Dissolving the Fusion of Chivalric Elements

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Chivalry came into being as a powerful, mutually reinforcing fusion of several

major functions, roles, and rights. Above all, the chivalrous defended honour

through the violence of personal prowess; to this fusion they added a formal

and rather independent piety, asserting God’s blessing on their demanding

and violent lives; they claimed an elite, usually noble, status and established

their nobility by the practice of a chivalric way of life; they sought to regulate

relationships between males and females on their own terms, exclusively linking

love, too, with prowess and honour.

As in Gothic of another sort, many buttresses supported these chivalric structures.

The chivalrous claimed they were set apart from others by the loyalty

which guided their prowess, by the largesse which prowess supplied: they possessed

castles, or at least fortified dwellings of some sort; they pictured themselves

fighting from the backs of noble warhorses; they enthusiastically

participated in the defining sport of tournament; they displayed appropriately

refined manners in a court, or in a bedroom; they provided patronage and audience

for literature of a specific, and ideally exclusive sort. Equally important, all

these traits showed and helped form a generous measure of lay independence,

even a powerful degree of autonomy in the face of developing institutions of

governance. We saw this autonomy in the belief that knights could join the

emerging state on their own terms, that they could practise a piety only partially

controlled by the clerical caste, and that the cultural space in their lives

could in no small measure be furnished with ideas of their own choosing.

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, this durable synthesis

of power, status, piety, and cultural ideas came apart. Some elements

largely disappeared, others underwent considerable transformation, but above

all the interlocking, mutually strengthening fusion of elements dissolved. It is

this dissolution rather than the disappearance of any one characteristic that marks

the demise of chivalry. The revivals could only breathe life into selected aspects

of chivalry; they could not revitalize the complex and powerful organic whole.

The long survivals claim our attention first. Since chivalry had long functioned

as the distinguishing badge of the elite, it is not surprising that some of

its more showy secondary characteristics continued into the period well

beyond the traditional Middle Ages. Chivalric literary forms provide a clear

case in point. Many old chivalric texts were reworked and issued in print for

even wider audiences; new chivalric works were written to meet the demand

from obviously avid readers.14 Notions of ‘courtly love’ seem to have lasted so

302 Epilogue

14 Cooper concluded that ‘far from waning, interest in things chivalric increased manifold during

the sixteenth century in France’. He supports this assertion with an outline bibliography of

long and carried enough chivalric glamour that some modern literary treatments

of the culture of post-medieval Europe seem almost to assume that this

is what chivalry was.

Jousting and the tournament, likewise, though in increasingly stylized

form, survived well beyond the fifteenth century. The monarchs who had once

prohibited tournaments or regulated them closely, fearing their show of

armed independence and nervous about their potentialities for disorder,

became in the end their proud sponsors, having converted tournaments into

celebratory ceremonies of regality. ‘The tournament survived into the second

decade of the seventeenth century in a form which the knights of three centuries

earlier might still have recognized as their favourite sport’, Richard

Barber and Juliet Barker note, but they add that on the continent the Thirty

Years War (1618–48) and the changing attitudes of princes brought an end to

the tradition.15

Towards the close of its life, tournament was undoubtedly being transformed

not only in degree but in kind; parade and spectacle outweighed combat,

which itself gradually became only the mock combat of the ‘carrousel’ or

the ‘horse ballet’. One so-called tournament held at night in the courtyard of

the Louvre in 1606 involved ‘pure spectacle, symbolism and just a little real


In England, Henry VII and Henry VIII likewise sponsored numerous tournaments,

and Queen Elizabeth was honoured by Accession Day Jousts. The

association of English kings with tournament lingered on a while longer, in

fact, before dying out only in the early years of Charles I.17

Ideas and forms unmistakably recognizable as chivalric thus survived as

late as the seventeenth century. But the changes are more important for basic

issues of public order. How had essential elements in the formative chivalric

fusion—responsible for its seemingly endless strength—weakened and separated?

Meltdown in the chivalric alloy was not sudden; the furnaces had actually

been fuelled by the very medieval efforts to constrain and reform chivalry

which we have followed throughout this book. The trial of Jourdain de l’Isle

Jourdain noted above, reinforces that point. But as trends already clear in the

Middle Ages (such as the growth of state power) continued in the new

conditions of early modern Europe (especially the changes in its social

hierarchy), chivalry itself was utterly transformed. We can observe this

works on chivalry printed in France before 1600; the list runs to forty-six pages: ‘Nostre histoire

renouvelée’, quotation at 175.

15 Barber and Barker, Tournaments, 209.

16 Ibid, 210.

17 Gunn, ‘Chivalry’; McCoy, Rites of Knighthood; Ferguson, Chivalric Tradition.

transformation in three of the constitutive elements, or fusions of elements,

that had created chivalry.18