Three Witnesses

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The first of our three historians, Orderic Vitalis, though born in England,

spent his life as a Norman monk at Saint-Évroul. His wide-ranging chronicle,

The Ecclesiastical History5 shows that monastic walls formed no impenetrable

3 Little, ‘Pride Goes Before Avarice’, 16–49; Southern, Western Society .

4 This is, of course, not the only evidence that could be used. The books of miracle stories of St

Benedict which were compiled in the eleventh and twelfth centuries ‘are very much concerned

with men who appear to be knights and are almost invariably represented as agents of violence’:

Rollason, ‘The Miracles of St Benedict’, 82–7. Though the topic is little investigated, Europeans

of this period may even have painted their concerns; see Raynaud’s study of the portrayal of violence

in manuscript illuminations, La Violence au Moyen Âge. Canon law also reflects a concern

over violence: Gaudemet, ‘Les collections canoniques’; Richard M. Fraher, ‘Theoretical

Justification’ and ‘Preventing Crime in the High Middle Ages’.

5 Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History. For general discussion of this work in context, see

Chibnall’s introduction, and her article, ‘Feudal Society in Orderic Vitalis’; Holdsworth, ‘Ideas

and Reality’; Strickland, War and Chivalry, especially 12–16.

barrier to a genuine understanding of the outside world or to writing an

account of its major features; in roughly 1123–37 Orderic, in fact, wrote one of

our most useful accounts of the society taking shape around him.6 In the sections

of his history dealing with northwestern Europe, as opposed to his derivative

accounts of the first crusade, Orderic reveals an almost obsessive concern

for order and the elusive goal of a more peaceful society. As a monk, he shows

a thoroughly professional distaste for sexual laxity in any form, as we might

expect; but a more consistent and urgent leitmotiv in his history, highly

significant for our purposes, is the need for firm, authoritative action against

the violence, disorder, and constant warfare that so characterized his world.7

Orderic is no pacifist. Violence in the right cause, carried out by the proper

people, can cause him to wax eloquent, as, for example, he does frequently

when narrating the crusade.8 Violence of Christian against Christian troubles

him more, but even here he can show approval if the goal and end result seem

to be a more orderly society. His language describing even the monastic life

can take on the martial tonality not uncommon for religious writers of his

time: monks are ‘soldiers of Christ’ battling demons; they use the ‘weapon of

prayer’. But looking out over monastic walls at the violence in his own society,

he repeatedly laments the impulse to war in such terms as: ‘The turbulent are

chafed by peace and general tranquillity and, while they attempt to destroy the

pride of others, are themselves through God’s just judgement very often slain

by their own weapons. How blind and foolish are the men who desire war in

times of peace.’ When a marriage alliance ended one of these local wars, he is

relieved ‘that multiple crime did not proliferate from the root of evil and put

out new and worse shoots continually in future generations’.9

He is certain that the cure for such disorder rests with proper authorities

who can at least attempt to restrict the practice of major acts of violence to

their own capable hands. In an ideal world there would perhaps be no need for

violence at all, but in a speech he puts into the mouth of Count Helias at the

time Henry I is establishing his rule in Normandy, Orderic says, ‘as the popular

saying goes, “wrong must be done to put an end to a worse thing.” This

Public Order and the Knights 13

6 Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, I, 32. Duby says that Orderic has given us ‘du premier XIIe

siècle la meilleure vision, sans doute’: ‘Guerre et société’, 474. Orderic comments on the frequent

conversations between monks and visiting knights: see, e.g., Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, III,

206–7, and Chibnall’s helpful comments in I, 36–8; also see her article, ‘Feudal Society in Orderic

Vitalis’. Cf. Flori, L’Essor de chevalerie, 271–4.

7 Orderic, for example, praises Henry I to the skies for his role as a provider of peace, despite

the king’s record number of illegitimate offspring. William Rufus and Robert Curthose, much less

successful kings, are scorched by Orderic for their sexual laxity: Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, V,

286–7, 300–1. For general comments on Orderic’s concerns, see sources cited in note 5.

8 See, e.g., ibid., V, 68–9. Examples abound throughout all Orderic’s crusade accounts.

9 E.g. ibid., III, 260–1, 292–3; VI, 328–9; IV, 200–3.

indeed I repeat as a common proverb, I do not claim divine authority for it.’

Orderic imagines his hero Henry I speaking in similar terms: ‘I saw with sorrow

the affliction of my ancestral inheritance, but could bring no help to the

needy except by force of arms.’10

Believing in right order secured, if necessary, by the coercive violence of the

right authorities, Orderic speaks high praise for the stern governance of both

William I and Henry I as dukes of Normandy. A deathbed speech he puts into

the mouth of William the Conqueror has the king confess: ‘I was brought up

in arms from childhood, and am deeply stained with all the blood I have shed’,

but he pictures the king going on to justify his action on the grounds that his

Norman subjects ‘need to be restrained by the severe penalties of law, and

forced by the curb of discipline to keep to the path of justice’.11 Praising this

firm and just rule of William, Orderic provides at one point a wonderfully concise

statement of his belief. The king/duke, he tells us, ‘forbade disorders, murder

and plunder, restraining the people by arms and the arms by laws’.

Narrating one of William’s visit to Normandy, he elaborates on this capsule

assertion of one of his major themes:

At the news of the king’s coming peace-lovers everywhere rejoiced, but trouble-makers

and criminals trembled in their evil hearts and quailed before the coming avenger. He

assembled all the nobles of Normandy and Maine and used all his royal powers of persuasion

to move them to peace and just government.12

Vivid accounts of disorder after William’s death and again after Henry’s death

underscore the importance of authoritative curbs on lordly violence.13 Orderic

has no kind words for Robert, William’s eldest son and heir in Normandy,

who was unable to suppress local warfare and brigandage. In a speech which

Orderic creates for Henry, Robert’s brother and supplanter, Henry tells Pope

Calixtus that he actually wrested Normandy not from Robert but from the

robbers and evildoers who effectively controlled it. Orderic’s blessing on this

work is clear: Henry has ‘calmed the tempests of war by his royal might’.14

10 Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 96–7; ibid., VI, 284–7. Henry continues: ‘I did not

wish to refuse my service to holy mother Church, but endeavoured to use the office laid on me by

heaven for the general good. So by taking up arms to fight and spreading fire I . . . recovered the

inheritance of my father . . . and strove to uphold my father’s laws according to God’s will for the

peace of his people.’

11 Ibid., IV, 80–1. Compare the deathbed speech of Robert Bruce, thanking God he has been

given time to repent for all of his bloodshed, quoted in McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds, Barbour’s

Bruce, book XX, ll. 169–81.

12 Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, IV, 192–3, 284–5.

13 See the opening of ibid., IV, bk. viii, and ibid., VI, bk. xiii. On Henry’s death, Orderic, writing

of the local lords, laments ‘now they imagine no law will constrain them.’ Ibid., VI, 450–3.

14 Quotation at ibid., IV, 138–9. For his attitude towards Robert and Henry as peacekeepers see

the opening of IV, bk. viii, and VI, bk. xi, passim, especially 32–3, 58–65, 92–3, 98–9, 146–9.

Philip I of France, on the other hand, proved himself unable to restrain ‘proud

and turbulent men’ and so ‘allowed his princely power to decline’, with the

consequence that ‘the royal justice had become too lax to punish tyrants’.15

The agent of order may be other than a king/duke. Count Geoffrey Martel

of Anjou merits Orderic’s praise as a punisher of robbers and enforcer of justice;

his father, Orderic complains, had by contrast spared such men and shared

the loot with them. A ruler at any level, he argues, had to offer God the ‘fruit

of justice’ in order to escape the charge of barren governance. Tyrants, in his

view, were thus not hard-driving and efficient kings or dukes but, rather, the

feuding local lords who escaped any royal restraints.16 Robert of Bellême is the

classic type; driven from England, he continued his career of disruption and

devastation in Normandy. Orderic describes him as

a renowned knight of great enterprise in the field . . . endowed with quick wits and a

ready tongue as well as courage; but everything was marred by his excessive pride and

cruelty and he hid the talents with which Heaven had endowed him under a sombre

mass of evil deeds. He engaged in many wars against his neighbours.17

Even Orderic’s own monastery found it necessary to pay Robert protection

money, as did many other victims, ‘for at that time kings and dukes were

unable to restrain his ferocity and secure the peace of the Church by any

authority of theirs’.18

But if Robert of Bellême represents the classic offender, Orderic thinks the

violence is endemic within the knightly layers of society. Almost in passing he

mentions a Robert of Vitot, knight, who had nearly forty kinsmen, ‘all proud

of their knightly status, who were continually at war with one another’.19

Of course, kings could themselves create disorder through their disputes;

then the ‘war-shattered people’ could only rejoice when the ‘long-desired calm

serenity of peace’ was achieved. Orderic is at one point left marvelling how

God ‘directs his church amidst the tumults of war and the clash of arms, and

preserving and enlarging it in many ways leads it on to safety’.20 Clearly, the

peace of God was something which, in the words of the liturgy, passes human


15 Ibid., VI, 154–7. 16 Ibid., VI, 74–5; 86–7; 154–7.

17 Ibid., 298–9. The parallel to the description of Claudas in the opening of the Lancelot is noteworthy:

‘Claudas was a king, a very fine knight and clever man, but he was treacherous as well’, in

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 3; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 1.

18 Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, IV, 298–301. Robert appears prominently in Orderic’s

book; cf. VI, bk. xi, especially 26–7, 32–3, 58–65. Of Robert, Orderic says, ‘he mercilessly sent out

his armed bands against all his neighbours and terrorized monks, clerks, and the defenceless populace

by his fierce tyranny’: IV, bk. viii, 298–9.

19 Ibid., II, 120–1. 20 Ibid., II, 288–91; III, 18–19.

Between 1138 and 1145, that is just a few years after Orderic wrote his informative

general history, another monk, Suger, Abbot of Saint-Denis just outside

Paris, was writing a much more particular but equally informative kind of history,

an admiring account of the deeds of King Louis VI of France (Louis le

Gros).21 Abbot Suger was not second to Orderic in his admiration for royal

agents of imposed peace, nor in his belief that they might act with force in the

interests of order.22 He praises Orderic’s hero Henry I as a man known

throughout the world, and pointedly quotes a prophecy of Merlin about the

coming of a Lion of Justice; after giving good justice to England as king, he

came to Normandy as duke and imposed order there by force. Suger always

refers to him approvingly, using some such phrase as ‘the illustrious king of the

English’. Peacemaking is the great quality in a leader. He even praises Pope

Calixtus for the somewhat surprising achievement of clearing brigands out of

Italy and Calabria.23

But Louis le Gros was his subject as biographer, and it is significant that the

king is lauded not only because he is Suger’s friend and the benefactor of his

monastery, but above all because he was a guarantor of order and, as such, the

imago dei, the image of God on earth. In fact, Suger tells us, Louis began to

play this role even before he came to the throne in 1108 on the death of his

father, Philip I, who had been much less active and successful as a promoter of

peace and order, a fact noted even by Orderic.24 Louis, though, as Suger

observes approvingly, had always been the proper son and had never brought

disorder in the realm ‘as is the custom of other young men’.25 A very great deal

of Suger’s account in fact consists of colourful vignettes showing Louis, either

as prince or as king, moving out into the Île de France (the central royal

demesne between Paris and Orleans) to play the policeman, leading his

knights and the parish militia against some offending lord, fighting pitched

battles, or, more frequently, besieging the castles that served, in Suger’s view,

as the nodal centre for the spread of the cancer of disorder. Of one of these

local strongmen, Eudes, Count of Corbeil, Suger states that his death

strengthened the peace of the realm; he then adds, warming to the subject, that

Eudes thus transferred his battle to the depths of hell where he could carry on

21 Waquet, Vie de Louis VI. In their introduction to their translation, The Deeds of Louis the Fat,

Cusimano and Moorhead insist, with reason, that this is an account of the deeds of Louis, rather

than a biography.

22 His support for royal peace efforts was not merely chauvinistic. He commended Henry I of

England for his judicial organization and could think of him as the Lion of Justice. Ibid., 98–9.

23 Waquet, Vie de Louis VI, 206–7.

24 Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 154–7.

25 Waquet, Vie de Louis VI, 82–3. On the turbulence of ‘the youth’, see Duby, ‘Dans la France

de Nord-Ouest’.

war eternally.26 Like Orderic, he reserves the term tyrant for just such terrorizers

of some locality, men who ‘provoke wars, take pleasure in endless pillage,

trouble the poor, destroy churches’; if not restrained, these tyrants would

grow more bold still and act ‘in the manner of evil spirits’. It pertains to the

office of kingship to repress the impudence of tyrants. Against such men, he

writes, a king’s hand is very strong.27

The chief villain in Suger’s story is probably Thomas of Marle (though

Hugh of Le Puiset runs a close second). Thomas is homo perditissimus, a man

who, aided by the Devil, devoured the countryside in the region of Laon,

Reims, and Amiens ‘like a furious wolf ’, sparing neither clerics out of fear of

ecclesiastical sanctions, nor the common folk out of any sentiment for humanity.

Louis moved against him in 1114, backed by the blessing of the Church,

which had, under the leadership of a papal legate, declared Thomas excommunicate

and unfit to wear the cingulum militarem, the belt of knighthood.

Seizing the castles of Crécy and Nouvion, Louis ‘piously massacred the impious’.

Captured at Marle, Thomas offered indemnities to both Church and

King, and won a pardon unwisely granted him by Louis. He quickly went back

to his old work, requiring a second royal expedition in 1130. By this time the

expedition went without the king, since Louis was too fat to mount a horse,

but Thomas was again taken, and died in captivity, being at the last, Suger

gleefully reports, unable to take the Eucharist.28

Thus, however ill Suger’s idealized portrait of Louis VI may have matched

the imperfect man, the biographer’s great concern for order, his worry about

grasping strongmen as a source of disorder, and his belief in a royal disciplinary

role are as clearly set forth as Orderic’s. The latter would approve Suger’s

borrowing from Ovid the maxim that kings have long arms.29

For a third witness, we can turn to a different sort of historian writing a quite

different sort of history. After the murder of Charles the Good, Count of

Flanders, in 1127, Galbert of Bruges, a notary (who may have been in minor

orders but was apparently not a priest or canon), wrote a strikingly precise and

detailed history of events in Bruges and in the surrounding countryside. In The

Murder of Charles the Good (De multro, traditione, et occisione Gloriosi Karoli

Comitis Flandriarum)30 he narrates the collapse of order, the ensuing, almost

26 Waquet, Vie de Louis, 150–1.

27 Ibid., 172–3. He later (pp. 232–5) gives the bishop of Clermont a speech accusing the Count

of Auvergne of playing the tyrant against him.

28 Ibid. 30 ff., 174–7. 29 Ibid., 180–1.

30 Ross, tr., Murder of Charles the Good; her translation is based on the Latin text edited by

Pirenne, Histoire du meurtre de Charles le Bon, but I will cite Rider, ed., De multro. Cf. Nicholas,

Medieval Flanders, 62–70; Dhondt, ‘Les “Solidarités” médiévales’.

universal violence, and the gradual restoration of order. However much his

point of view might differ in detail from our monastic writers—he can show a

caustic anti-clericalism, for example—his account dovetails with their emphasis

on the perils of private war and vengeance, the need for a strong authority

figure to repress violence and secure peace.

The murdered Count Charles had been just such a figure. He had taken

‘such measures to strengthen the peace, to reaffirm the laws and rights of the

realm, [so] that little by little public order was restored . . . everything was

flourishing, everything was happy and joyful in the security of peace and justice’.

To secure these blessings of peace he had enforced arms legislation, so that

his subjects ‘should live together in quiet and security without resort to arms;

otherwise they would be punished by the very arms they bore’.31

The crisis had erupted because of two characteristics of the powerful

Erembald clan, the chief plotters of the murder, whose leader, Bertulf, was

the count’s chief official: they were vulnerable because they were technically

of servile status; and they were enthusiastic practitioners of the local violence

and warfare Count Charles was committed to stamping out. Galbert tells us

that Bertulf had ‘armed his kinsmen for strife and discord; and he found enemies

for them to fight in order to make it known to everyone that he and his

nephews were so powerful and strong that no one in the realm could resist

them or prevail against them’. The pillaged country folk (under cover of

darkness) appealed to the count, who took vigorous measures, but he

was then brutally murdered, on Bertulf’s orders, before he could act decisively.


Page after page of Galbert’s narrative records the waves and counterwaves

of violence that washed over Flanders as contenders fought for the prize of

rule, as private quarrels found outlet in the general strife, as merchants were

plundered or fled in the nick of time. ‘Now in truth,’ he lamented, ‘the whole

land was so torn by dangers, by ravaging, arson, treachery, and deceit that no

honest man could live in security.’33 Like our monastic historians, Galbert is

no pacifist, no uncompromising opponent of all violence. Revenge for the

murdered count, attacks on his enemies, and, in fact, all violence in a cause he

approves receive his full approbation.

Several weeks into his grim story Galbert paused to reflect on the site of the

crime, the church of Saint-Donatian. For him it remained a symbol of what

the count who had been murdered there had once meant to Flanders:

31 Ross, tr., Murder, 82–3; Rider, ed., De multro, 5, 7.

32 Ross, Murder, 116, 102–5; Rider, De multro, 33, 35; 21–33.

33 Ross, Murder, 291; Rider, De multro, 155.

‘in the splendor of its beauty like the throne of the realm; in the midst of the fatherland

it called for safety and justice everywhere in the land through security and peace, right

and laws’.34

At the end of his account Galbert is left puzzling over how he might find the

dispensation of God in the complex and violent actions of men.

Context: Socio-Economic and Institutional Change

Confidence in the evidence provided by our three witnesses increases when we

review two features of the general environment within which they lived and

worked. The very pace and consequences of change in the Central Middle

Ages forced basic questions about order into the forefront of the thinking and

acting of all those in any position of awareness or responsibility, and led to the

creation of important institutions. An age vibrant with as much change as

noted historians find in these centuries would necessarily devote a good deal

of energy to securing order, reducing disruptive violence, and finding ways of

resolving disputes. If even calmer times yield such a channelling of energies,

the need could only be greater when one social, economic, political, and religious

catalyst after another was actively at work speeding the rate of reaction.

The exact measurement of demographic growth (to take an obvious and

important example) is likely to continue to elude scholars, but the fact of a

significant increase in population commands general agreement.35 Historians

have fought even longer over theories of the nature of urban origins, but the

fact of a significant urbanization of Europe in this period stands beyond dispute.

36 That this phenomenon rested on an economic transformation likewise

seems established, though the details are again a matter of contention.37

By the year 1000, moreover, people over a wide stretch of Europe faced the

necessity of political reconstruction almost from the ground up. The order

tentatively set in place by the family of Charlemagne had fractured time and

again into increasingly localized units, which constituted the only political

units retaining anything like effective governing power and what might

pass for loyalty or at least acquiescence from those governed.38 By the age

of Orderic, Suger, and Galbert, as we have seen, the work of political

34 Ross, tr., Murder, 167; Rider, ed., De multro, 86.

35 Overviews, with many sources cited, in Pounds, Economic History, ch. 3, and Fossier, Enfance

de l’Europe, I, 87–287.

36 Surveyed in Ennen, The Medieval Town.

37 Duby, Early Growth of the European Economy; Fossier, Enfance de l’Europe.

38 Analysis of the scholarship written during the last half century on all aspects of the

Carolingian world appears in Sullivan, ‘The Carolingian Age’.

reconstruction was well under way in northwestern Europe; in another generation

or two it would be considerably advanced.39

Growth in political frameworks relied of necessity on supportive public

opinion, or at least on the good will of those levels of society whose opinion

counted. Measures to secure public order, in other words, could scarcely have

been imposed simply from the top down, without the foundation of fairly

widespread support, generated by real concern about basic questions of order.

Both the reforming Church and the emerging State took on increasingly institutionalized

form during the High Middle Ages, and in the process considerably

expanded their role as guarantors of acceptable levels of order. Clearly,

large numbers of the people whose opinion mattered in this society had some

investment in peace and order and often backed institutions of government

that might help achieve these goals.40

On the early edge of this period the Church, despairing of kings who no

longer seemed able to play this role, tried to secure a minimal level of peace

through its own councils, generating what historians have long termed the

Peace Movement, beginning in the late tenth century.41

The movement for reform in the Church which began in the late eleventh

century led, among its many significant results, to an increased emphasis on

effective papal administration; a growing network of courts and system of

appeals brought papal judicial influence across the Alps; the canon law and a

framework of ecclesiastical courts grew both in strength and outreach into

society; a system of taxation siphoned off some portion of the wealth of field

and town to fund—always inadequately though, it seemed to clerical

officials—the growth of ecclesiastical administration at all levels. The sheer

volume of documentation produced at the centre in Rome, if plotted on a

graph, rises inexorably.42

At about the same time the growing power of kingship and the equally dramatic

extension of its social role have led historians to analyse the medieval origins

of the modern state as an outstanding feature of high medieval society.43

39 See Hallam, Capetian France; Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities; Strayer, Medieval

Origins; Baldwin, Philip Augustus. England, as so often, proves to be a special case, building on

Anglo-Saxon foundations: see James Campbell, ‘Reflections on the English Government’;

Chibnall, Anglo-Norman England .

40 One of the arguments in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order.

41 Some of the recent scholarship, and the contentions and debates it entails, appear in Head

and Landes, eds, The Peace of God.

42 Southern, Western Society and the Church; Morris, The Papal Monarchy; I. S. Robinson, The

Papacy; see the graph in Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, 44. The ideological stance of

the post-Gregorian ecclesiastical hierarchy with regard to violence, sanctified and otherwise, will

concern us later.

43 See especially Strayer, Medieval Origins. Cf. the wide-ranging essays in Gouron and

Rigaudiere, eds, Renaissance du pouvoir legislatif .

The growth of the English state makes the case most plainly. By their very

bulk, increasing year after year, records from the English royal lawcourts

preserved in the Public Record Office, London, dramatically document the

growth of business; they show us the willingness, even the eagerness, of

people to bring their cases before the king’s justices, however much they

complained about the partiality, delay, and expense that seem the perennial

accompaniments of centralized justice in all ages that know them. The ‘registers

of writs’, in which working attorneys and litigious monasteries collected

the standard formulas of the royal writs that initiated legal action on the civil

side, filled ten or twelve pages with the styles of 50 or 60 writs in the early thirteenth

century; they grew to 120 writs by the last quarter of that century and

to 890 writs by the first quarter of the following century.44 On the criminal

side, the English crown by the 1170s required local grand juries to name before

its circuit justices all those suspected of murder, larceny, harbouring criminals,

forgery, and arson. As Alan Harding has cogently argued, the demands of the

crown and the press of business thrust by litigants upon these circuit justices

across the twelfth and thirteenth centuries finally exhausted the legal workhorse

of the general eyre by overuse.45

In both England and France litigants could bring a case into a royal court by

making the significant charge that an enemy had wronged them by illicit violence:

the formula in England stated the wrong was done ‘by force and arms

and against the king’s peace’; one analogous French formula charged the

wrongdoer had acted ‘by force, violence and by the power of arms’.46 Royal

interest and activity in criminal jurisdiction increased sufficiently in France for

the central law court, the Parlement, to open a separate criminal register in


Even the briefest sampling of the evidence, then, shows the concern over

disruptive violence and the support which allowed major institutions to

increase their roles in an age of widespread growth. In other words, all the evidence

we have examined thus far seems congruent: from our three witnesses

(and many others we could summon to the stand from the following centuries),

from the social and economic setting around them, from the institutions

their contemporaries were busily creating.

44 Harding, Law Courts of Medieval England, 77. 45 Ibid, 86–7.

46 Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 158, citing sources.

47 Strayer, Philip the Fair, 208–36.

Evidence from Chivalric Literature

One final source of evidence shows perceptions of order and violence: the vast

body of chivalric literature.48 Even a brief, initial sampling can reveal patterns

of thought, for these texts drew on the continuous experience of daily life, on

collective memories and imagination. Since we can never recover all this particular

experience in detail, it is all the more important that we take into

account the powerful cumulative traces of experience in literature. Examining

this literature puts us in touch with a vast store of relevant human experience;

moreover, it obviously attempts to shape attitudes. No simple mirror reflecting

society, it is itself an active social force, identifying basic issues, asking

probing questions, sometimes suggesting constructive change.

Almost without fail these works give prominence to acts of disruptive violence

and problems of control. Complexity characterizes the point of view:

even more than in the histories we have already sampled, attitudes about violence

come strongly mixed. Belief in the right kind of violence carried out vigorously

by the right people is a cornerstone of this literature. Yet aggression

and the disruptive potentiality of violence is a serious issue for these writers no

less than for the historians. This significant fact has seldom been analysed.

What troubles these writers (echoing our three historians) is not usually violence

in the abstract, nor war simply conceived as one sovereign or even one

seigneur marshalling his forces against another. Rather, the issue is how to

carry on daily living with enough security and peacefulness to make civilized

life possible; the world seems almost Hobbesian, with violence carried out on

any scale possible to achieve any end desired.

In confronting such issues, a writer sometimes creates an image of unusual

power and vividness, conveying across the centuries the elemental fear created

by knightly violence. The author of the Perlesvaus (written in the early years of

the thirteenth century) produces just such an image in the huge knights in

black armour who appear more than once in the pages of his romance.49 We

48 The issues involved in using this literature are discussed in the second section of Chapter 2.

49 The several quotations that follow come from Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 144, 176–8, 221; for the

original French, see Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 222–3; 274–8; 344. The earliest appearance

of these knights, or some men very much like them, comes near the opening of the romance when

King Arthur fights a black knight with a flaming lance at the Chapel of St Augustine. Mysterious

knights appear on the scene to hack this knight into fragments after Arthur defeats him; they similarly

cut apart one of their company who failed to kill or capture Arthur. This company is not,

however, described as being black, nor carrying flaming weaponry. Bryant, Perlesvaus, 27–30;

Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 38–40. Black knights on black horses appear again, issuing from the

Castle of the Black Hermit, later identified as Hell. Bryant, Perlesvaus, 37, 73, Nitze and Jenkins,

Perlesvaus, 55, 109. The black knights are later identified as spirits of those who died ‘sanz repentance’

or as ‘ungodly demons’. Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 222, 345.

first see these dread figures through the eyes of Perceval’s sister when she

comes to the Perilous Cemetery:

As the maiden peered around the graveyard from where she stood among the tombs,

she saw that it was surrounded by knights, all black, with burning, flaming lances, and

they came at each other with such a din and tumult that it seemed as though the whole

forest were crumbling. Many wielded swords as red as flame, and were attacking one

another and hewing off hands and feet and noses and heads and faces; the sound of

their blows was great indeed.

Later in the story, when Arthur, Lancelot, and Gawain journey on a Grail pilgrimage,

they find themselves in the midst of a dense forest without the

accommodation that usually appears in such stories as if on cue. After sending

a squire up a tree to try to discover some sign of civilized life and hospitality in

the engulfing darkness, they move towards an open fire he has sighted in the

distance. The fire is burning inexplicably, they find, in the ruined courtyard of

a fortified but deserted manor house.

When they send the squire in search of food for the horses, he returns in

utter terror, having in the dark stumbled into a chamber filled with fragments

of butchered knights’ bodies. Suddenly a maiden appears in the courtyard,

bearing on her shoulders half a dead man, the latest addition to the grisly collection

the squire discovered within. For her sins against knighthood this

unfortunate maiden has had to ‘carry to that chamber all the knights who were

killed in this forest and guard them here at the manor, all alone without company’.

She warns the Round Table companions against a fearsome band of

knights who will come at night, ‘black they are, and foul and terrible, and noone

knows where they come from. They fight one another furiously, and the

combat is long.’ On her advice, Lancelot draws a circle all around the house

with his sword—just in time, for the demon knights

came galloping through the forest, at such a furious speed that it sounded as though

the forest were being uprooted. Then they rode into the manor, clutching blazing

firebrands which they hurled at one another; into the house they rode, fighting, and

made as if to approach the knights, but they could not go near them, and had to aim

the firebrands at the king and his company from a distance.

Though the maiden warns Lancelot not to step outside the protective magic

of his circle, with characteristic valour he attacks the knights. Inspired by his

example, Arthur and Gawain join in; swords swing, sparks and hot coals fly,

the evil is defeated. As the swords of the heroes cut through them, ‘they

screamed like demons and the whole forest resounded, and as they fell to the

ground and could endure no more, both they and their horses turned to filth

and ashes, and black demons rose from their bodies in the form of crows’.

With hardly a moment’s rest Arthur, Lancelot, and Gawain confront another

band, ‘even blacker men, bearing blazing lances wrapped in flames, and many

were carrying the bodies of knights whom they had killed in the forest’.

Flinging down the bodies, they demand of the maiden that she deal with them

as with all the others. She refuses, declaring her penance done. They attack the

three companions, seeking revenge for their defeated fellows and the combat

is terrible until a bell (which we later learn is sounded by a hermit saying mass)

rings out in the forest and they flee suddenly.

Towards the end of the story, shapes that are apparently these same demon

knights put in a final, chilling appearance. Lancelot at the Perilous Chapel

‘came to the door of the chapel, and there in the graveyard he thought he saw

huge and terrible knights mounted on horseback, ready for combat, and they

seemed to be staring at him, watching him’. Though these astonishing and terrifying

images could be fitted into the elaborate religious symbolism in this

romance (which has generated much interesting scholarship), this imagery

works in another dimension as well.50 The ‘dark side of the force’ of knighthood

(to borrow the familiar language of the popular Star Wars films) could

scarcely be rendered more powerfully than in the portrayal of these demon

knights lurking in the forest shadows or suddenly emerging to hack at each

other and at the innocent with their flaming weaponry.51

Their appearance in the Perlesvaus takes on even more force when we consider

that the author seems to be drawing the raw material of his images from

a folkloristic tradition known as ‘la Mesnie Hellequin’, or Herlequin’s Hunt, a

wild nocturnal ride by a hunting party or armed host across the countryside.52

The use of such images in this romance calls to mind ‘one of the most unforgettable

passages in the Ecclesiastical History’ of Orderic,53 thus linking, once

again, our chronicles with imaginative literary sources.

Orderic tells us the story given to him in person by Walchelin, a priest who

claimed to have witnessed the fearful procession on the first night of January

50 See Carman, ‘Symbolism of the Perlesvaus’; Kelly, A Structural Study, 91–194, with many citations

to earlier studies. Kelly sees this text as addressed primarily to lay males as an encouragement

to them to conduct their chivalry in accordance with divine will. The preoccupation of the text

with almost macabre violence and cruelty seems to him a reflection of actual issues in this society

(20–3, 95, 158–61, 171–8). Saly, ‘Perceval-Perlesvaus’, emphasizes the role of lignage and vengeance

in Perceval’s quest.

51 Writers on fantasy have noted that accounts like this test social truths and reveal the ‘dark

side’ of the dominant order in society: Jackson, Fantasy, 4, 15.

52 Sainéan, ‘La Mesnie Hellequin’, shows how widespread the tradition was in medieval

Europe, the image of nocturnal army being older, the image of hunt being more widespread; Lot,

‘La Mesnie Hellequin’. Both are cited in Chibnall, ed., Ecclesiastical History, IV, xxxviii–xl, where

she discusses this phenomenon and the available scholarship.

53 Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, IV, xxxix–xl; the following quotations appear in the text, pp.


1091, while returning from a visit to a sick parishioner. Hearing them

approach, Walchelin mistook the noise to mean a troublesome contemporary

force, the household troops of Robert of Bellême (Orderic’s bête noire), on

their way to the siege of Courcy, and feared being ‘shamefully robbed’. His initial

fear is useful evidence in itself.

What happened was yet more terrifying, however, for he saw pass before

him in the clear moonlight not an army of mortals, but four troops of tormented

spirits: first commoners on foot, then women riding sidesaddle, then

a great troop of clergy and monks, all groaning under torments. The last

troop was ‘a great army of knights, in which no colour was visible save blackness

and flickering fire. All rode upon huge horses, fully armed as if they were

galloping to battle and carrying jet-black standards.’ Wanting proof that he

had actually seen ‘Herlechin’s rabble’. Walchelin foolishly tried to seize one

of the coal-black horses, which easily galloped off. His yet more foolish

second attempt provoked an attack by four of the demon knights. Orderic

assures us that he saw the scar on the priest’s throat caused by the

knight’s grasp, ‘burning him like fire’. One of the knights proved to be the

cleric’s dead brother, who spared Walchelin, told him of the torments

the ghostly knights suffer, and begged for his priestly prayers as his hope for


I have endured severe punishment for the great sins with which I am heavily burdened.

The arms which we bear are red-hot, and offend us with an appalling stench, weighing

us down with intolerable weight, and burning with everlasting fire. Up to now I have

suffered unspeakable torture from those punishments. But when you were ordained in

England and sang your first Mass for the faithful departed your father Ralph escaped

from his punishments and my shield, which caused me great pain, fell from me. As you

see I still carry this sword, but I look in faith for release from this burden within the


Walchelin noticed what seemed to him ‘a mass of blood like a human head’

around his brother’s heels where his knightly spurs would attach. It is not

blood, he learns, but fire, burning and weighing down the knight as if he were

carrying the Mont Saint-Michel. His brother explains: ‘Because I used bright,

sharp spurs in my eager haste to shed blood I am justly condemned to carry

this enormous load on my heels, which is such an intolerable burden that I

cannot convey to anyone the extent of my sufferings.’ The knight’s message is

clear: ‘Living men should constantly have these things in mind.’ It seems likely

that the author of the Perlesvaus, a century later, had them much in mind. Both

he and Orderic testify vividly to a fear of knightly violence at the deepest level

of human psychology.

Another image of similar vividness and power is much better known. The incident

of a ‘dolorous stroke’ with frightful consequences to whole kingdoms

appears in more than one romance, often in connection with the theme of

wasteland. As portrayed in the story of Balain, contained within the Post-

Vulgate Merlin Continuation (written probably soon after 1240),54 the dolorous

stroke gives us particularly useful evidence of fears generated by knightly

violence and the devastation it caused.

This story is all the more powerful for being a part of a major structural contrast

built into this widely read cycle of romances. The contrast is embodied in

two knights. Both possess undoubted and praised prowess; but the results of

their knighthood could scarcely be more different. Balain, source of misery

and misfortune, is set opposite Galahad, bringer of joy and release; the

Unfortunate Knight stands on one side, the Good Knight on the other. Balain

brings into being the oppressive ‘adventures’ of the Grail when he wounds

King Pellehan; Galahad lifts this curse when he cures him. In a society accustomed

to thinking about Fall and Redemption, it seems significant that Balain

is compared to Eve, Perceval to Christ.

The story of Balain’s misadventures is compelling. Doggedly pursued by an

invisible knight who repeatedly kills his companions without warning, Balain

finally finds the man in conveniently visible form at the castle where King

Pellehan is holding court. Wasting no time, Balain kills his enemy with a

sword stroke, splitting the man from his head down through his chest. King

Pellehan is even more outraged at this act of vengeance in his court that was

Arthur when Balain had similarly killed a lady in his presence. In his hot wrath

the king attacks Balain with a great pole and breaks the knight’s sword. A wild

chase through the castle ensues, with Balain searching in desperation for any

weapon to resist the pursuing king.

Disregarding an unearthly voice warning him not to enter so holy a place,

Balain rushes into a marvellous and sweet-smelling room containing a silver

table upon which stands a gold and silver vessel. A lance suspended miraculously

in mid-air, point down, is poised over this vessel. Ignoring another

voice of warning, Balain seizes the lance just in time to thrust it through both

thighs of King Pellehan, who falls to the floor grievously wounded. Although

it first seemed to Balain that this stroke was justified, his monumental error

becomes progressively clear. This time, he cannot ignore the voice, which

trumpets the following sentence, the entire castle trembling all the while as if

the world were coming to an end:

54 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, chs 8, 10–13, 16–23; Paris and Uhlric, eds, Merlin, I, 212–25,

233–61, 276–80; II, 1–60. For Balain’s story in most recent French edition, see Roussineau, ed.,

Merlin, I, 65–111, 129–97. David Campbell has also translated these passages: see Tale of Balain.

Now begin the adventures and marvels of the Kingdom of Adventures which will not

cease until a high price is paid, for soiled, befouled hands having touched the Holy

Lance and wounded the most honored of princes and the High Master will avenge it

on those who have not deserved it.55

Balain has, of course, seized the sacred lance that pierced the side of Christ, the

Lance of Longinus, and has used it against the king into whose care God had

entrusted the keeping of the Holy Grail.

What follows may remind modern readers of an atomic bomb explosion,

with rings of gradually decreasing devastation. A great part of the castle wall

falls; hundreds within the castle die from pure fear; in the surrounding town

many die and others are maimed and wounded as houses tumble into rubble;

no one dares to enter the castle for several days, as a sense of divine wrath akin

to radiation lingers. Merlin finally leads people back into the site, accompanied

by a priest wearing ‘the armour of Jesus Christ’, which alone will guarantee

them safe entry. Finding Balain, Merlin leads him out, even providing him

with the necessary mount. Everywhere he rides the prospect is cheerless:

As he rode through the land, he found the trees down and broken and grain destroyed

and all things laid waste, as if lightning had struck in each place, and unquestionably it

had struck in many places, though not everywhere. He found half the people in the villages

dead, both bourgeois and knights, and he found laborers dead in the fields. What

can I tell you? He found the kingdom of Listinois so totally destroyed that it was later

called by everyone the Kingdom of Waste Land and the Kingdom of Strange Land,

because everywhere the land had become so strange and wasted.56

So powerful and complex an incident as the Dolorous Stroke can only be

considered a polyvalent symbol. Yet we can see immediately its significance for

our enquiry. A man who is recognized as one of the best knights in the world

takes perhaps understandable vengeance for unprovoked attacks. Fleeing for

his life, weaponless, he commits the great sin. A knight, whatever his good

qualities, has laid profane hands on the weapon that pierced God in the course

of divine redemption and has used it in his private quarrel to wound one of his

fellow knights and one of God’s chosen agents. Devastation, like lightning—

like war—blots out or blights the lives of innocent people throughout an

entire region. Pure knightly prowess, highly praised at the opening of this

story, has produced these stunning results near its close.

Is such evidence representative or merely exceptional? Extensive reading in

chivalric literature provides a convincing answer, for these works are filled

55 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 212; Bogdanow, Romance of the Grail, 246, supplies the passage

quoted, on one of the pages of the old French text missing in Paris and Uhlric, eds. Merlin,


56 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 214; Paris and Uhlric, Merlin, II, 30.

with plentiful and consistent evidence along the lines of the passages already

noted. As we will see in exploring this literature, almost any text to which we

turn shows deep concern over disruptive violence in medieval society.


Medieval writers—historians, authors of vernacular manuals, and creators of

the fiction patronized at the most influential levels of society—clearly voiced

concerns for order, fears about unrestrained violence, and hopes for some path

to improvement. It is important to locate what was the origin, in their view,

of the problem of disorder and unfettered force.

Of course, ordinary crimes of the sort to be expected—robbery, assault, and

the like—and committed by the most ordinary farmers and carpenters, clearly

received much attention in our period; sometimes public outcry or a particularly

vigorous lord or lord king generated new measures to stiffen the criminal

law to deal with these crimes. Likewise, the seigneurial regime itself produced

impositions that might easily lead to fears of popular rebellion, another kind

of violence. Sometimes these fears took on frightening reality. As towns

increased in size and strength, their demands for a corresponding control over

their own governance easily led to urban uprisings, even as the settling of their

internal affairs and shifting social and economic hierarchies produced seemingly

endless quarrels. Over time the accumulating burdens of governmental

taxation, whether royal or regional, would likewise produce fears of popular


Yet the common concern of our evidence points unmistakably in another

direction. What particularly worries all our witnesses is not primarily common

or garden crime, not country folk attacking their lordly exploiters, not simply

urban unrest, not tax revolt, but the violence of knights. The medieval problem

of order took on its particular contours because the lay elite combined

autonomy and proud violence in the defence of honour.

Of course the violence of feuding (or ‘the peace in the feud’, if we choose to

look at its ideal benefits)57 can provide one formula for establishing hierarchy

and settling disputes. Yet this pattern, prominent in earlier medieval centuries,

was unlikely to continue to satisfy all expectations, especially in an era experiencing

as much fundamental growth and change as occurred in Europe in the

Central Middle Ages. We will be especially interested in the relationships

between this autonomous, violent elite and centralizing authorities, who, on

the obvious basis of much popular support, were developing strong views

57 Southall, ‘Peace in the Feud’. Many scholars have studied medieval dispute resolution. See,

e.g., White, ‘Pactum’; Geary, ‘Vivre en conflit’; Davis and Fouracre, eds, Settlement of Disputes.

about licit and illicit violence and the authority for setting those categories—

even as they enthusiastically raised banners of war themselves.

As Europeans moved into one of the most significant periods of growth and

change in their early history, they increasingly found the proud, heedless violence

of knights, their praise for settling any dispute by force, for acquiring any

desired goal by force on any scale attainable, an intolerable fact of social life.

Such violence and disorder were not easily compatible with other facets of the

civilization they were forming.

We will misunderstand chivalry if we fail to set it squarely in the context of

this knightly violence so evidently in the minds of all our witnesses or if we

miss the linkage of this issue with the broader search for that degree of order

essential to the creation of high medieval society. This context sets the tone,

and, as Maurice Keen has sagely observed, the meaning of chivalry is to a

significant degree tonal.58 By placing chivalry within this context, we can move

beyond microanalysis, close attention to the evidence of chivalric ideals in the

careers of individual knights, and engage in macroanalysis, considering the

social effects of chivalry and specifically its complex role in public order.

Insisting on the very complexity of that role, this book parts company with

much scholarship that has characterized chivalry in less problematic terms, as

a positive and less ambiguous force for building an ordered society. The following

chapters will argue that medieval evidence on chivalry and order is

filled with tension and contradiction. Among its contemporaries, chivalry won

high praise as one of the very pillars of medieval civilization, indeed, of all civilization.

At the same time the practitioners of its great virtue, prowess, inspired

fear in the hearts of those committed to certain ideals of order. As they worried

about the problem of order in their developing civilization, thoughtful

medieval people argued that chivalry (reformed to their standards) was the

great hope, even as they sensed that unreformed chivalry was somehow the

great cause for fear. How chivalry could be praised to the heavens at the same

time it could be so feared as a dark and sinister force with flaming weaponry

makes a topic worth investigating.

58 Keen, Chivalry, 2.