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Parfit Gentil Knights


by Maurice Keen
Yale University Press, 303 pp., $25.00

Chivalry is a word that nearly everyone knows and uses, but what does it mean? We associate it with a code of conduct that places help for others, especially for the weak, the helpless, and those in distress, before self-advantage. Yet this is not all. The word derives from the horse, le cheval, and from those who once fought on horseback, la chevalerie—not, however, from the cavalrymen of professional armies, but from the medieval chevalier, the knight, whose skill in mounted combat, whether displayed in the tournament or on the battlefield, not only distinguished him from those who fought on foot, but whose ability to provide his own expensive war-horse and armor, to say nothing of remounts and spares, meant that he came from the upper strata of society, where wealth and status depended mainly on estates in land. Such landed gentry took pride in their ancestry, came to exhibit that pride in heraldic display, and placed their personal and family honor among the things they valued most. Nor, during the Middle Ages, could religious considerations be excluded. We hear of aspirants to knighthood keeping night-long vigil over their arms in church, and receiving their sword from the altar.

All this forms part of the idea of chivalry, but is this all? How do the parts relate to one another? How did they come to be fused together into a single whole? Such questions are clearly and authoritatively answered in the splendid book under review. Maurice Keen explains the emergence of a social group, of the ideal standards of conduct which members of that group came to honor and sometimes, in part, to observe. He considers the expression of those standards in poetry, prose, and quasi-theatrical performance. Much information about the subject appears in Chaucer’s classic account of a “verray, parfit, gentil knight” and of the social stratum to which he belonged, the knight-errantry that led him to fight for the faith in distant lands, the code of the chivalry that he loved: “trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.”

Keen’s book is the work of a scholar whose analysis and explanations are firmly based, as his notes and bibliography show, on a very wide range of medieval sources, and on the work that modern scholars have published in books and journals from about a century ago until 1983. Both medieval and modern materials are drawn from many parts of Europe. The author has the gift, rare among the erudite, of making his subject intelligible and interesting to the lay, as well as to the academic, reader. His long experience as a lecturer at Oxford and as history tutor of Balliol has developed in him unusual powers of lucid exposition, to which the elegant simplicity of his language makes an essential contribution. There is no trace in his book of the repellent jargon with which all too many university researchers make their work obscure to the uninitiated. He wears his learning lightly, and his achievement is all the more impressive because he is so modest about it.

Chivalry, in the words of the author, is “a secular, upper-class ethic,” in which martial, aristocratic, and Christian elements are fused. This ethic included qualities—courage, courtesy, generosity, loyalty, and keeping faith were among them—that have been prized and admired in all ages and cultures; but the uneven survival of historical evidence means that it is easier to observe the process of fusion in some periods of time past than in others, and the author demonstrates the importance in this respect of the eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth.

When the eleventh century began, the most effective warrior known in Europe fought on horseback with lance and sword and was protected by iron cap and coat of mail. During that century weapons and armor developed so that the best of their kind became heavier, more elaborate, and more expensive. So did the horse needed to carry them. In an age when men provided their own military equipment, the best weapons and armor were most easily available to the wealthy; and in an age when land was the surest source of riches and social status, the landed nobility and gentry also provided a military elite.

Mounted combat demands training, and this could be found in princely courts and noble households. They offered the most practical form of higher education that a boy of good family could receive. He learned the manners of the court, courtoisie, the technicalities, which were considerable, of rural sports, especially of those in which the hunter rode after his quarry. The horsemanship he thus acquired he could put to use in the tilting yard, and the weapon training he received there led him on to the simulated warfare of the tournament.

Such violent outdoor exercise was not necessarily the extent of his education. The same aristocratic households in which well-born boys were trained to knighthood were also a source of patronage for poets. There could be heard those chansons de geste whose heroes, Roland or Godfrey de Bouillon, displayed virtues that provided a pattern for knighthood. In the lands south of the Loire the troubadours took as a constant theme the inspiration to great deeds provided by devotion to a beloved woman, even though it might be possible to admire her only from afar.

The noble household and the tournament both could provide a young man with opportunities for advancement. In either he might attract the favorable attention of the lord of the household, or of his lady, or of other influential figures of either sex. The result might be material reward in the form of gifts, or enfeoffment with land, or profitable office, or an advantageous marriage. Success in tournaments could bring gains in the form of captured equipment and horses, or in the ransoms paid by opponents taken prisoner. In the later twelfth century, William Marshal, acting in partnership with another young knight, divided with him the ransoms of more than a hundred opponents who, in the space of a year, they had vanquished in tournaments. A career of this kind could be developed by graduation from the lists to the battlefield, and by going on tour in search of martial adventures and distinction in distant lands.

It could be supposed that all this is a hypothetical reconstruction, and a mere statement of what might have been possible; but a number of biographies can be reconstructed that exhibit a career very like what has been outlined above. William Marshal himself was a younger son of a baron of no great wealth or reputation, but he was educated in the household of his father’s more splendid cousin, the Count of Tankarville. At an early age William shone both in tournaments and on campaign, so that he was dubbed a knight by the count. Still in his teens, he attracted the attention of the greatest lady and patroness of letters of her day, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of the king of England, Henry II. As a result he was appointed military tutor to that king’s son and heir, and subsequently fought with distinction, when he discharged that son’s unfulfilled crusading vow in the Holy Land. Subsequent services to the English royal house brought him the hand of a wealthy heiress, through whom he became Earl of Pembroke, and he was appointed one of the regents for King John’s infant son and successor.

William Marshal, and men whose career developed on similar lines, acquired social identity from the place and circumstances of their education, and through the skills they learned thereby, especially those of fighting on horseback. They were visibly set apart from other men by formal admission to the society of their peers. The ceremonies of dubbing to knighthood can be traced in the sources from the 1120s, and were still developing when William Marshal was made a knight some forty years later. Such men were not immune from literary influences. From the chansons, or even from didactic treatises, they could learn of the most admirable qualities that should distinguish knights like themselves. These standards became internationalized not only by the literature, but by the gathering of knights from many regions in the greatest of the tournaments, and by what has been called the diaspora of knighthood in the conquest of Sicily and parts of Spain, and in the crusades to the Holy Land.

Since all such men were obliged to be practicing Christians, what part was played by religion and the teaching of the Church in the formation of their code of values? This is a matter of high importance to the author, and he returns to it more than once. In the earliest medieval centuries much ecclesiastical opinion upheld pacifist ideas derived from the Gospels. Subsequently, when Western Europe had to defend itself against pagan invaders, Norsemen, Magyars, and Moslems, to fight was necessary for survival. The warrior who used his arms in the service of fellow Christians received the backing of the Church; his weapons were blessed; prayers on his behalf were written into the service books; soldier saints were honored. At the same time, ecclesiastics found other laudable employment for knights: to give support to the peace movement initiated by the Church by coercing those who, by private warfare and pursuit of the feud, persistently created public disorder; by forcibly suppressing heretics, the excommunicated, and enemies who were considered a danger to the Holy See. Popes in the late eleventh century gave their patronage to offensive action against the Moslems in Sicily and Spain, and finally appealed to the knighthood of the West to liberate the holy places in Jerusalem from Moslem control.

In this way a specifically ecclesiastical view of the responsibilities and functions of knights was built up, which sought to limit their activity in two ways: it was to be directed against Christian objectives indicated and approved by the Church, and was to be applied only at the Church’s bidding. The dependence of knighthood on the ecclesiastical hierarchy was to be made plain to all by the ritual for making a knight, which was to be carried out by priests in church.

Keen shows that this view of knighthood never won general acceptance among laymen. In fact, medieval chivalry was neither created nor dominated by the Church. It was a code that prized ancient pagan virtues that were independent of Christianity. It fostered pride, a sin in Christian eyes, both in ancestry and in individual achievement. It displayed that pride in all the pomp of heraldry. It promoted tournaments, which were consistently condemned by the Church. It drew inspiration from a pre-Christian past, from the Trojans, Alexander the Great, the ancient Romans, and the Maccabees. The dubbing of knights was linked with other formalities of growing up that were not specifically Christian, including the first arming of a young man who had come of age, and entry into the war band or vassal group.

Knighthood certainly had a Christian character, but this was not originally implanted by the eleventh-century Church reformers. It was there already in earlier times. Some of the heroes of old, celebrated in epic poetry, were Christian heroes; Charlemagne and his companions had fought against the Moors in Spain. Many knights in real life had served, endowed, founded, and even entered monasteries. Ecclesiastics of the eleventh century certainly influenced the development of knighthood and its values, but they modified what already existed. They did not change the fact that chivalry was fundamentally a secular code, and that many of the virtues it inculcated were secular virtues, which were given prominence in secular literature and secular versions of history.

A widely accepted point of view, powerfully stated by the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, holds that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries chivalry lost touch with reality and with genuine values in the extravagance of its gestures and outward display. It became marked by excessive social exclusiveness; proofs of four lines of noble descent might be required from aspirants to knighthood, or even from those wishing to take part in a tournament. Eligibility for entry into one of the Orders of Chivalry which appeared in all the kingdoms of the West—the Garter, the Knot, the Golden Buckle—was still more strictly controlled. Some Orders were formed for the swearing and fulfillment of extravagant vows. On one occasion a knight swore, in the presence of the Duke of Burgundy, that he would not sit down to eat, another that he would not sleep in a bed (well, for one night a week, anyway), until Constantinople had been recovered from the Turks.

We read of such vows being taken on flamboyant social occasions, when oaths were sworn by those present on large and decorative birds which graced the overloaded tables—on the pheasant, the peacock, the swan, or the heron—that they would carry war into enemy country. Tournaments were often staged as costly, theatrical extravaganzas, with the knights who took part appearing in costume, perhaps as Arthurian heroes, or even as women. What had such tournaments and vows to do with the grim warfare of the day, dominated as it was by English archers, German Lanzknechts, Swiss or Spanish infantry? What did it have to do with a Europe of which wide regions were devastated by the Free Companies and other bands of unemployed mercenaries?

Keen is right to point out that such a portrayal of late medieval conditions is unduly selective and that the reality was more complex. There were still writers who defended the institutions and conventions of chivalry because they placed an even higher value on knightly virtues than they did on noble lineage. There were those, too, who still upheld the usefulness of the tournament as a training ground for war. In the late Middle Ages there were still tournaments of a more modest and ferocious kind than the lavish spectacles that have caught the headlines in historical writing. Keen, as ever, produces case histories showing that men who were prominent in elaborately staged tournaments also knew the horrors of real warfare. Jacques de Lalaing, the central figure in a famous pas d’armes entitled La Fontaine des pleures, had his face shot away by a cannon ball when inspecting a gun emplacement in the field. Don Pero Niño, a Castilian hero well known in the world of stage machinery and drag that marked the tournament circuit, himself applied the red-hot iron to cauterize the leg wounds he had sustained in battle. As for the vows to suffer privation until Constantinople was retaken, these were sworn in conjunction with serious military and financial planning in preparation for an expedition to that city. The English nobility who swore on the big birds to wage a campaign really did carry war, with all that it entailed, into France and Scotland. Keen, in short, produces material for a debate with Huizinga, and shows that he is fully qualified to conduct it.

It is difficult to do justice in a short review to this closely but clearly argued book. Many of the processes of change to which a brief reference has been made—in techniques of warfare, the influence of the Church, the development of Latin and vernacular literature, dubbing to knighthood, the emergence of heraldry and heralds—each of these topics and others equally important have a chapter richly illustrated with references to and quotations from a wide range of historical sources. It is a besetting sin of historians that they often fail to use as a source the literature of the age that they study. Mr. Keen is exemplary in the use he makes of many kinds of medieval literature, epic and lyric poetry, family and military histories, didactic treatises, translations into the vernacular of books of the Bible and of work from ancient Rome.

He ventures into many fields that are jealously preserved by the appropriate specialists. No doubt there are experts in the niceties of courtly love and heraldic blazon who will take issue with him on technical points, just as there will be readers who will look askance at this product of Winchester and Balliol who, on his own admission, has “fallen in love” with a subject characterized by elitism, aristocratic exclusiveness, pride in ancestry, glorification of prowess in war, and, it may be thought, of a certain condescension toward the women whom chivalry sought to honor. But the prevalence of such attitudes has been part of our social history. They call for analysis and synthesis, and Mr. Keen is one of the few scholars with the learning and perceptiveness to provide them.

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