Let each lay claim to knighthood by his valor!â™
He cries â˜Mountjoy! Lay on, lusty companions,
And Charles will give each man a girl to marry!â™
Newth, tr., Song of Aspremont; Brandin, ed., Chanson dâ™Aspremont, ll. 5558â“9, 5572â“3.
Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens; Robertson, â˜Comprehending Rapeâ™; Hawkes, â˜Bibliography of
Legal Recordsâ™. I am grateful to Roberta Krueger for providing these sources.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
in medieval literature and law from the point of view of males, that sexual vio-
lence was a problem in this society because they saw it as a problem. We might,
building on her argument, suggest that the issues involving rape which so
engaged male attention were closely linked with the prowess and honour so
much at the heart of chivalry. Even when idealized or adored, women seem to
have been considered property in much chivalric literature, prizes to be won
by knightly prowess or to be defended against the prowess of others.58 The
chronicle of Richard the Lion-Heart says plainly that in the attack on Messina
â˜there were women taken, fair / And excellent and debonairâ™. When some of
the kingâ™s ships have wrecked on the coast of Cyprus and Richardâ™s sister is
endangered he, of course, rushes to the defence.59
Honour is the real prize, as Agravain, quoted at the opening of this chapter,
understood. Geoffroi de Charny also understood, even though he strongly
disagreed; he complained, in effect, that many followed Agravainâ™s view:
And there are many who say that they would not want to love Queen Guinevere if they
did not declare it openly or if it were not known. Such men would prefer it to be said
by everyone that they were the accepted lovers of ladies, even if this were not true, than
to love and meet with a favourable response, were this to be kept secret.60
This game of males winning renown by ď¬ghting over prized ladies is surely as
old as the story of the Iliad, and as widespread as the furthest reaches of
anthropological ď¬eld study.
The game is played endlessly in chivalric literature, reinforcing on each
round the reformist ideal that it is the duty and right of knights to protect
ladies. In theory, in the world of Arthurian romance, every maiden or lady is
protected within Arthurâ™s realm. In The Story of Merlin, Gawain, seeing two
knights preparing to rape a young lady, shouts at them, â˜that they were already
dead, because they were assaulting a lady in King Arthurâ™s land. âFor you
know very well,â he went on, âthat ladies are guaranteed their safety.â â™61 In the
practice presented in literature, every maiden or lady might be considered at
risk in this forested Hobbesian world. Sometimes the threat comes from rob-
bers or assorted rufď¬ans who would not make the social register; more often
the threat comes (as it does in this case) in armour, from unreformed knights.
Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 103; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 4581â“6, casually
mentions that a maiden whom Lancelot has saved from rape is pregnant with her delivererâ™s child
after he stayed in her household for a week.
Hubert and La Monte, tr., Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart and Paris, ed., Lâ™Histoire de la
guerre sainte, ll. 819â“20, 1435 ff.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 119.
Gawain has been reduced to the physical size of a dwarf because of his discourtesy to a lady.
His prowess is undiminished, of course, and his rescue in this case restores him. Pickens, tr., Story
of Merlin, 422â“3; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 462.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 227
In this same text, Hector must defeat Marigart the Red, a knight of great
prowess, who rapes a virgin a month.62 Perceval and his sister, setting off to
visit their motherâ™s grave, in the ď¬rst continuation of ChrĂ©tienâ™s Perceval, ď¬nd
that â˜even though they were in their own land, they were not, it seems, free and
clear of war. Perceval glanced to one side and saw an armed knight come rid-
ing.â™ The challenging knight wants Percevalâ™s sister and can be dissuaded only
by being beaten in combat. When Perceval and his sister set off together to
continue his grail quest, later in this romance, the same sort of attack recurs,
for the same motive.63
The threat of knights is so often portrayed as a speciď¬cally sexual threat. In
ChrĂ©tienâ™s Erec and Enide, the heroine must, as a test, ride through the forest
ahead of her lord, fetchingly attired, to attract the knights who want to â˜winâ™
her by defeating Erec. When the Lord of the Fens learns (in The Story of
Merlin) that his young daughter cannot marry his powerful neighbour
Leriador because she is already pregnant by King Ban, he is confronted by an
irate Leriador, who
swore that, since he could not have the lady by love, he would take her by force; and
after him, all others who wanted her could have her. So this is how he left, and he went
into his country and called his men together until there were a good eight hundred
In the Lancelot, a maiden who wants to accompany Hector on a quest is told
she is foolish, â˜ âfor if it happened,â said the queen, âthat another knight
defeated Hector, he would take you and do with you as he wished.â â™ 65 In
ChrĂ©tienâ™s Lancelot, this possibility is even formulated as a custom:
The custom and policy at that time were as follows: any knight meeting a damsel who
is alone should slit his own throat rather than fail to treat her honourably, if he cares
about his reputation. For if he takes her by force, he will be shamed forever in all the
courts of all lands. But if she is led by another, and if some knight desires her, is willing
to take up his weapons and ď¬ght for her in battle, and conquers her, he can without
shame or blame do with her as he will.66
In some corners of the world of Arthurian literature even the ď¬rst part of this
custom is not observed. Sagremore rapes a beautiful and noble maiden who
Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 103â“4; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 393â“5.
Bryant, tr., Perceval, 151, 214; Roach, ed., Continuations, IV, ll. 23770â“809. Percevalâ™s lance
skewers the man, two feet of it protruding on the other side of his body.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 413; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 446.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 169; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 307.
Quoting Gravdalâ™s translation, Ravishing Maidens, 66. The Lancelot Part IV likewise states
that an unaccompanied lady could travel unmolested, but if she had an escorting knight, â˜and
another knight can win her in battle, the winner can take the lady or maiden in any way he desires
without incurring shame or blameâ™: Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 10; Micha, Lancelot, II, 24.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
fails to greet him courteously in The Marvels of Rigomer; he leaves her the bag
of coins he carries for charitable gifts; he also leaves her pregnant.67 Of course
women of no status are simply targets outside the debate. King Pellinor
fathered Tor on â˜a shepherdess, whom the king found in a ď¬eld watching her
beasts, but her beauty was so great that the king took a fancy to her, and lay by
her and fathered Torâ™.68
Even ladies of position might be troubled. Guinevereâ™s father, King
Leodagan, seeing his chance to have his seneschalâ™s wife, crawls into bed with
the fearful lady:
and he told her to keep quiet; if she shouted a single word, he would kill her with his
sharp sword, or if she thrashed about in the least. The lady defended herself with words
as much as she could, but she did not dare speak out loud, so her arguments availed her
Round Table knights swore to do no rape. Maloryâ™s Morte Darthur gives the
famous oath knights of the Round Table must swear each year; it includes a
clause never to â˜enforceâ™ any â˜ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and
wydowesâ™.70 The sentiment is as noble as the evident need for its regular swear-
ing is instructive. Even Round Table knights appear in chivalric literature in
the very role they formally renounce. In the Merlin Continuation, for example,
Perceval must stop the combat of Sagremore and the Ugly Hero, ď¬ghting over
who shall have a desirable maiden. Freed and offered Percevalâ™s protection, the
maiden declines: â˜Iâ™ve no need of an escort, for I wonâ™t meet anyone in these
parts who will make any demands on me, since Iâ™m safe from these two.â™71
Even King Arthur is a rapist in the Post-Vulgate Quest for the Holy Grail.
Lost while hunting, he comes upon a beautiful maiden and â˜was so pleased
with her that he lay with her by force. She was a young girl and still knew noth-
ing of such matters, and she began to cry out while he was lying with her, but
Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 169â“73; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 7759â“982.
Though the author terms the rape â˜grant folieâ™, (noting that the son engendered will take
vengeance on Sagremore), he pauses to admire the beauty of Sagremoreâ™s body and arms as he
rides away, and pictures the lady thinking so handsome a man must surely be of high status; none
of the locals is as handsome as he. Casual sex is the reward of the heroes of this text; see, e.g.,
Vesce, ibid., 25, 103; Foerster, ibid., ll. 1056â“68, 4581â“6.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 238; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, II, 114â“15.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 248; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 148â“9. A little later, this
same text (Pickens, ibid., 257; Sommer, ibid., 165) presents Yvain the Bastard, son of King Urien
who kept his seneschalâ™s wife in his castle, by force, for ď¬ve years.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 75. Cf. Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 208; Micha, ed., Lancelot,
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 108â“9; Bogdanow, ed., â˜Folie Lancelotâ™, 150â“511:
Perceval tellingly lectures the other Round Table knights on the ideal: â˜A knight who is courteous
should never think of taking a maiden away by force, for truly itâ™s the most ignoble thing a valiant
man can do, to lay a hand on a maiden against her will.â™
Knights, Ladies, and Love 229
it did her no good, for the king did what he wanted anyway.â™72 Under threat
of decapitation by her father, the weeping maid tells all. Her wrathful father
charges Arthur with dishonouring him; yet he well knows he cannot take stan-
dard revenge against his sovereign so he merely rejects the kingâ™s offer of a rich
marriage and keeps his daughter under watch, to see if she has been impreg-
nated by Arthur. Yet the knightâ™s show of outrage is quickly compromised, for
he soon rapes his own daughter-in-law, kills his son, and kills his daughter as
well, when she protests his actions.73
Sometimes the ladies are only too happy to give their bodies to the
knights.74 Not a few times a desirable lady offers herself as the prize to be
awarded the winner of a much-advertised tournament or some pas dâ™armes. But
the general attitude seems to be that valiant knights should not be denied,
whatever the ladyâ™s personal inclinations. Watching Sagremore ď¬ght in a
rough tournament, the ladies in the window of the great hall state this creed:
â˜he is a handsome knight in body and limb, he is yet a better knight in spirit.
And she who has him can well boast that she has one of the best knights in the
court; likewise, she would be uncourtly and unwise who refused the love of
such a knight.â™75 For the truly reluctant women in chivalric literature, unless
Merlin is conveniently at hand to cast a spell dissolving resistance,76 the threat
of sexual violence looms large. It seems more than symbolic that the verb
esforcer is used in this literature, even within the same literary work, both in the
military sense of â˜to strive, to make a great effortâ™, and in the sense of â˜to rapeâ™.77
This is no argument, obviously, that most knights were rapists.78 Yet is it
not likewise unlikely that knights simply protected ladies who were endlessly
grateful? to imagine that this medieval world was (unlike all other worlds of
which we have any knowledge) blissfully happy and without conď¬‚ict in the
arena of relations between the sexes? Surely we might guess that in life as in lit-
Asher, tr., Quest, 215; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 473. For Mordredâ™s desire to rape
a passing maid, and the disastrous consequences, see Asher, ibid., 192â“4; Bogdanow, ibid., 370â“6.
73 Arthur the Less has already been born from Arthurâ™s sexual union with this maid.
E.g. the lady who yields to the urgings of Girď¬‚et, or the daughter of the King of North
Wales, who says, when Gawain ď¬nally manages to get into her bed, â˜now I have what I have always
desiredâ™: Carroll, tr., Lancelot, 202, 212; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 365â“6; Elspeth
Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 485, 509.
75 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 347; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 324.
76 As he was, famously, in the sexual union of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, which produces
Arthur (Pickens, Story of Merlin, 204; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 67â“8) and, less famously, in
the union of Arthur and Lisanor, which produces Loholt (Pickens, ibid., 235; Sommer, ibid.,
77 Tobler and Lommatzsch, AltfranzĂśsisches WĂśrterbuch, 3: ll. 1045â“6.
78 It would even be difď¬cult to establish any exact sense of the incidence of rape in society gen-
erally, let alone that committed by knights, even in England, with its miles of surviving court rolls.
As Hanawalt asks rhetorically, â˜Who can say how many masters raped servants or lords raped peas-
ant women?â™ Crime and Conď¬‚ict, 106.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
erature knights played more complex and more ambiguous roles, that trou-
bling problems cried out for solutions as a warrior aristocracy ď¬tted itself into
a framework of social and public order; if this order was largely acceptable and
somewhat of their own making, sometimes it crimped a bit. Their literature
stands in clear witness to such problems and to the ideal solutions that were
eagerly put forward for the knightsâ™ education and ediď¬cation.79
We can, in short, recognize in such ideals new attempts to ď¬t the relation-
ships between males and femalesâ”at least those who ranked within the privi-
leged, lay, social strataâ”into the knightly frame of life based especially on
prowess and honour. The point of view was congenial to most males in this
privileged group, though they must have been aware of an undercurrent of
reform ideas aimed at modifying aspects of their behaviour.
Thus we can recognize that this literature not only heaped upon chivalry a
great measure of idealized responsibility for the protection of women and for
the elimination of the most coarse and brutal forms of subjection; it also
endowed knights with an even greater valorization of their powerful place in
society in general, and especially with regard to women. These works offered
the knights a more reď¬ned form of male dominance as one powerful element
of their chivalry. Knighthood was here, as always, both challenged and but-
tressed by reform ideas.
Examples are plentiful in Middle English literature, no less than in the Old French texts
largely cited above. See Gist, Love and War, 75â“84, 111.
CHANSON DE GESTE AND REFORM
M E D I E V A L France was the veritable home of chivalry and the birth-
place of the chanson de geste, a body of texts especially concerned with
emerging institutions of governance.1 How this literature portrayed the rela-
tionship of chivalry to Capetian royalty and to the reformed Church is thus
worth a close look.2
To sample this vast body of literature we can turn to a well-known division
suggested in a thirteenth-century poem.3 The entire corpus of chansons, this
text suggests, can be divided into three broad cycles, today generally known as
the Cycle of the King, the Cycle of William of Orange (or of Garin de
Monglane, his ancestor), and the Cycle of the Barons in Revolt.4 We will look
brieď¬‚y at one example from each.
Though written in the twelfth century, each is set in the Carolingian era, the
monarch in each case being Charlemagne or his son Louis. Scholars have long
recognized that these twelfth-century poems reď¬‚ect society and issues of their
time of composition, not those of the eighth- or ninth-century setting in
which the action takes place.5
See Chapter 2, footnote 3.
See Kay, Chansons de Geste; Calin, Old French Epic; Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order,
315â“25, and sources cited there; Flori, â˜Lâ™Historienâ™; Boutet, â˜Chansons de gesteâ™; Boutet and
Strubel, LittĂ©rature, politique et sociĂ©tĂ©, 39â“68; Rossi, â˜Le duel judiciaireâ™; Hackett, â˜Girart de
As Rossi notes, in research on the role of kingship, family quarrels, and private wars, â˜le cor-
pus franĂ§ais des chansons de geste [est] en dĂ©ď¬nitive peu exploitĂ©â™: Essor et fortune, I, 264.
Yeandle, ed., Girard de Viane, ll. 11â“80.
Writing of the Couronnement de Louis, Frappier notes that â˜La cĂ©rĂ©monie dans la chapelle
dâ™Aix Ă©voke le sacre de Louis VII Ă Reims en 1131 autant ou plus que lâ™Ă©vĂ©nement de 813â™: Chansons
de geste, II, 141. He suggests (p. 158) that the text creates a double reference, uniting the Capetian
present with memories of the Carolingian past. As Rossi says, â˜les personnages carolingiens et tout
un arsenal de stĂ©rĂ©otypes narratifs sont utilisĂ©s pour narrer des Ă©vĂ©nements pseudo-historiques
qui, en fait, renvoient Ă la rĂ©alitĂ© et aux problĂ¨mes du royaume capĂ©tien des XIIe et XIIIe siĂ¨clesâ™:
Essor et fortune, I, 264.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
The Song of Aspremont
The Song of Aspremont (Chanson dâ™Aspremont), an anonymous poem from the
Cycle of the King, probably written late in the twelfth century,6 tells the story
of an imagined pagan invasion of Italy in the time of Charlemagne. These
invaders are overcome only after horriď¬c battles won by the Christian host
under Charlemagne, aided by Duke Girart of Burgundy.
The author constantly buttresses the justiď¬cation, even the sacralization, of
the knightly role. In his mind, only one standard measures human conduct
and achievement. The young Roland and his friends, for example, embody the
noble urge to demonstrate their prowess on the battleď¬eld. Though only boys,
they nearly kill the man set to keep them safely away from the combat, soundly
beat another set of men in order to obtain the warhorses they need, and cause
appreciative laughter when their tale is heard by seasoned warriors.7
Even the clerics, specialists in mediatory piety though they may be, must
show as much participation in chivalry as is possible, if they are truly to rank
in the authorâ™s estimation. Archbishop Turpin, we learn, is not only a well-
bred man, and a dispenser of largesse, he also personally commands a large
host. He boasts proudly of being both a priest and a knight, and shows his
knightly qualities in the most accepted manner on the battleď¬eld. When Pope
Milon wants a man to carry a piece of the true cross into battle, and encoun-
ters refusals from two knights who think they serve better with hands free to
use their own knightly weapons, Turpin accepts the missionâ”on condition
that the pope bless his dual role.8 So much for Gregorianism.9
The pope himself leads a large contingent of knights in Charlemagneâ™s host,
sermonizes all in that host to ď¬ght mightily as penance for their sins, and
promises absolution without confession. In the crisis of the ď¬ght he pledges
his own willingness to die alongside the knights.10
The sacralization of knighthood, however, works most clearly because of
their role as proto-crusaders; through the hard strokes the knights give and
receive in action against the pagan foe, they merit the welcome that God pre-
pares for them in paradise. Adroitly avoiding the anachronism of crusaders
before there were crusades, the author pictures his Christian warriors placing
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are from Newth, ed., tr., Song of
Aspremont; Brandin, ed., Chanson dâ™Aspremont.
Laisses 420â“3. Turpin later gives up the relic to use his own arms.
See Noble, â˜Anti-Clericalismâ™. He notes, p. 149, that â˜In these poems the clergy are of little
importance, particularly as an organized force. The church seems to have little authority as such,
although individual churchmen may be able to exercise some inď¬‚uence.â™
Ll. 1614, 1700, 4271â“311.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 233
red crosses on their hauberks, ostensibly so that they can recognize each other
in the confusion of combat.11
The clerics cannot praise the knights too highly or give to them too gener-
ously from their spiritual treasury or from ecclesiastical coffers. As the
Archbishop tells the Pope,
It is our duty to cherish all brave knights;
For when we clerics sit down to eat at night,
Or in Godâ™s service sing matins at ď¬rst light,
These men are ď¬ghting for our lands with their lives;
So Abbot Fromer here and you and I
Should empty all our coffers for their supplies;
Each one of us should give so much alike
Theyâ™ll honor us and serve us all the time.12
The pope is in full agreement. He pours forth assurances that the knightsâ™ hard
service merits paradise, and guarantees the truth of his assertion with his own
hope of salvation:
Brave Christian knights, God keep you in his strength!
Well might you say that you are lucky men,
That in your lifetime you can your faith defend;
You who are born in sin and wickedness,
For which you all are damned and your souls dead,
By striking blows with blades of steel unchecked
Your sins will be absolved and your souls blessed;
There is no doubt of thisâ”you have my pledge;
Rise up at once sweet Jesus to avenge!
You will be savedâ”or may I go to Hell!13
Some variant of this speech encourages the warriors time and again, whether
from the sermons and speeches of the pope on the battleď¬eld,14 or from the lay
leaders, Charlemagne15 and Girart.16 The ghostly presence of famous military
saints on the battleď¬eld drives the point home.17 Those who have already
earned paradise with their swords join in the work of those still ď¬ghting the
The knights accept the explicit exchange stated outright more than once:
Christ died for them; they must be willing to die for him.18 They know the
reward. Richer, a knight asked to take a message seeking Charlemagneâ™s help,
See especially laisses 213, 236, 244, 288. Laisse 5.
Laisse 46. E.g. laisses 244, 288, 455.
E.g. laisse 244. E.g. laisses 213, 276.
Laisse 425. See, for example, ll. 9380â“1.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
refuses. To leave the ď¬ghting, he objects, would be â˜to lose my soul for my
Wearing the crusading cross, then, the knights can apparently do no wrong.
Yet the author knows the realities of the knightly life as lived day by day at
home. Negative tones intrude insistently and discordantly into his hymning of
â˜Onward Christian Soldiersâ™.
Girart provides much of the negative evidence in his attitudes and actions.
At ď¬rst, he plans to attack France while Charlemagne is warring with the
pagans. His wife thinks he should rather do penance with his sword and aid
the great king.20 Her view of his motivation, acquired in long years of married
observation, is telling:
You never were happy or felt any real mirth
If you werenâ™t killing people or causing hurt;
A century back you took me for your wife
And each day since youâ™ve spent committing crimes;
Youâ™ve robbed and burned and plundered all the time.21
Though he accepts his wifeâ™s advice to aid in the holy war, his own view of the
common, everyday ď¬ghting at home remains positive; it is just business as
usual, he says in a later speech to his men:
If my neighbour starts a quarrel with me,
With ď¬re 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.22
Girart never denies clerics their essential function, despite all their trouble-
some strictures. He simply thumbs his nose at the high claims of Gregorianism
and lives in the old mental world of lay domination.
Sometimes his opposition is a bit more active, as when he tries to knife
Archbishop Turpin who has been sent, early in the story, to enlist his help in
the coming campaign. Turpin, no slouch at action with blades himself, avoids
the blow skilfully and warns Girart that Charlemagne will take vengeance and
that the pope will place all Burgundy under interdict. The dukeâ™s reply is a clas-
â˜Se je pert lâ™ame por le cors espargnierâ™: l. 3949. Laisse 81
Ll. 1478â“80, 1483â“5. Kay, Chansons de Geste, 46â“8, 60â“76, notes the role of women especially
in speaking a â˜counternarrativeâ™ against some dominant ideals in the text.
Ll. 5012â“17; my translation.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 235
sic speech of lay independence: anti-Gregorianism combined with feudal
deď¬ance of kingship:
Now if my memoryâ™s clear,
There are three thrones chosen and set apart:
One is called Constantinople,
Rome is another, and this city makes threeâ”
The fourth is Toulouse which is part of my heritage;
Across my own realm I have my own priests;
Never for baptisms or any Christian service
do we need the popeâ™s authority;
Iâ™ll make a Pope myself, should I so please!
In all my possessions whatsoever
I hold not the value of one shelled egg
from any earthly man, but from the Lord God alone.
Your king will never be loved by me
Unless he is kneeling down at my feet!23
Although Turpin and Girart easily agree that all power comes from God,
the archbishop quickly stresses a different conception of the hierarchical medi-
ation of that power. In what we might safely take as the theme of reform in this
text, Turpin announces to Girart an inescapable fact: â˜You wonâ™t be without a
lord for long.â™ The importance of the announcement is underscored by Girartâ™s
reaction; â˜full of hateâ™, he threatens to break the archbishopâ™s neck if he does
not ď¬‚ee at once.24
In the programme of this text, then, a primary valorization of knightly vio-
lence as idealized warfare against the enemies of the faith is in some measure
balanced by a message that urges restraint and a need for subjection to more
than local authority. The authority steadily praised is an ideal kingship,
sanctiď¬ed (though not controlled) by ecclesiastics.
The point is clearly made in Girartâ™s ď¬rst meeting with Charlemagne. The
duke realizes at once that the great king really is deserving of his loyalty and
respect; royautĂ© and chevalerie meet in amity. As they converse, Turpin, here
representing the world of clergie, in need of knightly services, skilfully records
the scene with black ink on white parchmentâ”while on horseback, no less.25
Several speeches on good kingship which appear later in the text seem
designed as much to advertise the merits of sound rule to the knightly audi-
ence as to sermonize kings about their duties. Greeting Girart â˜in love and in
faithâ™, Charlemagne asks him why he is not a king. Girart answers that he had
Ll. 1164â“77; my translation.
For Turpinâ™s warning, see ll. 1187â“8; for Girartâ™s reaction, ll. 1189â“94; my translations.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
not the worth nor the power (â˜ne val tant ne nâ™en ai le pouoirâ™), and then deliv-
ers a classic speech on good kingship:
The type of man who seeks a crown on earth,
Should look to God and in his faith be ď¬rm;
He should both honour and serve the Holy Church;
He should cast out bad laws and break their curse,
And champion good ones, and try to make them work;
He should help orphans and feed them from his purse,
Look after widows and their safety preserve.
The wicked man he should try to convert,
But none the less destroy if he grows worse;
He should keep by his side men of good birth,
For from their counsel he may ď¬nd out and learn
The way to govern his own soul and self ď¬rst;
To promise little and give much in return
Will move the heart of everyone he serves;
A wicked man who seeks his fellowsâ™ hurt,
He who would try to steal anotherâ™s serf,
Who would rob churches, then violate and burn,
Oppress the poor and tread them in the dirt,
That sort of man should not for kingship yearn.
Once again, such sentiments are quickly covered with the highest ecclesiastical
blessing: â˜The Pontiff speaks: âYou deserve to be heard; / He who seeks wis-
dom may ď¬nd it in your words;â â™26 Girart seems to have moved some distance
from his earlier casual view of quotidian violence and counterviolence at
home, coupled with a ď¬erce determination not to yield so much as â˜one shelled
eggâ™ to anyone else claiming power and authority over him.
As if to underscore his reform, Girart repeats this speech almost verbatim
near the close of the chanson, as part of a longer speech of advice to his father-
in-law, Florent, whom Charlemagne has named king of Apulia. To the earlier
list of wrongdoing to be punished by kings he now adds an explicit warning
about those who would usurp a neighbourâ™s ď¬ef to add to their own domain;
such men the king should banish for seven years as an example for the others.27
In a curious way the message delivered by Girartâ™s conversion to reformed
practice is heightened by his apostasy at the very end of the text. Suddenly, he
announces his adherence to his old views of utter independence of the clerical
hierarchy headed by the pope, and the emerging power of the state headed by
The entire speech comes in ll. 11178â“268; ll. 11229â“54 largely reproduce the previous speech.
The author also strongly advises against putting peasantsâ™ sons in high position.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 237
the king; he explains that his cooperation and submission to any authority
beyond himself and short of God was only temporary. First, he denies the
claims of the Gregorian papacy:
I have my own clerks, wise enough and wealthy;
Never do they need nor seek the pope
for belief or authority
for baptisms or any Christian rite.
The claims of kingship are next denied:
Whateverâ™s mine, my wealth, my land, my might,
Iâ™ll hold from no one except Lord God on High;
Ah, Charlemayn, the truth I will not hide;
In this campaign we have both won this time;
Your leadership therein Iâ™ve recognized
And my own lips have called you Lord and Sire;
My name, at court, should never be reviled;
But all Iâ™ve done I did for love of Christ;
Iâ™m not your man nor faith to you do plight
Or ever shall all the days of my life.
As Girart proudly swings into his saddle and rides off, the French stare at each
other in bewilderment. Charlemagne indulges in one of his reveries, and then
â˜between his teethâ™ mutters a most royalist reď¬‚ection: â˜If I may live a long life
ere I die, / The pride of one of us shall not survive.â™28 Except for a closing sum-
mary of the grand events he has recounted, and a prayer for Godâ™s mercy, the
poet ends his chanson here.
He has spoken repeatedly, if somewhat ambivalently to the topics that have
shaped our enquiry. He has clearly shown the lively and continuing need for
the reform of chevalerie vis-Ă -vis clergie and royautĂ©. Girartâ™s sudden afď¬rmation
of old beliefs at the end of the story would surely have opened the way for spir-
ited discussion of these basic, thoroughly current questions in any audience.
The Crowning of Louis
The Crowning of Louis (Le Couronnement de Louis),29 probably written between
1131 and 1137, tells the story of the great work of William of Orange in saving
Rome from pagan invasion, in saving Louis, son of Charlemagne, from
For all of these speeches, see ll. 11333â“55; the translation of the anti-Gregorian passage is my
own; the others come from Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are from Hoggan, tr., â˜Crowning of
Louisâ™; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
rebellion, and ď¬nally in saving Rome again, this time from Guy of Germany.
As will be apparent, this text, too, speaks with great force to the issues that
concern us; it, too, bears witness to the shadows as well as to the light.30 The
reality of knightly motivation and action appears clearly, if indirectly, within
the interstices of the ideal portraits drawn. The author, we will see, has mixed
feelings about actual knightly behaviour as experienced in the world.
He can, for example, describe deeds of prowess with as loving a hand as ever
scratched pen on parchment. All serious issues in the story are solved by
knightly violence: the initial challenger to Louisâ™s kingly right is smashed by a
single blow of the ď¬st (William remembering just in time to sheath his sword
and not spill blood in a church); the pagan threat to Rome is stopped in its
tracks when William takes on Corsolt, the unbelieving champion, and with a
great sword stroke sends the offenderâ™s head, still encased in its helmet, ď¬‚ying
off his body; only his ceaseless warfare (and another personal combat, this
time with the traitor Acelin, son of Richard of Rouen) rescues Louis and props
up his kingship; yet another single combat signals the end of the German
attack on Rome near the poemâ™s end. These personal encounters are jewels of
prowess set within a gilded narrative of general warfare. No sense of inappro-
priateness intrudes when William calls on God or the Virgin as sources for his
Yet there is worry, or at least an unblinkered realism, intertwined with the
praise. The glandular urge to violence surging just below the surface in the
warriors appears in both hero and villain; more than once they appear â˜mad
with rageâ™ when challenged or insulted.31 The author also knows that knightly
motivation included booty and revenge as well as pure faith and loyalty. At the
start of his combat with Corsolt, William not only prays one of his famous
prayers, ď¬lled with theological verities;32 he also eyes his enemyâ™s horse with
frank covetousness: â˜ âHoly Mary!â he exclaimed, âwhat a ď¬ne charger that is!
He would serve a worthy man so well that I must take care to spare him with
my weapons. May God who governs all things protect him and prevent me
from harming him with my sword!â â™ The poet adds approvingly, â˜Those were
not the words of a coward.â™33 He likewise frankly describes Williamâ™s army liv-
ing by looting the countryside around Rome while they are on campaign
against Guy of Germany: â˜Count William led out the foragers into the sur-
For dating and general discussion, see Frappier, Chansons de geste, II, 51â“186. On the uses of
violence in this violent text, see Combarieu, â˜La violenceâ™, I, 126â“52.
See, for example, laisses 44, 51.
Discussed by Frappier, Chansons de geste, 137â“8, and Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, â˜Le
chevalier Ă oraisonâ™.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 239
rounding district to spoil the countryside. They plundered the whole region,
so that the men of the army were well-off and well provided for.â™34
Going beyond realism to message, the poet notes that in the course of his
warfare for King Louis, William attacked the town of Saint-Gilles one morn-
ing. Winning an easy victory, he nevertheless â˜acted in a way pleasing to Jesusâ™,
the audience is told pointedly, â˜when he spared the church there from being
Even more pointed is a critical description of the knighthood of France with
whom William had to contend: â˜as long as he lived . . . the Frenchmen took to
rebelling again, making war against each other and acting like madmen, burn-
ing down towns and laying waste the countryside. They would not restrain
themselves at all on Louisâ™ account.â™36 When the acts of prowess leave the realm
of the mythic and come closer to home and to contemporary politics, the tone
clearly changes: trumpet-calls fade and talk of reform surges.
Much knightly independence with regard to the sphere of clergie, however,
receives at least tacit approval. Of course, there is the usual everyday anticleri-
calism.37 Seeing no sign of vigour in his son Louis when he ď¬rst offers him the
crown, Charlemagne exclaims, â˜Let us cut off all his hair and put him into this
monastery; he can pull the bell ropes and be the sacristan, so he will have a pit-
tance to keep him from beggary.â™38 But more interesting is the ideal of religion
and the clerical role.
The most revealing scene comes early in the story, when the pope is trying
to persuade William to ď¬ght Corsolt. The pope must present both the most
powerful relic (the armbone of St Peter, plainly revealed without its usual gold
and silver casing) and the most powerfully attractive concessions before he
ď¬nally convinces William:
Look, here is St Peter, the guardian of souls; if you undertake this feat of arms today
on his account, my lord, then you may eat meat every single day for the rest of your life
and take as many wives as you have a mind to. You will never commit any sin however
wicked (so long as you avoid any act of treason) that will not be discounted, all the days
of your life, and you shall have your lodging in paradise, the place Our Lord keeps for
His best friends; St Gabriel himself will show you the way.
William can only gasp out his willingness to ď¬ght, and his thankfulness for
such terms: â˜Ah! God help us! . . . never was there a more generous-hearted
cleric! Now I will not fail, for any man alive or for any pagan however foul
or wicked, to go out and ď¬ght against these scoundrelsâ™.39 In the ď¬ght that
follows, when William appears to be in danger of defeat, the pope actually
Laisse 56. Laisse 50. Laisse 63.
34 35 36
See, in general, Noble, â˜Anti-Clericalismâ™, 149â“58. Laisse 8. Laisse 18.
37 38 39
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
threatens St Peter: â˜What are you doing, then, St Peter? If he dies out there, it
will be unlucky for you: as long as I live and draw breath, there will never be
any mass sung in your church!â™40
Saintsâ™ relics were threatened and abused, especially in the earlier Middle
Ages, in order to secure some desired result.41 Yet in these remarkable passages
we can also see the clergy and the religion they more or less controlled in life
refashioned in chivalric literature to conform to an ideal knightly image. The
warrior champions of the more powerful God and his powerful saints will
overcome his enemies, the knightsâ™ enemies, with sword and lance. The sacral-
ity of religion, protected by knighthood, blesses such chivalry and bends the
troublesome rules in payment for the knightsâ™ hard service. The only unfor-
givable sin set in a separate category by the pope, we should note, is treason.42
One other example of the knightly beau ideal of a cleric appears later in the
person of Walter, Abbot of St Martins, who has hidden away King Louis from
eighty traitorous canons and clerics. He gives William an account of their plot
and he suggests an unambiguous response: â˜Louis is to be disinherited this
very day unless God and you yourself are prepared to protect him. Take all
their heads, I beg you in Godâ™s name! I take all the sin of desecrating a church
upon myself, for they are all traitors and renegades.â™ Hearing this bold plea,
William laughs and utters a benediction: â˜Blessed be the hour that such a cleric
Abbot Walterâ™s offer points to an important fact: he presumes that this des-
ecration is both necessary and sinful, requiring his heroic offer to take the sin
upon himself. In a similar way, William spends years ď¬ghting constantly for his
king, even on holy days:
for three whole years there was not a single day, however high and holy, that William
did not have his burnished helm laced on and his sword girt at his side, riding fully
armed on his charger. There was not a feastday when men should go to worship, not
even Christmas Day which should be set above all others, that he was not dressed in his
hauberk and armed. The knight suffered a great penance to support and to aid his
On humiliation and coercion of saintsâ™ relics, see Geary, â˜Lâ™Humiliation des saintsâ™; idem,
Living with the Dead, 95â“124; and Little, Benedictine Maledictions. By the thirteenth century the
practices described were under criticism and regulation.
â˜Se tant puez faire de traison te gardesâ™: l. 393.
Laisse 40. The idea of a cleric taking on a knightâ™s necessary sin is not limited to imaginative
literature. Joinville records the offer made to Louis IX (while both were in Muslim captivity). The
aged Patriarch of Jerusalem advises Louis to swear whatever his captors require and he will take
upon himself any sin involved. Wailly, ed., Joinville, 151â“2.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 241
This hard service, at once loyal and sinful, is undertaken as a penance.45 Clearly
there are duties a knight must rightly assume, even though the rules of clergie
will formally condemn him for it. In an ideal world, some right-minded cleric
would shoulder such sins himself and wipe the slate clean. The chansons de geste
create such a world.46
But they engage in reform of knighthood as well as in imaginative refash-
ioning of the clergy, and in this text one reform theme is stressed above all
others. Jean Frappier calls this text, with reason, the most political of the chan-
sons de geste.47 If chevalerie is the stalwart and essential defender of both clergie
and royautĂ©, it must shape that role, however uncomfortable the ď¬t, into the
sometimes cramping framework of sanctiď¬ed, legitimate kingship. Chivalry
may like to imagine that it can take the clerics on its own terms; it may realize
with some degree of grouchiness that royal justice is not always what it should
beâ”â˜wicked men have made justice a mask for covetousness and because of
bribery fair hearings are no longer givenâ™, says the author48â”but whatever the
problems, whatever the personal qualities of the current king, the working
principle of legitimate kingship is the essential key to an ordered society.
Valorization moves signiď¬cantly in this direction in The Crowning of Louis.
William begins as a prototypical crusader, and he and his men receive the usual
assurances that the Almighty loves their work, that paradise awaits those killed
in it.49 With this aura of sanctity ď¬rmly established, however, William shifts
locations and enemies smoothly. He becomes the steady defender of royaltyâ”
in France, against domestic enemiesâ”through the next major section of the
text (as indeed he has been in one brief incident in its earliest laisses).
Legitimate, even holy warfare against the pagans, who are here presented as
men literally engaged in feud with God, has given way to legitimate and pre-
sumably even holy warfare (or at least atoneable warfare) against Christians in
France. The glow of crusading sanctity remains, in other words, as William
shifts enemies to ď¬ght against the misguided men who have failed to see the
need for legitimate kingship. Later in the text William turns to sanctiď¬ed war
against analogously misguided Germans who think they can capture Rome
and its bishop, before he returns to the necessary, if endless and even thank-
less, task of defending French royalty.
Of course Louis himself launched William in this role by turning to him as
soon as he has been crowned. On that occasion he appealed to knighthood as
In the Chanson dâ™Aspremont the pope says he will carry all the knightsâ™ sins on his own back
as they travel to heaven, having been killed ď¬ghting for God: see Brandin, ed., Chanson
dâ™Aspremont, l. 5469.
Frappier, Chansons de geste, 51. Laisse 4. See, e.g., laisse 18.
47 48 49
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
the buttress of kingship: â˜My father says you are a ď¬ne knight, that there is no
greater warrior under the vault of heaven. I wish to entrust to you my lands
and my ď¬efs so that you may protect them for me, noble knight, until I can
bear arms myself.â™50
The author also gives plain speeches in praise of this high mission to two
humbler truth-tellers, a pilgrim and a porter. The pilgrim brings William news
of the plot against King Louis and asks, rhetorically, â˜Ah! God help us! . . .
where have all the noble knights gone now, and the lineage of the bold Count
Aymeri? They are the ones who always supported their lord before.â™51 For his
news and his declared willingness to help Louis if only he were able, William
rewards the man with ten ounces of gold.
William makes a knight of the second speaker, the porter who shortly after
the meeting with the pilgrim delivers almost the same speech. The porter is
explaining why he will not admit William and his men to Tours, thinking they
have only come to increase the forces of rebellion:
Ah! God help us! . . . where have all the valiant knights gone now and the lineage of the
warlike Aymeri who used to support their rightful lord so well? . . . There are too many
vile traitors in here already, I do not want to increase their numbers. . . . Would to the
glorious King of Heaven that the earth might give way under your feet and that Louis
were back in his ď¬ef! Then the world would be rid of evil men!52
Given Louisâ™s character and record, given that he is at this moment in the
story hiding timidly in a crypt of the cathedral, such conď¬dence might seem
misplaced. It might seem even more misplaced after recalling the stirring lines
at the opening of the poem describing the ideal king for France:
The king who wears the golden crown of France must be an upright man and valiant
in his body. If there is any man who does him a wrong, he must leave him no peace in
plain or in forest until he has overpowered him or killed him. If he does not do this,
France loses her glory; then, history says, he was wrongfully crowned.53
The contrast with Louis could scarcely be more starkly drawn.
Yet this simple image of king as ideal warlord is only one side of the coin of
royalty struck in the text. The necessary role of legitimate kingship in securing
public order forms the other side. This power must be preserved and it must
be used positively. Charlemagneâ™s advice to his son (who is, like a Capetian, to
be crowned in the fatherâ™s lifetime) begins with the basic need for a moral life,
since no one can rule others if he cannot rule himself; but he quickly goes on
to a requirement that the king should justly regulate the feudal order of soci-
ety, acting fairly with regard to the granting of ď¬efs, and utterly destroying
Laisse 13. Laisse 35. Laisse 36. Laisse 3.
50 51 52 53
Chanson de Geste and Reform 243
proud rebels who will not accept his authority. On the one hand this means
justice even for the poor:
a king must strike down wrongs under his feet and trample on them and stamp them
out. Towards the poor man, you must humble yourself and, if he has a plea, it should
not vex you; rather you should help him and succour him and for love of God restore
him to his rights.
On the other hand, a king must stamp out prideful rebelliousness:
Towards the proud man, you must show yourself as ď¬erce as a man-eating leopard and,
if he tries to make war on you, summon throughout France all the noble knights until
you have up to thirty thousand, have him besieged in his strongest fortress and all his
land laid waste and devastated. If you can capture him or have him delivered into your
hands, show him neither mercy nor pity but have all his limbs cut off or let him be burnt
in a ď¬re or drowned in water.54
This advice set in the Carolingian era forms a striking parallel to contemporary
Capetian policy, to the ceaseless policing of the Ăle de France by Louis VI. This
historical King Louis would undoubtedly have loved to summon the thirty
thousand noble knights of the literary Louis to join him in besieging the
strongholds of such local tyrants as Thomas of Marle; he was forced to rely,
instead, on a much smaller collection of loyal local vassals and parish militia.
The ideological point of the text, however, its reforming message, could
scarcely be more plain: whatever the foibles of the current king, the institution
of kingship needs the support of â˜noble knightsâ™ if right order is to be main-
tained in a perilous world.
The corollary is, of course, that kings will rule with their vassals in mind and
with their vassalsâ™ advice heeded in their courts. No low-born men need apply.
â˜And another thing I want to tell you about that will be very important to youâ™,
Charlemagne adds to his message to Louis:
not to take a lowborn man as your counsellor, the son of a lordâ™s agent or of a bailiff.
These would betray their trust in a minute for money. Choose rather William, the
noble warrior, the son of proud Aymeri of Narbonne and brother of Bernard of
Brubant, the warrior; if these men are willing to support and aid you, you can com-
pletely rely on their service.55
The formula is, in theory, straightforward: when the ideal king relies on the
ideal knight the kingdom prospers. The poet knows, of course, how the real
world turns, as the closing lines of the poem detail:
Laisse 13. In a contemporary reference the poet warns that if this is not done the Normans
will be contemptuous and encouraged in their hostility.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Within a year [William] had dealt out such punishment to the rebels that ď¬fteen counts
were forced to present themselves at court and do homage for their inheritance to Louis
who held command over France. . . . But when he was fully in power, he showed no
gratitude to William.
Raoul de Cambrai
The note of ambiguity echoing in the last line of this text will sound even more
discordantly in our third example of chanson de geste, Raoul de Cambrai, a poem
from the Cycle of the Barons in Revolt.56 Here is a wild story of kingly malfea-
sance and knightly feud, with no veneer of crusading sanctity57 and with even
larger question marks left hanging in mid-air.
It is a poem with a history and architecture that are complex, even for a chan-
son de geste. The ď¬rst portion seems to have appeared in writing by the mid-
twelfth century; it tells the story of the violent, prideful, heedless warrior
Raoul; and it apparently used the poetic technique of assonance rather than
rhyme. Somewhere in the early years of the reign of Philip II (1180â“1223) this
original, assonanced epic was rhymed and expanded by a section with focus on
Bernier, Raoulâ™s vassal and eventual killer. This entire rewriting is known as
Raoul I. Towards the end of Philipâ™s reign, another addition appeared, in asso-
nanced form, carrying the story through more adventures, feuding, and bat-
tles until â˜[t]here being no other male characters left, the story comes to an
endâ™.58 This early thirteenth-century section is known as Raoul II. We can draw
on the evidence of both sections, but will focus primarily on Raoul I, and
speciď¬cally on that section concerned with Raoul himself, since this was the
most widespread part of the text.
The characteristics of the society portrayed in Raoul I could have formed a
model for Hobbesâ™s state of nature. â˜The poem has a nightmarish quality,â™ as
Sarah Kay, its most recent editor and translator, has observed, â˜arising both
from the horror of the events portrayed and from the ethical opacity of the nar-
rative as it pursues alternative perspectives through unstable characters and
competing narrative strands.â™59 In this world, chivalry by and large means
prowess crowned with success, an obsession with honour defended by unbeat-
able violence. The blood of characters boils regularly; they go mad with rage
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section are from Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de
Cambrai. The brief description of the text which follows is based on her thorough introduction.
Cf. Calin, Old French Epic, passim; idem, â˜Raoul de Cambraiâ™; idem, Muse for Heroes, 37â“56; Pauline
Matarasso, Recherches historiques.
The knights ď¬ght no pagans in Raoul I; in Raoul II, since some pagans are good, some bad,
the force of crusading valorization is likewise missing.
Kay, Raoul de Cambrai, lv. Ibid., ix.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 245
at intervals; they demand hostages to secure each agreement reached as a tem-
porary triumph over suspicious distrust. The tensions that inevitably arise
from the ragged intersections of the great forces of the ageâ”kingship, lord-
ship, vassalage, religion, kin ties, vengeanceâ”repeatedly produce the recipro-
cal and bloody violence of single combat, feud, and battle.
The almost glandular impulse to violence shows up unforgettably near the
end of Raoul I when an unwise royal seneschal seats the feuding families side
by side at a Pentecost banquet. Guerri, uncle of Raoul (the latter by this time
dead and buried) is beside himself with rage and can barely be prevented from
carrying out his designs on his enemies with a huge steel knife. When he sees
the venison served, the cooked meat acts as a catalyst on his wrath and the hall
erupts in a brawl; the general violence is distilled into the standard single com-
bat, between Bernier and Gautier (Raoulâ™s nephew and heir). Even when these
heroes have hacked each other into disability, they seem ready to renew the
ď¬ght by crawling from their blood-stained beds, which have been thought-
lessly placed so that the opponents can see and hear one another.60
Raoul himself, however, stands as the great embodiment of these issues, and
was in fact renowned in the Middle Ages in just that role. Long deprived of a
great ď¬ef that was rightfully his, and then wrongfully provided with a ď¬ef that
should go to another, he wars to recover withheld property and to avenge
impugned honour. He scorns a counsel of caution from his companion and
vassal Bernier, and from his mother Alice, and he speciď¬cally rejects her
pointed advice that his war must not destroy chapels and churches and slaugh-
ter the poor.61 He insists â˜such war be unleashed on the Vermandois that
countless churches will be burned and destroyedâ™.62 His men soon put his
instructions into practical effect as they â˜cross over into the Vermandois, and
seize the livestock, reducing countless men to ruin. They set ď¬re to the landâ”
the farms are ablaze.â™63
In what became the most famous scene in the poem, Raoul attacks the town
of Origny, controlled by his enemies, and announces his plans for the church
Pitch my tent in the middle of the church and my packhorses will stand in its porches;
prepare my food in the crypts, my sparrow-hawk can perch on the gold crosses, and
prepare a magniď¬cent bed for me to sleep in front of the altar; I will use the cruciď¬x as
a back rest and my squires can make free with the nuns. I want to destroy the place
Laisses CCXXIVâ“CCXXXIV. Laisse LI.
Laisse LVIII. Laisse LIX. Laisse LX.
62 63 64
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
His â˜noble warriorsâ™ are dutifully about to commit these multiple sacrileges
when they hear the church bells peal: â˜remembering God the Father of justice,
even the craziest of them felt compelled to show reverenceâ™, and so they sim-
ply camp outside the town.65
On discovering this disobedience, Raoul at ď¬rst characteristically loses con-
trol (â˜fu molt demesurezâ™), but comes to see that the holy relics of the church
must not be destroyed. His uncle Guerri clinches the case with a frank assess-
ment of power: â˜If God takes against you, you wonâ™t last long.â™66 Raoul even
agrees to a truce with the nuns who serve the church, led by Marsent, Bernierâ™s
mother. Their meeting (as noted in Chapter 10) is a striking tableau of clergie
confronting chevalerie. The nuns process beyond the town walls, reciting the
holy ofď¬ce and carrying books, the symbols of their Latinate literacy and learn-
ing; Marsent even holds â˜a book from the time of Solomonâ™.
Though Raoul agrees to a truce, a chance incident, involving what he takes
to be disrespect to three of his men, sparks his successful all-out attack and the
ď¬ring of the town: â˜Rooms are burning here and ď¬‚oors collapsing there, bar-
rels are catching ď¬re, their hoops split, and children are burning to death in
horrible agony.â™ The church, too, goes up in ď¬‚ames and all the nuns die; a dis-
traught Bernier sees Marsent lying in the ď¬‚ames, her priceless book symboli-
cally burning on her breast.67 His work for the day done, Raoul repairs to his
tent, dismounts from his great tawny warhorse, and is disarmed by barons
who love him, as the poet relates: â˜they unlace his green helmet ornamented
with pure gold, then they ungird his good steel sword, and take off his good
double hauberk from his back. . . . There was not such a ď¬ne knight in the
whole of France, nor one so fearless at arms.â™68
Kayâ™s comment about moral opacity and multiple perspectives comes read-
ily to mind. Medieval writers who commented on Raoul saw in him the very
model of violent excess, of demesure, allowing modern readers to believe that
the poet intended to provoke just such reactions. The text is peppered, in fact,
with explicit statements against demesure. The author observes early in the
action that â˜an unbridled man (hom desreez) has great difď¬culty in survivingâ™.69
Ybert, giving his son Bernier advice, states the same theme: â˜I will be honest
with you: I can tell you the story of many menâ™s lives, and an arrogant man will
never succeed, whatever anyone may say.â™70 Shortly thereafter, Count Eudes
makes the same point: â˜Barons . . . noble knights! A man without moderation
(sans mesure) is not worth a ď¬g.â™71
The idea of sheer war-weariness, moreover, joins moderation as a close ally
near the close of Raoul I. Bernier and Gautier, the current champions of the
Laisse LX. Laisse LXII. Laisses LXXâ“LXXIV.
65 66 67
Laisse LXXIV. Laisse XXIV. Laisse XC. Laisse CIV.
68 69 70 71
Chanson de Geste and Reform 247
feuding sides, have fought their single combat and, as we have already noted,
lie severely wounded. Though Gautier, blood boiling, is shouting deď¬ance
from his bed, Bernier suddenly declares enough is enough; peace is the great
need; resistance to it is sin. Wounded, semi-naked, publicly prostrating him-
self in the form of a cross before his enemy, Bernier offers his sword and a
paciď¬c ultimatum: Gautier must either kill him or be reconciled. The blessings
of clergie descend on the offer as the Abbot of Saint-Germain comes into the
scene, loaded with sacred relics. A peace is, for the time, arranged.
Looking at such scenes as this, at the structure of the plot as a whole, and at
the explicit statements favouring mesure, we might easily decide that the â˜mes-
sageâ™ of the text is clear. Yet we cannot be certain how everyone in the audi-
ence heard and interpreted; nagging doubts and a sense of the need for
qualiď¬cation remain. The message can scarcely be paciď¬sm: a realignment of
the feuding families against the king and the enthusiastic ď¬ring of Paris, for
one thing, follow quickly on the heels of the reconciliation.
And in a more general way, fears of demesure and violence only slowly and
partially drag the heavy anchor of sheer, beloved prowess, the undiminished
commitment to honour defended with edged weapons. After Raoul dies on
the battleď¬eld next to a slain opponent named John, the biggest knight in all
of France, the hearts are removed from the two bodies and laid out on a shield
to be examined; the result will be signiď¬cant, for the heart was the seat of
prowess, the point of origin for the arteries which in Galenic theory carried the
animal vitality of the body. The giant John, it turns out, had the heart of a
child, while that of Raoul â˜was very much larger than that of a draught ox at
The text thus shows some signs of ambivalence. The author wants mesure in
knights, wants them to learn not to burn churches, and certainly to avoid
burning nuns; he thinks there is a time to end wars, even if there is also a time
to initiate them. Yet through it all something of the ancient call to arms stirs
him, something of the grandeur in noble revenge seems satisfying, even it if
must inevitably, sadly, be achieved at great cost.73
This sense of complexity of view is reinforced by the absence of that
endorsement of royal power which so often appears as a theme in chanson de
geste. In this text, far from representing a needed regulator and peacemaker,
the king is ultimately at the root of the problems; he gives away Raoulâ™s ď¬ef to
a favourite and later gives Raoul the ď¬ef of the faithful royal vassal Herbert,
who has four sons. At the end of Raoul I the antagonistic families belatedly
Matarasso agrees: see Recherches historiques, 163â“4. â˜Raoul est ce hĂ©ros Ă©piqueâ™, she writes. â˜Il
suit son Ă©toile, lâ™Ă©toile de grandeur, de la dĂ©mesure, de la dĂ©chĂ©anceâ™ (p. 174).
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
recognize these facts and turn against the king. At that point, far from acting
as the divine agent for peace, Louis, the author tells us, was privately sorry that
the feuding families had come to an accord.74
One might argue, of course, that the problem is not kingship per se, but
kingship which is too weak to carry out its essential role. Yet there is here none
of the endorsement and knightly defence of kingship right or wrong that
appeared so strikingly in The Crowning of Louis; in that text Louis, after all, was
surely another weak king, another king making mistakes.
A sense of the lingering respect for the most unreformed species of chivalry
continues, moreover, when we turn to issues of religious ideas and clerical per-
sonnel. Occasional traces of anticlericalism cause no surprise, of course, but
clerics generally stand in the background of this text (unless they are passive
victims), and religious ideas generally need to ď¬t the framework of a most
worldly chivalry if they are to live. Religion works, if it works at all, at the exte-
rior level of power relationships negotiated with God, through formal acts and
words, not through interior motive or belief. Aliceâ™s hasty curse on her son
when he refuses her advice works its terrible effects, despite her instant rush to
a church to pray for its nulliď¬cation in accordance with her true intent. Once
the words are out, their effects follow, whatever her inner motivation. Ernaut,
desperate with fear as Raoul closes in for the kill on the battleď¬eld, suddenly
sighs with relief when he hears the pursuing Raoul declare that even God and
his saints cannot stop his revenge: Ernaut knows such blasphemy will cancel
Raoulâ™s blows. Lady Alice thanks God heartily for the wounds Gautier has
inď¬‚icted on Bernier in their duel. Just before the battle in which Raoul dies,
the knights, in the absence of priests, commune themselves with three blades
of grass. Riding into the fray, â˜every good knight weeps for the pity of it and
vows to God that if he escapes alive he will never in his life commit a sin again
or, if he does, he will do penance for itâ™.75 The dying Aliaume makes his con-
fession to Gautier, who raises the prone manâ™s head and turns it to face the
east. Oaths are sworn on relics, the participating laymen thinking they require
no priestly link with divinity for the transaction.
Religion, in other words, means adding required pieties to an essential war-
rior code, not changing that code in any signiď¬cant way beyond what pru-
dence requires because of Godâ™s superior power; religious ideas express
themselves through exteriorities, not by entering the heart or soul to work
basic changes within.
Laisse CCXLI. King Louis in this poem seems almost a generic king; as Matarasso says, he
is not any one in particular, but a â˜roi mannequinâ™, or even â˜une merionetteâ™: see Recherches his-
toriques, 153, 155.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 249
Thus the author of the ď¬rst extant part of Raoul de Cambrai writes with cer-
tain reform ideas in mind: he wants more knightly mesure, he urges immunity
for holy places and for clerics, who are essential at times, despite their incon-
venience; he knows that revenge and war can drag on until costs exceed worth.
Yet he keeps looking back over his shoulder into the imagined past with what
seems almost nostalgia for the great game of honourable violence played by
stout warriors largely following their own set of rules.76 The complex way in
which chivalry could simultaneously be problem and cure is writ large in the
portion of Raoul dating from the mid-to-late twelfth century.
Has the picture changed much by the time the continuation known as Raoul
II appeared a generation later, in roughly the second decade of the thirteenth
century? A study of the vocabulary identifying adult males suggests some
movement away from the starkly martial quality of Raoul I.77 Moreover, the
author of the continuation gives his characters more outright speeches in
favour of peace, conciliation, and forgiveness; these go beyond mere war-
weariness to a sense of principle. At the very outset, Beatrice presses her
lovesuit by arguing that her marriage to Bernier will truly end the war between
their families, a result which comes to pass, at least for a time.78 The wise Doon
of Saint-Denis advises King Louis (who, granted, has just suffered a severe
reverse) to make peace with Bernier, to exchange prisoners â˜and be good
friendsâ™. â˜ âGod!â said the king, âwhat good advice that is.â â™79 In a moment of
crisis when one of Erchambautâ™s men recognizes him, despite his careful dis-
guise, Bernier â˜adopts a conciliatory mannerâ™ and promises to right an old
wrong done by his father.80 He is even more forgiving when he ď¬nally con-
fronts Guerri the Red as the guilty father-in-law who was so swiftly willing to
marry off Beatrice after hearing uncertain news of Bernierâ™s capture and pos-
sible death.81 Mortally wounded by Guerri near the end of the continuation,
Bernier provides the greatest example of forgiveness: â˜Oh God our Father who
in his great mercy forgave Longinus his death, for that reason I believe I
should forgive him too. I pardon himâ”may God have mercy on me.â™82
This sense of waxing piety may even be reinforced by the steady mention of
standard religious services; the protagonists are casually seen attending mass
and baptisms, going on pilgrimage.
Owen makes a similar assessment of what an audience of a â˜liveâ™ performance of the Song of
Roland might have thought: â˜glorying in Rolandâ™s pursuit of his ideal and untouched by Oliverâ™s
more worldly wisdomâ™: â˜Aspects of Demesureâ™, 149.
Chevalier throughout this earlier text is primarily a technical term for a man prepared by a
speciď¬c military training for a particular mode of ď¬ghting; in the later text it appears with greater
proportional frequency than such terms as warrior, baron, and vassal; at the same time the adjec-
tive preu gives some ground to cortois. See Kay, Raoul de Cambrai, xliiiâ“xlv.
Laisses CCXIIIâ“CCLV. Laisse CCLXXXII. Laisse CCCXIII.
78 79 80
Laisse CCCXXXIV. Laisse CCCXXXVIII.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Yet we would be incautious to think this continuation slackens in its praise
of prowess or offers a transformed conception of knighthood.83 From the out-
set, chivalry means deeds done on a battleď¬eld; Beatrice loves Bernier because
of his prowess as well as his good looks, having heard him praised by Guerri
as one â˜who has performed so many feats of knighthood (qi avra faites tantes
chevaleries)â™. When Bernier sheds tears over his wifeâ™s capture and likely remar-
riage, Guerri accuses him of womanly behaviour, and then tops off his criti-
cism with a prĂ©cis of the standard knightly ethos: â˜No noble man should repine
so long as he is able to bear arms.â™84 Bernier proves his skill at bearing arms tire-
lessly; after severing the head of the invading pagan champion Auciber (in
order to secure his own freedom from the pagan King Corsuble), he marks his
victory by tying the head to the ď¬‚owing tail of the dead manâ™s horse.85 In his
second period of service to the pagan king, Bernier is praised unambiguously
by Corsuble for showing his nobility through his great prowess: â˜My Christian
brother, you are everything a high-born nobleman should be. You and your
son can boast of being the best in Christendom at sustaining and surviving the
great feats of war.â™86
Being a pagan is clearly no bar to being a good knight or recognizing high
knightly qualities in others. The pagans refer to themselves as knights without
objection from the author who himself speaks of them being dubbed knights,
and even suggests that in combat they â˜wheeled round in the French styleâ™.87
They are not lacking in any of the warrior qualities, and despite a few pro
forma swipes at their gods, are viewed simply as a mixture of worthy and
unworthy men all of whom suffer an unfortunate religious identiď¬cation. The
warrior virtues, in other words, seem determinative.88
In the continuation, clerics more often step from the periphery to centre
stage, yet by and large they remain thoroughly dominated by lay powers. A
clear case in point occurs when Louis, who has just ambushed Bernier and
Beatrice on the way from the church to their wedding feast, wants to marry off
the lady to a favourite. She appeals to the clergy present to do their duty and
prevent disgrace to Christianity. But â˜[g]reat and small all keep silent, for they
The poetâ™s constant recognition of the importance of booty to the knights provides a good
example of his unblinking view of war. See, for example, laisses CCLXI, CCLXV, CCLXXXII,
CCCXXII, CCCXXVIII. Likewise, the ď¬nal war of Raoul II involves the same sort of devastation
as that which opened Raoul I: â˜They start ď¬res, sack the towns, seize the livestock, and have it
herded into army quarters; the peasant ploughmen take ď¬‚ightâ™, laisse CCCXL. Serial ambushes set
up the early plot in Raoul II.
Laisses CCLI, CCLXXIX. Laisse CCXCVII. Laisse CCCXXIX.
84 85 86
E.g. laisses CCXCIII, CCXCIV. CCCXXIV.
The same point appears, of course, in the continued description of Guerri as a great knight,
despite his eagerness to kill clerics, despite what his daughter recognizes as â˜an element of treach-
ery in his natureâ™, laisse CCCXXXV.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 251
are very afraid of strong King Louisâ™.89 Louisâ™s domination becomes physical
intimidation when he actually orders the marriage: â˜By the faith I owe St
Denis, if there is in all my land any archbishop, bishop, or consecrated abbot
who means to gainsay or prevent me, Iâ™ll have him hacked limb from limb.â™90
When Bernier and Guerri attack the open-air remarriage Louis is stage-
managing, Guerri enthusiastically calls for death to all the participating clerics:
â˜ âForward!â said Guerri the Red; âSo help me God, woe betide us if a single
one escapes aliveâ”clerk or priest or consecrated abbotâ”rather than being
killed and hacked to pieces.â â™ A modicum of mesure appears, though, for the
knights simply attack the offending clerics with the shafts, not the blades, of
What of kingship in the continuation? Louis obviously causes endless prob-
lems and shows weakness and villainy in Raoul II, as he did in Raoul I. He pro-
vokes a war by denying Bernier the ď¬ef his father held; he is humiliatingly
unhorsed in that war, â˜for he was in the wrongâ”justice was not on his sideâ™.92
He ambushes Bernier and his bride, as just noted; and, until stopped by his
wife, he was in process of sending the helpless Beatrice out into a ditch for the
sexual amusement of his eager squires.93
The formal statements about kingship in this portion of the poem, however,
look past the particular man to the ofď¬ce. In the midst of their battle against
Louis, Bernier suddenly calls out this principled view to his father:
In Godâ™s name, sir, we are behaving foolishly. Can you deny that the king of France is
our overlord, whom I see here in mortal anguish? We may make peace again some
time, if he sees ď¬t and Jesus grants it. If you take my advice, we should desist at once;
only if they attack us should we defend ourselves well.94
Beatrice gives the same line of advice to her two sons near the end of the poem:
Children . . . you must love each other, serve and respect your father, and protect the
king of France with all your powerâ”for no one should act against him, and to do so is
to court disasterâ”upholding the crown and promoting its prestige. If you do as I tell
you, no one on earth can do you harm.95
An increased emphasis on kingship is obvious. Coming at the very time Philip
II was vigorously advancing the powers of the Capetian crown, it need cause
no surprise.96 Yet it is instructive to see that the ambiguities that made Raoul I
so fascinating and frustrating a text also remain, only slightly diminished, in
Laisse CCLXXI. Laisse CCLXXXI. Laisse CCLXXXII.
89 90 91
Laisse CCLXIII. Laisse CCLXXIV. Ibid.
92 93 94
Laisse CCCXXXIII. The work of Philip is examined in Baldwin, Philip Augustus.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Our three examples of chansons de geste, then, praise knighthood to the skies,
drawing on the timeless warrior ethos written into epic poetry in more than
one age, and fashioned here to the world of twelfth-century Europe. At one
level they love to praise noble men defending honour and taking revenge with
blood boiling, to picture sword strokes delivered in hot wrath.
But they worry; they urge some minimal restraints. Sometimes a sense that
war is endless, that, except for crusade, its cost is too high joins the sentiment,
expressed with a tenor of regret, that some diminution of heroism is actually
Gregorianism is scarcely acknowledged. Of course the sacramental rituals
intoned by the clerics are hardly to be denied, and even their rules and restric-
tions are at least half heard; but the rights and duties of the knightly life make
their own claims. The truly ď¬ne among the tonsured appear as knights at heart
(since there can be but one standard) and will open doors, and ď¬nally the door
of paradise, to good warriors who have done their hard duty. Meanwhile, the
choice of clerics for lucrative and powerful positions on earth ought still to
remain, despite all the Church reformersâ™ arguments, safely in lay hands. The
proper agency of practical direction and restraint, if one there must be, is legit-
imate kingship loyally supported by idealized knighthood. However trouble-
some any particular king might be, the principle of kingship deserves reverence
and support. The reiterated insistence on this principle, of course, leads us to
doubt that it was universally taken for granted in the world, where some
degree of tension between chivalric autonomy and royal authority was equally
certain. A text like Raoul I can only reinforce such doubts.
QUEST AND QUESTIONING IN ROMANCE
R O M A N C E elements have always seemed a quintessential ingredient in
the literature of chivalry, especially the portrayal of an individual knight
on quest, searching for adventure in the outer world and often refashioning
meaning in the world within himself.1 These questing knights are less likely to
seek adventures on a panoramic battleď¬eld strewn with slain pagans, or even in
heroic defence of legitimate monarchy as guarantor of order, than in individual
acts intended to prove worth and to right wrongs. The quest is thus a splendid
medium not only for praising ideal knighthood, but for probing the relation-
ship of chivalric practices to the civilization emerging in high medieval Europe.
Though the quest pattern is common, the direction and destination vary
from one work to another. Much questing in the Lancelotâ“Grail cycle, for
example, originates in the need to ď¬nd Lancelot or some other hero, absent
from the court on some quest of his own.2 These quests for the great heroes,
for identity, or simply for adventure, allow multiple thematic lines and raise
Some texts, however, give the quest motif particular focus, with adventures
leading to a dramatic transformation in a single hero or a small group. Here,
too, the hard questions keep coming to the surface, sometimes allowing for
multiple points of view, always emphasizing the difď¬culty of ď¬nding solutions
to problems associated with knighthood in the real world. Three examples will
allow us to explore the links between quest and chivalry.
The Quest of the Holy Grail
The Quest of the Holy Grail (La Queste del Saint Graal),3 written about 1225â“30
as a part of the vast Lancelotâ“Grail cycle, has been termed an anti-romance or
See footnote 3, Chapter 2, above.
For the importance of Lancelotâ™s own quest for identity in the slightly earlier Lancelot do Lac,
see Elspeth Kennedy, â˜Quest for Identityâ™.
Pauphilet, ed., Queste. I found two translations useful: Matarasso, tr., Quest and Burns, tr.,
Quest. For studies of the text, see Frappier, â˜Le Graalâ™; Bogdonow, Romance of the Grail; idem, â˜An
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
even a spiritual fable. It has also been called the last ď¬‚owering of monastic cul-
ture.4 The text draws on biblical and patristic thought in ways that seem in par-
ticular to represent Cistercian spirituality which had been elaborated in the
previous century and preserved its inď¬‚uence in a newer world of mendicants,
scholasticism, and universities.5 Scholars have thus long sought some species
of monastic origin for the author, but he was probably not a Cistercian monk,
nor even a product of their schools.6 Cistercian houses at this time contained
almost no vernacular works and considered even books on canon law a dan-
gerous diversion into worldly interests; likewise, Cistercian monks wrote
almost no vernacular works, and certainly no romances.7 Pauline Matarassoâ™s
conclusion seems balanced:
The Queste is assuredly the product of a monastic mind, but probably not of a strictly
monastic milieu. It could, I believe, have been written by a Cistercian seconded from
his abbey to some lay or ecclesiastical dignitary. It is more likely to be the work of a
younger man still searching for his vocation, if only because this was a commoner sit-
uation. It is unquestionably that of a man alert to the problems of his day.â™8
How, then, does this author bring the ideals of monastic spirituality to bear
on knightly violence and disorder, and on the imperatives of sexualityâ”surely
outstanding instances of â˜the problems of his dayâ™?
In signiď¬cant ways the reforming programme of the Queste would have
drawn a resounding â˜amenâ™ from St Bernard, the great voice of Cistercian
monasticism of nearly a century earlier. Fanni Bogdanow has convincingly
linked Bernardâ™s theology and the programme of this text.9 At a more obvious
level, the link with the Knights Templar (for whom Bernard wrote â˜In Praise
of the New Knighthoodâ™) appears in the ď¬rst adventure of the quest. Hearing
or reading that the marvellous shield securely kept behind the altar in an abbey
of White Monks (the shield which King Baudemagus so unwisely carries for
Interpretationâ™; Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry; Baumgartner, Lâ™Arbre et le pain; Shichtman,
â˜Politicizing the Ineffableâ™.
Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 242â“3.
Meaning in this romance has often been derived from an interpretation of the Grail, rather
than the reverse. See the discussion, with citations to other scholarly work, in Bogdanow, â˜An
Interpretationâ™, 23, n. 2.
6 Citations of important works on this point in Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 228â“9. One
obvious conclusion is that Walter Map, the worldly cleric claimed by the text as its author, did not
write the Queste. Not only did he die too soon, he truly hated the Cistercians. Matarasso thinks
the attribution reď¬‚ects either ignorance or, equally likely, interest in causing Walter to roll uneasily
in his grave: pp. 232â“377.
7 Ibid., 225â“8.
8 Ibid., 240. In the introduction to her translation, Matarasso terms him â˜one of that great army
of clerks who wandered anonymously in that no-manâ™s land between the lay and ecclesiastical
worlds: Quest, 27. Cf. Baumgartner, Lâ™Arbre et le pain, 42â“5.
9 Bogdanow, â˜An Interpretationâ™.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 255
so brief a time) bears a red cross on a white ground,10 the audience would need
no prompting to recognize Templar insignia; we are once again in the world
of â˜The Praise of the New Knighthoodâ™. In company with St Bernard, the
author of the Queste clearly favours an infusion of the monastic virtues into
knightly lives needing spiritual discipline.
If the great sin of pride is constantly under correction, as it is here, sexual
laxity is unfailingly on the authorâ™s mind. Virginity gets top billing, for exam-
ple, at the important moment when one of the omnipresent hermits explains
to Lancelot the virtues by which he might prosper in his quest for the Grail.11
After praising Lancelot for once knowing that â˜there was no prowess to com-
pare with being a virgin, shunning lust and keeping oneâ™s body pureâ™, the her-
mitâ™s list of ideal knightly virtues continues with humility, long-suffering,
rectitude, and charity.12 Such a list might produce nods of sage agreement in a
cloister, but it stands at some distance from the virtues that contemporaries
regularly heard praised in a courtly hall, on a tournament ground, or within
the glow of a campď¬re. There, the talk would obviously be ď¬rst of prowess and
honour, loyalty, and largesse. Some voices in these lay settings might speak of
love, but they would probably talk of ď¬n amors, of frankly sensual love, as the
spur and reward of prowess; such views could scarcely please the clerics in gen-
eral, and certainly would offend the regulars.
Ecclesiastics in the early thirteenth century probably thought the scene
between Lancelot and the hermit embodied a stunning opportunity. Mere lay-
men, after all, are being offered the great beneď¬ts of monastic Christianity as
equals.13 We can recall the surprise with which some clerics received the news
of this startling innovation in the previous century.14
Perhaps another concession is being offered as well. The Queste carefully
walks the line between acceptance and rejection of prowess as a key knightly
Matarasso, tr., Quest, 54; Burns, tr., Quest, ll; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 28.
Matarasso argues forcefully that the hermitâ™s list of virtues cannot be read as a simple rank
ordering. Virginity would serve Lancelot as a chief reform, but humility is stressed generally in the
text; the great Cistercian virtue of charity comes at the end of the hermitâ™s list, though it can
scarcely be thought last in importance: see Redemption of Chivalry, 143â“61. The insistence on vir-
ginity is, however, striking. Perceval nearly maims his own body after his brush with sexual temp-
tation; the Maimed King, upon recovering his potency, immediately joins the Cistercians.
Matarasso, Quest, 129, 277.
Matarasso, Quest, 141â“2; Burns, Quest, 40â“1; Pauphilet, Queste, 123â“7.
See comment of Matarasso, Redemption of Chvalry, 240: â˜It may be objected that the ideal it
presented to its readers . . . was in fact unsuited to their needs, and incompatible with their duties.
But since no theology of the laity had as yet been elaborated, those who entered the pastoral ď¬eld
must needs fall back on the traditional formulae which had proven their worth in the monastic
milieu where they had evolved.â™ Matarasso praises the author of the Queste for giving his message
to laymen straight: â˜[H]e has not diluted this ideal, nor tried to temper the wind to the shorn
lamb.â™ Baumgartner, Lâ™Arbre et le pain, passim, emphasizes the role of this text as a praise of ideal
chivalry; see especially pp. 150â“4.
Sources in Chapter 4, footnotes 23 and 24.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
virtue.15 With open arms it accepts tournament (still, in the early thirteenth
century, condemned by clergie); it more carefully accepts the heroic use of
arms in the right causes.
Even Galahad, the perfect spiritual knight, must show the greatest prowess.
Arthur worries that Galahad will never return to court once the quest for the
Grail begins and that he will thus never witness his prowess; he proclaims a
great tournament â˜in order to see something of Galahadâ™s exploitsâ™. He and the
others are not disappointed:
Galahad, who had ridden out into the meadow with the rest, began to shiver lances
with a force and fury that astonished all the onlookers. He accomplished so much in so
short a space that there was not a man or woman present but marvelled at his exploits
and accounted him victor over all comers. And those who had never seen him before
opined that he had made a worthy beginning in the way of chivalry, and that if his feats
that day were proof, he would easily surpass all other knights in prowess.16
In another of his improving conversations with the hermit, the encounter
leading to his repentance, Lancelot agrees, in principle, to sexual abstinence,
but asserts the need to continue his life of arms. The hermit agrees. Lancelot
knows that, ideally, his adultery with the queen must end, but he holds fast to
prowess with the grip of a drowning man:
in all respects I am as you portrayed me. But since you told me that I have not gone so
far but I may yet turn back, if by vigilance I keep from mortal sin, I swear to God and
secondly to you that I will never return to the life I led so long, but will observe chastity
and keep my body as pure as I am able. But while I am ď¬t and hale as I am now I could
not forswear chivalry and the life of arms.
To this remarkably open bargain the hermit agrees, â˜overjoyed to hear such
sentimentsâ™. Through his brother, who is of course a knight, the hermit even
promises Lancelot â˜a horse and arms and all things needfulâ™.17 Lancelotâ™s exer-
cise of his great God-given prowess has not been a major problem and is not a
necessary target for the hermitâ™s pointed criticism; sexual laxity is, the hermit
knows, the great sin in Lancelotâ™s life. A good hermit knows his sinner and
prudently focuses his advice.
Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 240: â˜ âIf you canâ™t beat them, join themâ is a pastoral
method that has always had its adherents.â™
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this setion are from Matarasso, tr., Quest, 42â“3,
93â“4, 71, 260â“1, 266, 162, 200â“5, 181â“7, 192â“4, 128â“9, 121, 239â“41; Burns, tr., Quest, 24, 16, 79, 81,
48, 60â“1, 54â“6, 57â“8, 34â“6, 33, 73; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 14, 70â“1, 45â“6, 253, 259â“60, 147, 189â“93,
171â“3, 184â“5, 180â“1, 104â“10, 99â“100, 231â“3.
A promise of even heightened prowess seems to lie beneath the hermitâ™s assurance to
Lancelot, for he tells Lancelot that if he avoids sexual sin God will â˜empower you to accomplish
many things from which your sin debars youâ™. If his obvious reference is to greater success on the
Grail quest, the promise is couched in general terms.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 257
The Queste, of course, is no paean of praise to the quotidian practice of
prowess. To the contrary, the consequences of knightly worship of this demi-