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…

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