Prowess and Piety

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Another limitation on duelling brings us to analyse a second fusion of

basic chivalric elements. The Church and religion, no less than the State,

opposed duelling. Although some friends of the duel might claim religious

justifications (interpreting the fight of David and Goliath as a duel being one

of the more imaginative arguments), attempts to win religious backing in fact

won few successes. Billacois’s comment is once again pithy: duelling ‘is not a

counter-religion; it is another religion’.30 Evidently most duellists confronted

with religious criticism simply shrugged their shoulders and went on, showing

the most sturdy sense of the lay autonomy and independence which by

now was centuries old.

Yet we should take special note. This independence is not simply a continuance

of a chivalric trait. In fact, a change of the greatest significance has taken

place: the link between piety and prowess, always present if always under tension

in the Middle Ages, has stretched to breaking point. The medieval

Church had blessed knightly personal prowess, though at times with hands

clasped in hope, arguing only that the violence must be directed towards

proper ends. No one by the post-medieval period really thought duelling was

one of those proper ends. Duelling, in other words, represents the totally secular

end point of a long and tension-laden interplay between personal piety

and personal violence. Since this connection of personal prowess with honour

and with piety had formed one of the truly significant strengths of chivalry, the

breaking of this bond represents one of the clearest causes for the general

transformation of chivalry. If an old bond is snapped, a new one is created; a

significant shift in the beneficiary of the religious valorization of violence has

taken place. We have seen that clerics long suffered doubts about the blessing

of God claimed for the violence inherent in chivalry. Over time their doubts

all but disappeared, however, as the claim to licit violence came from the State.

In one part of Europe after another, royal administrations more effectively and

more globally asserted their supervision over licit violence; by the seventeenth

century the process represented half a millennium of gradual pressure and a

significant degree of success.

Constant clerical insistence on reform and restraint where chivalric violence

was concerned contrasts significantly with the clerical willingness to sanctify

one royal campaign after another through the later Middle Ages and early

modern era.

30 Billacois, Le Duel, 391, 350.

Of course the king’s wars, no less than any knight’s warlike violence, had to

be just. Yet it was even harder, more futile, more clearly at odds with the divine

plan to doubt the royal justifications than to debate those of the knights. Thus

the Church, which had once in the distant past relied on pious rulers

(Christian Roman emperors, Carolingian kings), could return—after the

fireworks of the Gregorian Reform and the struggle over investiture—to an

easy reliance on royal power. Were kings not God’s anointed rulers for all the

business involving bloodshed and violence, sadly necessary in an imperfect

world? Were robbers not to be apprehended and hanged? Were the robbers

who happened to wear crowns in neighbouring kingdoms not similarly to be

stopped from evil?

Noble descendants of the medieval chivalrous might still play key roles in

the military, but the change of religious valorization is significant. Religious

justification for violence now descended not on the blessed ranks of the

chivalry, but on agents of the State and, in theory and over time, of the nation.