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HALF a century after Twain’s Connecticut Yankee appeared, Norbert

Elias, a German sociologist, published Über den Prozess der Zivilisation,

a massive study of changing manners and of the ‘civilizing process’ in

European history.1 The present book shares certain basic questions with his.

Was the medieval world (in its mentality and practice) significantly troubled

by violence? Were knights in particular a source of violence? How and when

did Europeans begin to internalize restraint and edge away from disruptive

personal violence? What role was played by kings and the civilizing influence

of their courts?

Medievalists who read Elias will find his questions thoughtful and important;

they are likely to be less satisfied with the range of evidence and the view

that significant signs of change appear only in post-medieval Europe. For the

medieval centuries Elias’s questions could stimulate further close investigation

along many lines of enquiry, at least one of which is taken up in the chapters

that follow: the complex connections of chivalry and violence.

Emphasizing these problems of order is scarcely a denigration of medieval

civilization and does not align us with those for whom ‘medieval’ has always

been a term of abuse. On the contrary, such an enquiry emphasizes how deeply

medieval people worked at solving a fundamental problem—one which, even

with our greater resources, we have not quite managed to figure out in the

long span of post-medieval centuries.

The issue of violence was always present, either obvious and in the foreground

or more subtly present behind the scenes and between the lines. To be

sure, chivalry created elaborate codes designed to refine knightly behaviour

and to set knights apart from others. Showing elegant manners became

increasingly important; knowing how to talk and act in refined company and

especially with ladies was added to knowing how best to drive a sword-edge

through a mail coif into a man’s brain. These ‘courtly’ qualities are of much

obvious importance in early European history.

Yet scholars have studied and emphasized these courtly qualities so enthusiastically

that they threaten to claim exclusive right to the large mantle of

chivalry, blocking from our vision the prickly sense of honour, the insistence

1 Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (1939; reissued 1997); English translation in 2 vols: Edmund

Jephcott, tr., The Civilizing Process. Volume I: The History of Manners (1978), and Volume II: Power

and Civility (1982). Cf. final section of Chapter 9.

on autonomy, the quick recourse to violence. Chivalry was not simply a code

integrating generic individual and society, not simply an ideal for relations

between the sexes or a means for knocking off the rough warrior edges in

preparation for the European gentleman to come. The bloody-minded side of

the code—even if it seems to moderns, as Twain might say, a shuddering

matter—was of the essence of chivalry. The knight was a warrior and not


After all, the division of high medieval society outlined in spoken or written

word was always threefold: the imagined world divided into those who fight,

those who pray, and those who work.2 The fighting, let us remember, was not

merely defensive, not simply carried out at the royal behest in defence of

recognized national borders, not only on crusade, not really (despite their selfdeceptions)

in the defence of widows, orphans, and the weak, never (so far as

the historian can discover) against giants, ogres, or dragons. They fought each

other as enthusiastically as any common foe; perhaps even more often they

brought violence to villagers, clerics, townspeople, and merchants.

The lay elite cherished as a defining privilege this right to violence in any

matter touching their prickly sense of honour. ‘Because I like it (pour ce qu’il

me plest)’ was the belligerent motto of the late fourteenth-century Breton lord

Olivier de Clisson.3 Such a combative sense of autonomy is encountered time

and again in all the evidence relating to chivalry; the sense of honour it conveys

was secured with edged weapons and bloodshed. In the provincial

leagues that formed in 1314, French lords demanded that the Capetian crown

recognize their right of private war; a generation earlier they had pointedly

reminded clerics that the French kingdom itself had been founded ‘by the

sweat of war’.4 ‘I will be justice this day’, exults Gamelyn in the fourteenth-century

English romance; he has just recovered right and honour by violently

overwhelming the meeting of a corrupt royal court, has hanged the sheriff and

jurors, and will shortly hang the king’s justice, after cleaving his cheekbone and

breaking his arm.5 English and French judicial records can produce parallels

from life to this violent scene of autonomy imaginatively realized in literature.6

The identity of chivalry and status with proud violence will continue throughout

the medieval centuries and into those we call early modern.7

2 See Duby, Les Trois Ordres. 3 His life is examined in Henneman, Olivier de Clisson.

4 Paris, Chronica Majora, iv, 593: ‘regnum non per jus scriptum, nec per clericorum arrogantiam,

sed per sudores bellicos fuerit adquisitum’; cited in Clanchy, ‘Law and Love’, 51.

5 Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, 178–81.

6 See the examples in Kaeuper, ‘Law and Order’ and War, Justice, and Public Order, 225–68.

7 See, e.g., Mervyn James, ‘English Politics and the Concept of Honour’; Billacois, Le Duel

dans la société française des XVIe–XVIIe siècles; Kiernan, The Duel in European History; Schalk, From

Valor to Pedigree.

Of course we need no more believe that most knights were constantly out

of control, moved by sheer glandular urges to cut and thrust, than to believe

that most of them had happily experienced a complete taming of such impulses

simply by learning courtesy. The problem that distinguishes the medieval

chapter of the story of public order, however, is that (as we will see) the right

and personal practice of warlike violence has fused with honour, high status,

religious piety, and claims about love, so that those knights who are inclined,

or who see opportunity, will be likely to act with whatever force they can

muster, confident in their course of action. This ethos, moreover, will

inevitably and understandably extend beyond the caste of knights to play a role

in society generally. It will be a long time, indeed, before confidence in the role

of heroic violence is truly shaken.