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AFTER he has observed life in Camelot for a time, Mark Twain’s

Connecticut Yankee delivers an unforgettable judgement, etched in an

acidic cynicism that seems to scorch the page: ‘I will say this much for the

nobility; that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious and morally rotten as they

were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.’1 Although Twain has

once again dipped his pen in vitriol to write these lines, his comment (with the

sting neutralized to the taste of the individual reader) still has point. We need

not, of course, accept his moral condemnation to be intrigued by the ambiguities

and potential conflicts in the meaning of religion for the practitioners of


At first glance the complexity of the bond between religion and the chivalric

layers of society may surprise some modern observers. Then or now, it

would be comforting to believe that the chivalrous were all truly motivated by

religious ideas and that they felt, in a way akin to modern conscience, deeply

spiritual impulses. It would be at least clarifyingly simple to believe, to the contrary,

that their religion was only a form, that it was no structural component

of their lives, that there could have been absolutely no connection between

their religion and their life of arms.

What Twain suggests, however sharp and malicious his juxtapositions, is a

close connection that requires further thought. A way of life devoted in no

small measure to showy acts of bloody violence was combined with an obvious,

even ostentatious practice of religion. The modern, hopeful, supposition

might be that the latter impulse would cancel the former, but here they are,

side by side.

Moreover, the tension doubles when we shift our focus from the knights to

the clerics. The view of knightly ideals and practices from the vantage point of

clergie could only be ambivalent. Clerics knew without doubt that they had to

deal with knights as a fact of social life; they relied on knightly benefactions no

less than they needed knightly sword blows against the constant menace

of pagans; in general, they blessed the legitimate use of force by the knights

1 A Connecticut Yankee, 82. Modern historians can also write fairly biting comments along these

lines. Emma Mason says: ‘In crude terms, they tried to buy off the consequences of their aggression

by offering a share of the loot to those whose prayers would hopefully resolve their dilemma.

Such a naive attitude cannot, however, be contrasted with any superior spirituality of the cloister,

for religious houses were all too ready to cooperate in this cycle’: ‘Timeo Barones’, 67.

acting to preserve order and property. The problem, of course, was that the

knights often acted and sometimes thought in ways that made them a part of

the problem of order, rather than its solution.

These are the issues explored in Part Two. Chapter 3 examines the tension

between an undoubted knightly piety and the considerable force of knightly

independence. Chapter 4 looks at chivalry through clerical eyes, documenting

both the high praise for ideals of behaviour and the sour condemnation of

much that knights said and did in the world.