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Chivalry is an evocative word, conjuring up enchanting images of gentlemen in shining armor mounted on white horses fighting bravely to rescue the damsels in distress, protectors of the poor and downtrodden, servants to their virtuous kings, and guardians of the Christian faith. But this is not an accurate vision of medieval chivalry, rather it represents the romantic mythology of chivalry and what it aspired to be. Medieval knights and men-at-arms were first and foremost practitioners of violence, whose mentality and worldview was underpinned by chivalric ideals, especially the primacy of honor and prowess. Yet chivalry was also a complex ideology filled with intrinsic tensions and contradictions, inherent in some of the very ideals of chivalry, not merely in the lamentable inability of fallible men to attain them. Chivalric culture simultaneously celebrated and revered qualities such as honor, prowess, loyalty, courage, and mercy alongside more ‘civilizing’ values associated with life at court. While most historians admit that difficulties in establishing a universal definition of chivalry, precisely because their exact influence upon the practical conduct of affairs is notoriously difficult to assess, as it could mean different things to different individuals at different times, it is nevertheless clear that for a very long time aristocrats in Europe were motivating ideals. As such, the study of noble conduct, as gleaned through the confrontation of theoretical prescriptions with actual aristocratic practice, is still of central importance to medieval history.
In his seminal 1984 study, Maurice Keen defined chivalry as an ‘ethos’ that constituted the norms, values, practices, and rituals of medieval aristocratic society from the High Middle Ages onwards. More recently, Richard Kaeuper has advanced a more circumscribed definition of chivalry, as the values, ethos, and ideals of knighthood, either practiced by the knights themselves or as described by the writers of the age. Chivalry in the latter sense is often associated primarily with courtly romances, which offered a very heroic and idealized vision of knightly values and behavior. This has given rise to a final way in which the term ‘chivalry’ is defined and used: as an eternal ideal of elegant and civilized masculinity, reflecting a modern, nostalgic fantasy of a world of medieval knights who treated war as a noble game. John Gillingham has defined chivalry ‘as a code in which a key element was the attempt to limit the brutality of conflict by treating prisoners, at any rate when they were men of ’gentle’ birth, in a relatively humane fashion. I suggest that compassionate treatment of defeated high-status enemies is a defining characteristic of chivalry.’ Finally, Craig Taylor has elected to use the term ‘chivalry’ as a ‘proper noun, to refer to the people who formed the knightly or aristocratic class, rather than to chivalric culture in its broadest sense or to the ideals, norms, or ethos of knighthood.’
There are, however, methodological and historiographical problems inherent in discussing chivalry. Firstly, in order to assess the influence of chivalry, and more specifically chivalric texts, upon there audience, is to measure the behavior of the knights and men-at-arms against the theoretical prescriptions espoused in Froissart’s Chroniques. Of course, it is virtually impossible to enunciate the motivations of an individual in a particular situation and thereby demonstrate an action was the direct result of the ideas and values presented in specific texts. Indeed, Sidney Painter famously declared that he could find no moment during the age of chivalry ‘when knights refrained from rapine and casual manslaughter, protected the church and its clergy, and respected the rights of helpless non-combatants in war’. In reality, chivalric texts like Froissart’s Chroniques offered a subtle and complex discussion of knightly values, simultaneously championing values that were undoubtedly influential and popular amongst their audiences, such as honor, prowess, loyalty, and courage, but also posing important questions about the tensions inherent in knighthood and these ideas, encouraging moral debates about the differences between virtues and vices. Indeed, Froissart raised questions about knightly violence, especially when it was directed towards civilians, such as in his accounts of the sieges of Calais (1347) and Limoges (1370). Indeed, in the later books of his Chroniques and his revisions to earlier materials, Froissart increasingly explored the distance between the high ideals of knighthood and the brutal reality of warfare and politics. Froissart was not content merely to describe the reality of knightly behavior but, rather, sought to advocate a higher standard, articulated and justified through the idealistic and romantic models that he was narrating. His Chroniques offered a complicated mixture of celebration of prowess, bravery, and adventure, along with a thought-provoking discussion of the consequences of violence and the victims of war.
In this essay I will employ the term ‘chivalry’ according to Taylor’s definition, that is, to refer to the people who formed the knightly or aristocratic class because chivalry is indissolubly connected to the martial world of the mounted aristocratic knight. Thus, the existence of chivalry was predicated upon that of the knight: no knighthood, no chivalry. Furthermore, I resist the temptation to use the term ‘chivalry’ as a theoretical term in the way that some military historians have employed it recently. As Kaeuper has convincingly argued, ‘to define chivalry in terms of the more romantic and civilized messages that were supposedly offered by chivalric literature would be to ignore the overwhelming presence of contradictory themes in exactly the same texts, especially the powerful encouragement of violence and aggression.’ This essay will explore the foundational pillars of the key martial qualities that were celebrated within chivalric culture ‘honor, courage, prowess, loyalty, and mercy’ specifically the dichotomy between theory and knightly practice. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect knights and men-at-arms to have lived up to such quixotic standards. Yet prowess and honor were so entrenched in chivalric culture through the constant celebration, glorification, valorization, and encouragement of winning honor through demonstrations of prowess and courage, whether in tournaments, jousts, or on the battlefield and was therefore by its nature necessarily violent, that attempts to control such potent impulses through proscribed moral and legal measures was inevitably compromised. Indeed, more moderating qualities such as mercy, magnanimity, and restraint were warped by the brutal reality and exigencies of endemic warfare.
The brightest stars in the constellation of chivalry were prowess and honor. These two celestial bodies exercised an indelible influence on the mentality of the chivalric elite, who understood the practice of prowess produced not only material gain but also honor, fame, and glory, which in turn served as the ‘veritable currency of chivalric life, the glittering reward earned by the valorous as a result of their exertions, their hazarding of their bodies. It was worth more than life itself.’ In the prologue to the Chroniques, Jean Froissart famously offered his account of the deeds of arms to young men, urging them to aspire to emulate such accomplishments and thereby to win honor and fame. The centrality of prowess and honor to the chivalric mentality cannot be overstated. It produced an identity and lifestyle centered on violence, especially in the assertion, defense, and vindication of individual, familial, and corporate honor. Kaeuper has powerfully argued that ‘the lay elite cherished as a defining privilege this right to violence in any matter touching their prickly sense of honor’. For example, Froissart told the story of Sir Peter Courtenay, whose arranged combat with Guy de la TrÃ©moÃ¯le was thwarted by Charles VI in 1388. After the aborted encounter, Courtenay was given safe conduct to travel back to Calais under the escort of the lord of Clary. During the journey Courtenay complained in front of the countess of St Pol that Charles VI had stopped the joust after just one lance, prompting Clary to demand the opportunity to defend the honor of the knights of France. In the ensuing joust, Clary wounded Courtney and was therefore rebuked by the French royal council for breaching the terms of safe conduct. This recourse to transgressive force in response to some perceived slight of honor and propriety was reinforced by other incendiary chivalric emotions like anger, wrath, an insatiable thirst for vengeance, and the fear of shame and humiliation. Julian Pitt-Rivers has argued that honor gives the individual compelling justification for violent actions to defend his status: ‘The ultimate vindication of honor lies in physical violence.’ Indeed, to fail to respond to such shame and humiliation was regarded as a failure of manhood. Similarly, forgiveness could be interpreted as weakness or even effeminate behavior by a man. Indeed, this fusion of powerful emotions like anger, wrath, and vengeance, alongside the fear of shame and humiliation and the stigma of cowardice constituted powerful motives for violence.
On the other hand, assigning untrammeled primacy to prickly honor risks reducing honor to an entirely socially subversive force. Whilst, honor certainly encouraged violence it was also the bedrock of more socially cooperative values such as trustworthiness, reciprocity, and generosity. The importance of reciprocity and trust for knightly reputations was most discernible in the keeping of oaths and promises. Indeed, to be trustworthy and faithful to an oath sworn to a social and political superior was the hallmark of loyalty.
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