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MARK TWAIN’S Connecticut Yankee, finding himself suddenly

transported across centuries into the strange world of Camelot, manages,

despite the shock of time travel, to preserve his acute sense of observation.

From the start he views the Arthurian court ambivalently, feeling horror

at its failure to anticipate the democratic and technological glories of his own

nineteenth century, mixed with a somewhat reluctant dash of romantic admiration

for its very otherness, exhibited with such vigour and colour, especially

in the quaint richness of its verbal expression.

If the Yankee thus drops substantial weights onto the pans swinging on each

side of the scales of judgement, the balance arm tips heavily toward the negative.

His early conclusion is that Camelot must be an insane asylum, its

denizens virtual savages who can be dismissed as ‘white Indians’. Listening to

the talk in court for the first time, he reports:

As a rule the speech and behavior of these people were gracious and courtly; and I

noticed that they were good and serious listeners when anybody was telling anything—

I mean in a dogfightless interval. And plainly, too, they were a childlike and innocent

lot; telling lies of the stateliest pattern with a most gentle and winning naivety, and

ready and willing to listen to anybody else’s lie, and believe it, too. It was hard to associate

them with anything cruel or dreadful; and yet they dealt in tales of blood and suffering

with a guileless relish that made me almost forget to shudder.1

This passage, of course, shows us much that we try to avoid as historians. Here

the Yankee shares the prejudices of his age and wears the racial blinkers of his

creator; he also reveals the sour suspicion of all things venerably European that

periodically appeared in Twain’s books.2

Yet we can more easily read on past the prejudices and culturally smug comments

about childlike natives when we observe that the passage and the book,

whatever their obvious failures in cultural relativism, present a thoroughly

1 A Connecticut Yankee, 13. Twain would have appreciated Clausewitz telling his wife that it

would be years before he could recall the scenes of Napoleon’s Russian campaign ‘without a shuddering

horror’. Quoted in Keegan, A History of Warfare, 8.

2 The complex, shifting, even contradictory relationship between Twain and European culture

is noted in Kaplan’s fascinating study, Mr Clemens and Mark Twain.

salutary admonition to us as modern analysers of the medieval phenomenon

of chivalry. For the great danger in the study of chivalry is to view this important

phenomenon through the rose-tinted lenses of romanticism, to read

chivalry in terms of what we want it to be rather than what it was. However

glorious and refined its literature, however elevated its ideals, however enduring

its link with Western ideas of gentlemanliness—and whatever we think of

that—we must not forget that knighthood was nourished on aggressive

impulses, that it existed to use its shining armour and sharp-edged weaponry

in acts of showy and bloody violence. As Twain reminds us succinctly, we

must not forget to shudder.

To avoid romanticism should enable analysis, of course, not prevent it. An

occasional, salutary shudder does not mean we must judge chivalry—as Twain

does here—by modern liberal standards, nor indeed that we must judge it at

all, but simply that we should take care not to be blinded by the light reflected

off shining armour; we should try instead to look at the social effects of

chivalry as dispassionately as possible, and now and then manage to write of

chivalry in a tone other than the reverential. Such efforts in no way diminish

an appreciation of the vast investment in chivalry by medieval people or of the

vast importance attributed to chivalry by modern analyses that may go well

beyond the particularly medieval range of vision. In fact, the most compelling

reason to avoid romanticizing chivalry is that taking a view through rosetinted

lenses distorts and finally trivializes this extraordinarily powerful force

in early European history.

Significant benefits accrue if we follow Twain’s advice and avoid romanticism.

We can better evaluate the mixture of the ideal and the actual in the

medieval past. We can consider chivalry as a range of ideals closely and complexly

intertwined with a set of practices and problems, noting always the context

which required this fusion. By escaping romanticism we can better

recognize the linkage between chivalry and major issues in medieval society,

especially the crucial issue of violence and public order.

In any romanticized reading, chivalry becomes a purely positive and uncomplicated

factor in securing order. Such a reading holds, in essence, that chivalry

brought about the internalization of necessary restraints in a vigorous group

of men—valorous and violent men, to be sure, but potentially the finest of fellows

their society could produce. These stout men learned the ideal, used their

weapons in the name of God and in aid of the weak and oppressed. If violence

and the prevalence of war in medieval society caused any problems of order,

some modern scholars imply, these problems could not be inherent in chivalry

itself, nor could they even be encouraged by chivalry. Rather, the trouble

stemmed from the insufficient generalization of chivalry in society, from the

unfortunate fact of limited diffusion, with chivalry unable to touch all warriors

with its simultaneously elevating and restraining hand.

A preference for reading texts in this fashion is surely understandable.

Scholars’ tasks are so much easier, so much more hopeful, if the tone of the

texts is considered unproblematically upbeat, if these texts are considered to

favour values scholars themselves hold dear. Most denizens of the groves of

academe, after all, tend to be mild-mannered (except for the verbal violence of

departmental meetings, long footnotes, reviews, and the institutional cocktail

party); they sometimes also show a certain emotional commitment to positive

value judgements about their particular era and field of study.

An element of modern scholarly identification with the upper social layers

in the distant past may even lie buried now and then within this line of argument,

for should any slightly distasteful issues about warlike violence arise in

analysis, the locus of trouble is quickly identified and the terminology is

quickly changed. ‘Soldiers’, whose very name implies wage-taking rather than

the true calling (and the right social status) might, granted, be hard for the

knights to control; they might get out of hand, might ride, pillage, burn, and

rape on a scale sufficient to constitute a social problem; but the problem of the

soldiery was that they were not knights and had yet to acquire the internalized

restraints of chivalry. War on the home front, the ‘private war’ of knight

against knight, or of knight against the sub-knightly, was apparently either

uncommon or simply the means of asserting needed hierarchical order.

This study argues, to the contrary, that in the problem of public order the

knights themselves played an ambivalent, problematic role and that the guides

to their conduct that chivalry provided were in themselves complex and problematic.

The issues are built into some of the very ideals of chivalry, not merely

in the lamentable inability of fallible men to attain them. This approach is not

simply a self-consciously hard-nosed brand of realism or even some species of

cynicism. It takes as a given the yawning gap between a knightly practice that

is recoverable (if we only look diligently) and the impossibly high ideals

expressed for it in one major text after another. This gap is unsurprising and

need spawn no modern moralizing.

Upon discovering this divergence, beginning students, of course, often

decide to debunk chivalry: the cads did not live up to the high ideals after all.

Any slice of human history could, however, show groups of people more or

less professing one course and more or less following another; surely that discovery

cannot be the point of serious study. Nor need it be the point in a study

of chivalry and order. The chivalry that knights practised upheld the high

ideals of a demanding code of honour; as we will see, these ideals were probably

achieved as nearly as any set of human ideals ever can be in an imperfect

world. Yet even when achieved, their ideals may not have been fully compatible

with the ideal of a more ordered and peaceful society also being advanced

during ‘the age of chivalry’.

The issues analysed in this book are thus as much social as individual and the

questions concern political and social order more than any judgement of

knighthood. Of course, competing investments of meaning will compel us to

think of chivalry throughout this book as a concept working under constant

tension. The goal is to discover the mixture of ideals and practices knights followed

in an atmosphere of reform, and to learn how this process affected the

effort to secure public order in a society just coming to its mature formation.

It will not prove helpful to analyse chivalry in terms of an unreflective and

rough practice of knights confronted by a glowing theory or high ideal that

outsiders all agreed upon and wanted to impose. Each competing ideal sought

to bend chivalry to its plan; knights took up some of these ideas, rejected

others, and were sure they had ideals of their own.

Use of the term chivalry by the medievals themselves suggests a blurring of

such simplistic categories as theory and practice. When they spoke or wrote of

chivalry (militia in Latin, chevalerie in French), any of three related meanings

may have been in their minds. First, the term could mean nothing more theoretical

or ethical than deeds of great valour and endurance on some field of

combat, that is, heroic work with sword, shield, and lance. Second, the term

could mean a group of knights. In the simplest sense this may be the body of

elite warriors present on some particular field of battle. In a more abstract

sense the term might refer to the entire social body of knights considered as a

group stretching across space and time. Third, chivalry might be used to mean

a knightly code of behaviour.

Just what that code should be was not clear in detail, sometimes not in fundamentals.

Idealist critics wanted to change much in the knightly mixture of

ideals and practices; some of these idealistic reformers were knights themselves.

Chivalry can only be interpreted, in other words, as a mixture of ideals

and practices constantly critiqued by those who wanted to change both.