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NEAR the opening of his Cliges, Chrétien de Troyes, speaking directly to

his audience in words now become famous, confidently announces the

translatio of ancient civilization to the world of medieval France via the linked

agencies of chivalry and learning:

These books of ours have taught us that Greece once stood pre-eminent in both

chivalry and learning. Then chivalry proceeded to Rome in company with the highest

learning. Now they have come into France. God grant that they be sustained here

and their stay be so pleasing that the honour that has stopped here in France never


Speaking for many in his age, this influential author declares chivalry an essential

element of civilization; he even suggests that it functions as one of the two

components which take the measure of a civilization. He is enough a citizen of

the world of clergie to include learning (the learning of the clerks, that is)

alongside chivalry, but he gives chivalry equal rank, and first mention, as the

key to honour.

Several centuries later the biography of the much-admired Jean de

Boucicaut, marshal of France, Le Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre,

dit Boucicaut, announced, in words clearly recalling Chrétien’s:

Two things have been established in the world, by the will of God, like two pillars to

sustain the orders of divine and human laws . . . and without which the world would

be like a confused thing and without any order . . . These two flawless pillars are

Chivalry and Learning, which go very well together.2

For something like half a millennium of European history such evaluations

of the importance of chivalry produced basic agreement among virtually all the

laity whose opinion counted in this society and among most clerics as well;

beneath helmets and tonsures, wimples and mitres, all heads nodded sagely, all

thought chivalry was virtually equivalent to civilization, or at least stood as one

1 Staines, tr., Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, 87; Luttrell and Gregory, eds, Chrétien de Troyes,

ll. 30–9.

2 Lalande, ed., Jehan le Maingre, 6–7: ‘Deux choses sont, par la volunté de Dieu, establies au

monde ainsi comme .II. pillers a soustenir les ordres des loys divines et humaines . . . et sanz

lesquielz seroit le monde ainsi comme chose confuse et sanz nul ordre. . . . Yceulz .II. pillers, sanz

faille, sont Chevalerie et Science qui moult bien se couviennent ensemble.’ Lalande notes somewhat

similar expressions appear elsewhere in the book. We will see below (Chapter 13) that in the

thirteenth century Ramon Llull took a similar view in his much-read book on chivalry.

of its essential components, certainly that it was the model for the lives of lay


Characteristic praise flows in the biography of William Marshal. In the final

scenes, as William lay dying, the monk-knight who came to receive him into

the Order of the Temple praised him unstintingly as the greatest knight in the

world, with the most prowess, ‘sens’, and loyalty. He announced with certainty

that God would receive William in heaven. Similar praise for William’s

ideal chivalric career echoed in the laudatory sermon preached by an archbishop

beside his bier and, again, in the approving oral obituary composed in

the conversation of the French royal court. He was, simply, ‘the best knight in

the world (Le meillor chevalier del monde)’.3 For all of these speakers it seemed

that no more need be said.

Yet of course there was much more to be said on the subject of chivalry;

medieval writers regularly spoke, however more subtly and indirectly, to their

fundamental fears of the violence and disruption carried out in the world by

‘the chivalry’. Early in his Perceval Chrétien de Troyes provides a classic case in

point. The young, absolutely naive, and primitive hero, hunting alone in the

forest, for the first time sees knights in splendid and shining armour emerge

from the green curtain of trees. Almost stunned, Perceval asks their spokesman

the arresting question, ‘Are you God? (N’iestes vos Dieux?)’4 Was this a question

Chrétien wanted the knights of his society to consider? Were they, like the

first sinners in Eden, setting themselves up in the place of divinity, arrogating

to themselves God-like power? The danger certainly seems to have been in the

mind of Perceval’s mother, for when he tells her he has seen shining angels in

the forest she replies, ‘I commend you to God, dear son, for I’m deeply afraid

for you. I do believe you’ve seen the angels who cause people such grief, killing

whoever they come across.’ He assures her that she is wrong, that the strangers

told him they were knights. Hearing this word, she faints.5 It is hard not to

read this passage as a telling criticism of the chivalry of Chrétien’s own day; his

romances abound in trenchant social criticism and suggestions for an

3 See Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 18351–end of text.

4 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 3; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval, 6. This attraction is elaborated in the Post-

Vulgate Cycle: see Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 8; Bogdanow, ed., ‘Folie Lancelot’, 83.

5 Bryant, Perceval, 5; Roach, Roman du Perceval, ll. 306–400. She has good reason to fear: her

husband has been maimed in knightly combat and her two older sons killed the very day of their

knighting. Similar evaluations can be found in much lesser works. A questing Lancelot, seeking

shelter in The Marvels of Rigomer, comes upon a monstrous old woman beside a fire he is sure is

magical. Snoring on all fours like a beast, she badly frightens both Lancelot and his horse. When

he identifies himself as a knight she threatens him, declaring that for a thousand years she has

heard that knights are the worst things in the world who kill just as they like. Kay notes that

women are often given a role as social critics and counter-narrative agents: Chansons de Geste, 138,


improved chevalerie that might truly stand alongside ideal clergie as a prop to

civilized life.6

The tensions are inherent: chivalry will be praised as a solution to the problem

of which it is so integral an element. The grounds for this widespread pattern

become immediately apparent if we consider chivalry in its broadest sense

of ethos or ideal. A code to guide dominant laymen would necessarily do

major social work: it would provide guidelines for basic questions confronting

a society that was expanding its intellectual as well as its physical, social, and

economic boundaries.

Did chivalry in fact address basic social questions? As an experiment, I have

for years asked students in seminars to draw up a list of the primary issues that

societies must confront, once they have secured the fundamentals of living

space and sustenance. Although the list produced by such a discussion varies

somewhat, it regularly includes the following social needs: principles of distributive

justice, means for resolving disputes, rules about licit and illicit violence

and its practitioners, guides for regulating social hierarchy, standards for

relationships between the sexes, means both for satisfying spiritual longings

and regulating the authority of the spiritual in the temporal world.

Such a list is fascinating and instructive, for we can see at once that all of

these issues closely involve chivalry. How were the dominant layfolk to live,

love, fight, practise piety, merit their high status and its considerable rewards?

All such lines of thought led to chivalry. Like some social analogue to the

molecular structures of organic chemistry, chivalry results from the powerful

bonding of prowess to honour, piety, status, and love. Yet these bonds, if

strong, are complex and even conflicted; medieval people interpreted them in

particular ways and argued over their ideal nature and content. Is prowess an

unalloyed good? Does it unerringly reveal status? Is it blessed by God? Does

it lead to love? Simply to state a few such questions points to the issues in the

chapters to follow. The importance of such questions helps us to understand

how chivalry could for so many centuries stand at the centre of so much belief

and debate. Any medieval writer interested in any one of these issues might

well want to valorize his or her point of view by identifying it with the great

code which formed a capstone of the arch of civilization.

Was there, then, only one point of view, the single ‘ideal chivalry’ of university

survey courses, against which any thought or action could be measured?

Medieval Europe, despite what some textbook writers and some

romantics want to imagine, does not look like a society with a single set of

answers with regard to chivalry—or much else. The extensive literature of

6 For Chrétien’s work as social criticism or reform, see Topsfield, Chrétien de Troyes; Frappier,

Chrétien de Troyes; Krueger, Women Readers, 33–68.

chivalry scarcely appears as an unproblematic literature of agreement or celebration,

of praise for a single code, universally accepted as ‘true chivalry’.

Debate, criticism, and competing reform ideas surge through these texts.

The subject need not thus disintegrate or slip from our hands. As scholars

such as Maurice Keen, Georges Duby, and Jean Flori have argued, there is

enough continuity to allow us to discuss chivalry as a recognizable phenomenon

over the centuries. From some point in the twelfth century a core of ideas and

practices persisted among knights. William Marshal in the late twelfth century,

Geoffroi de Charny in the mid-fourteenth century, and Thomas Malory at the

end of the fifteenth century can be imagined sitting down together to discuss

such a core of ideal beliefs and practices rather comfortably.7

Yet their works criticize as well as praise the ideas and practices of fellow

knights; and others, too, would have their say. When we move beyond the

inner circle of practising knights into the vast realms of chivalric literature of

all stripes, we can hear polyphony—at times, perhaps, cacophony; the tension

crackles, and we encounter fears, doubts, and debate, as well as agreeable celebration.

This is surely a literature of contending views on basic issues.

Of course, debate encouraged valorization: chivalry won social power not

only as the framework for the ideals of dominant laymen, but from repeated

efforts at reform, each praising an ideal to meet some set of interests.

Dissatisfaction with chivalry in the sense of a body of men who wielded very

real weapons in the world, or with the disruptive nature of their violent work

in an emerging civilization, could be most usefully and discretely expressed as

praise for the ideal code favoured by the writer. But we will do well to remember

that social criticism and ideas of reform are as real as the praise, even if less


Chapter 7 helps to explain why. Knights worshipped at the shrine of the

demi-god prowess and practised violence as an esteemed and defining entitlement.

The primary constituent in chivalry was prowess which wins honour,

weapons in hand. What this meant on the tourney field, in a raiding party, on

the battlefield, is taken up in Chapter 8.

The fundamental bond of prowess and honour was strengthened, as noted

above, by the addition of three further bonds: a practised form of piety

(already explored in Chapter 3), an assertion of high status (Chapter 9), and a

troubled link with love and gendered relations (Chapter 10). The lavish eulogies

sung to chivalry—and the worries more prudently expressed—can

scarcely be understood without recognizing its bonds to these crucially important

social issues.

7 Discussed in Chapter 13.

Chapters 11 and 12 take up chanson de geste and quest patterns, respectively,

with a double goal: first, to get a closer look into highly useful evidence and,

second, to demonstrate that the ambivalent role of chivalry in issues or order

appears forcefully in entire works no less than in passages selected from many


Finally, Chapter 13 considers the critical and reformist views of the knights

themselves. Again using specific works, we can see that ideas for change and

improvement did not all come from the non-knightly. If model knights loudly

and predictably praised chivalry, their fears and reformist ideals were real and

their carefully chosen words are audible and significant.

The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry 127