The Role of Chivalric Mythology (Revisited)

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If the knights first strode swiftly away from the rustics and then at least kept

the bourgeois at arm’s length (while funding loyalty among fellow knights),

they always had the clerics to contend with as social rivals. The issue was complicated,

as we have already noted, by the clerics’ sacerdotal role and by the

close link they claimed with their supernatural chief. Yet thinking in pragmatic

and worldly terms, knights could never forget that the clerks often came from

the same social levels, even from the same families as they themselves; some

clerics, of course, could claim little or no status by birth.

Prudently and piously recognizing the essential clerical role in the economy

of salvation, the significant voices of both Ramon Llull and Geoffroi de

Charny grant that the clerks merit high status in the world; both state outright

that the clerics form the highest order in Christian society. Each wants, however,

to give chivalry a secure place, to yoke clergie and chevalerie as the twin

motive forces of their society. And Charny’s statement of clerical superiority

has a somewhat formal ring; he soon betrays his sense that the great role

chivalry must play in the world gives it a special status. Like William Marshal

a century before, he is happiest when religion comes heavily blended with

chivalry; again in company with the Marshal, he most heartily endorses clerics

who perform all the needed rites and then stand aside for the magnificent work

with sword and lance.

In fact, as Maurice Keen has emphasized, the knightly demonstrated their

autonomy vis-à-vis clerics by elaborating a chivalric mythology.49 It came

complete with stories of origins, lists of men worthy of reverence, and great

texts produced in language that was sometimes sonorous and solemn, sometimes

wonderfully witty and sophisticated. We have seen that all this distinctly

lay culture functioned not so much as a form of anticlericalism as a complex

and autonomous borrowing and parallel process of creation, using clerical

symbolism to draw the veil of accepted piety over the rigours of knightly life.

Chapter 3 examined this mythology as evidence for the complexities of

knightly lay piety in the face of clerical claims to directive power. This mythology

also allows us to see related, knightly efforts to secure their social status in

the face of clerical claims as primary ordo in Christendom.

Valorizing ideas are important even if propaganda often is intended as much

to reinforce the morale of the group as to win over outsiders in debate. In

effect, the knights imagined a mirror version of the world as conceived by

clergie—that is, themselves in control and the priests reduced to specialist

Social Dominance of Knights 199

49 Keen, Chivalry, 102–24.

(though necessary) functionaries. They posited an independent chivalric

mythology and learning (cast always in the most pious hues) standing alongside

if not actually in place of the clerical learning of the schools, with manly

violence ensuring all that is sound and sacred. This line of thought justified

their self-assurance that the role of knights matched or even overshadowed

that of the less than heroic clerics, for all their claims. The task was not onerous;

they simply created an origin for chivalry as old or even older than that

claimed by the ecclesiastics for their own order.

Chrétien de Troyes imagined a genealogy of chivalry (virtually equated with

civilization) that reached back into classical Greek and Roman history.50

Anonymous works, like the Romance of Eneas, the Romance of Alexander, the

Romance of Troyes, pictured figures and events from ancient history and legend

in chivalric dress and spirit. The glory of the classical world stemmed in no

small measure from its fine chivalry.51 Knights contemporary to Chrétien

could trace their functional if not their biological lineage back to great heroes.

Precise definition (characteristic of high medieval Europe) came with the

famous Nine Worthies, unexcelled champions, extending chivalric roots

beyond the classical past into ancient Israel. Using sacred threes, writers presented

three sets of three heroic knights: medieval (Arthur, Charlemagne, and

the crusader Godfrey de Bouillon); classical (Hector, Alexander, and Julius

Caesar); and Jewish (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus). This fusion of

Judaeo–Christian and classical history gave chivalry the most ancient and most

venerable lineage possible.52

Sometimes the same effect was achieved not by anchoring accounts of origins

in historical time and personage, but by moving them outside of time. In

his vastly influential book on chivalry, Ramon Llull (who had been a knight

before he became a quasi-cleric) presented a human fall from virtue redeemed

by the creation of chivalry in just such a distant, misty past. To ensure order

and virtue, the human race was divided into thousands and the knight was

chosen as literally one out of a thousand as the most noble and most fit to rule

and fight.53

The author of the Lancelot do Lac presents a similar account (probably the

model for Llull) in the form of advice given by the Lady of the Lake to the

50 Luttrell and Gregory, eds., Chrétien de Troyes, ll. 30–9.

51 Grave, ed., Eneas; James, ed., Romance of Alexander, a facsimile of the French manuscript;

Constans and Faral, eds, Roman de Troie, an abridged prose version of the original metrical French


52 There were local variants. Writing the life of Don Pero Niño in the late fourteenth century,

Gutierre Diaz de Gamez lists nine worthies with the classical trio omitted, Charles Martel substituted

for Arthur, and three Castilian heroes added: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 8–9.

53 Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 14 ff.

young Lancelot, though here the myth is loosely attached to more standard

Christian chronology and to a somewhat surprising populism.54 Originally, all

men were equal, being offspring of one set of parents:

but when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome

justice . . . [and] the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong,

they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the

peaceful and to maintain their rights and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing

and outrageous behaviour.

Thus, knighthood was given to those who, ‘in the opinion of the common

people’, were most worthy; that is, to ‘the big and the strong and the handsome

and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those

who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body.’55

Similar qualities set apart noble knights in Christine de Pisan’s myth, laid

out in her account of the deeds of the French king Charles V. Once evil and

disorder entered the world, laws and various professional groups were formed

to provide structure and order. The knights came into being ‘pour garder et

deffendre le prince, la contrée et le bien commun’ (to guard and uphold the

prince, the country, and the common good).56

The life of the great fourteenth-century Castilian knight Don Pero Niño

simply concentrates on how good fighting men (functionally equated with

nobles) were first found. The ‘Gentiles’ and ‘the People of the Law’ followed

different courses. The Gentiles first relied on carpenters and stonemasons who

could give great blows in battle; but their courage and resolve failed, as did

that of the next group, the butchers, chosen because they were inured to blood

and slaughter. So a third group was chosen: those who were observed to be

resolute and strong in battle became the knights, their sons following them in

an hereditary and privileged concentration on fighting.57 Among the Jews,

nobility/knighthood originated differently, as the Old Testament shows. With

divine direction, Gideon chose an elite set of warriors: rejecting those who

drank with mouths in the water like animals, without shame, he chose the

good men who drank with their hands, guided by reason. As he assures his

readers, ‘noble renown is a matter befitting knights and those who pursue

the calling of War and the art of Chivalry, and not any others whatsoever’.

They are only a little lower than the angels, for God ‘has set three orders of

Social Dominance of Knights 201

54 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 52; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142–3.

55 Corley, Lancelot, 52; Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 142.

56 Solente, ed., Livre des fais, I, 111–16, quotation at 116.

57 A little classical patina is added, as knights lead their thousands (a miles in charge of a mille)

and a duke, called a legionary, commands a legion of six thousand, six hundred and sixty men.

knighthood’: the angels who warred with Lucifer in heaven, the martyrs who

fought the good fight on earth and gave their lives for faith, and the good kings

and knights, for whom heaven will be the reward.58

More commonly, an author simply tells readers that God’s will is manifest

in knightly origins. In the famous Sword in the stone episode (in The Story of

Merlin), the worthy archbishop explains to all who have seen the marvel of

Arthur drawing out the sword:

[W]hen our Lord established law and order on the earth, He set them in the sword.

The rule that was over the laity must come from a layman, and must be by the sword,

and the sword was, at the beginning of the three orders, entrusted to knighthood to

safeguard Holy Church and uphold true law and order.59

As we have seen, the Grail stories bring the knightly and priestly mythologies

into much closer conjunction, integrating the account of chivalric origins

more fully into salvation history, in the process creating unmistakable and

significant parallels. The History of the Holy Grail, for example, provided

knights with a non-ecclesiastical story of the coming of Christianity to their

own region, with much emphasis on the need for knightly virtues in fighting

for the Grail and the new faith.

In this and other prose romances which tell the Grail story, a powerful trinitarian

formulation appears. Three fellowships, gathered round three tables,

have marked the history of the world, which means, of course, the history of

chivalry: the table of Christ and his disciples; the table of ‘that worthy man and

perfect knight, Joseph of Arimathea’ (to whom the Grail was given); and,

finally, the Round Table of King Arthur. However tenuous this linkage may

seem to modern sensibilities, more than one romance draws this line from

Christ, through the first Grail-keeper and the later Round Table fellowship to

the flesh and blood knighthood of the High and Late Middle Ages.60

Perhaps fourteenth-century founders of chivalric orders such as the

English king Edward III or his cousin of France, John the Good, thought of

the fellowships they created as latter-day additions to this glorious tradition,

although it meant adding to the sacred three. In many minds another addition

seemed sure. Certainly, many of those who wrote about chivalry,

Geoffroi de Charny prominent among them, looked forward to joining a

58 Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 4–7.

59 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 213; Micha, ed. Merlin, 271. The divergence from the usual clerical

theory of two swords is noteworthy here.

60 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 97–9; Pauphilet, Queste, 74–7; Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 4–5; Hucher,

ed., Le Saint-Graal, I, 417; Pickens, Story of Merlin, 196–7; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 54.

The quotation about Joseph comes from Matarasso, Quest, 151.

final chivalric fellowship at God’s table in paradise, and spoke of heaven in

just such terms.61

Genealogies created for heroes of the Grail stories make a final link between

myths of knighthood and the standard sacred history. Joseph of Arimathea, as

loyal burier of Christ’s body in the New Testament accounts and first keeper

of the Holy Grail in chivalric accounts, plays a crucial bridging role. The links

in the chain of Grail knights are formed by his successors as keepers of the

Grail or their close associates. Perceval, though his father is not named in

Chrétien’s Grail romance, becomes the son of Alain, a Grail-keeper, by the

early thirteenth century (in the Didot Perceval and the Perlesvaus). For Galahad,

who enters the tradition at about the same time, a more oblique attachment to

the main line had to be found. According to The Quest of the Holy Grail, after

divine commandment sent him away from Jerusalem, Joseph of Arimathea

met and converted a pagan king (who took the baptismal name Mordrain) by

helping him obtain God’s aid in beating his enemy in battle. Mordrain

becomes one of the standard figures in the Grail stories and an important agent

in the mythical conversion of Britain. One splendid and pious knight begets

the next until Lancelot enters the world and, finally, through his union with

the daughter of the Fisher King (a Grail-keeper), the Good Knight Galahad


Chivalric literature, then, shows us in how many ways chevalerie both aped

and rivalled the pretensions of clergie. Moreover, this literature was in itself a

significant body of learning, a key element in the collection of texts which

knighthood came gradually to set alongside the sacred texts controlled by the

priesthood. The tales of chivalric literature, after all, present themselves as history

and claim the venerable authority owed to ancient accounts penned by

eyewitnesses; repeatedly, chivalric authors assure us such manuscripts stand

behind the thoroughly stylish, modern, versified, or prose texts written in the

vernacular which they now presented to an appreciative audience in the form

of chanson or romanz.

Sometimes, the bridging, literate cleric responsible for the text is Turpin,

knight and archbishop. The Chanson d’Aspremont relates that Turpin witnessed

the important meeting between Girart and Charlemagne, and recorded it, in

Latin, while on horseback.62

But clerics—even when simultaneously knights—are not always needed.

Pauline Matarasso describes the anonymous author of The Quest of the Holy

Social Dominance of Knights 203

61 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 196–9. After one of his escapes from temptation in

the Quest, Perceval prays that he may never ‘forfeit the company of His knights above’: Matarasso,

tr., Quest, 113; Pauphilet, Queste, 92.

62 Newth, tr., Song of Aspremont and Brandin, ed., Chanson d’Aspremont, laisse 232.

Grail as ‘most likely . . . one of that great army of clerks who wandered anonymously

in that no-man’s land between the lay and ecclesiastical worlds’.63

Occasionally, authors of chivalrous learning are straightforward laymen, as

Geoffroi de Charny was. The heralds who rose with the institution of the tournament

and gradually won a secure place for themselves in chivalrous society

by the later thirteenth century were certainly laymen; Maurice Keen has

termed them ‘a lay priesthood’ for the cult of chivalry ‘and an educated, literate

lay priesthood to boot’.64

And we should note that from the early years of the thirteenth century this

historical mythology of chivalry was written, significantly, in prose. This, as

E. Jane Burns has noted, ‘carried for many medieval writers a truth-telling

value absent from the rhetorical artifice of purely literary verse accounts’.65 The

medieval translator of the Chronique de Pseudo-Turpin, rendering that work

into French prose, declared flatly, ‘No rhymed story is true.’66

The authors of Arthurian and Grail stories, in other words, claimed historical

authenticity and buttressed such claims time and again with careful

descriptions of the sure and certain manner in which their story got from

actual events to the written page. The knights themselves become authors in a

sense, for we are told more than once how they swore to recall all their adventures

on their return from the quest; Arthur had clerks to set them down in

detail in a book.67 Merlin is author of other parts of the tale, and is frequently

shown dictating the story to his clerk, Blaise.68 At some points ‘the story’ even

asserts that it has been written by God or Christ himself.69 Merely human

authors include Walter Map, a figure at the court of the great king Henry II,

who was himself, of course, linked with the Arthurian legend.70

Perhaps the most powerful combination of authority, however, appears in

The History of the Holy Grail, whose author tells us not only that he has been

given his book from God, but that he has divinely learned of his own descent

from ‘so many valorous men that I hardly dare say or acknowledge that I am

descended from them’. This ideal combination, of course, unites divinity with

the demi-god prowess.71

63 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 27.

64 Keen, Chivalry, 142. For the importance of heraldry in general as a species of knightly learning

see, pp. 125–42.

65 In Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xvi. 66 Quoted in Kelly, Perlesvaus, 18.

67 See, for example, Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 298, 406, 571; Pickens, tr., Story of

Merlin, 345; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 321; III, 227, 307, 429; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II,

126, 169, 238.

68 Pickens, Story of Merlin, passim; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, passim.

69 E.g. Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 4, 76; Hucher, ed., Le Saint-Graal, II, 13, 438.

70 See the comments of Burns, in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, Introduction.

71 Chase, History of the Holy Grail, 4; Hucher, Le Saint Graal, II, 12–13.

The Role of Formal Manners

As natural lay leaders in society, knights display the ideal behaviour to be

expected of them. They know just how to speak to each person in the elaborate

social hierarchy; they know when to speak, and when to fall politely silent.

They know how to receive orders as graciously as they accept hospitality or

fine gifts. They are now unmovably resolute, now overcome and swooning as

their fine emotions take hold. As if seated in an opera house, we may feel that

the measured gestures should be accompanied by music, the monologues and

choruses being sung to tunes we simply no longer hear.

Agreement on the importance of fine manners among medieval contemporaries

is impressive. Non-fictional works of instruction for knights provide the

same point of view as that of so many works of imaginative literature. Yet so

much seeming agreement raises interesting questions.

We might especially ask about the origin and intent of all this tireless

emphasis on proper behaviour in various social settings and in dealings with

various social levels. Was this instruction an attempt by those outside the caste

to remake knights, to change their thinking and, in time, their behaviour? Did

knights themselves resist, only reluctantly accepting a somewhat cramped

framework for behaviour, or did they think that following such behaviour was

important to their social dominance? Did the concern for manners and courtly

behaviour actually civilize the knights in the exact sense of reducing their violence

and integrating them into a more ordered society?

These are large questions that have attracted the attention of distinguished

scholars. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Johan Huizinga and

Norbert Elias pictured the rough warrior being slowly civilized as the early

modern gentleman.72 More recently, Stephen Jaeger has convincingly located

the origins of courtliness—which would become so important in French

romance and in all the vernaculars it touched—in the German court tradition

beginning in the tenth century.73 No one, moreover, would deny that basic

changes in aristocratic behaviour and aristocratic violence took place between

(say) the later tenth and the later seventeenth century.

Recognizing the force and attractiveness of all this work, it is possible to

consider chivalry at best as an unsteady ally of the complex forces at work

producing these great changes. The evidence brought into play in this book

reinforces a view that chivalry was no simple force for restraint.74 The worship

of prowess makes chivalry a poor buttress to a unilinear progressive view of

Social Dominance of Knights 205

72 Huizinga, Autumn of the Middle Ages, Elias, The Civilizing Process.

73 Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.

74 I am developing this theme in a forthcoming article.

civilization. In fact, the formally polite modes of behaviour seem less an intrusive

check on knighthood than an expression of the knights’ own high sense of

worth, of rightful dominance in society; good manners were less a restraint on

knightly behaviour than they were its characteristic social expression. These

forms of good behaviour, after all, informed the entire span of knightly life and

set it apart from anything common. Much knightly violence itself was

enthroned in good manners, not prohibited by them. As the anthropologist

Julian Pitt-Rivers wrote so succinctly, ‘the ultimate vindication of honour lies

in physical violence’.75 The range of this good behaviour, as we have seen,

extended from bloody deeds of prowess on the field of battle or in the tournament,

through a piety which never lost its degree of lay independence, to

polite behaviour and correct speech among mixed company whether in a great

court or humble vavasour’s hall.

We need only think of the scene repeated hundreds if not thousands of times

in chivalric literature. A wandering knight comes conveniently to some castle

or fortified house at the end of a hard day of riding and fighting. The knight

meets with a gracious reception from the good man in charge, who welcomes

him into his home with open-handed hospitality; the host inevitably has a

beautiful daughter who removes the knight’s armour, and dresses him in a soft

robe of fine stuff; they converse most politely while the tables are set and the

roast finishes. The next morning, after mass in the chapel, the knight is again

on his way to adventure, which quite often means freeing his hosts from some

dread peril which has become evident during his brief stay. In gratitude the

host offers the victorious knight his beautiful daughter, an offer which is

acknowledged with many thanks, but must be turned down with apologies

because of a pressing quest or an earlier claim on the knight’s heart.76

This scene celebrates the formal and superior chivalric manners under discussion.

The knight is most polite in speech and action with everyone in this

setting, male and female, even the enemy whose defeat will free the gracious

host from an evil custom or a siege. Having unhorsed this enemy and hacked

him into submission, the knight rips off his foe’s helmet and turns down the

mail ventail (protecting the vulnerable throat), perhaps pounds the fellow’s

face a bit with the pommel of his sword; then, bloody sword blade at the

ready, he politely offers a choice of surrender or decapitation. If the foe yields,

the victor cuts not.

What scholars traditionally term courtoisie is much in evidence here, and in

all the knight’s social relations. The scene likewise indirectly praises the largesse

75 Pitt-Rivers, ‘Honour and Social Status’, 29.

76 For a discussion of hospitality and good manners as aristocratic rites of unification, see

Chênerie, Le Chevalier errant, 503–91.

of the host who freely gives what is his to the worthy knight. All show an interest

in amors. If the knight makes no sexual advances to the daughter (or resists

hers, if she is more forward) he has demonstrated loiauté by not repaying his

host’s good with ill. The mass heard in the castle chapel shows the hero is pius.

Even if no mortal combat is actually portrayed, from either wing of this

domestic stage set, like summer thunder, come the echoes of the knight’s


Sometimes courtliness and fine manners even seem subsumed within

prowess, despite our sense (rooted in etymology) that they represent gentler

virtues that internalize restraints.78 As Norman Daniel observes, ‘the sense of

cortois seems to extend to any expedient favourable to a knight. Giving freely is

aristocratic, and it is taking such an expedient brutally that makes it possible.’79

William Marshal’s tactical advice that King Henry should pretend to disband

his forces but then secretly reassemble them and suddenly ravage French territory

elicits from the king a telling compliment: ‘By God’s eyes, Marshal, you

are most courteous [molt corteis] and have given me good advice. I shall do

exactly as you suggest.’80 In the opening of his Yvain, Chrétien refers to Arthur

‘whose prowess taught us to be brave and courteous’.81 When Perceval converts

the Coward Knight to prowess in the Perlesvaus, he gives him the new

name of Bold Knight, ‘for that is a more courtly name than the other’.82 At one

point in the Lancelot do Lac Arthur rebukes Gawain for interrupting his reverie

at a meal; his thoughts were courtly because they were about a man of great

prowess: ‘Gawain, Gawain, you have shaken me out of the most courtly

thoughts I ever had . . . for I was thinking about the best knight of all men of

valour. That is the knight who was the victor at the encounter between

Galehot and me.’83

Certainly any denial or neglect of the accepted forms will quickly acquaint

the miscreant with the cutting edge of prowess. Chivalric texts invariably note

that two honourable people meeting each other exchange greetings; any failure

is a significant event. Thus a squire riding disconsolate in the Lancelot

(troubled by the news that his brother has been slain) commits a serious

Social Dominance of Knights 207

77 Burgess, Contribution, discusses several of these key terms, their interconnections, and shifts

in their meanings towards the mid-twelfth century.

78 See the discussions in Frappier, ‘Vues’; Burgess, Contribution, 22–34. As noted above, the

most recent study, with a different emphasis, is that of Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.

79 Daniel, Heroes and Saracens, 27. He notes that in the chansons, ‘Cortois is most often used as

an indeterminate epithet in praise of someone, with no meaning more specific than “civilised” (in

an aristocratic way).’

80 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 7738–69, discussed in Gillingham, ‘War and Chivalry’, 6.

81 Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 1–3.

82 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 157; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 243.

83 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 255–6; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 296–7.

offence when he neglects to greet another squire waiting before some tents he

passes; the offended squire attacks and mortally wounds him. A lapse of courtesy

has cost him his life.84

Denial of hospitality can easily be fatal if it touches Lancelot. Near the end

of the Lancelot, the hero seeks lodging in a pavilion, but is refused by the

maiden within, who tells him her knight will return and will object. He

announces he is staying regardless, for he has no other lodging. Her knight

does return, denies Lancelot hospitality, and orders him out with threats.

Lancelot arms and tells the knight he will die for this dishonour. His first

sword stroke cuts off the man’s arm. Both the mortally wounded knight and

his lady faint. When the knight’s brother tries to take vengeance, Lancelot

stuns him with another great sword stroke, rips off his helmet, and beats him

nearly to death with it. He spares the man’s life on condition of pardoning him

for the death of his brother. It then emerges that there was a hermitage nearby;

the battered brother takes Lancelot there.85 For the audience of this romance,

was the point not that hospitality must not be denied?

Chivalric largesse, mythology, and refined manners certainly purveyed

social power. They created an image of knights as naturally superior to all

other laymen and on a par with the clerics; pious and appropriately violent,

they are splendidly refined in life and love.

These chivalric ideas, even if they sometimes seem rather abstract in their

details, flowed into daily life through a thousand channels to became a force in

social relationships. If the process is complex and can only be seen indirectly

from our six or seven centuries of distance, the broad social result is by no

means in doubt.

84 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 64; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 232.

85 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 272–3; Micha, Lancelot, V, 274–9.