Did Knights Read Romance?

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We must first be certain knights actually attended to works of imaginative literature,

either by reading or listening.2 Of the various kinds of writing within

the rubric of chivalric literature only the works traditionally classed as romance

are in question.3 No one doubts that chivalric biography, chanson de geste, and

1 Elspeth Kennedy, ‘The Knight as Reader’. See also Duby, preface to Flori, L’Idéologie du

glaive. Jacques le Goff, in his introduction to Boutet and Strubel, Littérature, politique et société, 18,

argues: ‘[L]es historiens éprouvent de plus en plus le besoin d’integrer dans leur champ documentaire

le document littéraire et prennent conscience du double caractère de l’oeuvre littéraire, à

la fois comme document spécifique, document de l’imaginaire, et comme document d’histoire

totale, pour peu qu’on sache y démêler les relations compliqués de la société, de la littérature et des

pouvoirs.’ As Spiegel writes, ‘texts both mirror and generate social realities, are constrained by and

constitute the social and discursive formations which they may sustain, resist, contest, or seek to

transform’: ‘History, Historicism’, 77. Strohm, discussing problems of reading texts, rightly calls

‘literary’ and ‘historical’ texts ‘outworn categorization’: Hochon’s Arrow, 3–9. I occasionally use

such terms in this book only as traditional categories.

2 More may have heard than read. As Asher notes, in the Merlin Continuation, ‘there are only

two references to reading the story instead of hearing it . . . (273, n. 8).’ However, as Clanchy has

demonstrated, lay literacy was much higher than we once thought: From Memory to Written

Record. Hindman discusses these issues for Chrétien’s romances in Sealed in Parchment.

3 No rigid separation of chanson and romance is suggested. Current scholarship blurs older categories

of chanson de geste and romance, emphasizing rough coincidence in time and space and

increasing broad similarities. Calin provides a good introduction to this theme, with many citations,

in A Muse for Heroes and in ‘Rapport introductif ’. Cf. Kibler, ‘Chanson d’aventure’ and

Maddox, ‘Figures romanesques’. Kay argues for essential difference with a dialogic relationship

between genres: Chansons de Geste. The relationship of chivalry to growing governmental

vernacular manuals of chivalry were written for knights and read or heard by

knights. But what of the extensive body of romance?

As Elspeth Kennedy has shown, knights in the very real world referred frequently

and familiarly to these works of literature. A ‘two-way traffic’ connected

these men of war, law, and politics with Arthurian romance no less than

chanson de geste. Many owned copies of these texts, which seem to have been

readily passed from one set of hands to another, often registering considerable

wear.4 Some, such as the father of the famous jurist Philippe de Beaumanoir,

even wrote romance themselves.5 Under Isabella and Mortimer, the English

Privy Wardrobe issued works of romance to male and female courtiers alike;

Mortimer himself borrowed twenty-three such works and must have sponsored

a romance-reading group.6 Geoffroi de Charny, the leading French

knight of the mid-fourteenth century, apparently knew romances like the

Lancelot do Lac and wrote easily (and disapprovingly) of men who would love

Queen Guinevere only if they could boast of it.7 In addition to borrowing

heavily from the imagery of the Ordene de chevalerie (Order of Chivalry; one of

the vernacular manuals for knights), Ramon Llull, the former knight who

wrote the most popular book on chivalry in the Middle Ages, likewise drew

heavily on thirteenth-century prose romances.8

Romance and other categories become indistinguishable in the minds of

those who wrote and those who read. The authors of historical works sense no

gap between the actions they describe in chronicle or biography and those in

imaginative literature; often they stress the links between the types of writing.9

The author of the Norman-French ‘Song of Dermot and the Earl’, written

around 1200, sometimes says his work is based on a geste and refers to it both

as le chansun and l’histoire. He records Maurice FitzGerald defending an Irish

king and, like a hero from romance, swearing on his sword that anyone who

Chivalry and its Interpretation 31

institutions is especially noticeable in chansons de geste. Works traditionally classed as romances

focus on a deepening knightly piety which must address the fit of its ideals with those of clergie.

Yet these themes are far from exclusive and topics inevitably overlap in particular works of chivalric

literature. See Chapters 11, 12.

4 Kelly (Structural Study, 20) notes that manuscripts of the Perlesvaus, for example, were owned

by chivalric figures, not monks. Hindman comments on borrowed and worn manuscripts of

Chrétien’s romances in Sealed in Parchment, 3, 8–9, 46–8.

5 Gicquel, ‘Le Jehan le Blond’.

6 Vale, Edward III, 49–50; Revard, ‘Courtly Romances’.

7 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 118–19.

8 Elspeth Kennedy, ‘Knight as Reader’ (typescript kindly provided in advance of publication).

An additional example supporting her argument appears in Gutierre Diaz De Gamez, standardbearer

and biographer of Don Pero Niño, who says he has been ‘reading . . . many histories of

kings and famous knights,’ and decides to add the deeds of his master to these accounts of other

famous deeds: Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 13.

9 See Keen’s useful discussion of the broad question in Nobles, Knights and Men-at-Arms,

63–81.

lays a hand on the king would have his head split.10 John Barbour (d. 1395)

terms his chronicle of Robert Bruce a ‘romanys’.11 Both Barbour and Sir

Thomas Gray assure us that if all the deeds done in Ireland by Robert’s brother

Edward Bruce were set down they would make a fine romance.12 Other active

knights shared the sentiment. We even know that Robert Bruce often told

‘auld storys’ to his men in trying times, to buck them up. During a tedious passage

over Loch Lomond, he merrily read out passages from the romance of

Fierabras.13

Moreover, the very content of the romances leads to the same conclusion.

Anyone who has read thousands of pages of chivalric literature knows that

either these texts were meant for men as well as women, or that medieval

women simply could not get enough of combat and war, of the detailed effects

of sword strokes on armour and the human body beneath, of the particulars of

tenurial relationships, and of the tactical manouevres that lead to victory. Such

evidence suggests that the great body of chivalric literature was aimed at

knights even more than at their ladies.14

The knights’ conduct, of course, also shows that the literature is reaching

them, as students of chivalry have shown in case after case.15 Larry D. Benson’s

examination of the tournament in the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and in

the Histoire of William Marshal, for example, concluded that tournament

wonderfully illustrates the interplay of life and art—impossible, of course,

were knights not deeply steeped in chivalric romance as well as chanson.16

Knights, in sum, say that they have read this literature, which itself does not

distinguish genres closely; they show that they have read it by using it in their

10 Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot, ll. 1065, 1912, 2115–20, 2403.

11 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds, Barbour’s Bruce, bk. I, l. 446.

12 Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica, 57. Gray says Bruce performed there ‘feats of arms, inflicting great

destruction upon both provender and in other ways, and conquered much territory which would

form a romance were it all recounted’. What constitutes proper subject matter for romance is as

instructive as the link between romance and history. Barbour says of Edward Bruce, ‘off his hey

worschip and manheid / Men mycht a myckill romanys mak.’ McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds.

Barbour’s Bruce, bk. IX, ll. 496–7.

13 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds, Barbour’s Bruce, bk. IX, ll. 267–70, 405–65. Barbour refers

to characters in the ‘Romance of Alexander’ in bk. III, ll. 72–92.

14 For the Perlesvaus, Kelly reached a similar conclusion: Structural Study, 20, 23. As Elspeth

Kennedy notes, male interests ‘may well have been directed towards different elements within the

romance’: ‘Knight as Reader’, 1. Crouch suggests the young William Marshal would have known

and perhaps memorized a body of chanson de geste and romance. His father was familiar with

Geoffrey of Monmouth or one of his imitators: William Marshal, 23. Hindman notes that a scene

in the romance of Hunbaut pictures a group of ten knights and six young ladies listening to the

reading of a romance: Sealed in Parchment, 86.

15 Good general accounts in Painter, French Chivalry and Keen, Chivalry. For specific influences

see—in addition to the Benson article cited in fn. 16—three studies by Loomis: ‘Arthurian

Influence’, ‘Chivalric and Dramatic Imitations’, and ‘Edward I’.

16 Benson, ‘The Tournament’. Cf. Barber and Barker, Tournaments.

own writings, and they show by their actions that they have read it and are

bringing it into their lives.

Is Chivalric Literature Hopelessly Romantic?

Such evidence makes it difficult to dismiss or discount chivalric literature as

hopelessly romantic and useless in serious historical enquiry. We cannot

expect this literature, or any other, to serve as a simple mirror to social reality

in the world in which it emerged. Chivalric literature was an active social force,

helping to shape attitudes about basic questions. As such, it has immense usefulness,

if read with care.

Above all, we need to remember that these works are, in conscious intent at

least, more often prescriptive than descriptive; they advance ideals for what

chivalry should become, in other words, more often than they mirror an ideal

already transformed into social reality.17 In The History of the Holy Grail,

Joseph of Arimathea (considered a great knight of the era of Christ) is ordered

by God to sire the son who will continue the line of knightly heroes that will

culminate in the perfect knight, Galahad. This son, the text says,

was later such a worthy man that one should certainly recall his deeds and the nobility

of his life in the hearing of all worthy men, so that the wicked will abandon their folly

and worthy men, who hold the order of chivalry, may better themselves toward the

world and God.18

The prescriptive impulse of much of this literature could scarcely be stated

more openly.

Yet it is often descriptive as well, for the writers of chivalric literature regularly

offer up descriptions of actual knightly practices from the world around

them. These scenes are either given consciously, to show some behaviour in

need of improvement, or unconsciously, while the writer is actually focusing

on some other aspect of knightly life and behaviour.

Ordinary practice can always be recovered, if we are prepared to look carefully

between lines written either prescriptively or descriptively. Specific critiques

are directly revealing; even highly gilded passages of praise are indirectly

revealing: we seldom preach virtues to replace non-existent faults. Of course

the descriptive and prescriptive often come intertwined, almost sentence by

Chivalry and its Interpretation 33

17 As Barron suggested, ‘The paradox of romance in all periods is that it expresses man’s need

to see life not as it is but as it might be, yet the very formulation of the ideal rests upon his awareness

of personal and social imperfections’: ‘Knighthood on Trial’, 103.

18 Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 119; Hucher, ed., Le Saint Graal, III, 126–7. Galahad himself

is later pictured as listening attentively to the stories told him by a holy hermit about his noble

ancestors: see Asher, tr., Quest.

sentence. In fact, these categories blur readily into a third, the provocative.

Our texts often toss out challenging opinions or incidents bound to spark

debate in chamber or hall as more wine is poured and the company settles into

a conversation we would give much to hear.19

We can, likewise, only regret that no medieval writer went from one castle,

tourney field, court, siege camp, battle line, or raiding party to another,

observing and interviewing knights of all particular social claims to record

their commonplace attitudes and beliefs; with such evidence we could easily

differentiate their attitudes in varying degrees from the ideal statements and

reform tracts which we possess in abundance.

Lacking such a record, we have no oral history of chivalry, although that is

precisely what we want. For most chivalric texts press some ideal about

chivalry to the forefront, with bright gold leaf liberally applied to the expressions.

20 Almost unnoticed, our assumption can easily become that this is what

chivalry was and how it actually worked in medieval society.

The hard truth is that we must reconstruct the living reality of chivalry from

the entire set of texts available: the vast corpus of imaginative chivalric literature,

as well as ecclesiastical and lay legislation, legal records, contemporary

chronicles, handbooks for knights, the details of chivalric biography. Each

piece of evidence we draw into this book will add its witness to our cumulative

sense of just what chivalry was and just how knights thought about it. In

the process we can gradually reconstruct something like the oral history that

we would so much like to have.

Perhaps dazzled by the gold leaf, even the fig leaf of idealization, textbook

accounts of chivalry often fail to distinguish between various reform plans and

actual practice; taking chivalry at the evaluation of its own idealistic texts, they

place perhaps half a dozen ideal qualities for a knight in the spotlight.

Anachronistic ideas from post-medieval revivals of chivalry easily creep into

the pattern unnoticed. Chivalry thus becomes the composite, enduring ideal

represented by courtesy, prowess (easily sanitized as moral courage), largesse,

loyalty, ‘courtly love’, fairness, piety (even ‘muscular Christianity’). There is no

19 Scott’s paradigm—Domination—largely applies to other circumstances; yet his description

of a ‘public transcript of dominance’ fits much chivalric literature. As the ‘self-portrait of dominant

elites’ (p. 18) intended to ‘awe and intimidate [subordinates] into a durable and expedient compliance’

(p. 67), it is also aimed at ‘a kind of self-hypnosis within ruling groups, to buck up their

courage, improve their cohesion, display their power, and convince themselves anew of their high

moral purpose’ (p. 67). The Achilles heel comes from ‘critiques within the hegemony’ (p. 105)

which are hard to deflect because ‘they begin by adopting the ideological terms of reference of the

elite . . . which now stands accused of hypocrisy if not the violation of a sacred trust’ (p. 105).

20 Morris observes, ‘In truth one should think less of a code of chivalry than of conflicting ideals

of chivalry’: ‘Equestris Ordo’, 96.

tension, no contradiction, no sense of any pressing social issues which might

have generated criticism and debate in the first place.

This venerable technique cannot be followed if we are to understand the

broad societal role chivalry played for centuries. We must identify the major

functions of chivalry as a social force, not merely draw up a list of idealized

individual qualities, taken largely from works pressing for reforms.

Two straightforward conclusions follow. First, most medieval writing

about chivalry will show a tendency to social criticism or even a reformist cast;

it will be read more creatively and analytically with this in mind. Second, the

direction of much of this writing points us towards the fundamental issue of

securing order in society. In other words, if most chivalric literature involves

criticism, debate, and reform, much of it was written in the shadow of fears for

public order

This is not to suggest that authors of chivalric literature were cheerless critics,

taking only the odd, scowling glance out of a study window at actual

knighthood—to confirm their dislike—while grinding out works presenting

one critique after another. To the contrary, this literature is animated by the

diverse energies found in any great literature; every text will celebrate the glories

of chivalry and will often overflow with sheer joy and appreciation for the

richness, colour, and splendour of chivalric life. In the process, texts instruct

knights how to be more suave and urbane, how to play the ideal lover as well

as the perfect knight. In fact, they claim that chivalry (if only reformed to their

liking) constitutes the very buttress which upholds civilized life.

Yet the steady social criticism, the urging of restraint and reform, can be

heard constantly and insistently, despite the variety of other themes—rather

like the steady continuo playing behind other instrumental voices in a baroque

concerto. This rich and contrapuntal play of praise and critique, hope and fear,

emphasizes the powerful tensions as well as the harmonies at work. These tensions

give a fascinating complexity to any piece of chivalric literature; the balancing

act requires celebration of chivalry as the grand guide to civilized life,

while simultaneously pressing with some degree of urgency for the changes

that could make chivalry truly that force in the world. These are not purely celebratory

or aesthetic works; they do not present merely the splendour of

chivalric life as it was, or the diversions of an escapist literature of life as it never

could be. These texts spoke to some of the most pressing issues of their day,

especially to the issues of social order and knightly violence, to the serious need

for chivalric reform in a world much troubled by warlike violence.

We cannot, in other words, take the line that in any problem linking knighthood

and order, chivalry was simply the solution. What makes these issues so

much more real and infinitely more interesting is that chivalry figures on both

Chivalry and its Interpretation 35

sides of the equation of order—both as a part of the problem and as an ideal

solution—even if we take chivalry to mean a code, rather than simply certain

men or their heroically violent deeds.