The Force of Ideas

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Was the clerical ideology of reform absorbed by the knights themselves; in

other words, was this external ideology to any significant degree internalized

by knights, who (as we have already noted) displayed a high degree of independence

of thought? Academics inclined to believe in the force of ideas—

especially scholars who rely primarily on the evidence of idealizing texts—are

likely to utter statements of hope in approaching this difficult issue. The

medieval world knew much violence, to be sure, but at least clerical ideas set

the terms of the discourse and began to make a difference, to civilize the brutal

warriors, and help them make their world a better place. Along with John

of Salisbury, some scholars tend to link advancing civilization and restraint

with the admixture of classical and clerical ideas in chivalric culture.

Scholars who have spent years among court records and chronicles, on the

other hand, are less likely to think the knights stepped, transformed, out of the

soft hues of pre-Raphaelite paintings; the most hard-boiled are more likely to

argue that clerical efforts in fact—however unintentionally—pulled the

thinnest veil of decency over knightly behaviour that often went on largely as

before. In such a view, knights simply absorbed and laicized the clerical valorization

of all the violence they carried on with such enthusiasm, while filtering

out most of the criticism.

The difficulty, of course, lies not only in finding sufficient evidence but in

calibrating a standard for judging the effectiveness of reform ideas in the

world. How could we know in how many instances knights refrained from

burning a church or pillaging an opponent’s peasantry out of a fear and love of

God inculcated by clerical instruction on ideal chivalry?

Some evidence is suggestive. We might recall that Orderic Vitalis thought it

highly commendable and worthy of mention that Richer of Laigle hesitated to

attack peasants whom he had already plundered and who had prostrated themselves

before a roadside crucifix in terror. Such unusual restraint, praised so

highly (‘something that deserves to be remembered forever’) at least indirectly

suggests what was a common view of early twelfth-century Norman knights.69

A passage in the contemporary Crowning of Louis pointedly reminded its audience

that Jesus liked knights who spared churches from the torch, a theme that

69 Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 250–1.

might have special meaning for John Marshal (father of the more famous

William), whose face had been disfigured by molten lead dripping from the

roof of an abbey church burned by one of his enemies during the twelfth-century

period of civil war in England.70

Major characters in chivalric literature occasionally speak out in a surprisingly

self-critical vein. In the prose romances of the early thirteenth century

Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, and Galehaut confess fascinating and revealing

doubts about the moral solidity of chivalric life as they live it. The queen, in

conversation with Lancelot, says that it is ‘too bad Our Lord pays no heed to

our courtly ways, and a person whom the world sees as good is wicked to

God’. A little earlier, Galehaut, learning from a dream that his death may be

close, decides to amend his life. He admits: ‘I have committed many wrongs

in my life, destroying cities, killing people, dispossessing and banishing

people.’71 This confession comes from a man continually praised as an exemplar

of all excellent chivalric qualities.

If such evidence is problematic and at best suggestive, other evidence is

indisputable. Wars without clerical sanction continued throughout the

Middle Ages and subjected ‘non-combatants’ to the entire scale of violence

available, especially to the indiscriminate force of fire.

It seems equally important that clerics themselves were not satisfied with the

reception and internalization of their ideas by knights; even crusaders suffered

bitter criticisms from disappointed ecclesiastical enthusiasts. Certainly, the

knights showed no great inclination to listen to clerical condemnations of their

characteristic sport of tournament. In a letter to Abbot Suger, St Bernard complained

in bitter tones:

The men who have returned from the Crusade have arranged to hold again those

accursed tournaments after Easter, and the lord Henry, son of the count, and the lord

Robert, brother of the king, have agreed regardless of all law to attack and slay each

other. Notice with what sort of dispositions they must have taken the road to Jerusalem

when they return in this frame of mind!72

Nor did knights accept clerical claims regarding the dubbing ceremony. To

control these ceremonies would obviously win the clerics an excellent opportunity

for inculcating their ideas of true chivalry at one of the more significant

moments in a knight’s life. An ecclesiastical strand is undeniably present in the

historical and literary accounts of dubbing ceremonies. Yet, as Maurice Keen

has argued convincingly, the Church, which managed to establish its role in

Clergie, Chevalerie, and Reform 85

70 Hoggan, tr., ‘Crowning of Louis’, 43; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 64. The John

Marshal incident is discussed by Crouch, William Marshal, 13; John lost one of his eyes.

71 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 275, 254, Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 152, 61.

72 Bruno Scott James, tr., Bernard of Clairvaux, letter 405.

the coronation ceremony, achieved much less success when it came to the dubbing

of knights.73 In fact, dubbing to knighthood looks very much like a classic

example of independent lay piety, an appropriation or laicizing of the

clerical entry into knightly practice; once again, knights more readily took on

religious legitimation than the element of sacerdotal control intended from

the sphere of clergie.

None of these estimates needs to be read judgementally, of course. If

medieval churchmen did not cut through the Gordian knot binding violence

and religion, neither have thoughtful people before or since—at least not to general

satisfaction. Nor must we take up the ecclesiastical scales of judgement on

knighthood in this matter. Knights surely did not passively absorb restraining

and improving clerical ideas and then fail deplorably to reach the high standards.

They had ideas of their own, as we have seen, even ideas along religious lines.

They considered themselves competent judges as to which clerical ideas about

chivalry they would accept and may not even have wished to accord their lives

with many others. Our task is not to award or withhold good behaviour points

for knights, but to recognize how selectively they absorbed clerical ideology.

Their particular form of lay piety probably gave knights the confidence that

God understood them and appreciated their hard service, even if further transactions

were necessary to secure formal approval via his touchy worldly representatives—

likely to be their brothers, sisters, and cousins who had entered the

clergy. Valorization of holy war, of course, spread easily at a time when any

war could, with minimal effort or sophistry, be considered holy.74 But the simpler

truth could be that knights needed very little valorization of their warfare

by clerics at all, though undoubtedly they would prefer to have it.

Their hard lives and their good service covered most of the tab for their

morally risky violence. If their hands were bloody, was it not because—as even

the clerics recognized—some blood had to be spilled in a world spoiled by sin?

Whether loyally smiting the king’s enemies or merely troubling their neighbours,

whether they fought before or after a crusade, they were doing what

they had to do in the confidence that they could settle any accounts with the

fussy clerics through donations or deathbed contrition, even deathbed conversion

to the religious life. ‘In crude terms’, Emma Mason writes, ‘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.’75 Christopher

Holdsworth makes a similar observation: ‘Standards were held up, but at the

73 See the discussion in Keen, Chivalry, 64–82. 74 See Russell, Just War.

75 Mason, ‘Timeo Barones’, 67. Mason continues, ‘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.’

last one lot of soldiers would take the others in, provided they received an adequate

payment.’76 This certainly was the view of the Anglo-Norman knight

Rodolf Pinellus, when his violent way of life was criticized by Abbot Herluin

of Westminster; only after he had had his fill of worldly pleasure and was tired

of fighting, he coolly told the abbot, would he give it up to become a monk.77

Likewise, Gerald of Wales tells us that the Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland

were great men; but they had failed to give enough in payments to the Church

to offset their slaughters.78

William Marshal in the early thirteenth century and Geoffroi de Charny in

the mid-fourteenth century took what probably seems to us a less crude view,

but they both showed the same spirit of lay independence when the matter in

question was the knightly right to fight, to take pleasure in the display of

prowess and the winning of honour and profit. William’s flattering biography,

primarily a study of war and, secondarily, of the quasi-war of tournament,

shows no evident qualms about warfare; instead, one comment after another

reveals an easy assumption of the knightly right to violence in causes any

knight would consider right.79 His unceasing piety hardly keeps Charny, similarly,

from paeans of praise for prowess and assertions of the religious character

of the knightly life per se. Charny is especially sure that the sheer suffering

endured by knights in their demanding calling wins them favour with God.80

In fact, we must remember that ideological influence flowed both ways

between clergie and chevalerie, or at least that churchmen found it necessary and

sometimes even congenial to accept more of the self-estimate of the knightly

role than strict clerical ideology would suggest. In his sermon delivered at

William Marshal’s funeral, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury waxed

eloquent about the ‘finest knight in the world’ in language not very different

from that used to praise the Marshal at the French royal court. The Templar

sent shortly before William’s death to receive him into the order had

announced unambiguously that, as the greatest knight in the world, possessed

of the most prowess, ‘sens’, and loyalty, Marshal could be sure that God would

receive him.81

Clergie, Chevalerie, and Reform 87

76 Holdsworth, ‘Ideas and Reality’, 78. See his further comment on pp. 76–7: ‘The work of a

knight, the work of Christ, the work of a monk, were all inextricably linked because they seemed

varieties of battle.’

77 Vita Herluini, in J. A. Robinson, Gilbert Crispin, 94–5.

78 Wright, ed., tr., Historical Works, 266. Orderic would undoubtedly not have appreciated this stark

formulation, yet in praising the benefactors of his own house he tells us that a former knight, Arnold

(now one of the monks), travelled as far as Apulia and Calabria ‘to ask for support for his church from

the loot acquired by his kinsmen in Italy’: Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, IV, bk. VIII, 142–3.

79 Gillingham, ‘War and Chivalry’. 80 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 176–7.

81 Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 18387–406, 19072–165.

Such unqualified praise is easily understandable. Men who have acted

largely in the world brought great honour and legitimacy to a way of life with

which they were closely identified, or which, as in William’s case, they personified.

The need for knighthood was undeniable; churchmen knew that

knighthood could be the armed force of God. When that force acted heroically

on the battlefield (even if not in strict accord with clerical standards) or when

it acted beneficently in a court, giving gifts to religious foundations, the concept

of an ordo of knighthood was available as a vehicle for thought. It was

likely to loom much larger in both lay and clerical minds than the formal

qualifications and particular strictures attached to the idea.