The Framework of Institutions and Ideas

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If public order is the background issue, what focal points of power and authority

should we consider? Analyses of the hierarchical organization of medieval

society have focused on the three broad functional categories, the three theoretical

‘orders’ used by medieval writers themselves: those who pray, those

who fight, and those who work. Institutional historians have, of course,

emphasized the major governing institutions of Church and State. In trying to

understand the basic issues involving order in the sense intended in this book,

however, neither of these classic formulations is sufficient.

We must think, instead, of a simple triadic relationship (as illustrated in

figure 1). The points on this triangle of relationships are not simply institutions

but a rather more complex set of forces: capacities for coercion pure and simple,

perhaps, but also ways of looking at the world, means of organizing and

justifying a set of answers to the basic questions about order and the conventions

or the sheer power and legitimizing authority which might secure it.

Gerd Tellenbach’s highly useful suggestion that Church reformers of the later

eleventh century were seeking to secure ‘right order in the world’ can, in fact,

stand as the goal of each of our focal points of power.21 This is not to suggest

the primacy of abstract conceptions in the minds of those who clustered

assertively at each point of our triangle, for if each collectivity of men saw their

world ideally organized and run in a particular way, the concomitant fact was

their insistence on their own hegemony; to this end they claimed and exercised

21 Tellenbach, Church, State, and Christian Society.


chevalerie royauté

Figure 1. Focal points of power and authority

specialized functions and elaborated an ideology which spurred and justified

their power and responsibility.

Each focal point thus represents through a cluster of enabling powers and

ideas, a particular stance regarding the issue of order. Each is distinct, though

none stands exclusively, unconnected with the others. In other words,

between each pair of focal points (i.e. along each side of the triangle in figure

1) strong bonds of attraction are at work, as well as powerful forces of competition,

imitation as well as independence, or even outright opposition.

Clergie indicates the impressive institutional and juridical organization of

the Church from the bishop of Rome to the lowliest wearer of the tonsure. It

entails the special mediatory relationship of priests, monks, and nuns who

stand between God and the mass of humanity, the priests channelling from

God the saving means of grace through the sacraments, and all, perhaps especially

the regulars, offering up to God especially efficacious prayers about

pressing human needs. But clergie also entails scholarship, the Latin learning of

the schools with all the mysterious and arcane power of books and the resonances

from the revered and Latinate world of antiquity.22 The idea of public

order held by these men had been clear for centuries, at least when they

thought about conditions within Christendom itself; from the late tenth century

clerics had sponsored a peace movement that sought not simply the

absence of endless local strife (though it necessarily began thus), but an

embodiment of the divine will in a human society animated by harmonious

(and hierarchical) social relationships. Organization, a body of special practitioners,

special functions, a sphere of ideas glowing with power—all formed

part of the world of clergie, all contributed to what we will see as its stance

regarding proper order.

The second point of the triangle is not so easily labelled. Royauté may serve

as a term, meaning the emerging lay state with all of its powers, ideology, busy

personnel, and important functions in society. These men claimed to secure

the peace which represented the divine will for the world by making and

Chivalry and its Interpretation 37

22 The knightly amalgam of awe and suspicion regarding such learning appears regularly in

chivalric literature. Marsent and her nuns in Raoul de Cambrai try to stop the violence of Raoul by

processing outside town walls carrying books, one so venerable it was revered in the age of

Solomon. Kay, ed., Raoul de Cambrai, 82–3, ll. 1123–32. The power of even Merlin and Morgan le

Fay is contained in books. Morgan is at one point termed ‘a very good woman clerk’: Sommer,

ed., Vulgate Version, 253, ll. 19–20. Of Gamille, the Saxon Lady of the Rock, it is said, ‘with all her

books she could make water flow uphill’: Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II 236; Micha, ed., Lancelot,

VIII, 481–2. Sir Kay burns all her books to ashes. The Duke of Cloyes is said to be so old and experienced

that ‘he had so much knowledge that only a man knowing Latin could have more’:

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 250; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 79. The lady rescued by Guinglain

in Le Bel Inconnu had been turned into a serpent by an enchanter who touched her with a book;

the text links magic and necromancy with the study of the liberal arts: see Fresco, ed., and

Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâgé, ll. 3341, 1931–6, 4933–47.

enforcing laws, by protecting property; in the process, they were beginning to

try to secure a working monopoly (or at least a controlling oversight) of licit

violence as well as the significant revenues that such powers inevitably entail.

They claimed as well that they protected and enabled the practice of true religion

as conducted by clerics, whom they cheerfully recognized as legitimate

special functionaries. Beyond the borders of the realm their just war would

repress wrong as surely as their regular hanging of thieves did at home, one

species of violence connected to the other in kind and differing only in scale.

These men always successfully claimed divine approval for their role and won

enthusiastic clerical approbation for the practical functioning of lay political

sovereignty, whatever the current status of the contest between papacy and

kingship. In fact, in so far as the first two points of our triangle are grounded

in institutions of governance, their shared, even borrowed, features are obvious

and need no further comment.

The third point of our triangle must be chevalerie, however, and it involves

a cluster of a rather different sort. Similarities to the other two clusters exist,

of course. Again, we find a collectivity of ideas, a set of special functions, a particular

body of practitioners, even a sense of divine approval, in time cautiously

recognized by ecclesiastics. Yet chevalerie was rooted in different soil, growing

not out of the restrained and restraining traditions characteristic of institutions

of governance but rather from the ancient social practices and heroic ideals of

generations of warriors, fiercely proud of their independence, exulting in their

right to violence and in their skill at exercising it.

The chronicler Matthew Paris provides a striking illustration of this independent

and martial outlook in an entry for the year 1247. He tells us that the

French nobility asserted that their kingdom had been won ‘not by the learned

written law (jus scriptum), nor by the arrogance of clerks, but by the sweat of

war’.23 A British chronicler of the following generation provides an equally

vivid vignette. As the English cavalry manouevred at the opening of the battle

of Falkirk in 1298, Ralph Bassett, lord of Drayton, told Bishop Bek, who was

leading the English right wing: ‘It’s not for you, bishop, to teach us knights

how to fight when you ought to be busy saying mass. Go back to celebrate

mass; we shall do all that needs to be done in the way of fighting.’24

Of course lawmakers and clerks busily building the institutions of Church

and State were neither strangers nor uncompromising opponents of war, even

if they did not all personally take the field. Major governing institutions in the

23 Paris, Chronica Majora, IV, 593: ‘regnum non per jus scriptum, nec per clericorum arrogantiam,

sed per sudores bellicos fuerit adquisitum’.

24 Quoted by Barrow, Robert Bruce, 144, from J. de Fordun, Chronica Gentis Scotorum, ed. W.

F. Skene (Edinburgh, 1871–2), i, 330.

history of Western Europe have always been deeply if ambiguously involved

with violence, some forms of which they have legitimized or vigorously practised

themselves. But both clergie and royauté also felt the power of that

significant strain in their ideology which stressed peace; it was obviously desirable

in the eyes of God; it was no less obviously a congenial compulsion for

strong-willed men, whether they were tonsured or carried royal wands of

office, to exercise control of the most basic sort, in other words to prohibit

illicit violence and to regulate or even practise licit violence themselves. A practice

of power rooted in jurisdiction and nourished by revenue was, of course,

the very essence of governance. The process would lead vigorous figures from

the worlds of both clergie and royauté to strive, in effect, for the needed reforms

which would bring chevalerie into consonance with their particular view of

right order in the world.

The pattern of interaction is far from simple, however; having established

our threefold clusters of men and ideas, we need to remember how porous

were the spaces separating them. Churchmen were in theory not only committed

to ideas of peace and forgiveness, they were prohibited (again, in

theory) from shedding human blood; any coercion requiring this final commitment

to force would necessitate cooperation from laymen outside the

sphere of clergie. Similarly, the upper ranks of royal administrations ran on the

skills of not a few clerics willingly serving their kings. These kings, moreover,

were knights as well as monarchs, and thus lived, we might almost say, in two

worlds. If knights aggressively claimed their own sphere, they were also loyal

practitioners of the accepted forms of Christianity, presided over by clerics.

They were landlords, busy in the royal courts, as well as warlords. Their service

as agents of government and their support of royal governmental efforts

for order and the protection of property was real and, in fact, essential for the

indisputable growth of the State.

Yet our several focal points with their distinct powers and ways of looking

at the world remain. The body of men, practices, and ideals in chivalry was a

far from perfect fit with those of the growing institutions. If a vast corpus of

literature reflected a fascinating mass of contradictions, attractions, and repulsions

where chivalry was concerned, similar ambivalence characterized the

relationship of chevalerie with clergie and royauté. In both instances, influential

figures struggled to reform chivalry in accordance with their views on right

order in the world, secured by the right people.

Chivalry and its Interpretation 39