The Book of the Order of Chivalry

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Ramon Llull wrote the most popular handbook, The Book of the Order of

Chivalry, probably between 1279 and 1283.5 It reached a wide readership in its

original Catalan (Libre qui es de l’ordre de cavalleria); in French translation

(Livre de l’ordre de chevalerie) it reached an even wider audience, before being

translated into English and transcribed into print by Caxton (The Book of the

Ordre of Chyvalry) in the last quarter of the fifteenth century.6

Llull was the ideal person to write a handbook for knights. He began his

adult life as a knight himself and was thoroughly immersed in chivalric culture

and literature before experiencing the great conversion, probably in 1263, that

sent him on a radically new course. After recurrent divine visitations he

became a mystic, a systematic and prolific philosopher, a missionary for the

conversion of Muslims and Jews, and one of the founding figures of Catalan

literature. But he apparently never became a cleric, however close he was to the

Franciscans in thought and life.7

The showy, easily remembered, and often quoted statements in his book are

all in praise of knighthood, even of the sort of knighthood that clerical critics

might view through narrowed eyes as merely ‘earthly chivalry’. Llull likes and

praises it all: jousts and tournaments, war in defence of one’s lord, the liberal

life of hall and hunting.

The thin story frame for his treatise is built around that stock figure the wise

old hermit who—we learn with no surprise—turns out to be a former knight.

A young seeker after chivalry encounters him by his fountain, asks questions,

and receives not only a lecture but also a reading assignment, a little book that

3 Busby speculates that Raoul may have been ‘a knight of slender means . . . employed as a minstrel’,

who might well praise open-handed generosity on the part of the wealthy.

4 Ibid., 18. 5 Bonner, Selected Works, II, 1262.

6 Ramon Llull, Obres essencials; Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry.

7 For accounts of Llull’s life, see Hillgarth, Ramon Lull and Lullism, 1–43; Bonner, Selected

Works, I, 3–52.

he will take to court for the instruction of all. It is, of course, the very book the

reader holds. The hermit, now pale and ascetic, had formerly been the sort of

hero with whom any knight could identify: ‘[He] had long maintained the

order of chivalry and done so by the force and nobleness of his high courage

and wisdom and in adventuring his body had maintained just wars, jousts and

tourneys and in many battles had many noble and glorious victories.’8

On such honourable men Llull can scarcely lavish enough praise. They form

an ordo alongside that of the clerics and rank only a little lower than those

whose hands produce God’s body on the altar. If only these two high orders

could be free of error, Llull says, the world would be all but free from error.

The knights, if anything, ought to be advanced in honour. Ideally, each knight

should have a kingdom or province to rule, an honour prevented only by the

unfortunate shortage of suitable territories. Certainly, knights would make

excellent judges, if only they were learned, and chivalry is, in itself, so high a

subject that it ought to be taught in schools. There can be no doubt that

knights are the natural counsellors for kings and princes; to advance the nonknightly

to such positions is an offence against chivalry, which produces the

men best qualified for rule, best fit for distributing justice. In his Ars Brevis,

Llull in fact defines chivalry as ‘the disposition with which the knight helps the

prince maintain justice’.9

Llull introduces his general theme by telling a myth of origins. It is a story

of a fall and a redemption through chivalry.10 At issue are all the basic matters

concerned with securing right order in the world. The myth relates that at

some point in the swirling mists of the past the great virtues—charity, loyalty,

truth, justice, and verity—had fallen, producing injuries, disloyalty, and falseness,

with social consequences of error and trouble in the world. Fearing disorder

and injustice, the populace divided itself into thousands and from each

chose the best man to be a knight; they likewise selected the horse as the best

beast to carry him in his work.11 From that time forward the knight has carried

out a high and essential mission: he secures order in the world. For fear of him

the common people hesitate to do wrongs to each other; for fear of him they

till the soil. Just as the clerks (who are brought into the myth without expla-

8 My translation of Caxton, in Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 3–4.

9 Bonner, Selected Works, I, 624. See also his knight’s comment (to a hermit questioning him)

in the Arbre de Ciencia: ‘Dix lo cavaller que ell mantenia cavalleria ab l’espasa del rei, qui fa estar

comuna la sua corona’: Ramon Llull. Obres Essenciales, I, 903.

10 The similarity between this account and that in the earlier pre-cyclic prose Lancelot is interesting.

See Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142.

11 Any medieval reader familiar with contemporary learning on the Corpus Juris Civilis might at

this point hear echoes of the Lex Digna Vox, which asserted that at some point in the mythic past

the people had given up their natural sovereignty to the Roman emperors. See Byles, Book of the

Ordre of Chyvalry, 113. for an even more strikingly similar statement by Llull.

nation, since it is not their myth) incline the people to devotion and the good

life, the knights ensure the order that makes civilized life possible.12

Llull makes this same point in slightly different terms in his Felix (though

here he reverses the roles of hermit and knight). In response to the hermit’s

quizzing him about what a knight is, ‘the knight replied that a knight was a

man chosen to ride on horseback to carry out justice and to protect and safeguard

the king and his people so that the king could reign in such a manner

that his subjects could love and know God’.13 Yet such praise is only half the

picture. Although Llull nearly worshipped chivalry as an ideal, his first-hand

knowledge of knighthood as it worked in the world shaped everything he says

about it. In fact, his love for chivalry as it might be never eradicates his deep

fear of chivalry as social fact. In the Book of Contemplation, for example, he

refers to knights as ‘the Devil’s ministers’, and asks pointedly, ‘Who is there in

the world who does as much harm as knights?’14 At one point in the Tree of

Science he pictures a hermit asking a knight if he understands the order of

chivalry. The knight explains that in the absence of a book on the subject he

does not, in fact, understand chivalry. Were there such a book, the knight

adds, ‘many knights would be humble who are prideful, and just who are criminal

[injurioses], and chaste who are licentious, and brave who are cowardly,

and rich who are poor, and honourable who are dishonourable’.15 Llull here,

of course, clearly if indirectly announces a rationale for the book on chivalry

which he himself wrote; in the process, he explicitly establishes the reforming

nature of his book. Knights can and must be made better in basic categories of

their lives.

Llull knows that he is in a sense whistling past the graveyard in The Book of

the Order of Chivalry. It will be difficult to refashion the men who cause so

much disorder into effective upholders of order. Each gilded wine goblet that

Llull raises to toast knighthood thus contains a bitter residue of criticism. The

basic dichotomy appears in advice given by the hermit within the very myth of


Beware, squire, who would enter into the order of chivalry what you shall do. For if

you become a knight you receive honour and the servitude due to the friends of

12 The myth is elaborated in Llull’s second chapter.

13 Bonner, Selected, II, 668–9. In his Ars Brevis, Llull says in the same vein: ‘Chivalry is the disposition

with which the knight helps the prince maintain justice’: in ibid., I, 624.

14 Quoted in Hillgarth, The Spanish Kingdoms, 60. The Catalan, kindly supplied in correspondence

from Professor Hilgarth, reads: ‘E doncs, Sènyer, qui és lo mon qui tant de mal faça com


15 Ramon Llull. Obres Essencials, 903: ‘Dix lo cavaller que ell no sabia l’ordre de cavaleria, e blasmava

son pare qui escrit no l’havia; car si era fet un libre de l’art de cavalleria, molts cavallers serien

humils qui son ergulloses, e justs qui son injurioses, e casts qui son luxurioses, e ardits qui son

volpells, e rics qui son pobres, e honrats qui son deshonrats.’

chivalry. For of so much as you have more noble beginnings and more honour, just so

much are you more bound to be good and agreeable to God and also to the people.

And if you are wicked you are the enemy of chivalry and contrary to its commandments

and honours.16

Following this pattern, Llull’s discussion of each chivalric virtue so lauded in

the book quickly inverts to become a sermonette against the vice it corrects.

The virtues of the body (such as jousting, tourneying, hunting) must not be

exercised at the expense of the virtues of the soul. A knight must protect

women, widows, orphans, and weak men; to force women and widows, to

rob and destroy the feeble, to injure the poor, is to stand outside the high

order of chivalry. A knight must have castle and horse so that he can patrol the

roads, deliver justice in towns and cities, and encourage useful crafts there; to

play the highway robber, to destroy castles, cities, towns, to burn houses, cut

down trees, slay beasts, is disloyal to chivalry. A knight must seek out and punish

robbers and the wicked; to thieve himself or to sustain other robber

knights is to miss the basic point that honour is the supreme good, infinitely

more valuable than mere silver and gold. The list runs on in this vein, one

worry after another balanced on the knife edge of reform which stands

between fulsome praise and dark warnings.

Llull does, it is true, move at one point beyond the undifferentiated company

of knighthood to stress the importance of hierarchy. He opens his treatise

with the familiar parallel between social and political hierarchy in human

society and natural hierarchy in the created world. As God rules the planets

which in turn control the earth, so beneath God the kings, princes, and great

lords rule the knights, who, in their turn, rule the common people.17

On the whole, however, the thrust of his book is to reform chivalry by

enlightening individual knights, by changing the way they think, rather than

by stressing the exterior force of any institutions or by placing them in a distinctly

subordinate layer in the hierarchy. In some instances he specifically

urges the body of right-thinking knights to act as a policing agency themselves,

admonishing them even to be willing to kill those knights who dishonour the

order of chivalry, as in the case (which so obviously troubles him) of knights

who are thieves and robbers, wicked and traitorous.18 His formal hope, whatever

his private estimate, remains the correction of each knight through education,

reason, and exhortation.

16 Byles, Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 18. 17 Ibid., 1–2.

18 Ibid., 48. Judging from the number of references to robber knights in various romances,

their authors shared Llull’s worries. See, e.g., Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, passim; Vesce, tr.,

Marvels of Rigomer; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, passim.

The prominence of clerical ideas will be as striking to the reader as the total

absence of any idea of clerical institutional power. Many pages of the treatise

are filled with what most modern readers will consider tenuous moral meanings

attributed to each piece of the knightly equipment, with summary

accounts of the theological and cardinal virtues, with warnings against the

seven deadly sins.

Yet the treatise preserves a character that is not, finally, clerical.19 It accepts

too many aspects of the chivalric life that were questioned or even condemned

by ecclesiastics. Though it formally sets up the clerical ordo as highest, it edges

chivalry nearly to the same mark. The hermit who dispenses wisdom is apparently

a layman and former knight, not a cleric; and he is found at a forest fountain,

not in any church. Llull’s reform draws on the ideas of clergie, in other

words, without compromising the degree of lay independence so essential to

the knightly self-conception.

Likewise, although he portrays knights as the chief props and active agents

of royal power, his book is not really royalist. If only the earth were big

enough, after all, each of his idealized and reformed knights would properly be

a king, or something very close to that high rank. He never fully confronts the

tension between the formal statement of hierarchy which opens his book and

his continued portrayal thereafter of an idealized society of knightly equals—

powerful and busy men, carving away evil from the world with their

broadswords and even doing away with the rotters who give chivalry a bad

name. The earthly social hierarchy which parallels that of the heavens seems

quickly to recede and to become almost a backdrop; it certainly does not function

as the key mechanism for providing ordered life.

In short, like the men for whom he wrote, Llull was deeply immersed in the

contradictions chivalry brought to the complex and difficult issues of public

order. He wanted to be a reformer of chivalry, not merely a singer of its

praises. Yet he was a pragmatic man; his popular book urged reform that came

wrapped in gold leaf and that argued its case along lines that most in his audience

could find tolerable. We can take instruction both from the book’s popularity

and from Llull’s mixed hopes and fears.

Useful as Llull’s Book of the Order of Chivalry and his other works are, we can

draw on texts by other authors that seem even closer to the world of knighthood,

less altered by a clerical programme. Three works—all written, in effect,

by practising knights—can best show us the impulse for reform among

the knights themselves. They can remind us of the great investment in an

19 See the useful comments in Keen, Chivalry, 11.

enduring ideal in whose service such reform was to work. We will turn first to

the biography of William Marshal, the greatest knight of the late twelfth century,

then to another of the vernacular manuals, the Book of Chivalry written by

Geoffroi de Charny, one of the greatest knights of the mid-fourteenth century,

and finally to the evidence of the Morte Darthur, the splendid summing up and

shaping of chivalric ideas from literature by another knight, Sir Thomas

Malory, in the late fifteenth century. As we will see, the chivalric ideal held by

these knights maintains a programme of its own. The changing settings in

which the ideal was to work, however, required adjustments in the particular

emphases of reform in order to fit basic ideals to new circumstances.

L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal20

William Marshal died in 1219. His biography was completed at least seven

years later, after information had been carefully collected, by a man known to

us only as John (Jean); the cost was underwritten by his oldest son. This John,

Georges Duby suggests, ‘might well be one of those heralds-of-arms who

arranged the jousts on the tournament grounds, identified the protagonists by

their insignia, and by singing their exploits boosted the reputation of the

champions’.21 John tells us that his raw material came from his own knowledge

and that of two others: the Marshal’s eldest son, and especially his companion

John of Earley. Some information may already have been set down in writing,

some household documents may have been available; the rest came from living

memory. Georges Duby argues that from this evidence we hear William

Marshal’s own memories, that we read, in essence, an autobiography.22 David

Crouch reminds us that this is the first biography of a layman below the rank

of king.23

This text shows the ideal of chivalry in its spring colours. Yet it is a very

pragmatic, quotidian notion of chivalry that we find in the Histoire, not something

abstract.24 Criticism or reform figures in this story only indirectly, by setting

out an ideal working model for those who would follow the great

exemplar, by embodying an ideal of chivalry in a life lived grandly and with

success. The rewards of this good life are implicit: all things are possible to the

20 Text and discussion in Meyer, ed., Histoire; unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this section

come from this edition. Modern biographies: Painter, William Marshal; Crosland, William

the Marshal; Duby, Guillaume le Maréchal; Crouch, William Marshal.

21 Duby, Guillaume le Maréchal, 33. 22 Ibid., 30–7.

23 Crouch, William Marshal, 2.

24 Chivalry in the Histoire is discussed by Gillingham, ‘War and Chivalry’, and by Crouch,

William Marshal, 171–84. Both scholars make telling criticisms of the views of Sidney Painter and

Georges Duby.

knight who will dare all—a great fief, royal patronage, a good lady, seemingly

endless admiration.

The key quality is in no doubt: William’s life-story unfolds as a ceaseless

hymn to prowess, the demi-god.25 The reader learns that William never gave

in to idleness but followed prowess all his life, and is admonished that ‘a long

rest is a cause for shame in a young man (lonc sejor honist giemble homme)’, that

men know that you must look among the horses’ legs for the brave (who, in

their boldness, will sometimes be unhorsed). Like a hero in a romance,

William goes off seeking ‘pris et aventure’, especially in the tournament circuit

available only on the continent (ll. 1883–8, 1894, 2402, 6090–2). Page after

page of the text details feats of enviable prowess done primarily in war—the

war of raid and counter-raid, of siege and manoeuvre—and secondarily in the

tourney.26 William is given the honour of knighting King Henry’s eldest son

even though he is landless and ‘has nothing but his chivalry’. He becomes what

the text calls the ‘lord and master’ of the young king; this position was appropriate,

we learn, since he increased the lad’s prowess (ll. 2102, 2634–6).

Loyalty is also praised by the Histoire as a defining quality of the Marshal,

and thus of the ideal chivalric hero. William appears time and again as the

steady, reliable, and stalwart warrior, directing his great prowess in honourable

and predictable causes.27 That one of these causes was his own

advancement and that of his family is accepted.28 If ambition leads William (as

it had led his father) away from loyalty sketched out in bold black and white,

and into the grey, the text goes murky or silent. Of course, because he is primarily

an Anglo-Norman knight, baron, and earl, an account of his loyalty

must also be a story of touchy relations with the lord king—of whom it could

be said, as of a yet greater ruler, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away.

William managed to earn all his rewards with his sword and his loyal counsel,

despite the complicated politics dominated by Henry II and his sons Richard

and John. If William’s masterful negotiations over fiefs on both sides of the

Channel add a shaded note of realism, the Histoire completely obscures what

Crouch terms John Marshal’s ‘quicksilver loyalties’ during the civil war of

25 We should note Crouch’s warning that William’s career was more military in focus than

many of his contemporaries: William Marshal, 3, 22–3. The argument is simply that the emphasis

in the Histoire is not out of line with that in books by Geoffroi de Charny and Sir Thomas Malory,

and that prowess as a key element in the general ethos of chivalry was important even to men who

did not devote as much of their time to military enterprises as William did.

26 See the discussion in Gillingham, ‘War and Chivalry’.

27 Even on behalf of King John, ‘because he always loved loyalty’: Meyer, ed., Histoire,

l. 14590.

28 The emphasis on prowess coincided easily with the idea of courtliness, coming into vogue in

an era with new forms of patronage. See Crouch, William Marshal, 39–40; Southern, Medieval

Humanism; and Jaeger, Origins of Courtliness.

Stephen’s reign.29 Yet the message of the text is clear: William’s prowess and

his careful and prudent loyalty, continually proved, earned him essential royal

patronage. In the last stage of his active life, blessed by the papal legate,

William acted as no less than guardian of the young Henry III and of his realm

(tutor regis et regni).

Through this young Henry’s wonderful largesse to valiant young knights,

the poet assures his readers, chivalry will be revived (ll. 2635–86). Much

admired by poets and writers who lived on its fruits, the quality of largesse, in

fact, frequently appears among the signature qualities of chivalry displayed by

the Marshal and the young king, son of King Henry. Gentility, we read, was

nourished in the household of largesse (ll. 5060–5). As his prowess and loyalty

won him prize after prize on the tournament field, the battlefield, and the

council chamber, William did the right thing and gave generously, openly, and

with a sense of style.

William’s piety is likewise manifest, though it is sketched rather quickly and

with broad brush strokes. We see him knighted in a ceremony without ecclesiastical

overtones. He goes on pilgrimage to the shrine of the Three Kings of

Cologne. He goes on crusade, but we are left without the detail we would

expect.30 On his deathbed he is accepted into the Order of the Temple. A note

or two of anticlericalism surfaces: we hear of Saints Silver and Gold who are

much honoured at the court of Rome. But William has no doubts about the

relationship between God and chivalry: on the tourney field and on the battlefield,

his cry was ‘On! God help the Marshal (Ça! Dex aie al Maréchal).’

Piety and prowess merge in the same battlecry.

Even as the great Marshal waited out his final days, the deeply rooted sense

of lay independence is apparent. On his deathbed he confidently denied the

validity of clerical criticisms of knightly practice—specifically of the profit from


Listen to me for a while. The clerks are too hard on us. They shave us too closely. I have

captured five hundred knights and have appropriated their arms, horses, and their

entire equipment. If for this reason the kingdom of God is closed to me, I can do nothing

about it, for I cannot return my booty. I can do no more for God than to give

myself to him, repenting all my sins. Unless the clergy desire my damnation, they must

ask no more. But their teaching is false—else no one could be saved.31

29 Crouch, William Marshal, 13; he repeatedly points out the gaps and distortions in the

Histoire. Regarding sovereign claims and land on either side of the Channel, Crouch is less censorious

than Painter: see pp. 86–7.

30 David Crouch, however, makes a good case for thinking that the experience marked

William: William Marshal, 51–2.

31 Quoted in translation by Painter, William Marshal, 285–6. For the original French, see

Meyer ed., Histoire, ll. 18480–96.

With eternity stretching before him from the foot of his deathbed, the greatest

knight of his age calmly brushed aside clerical strictures on the career that

had given him so pleasing a combination of wealth and honour.

In this same conversation he likewise rejected the pious advice that he sell all

the fine robes kept in his household and give alms to secure forgiveness for his

sins. First, he ordered, let each member of his household have his robes in the

accustomed manner; then those left over could go to the poor (ll. 18725–34).

Women usually appear only on the margins of this masculine story.32

According to Georges Duby, ‘[t]he word love, throughout the entire chanson,

never intervenes except between men.’33 Rumours circulated, it is true, that

William was the lover of Margaret, wife of the young king Henry, son of

Henry II. In a confrontation at court, William offered to fight any three

accusers in turn, even to cut off a finger from his right hand—his sword

hand—and fight any accuser with that handicap. Here in life—or at least in the

written Histoire patronized by his heirs—the great knight plays Lancelot from

the pages of romance. The coincidence is hardly surprising. This biography of

the Marshal and the great prose romances spinning out the life of Lancelot

may be separated by only a decade and a half. Rival knights in this scene from

life are as prudent as those who remained silent in the face of Lancelot’s challenges

in the imagined courts of romance. Though William knows he must

leave the court, since the prince’s love has vanished, he is soon recalled in order

to get on with the real work of prowess, serving in his master’s team for the

tournament. The biography of the Marshal does not focus on women; the

Marshal himself does not look like a devotee of ‘courtly love’.34

On the whole this biography takes an optimistic tone with regard to

chivalry. There are no problems—at least no problems are openly recognized.

The great example of chivalry simply must be followed. Even John Marshal,

William’s father, who at times played as ruthless and unprincipled a robber

baron as ever wore armour, is praised by the author as ‘a worthy man, courteous

and wise (preudome corteis e sage)’, who was ‘animated by prowess and loyalty

(proz e loials)’ (ll. 27, 63).35 The work is, of course, what moderns would

32 Discussed in Duby, Guillaume le Maréchal, 38–55, and Crouch, William Marshal, 99, 172–3.

Benson even suggests that the appearance of women at some tournaments in the story is anachronistic,

that the author here drew upon his own lifetime rather than on events half a century earlier:

see ‘The Tournament’, 7.

33 Duby, Guillaume le Maréchal, 48. Crouch believes the incident which follows, involving the

young king’s wife, was made up by the poet in imitation of contemporary romance: see William

Marshal, 45–6.

34 Crouch seems justifiably critical of Painter on this point: see William Marshal, 172.

35 John does say that he cannot tell us all of John’s deeds: he does not know them all. Crouch,

William Marshal, 9–23, provides the best discussion of the career and character of John Marshal,

and insists he was more of a baron than a robber.

call an authorized biography. The appearance of the standard virtue words

may, however, interest us as much as their sometimes problematic attribution

to John or even William; showing prowess and courtesy, piety, largesse and

loyalty are the ideals. Great successes won by the key quality of prowess covers

any gaps in the ideal framework, even if they are wide enough for a

mounted knight to ride through. The father did what he had to do; the son did

all. Be advised.

Geoffroi de Charny, Livre de chevalerie

Geoffroi de Charny, a practising knight and author of a major vernacular text

on chivalry ranked among the most renowned knights of his age. His Livre de

chevalerie (Book of Chivalry),36 written about 1350, upholds the glittering goal of

fine chivalry no less eagerly than Marshal’s biography, and presents it as

embodied no less clearly in and effected by martial deeds. The leitmotif of

Charny’s book is ‘he who does more is of greater worth’. Though he is at pains

to emphasize that all feats of arms are honourable, he calibrates an ascending

scale of knightly prowess: those who fight in individual jousts deserve great

honour; those who fight in the more vigorous mêlée merit yet more praise;

but those who engage in warfare win highest praise, since war combines joust

and mêlée in the most demanding circumstances. It seems to Charny ‘that in

the practice of arms in war it is possible to perform in one day all the three different

kinds of military art, that is jousting, tourneying and waging war’.37

William Marshal would surely have loved this scale; he lived by it.

In Marshal’s case the all-important pursuit of honour through prowess even

subordinated love as a major component in the knightly life. We saw in

Chapter 10 that Charny finds romantic love a spur to prowess, stating, for

example, that ‘men should love secretly, protect, serve and honour all those

ladies and damsels who inspire knights, men-at-arms and squires to undertake

worthy deeds which bring them honour and increase their renown’. These

‘activities of love and of arms’ overlap easily in his prose; they ‘should be

engaged in with the true and pure gaiety of heart which brings the will to

achieve honour’.38

36 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry; Kennedy’s translation of Charny’s text will be

quoted in the following pages.

37 Ibid., 84–91. Another of Charny’s works, his Demandes pour les jout, les tournois et la guerre, a

series of questions for debate on intricate issues of chivalric practice, similarly emphasizes actual

war; he provides twenty questions on joust, twenty-one on melée, but ninety-three on war. See

Taylor, ‘Critical Edition’.

38 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry 120–3.

Yet this acceptance and validation of love, joyful and worldly as it is, does

not form the centre of Charny’s book. As one admired choice, rather than the

sole path for the knight, it is not the single great goal for which prowess exists.

Romantic love is wonderful because it promotes prowess and striving for honour;

yet the prowess and the striving take first rank.

But Charny is willing to qualify his praise of prowess in the best reform

manner. The finest laymen will combine the very best of three types not only

of prowess, but of worth and intelligence as well. Worth may begin with a kind

of innocence, and progress to pious formalities such as giving alms and attending

mass, but its peak is loyally serving God and the Virgin. Likewise, intelligence

involves only malicious cleverness at the lowest level, progresses to the

ingenious but overly subtle, and appears at its best in the truly wise. Prowess

is seen initially in those with courage and skill who are, however, thoughtless;

it appears to better advantage in those who perform great deeds of arms personally,

but do not act as leaders or advisers; and it is best found in those brave

men who also command and direct other knights.39

Charny’s omnipresent piety shows as he gives thumbnail sketches of great

men from the past who have missed the highest status because they failed to

recognize their debt to God. But he presents ‘the excellent knight’ Judas

Maccabaeus from the Old Testament as the model. Those who want to reach

such high honours, ‘which they must achieve by force of arms and by good

works (par force d’armes et par bonnes euvres)’, should pattern themselves on

him.40 Thus Charny’s book is much more explicitly a work of reform than

Marshal’s biography. He knows that he must address real problems, however

carefully he coats every suggestion for improvement with the gleaming whitewash

of generous praise.

Reform is absolutely necessary, Charny knows, because the chief problem is

of such central importance: he fears that French knights of his day have lost

their vital commitment to prowess; and with this centre weakened the entire

arch of chivalry threatens to fall about the heads of all. At the time Charny

wrote, the English and their allies had defeated French knights repeatedly, and

were threatening further devastating incursions. When they most needed to

risk all and bear all hardships, the knights of France, incredible as it seemed to

Charny, appeared to prefer the soft life and the safe life, blind to the grand

vision of an existence vested in vigorous deeds, come what may, a life of honour

blessed by divine favour.

39 Ibid., 146–55.

40 Ibid., 160, line 143. Charny’s phrase can be compared to two statements from Malory,

quoted fully in the next section: Malory endorses the knight who is ‘a good lyver and a man of

prouesse’, and he suggests, through a speech given to a hermit, that the goal of a knight is

‘knyghtly dedys and vertuous lyvyng’.

For a few pages of his book Charny puts aside the whitewash pot and brush

altogether and speaks with curled lip of the timid, cowardly men who call

themselves knights, but who really care only for bodily comforts and safety:

As soon as they leave their abode, if they see a stone jutting out of the wall a little further

than the others, they will never dare to pass beneath it, for it would always seem

to them that it would fall on their heads. If they come to a river which is a little big or

too fast flowing, it always seems to them, so great is their fear of dying, that they will

fall into it. If they cross a bridge which may seem a little too high or too low, they dismount

and are still terrified lest the bridge collapse under them, so great is their fear of

dying. . . . If they are threatened by anyone, they fear greatly for their physical safety

and dread the loss of the riches they have amassed in such a discreditable way. And if

they see anyone with a wound, they dare not look at it because of their feeble spirit.

. . . Furthermore, when these feeble wretches are on horseback, they do not dare to use

their spurs lest their horses should start to gallop, so afraid are they lest their horses

should stumble and they should fall to the ground with them. Now you can see that

these wretched people who are so fainthearted will never feel secure from living in

greater fear and dread of losing their lives than do those good men-at-arms who have

exposed themselves to so many physical dangers and perilous adventures in order to

achieve honour.41

Later he denounces a second group, those unworthy of the great calling of

bearing arms ‘because of their very dishonest and disordered behaviour under

these arms’. If one set of men utterly lack the foundation of prowess, these men

possess that great gift, but misuse it: ‘it is these men who want to wage war

without good reason, who seize other people without prior warning and without

any good cause and rob and steal from them, wound and kill them.’42 He

knows what to call such men: they are ‘cowards and traitors’. It does not matter

if they maintain formal proprieties by abstaining from such behaviour

themselves, only sending their men to do the dirty work. Whether doers or

consenters, such men, in Charny’s view, ‘are not worthy to live or to be in the

company of men of worth’. They ‘have no regard for themselves’, and so,

Charny asks rhetorically, ‘how could they hold others in regard?’43 It seems he

would agree with the assessment of V. G. Kiernan that ‘All military élites face

opposite risks: some of their members cannot stop fighting, others—far more,

probably—lapse too readily into sloth.’44

If a failure or misuse of prowess is the chief issue for Charny, it comes as no

surprise to find this critical problem redoubled by the absence of its essential

companion, loyalty. As prowess withers or mutates, loyalty likewise declines;

faction and treachery seem to flourish in their place. Any sentient observer

41 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 124–9.

42 Ibid., 176–7. 43 Ibid., 176–81. 44 Kiernan, The Duel, 37.

could already have seen what so troubled Charny: ambition, regionalism, and

anti-royal politics were already at work in mid-fourteenth century France; they

ensured that the Hundred Years War would become a veritable civil war.

Charny’s book was apparently a part of a royal campaign for reform of governance

in the interest of unity, a campaign in which chivalry in general and the

king’s new royal chivalric order, the Company of the Star, in particular, were

to play a role of obvious importance. In his book Charny dedicated three chapters

specifically to outlining the nature of true princely rule.45 Here were

reform ideas modern historians might call ‘top down’: kings must act for the

common profit through vigorous good governance.

Yet the crisis showed with painful clarity how much the chivalric ethos was

needed. Charny thus offered a set of ideas we might characterize as ‘bottom

up’, understanding that the flooring here rests under the knights and men-atarms

and is in effect a ceiling for the great mass of Frenchmen. Charny’s solution

is direct and uncomplicated: the code must simply be followed. The

knightly—indeed, all men living by the honourable profession of arms—must

do their duty manfully, even joyously, knowing the rewards awaiting them

when they next walk into a court to a murmur of praise, followed by the soft

eyes of the ladies, as in time they will know the rewards awaiting them as they

are welcomed into the court of heaven by the God of battles.

The answer seems so obvious to him: practice prowess, show loyalty. This

is what God wants; this is what God will reward. Charny seems almost to

exhaust even his immense energy, telling the essentials to his audience time

and again, in the hope that even the obvious slackers of his own generation will

finally see the plain truth.

In a time of crisis, as disaster threatened the very kingdom of France, Jean

II and his great knight saw eye to eye on reform of the chief military force in

the realm. But we, for our part, need to see that if chevalerie and royauté travelled

the same path here (as they often could and did), the reform suggested

by Charny is, in fact, much more elementary, much slighter than the ideas for

reform which royauté generally thrust at chivalry. Charny’s plan is something

different, the standard knightly view, understandably recommending itself

powerfully at this moment to the French king. In mid-fourteenth century

France a clarion call for an augmented display of prowess and loyalty, buttressed

by the certitude of divine favour, could sound like a fine reform programme

to a monarch facing a military and political crisis.

45 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 138–47, provides the relevant text and translation;

pp. 53–5, 59–63, provide historical context.

Charny closes his great effort with (to borrow Maurice Keen’s characterization

once again46) a combination prayer and war cry: ‘Pray to God for him

who is the author of this book . . . Charni, Charny.’ The statement recalls

Marshal’s war cry, which likewise sounded his own name and called

confidently upon God’s aid. Charny’s piety is more explicit and certainly more

voluble. Yet the basic assumptions are similar. Knights who do their hard duty

with loyalty and honesty can be assured of divine favour. God will receive

them into an eternity of blissful reward. There can be no question whether or

not a man can save his soul by the profession of arms; there can be no danger

to the soul in fighting for the right causes—in just wars, to protect one’s kin

and their estates, to protect helpless maidens, widows, and orphans, to protect

one’s own land and inheritance, to defend Holy Church. The list is generous,

and accepts no cavils or criticisms.47 The divine blessing on reformed chivalry

is clear.

Even Charny’s statement of clerical superiority has a somewhat formal ring;

he soon betrays his sense that the great role that 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.

Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur

How can we add Malory’s Morte Darthur,48 a work of imaginative chivalric literature,

to the model biography and the treatise composed by a practising

knight? This book will, of necessity, be quite different from our first two

sources, primarily because it is a highly original reworking of a mass of literary

texts, English as well as French. These texts bring with them many currents of

thought about chivalry (including some of the most intense efforts to infuse

chivalry with monastic values), locked in conflict with developed French ideas

about amors. In addition, because of these numerous sources drawn into

Malory’s work, and often given new shape there, his book is vastly larger and

more complex than the two we have so far considered in this chapter.49

46 Keen, Chivalry, 14. 47 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 154–67.

48 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works. For an introduction to the enormous body of scholarship on

this author and work, see Life, Sir Thomas Malory.

49 Useful general approaches appear in Brewer, ‘Malory’; idem, ed., Malory, ‘Introduction’; and

Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur. On Malory and chivalry, see Tucker, ‘Chivalry in the Morte’;

McCarthy, Morte Darthur, 76–93; Barber, ‘Chivalry’. Beverly Kennedy, Knighthood, argues a

highly schematic typology of knighthood in Malory.

Yet there are sound reasons for making Malory’s book our final text, as we

consider reform of chivalry by the knightly. One of the few facts about Sir

Thomas Malory that can be advanced without igniting instant controversy is

that he was a knight himself, and very probably a practising or strenuous

knight. He clearly tells us in the pages of the Morte Darthur that he is a knight;

the favourite scholarly candidate among the several Thomas Malorys advanced

as the author of this great book appears to have had an active career in


Moreover, he shows concern for the themes that we have already encountered

in the life of William Marshal and in the manual of Geoffroi de Charny.

In company with the other knight-authors, that is, Malory shows a vast admiration

for prowess (the key to honour, if practised properly), a concern for the

crucial role of loyalty, a somewhat subordinate interest in romantic love, and

an unswerving belief that God blesses the entire chivalric enterprise. We will

examine each of these points.51

Could any reader of Morte Darthur doubt that Malory admires prowess?

The only danger seems to be the modern tendency to hurry past this virtue in

an effort to infuse it with deeper and less physical meanings, or quickly to qualify

it with checks and softening qualities more to our modern taste. But

Malory likes prowess. He vastly admires men who can beat other men in

armour, on horseback, with lance and sword.52

His admiration stands forth most clearly and without competing distractions

in the early tales of his book, full of the ‘noble chere of chevalry’ equated

with ‘the hardyeste fyghters that ever they herde other sawe’. Malory says

Arthur, fighting with Accolon, has lost so much blood that he can barely

stand, ‘but he was so full of knighthood that he endured the pain’. Kay is contemptuous

of Gareth’s first, simple request of Arthur, a request for sustenance,

‘for an he had be come of jantyllmen, he wolde have axed [i.e. asked for] horse

and armour’.53

This admiration for prowess, so evident in Malory’s accounts of Arthur’s

wars to establish and expand his realm, scarcely disappears or lessens throughout

the rest of the book, even though other themes (the Grail, the love of

50 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 110, 726. For a recent extended defence of the Thomas Malory

of Newbold Revel as the author, see Field, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Mahoney

comments that Malory’s book ‘is full of touches that demonstrate his practical knowledge of the

fighting life’: ‘Malory’s Morte Darthur’, 530.

51 Another similarity is that Malory makes of chivalry an ideal as it was in the Marshal biography

and Charny’s book. Since the world can never quite live up to any such ideals, Malory’s book,

like the others, is a work of chivalric reform.

52 In addition to the quotations which follow, all taken from Vinaver, Malory. Works, see the

many examples drawn from Malory in Chapter 7.

53 Ibid., 198, 24, 86, 178.

Lancelot and Queen Guinevere) take on prominence. For it is through the

practice of prowess that the knights win worship—probably the highest

human good in Malory’s view, and a chief ingredient in nobility. Characters

who have seen good displays of fighting say they have seen noble knighthood.


Throughout the book worship is proved on other men’s bodies. Balin says

to his brother that they will attack King Rion with just this in mind: ‘kynge

Ryons lyeth at the sege of the Castell Terrable, and thydir woll we draw in all

goodly haste to preve our worship and prouesse uppon hym.’55 The many battle

scars on Lancelot’s body, evident when for a time he runs naked and mad

in the woods, prove to those who see him that he is a man of worship. To fail

in a fight is to get no worship from an opponent.56

Malory so values the military side of knighthood and the worship produced

by fighting well that he emphasizes the life of prowess even at the expense of

the romantic love so evident in his French sources. As scholars have argued for

some time, Malory speaks in the most positive terms of stability in love, of

affection arising naturally and enduring steadfastly; but he seems unhappy and

even irritable when love becomes highly mannered and formalized in a cult in

the manner of French fin amors.57

His recasting of the tale of Tristram and Isolde makes the point nicely.

Though he tells us Tristram could not live without Isolde, ‘Malory’s own statement’,

P. E. Tucker argues, ‘is not made plausible. On the other hand, much

is made of Tristram’s other virtues as a knight.’58 Eugène Vinaver similarly

thinks that ‘love is not allowed to interfere with the customs of knighterrantry.

As a true knight-errant, what Tristram values above all is not the presence

of his beloved, nor the joy of sharing every moment of his life with her,

but the high privilege of fighting in her name.’59 Tucker identifies what may be

Malory’s key interest in the matter of the love between knight and lady.

Malory ‘is concerned largely with stability, that is, loyalty in love. . . . Malory

finds fidelity in love praiseworthy in itself—ultimately, perhaps, because it is a

form of loyalty.’60 Sadly, love in his own day does not meet Malory’s high standards:

‘And ryght so faryth the love nowadays, sone hote sone colde. Thys ys

no stabylyté. But the olde love was nat so.’61

54 E.g. Vinaver ed., Malory. Works, 277.

55 Ibid., 44.

56 Ibid., 499, 330, 370.

57 See the cogent argument of Tucker, ‘Chivalry in the Morte’. Cf. Edwards, ‘Place of Women’.

58 ‘Chivalry in the Morte’, 73. In general this essay has much of interest to say on the entire issue

of chivalry in Malory’s view.

59 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 750.

60 ‘Chivalry in the Morte’, 81. Cf. Peter Waldron, ‘ “Vertuouse Love”, 54–61.

61 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 649.

The issue leads to a point of basic importance to understanding Malory’s

view of chivalry in relation to our earlier exemplars. As Tucker has noted,

prowess, too, is praiseworthy in itself, and ‘[a]part from its inherent worth,

prowess is admirable because it brings a knight reputation and honour, or

what Malory calls “worship” ’.62 The chief qualities which are praiseworthy in

themselves and which lead to other virtues are thus identified as prowess and

loyalty, the twin pillars which upheld so much of the structure of Charny’s

book, the interlinked set of qualities so important to William Marshal’s successful


‘Stabylyté’, Malory thinks, should be embodied in good love. Lancelot and

Guinevere are true lovers because of their constant loyalty, their stability,

despite all obstacles, despite doubts, misunderstandings, and quarrels.

‘Stabylyté’ should likewise, Malory thinks, be embodied in sound politics.

Just as loyalty should bind two true lovers, the knight and his lady, so should

loyalty bind together the king and his knights.63 Lancelot, the great knight,

upholds Arthur, the great king, who, in reciprocation, supports knighthood.

With this great bond mortared in place like a capstone in an arch, all the

realm will be whole. Could Charny have read Malory’s view, would he not

have agreed wholeheartedly, possibly adding one of his exclamations of ‘He,

Dieu!’ to underscore the point? Furthermore, Charny would have agreed

with Malory that to the great pairing of prowess and honour must be added

the essential loyalty that makes love prosper, that makes political society


As the Arthurian world collapses, Malory speaks out directly and with force

to his audience, presenting a clear view of the problem and at least by implication

a simple solution:

Lo ye all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste

kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshyp of noble

knyghtes, and by hym they all were upholdyn, and yet myght nat thes Englysshemen

holde them contente with hym. Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe,

and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom. Alas! thys ys a greate

defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.65

62 Tucker, ‘Chivalry in the Morte’, 65.

63 The splendid praise of political stability which Malory addresses to his readers (‘Lo ye all

Englysshemen’: see Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 708) can be compared, with some interest, to a

long passage in Sir Thomas Gray’s Scalacronica (in Maxwell, tr., 75–6), and to a political sermonette

on unity in Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (in Thorpe, tr., 264–5).

64 It would perhaps not be pressing a point too far to note that loyalty is here taking on more

of a royalist cast, serving as a signpost to the greater emphasis on the crown as the focus of loyalty

and source of honour in the centuries to come.

65 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 78.

A stable political society might have a chance, in Malory’s view, if it were

headed by a great king who was supported by great knights. The participation

of them all in the High Order of Knighthood is the key ingredient. Men of

worship all working together might make the world right.

The contrast Malory draws between the kingship of Mark and of Arthur

speaks to this theme repeatedly. Mark is a felon, no supporter of knights, no

discriminating judge of worship in men, no personal practitioner of prowess.

This heavy judgement is delivered against him by one character after another.

Berluse tells him to his face that he is ‘the most vylaunce knyght of a kynge that

is now lyvynge, for ye are a destroyer of good knyghtes, and all that ye do is

but by treson.’ Dynadan adds to the charges:

ye ar full of cowardyse, and ye ar also a murtherar, and that is the grettyst shame that

ony knyght may have, for nevir had knyght murtherer worshyp, nother never shall

have. For I sawe but late thorow my forse ye wolde have slayne sir Berluses, a better

knyght than ever ye were or ever shall be, and more of proues.66

The quality of prowess in a king is, of course, a key. When Lancelot learns that

Mark had murdered his own knight, he opposes him; Mark ‘made no difference

but tumbled adowne oute of his sadyll to the erthe as a sak, and there he

lay stylle’. Mark’s lack of the essential trait of knighthood could scarcely be

clearer. Lacking prowess, he must resort to the trickery that causes Lancelot to

label him ‘Kynge Foxe’.67

Arthur splendidly reverses all these qualities in his practice of kingship.

Some of the qualities praised in earlier English works reappear. The young

Arthur, holding in his hands the sword just pulled from the stone, promises

justice to all; he hears ‘complayntes’, clearly the plaints or querelae which

brought so much judicial work to real-life English kings.68

Yet the emphasis is not placed on Arthur as governor. Malory is much more

inclined to praise Arthur as ‘the floure of chevalry’, and to assure his readers

that ‘all men of worship seyde hit was myrry to be under such a chyfftayne that

wolde putte hys person in adventure as other poure knyghtis ded’.69 Speaking

directly to King Mark, Gaheris later sums up this essential element in Arthur’s

rule, in words conveying a telling contrast: ‘the kynge regnys as a noble

knyght’. Arthur knows, as Mark does not, that ‘a kynge anoynted with creyme

[chrism] . . . sholdest holde with all men of worship’.70

66 Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, 357, 358. 67 Ibid., 365, 380.

68 Ibid., 10. Cf. Harding, ‘Plaints and Bills’.

69 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 362, 36. The tradition of the knightly king was venerable. A classic

example appears in Sir Degaré, ll. 9–18: see Laskaya and Salisbury, eds, Breton Lays.

70 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 333, 335.

Malory states the need for this bond between monarchy and chivalry time

and again. Even the queenship of Guinevere is evaluated by this same standard.

Accused of killing Sir Patrice with poisoned fruit (the unfortunate fellow

‘swall sore tyll he braste’), her innocence is defended by Bors, who justifies her

in terms of her overall relationship to knighthood:

Fayre lordis . . . never yet in my dayes knew I never ne harde sey that ever she was a

destroyer of good knyghtes, but at all tymes, as far as ever I coude know, she was a

maynteyner of good knyghtes; and ever she hath bene large and fre of hir goodis to all

good knyghtes, and the moste bownteuous lady of hir gyftis and her good grace that

ever I saw other harde speke off.71

Here, queenly largesse stands in for the prowess which bonds the king to his


A veritable chorus of knights makes the case for the other half of the formula,

the role of the knights themselves. The realm needs great knighthood,

they say, to quote only one classic statement:

‘For we all undirstonde, in thys realme woll be no quyett, but ever debate and stryff,

now the felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn. For by the noble felyshyp of the

Rounde Table was kynge Arthur upborne, and by their nobeles the kynge and all the

realme was ever in quyet and reste. And a grete parte,’ they sayde all, ‘was because of

youre moste nobeles, sir Launcelot.’72

Though Lancelot mutters polite disclaimers, the truth has been spoken.

The king and his knights, then, are joint practitioners of the religion of honour,

backed, of course, by the God of Christianity. The king runs the court in

which this sun shines, its rays touching knights everywhere. Knights who are

at the court or who are sent out from the court settle all problems. The great

ideal of the privileged is imaginatively maintained: they have a personal bond

with the monarch; they basically act out of free choice; few purely royal constraints

affect them.73 A good example is set by the king and the great knights;

those who will not learn lose their worship at the tip of a lance or the edge of

a sword.

Regality plus knighthood yields order. The quotidian reality barely appears

at all: if Malory mentions a parliament or the commons once in a while, there

is nothing of the work of legal and fiscal administration, of sheriffs and coroners,

of taxation, of justices and parchment rolls closely etched with the crabbed

Latin record of lawsuits—all of the administrative apparatus which helped

run medieval England and which had at least left its traces in earlier works of

71 Ibid., 617. 72 Ibid., 699.

73 We will encounter this sense of personal contract or bond as late as the seventeenth century

in the Epilogue.

literature in England. Did Malory, perhaps, take all this for granted in the late

fifteenth century? Or was he, rather, looking behind it to what appeared to him

a deeper layer of problems? He seems to be going back to what he must have

considered fundamentals, stressing kingship which looks rather like warlordship

writ large, alongside knighthood armed with prowess and crowned with

worship. If only they would work together, the administrative apparatus

(hardly fit subject for his book, and not in his sources in any case) could work

quietly in the background while the trumpets sound and the horses’ hoofs

pound the earth as they carry their proud warriors to deeds of worship.

The tragedy, of course, is that he knows it does not really work, either in the

books he reads or in the world he inhabits. But he must tell the story: Arthur

and the Round Table move with unstoppable momentum towards the cliff

edge, towards the fall of both the ‘moste kynge’ and the fellowship of the

greatest knights. His book ends—despite these magnificent exemplars—in

human imperfection and utter destruction.

Worship and stability are the great goals celebrated in Morte Darthur. Their

realization, however, always seems temporary and fragile, always threatened;

and in the end the great structure collapses in a cataclysm of jealousy, treachery,

and murderous civil war. This bittersweet flavour of Malory’s great book

has surely contributed to its enduring popularity; readers have always

responded to its juxtaposition of high ideals with the realities of shattered

dreams. For our analysis this combination suggests at least an indirect impulse

at work in the interests of reform, conceived in the broadest sense. Malory’s

admiration for a world of chivalry and worship, of stability in true love, and

honourable governance, is so heartfelt that he need not explicitly advocate a

reform programme; as in the model biography of William Marshal, the glowing

description of the ideal (and constant reminders of its neglect or inversion)

may be enough. Contemporary readers could well finish the text with a sense

that their world should more closely approximate this ideal, that chivalry could

provide a moral as well as a military and societal structure. Medieval and

Tudor readers found the book deeply satisfying and hopeful. Belief in the

grandeur and possibilities of linking chevalerie with royauté, blessed by the

understanding practitioners of clergie, was far from moribund in the late

fifteenth century.

Certainly, William Caxton thought so as the sheets of Malory’s book came

out of his printing press. As Caxton famously advised his readers in his preface

to the printed book, ‘Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you

to good fame and renomee.’74 Whatever his doubts about the historicity of

74 Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, xv.

Arthur, he said outright in his edition of Morte Darthur that Malory could be

read as a text of reform as well as a paean of praise:

And I, accordyng to my copye, have doon sette it in enprynte to the entente that noble

men may see and lerne the noble actes of chyvalrye, the jentyl and vertuous dedes that

somme knyghtes used in tho dayes, by whyche they came to honour, and how they that

were vycious were punysshed and ofte put to shame and rebuke; humbly bysechyng al

noble lordes and ladyes with al other estates, of what estate or degree they been of, that

shal see and rede in this sayd book and werke, that they take the good and honest actes

in their remembraunce, and to folowe the same. . . . Doo after the good and leve the

evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renomee.75

Reform to ensure Malory’s ideal of knighthood is not only built into the

structure and spirit of the entire work but appears in specific messages scattered

throughout its pages. Malory gives continual signposts along the high

road to worship. There are rules to be followed in the fighting; men who yield

are to be spared; women are to be protected; jealousy is no part of true worship.

Tristram announces uncompromisingly that ‘manhode is nat worthe but

yf hit be medled with wysdome’.76 Lancelot is shocked when he is told about

a vile knight: ‘ “What”, seyde sir Launcelot, “is he a theff and a knyght? And a

ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the Order of Knyghthode, and contrary

unto his oth. Hit is pyté that he lyvyth!” ’77 The ‘oth’ to which Lancelot

refers is that which Arthur required of his knights at every Pentecost. At the

feast which originated the custom:

the kynge stablysshed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys; and charged

them never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff

mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of forfiture of their worship and lordship

of kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allways to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen

and wydowes socour; strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them,

uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for

no love ne for no worldis goodis.78

It is a practical oath. The reform goals are not wild: no outrages, murder, treason,

no fighting for immoral causes in hope of gain, no rape (at least none

committed against gentlewomen); knights are, instead, to help ladies.

All such efforts, finally, came with the stamp of divine approval. Malory, no

less than William Marshal and Geoffroi de Charny, combines a belief in God

75 Printed in ibid. A characteristic English social broadening is at work here; reformed chivalry

is not limited to an exclusive caste, but is considered a guide to life for all honourable men.

76 Ibid., 428. The powerful pull of prowess appears a few pages later, however, when Malory

tells us that two brothers ‘were men of grete prouesse; howbehit that they were falsse and full of

treson, and but poore men born, yet were they noble knyghtes of their handys’: p. 437.

77 Ibid., 160. 78 Ibid., 75.

as the author of chivalry with a fairly independent attitude towards specific

clerical restraints. He knows God can have no quarrel with prowess per se. As

the quest for the Holy Grail begins, no knight, Malory says, found a ‘braunche

of holy herbe that was the signe of the Sancgreall . . . but he were a good lyver

and a man of prouesse’.79 The combination of virtues calls to mind Charny’s

belief in living ‘by force of arms and good works’.80

Malory is willing at times in this tale to follow his sources and to emphasize

absolute faith over prowess. Lancelot, coming to the entrance to Corbenic,

guarded by lions, has the sword he has drawn struck from his hand. A voice

tells him: ‘O, man of evylle feyth and poure byleve! Wherefore trustist thou

more on thy harneyse than in thy Maker? For He myght more avayle the than

thyne armour, in what servyse that thou arte sette in.’81 Yet Malory’s Grail

quest is not that of his thirteenth-century French source (examined in Chapter

12), with its strict and judgemental comparison of mere earthly chivalry with

the true, heavenly chivalry.82 As Richard Barber observes, if he thinks of the

Grail quest as ‘the greatest of all the quests undertaken by Arthur’s knights’, it

‘still remains an adventure, and not an integral part of the Table’s purpose.

And this tells us a great deal about Malory’s attitude to chivalry.’83 He may

think of chivalry as ideally a high order, with genuine mission and high dignity,

but (as P. E. Tucker observes) his ideal is more like a great secular order

than the celibate and highly ecclesiastical Order of the Temple as catechized by

St Bernard of Clairvaux. In Malory’s view, chivalry may be right or wrong in

its practice, and stands thus in need of constant reform, yet it is all ‘worldly’

chivalry to him. The division falls, in other words, not between earthly and

heavenly, but between right chivalry and wrong chivalry in the world.84

In fact, like so many late medieval Englishmen, Malory’s concern for religion

regularly translates into an attempt to practise morality in the quotidian

world. A hermit tells Gawain that ‘whan ye were first made knyght ye sholde

have takyn you to knyghtly dedys and vertuous lyvyng’.85 This is exactly what

Malory’s Lancelot tries to do. As a fallible man in the world, he fails, of course,

but that failure does not diminish him in Malory’s eyes. The goal remains a virtuous

life in the practice of chivalry—in the world. The perfection of Galahad,

much though it must be admired, is not for most men, and so is not really a

79 Vinaver ed., Malory, Works, 81. 80 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 160.

81 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 596.

82 For a range of points of view, see ibid., 758–60; Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur, 205–22;

Mahoney, ‘Truest and Holiest Tale’; Atkinson, ‘Malory’s Lancelot’; Shichtman, ‘Politicizing the


83 Barber, ‘Chivalry’, 34. 84 Tucker, ‘Chivalry in the Morte’.

85 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 535. The parallel with being a ‘good lyver and a man of prouesse’,

quoted just above, is striking.

practical model for knights trying to live in the world.86 It is to encourage and

steer these noble knights living in the very real world that Malory wrote.

Texts that are especially close to knighthood in the world, then, show us again

that the chivalry of strenuous knights was not simply practice—how knights

acted—but also how they thought about practice, and with what enthusiasm

they spoke their hopes for an ideal that was so largely of their own making—

or at least of their own choosing. Emphases changed over time as our writers

responded to perceived changes in their society. Charny focused on a decline

in prowess in an age marked by disastrous defeats of French knighthood.

Malory said much about loyalty and political stability in an age of dynastic

strife in England, and much about personal morality at a time when the focus

of lay piety was directed at virtuous living in the world.

Yet the similarities linking William Marshal’s Histoire, Charny’s manual, and

Malory’s great summa are instructive. These three works particularly value the

prowess that secures honour; the knights in these texts live by loyalty, the

needed complement to prowess; if love of a lady is not the centre of their lives,

they accept, or even praise love as a spur to prowess, as its just reward; and if

they stoutly keep watch over their rights where the clerics are concerned, they

thank God heartily as the source of the highest patronage given so freely to

those who live the strenuous life and hazard their bodies, their honour, their

all, in the great game of chivalry.

Both Ramon Llull and Raoul de Hodenc likewise testify to this conception

of chivalry, though they both oppose it. Their books reveal lively fears that

active, practising knights will place excessive belief in prowess. Raoul de

Hodenc worries that the constellation of beliefs centred on prowess will

smother liberality and courtesy; from first-hand experience, Llull fears that

prowess will engender pride and disruptive violence.

For William Marshal, Geoffroi de Charny, and Sir Thomas Malory, however,

this set of values rightly shapes the world they find honourable. Their

books offer praise for that world and press forward the hope that all will be

well if only their fellow knights adhere to such ideals even more closely.

86 See the thoughtful discussion of Tucker in ‘Chivalry in the Morte’.