Royal Stance on War and Violence

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Powerful images of the fellowship of Arthur and his companions gathered at

the Round Table point us towards the genuine shared interests of kings and

knights. Yet this Arthurian literature, with its dénouement of destructive

conflict, likewise suggests tensions and contradictions between royalty and

chivalry. This chapter examines both lines of force.

By right and duty kings were assumed to work to secure basic order in society.

Even though they might prove ineffectual or even troublesome in that

role, they settled disputes, were supposed to protect property, and promoted

honour; they operated a legal system of courts and officials that knights clearly

found useful.

Chivalric literature openly endorses this royal role in law and justice.1 A wise

man-at-arms in the Lancelot do Lac provides a classic statement of the right and

responsibility of royalty: ‘[E]veryone would be disinherited and ruined if King

Arthur were overthrown,’ he says, ‘because the stability of all of us is his concern.’

2 The Story of Merlin, takes the same line, asserting that able kings secure

order. The text relates that rebellions against Arthur’s father, Uther

Pendragon, had increased with the king’s age and weakness.3 The Lancelot

makes a similar point: the land was sorely troubled by disorders, while Arthur

was imprisoned by the False Guinevere: ‘Now seeing their land without a master,

the barons began to war with one another, though this was unbearable to

the worthy and noble among them who sought only the general good.’4 On

his quest in The Marvels of Rigomer, Lancelot enters a land he learns is rife with

1 In addition to the texts cited below, see two fascinating discussions: Elspeth Kennedy on

issues of royalty, chivalry, lineage, and prowess in the Lancelot do Lac in ‘Quest for Identity’, and

Roussineau on the Perceforest, chivalry, and the founding of the order of the Garter by Edward III

in ‘Ethique chevaleresque’.

2 Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 35. The same sentiment is repeated in the cyclic version

of the Lancelot story: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 17; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 31.

3 Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 77.

4 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 265: Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 51.

terror and conflict because of weak governance. The message is doubled when

he is told that he should travel in a neighbouring land ruled well by a powerful

king who is also a brave and noble knight who hangs robbers enthusiastically.

The king as ideal fount of justice can blend with the king as ideal patron of

chivalry. The Romance of Silence imagines this ideal partnership as its story


Once upon a time Evan was king of England.

He maintained peace in his land;

with the sole exception of King Arthur,

there never was his equal

in the land of the English.

His rules were not just idle talk. . . .

He upheld justice in his realm;

his people were no criminals.

He maintained chivalry

and sustained young warriors

by gifts, not empty promises.6

If they shared some ideals about peace and justice, kings and knights also

shared war. Persistently, on both sides of the Channel, rulers and those who

clustered around them acted on bellicose impulses, to which the political and

military history of the period stands as plain witness. War involved the king as

knight, with his knights. Of course it was never as simple as this. War also

involved money, ships, mercenaries, and specialist engineers for the inevitable,

grinding sieges; moreover, it did not closely involve all of the king’s knights.

At the level of basic patterns of thought, however, royauté and chevalerie agreed

on the inevitability and importance, even the desirability, of war. If kings

thought more of politics where some knights were more concerned with

prowess, both considered the profits—a completely honorable motive—and

both thought war a characteristic and defining activity of their respective

spheres, here joined in basic cooperation.

What becomes more interesting, then, is to ask about royal and chivalric

attitudes towards war within the realm. What rules, if any, governed the possession

of fortifications, the open display of arms and the assertion of the right

5 Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 53; Wendelin Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 2365–84.

Later in this romance a body of British knights overwhelms both sides in a private war and

imposes peace: Vesce, ibid., 163; Foerster, ibid., ll. 7484–604. Giants who issue forth from their

castle to ravage the countryside could easily be a symbol of lordly ravaging: Vesce, ibid., 192–3;

Foerster, ibid., ll. 8869–9102.

6 Roche-Mahdi, ed., tr., Silence, 6–7.

to use them in ‘private’ war? And what of tournament, which basically

amounted to a form of war as chivalric sport?

Such topics involve fundamental issues of sovereignty, for kings increasingly

claimed that warlike violence undoubtedly ranked among the significant

areas over which they wanted some control.7

On both sides of the Channel successive kings worked sporadically, but with

something like a sense of mission, to enforce a conception of peace that

stemmed from a developing royal prerogative as well as a sense of duty rooted,

finally, in the will of God.

Some scholars find no tension at all, denying that kings could have much

effect on issues of public order, or even took them seriously. Of course, no

medieval government could truly supervise justice and guarantee public order

throughout the realm, nor, for that matter, could any other government for a

long time thereafter. Fears about governmental inability on this score have

even surfaced in the contemporary world. Yet an essential dimension of the

problem of public order drops from sight if we neglect the obvious royal

impulse on both sides of the Channel to read sovereignty in no small measure

in terms of the control of warlike violence, or at least to insist on a royal role

in its direction and channelling. Whatever their success rate, whatever the

complications of their own complicity, kings surely tried to effect a royal

monopoly over licit violence, and the attempt is an undeniably important fact

in early European history. Their work as sovereigns was complicated by two

significant facts: kings, too, were knights and generally believed in a code that

enshrined violence; and they needed the knights as part of their administrations

and as a key element in their military force.

Yet the sense of responsibility for public order and the drive for sovereignty

were real enough and brought royal encroachment on the independence of

knights, especially those inclined to engage in heroic violence.8 In the biography

of William Marshal the author moans that, in his day, chivalry has been

imprisoned; the life of the knight errant, he charges, has been reduced to that

of the litigant in courts.9

Even when desired and accepted, royal justice could be partial and

imperfect. Caution is especially strong in earlier French works, as effective

kingship is just emerging. The king, who in many a chanson reigns even when

he does not effectively rule, creates endless problems by unwise and immoral

Chevalerie and Royauté 95

7 See Strayer, Medieval Origins and Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order.

8 The anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers catches the ambiguity nicely by noting that ‘while the

sovereign is the “fount of honour” in one sense, he is also the enemy of honour in another, since

he claims to arbitrate in regard to it’: ‘Honour and Social Status’, 30.

9 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 2686–92.

distribution of fiefs; his foolishness sets up the seemingly endless cycles of violence

in Raoul de Cambrai, for example.10 Arthur himself sometimes needs

reminding of his royal role in the maintenance of justice. In the crisis of his

quarrel with Galehaut, the Wise Man tells Arthur he must truly give the justice

God entrusted to him with the dominion he holds. Later in this same

romance we find a chastened Arthur dutifully holding admirable courts of law:

‘as soon as the case was heard, the right had to be upheld’.11

Even when impartial, royal justice could intrude on knightly honour

defended by prowess. More than one knight finds himself charged with murder

in a case of killing he considers fully justified and honourable. Even the

poor but honourable knight whom Robin Hood helps in the Geste of Robyn

Hood was impoverished as a result of defending his son in court after the young

man had killed another knight and a squire in a tournament.12

An even more revealing case appears when Guinevere’s father, King

Leodagan, ‘who was a good ruler and lawgiver’, condemns the knight

Bertelay. Though Bertelay had slain another knight, it was only after following

the proper forms—breaking faith with the man and openly threatening

him with death.13 Asked about the killing,

[Bertelay] answered that he would indeed defend himself against anyone who called

him a criminal: ‘I do not say I did not kill him, but I did break faith with him first. . . .

So, as I see it, a man should harm his deadly enemy in all the ways he can—after he has

broken faith with him.’

The defence is, of course, that of Ganelon in the Chanson de Roland of perhaps

a century earlier: taking revenge against an enemy openly is no crime against a

king. What have kings to do with this anyway? Charlemagne’s answer in the

great epic, validated by a trial by combat which reveals the will of God, emphasizes

public good over private revenge and leads to Ganelon’s terrible death as

a traitor.14 King Leodagan’s position, though milder, would have pleased

Charlemagne; the king told Bertelay ‘that he was mistaken, “but if you had

come to me and brought suit against him, I would not have ruled against you;

then you could have taken vengeance. But you did not find me worthy enough

to seek justice from me.” ’ Bertelay’s reply assures personal loyalty but asserts

private right: ‘ “Sir,” he said, “say what you will, but I have never done you any

10 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai. Any of the chansons in the Cycle of Rebel Barons could make

the point, as could many from the Cycle of William of Orange.

11 See Carroll tr., Lancelot Part II, 120–1, 150–1; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 217–20, 271.

12 See the Geste of Robyn Hood, Fytte One, stanzas 52–3 in Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood.

13 The following is drawn from Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 339–41; Sommer, Vulgate Version,

II, 310–13.

14 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisses 270–91.

wrong, nor will I ever, God willing.” ’ But King Leodagan’s court, made up

for this case of King Arthur, King Ban, King Bors, and seven distinguished

knights, orders Bertelay to be disinherited and exiled. King Ban, speaking for

the court, states the key to their decision: ‘The reason is that he took it upon

himself to judge the knight he killed, and at night, but justice was not his to

mete out.’ Bertelay goes off into exile, accompanied by ‘a most handsome following

of knights to whom he had many times given fine gifts, for he had been

a good and strong knight’.15

Other leading characters are occasionally drafted to speak out on behalf of a

recourse to the courts. Though the false Guinevere episode puts her in peril,

the true queen upholds the ideal monarchical role regarding justice, even

against her own immediate interests. When Galehaut offers to solve all her

problems by taking the false queen by force, Guinevere stoutly speaks up for a

system of justice administered in the courts and against violent self-help: ‘I will

not, please God, allow that. I don’t seek to be defended against her accusation

by anything but the law, and I won’t ever, please God, be tempted by sinful

means but will wholly accept the king’s judgement.’16

Even Lancelot informs a knight whom he encounters that it is not right for

one knight to pass judgement on another single-handedly; he should prove his

case in a court.17 The principle is interesting, and runs directly counter to

Ramon Llull’s assertion that good knights should simply eliminate the bad.18

Of course Lancelot gives advice he does not follow himself, for he marks the

trail of his adventures with the broken bodies of evildoers.

Early in the Merlin Continuation (much concerned with ‘firsts’, with the origins

of chivalric customs) a squire asks Arthur to take vengeance for his lord,

killed in what the king calls the first of ‘these trials of one knight against

another’. The squire tells Arthur that as king, by God’s grace, he has sworn to

right ‘the misdeeds that anyone—a knight or any other person—did in the

land’. Arthur goes in person to confront the killer, who turns out to be

Pellinor. Before the inevitable joust, Arthur and Pellinor assert contradictory

views about individual right and royal responsibility: ‘Sir knight, who told

you to keep the passage of this forest in such a way that no knight, native or

Chevalerie and Royauté 97

15 Cf. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 263 and Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, ed., IV, 46,

where Bertelay’s hatred is connected with his role in the False Guenevere episode. In Lancelot Part

I King Bors of Gaunes, who disinherited Pharian because of such a death, is called ‘of all men one

of the most bent on justice’: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 10; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 17.

16 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 264; Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 48.

17 Rosenberg, Lancelot Part I, 91; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 172; Elspeth Kennedy, ed.,

Lancelot do Lac, I, 222.

18 Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 27–30, 49. Llull thought of knights as governors

themselves, and gave little attention to any mechanisms by which their own excesses or crimes

might be checked.

foreign, may take the way through the forest but he must joust with you?’ If

Arthur has raised the fundamental question of licit violence, Pellinor, addressing

Arthur as a knight, asserts a knight’s right: ‘Sir knight . . . I gave myself

leave to do this, without authority or grace from anyone else.’ Arthur will not

accept such a sense of private right: ‘You have done a great wrong . . . in that

you didn’t obtain leave at least from the lord of the land. I command you on

his behalf to remove your tent from here and never again be so bold as to

undertake such a thing.’19

The tension emerges openly again when Lancelot proposes to make kings of

Hector, Bors, and Lionel in the victorious aftermath of the war against the

usurper Claudas. Bors will have none of it, and explains why:

What is this, my lord, that you wish to do? Truly if I wanted to receive the honor of

kingship, you should not permit it, for as soon as I have a kingdom, I’ll be obligated to

give up all knighthood, whether I wish to or not, and I’d have more honor as a landless

man but a good knight than as a rich king who had given up knighthood. And what

I say concerning myself, I say about your brother Hector, for it will be a mortal sin if,

from the ranks of prowess and great knighthood where he now is, you remove him so

that he may become king.20

The worlds of kingship and of pure knightly prowess obviously seem incompatible


More than a century later, these issues likewise bothered Honoré Bonet. In

his Tree of Battles, sent to Charles VI in 1387, he takes the royalist line:

a person other than a prince cannot order general war. The reason for this is that no

man should, or may, bear arms without the license of the prince. And another reason

is that a man cannot take upon himself to do justice on another who has wronged him,

but the prince must do justice between these men. But nowadays every man wishes to

have the right of making war, even simple knights, and by the law this cannot be.21

Capetian Kingship and Chivalry

If the relationship of royauté and chevalerie was everywhere complex and

ambivalent, it was not everywhere the same. Monarchy, in England and

France in particular, followed different timetables, and these differences

shaped the interaction between kingship and chivalry in each realm. Baldly

stated, precocious growth characterized the English State; the French state

(the model for most other realms) developed more slowly.22 It is worth mak-

19 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 175, 179; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 28, 41–2.

20 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 319; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 169–70.

21 Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 129.

22 This theme is developed in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order.

ing two separate examinations: we will look just at the Capetians here, then,

in Chapter 6, at the Plantagenets.

At one level, it is true, the ideology of kingship as formally expressed in treatises

and colourful ceremony would show broad similarities over much of high

medieval Europe. On questions of controlling and channelling warlike violence,

kings of France and their cousins in England shared a substratum of

ideas from earlier medieval centuries; they formally linked regality with a justice

impartially dispensed at all levels, and with the assurance of the sort of

order within the realm that would allow the peaceful practice of Christianity.

They came to view some violence as an affront to their sovereignty.

The similarities in oaths and responses spoken by the kings of England and

France in their coronation ceremonies, for example, or the general agreement

of ideas about the royal role expressed by ecclesiastical writers, easily demonstrate

this fact.23 Generic forms of coronation oath even appear in chivalric literature.

In The Story of Merlin, for example, Arthur, recognized as king after he

has repeatedly drawn the sword from the stone, is told by the archbishop:

if you are willing to swear and promise all the saints that you will safeguard the rights

of Holy Church, keep lawful order and peace in the land, give help to the defenseless

as best you can, and uphold all rights, feudal obligations, and lawful rule, then step forward

and take the sword with which Our Lord has shown that you are His elect.

Weeping with joy, Arthur asks for God’s help in providing ‘the strength and

the might to do what is right and to uphold all the things that you have told

me and I have heard’.24

Promises which eventually hardened into formal coronation oaths show

these basic ideas in Capetian France. Three traditional precepts bound the new

king: to ‘preserve through all time true peace for the church of God and all

Christian people, to forbid rapine and iniquities of all sorts, and to enforce

equity and mercy in all judgements’.25

Ideas even more closely focused on public order came from the gradual

royal cooption of the peace movement. Although the pax dei, the Peace of

God, originally looked to the greater lords to secure a measure of peace which

weak kings were unable to manage, as effective Capetian power grew in the

twelfth century the movement became the king’s peace, pax regis.26 Within this

overall peace movement the effort to establish specific times of truce, a treuga

Chevalerie and Royauté 99

23 These themes can be followed with much profit in Flori, L’Idéologie du glaive, especially


24 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 216; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 88.

25 Quoting from Baldwin, Philip Augustus, pp. 375; see his discussion of the coronation

promises and oaths, 374–5, and the many sources cited there.

26 Grabois, ‘Trêve de Dieu’.

dei when all fighting was prohibited, may have been particularly significant. As

Head and Landes suggest,

over the course of the twelfth century, the Truce of God was inexorably co-opted by

secular authorities and became part of the emerging constitutional order of governance

and peacekeeping. By the mid-twelfth century in France the Peace of God had become

the King’s Peace.27

That the kings of England, by contrast, did not need the buttress of the peace

movement reinforces the importance of cross-Channel differences. The work

of kings of France had to be different, constrained as it was by different circumstances,

especially the size and growth of the realm, the slow emergence of

a hierarchy of courts and appeals, and the crucial factor of timing.

Ideology, in short, does not simply equate with actual capacity; beyond

royal ideology, abstractly expressed, lies another important layer of operative

ideas: justifications that royal officials gave for measures actually taken, day-today

assertions found not only in coronation oaths or treatises but in the working

documents of busy administrations. At this level the differences between

English and French kingship retain significance and demand attention.

The ordinance or testament of 1190, which Philip II had drawn up before

departure on crusade, speaks in its preface in bold terms of public utility, and

states that the kingly office consists in securing his subjects’ well-being. The

document that follows this preamble outlines active measures: the baillis

(regional officials) are to set aside one day a month to hold assizes at which

they would receive appeals, and give prompt justice. Yet one clause establishes

a formal procedure in case anyone made war against Philip’s son, the young

king, while the crusade lasted.28 Clearly, this significant document embodies a

sense of justice as a key function of regality; just as clearly, the reality and legitimacy

of noble war within the realm, and even war against royalty itself, had

to be recognized.

Louis IX (St Louis), half a century later, greatly strengthened the royal

stance against violence within the realm. Perhaps he affected opinion most by

his general unhappiness with ‘private’ war and duel and by his preference for

peace, at least for peace among Christians. For each of his specific measures the

exact timing, mechanisms, and generality within the realm remains uncertain;

but at least within the royal domain the evidence suggests a serious pro-

27 Head and Landes, eds, Peace of God, 8.

28 Ordonnances, I, 18. See the discussion in Baldwin, Philip Augustus, 137–44. The difference

between the statement about war against the young king in France and the closing of the Magna

Carta (which licenses war against King John in case of non-compliance with the Charter) is that

in England such war was formally illicit and was royally licensed by the Charter in this exceptional

case; in France such war was not formally illicit and was simply expected.

gramme: Louis prohibited trial by battle in both ‘civil’ and ‘criminal’ cases; he

instituted the ‘quarantaine le roi’ (a forty-day truce in private wars during

which relatives of the combatants could have a chance to choose not to involve

themselves); he restricted tournaments, and even prohibited private war itself

and the carrying of offensive weapons. On the other hand, that he sometimes

demolished castles belonging to lords under sentence of his court is a matter

of record.29

The great reform ordinance of 1256 announced that his officials were to do

justice to rich and poor alike and declared that they must preserve good laws.

Louis probably believed in these principles, which could all too easily be dismissed.

Joinville’s story of the good king sitting beneath an oak at Vincennes,

dispensing justice, is famous; but he also twice tells the story of the king

listening intently to a friar’s sermon and never forgetting its message: the only

kingdoms lost to their kings were those in which justice was ignored. In a letter

to his son, the future Philip III, these same themes reappear.30

Though he was a strenuous knight himself, so that Joinville could open his

biography by saying he will tell of Louis’s ‘great deeds of chivalry (de ses granz

chevaleries)’, the king also revealed significant reservations about the devoted

elevation of prowess, a key element of knighthood. Joinville once heard him

state that a great distance stands between the man of prowess and the worthy

man: ‘il a grant difference entre preu home et preudome’.31 Behind the king’s play

on words lies the serious point that prowess cannot reign untempered and

alone, the very point so often made in works of literature.

The last Capetians, Philip IV and his sons, advanced the programme of St

Louis in a series of well-documented court decisions and ordonnonces, which

announced that the king’s war must take precedence over all other warlike violence;

while he fought his enemies, no private wars, judicial duels, or tournaments

were to be tolerated.32 The special relationship of royalty to warlike

violence could scarcely be more clearly drawn: the king would lead war abroad

and regulate it—in all its manifestations—within the realm. In fact, these late

Capetian kings claimed rights to regulate warlike violence even in peacetime.

As Philip IV announced in a 1292 ordinance: ‘[T]hroughout the entire realm

of France, [cases involving] breaking the peace, carrying arms . . . generally

Chevalerie and Royauté 101

29 Ordonnances, I, 56–8, 84, 86. See discussion and sources cited in Jordan, Louis IX, 140, 203–4;

Ducoudray, Origines du Parlement, 329–32; Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 214–15, 231–5.

Cf. Wailly, ed., Historie de Saint Louis, 55, where a castle of a robber baron is pulled down by Louis

on his way to take ship for the crusade.

30 Wailly, Histoire de Saint Louis, 24, 25, 288–9, 308–9. In Louis IX, passim, Jordan has argued

that in his great reform initiatives Louis was eliminating wrongs in his governance that had turned

divine blessing away from his central crusading mission.

31 Wailly, Histoire de Saint Louis, 235.

32 E.g. Ordonnances I, 328–9, 342–5, 390, 421–2, 492–3, 538–9, 562, 643, 655–6, 701–2.

belong wholly to the lord king, by reason of his superiority, even in places

where other lords hold high justice.’33

Whenever needed, French kings could draw upon an arsenal of legal measures:

they could provide royal safeguards (sauveguardes) to particular religious

houses or individuals, they could impose assured truces (asseurements)

on quarreling parties, grant the royal panonceaux (signs of the king’s protection)

to be affixed almost anywhere, on houses, ships, even gallows.34 In their

day-by-day work the royal courts continued, in theory, to provide swift and

impartial justice to great and small, the most basic royal service in the interests

of peace within the realm.35

Did the French crown really act on the ideas expressed so often in its legal

and administrative documents? Ordonnances announced in the most uncompromising

language may not, to be sure, have covered the entire realm, and

were often violated where they did in theory apply; but the direction of the

working royal ideology and royal efforts at actual enforcement can scarcely be

denied. No reader of the records of the highest French court, the Parlement of

Paris, can doubt that the crown prosecuted knights for assault and murder,

theft and pillage, breaking of truces, and private war.36 No reader of French

chivalric literature can doubt the knights’ sensitivity to the intrusion.

The Balance Sheet

For all the tensions, chivalric literature in France never seriously challenged the

existence of kingship. Some epics in their frustration, it is true, may edge close

to the idea of doing without the troublesome fact of kings. The Charroi de

Nîmes (in the cycle of twelfth-century chansons about William of Orange) at

one point imagines that this great knight angrily tells King Louis that he could

kill all of Louis’ men and even kill Louis himself. A little later in this same chanson

William pointedly reminds the king that he had himself placed the crown

on Louis’ head and warns that he now feels like knocking it off.37 In Aliscans,

another of his chansons, an irate William again threatens to kill King Louis,

who has here scorned William in his great need.38 Would William have

replaced him as king, rather than leaving the kingdom without its titular head?

33 Ordonnances, VII, 611, quoted in Strayer, Philip the Fair, 195: ‘pacis fractio, portacio armorum

. . . generaliter pertinent domino rege in solidum per totum regnum Francie racione sue superioritatis,

eciam in locis ubi alii domini habent merum imperium.’

34 Discussed, with sources cited, in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 231–60.

35 As in Philip IV’s great reform ordinance, 1302: Ordonnances, I, 354–6.

36 Evidence provided in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 184–268.

37 Price, tr., Wagon-Train, laisses 11, 17; McMillan, ed., Charroi de Nîmes.

38 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d’Orange, laisse lxv; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans.

In Raoul de Cambrai the erring King Louis is cursed as the cause of trouble and

told by a baron he is ‘not worth a button’.39

Yet such statements represent the growlings of particular dissatisfaction

more than any sober attempts at a theory of governance. In fact, learned studies

have argued that many of the chansons de geste must be linked to the waxing

of royal power which these texts support.40 Some romances show the same

ideological inclination, a good example being Chrétien’s Erec, with its selfconscious

associations with Angevin kingship in its famous coronation

scene.41 Kings are accepted; these works simply projected characteristics essential

to an ideal and emphasized them by vividly illustrating the problems

caused by their absence. The problem of governance, in short, was not located

in the very fact of kingship, but was blamed, instead. on bad or inept men trying

to fill the role.42

Of course, a true king was in no small degree welcomed in this literature

because he possessed one of the chief chivalric qualities: prowess. A good king

was a good knight and could cleave helmets and thrust lances with the best.

The Perlesvaus presents a classic scene of Arthur and Gawain riding side by side

into the action of a great tournament:

Their horses were now decked in their trappings, and the king and Sir Gawain

mounted, fully armed, and charged into the tournament with such fury that they

smashed right through the biggest companies, felling horses and knights and whatever

they met. Then the king caught sight of Nabigan who was riding forward in all of his

finery; the king struck him such a furious blow that he sent him crashing from his horse

and broke his collar-bone.43

Riding side by side into actual war is, of course, better still. In the Mort Artu,

as Arthur and his knights fight their tragic battle against the forces of Lancelot,

Arthur proves his worth as a knight in the best manner:

That day King Arthur bore arms, and did it so well that there was no man of his age in

the world who could have equalled him; indeed the story affirms that on his side there

was no knight, old or young, who bore arms as well as he did. Through the example of

Chevalerie and Royauté 103

39 Kay, ed., tr. Raoul de Cambrai, laisses CCXXV, CCXXIV.

40 General discussions in Boutet and Strubel, Littérature, politique et société, 39–67; Boutet, ‘La

politique et l’histoire’; and ‘Chansons de geste’. The theme in particular works: Hunt, ‘L’inspiration

idéologique’; Combarieu, ‘La violence’; Flori, ‘Sémantique et idéologie’.

41 Topsfield, Chrétien de Troyes, 52; Schmolke-Hasselmann, ‘Henry II Plantagenêt’. Cf.

Holzermayr, ‘Le “mythe” d’Arthur’; Boutet, ‘Carrefours idéologique’.

42 Peters discusses the complexities and tensions associated with the rex inutilis theme in The

Shadow King; for tensions in the portrayal of King Arthur (and Charlemagne), see Elspeth

Kennedy, ‘King Arthur’.

43 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 189; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, II, 294.

his fine chivalry all his men fought so well that the men from the castle would have been

conquered if it had not been for Lancelot.44

Another royal trait idealized in chivalric writing may seem merely unremarkable

piety. Who could be surprised to read time and again that a king

must be a good Christian? The Duke of Burgundy, in the Song of Aspremont,

begins his speech on ideal kingship along just these lines: ‘The type of man

who seeks a crown on earth, / Should look to God and in his faith be firm; /

He should both honor and serve the Holy Church.’45 Is this insistence,

encountered so often, simply the reflex response of the cleric or quasi-cleric

who penned the text?

This trait is unlikely to be rooted in clericalism alone. More likely, it also

reflects age-old beliefs that the religious standing of the king significantly

determines the fate of the group or, in time, of the kingdom.46 Such beliefs

were much older than the Gregorian Reform that sought to diminish their

force; they also proved to be more durable than clerical critics expected. In

chivalric literature, kings, in company with other great laymen, often dominate

churchmen and church property in just the ways the Gregorians had vigorously

denounced for a century or more. We need only recall how dominant

and even sacerdotal a role Charlemagne plays in The Song of Roland—blessing

in Jesus’s name and in his own, conversing with his companion angels, convincing

God to extend the daylight (in order to effect his revenge).47 As Marc

Bloch pointedly observed, ‘Clearly the Gregorian reform had not yet passed

that way.’48

Royal piety is, moreover, often linked with the basic obligation of the king

to right fundamental wrongs in human society, especially to succour widows

and orphans. Significantly, such duties were also a staple of the chivalric ethos.

In the Lancelot do Lac the Worthy Man’s blistering critique of Arthur’s kingship

includes the charge that ‘[t]he right of widows and orphans has perished

under your dominions’. He threatens Arthur with the warning: ‘God will call

you most cruelly to account for this, for He Himself said through the mouth

of His prophet David that He is the guardian of the poor and sustains the

orphans and will destroy the ways of the sinners.’49

44 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 144; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 115.

45 See ll. 7160–62 in Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, and Brandin, ed., Chanson d’Aspremont.

46 Bloch, Société Féodale, tr. Manyon, II, 379–83; Chaney provides an interesting case study in

Cult of Kingship.

47 Laisses 26, 179 in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, For the anti-Gregorianism in the

Chanson d’Aspremont, see the opening section of Chapter 11 below.

48 Société Féodale, I, 96 n.

49 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 238; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 283.

The idea that the king must do his utmost to give impartial justice to all,

regardless of rank, is tirelessly emphasized in chansons and romances. Arthur

states the position plainly in Chrétien’s Erec:

I am the king . . .

I should not wish in any way

to commit disloyalty or wrong,

no more to the weak than the strong;

it is not right that any should complain of me . . .50

In fact, chivalric authors’ interest in the full social range of impartial royal justice

often quickly narrowed to the ranks of privileged society and to the

specifics of feudal relationships.51 More than one poem in the Cycle of William

of Orange turns on that point, and it is a similar failure of the king to provide

feudal justice that animates the savage cycles of knightly feuding in Raoul de


One key policy is for the king to free himself of low-born advisers and rely

solely on the only people who count, that is, on men of ‘the right blood’,

whether they are clerics or laymen. In the Crowning of Louis, Charlemagne

advises his son Louis ‘not to take a lowborn man as your counsellor, the son of a

lord’s agent or of a bailiff. These would betray their trust in a minute for

money.’53 The Duke of Burgundy in the Song of Aspremont speaks to the choice

of both clerical and lay officials and counsellors; combining self-conscious anti-

Gregorianism with chivalric rectitude, he insists that all come from ‘good family’:

You should keep by your side men of good birth;

From their good counsel you may find out and learn

The way to govern your own soul and self first: . . .

Make not a bishop of the son of your shepherd;

Take a king’s son, or duke’s or count’s, I tell you.

Or vavassor’s, though his family be penniless . . .

Archbishops seven bear office in my shires

And there’s not one, so strict I’ve scrutinized,

Whom either king or high duke has not sired . . .54

This ideal must have produced sage nods of agreement from those assembled

in a royal or baronial hall—some low-born officials perhaps prudently paying

more attention to their wine goblets for a moment.

Chevalerie and Royauté 105

50 Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 1757, 1764–7. 51 Larmat, ‘L’orphelin.

52 Larmat recognizes the social constrictions on the royal concern for orphans and widows: see

ibid. Raoul de Cambrai will be discussed below, Chapter 11.

53 Hoggan, tr., ‘Crowning of Louis’ 5; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 7.

54 See ll. 11236–8, 11214–16, 11310–12, in Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, and Brandin, ed.,

Chanson d’Aspremont. Dignités is the word translated as ‘shires’.

Yet if this ideal court is a centre of fine chivalry and a useful forum, in all

instances disputes are brought to the king by a suitor’s choice, not by royal

claims to jurisdiction. Supervised arbitration is the process, not clearly sovereign

adjudication, a picture that largely matches twelfth-century political and

legal reality. As John Baldwin has shown, slightly more than a third of the cases

coming into the royal court under Philip II between 1179 and 1223 received

imposed royal judgements; somewhat more than half were settled by simple

agreements between the parties.55 Like Charlemagne or Arthur, Philip

Augustus offered a service to those who chose to take advantage of it. Yet

Philip’s reign was, as Baldwin also argues, a turning-point in French history:

‘The French king was no longer merely reacting to his great vassals . . . He was

now able to seize the initiative to win supremacy. . . . Benefiting from the

resources of a rich kingdom, Philip laid the foundations of French royal power

in the Middle Ages.’56

Chivalric literature was highly reluctant to recognize such direct royal jurisdiction

over major issues of justice and even more reluctant to recognize a

working royal monopoly over licit violence.57 The pages of chanson and

romance generally refuse even to register the existence of a centralizing,

bureaucratic administration with a system of courts energized by insistent and

expanding jurisdiction, with proceeds of taxation collected through administrative

mechanisms looming ever larger over the local horizon. Historical

records occasionally preserve the puzzled and offended surprise which greets

royal constraint. On the way to the gallows in 1323, at the end of a remarkable

career of defiant private warfare, Jourdain de l’Isle Jourdain confessed that his

actions on several counts merited the death penalty; yet, the record reveals, he

added a significant coda of failed self-justification in each case: ‘but he said that

it was in war’.58

55 Baldwin, Philip Augustus, 37–44. ‘We can only conclude that the technique of allowing contending

parties to arrive at their own decisions, then to be confirmed by royal authority, was the

preferred method for resolving disputes in the royal courts’ (p. 43).

56 Ibid., 423.

57 Coming to terms with royalty was a particular theme in the chansons de geste. Kaeuper, War,

Justice, and Public Order, 315–25.

58 Statement in Langlois and Lanhers eds, Confessions et jugements, 37–9. Discussion of the case

and career in Cutler, Law of Treason, 46, 144–5; Kicklighter, ‘Nobility of English Gascony’.