the dramatic downfall of the Round Table found in the Mort Artu, a later
romance in the same great cycle. The text insists time and again that the ulti-
mate reliance of the ideal knight must focus on God, not even on superhuman
prowess. Melias, just after receiving knighthood from Galahad himself, takes
the wrong road, illicitly grasps a crown, and learns that the Devil has pierced
him with the dart of pride, ‚Ä˜for you thought that your prowess would see you
through, but your reason played you false‚Ä™, as a wise monk tells him. The
monk says he suffered in order to learn ‚Ä˜to trust . . . in your Saviour‚Ä™s help
sooner than in your own right arm‚Ä™.
Lancelot, always full of goodwill, but generally falling just short of the mark,
learns this lesson painfully in the Grail Castle. Ordered by God to enter the
castle, he characteristically prepares to Ô¬Āght his way in, past Ô¬Āerce lions guard-
ing the gate. After a Ô¬‚aming hand falls from the sky to disarm him, he hears the
voice say: ‚Ä˜Man of little faith and weak belief, why do you put greater trust in
your hand than in your Creator? What a wretch you are not to realize that He
in whose service you have placed yourself has more strength than your
armour.‚Ä™ Even this warning is insufÔ¬Ācient. Allowed a distant view of the Grail
as the centre of a religious service glowing with light and resplendent with
angels, Lancelot fears the celebrant will drop the vessel; he enters the sacred
space forbidden him and is blinded and scorched by God‚Ä™s wrath, left hover-
ing somewhere between living and dying for twenty-four days.
As he recovers, a similarly pointed, if less dramatic, rebuke is delivered to
Hector who arrives at the Grail Castle ‚Ä˜in all his armour and mounted on a
great warhorse‚Ä™ loudly and repeatedly to demand entry. The Grail King him-
self must call out to Hector from a window, giving him directly the hard mes-
sage he has failed to learn from his own experience on his quest:
Sir Knight, you shall not enter; no man so proudly mounted as yourself shall enter here
so long as the Holy Grail is within. Go back to your own country, for you are surely no
companion of the Quest, but rather one of those who have quit the service of Jesus
Christ to become the liegemen of the enemy.
The gate is indeed strait.
The deeds of Gawain make the point even more strongly and more nega-
tively, as he marks his sterile quest with the dead and dying bodies of his oppo-
nents. Failing to understand the spiritual nature of the quest, he always
remains locked within the tunnel vision of ‚Ä˜chevalerie terrienne‚Ä™, merely earthly
chivalry. ‚Ä˜I have slain more than ten knights already, the worst of whom was
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
more than adequate‚Ä™, he boasts to Hector when they meet at one point, but
then concludes in foggy puzzlement, ‚Ä˜and still have met with no adventure‚Ä™.18
In his wild quarrel with his brother Bors, Lionel shows again the distortion
of the meaning of quest caused by internecine violence. Enraged that Bors has
chosen to rescue a maiden when he was simultaneously in danger, Lionel rides
his warhorse into the kneeling Bors ‚Ä˜and straight over his body, breaking it
under his horse‚Ä™s hooves‚Ä™. When a hermit tries to save Bors, Lionel splits the
good man‚Ä™s skull with a single sword stroke. A similar blow dispatches
Calogrenant, a knight of the Round Table who comes upon the scene and tries
to intervene. Only a miraculous Ô¬Āreball and a voice from heaven prevent the
long-suffering Bors from Ô¬Ānally smiting his brother.
Yet shortly before this quarrel, even Bors, one of the three companions who
completes the Grail quest, Ô¬Āghts what at Ô¬Ārst seems the fairly standard
romance battle, defending a lady against her sister‚Ä™s champion. That conÔ¬‚ict
won, he goes sturdily to work against the sister‚Ä™s vassals:
Bors approached all those who held land from her and said that he would destroy them
unless they gave it up. Many became vassals of the younger sister, but those who chose
not to were killed, disinherited, or banished. Thus did Bors‚Ä™ prowess restore the lady to
the lofty position that the king had granted her.
Of course Bors later learns from a Cistercian abbot that the lady he has
defended represents Holy Church, that her troublesome sister is the Old Law,
and that the king is Christ. His Ô¬Āghting has indeed been in a good cause and,
more than tolerable, has been laudable. This is militia, not malitia.
He likewise passes the sexual test, steadfastly maintaining his chastity, even
when a beautiful and rich woman tells him how much she longs for him, even
when she and twelve high-born ladies threaten to jump off the castle walls if
he will not give the great lady his love. Of course they are all revealed as
demons once they do jump; the Devil has been testing Bors.
Perceval learns these lessons in more than one setting. He has a close call
with sexual temptation: slipping into bed with a demon in alluringly feminine
form, he is only saved when his glance falls on the red cross inscribed on his
sword pommel. The ‚Ä˜lady‚Ä™ and her silk tent disappear in a Ô¬‚ash and a puff of
smoke, leaving the tell-tale sulphurous stench of hell. A distraught Perceval
stabs himself through the left thigh in penance.
Alone on his island, surrounded by wild beasts, Perceval trusts in God‚Ä™s
help, and the text again delivers an important message: ‚Ä˜Thus did he depend
more heavily on divine aid than on his sword, for he saw clearly that without
Hector notes that he has met more than twenty Round Table companions, all complaining
of the lack of adventure.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 259
God‚Ä™s help, earthly prowess and knighthood alone could not save him.‚Ä™ Yet
there is always a role for prowess. When the miraculous ship comes to him
while he is alone on this island, its passenger, ‚Ä˜a man robed like a priest in sur-
plice and alb and crowned with a band of white silk [which] . . . bore a text
which gloriÔ¬Āed Our Lord‚Ä™s most holy names‚Ä™, proceeds to instruct him about
chivalric duty; he speaks speciÔ¬Ācally about the courage and hard-hearted deter-
mination that must inform an ideal knight‚Ä™s prowess:
[God] would try you to determine whether you are indeed his faithful servant and true
knight, even as the order of chivalry demands. For since you are come to such a high
estate, no earthly fear of peril should cause your heart to quail. For the heart of a knight
must be so hard and unrelenting towards his suzerain‚Ä™s foe that nothing in the world
can soften it. And if he gives way to fear, he is not of the company of the knights and
veritable champions, who would sooner meet death in battle than fail to uphold the
quarrel of their lord.19
Perceval, Bors, and Galahad put this advice into practice in a telling scene at
Castle Carcelois late in the romance. Attacked by hostile knights from this cas-
tle who demand that they yield, the three companions exclaim that they would
not think of surrender. They attack and kill some of their challengers and fol-
low those who sought survival by Ô¬‚ight right into the castle hall. There, the
three heroes ‚Ä˜set about cutting them down like so many dumb beasts‚Ä™.
Their success, however, leads to expressed feelings of guilt as they survey the
bloody detritus of their victory. Bors tries to palliate their sense of guilt by sug-
gesting that they had acted as agents of divine vengeance against men who
deserved to die. Galahad will have none of it, at least until he can be sure they
truly acted by God‚Ä™s will. The words are scarcely out of his mouth when a
white-robed priest, bearing Christ‚Ä™s body in a chalice, comes upon the scene.
Though at Ô¬Ārst ‚Ä˜unnerved by the sight of such a carnage‚Ä™, the holy man soon
recovers and provides the explanation Galahad required, and in the most
Believe me, Sir, never did knights labour to better purpose; if you lived until the end of
time I do not think you could perform a work of mercy to compare with this. I know
for certain it was Our Lord who sent you here to do this work, for nowhere in the
world were men who hated Him as much as the three brothers who were masters of
this castle. In their great wickedness they had so suborned the inmates of this place that
they were grown worse than inÔ¬Ādels and did nothing but what affronted God and Holy
The lord in question here is clearly God, yet the language is very earthly and knightly, and
the emphasis is on serving in arms.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
These men, the companions learn, had raped and killed their sister, impris-
oned their father, murdered clerics, and razed chapels. God himself had visited
the imprisoned father, the priest tells them, bringing the news that three of his
servants would appear and take revenge for the shame caused by the evil sons.
Despite their commendable concerns, the three successful companions on the
quest have thus corrected violence hateful in the sight of God and of his
Church with sword strokes blessed by highest heaven.
As an allegory, a spiritual fable, the Queste is not, of course, primarily con-
cerned with prowess; but it is addressing and drawing on a way of life that was
itself primarily concerned with prowess, in a world that was much troubled by
violence. Teaching and encouraging the spiritual life, never a light task,
becomes so much more daunting when the principal Ô¬Āgures in the story live
by the use of edged weapons. The quests of the Grail companions thus deliver
signiÔ¬Ācant messages on questions that have concerned us throughout this
Of all the knights engaged on the quest, only these three companions, Bors,
Perceval, and Galahad, Ô¬Ānally come to see God and to be united mystically
with him by means of the Grail. All three are model practitioners of controlled
and righteous prowess; two are virgins, the third at least chaste; all humbly
learn the foundations of their religion from hermits and heavenly messengers
who interpret their adventures for them, symbol by symbol. Bors alone, hav-
ing experienced this Pentecostal apotheosis of chivalry, can actually return to
the world, to the Arthurian court.
However much the Queste edges clerical ideals closer to the grasp of knights,
it is, Ô¬Ānally, not very accommodating, not very sanguine about the yield of the
harvest. The offer of quasi-monastic chivalry may have been generous from the
vantage point of the monks; but it was surely leagues beyond the grasp or,
probably even the desire of most knights in the world. Perhaps we would not
be wrong to imagine them reading or listening with more attention and appre-
ciation as great sword strokes Ô¬‚ash and as God reveals himself directly to his
good warriors than when one of the hermits delivers a homily on the merits of
Whoever wrote the Queste may well have understood the likelihood that
knights absorbed the text through just such a Ô¬Ālter. Certainly, the author him-
self strays from strict clerical views as he advances ideas of decided importance.
He presents a non-Petrine notion of the origins and succession of the clergy,
for one thing; he accepts knightly participation in tournaments, for another.
Moreover, he is unstinting in his praise for prowess of the right sort, exercised
by the right sort. Clearly, reform required the carrot as well as the stick; clearly,
even an allegory such as this attempts to build a bridge between clergie and
Quest and Questioning in Romance 261
chevalerie. But the bridge is dauntingly high, all but obscured in idealistic
mists, and its pathway is barely wide enough to accommodate a mounted
The Death of King Arthur
In one sense our second example is well named, for The Death of King Arthur
(La Mort le roi Artu), written about 1230‚Ä“5 as the Ô¬Ānal part of the original
Lancelot‚Ä“Grail or Vulgate cycle, tells the tragic and compelling story of the
collapse of the Arthurian world and the death of the king.21 The romance
could with equal justice, however, be called ‚Ä˜The Ascent of Lancelot‚Ä™, for this
is precisely what a central theme of quest in the story reveals.22 In the process
of narrating Lancelot‚Ä™s transformation, it offers another route to ideal knight-
hood. Though closely related to the text we have just examined from the same
cycle, it differs from the Queste in important ways.
Above all, the lively spirituality of The Death of King Arthur is almost totally
free from ecclesiastical dogma, from standard religious forms and practices
(even confession and communion), and from the sermonizing voices which
tirelessly explain meaning and prescribe knightly behaviour in the Queste. Even
the extra-Christian force of Fortune plays a powerful role. Jean Frappier cap-
tures the character of religion in The Death of King Arthur concisely:
The great originality of the author of the Mort Artu lies in locating the conquest of the
Grail within a man‚Ä™s soul. The Grail is interior, and the adventures that lead to it are
psychological adventures. The personal experience of evil, not the sermon of a hermit,
turns Lancelot toward holiness.23
The bridge referred to here is not that which Frappier suggested between earthly and mysti-
cal chivalry, which Bogdanow condemns as a misunderstanding of the entire theology of the
Queste. Rather, it is an attempt to show knights the true, mystical nature of chivalry as the road to
salvation. Bogdanow believes that the text is fully negative about the majority of knights, as was
St Bernard himself: see Bogdanow, ‚Ä˜An Interpretation‚Ä™.
21 Unless otherwise stated, quotations in this section are from Frappier, ed., La Mort, 13‚Ä“19,
140, 151, 152, 185‚Ä“6, 203, 2, 13, 140, 169, 118; Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 33‚Ä“7, 135, 144, 145, 171,
185, 24, 33, 135, 158, 117; Lacy, tr., Death of Arthur, 94‚Ä“6, 127, 130, 139, 143, 91, 94, 127, 135, 121. A
useful bibliography of modern scholarship on this romance is provided in Baumgartner, La Mort,
16‚Ä“24, a volume which reprints important segments of this scholarship. See also Dufournet, ed.,
La Mort, which prints twelve essays by French scholars, and also includes a bibliography.
This is the interpretation of Frappier, La Mort, and of Cable‚Ä™s introduction to his translation,
Death of King Arthur. Cf the comment of Ch√™nerie: ‚Ä˜[C]e roman, qui semble raconter avec la mort
du roi, la Ô¬Ān d‚Ä™un monde id√©al, d√©veloppe en r√©alit√© un v√©ritable pan√©gyrique du h√©ros
chevaleresque et courtois que fut Lancelot, un mod√®le de la chevalerie terrienne, apr√®s l‚Ä™impossible
r√©alisation de la chevalerie celestiele, Ô¬Āgur√©e dans le mythe du Graal et la disparition de Galaad‚Ä™:
Frappier, La Mort, 235 (my translation).
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Here is knightly lay piety in pure form. Even if the author was, as seems likely,
a cleric with a good Latinate education, it seems equally likely that he was one
of that number of clerics who lived in the world and was comfortable with the
details and with the ethos of the tournament and the battleÔ¬Āeld. His guiding
ideas are thoroughly Christian (and Cistercian): he stresses the need for the
great virtue of caritas in humans and the saving presence of divine grace in
their lives. These ideas show themselves powerfully, if obliquely, in this text;
however, they never take on explicitly ecclesiastical formulation or issue from
The spiritual height to which Lancelot will rise is emphasized by the level to
which he has slipped at the start of the tale. He cannot stay away from the
queen for even a month, though he had promised a life of celibacy to his her-
mit-confessor in the Queste; he has even become fairly open about it. About
the vainglorious joy of tournaments there could be no question; while in full
repentance, he had even (as we have seen) frankly told the hermit that he could
scarcely give up the life of arms. In The Death of King Arthur he Ô¬Āghts‚Ä”splen-
didly, of course‚Ä”in the opening tournament held at Winchester.
The issues are, once again, sex and violence, and the consequences of
Lancelot‚Ä™s adultery and his Ô¬Āghting quickly set in motion the events that lead
to chivalric G√∂tterd√¤mmerung. At the same time, Lancelot‚Ä™s experience of
anguished suffering, and the outpouring of God‚Ä™s grace for him, begin his
spiritual transformation. It comes in the upheaval following the open discov-
ery of his relationship with Queen Guinevere, and his dramatic rescue which
saves her from death by burning. The result is war, with Lancelot versus King
Arthur, goaded on by Gawain, whose three brothers Lancelot has killed in the
As the war goes on, Lancelot banishes pride; he makes kings of Bors and
Lionel, giving up his own earthly dominion in clear witness of the transfor-
mation at work in him. He soon shows the change even more clearly in his
subordination of his own vast prowess.
Seeing Arthur‚Ä™s avenging army encamped against him around the walls of
Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot feels only great sadness and great love:
When Lancelot saw how the castle was besieged by King Arthur, the man he had most
loved in the world and whom he now knew to be his mortal enemy, he was so saddened
that he did not know what to do, not because he feared for himself but because he loved
See the discussion of Frappier, ed., La Mort, 21‚Ä“4, for questions of authorship, pp. 219‚Ä“58 for
a thorough discussion of religious ideas.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 263
After his secret efforts to establish peace have come to naught and the battle
in the Ô¬Āeld has begun in earnest, Lancelot proves his love in the eyes of all.
Arthur shows wondrous prowess (especially wondrous for a man aged 92),
and inspires all his men. When he attacks Lancelot in person, Lancelot only
raises his shield to save his own life and will strike not one blow. Hector, how-
ever, reacts in the standard knightly fashion and swiftly gives Arthur a blow on
the helm that leaves him not knowing whether it is day or night. Thus he
thinks he has set up Lancelot for the grand stroke: ‚Ä˜My lord, cut off his head,
and our war will be over.‚Ä™ Instead, Lancelot rescues the fallen Arthur and
securely remounts him in the saddle, before quitting the Ô¬Āeld.
He makes an even greater sacriÔ¬Āce shortly thereafter: he subordinates his
own mortal love by agreeing to return Queen Guinevere. Though his com-
panions mistakenly ask what fear of Arthur has led to his action, Lancelot is
actually placing her honour before his own desires; he fears, in fact, that he
may die because of missing her so much. The same concern for her honour
apparently leads him to lie to Arthur by denying that any adultery ever took
Ever unforgiving, Gawain convinces Arthur that the war must be prose-
cuted to the end, to the downfall and death of Lancelot. Gawain demands a
single combat. Having already spared Arthur, Lancelot now likewise spares his
true arch-enemy Gawain, after defeating him decisively.25 As he explains to
Hector, ‚Ä˜I should not kill him for all the world, because I think he is too noble.
Moreover, he is the man, out of all those in the world that have meant any-
thing to me, that I have most loved, and still do, excepting only the king.‚Ä™ At
this time Gawain himself is still hoping that God will be so ‚Ä˜courteous‚Ä™ as to
allow him Ô¬Ānally to kill Lancelot and at last taste sweet revenge.26
But Lancelot meets Arthur to talk peace again. In fact, he convinces a very
reluctant Bors and Lionel to dismount in show of respect for the man they
continue to denounce as their mortal foe. The generous peace plan Lancelot
proposes, however, is rejected by Gawain, who ignores Arthur‚Ä™s tearful
entreaties. Even another single combat fails to generate wrath in Lancelot.
Asked why he did not, once again, kill Gawain, as was within his power, he
responds tellingly, ‚Ä˜I could not do it because my heart, which directs me,
would not allow it for anything.‚Ä™
On the nature of the term preudome, so often applied to Lancelot in this text, see Ch√™nerie,
‚Ä˜Preudome‚Ä™. For the view this text takes of tournaments as diversions from the highest knightly
activity, see Lachet, ‚Ä˜Les tournois d‚Ä™antan‚Ä™.
As Boutet suggests, only Lancelot retains mesure; Gawain, and even Arthur, show demesure
and think along the lines of vengeance and private war; the great men of the court, with latent jeal-
ousy of Lancelot working in them, want to show their prowess in battle against him: see ‚Ä˜Arthur
et son mythe‚Ä™, 50‚Ä“6.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Invasion by Roman enemies and treason by Mordred at home complete the
downfall of Arthur‚Ä™s world playing contrapuntally to the spiritual rise of
Lancelot. Gawain is mortally wounded and comes Ô¬Ānally to a new vision of the
good, asking Lancelot for forgiveness. Lancelot comes to offer help to Arthur,
but is too late. On the site of the climactic battle between Arthur and Mordred
he Ô¬Ānds the principal combatants already slain; he can only Ô¬Ānish off
Mordred‚Ä™s supporters and, with justice, kill the traitor‚Ä™s two sons.
This work done, Lancelot rides off in a kind of fog, almost aimlessly, it
seems. But the transformation that has been working in Lancelot leads him to
the logical conclusion of his spiritual odyessey. In a chapel attached to a poor
hermitage he Ô¬Ānds the Archbishop of Canterbury and his cousin Bleobleeris,
robed as hermit-priests before the altar. Lancelot joins them in the fullest
sense, becomes an ascetic hermit and priest, lives out a new form of heroism
on a diet of bread, water, and roots. After his death, the archbishop dreams of
angels carrying off his soul to bliss.
This theme of Lancelot‚Ä™s spiritual journey is, for good reasons, stressed in
analyses of the text. But the author continually drives home the superiority of
Lancelot‚Ä™s transformed chivalry in another way important for analysis: he
shows the problems caused by the accustomed practices and attitudes of most
of his knightly contemporaries. Indeed, the tale opens with Arthur angrily
establishing the precise scorecard of Gawain‚Ä™s victims while on the Grail quest.
Gawain‚Ä™s answer delivers the author‚Ä™s message on this topic explicitly:
I can tell you in truth that I killed eighteen by my own hand, not because I was a bet-
ter knight than any of the others, but since misfortune affected me more than any of my
companions. Indeed, it did not come about through my chivalry, but through my sin.
You have made me reveal my shame.27
Shortly after that, in the tournament at which the king proclaims to keep up
knightly spirit in an age of declining adventures (‚Ä˜because he did not want his
companions to cease wearing arms‚Ä™), Arthur has thought it necessary to pro-
hibit Gawain and Gaheriet from participating; Lancelot will be present and
Arthur fears bad feeling and combat which goes beyond even rough sport.
In fact, the danger of the great war that will Ô¬Ānally doom the Round Table
swirls like a malignant mist throughout even the early action of the poem.
Knightly vengeance and the setting of kin against kin is, of course, a theme of
the entire text. The author works the theme in miniature as well. When
Arthur‚Ä™s knights besiege Lancelot in the Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot cannot bring
himself to spring the pincer movement he has skilfully prepared. As a result,
An interesting redeÔ¬Ānition of chivalry seems to be intended here; victory through Ô¬Āne
prowess is simply sin if it brings about the death of other knights, a result hard to avoid.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 265
‚Ä˜Arthur‚Ä™s men felt more conÔ¬Ādent than before, and said among themselves that
if Lancelot had had large forces, nothing would have stopped him from com-
ing out to attack them and the whole army, because no true knight would will-
ingly suffer injury from his enemy.‚Ä™ Lancelot‚Ä™s love for his enemies is
inconceivable to them.
The nobility of pure prowess is hymned time and again by one character
after another. Chivalry is repeatedly equated with deeds done with weapons,
with feats of arms (chevaleries); prowess is equated with nobility, great blows
being noted speciÔ¬Ācally as proof of nobility. Little wonder that Lancelot‚Ä™s men
rejoice when they learn that he will lead them out of the city of Gaunes against
King Arthur‚Ä™s army the next morning: ‚Ä˜most of them were pleased and happy
about this, because they preferred war to peace‚Ä™. Little wonder that some more
thoughtful characters in the romance repeatedly speak their fears‚Ä”as Bors
does when he foresees the collapse of the Round Table‚Ä”of the ‚Ä˜war that will
never end in our lifetimes‚Ä™.
The author, in other words, not only shows an ideal spiritual path for the
regeneration of knighthood, he shows the dangers that quickly accumulate if
that path is not taken. To think only in terms of victory on the tourney
grounds and the battleÔ¬Āeld, to equate chivalry simply with prowess, to give in
to sensual love whatever the consequences, to open the gates for vengeance
fortiÔ¬Āed with kin loyalties, is to slide toward endless, destructive war.28
Robert the Devil/Sir Gowther
The numerous romances which sprouted from the story of Robert the Devil
doubly recommend themselves as the Ô¬Ānal case study for this chapter. In the
Ô¬Ārst place, these romances show nearly fathomless depths of knightly evil fol-
lowed by repentance that elevates the reformed sinner to the skies, with the
problem of violence a central issue in the double process. Second, the basic
story proved to be genuinely popular and spoke its messages repeatedly in one
European language after another through the centuries that concern us‚Ä”and
In the latter half of the fourteenth century this gripping story was rewritten in a north
Midlands dialect of Middle English as a work only about a Ô¬Āfth as long as the French original.
Benson, ed., Morte Arthur. The narrative frame is retained and the focus is once again on Lancelot
and on all of the difÔ¬Ācult issues raised by his role in Arthur‚Ä™s court and his love for Arthur‚Ä™s queen.
But, as in the Mort Artu he is not condemned; rather, he appears as an admired hero who gains in
self-knowledge and the grace of God, who transcends not only merely earthly chivalry based on
war, but merely earthly love as well. He thus stands in marked contrast to Gawain, who falls from
his previous reputation as peacemaker into sterile, unrelenting vengeance. As Barron notes, the
poet ‚Ä˜does not preach‚Ä™, but conveys his messages more subtly, always showing the impossibility of
perfection and the looming danger resulting from merely human forms, even when they are prac-
tised in the hope of perfection, even when they are such valued qualities as the prowess of Lancelot
or his mutual love with Guinevere. See the discussion in Barron, English Medieval Romance, 142‚Ä“7.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
well beyond.29 There are many texts; to keep our case study manageable, the
analysis will draw on three that seem especially useful: Robert le Diable, written
in Old French in the late twelfth century; Sir Gowther, the Middle English
rewriting from the latter part of the fourteenth century; and the printed
English text of Robert‚Ä™s story produced by Wynkyn de Worde shortly after
Exactly why Robert/Gowther is so lost in evil at the beginning of his career
depends upon the text. In the Old French romance and in Wynkyn de Worde‚Ä™s
text, he has been conceived after an anguished appeal to the Devil by the wife
of the duke of Normandy, desperate to save her long-childless marriage (ll.
25‚Ä“73).31 In Sir Gowther (set in Estryke, rather than Normandy), a ‚Ä˜shaggy
Ô¬Āend‚Ä™ who has taken the duke‚Ä™s form is actually the father of the child, impreg-
nating the duke‚Ä™s wife beneath a Chestnut tree in a classic scene familiar to
folkloric tradition (ll. 52‚Ä“81).
The child grows abnormally in every sense‚Ä”at seven times the rate of phys-
ical growth of ordinary children, for example. The Middle English text gives
him an inordinate appetite that leads him to suck nine wet-nurses to death (ll.
109‚Ä“20) and to bite off his own mother‚Ä™s nipple with his premature teeth (ll.
127‚Ä“32). Yet at fourteen he is a perfect specimen of a young man: ‚Ä˜none is as
beautiful as Robert‚Ä™, the French romance says (nien est si biaus comme
Roibers‚Ä™; l. 123).
With appropriate precociousness he is early entering that dangerous age of
turbulence and disruptive violence which medieval writers called ‚Ä˜youth‚Ä™ and
which Georges Duby studied in a famous article.32 Physically, if not emotion-
ally, mature, these young men often formed into bands, and wandered, gam-
bled, philandered, and fought in tournaments and in wars. Duby thinks that
they ‚Ä˜formed the primary audience for all the literature that is called chivalric‚Ä™.33
Breul, ed., Sir Gowther, 45‚Ä“134, traces the widespread telling of this story.
Quotations in this section, unless otherwise stated, are from L√∂seth, ed., Robert le Diable;
Laskaya and Salisbury, eds., Breton Lays; Wynkyn de Worde‚Ä™s printed text, from Cambridge
University Library, 1502?: ‚Ä˜here beginneth the lyf of the moste myschevoust Robert the deuyll
whiche was afterwarde called the servaunt of god‚Ä™, published in modern print in Thoms, ed., Early
English Prose Romances, 169‚Ä“206. Warm thanks to Anne McKinley whose Ô¬Āne seminar paper stud-
ied these texts when I had all but forgotten their existence. Interesting discussions of Gowther in
relation to the other texts appear in Hopkins, Sinful Knights, 144‚Ä“78; Novelli, ‚Ä˜Sir Gowther‚Ä™; and
Breul, Sir Gowther. Vanderlinde, ‚Ä˜Sir Gowther‚Ä™, argues for enough difference between the two sur-
viving manuscripts of Sir Gowther to consider them essentially separate poems, sharing the same
source. These differences (which will interest many) do not seem sufÔ¬Āciently great for the issues in-
vestigated here to require separate analyses of the two texts. These texts are printed in Mills, ed., Six
Middle English Romances, 148‚Ä“68; Rumble, ed., Breton Lays, 178‚Ä“204; and Novelli, Sir Gowther, 83‚Ä“157.
Wynkyn de Worde text in Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 171‚Ä“2.
Duby, ‚Ä˜Dans la France du Nord-Ouest‚Ä™. Trempler has even used the story of Robert as a case
study of adolescent destructive narcissism: see ‚Ä˜Robert der Teufel‚Ä™. The author is interested in the
origins of delinquency and destructive hate.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 267
Gowther seems a parodic exemplar of these turbulent, wandering, violent
youths. Having from an alloy of iron and steel fashioned a great falchion (a
heavy sword with a single curved cutting edge) that he alone can swing,
Gowther sets enthusiastically to work.34 Robert‚Ä™s band of like-minded fellows
(in the French romance) is composed of robbers in the woods near Rouen.
Behind him now are the youthful pranks of smashing beautiful church win-
dows or throwing ashes into the mouths of yawning knights (ll. 132‚Ä“3, 157‚Ä“9).
If he had long ‚Ä˜set by no correccyon‚Ä™, as Wynkyn de Worde says, going on to
tell us Robert had eviscerated his ‚Ä˜scole mayster‚Ä™ with a bodkin, he was now
‚Ä˜able to bere armes‚Ä™‚Ä”the real weapons of warriors.35 If neighbouring children
have for years feared him as ‚Ä˜Roberte the Deuyll‚Ä™, giving him his name, he now
sets about troubling a much wider neighbourhood. The French romance says
plaintes (legal complaints against his actions), come daily to his father, the
duke (ll. 165‚Ä“6). By the age of twenty, he has been excommunicated by the
pope and banished by his father, to no avail. He regularly kills merchants and
pilgrims; he has burned twenty abbeys to the ground (ll. 196‚Ä“7, 199‚Ä“204,
221‚Ä“2). Gowther continues his devilish campaign by raping wives and virgins,
hanging priests on hooks, and forcing friars to jump off cliffs. In the Middle
English romance he has already been knighted, that ceremony changing him
not a whit (ll. 189‚Ä“204).
The Old French romance makes much more of the effort to reform Robert
by enrolling him in the ranks of chivalry. When his father swears he will settle
all by drowning the lad (ll. 229‚Ä“34), the mother suggests knighting him
instead: ‚Ä˜Make your son a knight. You‚Ä™ll see him give up his wickedness, cru-
elty and evil deeds when he has been made a knight. Robert has done evil
deeds in his youth [bachelerie]. He‚Ä™ll do good deeds as soon as he becomes a
knight.‚Ä™36 It is a classic statement of ideal knightly reform. The intent is highly
interesting: so is the failure. Even though the quid pro quo is carefully
explained and Robert enthusiastically agrees, dismissing his band of robbers in
apparent enthusiasm for a new life (ll. 254‚Ä“64), he cannot stem the power of
evil within. At the inevitable tournament held to celebrate his new state, he
begins his ‚Ä˜bad chivalry [ses chevaleries males]‚Ä™ (l. 281). Following a wild night
of partying‚Ä”no vigil in a church‚Ä”Robert Ô¬Āghts as if the tourney were war to
Duby, ‚Ä˜Dans la France du Nord-Ouest‚Ä™, tr., Cheyette, 205.
Illustrations of falchions from the Douce Apocalypse and a picture of a surviving example
appear in Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 28, 30. The illustrations show the Devil‚Ä™s cavalry, riding
lion-headed horses, as noted on the dust jacket of John Maddicott‚Ä™s Simon de Montfort.
Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 173, 174. Young heroes of romance tradition did
not rip out their teacher‚Ä™s entrails, but more than one did beat them severely. See Chapter 7.
Combining L√∂seth, ed., Robert ll. 239‚Ä“44 from ms. A, with several lines from ms B, given in
a note, Ibid., 16.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
the death; he wants to decapitate all those whom he has unhorsed. His feroc-
ity disrupts this tournament and his subsequent tour of the tournament circuit
across France spreads terror; back in Normandy, he renews his assaults on cler-
ics (ll. 275‚Ä“322).37
The action comes to a climax as he attacks a nunnery. If Robert plays Raoul
here, re-enacting the infamous scene at Origny from Raoul de Cambrai, he
descends even deeper into the pit of sin by personally thrusting his sword into
the breasts of the nuns, killing Ô¬Āfty of the sixty religious with his own hands,
before setting the torch to the structures (ll. 341‚Ä“52).38
At this point, the blood-red tide begins slowly to turn.39 Robert Ô¬Ānds him-
self alone before the scene of desolation. The loud neighing of his warhorse
reverberates. None of his men will answer his call, even when summoned by
name. Falling into unaccustomed introspection, he wonders about the course
of his life and its relationship to his birth; with the aid of the Holy Spirit, he
dimly realizes he could yet be God‚Ä™s friend, and goes, soaked in blood, to see
his fearful mother; with threats, he Ô¬Ānally extracts the painful truth from her
(ll. 353‚Ä“468). In Sir Gowther, recognition that he has been formed in evil by his
Ô¬Āendish father comes from a wise old duke whose observations send Gowther
to his mother, from whom he gets the truth, told with the dreaded falchion
poised over her heart (ll. 205‚Ä“33).
Weeping with sorrow and shame, Robert/Gowther experiences conversion.
He will rid himself of devilish inÔ¬‚uence; he will go to Rome to seek absolution
from the pope himself. In the French romance he symbolically throws away
his sword and cuts his hair before setting off for Rome (ll. 465‚Ä“8).40 Yet his sins
are so great, he learns in a hard-won papal audience, that even the pontiff can-
not set penance, nor yet can that archetypical Ô¬Āgure of chivalric romance, the
holy hermit, to whom the pope sends him.41 It takes a hand from heaven, bear-
ing a little script, to establish what Robert must do: until released from the
penance, he must play the fool, provoking violence and derision in the streets;
he must play the mute, speaking not a word; he must eat only what he can
Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 175‚Ä“7.
The early sixteenth-century text has Robert violate the sacred bond between knight and her-
mit: Robert slays seven holy hermits and goes to see his mother, covered in their blood: l. 180.
Ms. B of Robert le Diable emphasizes the bloodiness of the slaughter: L√∂seth, ed., Robert le
Diable, 26. In Wynkyn de Worde‚Ä™s version, Robert shows his change of life by killing all his com-
pany of robbers before setting off for Rome. He deposits the keys to his forest robber‚Ä™s nest, his
horse, and his sword with the head of an abbey he had ‚Ä˜many tymes robbed‚Ä™: Thoms, Early English
Prose Romances, 184‚Ä“6.
In Sir Gowther he retains the falchion, as discussed below.
In the Wynkyn de Worde text the pope tells Robert (whose evil reputation he knows) that
he will ‚Ä˜assoyle‚Ä™ him, but wants a promise ‚Ä˜that ye do no man harme‚Ä™. Robert promises, ‚Ä˜I will
neuer hurte Crysten creature‚Ä™: Thoms, Early English Prose Romances, 187.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 269
wrest from a dog‚Ä™s mouth (ll. 490‚Ä“885).42 This heaven-sent burden bears a
clear message: Robert must willingly suffer at least a few sparks of the raging
Ô¬‚ames of violence he had inÔ¬‚icted on others and experience the slow burn of
shame; he must resolutely dethrone his heedless pride.43 The several texts elab-
orately detail how thoroughly Robert/Gowther embraces and then for years
fulÔ¬Āls this penance, in full public view, in the streets of Rome and in the
Then the Turks invade and all is thrown into confusion. Upon each of three
threats to Rome by the Sultan‚Ä™s army, Robert/Gowther receives horse and
arms from heaven (either in response to his silent prayer, as in the French and
Middle English romances, or by direct divine command, according to
Wynkyn de Worde). Only the emperor‚Ä™s mute daughter from her chamber
window witnesses the transformation of the fool into the saviour/knight.
Dressed in white armour and mounted on a white charger, the hero performs
wonders of prowess against the enemy in the Ô¬Āeld, saving Rome three times in
a row by emptying saddles, shearing off arms and legs, and spilling brains.44
Each time he then returns, divests himself of knightly horse and arms, and
becomes again the humble and unknown penitent.45 All imperial efforts to
detain and identify the white knight fail; the effort after the third battle even
results in Robert being wounded by Roman knights who would take him to
their chief (ll. 3414‚Ä“500).
Resolution follows swiftly. The emperor‚Ä™s mute daughter miraculously
begins to speak and is at last enabled plainly to say the truth about the fool in
the hall who is actually the White Knight. She produces as material proof the
lance-head which had wounded the knight, and which she had watched him
hide after he had painfully removed it. When the holy hermit releases Robert
from his penance, he joyfully tells his story openly (ll. 4490‚Ä“866). In Sir
Gowther, the princess, who has steadily loved Gowther throughout his stay at
court, is given the privilege of pronouncing God‚Ä™s forgiveness on him.
Gowther happily marries her and, upon the death of the emperor, takes the
crown himself, instituting a reign of peace and justice:
Sir Gowther pictures the pope himself absolving Gowther and setting his penance, which is
condensed to two elements: silence and eating only what he can take from dogs. The Wynkyn de
Worde text is closer to the French romance, but the penance comes to the hermit in a dream.
Wynkyn de Worde draws the moral explicitly: ‚Ä˜Now haue this in your myndes, ye proude
hertes and synners, thynke on Roberts grete penaunce and wylfull pouerte and how he so grete a
gentylman borne . . . hathe all forsaken for the saluacyon of his soule‚Ä™: Thoms, ed., Early English
Prose Romances, 191.
Gowther even rescues the emperor himself and decapitates the Sultan: ll. 625‚Ä“31.
The Middle English text gives him, on successive days of battle, black, red, and white
armour. Some scholars have suggested a progressive process of purging. See Marchalonis, ‚Ä˜Sir
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
What mon so bydus hym for Godys loffe doo
He was ey redy bown theretoo,
And stod pore folke in styd,
And ryche men in hor ryght,
And halpe holy kyrke in all is myght (ll. 715‚Ä“19).
(He was always ready for love of God to do what people asked, and supported both the
poor, and the rights of the powerful).46
The text printed by Wynkyn de Worde similarly ends with worldly as well
as spiritual happiness. Robert is even commanded by God to marry the
princess. He brings her to Normandy where he secures the peace, hanging a
troublesome knight who had bothered his mother after the death of his father.
A message from Rome hurries Robert there with an armed force to save the
emperor from his wicked seneschal. Though he cannot arrive in time‚Ä”the
seneschal has already slain the emperor in battle‚Ä”Robert does split the wicked
traitor‚Ä™s head down to the teeth with one of his great sword blows and so saves
Rome yet again. He rules well over rich and poor alike. As a Ô¬Ānal boon, Robert
and his wife give Christendom a champion in their son who joins
Charlemagne in the endless Ô¬Āght against pagan forces.47
The French romance ends more starkly. Robert announces he has left the
world and will for nothing endanger his soul by re-entering it for even a day.
He rejects the appeal of four knights who have come from Normandy to tell
him of strife after the death of his parents there; he sets aside the Roman
princess and the claim to the imperial crown; and he goes to live with the holy
hermit outside Rome. He follows in that saintly man‚Ä™s steps upon the hermit‚Ä™s
death. For the rest of his life Robert serves God, who does many miracles for
him. At his death the Romans bury him with reverence in the church of St
John Lateran. Years later, a Frenchman, who has come to a council held to
make peace in many wars, takes Robert‚Ä™s bones to a site near Le Puy and builds
an abbey over the new tomb. It is called the Abbey of St Robert (ll.
For all their variance in detail, all three texts speak forcefully to a fear that
knightly prowess and pride, especially when spurred by the heedless energies
of youth, will turn to disruptive and destructive violence. The very devil is in
it. The best hope, the authors agree, lies in the shaping and restraining force of
In the early sixteenth-century text the hermit releases Robert from his penance (as in the
French romance) and allows him to marry the princess (as in the Middle English romance): see
Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 199‚Ä“203.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 271
Yet, as we have regularly seen in other texts, the authors take a view of
knightly prowess which has its twists and turns. Violence in the right causes is
enthusiastically endorsed. Wynkyn de Worde‚Ä™s Robert ends his life as a model
hero from epic or romance, putting a rope round the neck of a Norman trou-
blemaker, putting his sword into the skull of a Roman traitor, and then ruling
well, even engendering a warrior son. The text of Sir Gowther valorizes a
rough-hewn chivalric atmosphere from the beginning by noting that at the
tournament to celebrate his wedding the duke who will be Gowther‚Ä™s sup-
posed father is an expert tourneyer; the text proclaims that he unhorsed ten
men in the joust and cracked skulls generally in the m√™l√©e (ll. 40‚Ä“8). Gowther
himself does not throw away his sword, as Robert does, upon going on pil-
grimage to Rome. SpeciÔ¬Ācally told to discard his beloved falchion by the pope,
he refuses; it is again in his expert hands on the battleÔ¬Āeld against the Turks.
Though the text condemns Gowther in his wild days for slaying his mother‚Ä™s
retainers with this great sword, cutting through both rider and horse with
powerful blows, when, later, he cuts through the Sultan‚Ä™s men and mounts,
the action is, of course, praised in the manner of any great sword stroke in
romance. The falchion seems almost to function as a symbol of the force of his
knighthood, which can be turned to good or ill use.48
If in the French romance Robert has horribly stained his sword with the
blood of nuns early in the text, he then gloriously stains the sword lent from
heaven with the blood of the Sultan‚Ä™s men.49 This text lingers admiringly over
Robert‚Ä™s arming and his stunning appearance in the white armour as he pre-
pares to go into action (ll. 1840‚Ä“58); it can equate chivalry with prowess, not-
ing that the emperor ‚Ä˜saw the beautiful chivalry that Robert did in his presence‚Ä™
on the battleÔ¬Āeld (‚Ä˜la chevalerie bele / Que Robers devant lui a faite‚Ä™; ll. 1935‚Ä“7,
my emphasis); in standard romance fashion it can likewise praise the hall full
of the emperor‚Ä™s ‚Ä˜good knights who never were without war‚Ä™ (ll. 2770‚Ä“3; they
are called ‚Ä˜Li Ô¬‚ors de la chevalerie‚Ä™ at l. 2205); and it notes that the Ô¬Ānal victory
feast seated not only seasoned knights but even the ‚Ä˜bachelors with the most
prowess‚Ä™ (l. 3602).50
Complexities of attitude regarding prowess thus put in their appearance,
as always. All three texts, however, begin with a knight whose prowess is
Swordblows against mother‚Ä™s retainers, (see n. 30) ll. 166‚Ä“7; against Turks, 592‚Ä“4. For com-
ments on symbolism of the falchion, see Hopkins, Sinful Knights, 158.
Killing of nuns: see especially B text, p. 26 n. Killing of Turks: ll. 1955‚Ä“60. In each case he is
described as plunging his sword into the victim‚Ä™s breast.
The emperor says of the White Knight at the third banquet that no knight could be as good
as he, no living man so Ô¬Ālled with prowess: ll. 3797‚Ä“3800. Even the emperor‚Ä™s daughter is once
described as ‚Ä˜prous‚Ä™ (ll. 2380), and his ancient bloodhound is praised as formerly ‚Ä˜prous‚Ä™
(ll. 1089‚Ä“90). When praise Ô¬‚ows, prowess seems naturally to command a space in the encomium.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
exercised in unparalleled wickedness; all change his practice of violence by the
end, and transform him into something much more socially and spiritually
desirable, the proportions in the reformed knight varying with the author.
Not every romance pressed a plan of improvement upon knighthood with the
intensity and the skill of those we have considered in this chapter. The quest
pattern could easily become an interlace of episodic adventures without the
spiritual or social critique or the hopes for reform evident in our several exam-
ples. Yet the idea of quest remains basic, and the tension between sets of high
ideals and the obviously more tawdry reality in need of reform is nearly always
present, always working, in romance. As W. R. J. Barron writes:
To the fundamental human concerns of the folk-tale, the romance proper adds a social
ideal based not upon life as it is known through the senses but as the imagination,
inspired by a vision of what might be rather than by objective fact, dreams of it. . . . It
is not satisÔ¬Āed with the trappings of realism but strives for the conviction that the world
it projects has existed in some past golden age, or will be in some millennium to come,
or might be if men were more faithful to ideals than experience suggests them capable
Barron, English Medieval Romance, 4.
CHIVALRIC SELF-CRITICISM AND REFORM
P R E V I O U S chapters have shown knights absorbing ideas and cooperat-
ing with practices from the spheres of clergie and royaut√©, while Ô¬Āltering
through their own high sense of power, privilege, and calling any ideas and
practices that seemed constricting or intrusive. Yet reform was not simply
forced upon knighthood from outside, by those who were not knights or not
primarily knights. The knights themselves clearly had ideals. Even had clerics
and royal career administrators ceased to direct a steady stream of exhorta-
tions, some of the chivalrous would have found a continual reform pro-
gramme necessary and desirable. Many knights knew that the great ideal could
be better implemented in the world and, to the extent that it was, that the
world would be a better, nobler place. The warriors themselves agreed that
there was, in other words, ideal chivalry, though they might have debated the
details; they thought that difÔ¬Ācult and imperfect men must try to do better.
Clergie or royaut√©, of course, held that chivalry would still need reform even if
it were practised according to the ideals sketched in this chapter.
We can best discover the ideals of the knights themselves in works written
by them or by those quite close to them. The vernacular manuals or hand-
books written to instruct knights provide a classic source. The Book of Chivalry
by Geoffroi de Charny and The Book of the Order of Chivalry by Ramon Llull
are especially important.1 But before considering these it will be helpful to
glance at the programme in an earlier work.
The Romance of the Wings
The Romance of the Wings (Le Roman des Eles), written by Raoul de Hodenc in
about 1210, shows a clear reforming intent from its opening page, even if this
intent is wrapped, as always, in extravagant praise of chivalry as an ideal.2
As emphasized by Keen, Chivalry, 6‚Ä“17.
Busby, ed., Ordene de Chevalerie. Translations of quotations in this section from pp. 161‚Ä“75.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Raoul says that the very name chevalerie is full of ‚Ä˜such loftiness and dignity‚Ä™,
that, ‚Ä˜rightly speaking, [it] is the true name of nobility‚Ä™. Only knights drink
from the inexhaustible, divine fountain of courtesy: ‚Ä˜it came from God and
knights possess it‚Ä™ (ll. 11‚Ä“15, 25).
Because of its very loftiness, it stands so far above all other lofty names, that if they were
to recognize its lofty nature, they would not dare to do some things they now do.‚Ä”
Why?‚Ä”Out of shame. But they are not aware of the exigencies of their name, for a man
may take himself for a knight though he know not what appertains to the name, save
only ‚Ä˜I am a knight‚Ä™. (ll. 40‚Ä“9)
He thinks it ‚Ä˜indisputably true that they should be such as their name says‚Ä™. Yet
‚Ä˜many have no understanding of knighthood‚Ä™. He is speciÔ¬Ācally worried that
the dominance of prowess in the thinking of knights will drive out two other
qualities that he wants to see held in great esteem: liberality and courtesy. He
tries to be careful, but his enthusiasm carries him along:
Do I mean to say that there is such a thing as a wicked knight? By no means, but some
are at the least worth more than the others, whatever the case; and there are many such
who are so superior in prowess that they do not deign to exercise liberality, but rather
trust so much to their prowess that pride strikes them at once.‚Ä™ (ll. 27‚Ä“8, 116‚Ä“26)
He imaginatively recreates the thinking of such a man: ‚Ä˜Why give? What can
they say about me? Am I not he of the great shield? I am he who has conquered
all, I am the best of my kind, I have surpassed Gavain in arms‚Ä™ (ll. 128‚Ä“34). To
such prideful knights, obsessed with prowess, Raoul responds:
Ah, lords, whatever anyone may say, it is no part of knighthood for a knight to despise
liberality on account of his prowess, for to tell the truth, no-one can rise to lofty esteem
by means of prowess unless that prowess has two wings; and I will tell you what the
matter and manner of those two wings ought to be. (ll. 135‚Ä“43)
The treatise does just that, providing detailed explanations of seven feathers on
the right wing of liberality, seven on the left wing of courtesy.
Raoul fears that an excessive belief in prowess in his own time will reduce
the largesse so important to chivalry; signiÔ¬Ācantly, his great enemy is the
miser, where Geoffroi de Charny‚Ä™s is the cowardly and inactive man. From the
right wing the knight learns that he must be courageous in liberality, give to
rich and poor alike, spend without care for landed wealth (saying, ‚Ä˜A knight,
God protect me, will not rise to great heights if he enquires of the value of
corn‚Ä™), give what is promised, promptly and liberally, and provide Ô¬Āne feasts.
The left wing is also composed of seven feathers, each a speciÔ¬Āc component
of courtesy. The knight must honour and guard Holy Church, avoid pride;
refrain from boasting (he should ‚Ä˜strike high and talk low‚Ä™), enjoy good enter-
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 275
tainment, avoid envy, avoid slander (since simultaneous physical and verbal
feats are an impossibility), and be a lover and love truly for love‚Ä™s sake (ll.
As Keith Busby, the editor of the text, has suggested, the message is ‚Ä˜largely
social, and it concentrates on telling knights how to behave rather than elabo-
rating on the symbolic signiÔ¬Ācance of knighthood‚Ä™. Though the poem makes
its case in religious and moral terms, it ‚Ä˜could not be called essentially reli-
gious‚Ä™.4 So close is its link with topics we have discussed that we might safely
call the poem reformist.
The Book of the Order of Chivalry
Ramon Llull wrote the most popular handbook, The Book of the Order of
Chivalry, probably between 1279 and 1283.5 It reached a wide readership in its
original Catalan (Libre qui es de l‚Ä™ordre de cavalleria); in French translation
(Livre de l‚Ä™ordre de chevalerie) it reached an even wider audience, before being
translated into English and transcribed into print by Caxton (The Book of the
Ordre of Chyvalry) in the last quarter of the Ô¬Āfteenth century.6
Llull was the ideal person to write a handbook for knights. He began his
adult life as a knight himself and was thoroughly immersed in chivalric culture
and literature before experiencing the great conversion, probably in 1263, that
sent him on a radically new course. After recurrent divine visitations he
became a mystic, a systematic and proliÔ¬Āc philosopher, a missionary for the
conversion of Muslims and Jews, and one of the founding Ô¬Āgures of Catalan
literature. But he apparently never became a cleric, however close he was to the
Franciscans in thought and life.7
The showy, easily remembered, and often quoted statements in his book are
all in praise of knighthood, even of the sort of knighthood that clerical critics
might view through narrowed eyes as merely ‚Ä˜earthly chivalry‚Ä™. Llull likes and
praises it all: jousts and tournaments, war in defence of one‚Ä™s lord, the liberal
life of hall and hunting.
The thin story frame for his treatise is built around that stock Ô¬Āgure the wise
old hermit who‚Ä”we learn with no surprise‚Ä”turns out to be a former knight.
A young seeker after chivalry encounters him by his fountain, asks questions,
and receives not only a lecture but also a reading assignment, a little book that
Busby speculates that Raoul may have been ‚Ä˜a knight of slender means . . . employed as a min-
strel‚Ä™, who might well praise open-handed generosity on the part of the wealthy.
Ibid., 18. Bonner, Selected Works, II, 1262.
Ramon Llull, Obres essencials; Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry.
For accounts of Llull‚Ä™s life, see Hillgarth, Ramon Lull and Lullism, 1‚Ä“43; Bonner, Selected
Works, I, 3‚Ä“52.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
he will take to court for the instruction of all. It is, of course, the very book the
reader holds. The hermit, now pale and ascetic, had formerly been the sort of
hero with whom any knight could identify: ‚Ä˜[He] had long maintained the
order of chivalry and done so by the force and nobleness of his high courage
and wisdom and in adventuring his body had maintained just wars, jousts and
tourneys and in many battles had many noble and glorious victories.‚Ä™8
On such honourable men Llull can scarcely lavish enough praise. They form
an ordo alongside that of the clerics and rank only a little lower than those
whose hands produce God‚Ä™s body on the altar. If only these two high orders
could be free of error, Llull says, the world would be all but free from error.
The knights, if anything, ought to be advanced in honour. Ideally, each knight
should have a kingdom or province to rule, an honour prevented only by the
unfortunate shortage of suitable territories. Certainly, knights would make
excellent judges, if only they were learned, and chivalry is, in itself, so high a
subject that it ought to be taught in schools. There can be no doubt that
knights are the natural counsellors for kings and princes; to advance the non-
knightly to such positions is an offence against chivalry, which produces the
men best qualiÔ¬Āed for rule, best Ô¬Āt for distributing justice. In his Ars Brevis,
Llull in fact deÔ¬Ānes chivalry as ‚Ä˜the disposition with which the knight helps the
prince maintain justice‚Ä™.9
Llull introduces his general theme by telling a myth of origins. It is a story
of a fall and a redemption through chivalry.10 At issue are all the basic matters
concerned with securing right order in the world. The myth relates that at
some point in the swirling mists of the past the great virtues‚Ä”charity, loyalty,
truth, justice, and verity‚Ä”had fallen, producing injuries, disloyalty, and false-
ness, with social consequences of error and trouble in the world. Fearing dis-
order and injustice, the populace divided itself into thousands and from each
chose the best man to be a knight; they likewise selected the horse as the best
beast to carry him in his work.11 From that time forward the knight has carried
out a high and essential mission: he secures order in the world. For fear of him
the common people hesitate to do wrongs to each other; for fear of him they
till the soil. Just as the clerks (who are brought into the myth without expla-
My translation of Caxton, in Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 3‚Ä“4.
Bonner, Selected Works, I, 624. See also his knight‚Ä™s comment (to a hermit questioning him)
in the Arbre de Ciencia: ‚Ä˜Dix lo cavaller que ell mantenia cavalleria ab l‚Ä™espasa del rei, qui fa estar
comuna la sua corona‚Ä™: Ramon Llull. Obres Essenciales, I, 903.
The similarity between this account and that in the earlier pre-cyclic prose Lancelot is inter-
esting. See Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142.
Any medieval reader familiar with contemporary learning on the Corpus Juris Civilis might at
this point hear echoes of the Lex Digna Vox, which asserted that at some point in the mythic past
the people had given up their natural sovereignty to the Roman emperors. See Byles, Book of the
Ordre of Chyvalry, 113. for an even more strikingly similar statement by Llull.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 277
nation, since it is not their myth) incline the people to devotion and the good
life, the knights ensure the order that makes civilized life possible.12
Llull makes this same point in slightly different terms in his Felix (though
here he reverses the roles of hermit and knight). In response to the hermit‚Ä™s
quizzing him about what a knight is, ‚Ä˜the knight replied that a knight was a
man chosen to ride on horseback to carry out justice and to protect and safe-
guard the king and his people so that the king could reign in such a manner
that his subjects could love and know God‚Ä™.13 Yet such praise is only half the
picture. Although Llull nearly worshipped chivalry as an ideal, his Ô¬Ārst-hand
knowledge of knighthood as it worked in the world shaped everything he says
about it. In fact, his love for chivalry as it might be never eradicates his deep
fear of chivalry as social fact. In the Book of Contemplation, for example, he
refers to knights as ‚Ä˜the Devil‚Ä™s ministers‚Ä™, and asks pointedly, ‚Ä˜Who is there in
the world who does as much harm as knights?‚Ä™14 At one point in the Tree of
Science he pictures a hermit asking a knight if he understands the order of
chivalry. The knight explains that in the absence of a book on the subject he
does not, in fact, understand chivalry. Were there such a book, the knight
adds, ‚Ä˜many knights would be humble who are prideful, and just who are crim-
inal [injurioses], and chaste who are licentious, and brave who are cowardly,
and rich who are poor, and honourable who are dishonourable‚Ä™.15 Llull here,
of course, clearly if indirectly announces a rationale for the book on chivalry
which he himself wrote; in the process, he explicitly establishes the reforming
nature of his book. Knights can and must be made better in basic categories of
Llull knows that he is in a sense whistling past the graveyard in The Book of
the Order of Chivalry. It will be difÔ¬Ācult to refashion the men who cause so
much disorder into effective upholders of order. Each gilded wine goblet that
Llull raises to toast knighthood thus contains a bitter residue of criticism. The
basic dichotomy appears in advice given by the hermit within the very myth of
Beware, squire, who would enter into the order of chivalry what you shall do. For if
you become a knight you receive honour and the servitude due to the friends of
The myth is elaborated in Llull‚Ä™s second chapter.
Bonner, Selected, II, 668‚Ä“9. In his Ars Brevis, Llull says in the same vein: ‚Ä˜Chivalry is the dis-
position with which the knight helps the prince maintain justice‚Ä™: in ibid., I, 624.
Quoted in Hillgarth, The Spanish Kingdoms, 60. The Catalan, kindly supplied in correspon-
dence from Professor Hilgarth, reads: ‚Ä˜E doncs, S√®nyer, qui √©s lo mon qui tant de mal fa√§a com
Ramon Llull. Obres Essencials, 903: ‚Ä˜Dix lo cavaller que ell no sabia l‚Ä™ordre de cavaleria, e blas-
mava son pare qui escrit no l‚Ä™havia; car si era fet un libre de l‚Ä™art de cavalleria, molts cavallers serien
humils qui son ergulloses, e justs qui son injurioses, e casts qui son luxurioses, e ardits qui son
volpells, e rics qui son pobres, e honrats qui son deshonrats.‚Ä™
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
chivalry. For of so much as you have more noble beginnings and more honour, just so
much are you more bound to be good and agreeable to God and also to the people.
And if you are wicked you are the enemy of chivalry and contrary to its commandments
Following this pattern, Llull‚Ä™s discussion of each chivalric virtue so lauded in
the book quickly inverts to become a sermonette against the vice it corrects.
The virtues of the body (such as jousting, tourneying, hunting) must not be
exercised at the expense of the virtues of the soul. A knight must protect
women, widows, orphans, and weak men; to force women and widows, to
rob and destroy the feeble, to injure the poor, is to stand outside the high
order of chivalry. A knight must have castle and horse so that he can patrol the
roads, deliver justice in towns and cities, and encourage useful crafts there; to
play the highway robber, to destroy castles, cities, towns, to burn houses, cut
down trees, slay beasts, is disloyal to chivalry. A knight must seek out and pun-
ish robbers and the wicked; to thieve himself or to sustain other robber
knights is to miss the basic point that honour is the supreme good, inÔ¬Ānitely
more valuable than mere silver and gold. The list runs on in this vein, one
worry after another balanced on the knife edge of reform which stands
between fulsome praise and dark warnings.
Llull does, it is true, move at one point beyond the undifferentiated com-
pany of knighthood to stress the importance of hierarchy. He opens his trea-
tise with the familiar parallel between social and political hierarchy in human
society and natural hierarchy in the created world. As God rules the planets
which in turn control the earth, so beneath God the kings, princes, and great
lords rule the knights, who, in their turn, rule the common people.17
On the whole, however, the thrust of his book is to reform chivalry by
enlightening individual knights, by changing the way they think, rather than
by stressing the exterior force of any institutions or by placing them in a dis-
tinctly subordinate layer in the hierarchy. In some instances he speciÔ¬Ācally
urges the body of right-thinking knights to act as a policing agency themselves,
admonishing them even to be willing to kill those knights who dishonour the
order of chivalry, as in the case (which so obviously troubles him) of knights
who are thieves and robbers, wicked and traitorous.18 His formal hope, what-
ever his private estimate, remains the correction of each knight through edu-
cation, reason, and exhortation.
Byles, Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 18. Ibid., 1‚Ä“2.
Ibid., 48. Judging from the number of references to robber knights in various romances,
their authors shared Llull‚Ä™s worries. See, e.g., Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, passim; Vesce, tr.,
Marvels of Rigomer; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, passim.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 279
The prominence of clerical ideas will be as striking to the reader as the total
absence of any idea of clerical institutional power. Many pages of the treatise
are Ô¬Ālled with what most modern readers will consider tenuous moral mean-
ings attributed to each piece of the knightly equipment, with summary
accounts of the theological and cardinal virtues, with warnings against the
seven deadly sins.
Yet the treatise preserves a character that is not, Ô¬Ānally, clerical.19 It accepts
too many aspects of the chivalric life that were questioned or even condemned
by ecclesiastics. Though it formally sets up the clerical ordo as highest, it edges
chivalry nearly to the same mark. The hermit who dispenses wisdom is appar-
ently a layman and former knight, not a cleric; and he is found at a forest foun-
tain, not in any church. Llull‚Ä™s reform draws on the ideas of clergie, in other
words, without compromising the degree of lay independence so essential to
the knightly self-conception.
Likewise, although he portrays knights as the chief props and active agents
of royal power, his book is not really royalist. If only the earth were big
enough, after all, each of his idealized and reformed knights would properly be
a king, or something very close to that high rank. He never fully confronts the
tension between the formal statement of hierarchy which opens his book and
his continued portrayal thereafter of an idealized society of knightly equals‚Ä”
powerful and busy men, carving away evil from the world with their
broadswords and even doing away with the rotters who give chivalry a bad
name. The earthly social hierarchy which parallels that of the heavens seems
quickly to recede and to become almost a backdrop; it certainly does not func-
tion as the key mechanism for providing ordered life.
In short, like the men for whom he wrote, Llull was deeply immersed in the
contradictions chivalry brought to the complex and difÔ¬Ācult issues of public
order. He wanted to be a reformer of chivalry, not merely a singer of its
praises. Yet he was a pragmatic man; his popular book urged reform that came
wrapped in gold leaf and that argued its case along lines that most in his audi-
ence could Ô¬Ānd tolerable. We can take instruction both from the book‚Ä™s pop-
ularity and from Llull‚Ä™s mixed hopes and fears.
Useful as Llull‚Ä™s Book of the Order of Chivalry and his other works are, we can
draw on texts by other authors that seem even closer to the world of knight-
hood, less altered by a clerical programme. Three works‚Ä”all written, in effect,
by practising knights‚Ä”can best show us the impulse for reform among
the knights themselves. They can remind us of the great investment in an
See the useful comments in Keen, Chivalry, 11.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
enduring ideal in whose service such reform was to work. We will turn Ô¬Ārst to
the biography of William Marshal, the greatest knight of the late twelfth cen-
tury, then to another of the vernacular manuals, the Book of Chivalry written by
Geoffroi de Charny, one of the greatest knights of the mid-fourteenth century,
and Ô¬Ānally to the evidence of the Morte Darthur, the splendid summing up and
shaping of chivalric ideas from literature by another knight, Sir Thomas
Malory, in the late Ô¬Āfteenth century. As we will see, the chivalric ideal held by
these knights maintains a programme of its own. The changing settings in
which the ideal was to work, however, required adjustments in the particular
emphases of reform in order to Ô¬Āt basic ideals to new circumstances.
L‚Ä™Histoire de Guillaume le Mar√©chal20
William Marshal died in 1219. His biography was completed at least seven
years later, after information had been carefully collected, by a man known to
us only as John (Jean); the cost was underwritten by his oldest son. This John,
Georges Duby suggests, ‚Ä˜might well be one of those heralds-of-arms who
arranged the jousts on the tournament grounds, identiÔ¬Āed the protagonists by
their insignia, and by singing their exploits boosted the reputation of the
champions‚Ä™.21 John tells us that his raw material came from his own knowledge
and that of two others: the Marshal‚Ä™s eldest son, and especially his companion
John of Earley. Some information may already have been set down in writing,
some household documents may have been available; the rest came from liv-
ing memory. Georges Duby argues that from this evidence we hear William
Marshal‚Ä™s own memories, that we read, in essence, an autobiography.22 David
Crouch reminds us that this is the Ô¬Ārst biography of a layman below the rank
This text shows the ideal of chivalry in its spring colours. Yet it is a very
pragmatic, quotidian notion of chivalry that we Ô¬Ānd in the Histoire, not some-
thing abstract.24 Criticism or reform Ô¬Āgures in this story only indirectly, by set-
ting out an ideal working model for those who would follow the great
exemplar, by embodying an ideal of chivalry in a life lived grandly and with
success. The rewards of this good life are implicit: all things are possible to the
Text and discussion in Meyer, ed., Histoire; unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this sec-
tion come from this edition. Modern biographies: Painter, William Marshal; Crosland, William
the Marshal; Duby, Guillaume le Mar√©chal; Crouch, William Marshal.
Duby, Guillaume le Mar√©chal, 33. Ibid., 30‚Ä“7.
Crouch, William Marshal, 2.
Chivalry in the Histoire is discussed by Gillingham, ‚Ä˜War and Chivalry‚Ä™, and by Crouch,
William Marshal, 171‚Ä“84. Both scholars make telling criticisms of the views of Sidney Painter and
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 281
knight who will dare all‚Ä”a great Ô¬Āef, royal patronage, a good lady, seemingly
The key quality is in no doubt: William‚Ä™s life-story unfolds as a ceaseless
hymn to prowess, the demi-god.25 The reader learns that William never gave
in to idleness but followed prowess all his life, and is admonished that ‚Ä˜a long
rest is a cause for shame in a young man (lonc sejor honist giemble homme)‚Ä™, that
men know that you must look among the horses‚Ä™ legs for the brave (who, in
their boldness, will sometimes be unhorsed). Like a hero in a romance,
William goes off seeking ‚Ä˜pris et aventure‚Ä™, especially in the tournament circuit
available only on the continent (ll. 1883‚Ä“8, 1894, 2402, 6090‚Ä“2). Page after
page of the text details feats of enviable prowess done primarily in war‚Ä”the
war of raid and counter-raid, of siege and manoeuvre‚Ä”and secondarily in the
tourney.26 William is given the honour of knighting King Henry‚Ä™s eldest son
even though he is landless and ‚Ä˜has nothing but his chivalry‚Ä™. He becomes what
the text calls the ‚Ä˜lord and master‚Ä™ of the young king; this position was appro-
priate, we learn, since he increased the lad‚Ä™s prowess (ll. 2102, 2634‚Ä“6).
Loyalty is also praised by the Histoire as a deÔ¬Āning quality of the Marshal,
and thus of the ideal chivalric hero. William appears time and again as the
steady, reliable, and stalwart warrior, directing his great prowess in hon-
ourable and predictable causes.27 That one of these causes was his own
advancement and that of his family is accepted.28 If ambition leads William (as
it had led his father) away from loyalty sketched out in bold black and white,
and into the grey, the text goes murky or silent. Of course, because he is pri-
marily an Anglo-Norman knight, baron, and earl, an account of his loyalty
must also be a story of touchy relations with the lord king‚Ä”of whom it could
be said, as of a yet greater ruler, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away.
William managed to earn all his rewards with his sword and his loyal counsel,
despite the complicated politics dominated by Henry II and his sons Richard
and John. If William‚Ä™s masterful negotiations over Ô¬Āefs on both sides of the
Channel add a shaded note of realism, the Histoire completely obscures what
Crouch terms John Marshal‚Ä™s ‚Ä˜quicksilver loyalties‚Ä™ during the civil war of
We should note Crouch‚Ä™s warning that William‚Ä™s career was more military in focus than
many of his contemporaries: William Marshal, 3, 22‚Ä“3. The argument is simply that the emphasis
in the Histoire is not out of line with that in books by Geoffroi de Charny and Sir Thomas Malory,
and that prowess as a key element in the general ethos of chivalry was important even to men who
did not devote as much of their time to military enterprises as William did.
See the discussion in Gillingham, ‚Ä˜War and Chivalry‚Ä™.
Even on behalf of King John, ‚Ä˜because he always loved loyalty‚Ä™: Meyer, ed., Histoire,
The emphasis on prowess coincided easily with the idea of courtliness, coming into vogue in
an era with new forms of patronage. See Crouch, William Marshal, 39‚Ä“40; Southern, Medieval
Humanism; and Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Stephen‚Ä™s reign.29 Yet the message of the text is clear: William‚Ä™s prowess and
his careful and prudent loyalty, continually proved, earned him essential royal
patronage. In the last stage of his active life, blessed by the papal legate,
William acted as no less than guardian of the young Henry III and of his realm
(tutor regis et regni).
Through this young Henry‚Ä™s wonderful largesse to valiant young knights,
the poet assures his readers, chivalry will be revived (ll. 2635‚Ä“86). Much
admired by poets and writers who lived on its fruits, the quality of largesse, in
fact, frequently appears among the signature qualities of chivalry displayed by
the Marshal and the young king, son of King Henry. Gentility, we read, was
nourished in the household of largesse (ll. 5060‚Ä“5). As his prowess and loyalty
won him prize after prize on the tournament Ô¬Āeld, the battleÔ¬Āeld, and the
council chamber, William did the right thing and gave generously, openly, and
with a sense of style.
William‚Ä™s piety is likewise manifest, though it is sketched rather quickly and
with broad brush strokes. We see him knighted in a ceremony without eccle-
siastical overtones. He goes on pilgrimage to the shrine of the Three Kings of
Cologne. He goes on crusade, but we are left without the detail we would
expect.30 On his deathbed he is accepted into the Order of the Temple. A note
or two of anticlericalism surfaces: we hear of Saints Silver and Gold who are
much honoured at the court of Rome. But William has no doubts about the
relationship between God and chivalry: on the tourney Ô¬Āeld and on the bat-
tleÔ¬Āeld, his cry was ‚Ä˜On! God help the Marshal (√áa! Dex aie al Mar√©chal).‚Ä™
Piety and prowess merge in the same battlecry.
Even as the great Marshal waited out his Ô¬Ānal days, the deeply rooted sense
of lay independence is apparent. On his deathbed he conÔ¬Ādently denied the
validity of clerical criticisms of knightly practice‚Ä”speciÔ¬Ācally of the proÔ¬Āt from
Listen to me for a while. The clerks are too hard on us. They shave us too closely. I have
captured Ô¬Āve hundred knights and have appropriated their arms, horses, and their
entire equipment. If for this reason the kingdom of God is closed to me, I can do noth-
ing about it, for I cannot return my booty. I can do no more for God than to give
myself to him, repenting all my sins. Unless the clergy desire my damnation, they must
ask no more. But their teaching is false‚Ä”else no one could be saved.31
Crouch, William Marshal, 13; he repeatedly points out the gaps and distortions in the
Histoire. Regarding sovereign claims and land on either side of the Channel, Crouch is less censo-
rious than Painter: see pp. 86‚Ä“7.
David Crouch, however, makes a good case for thinking that the experience marked
William: William Marshal, 51‚Ä“2.
Quoted in translation by Painter, William Marshal, 285‚Ä“6. For the original French, see
Meyer ed., Histoire, ll. 18480‚Ä“96.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 283
With eternity stretching before him from the foot of his deathbed, the great-
est knight of his age calmly brushed aside clerical strictures on the career that
had given him so pleasing a combination of wealth and honour.
In this same conversation he likewise rejected the pious advice that he sell all
the Ô¬Āne robes kept in his household and give alms to secure forgiveness for his
sins. First, he ordered, let each member of his household have his robes in the
accustomed manner; then those left over could go to the poor (ll. 18725‚Ä“34).
Women usually appear only on the margins of this masculine story.32
According to Georges Duby, ‚Ä˜[t]he word love, throughout the entire chanson,
never intervenes except between men.‚Ä™33 Rumours circulated, it is true, that
William was the lover of Margaret, wife of the young king Henry, son of
Henry II. In a confrontation at court, William offered to Ô¬Āght any three
accusers in turn, even to cut off a Ô¬Ānger from his right hand‚Ä”his sword
hand‚Ä”and Ô¬Āght any accuser with that handicap. Here in life‚Ä”or at least in the
written Histoire patronized by his heirs‚Ä”the great knight plays Lancelot from
the pages of romance. The coincidence is hardly surprising. This biography of
the Marshal and the great prose romances spinning out the life of Lancelot
may be separated by only a decade and a half. Rival knights in this scene from
life are as prudent as those who remained silent in the face of Lancelot‚Ä™s chal-
lenges in the imagined courts of romance. Though William knows he must
leave the court, since the prince‚Ä™s love has vanished, he is soon recalled in order
to get on with the real work of prowess, serving in his master‚Ä™s team for the
tournament. The biography of the Marshal does not focus on women; the
Marshal himself does not look like a devotee of ‚Ä˜courtly love‚Ä™.34
On the whole this biography takes an optimistic tone with regard to
chivalry. There are no problems‚Ä”at least no problems are openly recognized.
The great example of chivalry simply must be followed. Even John Marshal,
William‚Ä™s father, who at times played as ruthless and unprincipled a robber
baron as ever wore armour, is praised by the author as ‚Ä˜a worthy man, courte-
ous and wise (preudome corteis e sage)‚Ä™, who was ‚Ä˜animated by prowess and loy-
alty (proz e loials)‚Ä™ (ll. 27, 63).35 The work is, of course, what moderns would
Discussed in Duby, Guillaume le Mar√©chal, 38‚Ä“55, and Crouch, William Marshal, 99, 172‚Ä“3.
Benson even suggests that the appearance of women at some tournaments in the story is anachro-
nistic, that the author here drew upon his own lifetime rather than on events half a century ear-
lier: see ‚Ä˜The Tournament‚Ä™, 7.
Duby, Guillaume le Mar√©chal, 48. Crouch believes the incident which follows, involving the
young king‚Ä™s wife, was made up by the poet in imitation of contemporary romance: see William
Crouch seems justiÔ¬Āably critical of Painter on this point: see William Marshal, 172.
John does say that he cannot tell us all of John‚Ä™s deeds: he does not know them all. Crouch,
William Marshal, 9‚Ä“23, provides the best discussion of the career and character of John Marshal,
and insists he was more of a baron than a robber.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
call an authorized biography. The appearance of the standard virtue words
may, however, interest us as much as their sometimes problematic attribution
to John or even William; showing prowess and courtesy, piety, largesse and
loyalty are the ideals. Great successes won by the key quality of prowess cov-
ers any gaps in the ideal framework, even if they are wide enough for a
mounted knight to ride through. The father did what he had to do; the son did
all. Be advised.
Geoffroi de Charny, Livre de chevalerie
Geoffroi de Charny, a practising knight and author of a major vernacular text
on chivalry ranked among the most renowned knights of his age. His Livre de
chevalerie (Book of Chivalry),36 written about 1350, upholds the glittering goal of
Ô¬Āne chivalry no less eagerly than Marshal‚Ä™s biography, and presents it as
embodied no less clearly in and effected by martial deeds. The leitmotif of
Charny‚Ä™s book is ‚Ä˜he who does more is of greater worth‚Ä™. Though he is at pains
to emphasize that all feats of arms are honourable, he calibrates an ascending
scale of knightly prowess: those who Ô¬Āght in individual jousts deserve great
honour; those who Ô¬Āght in the more vigorous m√™l√©e merit yet more praise;
but those who engage in warfare win highest praise, since war combines joust
and m√™l√©e in the most demanding circumstances. It seems to Charny ‚Ä˜that in
the practice of arms in war it is possible to perform in one day all the three dif-
ferent kinds of military art, that is jousting, tourneying and waging war‚Ä™.37
William Marshal would surely have loved this scale; he lived by it.
In Marshal‚Ä™s case the all-important pursuit of honour through prowess even
subordinated love as a major component in the knightly life. We saw in
Chapter 10 that Charny Ô¬Ānds romantic love a spur to prowess, stating, for
example, that ‚Ä˜men should love secretly, protect, serve and honour all those
ladies and damsels who inspire knights, men-at-arms and squires to undertake
worthy deeds which bring them honour and increase their renown‚Ä™. These
‚Ä˜activities of love and of arms‚Ä™ overlap easily in his prose; they ‚Ä˜should be
engaged in with the true and pure gaiety of heart which brings the will to
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry; Kennedy‚Ä™s translation of Charny‚Ä™s text will be
quoted in the following pages.
Ibid., 84‚Ä“91. Another of Charny‚Ä™s works, his Demandes pour les jout, les tournois et la guerre, a
series of questions for debate on intricate issues of chivalric practice, similarly emphasizes actual
war; he provides twenty questions on joust, twenty-one on mel√©e, but ninety-three on war. See
Taylor, ‚Ä˜Critical Edition‚Ä™.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry 120‚Ä“3.
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 285
Yet this acceptance and validation of love, joyful and worldly as it is, does
not form the centre of Charny‚Ä™s book. As one admired choice, rather than the
sole path for the knight, it is not the single great goal for which prowess exists.
Romantic love is wonderful because it promotes prowess and striving for hon-
our; yet the prowess and the striving take Ô¬Ārst rank.
But Charny is willing to qualify his praise of prowess in the best reform
manner. The Ô¬Ānest laymen will combine the very best of three types not only
of prowess, but of worth and intelligence as well. Worth may begin with a kind
of innocence, and progress to pious formalities such as giving alms and attend-
ing mass, but its peak is loyally serving God and the Virgin. Likewise, intelli-
gence involves only malicious cleverness at the lowest level, progresses to the
ingenious but overly subtle, and appears at its best in the truly wise. Prowess
is seen initially in those with courage and skill who are, however, thoughtless;
it appears to better advantage in those who perform great deeds of arms per-
sonally, but do not act as leaders or advisers; and it is best found in those brave
men who also command and direct other knights.39
Charny‚Ä™s omnipresent piety shows as he gives thumbnail sketches of great
men from the past who have missed the highest status because they failed to
recognize their debt to God. But he presents ‚Ä˜the excellent knight‚Ä™ Judas
Maccabaeus from the Old Testament as the model. Those who want to reach
such high honours, ‚Ä˜which they must achieve by force of arms and by good
works (par force d‚Ä™armes et par bonnes euvres)‚Ä™, should pattern themselves on
him.40 Thus Charny‚Ä™s book is much more explicitly a work of reform than
Marshal‚Ä™s biography. He knows that he must address real problems, however
carefully he coats every suggestion for improvement with the gleaming white-
wash of generous praise.
Reform is absolutely necessary, Charny knows, because the chief problem is
of such central importance: he fears that French knights of his day have lost
their vital commitment to prowess; and with this centre weakened the entire
arch of chivalry threatens to fall about the heads of all. At the time Charny
wrote, the English and their allies had defeated French knights repeatedly, and
were threatening further devastating incursions. When they most needed to
risk all and bear all hardships, the knights of France, incredible as it seemed to
Charny, appeared to prefer the soft life and the safe life, blind to the grand
vision of an existence vested in vigorous deeds, come what may, a life of hon-
our blessed by divine favour.
Ibid., 160, line 143. Charny‚Ä™s phrase can be compared to two statements from Malory,
quoted fully in the next section: Malory endorses the knight who is ‚Ä˜a good lyver and a man of
prouesse‚Ä™, and he suggests, through a speech given to a hermit, that the goal of a knight is
‚Ä˜knyghtly dedys and vertuous lyvyng‚Ä™.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
For a few pages of his book Charny puts aside the whitewash pot and brush
altogether and speaks with curled lip of the timid, cowardly men who call
themselves knights, but who really care only for bodily comforts and safety:
As soon as they leave their abode, if they see a stone jutting out of the wall a little fur-
ther than the others, they will never dare to pass beneath it, for it would always seem
to them that it would fall on their heads. If they come to a river which is a little big or
too fast Ô¬‚owing, it always seems to them, so great is their fear of dying, that they will
fall into it. If they cross a bridge which may seem a little too high or too low, they dis-
mount and are still terriÔ¬Āed lest the bridge collapse under them, so great is their fear of
dying. . . . If they are threatened by anyone, they fear greatly for their physical safety
and dread the loss of the riches they have amassed in such a discreditable way. And if
they see anyone with a wound, they dare not look at it because of their feeble spirit.
. . . Furthermore, when these feeble wretches are on horseback, they do not dare to use
their spurs lest their horses should start to gallop, so afraid are they lest their horses
should stumble and they should fall to the ground with them. Now you can see that
these wretched people who are so fainthearted will never feel secure from living in
greater fear and dread of losing their lives than do those good men-at-arms who have
exposed themselves to so many physical dangers and perilous adventures in order to
Later he denounces a second group, those unworthy of the great calling of
bearing arms ‚Ä˜because of their very dishonest and disordered behaviour under
these arms‚Ä™. If one set of men utterly lack the foundation of prowess, these men
possess that great gift, but misuse it: ‚Ä˜it is these men who want to wage war
without good reason, who seize other people without prior warning and with-
out any good cause and rob and steal from them, wound and kill them.‚Ä™42 He
knows what to call such men: they are ‚Ä˜cowards and traitors‚Ä™. It does not mat-
ter if they maintain formal proprieties by abstaining from such behaviour
themselves, only sending their men to do the dirty work. Whether doers or
consenters, such men, in Charny‚Ä™s view, ‚Ä˜are not worthy to live or to be in the
company of men of worth‚Ä™. They ‚Ä˜have no regard for themselves‚Ä™, and so,
Charny asks rhetorically, ‚Ä˜how could they hold others in regard?‚Ä™43 It seems he
would agree with the assessment of V. G. Kiernan that ‚Ä˜All military √©lites face
opposite risks: some of their members cannot stop Ô¬Āghting, others‚Ä”far more,
probably‚Ä”lapse too readily into sloth.‚Ä™44
If a failure or misuse of prowess is the chief issue for Charny, it comes as no
surprise to Ô¬Ānd this critical problem redoubled by the absence of its essential
companion, loyalty. As prowess withers or mutates, loyalty likewise declines;
faction and treachery seem to Ô¬‚ourish in their place. Any sentient observer
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 124‚Ä“9.
Ibid., 176‚Ä“7. Ibid., 176‚Ä“81. Kiernan, The Duel, 37.
42 43 44
Chivalric Self-Criticism and Reform 287
could already have seen what so troubled Charny: ambition, regionalism, and
anti-royal politics were already at work in mid-fourteenth century France; they
ensured that the Hundred Years War would become a veritable civil war.
Charny‚Ä™s book was apparently a part of a royal campaign for reform of gover-
nance in the interest of unity, a campaign in which chivalry in general and the
king‚Ä™s new royal chivalric order, the Company of the Star, in particular, were
to play a role of obvious importance. In his book Charny dedicated three chap-
ters speciÔ¬Ācally to outlining the nature of true princely rule.45 Here were
reform ideas modern historians might call ‚Ä˜top down‚Ä™: kings must act for the
common proÔ¬Āt through vigorous good governance.
Yet the crisis showed with painful clarity how much the chivalric ethos was
needed. Charny thus offered a set of ideas we might characterize as ‚Ä˜bottom
up‚Ä™, understanding that the Ô¬‚ooring here rests under the knights and men-at-
arms and is in effect a ceiling for the great mass of Frenchmen. Charny‚Ä™s solu-
tion is direct and uncomplicated: the code must simply be followed. The
knightly‚Ä”indeed, all men living by the honourable profession of arms‚Ä”must
do their duty manfully, even joyously, knowing the rewards awaiting them
when they next walk into a court to a murmur of praise, followed by the soft
eyes of the ladies, as in time they will know the rewards awaiting them as they
are welcomed into the court of heaven by the God of battles.
The answer seems so obvious to him: practice prowess, show loyalty. This
is what God wants; this is what God will reward. Charny seems almost to
exhaust even his immense energy, telling the essentials to his audience time
and again, in the hope that even the obvious slackers of his own generation will
Ô¬Ānally see the plain truth.
In a time of crisis, as disaster threatened the very kingdom of France, Jean
II and his great knight saw eye to eye on reform of the chief military force in
the realm. But we, for our part, need to see that if chevalerie and royaut√© trav-
elled the same path here (as they often could and did), the reform suggested
by Charny is, in fact, much more elementary, much slighter than the ideas for
reform which royaut√© generally thrust at chivalry. Charny‚Ä™s plan is something
different, the standard knightly view, understandably recommending itself
powerfully at this moment to the French king. In mid-fourteenth century
France a clarion call for an augmented display of prowess and loyalty, but-
tressed by the certitude of divine favour, could sound like a Ô¬Āne reform pro-
gramme to a monarch facing a military and political crisis.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 138‚Ä“47, provides the relevant text and translation;
pp. 53‚Ä“5, 59‚Ä“63, provide historical context.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Charny closes his great effort with (to borrow Maurice Keen‚Ä™s characteriza-
tion once again46) a combination prayer and war cry: ‚Ä˜Pray to God for him
who is the author of this book . . . Charni, Charny.‚Ä™ The statement recalls
Marshal‚Ä™s war cry, which likewise sounded his own name and called
conÔ¬Ādently upon God‚Ä™s aid. Charny‚Ä™s piety is more explicit and certainly more
voluble. Yet the basic assumptions are similar. Knights who do their hard duty
with loyalty and honesty can be assured of divine favour. God will receive
them into an eternity of blissful reward. There can be no question whether or
not a man can save his soul by the profession of arms; there can be no danger
to the soul in Ô¬Āghting for the right causes‚Ä”in just wars, to protect one‚Ä™s kin
and their estates, to protect helpless maidens, widows, and orphans, to protect
one‚Ä™s own land and inheritance, to defend Holy Church. The list is generous,
and accepts no cavils or criticisms.47 The divine blessing on reformed chivalry
Even Charny‚Ä™s statement of clerical superiority has a somewhat formal ring;
he soon betrays his sense that the great role that 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 magniÔ¬Ācent work with sword and lance.
Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur
How can we add Malory‚Ä™s Morte Darthur,48 a work of imaginative chivalric lit-
erature, to the model biography and the treatise composed by a practising
knight? This book will, of necessity, be quite different from our Ô¬Ārst two
sources, primarily because it is a highly original reworking of a mass of literary
texts, English as well as French. These texts bring with them many currents of
thought about chivalry (including some of the most intense efforts to infuse
chivalry with monastic values), locked in conÔ¬‚ict with developed French ideas
about amors. In addition, because of these numerous sources drawn into
Malory‚Ä™s work, and often given new shape there, his book is vastly larger and
more complex than the two we have so far considered in this chapter.49
Keen, Chivalry, 14. Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 154‚Ä“67.
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works. For an introduction to the enormous body of scholarship on