round Table fellowship of
Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 258â“62; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 398â“404.
Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisse 304.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 121.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 215; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 517; Sommer,
ed., Vulgate Version, III, 389.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 215
knights near the end of the Morte Darthur: â˜And much more I am soryar for
my good knyghtes losse than for the losse of my fayre quene; for quenys I
myght have inow, but such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs
in no company.â™20 A maiden whom Eric meets in the Merlin Continuation
makes a similar assessment; she is carrying a badly wounded knight over
whom she utters grieving words: â˜Oh, noble knight, how much better it
would have been if I, who am worth nothing and can do nothing, had been
killed in this misadventure, rather than you, who were so worthy and valiant
and true [preux et vaillans et loyaux].â™21 Only a few pages earlier in this same text
Gaheriet, who has found his mother in bed with Lamorat, commits matricide,
but spares the adulterous knight, â˜because he seemed too handsome and
valiant, and he was disarmed, and if he laid a hand on an unarmed knight,
people would think him the worst and most cowardly knightâ™.22
Even clearer is the statement of the Grail companions (Galahad, Perceval,
and Bors) who ď¬nd the tombs of at least sixty maidens who died giving the
basin of blood required by harsh custom to save the lady of a castle. Especially
upset to ď¬nd stones marking tombs of twelve daughters of kings, â˜they said
that the people of this castle had upheld an evil custom and that the people of
the land had done great evil by enduring it so long, for many good men could
have sprung from these maidensâ™.23
Many texts thus try to convince knights that women really do count, that a
good knight will not abuse them and will keep his word sworn to them. Le Bel
Inconnu, for example, recognizes that many make a habit of deceiving women
and say this is no sin. The author assures his audience it is a great sin and more
than once warns that those who ill-use ladies will suffer for it.24
Some scholars have even argued that the attraction between males in impor-
tant chivalric romances is more powerful than that between knight and lady.25
Those interested in psychological analyses might well think that some form of
special bond is created between knights by the common element of violence in
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 685.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end.), 61; Bogdanow, ed., â˜Folie Lancelotâ™, 25.
Asher, ibid., 53; Bogdanow, ibid., 3. Though condemned by many others, Gaherietâ™s weigh-
ing of the merits of his action remains of interest. Arthur and many worthy men soon decide that
they do not want Gaheriet to die for his deed since he is â˜a good and worthy knight [bon chevalier
et preux]â™. Asher, ibid., 54; Bogdanow, ibid., 6.
Asher, tr., â˜Questâ™, 239; Piel, ed., Demando, 306â“7.
Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de BĂ˘gĂ©, ll. 1243â“64, 4927â“8, 4848â“50.
Frappier, â˜La mort Galehotâ™; Marcello-Nizia, â˜Amour courtoisâ™. Duby makes the same case
for the biography of William Marshal: Guillaume le MarĂ©chal, 52â“4.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
their lives, perhaps especially by their violence against each other.26 In Marie
de Franceâ™s â˜Milunâ™, a father unhorsed by his son (neither recognizing his
I never once fell from my war-horse
because of a blow from another knight.
You knocked me down in a joustâ”
I could love you a great deal.27
Certainly the pattern of truly savage ď¬ghting, respect, reconciliation, and great
affection between two knights is repeated often enough at least to raise ques-
tions about a process of bonding that would be a powerful element in under-
standing the primacy of prowess in chivalry.
ChrĂ©tien provides an excellent case in point in the combat between Guivret
the Short and Erec in his Erec et Enide.28 When from his tower Guivret sees any
passing knight he rushes into armour and into combat; to him Erec represented
someone â˜with whom he wished to exhaust himself in combat, / or the other
would wear himself out / and declare himself defeatedâ™. He rides full tilt at Erec,
his horseâ™s hoofs grinding pebbles like a mill working wheat and shooting so
many sparks the four feet seem to be on ď¬re. Enideâ™s last-minute warning heard,
Erec meets his challenger in a classic encounter: broken shields, hauberks
ripped, spears lodged in entrails, horses and riders on the ground. Then the
sword play keeps them active from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, blades bit-
ing through chain armour to vulnerable ď¬‚esh. One would have killed the other,
ChrĂ©tien tells us, but for an accident; Guivretâ™s sword snaps on the rim of Erecâ™s
shield and he ď¬‚ings away the useless remnant in disgust. He calls for mercy, but
hesitates to say he is defeated and must be threatened into the admission. As
soon as they exchange names, however, Guivret is delighted to learn how noble
Erec is, and â˜[e]ach of them kissed and embraced the otherâ™:
Never from such a ď¬erce battle
was there such a sweet parting,
for, moved by love and generosity,
each of them cut long, broad bands
from the tail of his shirt,
and they bound up each otherâ™s wounds.
Lorenz writes of â˜the ingenious feat of transforming, by the comparatively simple means of
redirection and ritualization, a behavior pattern which not only in its prototype but even in its pre-
sent form is partly motivated by aggression, into a means of appeasement and further into a love
ceremony which forms a strong tie between those that participate in it. This means neither more
nor less than converting the mutually repelling effect of aggression into its oppositeâ™: On
Aggression, 167. I owe this reference to Michelle Dowd.
Hanning and Ferrante, trs., Marie de France, 174; Rychner, ed., Marie de France, 140.
The following quotations all come from Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 3629â“889.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 217
Since the shirt-tail could carry phallic meaning in medieval literature, a deter-
mined Freudian might read this scene as a symbolic end of the phallic aggres-
sion so evident in the previous several hundred lines of verse, and note its
conversion into mutual respect and love. The latter phenomenon is striking,
even if one hesitates over the former.
Other cases could make a similar point. The bond between Lancelot and
Galehot in the Lancelot do Lac, again based on prowess, represents an unusu-
ally high peak in the mountain ranges of knightly friendships. Indeed, in this
romance the tension emerges not out of the competing claims of prowess and
love, but rather, as Corin Corley writes, â˜between friendship with a compan-
ion in arms and love of a man for a womanâ™.29 Gretchen Mieszkowski has even
made an argument that, at least from Galehotâ™s perspective, this is a homo-
Having seen Lancelot, in disguise, perform on the battleď¬eld, Galehot,
Arthur, Guinevere, and Gawain discuss what each would give up â˜to have his
companionship foreverâ™.31 Arthur would offer half his possessions. Gawain, in
turn, declares, â˜If God gives me the health I desire, I should wish there and
then to be the most beautiful damsel in the world, ď¬t and well, on condition
that he loved me more than anything, as much as I loved him.â™ â˜ âIndeed,â said
Galehot, âyou have offered a good deal.â â™ The queen skilfully sidesteps the
issue, observing, â˜By the Lord, Sir Gawain has made every offer that a lady can
make, and no lady can offer more.â™ Following a round of polite laughter,
Gawain tells Galehot that he must answer his own question. He swears, â˜As
God is my witness, I should change my great honour to shame, provided that
I could always be as sure of him as I should wish him to be of me.â™ Gawain
praises this answerâ”stunning in the context of an honour societyâ”as the
most generous, but he later warns Arthur that Galehot will take Lancelot
away, â˜for he is more jealous of him than a knight who has a beautiful young
ladyâ™. When Arthur wants to keep Lancelot as his companion, Galehot issues
a passionate objection: â˜Ah! my lord . . . I came in your hour of need with all
my might, for I could not do more. And may God never be my witness, if I
could live without him: how could you take away my life?â™ In order to be with
Lancelot, Galehot, a king who could have conquered Arthur, offers his own
services to Arthur as a simple retainer, â˜for I would rather be poor and contentâ™,
he states, â˜than rich and unhappyâ™. He begs Arthur to accept his offer: â˜And
Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, xii.
Mieszkowski, â˜Lancelotâ™s Galehot, Maloryâ™s Lavainâ™; I am indebted to Professor Mieszkowski
for a copy of this article.
31 What follows comes from Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 303â“4; Elspeth Kennedy, ed.,
Lancelot do Lac, I, 333â“4.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
you certainly ought to do so, both for his sake and for mine, for you should
know that all the love I have for you, I have because of him.â™ Arthur takes him
into his entourage as companion, not as retainer, but at the end of the romance
Galehot sickens, fearing Lancelot will be taken away by love for Guinevere,
and dies of grief, upon hearing a false report of Lancelotâ™s death. We learn in
the Post-Vulgate Death of Arthur that Lancelot is ď¬nally buried, by his own
instructions, in the same tomb with Galehot.32
The case is extreme, but the sentiment is scarcely unique. After a strenuous
ď¬ght that seems to last most of the day, Gawain and Morholt (in the Merlin
Continuation) engage in a classic act of bonding: â˜[T]hey went to kiss each
other at once and swore to each other that from that time on they would be
friends and loyal companions and that there would be no rancour between
them for anything that might have been.â™33 A few days later Morholt says to
Gawain, as he is about to depart, healed of his wounds: â˜I never met a young
man I admired as much as I do you. Donâ™t think I say this idly. Because I love
you with such great love, I want to be a knight errant from now on, so that I
may better have your company and see you more often.â™ When their adven-
tures part them, another scene of tears and declarations of love follows:
Morholt said to Sir Gawain, â˜Sir Gawain, remember the spring at the end of a year. so
that you come there on the day, for certainly Iâ™ll be very impatient to see that day and
to be able to be in your company again. For know that I have never loved or admired
a knight as much as I do you.34
Though a romance of far lower aesthetic merit, the Chevalier du Papegau
once again supplements ideas found in greater works.35 Arthur, the Knight of
the Parrot, is attacked by a huge baron, the Knight-Giant; they ď¬ght until
exhaustion and darkness force a halt (the bright, illuminating jewel on the
baronâ™s helmet having been cut away). The warriors try to get some rest lean-
ing against each other in the dark, but each is wary and they continually give
each other blows throughout the night. Daylight allows the full ď¬ghting to
resume and to continue well into the day. Arthur ď¬nally lands the decisive
blow which cuts off his opponentâ™s leg.
The sequel is fascinating. The Knight-Giant calls out, â˜My good lord, for
Godâ™s sake, mercy! For you are surely one of the best knights in the world. For
Asher, tr., Death of Arthur, 310; Magne, ed., Demanda, II, 484.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 96, gives the same scene: â˜And therewith they toke of her helmys
and eyther kyssed other and there they swore togedyrs eythir to love other as brethirne. And sir
Marhaus prayde sir Gawayne to lodge with hym that nyght.â™
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 273â“5; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 378â“85.
For what follows, see Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 46â“53; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du
Knights, Ladies, and Love 219
this reason, I pray you to please take the hauberk I am wearing.â™ The hauberk,
unusually ď¬ne, possibly even magical, must go to the man who had shown
such prowess. Near death, he gives Arthur a second gift, his store of wisdom
embodied in three unexceptional maxims his father had taught him. Finally,
he asks a willing Arthur to hear his confession, which he makes â˜and died right
there on the spotâ™. Once again, we are shown ferocious ď¬ghting followed by
rapid reconciliation and the creation of a bond (however foreshortened in this
case) by the giving of the most precious gifts.
The Link with Prowess
However one reacts to issues of male bonding, so strong is the focus on
knighthood and knightly prowess that in some chivalric writing women can
only be deď¬ned as those who are not knights, who do not win honour through
prowess. A striking case in point comes in Raoul de Cambrai, as Raoul is about
to burn the town of Origny. A procession of nuns comes out to dissuade him,
each one with her psalter in her hand, their leader, Marsent, carrying â˜an
ancient book held in reverence since the days of Solomonâ™. Clearly, we have
here a confrontation of clergie with chevalerie. Yet it is also a male and female
confrontation, for it is the female embodiment of clergie that we see. The self-
characterization attributed to these women is fascinating: â˜My lord Raoul,
would prayer persuade you to withdraw a little? We are nuns, by the saints of
Bavaria, and will never hold lance or standard, or cause anyone ever be laid to
rest through force of ours.â™36 Though Marsent says they are nuns, would not
the description work equally well if she said simply that they were women?
The point is reinforced by repetition. Marsent speaks again to Raoul: â˜ âSir
Raoul,â said Bernierâ™s mother, âwe are not able to handle weapons. You can
easily slaughter and destroy us. I tell you truly, you will not see us wield lance
or shield in our defence.â â™37 The deď¬ning fact about these women is that they
are non-knights. In a world in which knighthood was so signiď¬cant, in a liter-
ature obsessed with knighthood, women must somehow be ď¬tted into the
general scheme of things.
Given the importance of prowess in the defence of honour, prowess the
demi-god is likely to play a major role in most formulations of the ideal rela-
tionship between the sexes. Could the relationship be other than troublesome?
Would not considerable tension strain lives caught between the demands of
prowess and the demands of love? Many scholarly analyses have explored these
tensions, noting how hard it is for major ď¬gures like Lancelot or Tristram to
Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 63, 65. Ibid., laisses 65â“6.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
ď¬nd a viable balance, how readily such tensions lead to tragic endings in
If tension arises when the desired woman is already married to oneâ™s feudal
lord (as in the case of Lancelot), it even arises after the desired woman has been
won and the characteristic knightly freedom to wander and ď¬ght, to play the
tournament circuit, is suddenly curtailed by the needed stability of married
life. Could a life of prowess be continued by the knight who settled into mar-
ried life? ChrĂ©tien wrestles with the problem in more than one of his
romances. In Erec and Enide he states the problem concisely. After his marriage
Erec was so in love with her
that he cared no more for arms,
nor did he go to tournaments.
He no longer cared for tourneying;
he wanted to enjoy his wifeâ™s company,
and he made her his lady and his mistress.38
Here ChrĂ©tien answers the question enthusiastically and in positive terms.
Erec amply demonstrates his prowess, with Enideâ™s active support. Yvain, in
ChrĂ©tienâ™s slightly later romance by that name, likewise proves his prowess
after marriage, against Gawainâ™s expressed doubts, and ď¬nally against Gawain
in person. Married love must be saved from denigration, since it can be so
important a medium for love. The signiď¬cance of prowess to love, of course,
remains fully evident in ChrĂ©tienâ™s works.
Yet for many heroes of chivalry no marriage, no feudal complication
intrudes; the link between love and prowess is not presented as a wrenching
problem. As R. W. Hanning has concisely observed, a cycle is at work:
prowess inspires love and love inspires prowess.39 This cycle rolls through
nearly all of the chivalric literature traditionally classed as romance, and
appears in many chansons as well.40 Scholars have understandably found the
subject of romantic love more fascinating than prowess and have ď¬lled sub-
stantial library shelves with books and articles in intricate witness. But we must
not forget the prowess; a two-cycle engine does not run on one cylinder.
Even the love of Guinevere for the young King Arthur begins, of course, as
she sees him ď¬ghting splendidly. Merlin, ever helpful, arranges for her to kiss
the shy Arthur, but then reminds Arthur of that kiss in battle, in the midst of
Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 2396â“401. Hanning, The Individual, 4, 54.
There are, of course, exceptions. Gawain is at one point said to be so courteous that it causes
â˜many ladies to love him less for his chivalry than for his courtesyâ™: see Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part
IV, 108; Micha, ed., Lancelot, III, 409. He is also said to love poor people and to be kind and gen-
erous to them.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 221
â˜a very great slaughterâ™, resounding with â˜the dreadful screams and wailing
when men were being killed or woundedâ™. Merlin now expects the kiss to be
paid for in enemy blood: â˜Arthur, now weâ™ll see what you can do here today.
See to it that the kiss that your lady gave you is dearly paid for, so that it will
be talked about all the days of your life.â™ The ď¬ghting goes on and on, and
Merlin returns to his theme:
Then he said to King Arthur that he must have forgotten the kiss his ladylove had given
him, for he had done poorly in the ď¬rst ď¬ghting. And when Arthur heard this, he
blushed all over from shame, and he hung his helmeted head and said not a word; but
he stood so hard on his stirrups that the iron bent. And King Ban began to smile within
his helmet and pointed him out to King Bors, his brother; then all the knights of the
Round Table looked at him, and they found him very worthy and held him in high
esteem because they saw his look of noble pride.41
Fuelled by the potent mixture of equal parts sensual excitement and aroused
pride, Arthur returns to the ď¬ght and performs prodigies of prowess.42 He will
do similar feats on another battleď¬eld later, while he is being watched by a
lover, the pagan maiden of Saxon Rock. â˜In fact,â™ we learn, â˜he did . . . better
than ever before, and this was more for the maiden who was watching him
from the Rock than for himself.â™43
If love inspires prowess, prowess inspires love. Guinevere has enjoyed a tryst
with Lancelot while Arthur dallied with his Saxon lady. This text, however,
will not accept sauce for the goose serving as sauce for the gander. She is later
denounced by the all-wise Master Elias as standing â˜accused of the basest
wrongdoing that a woman can be charged with . . . for she was so untrue as to
dishonour the most honourable man in the worldâ™. No mention is made of
Arthurâ™s dishonouring of his queen.44
She defends herself later by saying that her love, stirred by Lancelotâ™s
prowess, was simply irresistible: â˜But the power of the love that led me to do
it was so great that I could not resist it; and besides, what was calling me was
the valour [la proesce] of the ď¬nest of knights.â™ Her self-defence is the same
when speaking later to Lancelot himself; she ends with a fascinating rhetorical
question, puzzling over the ragged border where the world of chevalerie
marches with that of clergie:
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 288, 292; Sommer, ed. Vulgate Version, II, 220, 227â“8.
The same combination moves the young Erec; see Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 911â“94.
43 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 226; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 542; Sommer,
Vulgate Version, III, 407.
44 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 254; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 58. Arthur later collapses and
confesses to a hermit, in fear of death. He is told how evil he is for, among other sins, disloyally
deserting his lawful wife; but this woman is the False Guinevere. Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 276;
Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 76.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
. . . I have been hurt by the sin of going to bed with a man other than my husband.
. . . Still, there is no upstanding lady in the world who would not feel impelled to
sacriď¬ce something to make an upstanding knight like you happy. Too bad Our Lord
pays no heed to our courtly ways, and a person whom the world sees as good is wicked
They return to this troubling subject in the Lancelot, when Guinevere real-
izes that a vision of the future experienced by Gawain refers to Lancelotâ™s fail-
ure to achieve the Grail because of their illicit love:
I am very distressed that the ď¬‚ames of passion have caused you to fail to achieve the
adventure for which all earthly knighthood must strive; you can rightly say that you
have paid dearly for my love, since on my account you have lost something you can
never recover. Understand that I am no less sad about this than you, and perhaps even
sadder, for it is a great sin in that God made you the best and most handsome and most
gracious of all knights. . . . It seems it would have been better for me never to have been
The lament is powerful: God is the source of prowess and their adulterous love
has spoiled the fruits of Lancelotâ™s knighthood. But he will have none of it:
â˜My lady,â™ said Lancelot, â˜what you say is wrong. You must understand that without
you I would not have achieved as much glory as I have. . . . For I was well aware that if
my valor did not bring me through the adventures, then I would never be able to win
you, and I had to win you or die.â™
This is not simply a classic statement of the link between love and prowess, for
Lancelot is countering the queenâ™s assertion that God is the source of his deeds
with the statement that she is herself that source. He could have noted that the
queen not only inspired prowess, but sometimes speciď¬cally demanded it. As
she says to Lancelot before a great tournament at Camelot: â˜see to it that you
do so well on that day that there is not a knight who dares await your blow.
Pursue them until they ď¬‚ee for their lives back to Camelot, and donâ™t be weak
or scared, for if I thought that my love sapped your strength, then I would
never love you again.â™46
Other texts simply state outright that the knightâ™s prowess is the great spur
to a womanâ™s love; the link seems obvious and independent of any moral
qualms. In a classic statement, a lady tells Hector that though she has not seen
Lancelot since he was two months old, she has â˜loved him more than anyone
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 267, 275; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 118, 152; Sommer,
ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 28, 53â“4.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 207, 202; Sommer, Vulgate Version, V, 193; Micha, Lancelot, IV,
Knights, Ladies, and Love 223
in the world, because of the great prowess theyâ™ve described to meâ™.47 Beatrice,
in the continuation of Raoul de Cambrai known as Raoul II, explains her sud-
den love for Bernier in an even more revealing monologue:
Then she whispered so no one could hear: â˜Lucky the lady whom this man were to
choose, for he has a tremendous reputation for knighthood [molt a los de grant cheva-
lerie]; anyone who could hold him naked beneath her bed hangings would ď¬nd him
worth more than any living thing.â™48
She tells Bernier frankly about her feelings, and is even more explicit about the
causative force his prowess represents:
â˜My lord Bernier,â™ said the wise lady, â˜if I love you, I ought not to be blamed for it, for
your reputation stood so high that when my father was in his ď¬‚agged hall, everyone
used to say within his trusted household that whoever you struck with your smooth
lance could not remain in his gilded saddle. I was ď¬lled with desire for you; I would
rather be burned or cut limb from limb than be married to anyone else.â™49
Claudas, one of the major and most fascinating characters in the early chap-
ters of the Lancelot do Lac and the Lancelot, will have none of this linking of men
and women, prowess and love in his own life. Yet his very denial speaks to the
force of the bond. He has, we learn, been in love only once and ended it delib-
erately. When asked why, â˜he would answer that his desire was to have a long
lifeâ™. As he saw matters:
a knight who has true love in his heart can desire only one thing: to surpass everyone
else; but no man, however valiant, has a body that can survive all the trials his heart is
rash enough to undertake . . . for there is no great achievement at arms without true
love behind it.
We are assured that Claudas spoke truthfully, â˜for when in love he had shown
remarkable prowess and in many a land had gained great renown for his
knightly valorâ™.50 Though Claudas is not a devotee of love, even his reasons for
avoiding it speak to its power and to its link with prowess.
Sometimes the admiration for prowess simply overwhelms ideas of love
altogether. Morholt, in the Merlin Continuation, is a notorious hater of ladies.
On their adventures Yvain and Gawain even come upon a group of ladies exe-
cuting a dance in which the key manoeuvre is spitting on Morholtâ™s shield.
Gawain quickly distances himself from a knight who â˜hates the maidens of this
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 399â“400: â˜por la grant proesce qe lâ™en
mâ™avoit dite de luiâ™.
Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, 332â“3. Ibid., 340â“1.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 15; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 26â“7; Elspeth Kennedy,
ed., Lancelot do Lac, 30â“1.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
country so mortally that he does them all the dishonour and insult he can.â™ He
adds: â˜I couldnâ™t love Morholt for anything, because he hates young ladies
with all his heart.â™ Yet Gawainâ™s evaluation changes signiď¬cantly as he sees
Morholtâ™s vast prowess demonstrated against Yvain, and then as he experi-
ences it himself in classic combat. With the triumph over Yvain achieved
before his eyes, Gawain exudes these fulsome words of praise: â˜Oh, God! what
greatness there is in a valiant man! God, how powerful this man is; how effec-
tive he is, and how much he can do!â™ After he has fought with him personally,
Gawain is happy to exchange kisses, pledges of mutual friendship, agreements
never to be parted except by death.51
More often and more famously, ideas about ladies and about prowess work
in harness. The lesson is taught over and over in chivalric literature: knights
must use their prowess in the defence of gentle ladies. In the start of his
knightly career, narrated in the Merlin Continuation, for example, Gawain
himself must absorb the painful lesson by carrying to court, slung over his
horse, the body of a lady he has slain, there to have his penance adjudged by
the ladies of the court. They announce that he must swear on relics that, sav-
ing his death or dishonour, he will never harm maidens but will always protect
them when they request his help. Gawain becomes ever after the loyal Knight
of Maidens. The entire process at court, we might note, is carried out under
the aegis of Arthurâ™s authority, regal and male.52
Of course, in one work after another Lancelotâ™s entire career provides the
classic tribute to the power of love realized in prowess. In the terrible test of
Escalon the Dark, in the Lancelot (to note one case out of scores) he piously
calls upon God and the Virgin, but then, â˜looking as directly toward London
as he could and mindful of the woman whom he loved more than himself, he
said, âMy lady, I entrust myself to you; and whatever peril I face, may I always
bear you in mind!â â™53 No reader can be surprised that he triumphs where
others have failed. The source for his successes has been made especially clear,
as Elspeth Kennedy has noted, by the messenger sent to him by his patroness,
the Lady of the Lake, at the time his magniď¬cent career is only just getting
under way. The message is:
[Y]ou should give your heart to a love that will turn you not into an idle knight but a
ď¬ner one, for a heart that becomes idle through love loses its daring and therefore can-
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 270â“4; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 370â“85.
Asher, Merlin Continuation, 230â“3; Roussineau, Merlin, I, 225â“38. This portion of this text is
much concerned with founding incidents in the history of chivalry; at this same time Gawain
learns that it is courteous not to kill a knight who has yielded.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 302; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 110â“11.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 225
not attain high things. But he who always strives to better himself and dares to be chal-
lenged can attain all high things.54
The pattern shown time and again in chivalric literatureâ”love stirring a
knight on to deeds of armsâ”need not entail as elevated a view as this. In The
Story of Merlin, Gaheriet reminds his brother Agravain of his hot desire for the
daughters of the Forester of Northumberland (the maidens who had sparked
their debate noted above). As they go into battle, he says: â˜Keep in mind those
maidens you knew so well what to do with this morning and see to it that you
are as good a knight with your arms when you ď¬ght against those Saxons!â™55
The mentalâ”perhaps the glandularâ”link of sex and violence is here writ
The prevalence of prescriptive as well as descriptive statements and an empha-
sis on prowess help to connect chivalry as a focus of gender relations to
chivalry in its other dimensions. What, then, of the concern about violence
which we have found so inescapable a feature of these other dimensions of
chivalry? Does this concern likewise appear when medieval writers use chivalry
to talk of love and relationships between men and women?
As a number of scholarsâ”Kathryn Gravdal in particularâ”have argued, the
sexual violence of rape was a serious issue in medieval society, particularly
from the twelfth century. The topic was regularly discussed by medieval jurists
and canonists and by authors of the entire range of literary works that involved
knights as characters (that is, saintsâ™ lives and pastorals as well as more tradi-
tional chivalric forms).57 Sexual violence, in other words, ď¬ts into a broader
pattern of concern over societal peace.
That women themselves should be concerned about forced sex seems to
require little discussion. Yet Gravdal argues that the issue was in fact discussed
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 84; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 160â“61; Elspeth
Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 205â“6.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 362; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 352.
56 Any reader will encounter many examples. In the Song of Aspremont, for example, the young
Roland calls out to the companions he leads onto the battleď¬eld: