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DURING the Battle of Mansourah in the crusade of Louis IX (1250),

Joinville, St Louis’s companion and biographer, sought refuge with his

men in a ruined house surrounded by their enemies. Saracens who climbed the

broken roof thrust lances literally into the French knights’ faces. Two knights

suffered multiple facial wounds and another took a lance blow between the

shoulders ‘which made so large a wound that the blood poured from his body

as if from the bung-hole of a barrel’. In this crisis, Érard de Siverey spied

French forces in neighbouring fields; but before riding for help he asked

Joinville if he could do this without loss of honour, repeating his earnest question

to all the others. ‘I said to him,’ Joinville reports, ‘ “My dear man, it seems

to me you would win great honour for yourself if you went for help to save

our lives,” ’ adding, ‘ “your own, by the way, is also in great danger.” ’ Érard

brought help, but later died from a wound that had left his nose dangling over

his lips.1

The vivid story told by Joinville rushes us into the vortex of the world of

chivalry: we see bloody hand-to-hand combat, and hear serious talk of honour.

Prowess and honour are closely linked in the knights’ minds, for the practice

of the one produces the other, a theme tirelessly expounded in all chivalric

literature. Malory (as always, an ideal spokesman) writes repeatedly and

enthusiastically of the worshyppe owed to men of valour and won by them.2

Honour is the veritable currency of chivalric life, the glittering reward earned

1 Wailly, ed., Histoire de Saint Louis, 93–5; Shaw, tr., Joinville and Villehardouin, 220–1.

2 Tristram, preparing to fight two Round Table knights who have beaten his cousin, says ‘have

ye no doute but I woll have ado with them bothe to encrece my worshyp, for hit is many day sytthen

I dud any armys’: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 248. Malory is not alone. In the Stanzaic Morte

Arthur, Bors calls for his companions to test their worship ‘With spere and sheld and armes

bright’: Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, ll. 1550–5. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation Gawain

wonderingly observes a stranger knight knock ten challengers from their saddles, each with a single

blow. He not only proclaims the victor ‘the best jouster I may ever see’, but adds, ‘For indeed,

he should never lack honor, since he wins it so well’. Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 3;

Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift, 20.

by the valorous as a result of their exertions, their hazarding of their bodies. It

is worth more than life itself.

Yet even if we keep the importance of honour firmly in our minds, we

should not forget that the prowess from which it springs is the fundamental

quality of chivalry. Prowess was truly the demi-god in the quasi-religion of

chivalric honour; knights were indeed the privileged practitioners of violence

in their society.

In the Lancelot do Lac the young hero learns from the Lady of the Lake that

‘knighthood was not created and set up . . . because some men were originally

more noble or of higher lineage than others, for all people are descended from

one father and one mother’. Given this common descent, he asks rhetorically,

how would one become noble except through prowess? Once evil had entered

this world, the corrective could only be found by selecting as knights ‘the big

and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous

and the courageous’.3 Nearly two centuries later Froissart, the ardent

chronicler of chivalry at work in the Hundred Years War, asserted that, ‘as

firewood cannot burn without flame, neither can a gentleman achieve perfect

honour nor worldly renown without prowess’.4

In the real world, to be sure, overweight lords with rusting armour but vast

acreage and good lineage might command the respect given to rich and lordly

patrons in any age. And important clerics who were lords of men and lands

could be quite clear about their honour, even though they were formally prevented

by their order from the display of prowess in combat. But in chivalric

ideology, tension between lineage and prowess is suppressed; the assumption,

almost without exception, is that honour originates, is merited, proved, and

increased sword in hand by those whose lineage leads them to such deeds.5

Pharian, in Lancelot, speaks of ‘the honour of this world, towards which all

prowess struggles’.6 Youths of noble birth, such as the young Gareth or

Perceval, are drawn almost mystically to the armour and weapons of knighthood.

7 Havelok the Dane, nearly lost beneath kitchen grease and soot, soon

comes to his true vocation, warrior as well as king.8 In the chansons, even a

3 Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 110–11, 142; tr. from Corley, Lancelot of the Lake, 52.

4 Luce, Chroniques, I, 2: ‘Si comme la busce ne poet ardoir sans feu, ne poet le gentilz homs

venir a parfait honneur ne a la glore dou monde sans proece.’

5 See the useful discussion in Elspeth Kennedy, ‘Quest for Identity’.

6 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 39; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 164. Elspeth Kennedy’s text

reads somewhat differently at this point: Lancelot do Lac, 92.

7 Malory pictures the young Gareth arriving at court eager to witness jousting. Kay is unimpressed

by his first humble request for sustenance: ‘for and he had be come of jantyllmen, he wolde

have axed horse and armour”: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 178–9. Gist provides a number of

Middle English examples of the noble urge to exercise prowess overcoming circumstances of

upbringing: Love and War, 140, n. 13.

8 ‘Havelock the Dane’, in Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances.

great cleric such as Archbishop Turpin must fight as a knight (contrary to the

prohibitions of church reformers) and is valued accordingly.9

A knight’s nobility or worth is proved by his hearty strokes in battle. Seeing

Oliver cut a pagan in half, for example, Roland sings out ‘The Emperor loves

us for such blows.’10 Seeing Rainouart in Aliscans throw a squire who has tormented

him against a pillar, breaking all the young man’s limbs at once,

William of Orange says in admiring wonder, ‘By St Denis, he’s to be

respected.’11 Wounded by Hector in a tournament, in the Stanzaic Morte

Arthur, Lancelot at first promises repayment (causing Hector to blanche in

fear), but soon forgives Hector and tells him he loves him more for his hard

blow: ‘But ever the betyter love I thee, / Such a dint that thou can smite.’12 Kay

and Bedevere, Arthur’s court officials, hit so hard in battle in The Story of

Merlin that their Roman opponents cry out, ‘God, what a seneschal! . . . God,

what a constable! Here are goodly ministers for a king’s court!’ Gawain (called

here by his affectionate diminutive, Gawainet) makes a similar estimate of the

status of the warrior who is in fact the Saxon king Brandon:

And when Sir Gawainet saw what he was doing and the great slaughter of his people,

he was certain that he was a highborn man of mighty stock, and he showed by the way

he fought that he was a king or a prince; Sir Gawainet highly esteemed him, and would

have been very glad if he had been a Christian.13

In one of his earliest combats Lancelot ‘admired the prowess of the man who

had just dealt him the best blow that he had ever received’.14 Later, a kind host

who takes in Lancelot (temporarily fallen into madness) knows him to be a

noble knight because of the blow he receives: ‘he dealt me a blow on my helmet,

the like of which I never received from any man since I was knighted. For

that reason I’m sure he used to be a good knight and of noble condition.’15

Malory tells us in the Morte Darthur that when Lamorak’s strokes fail to

defeat his opponent (a disguised King Mark) quickly, he ‘doubled his strokys,

for he was of the nobelyste of the worlde’.16 As Lancelot and Gawain fight near

the end of the Mort Artu, ‘whoever could have seen the blows given and

The Privileged Practice of Violence 131

9 See classic expressions of Turpin’s prowess in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisses 114,

121, 155, and in Newth, ed., tr., the Song of Aspremont, especially 202–3, 222.

10 Brault, Chanson de Roland, l. 1377.

11 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d’Orange, 231; Wienbeck et al., eds., Aliscans, 184.

12 Benson, ed., Morte Arthure, ll. 464–500.

13 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 409, 385; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 438, 394.

14 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 93; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 174–5; Elspeth Kennedy,

ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 225. Lancelot is, in fact, sorry that he has killed the man, putting his lance

right through his ‘insides’.

15 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 320; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 211.

16 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 355.

received would have realized that the two men were of great nobility’.17 An

exceptionally strong and able lance thrust or sword stroke, in fact, often reveals

a hero’s identity despite his attempt at disguise by wearing unaccustomed

armour. Lancelot’s great prowess regularly puts him in this situation. Tristram

and others have the same problem.

Galahad delivers what may be the ultimate sword blow in the complex fighting

between incognito knights in the Post-Vulgate Quest. Bors, unhorsed by

Galahad, challenges him to a sword fight: ‘Come test me with the sword, and

then I will see that you are a knight.’ He gets more than he bargained for.

Galahad’s blow

cut through his shield, the pommel of his saddle, and the horse’s withers, so that half

the horse fell one way and half the other in the middle of the road, and Bors was left on

foot, holding his naked sword, and half his shield, the other half having fallen in the


A badly frightened Bors calls out, ‘I see by this blow you’re the best knight I

ever saw.’18

To be the best knight in the world, as we can read time and again in chivalric

literature, means not to be the greatest landlord but to show the greatest

prowess. The wise Merlin tells Arthur, about to choose new knights for the

Round Table:

King, choose from all the land the fifty best knights you know, and if you know any

poor knight, valiant in person and courage, do not fail to include him because of his

poverty. And if anyone who is nobly born and of high lineage wants to be included, but

he is not a very good knight, take care not to let him be included. For a single person

who is not of such great chivalry would shame and degrade the chivalry of the whole


Of course acquiring land and wealth is assumed to follow naturally, and is

welcomed as an enhancement of honour. Any deep gulf between the acquisition

of wealth and the practice of chivalry is a modern myth; gold and glory in

fact made a fine amalgam in the medieval knightly view. William Marshal was

taught that lesson early in his model chivalric career and he was long troubled

by the slight reward in terms of land that his great prowess had earned him. In

time, of course, it won him fiefs almost beyond his dreams. Moreover,

17 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 179–80; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 196. The French term, in

fact, is preudomes. This general sentiment appears repeatedly and again in the Vulgate and Post-

Vulgate cycles.

18 Asher, tr., Quest, 137; Bogdanow, Folie Lancelot, 119–20. Kay and Gawain soon second this

sentiment. Hector later receives a similar blow from Galahad, and comes to the same conclusion,

as does the watching Sagramore: Asher, ibid., 189; Bogdanow, ibid., 356–7.

19 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 223; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 201.

prowess is the quality hymned without cease in his biography, and in every

other piece of chivalric literature. Lancelot’s grandfather, as we learn in the

Lancelot, was not a king’s son, but he was chosen as king ‘because of his

prowess’.20 Lancelot himself later declares, when he sees Bors in battle, that

this young knight should be given lands—he would defend them so well.21

In fact, in chivalric literature prowess can come close to conveying the

meaning of a man’s life, or even of life itself. In the Perlesvaus God stops the

fight between Perceval and Gawain because he did not want those good

knights to kill one another; his wish was that each ‘should know the other’s

worth’.22 The Lady of the Lake tells Guinevere she raised the young Lancelot

‘because of the great prowess that was to manifest itself in this knight’.24

Hearing of a great deed of prowess after a period of captivity, the mature

Lancelot hopes to God that the valiant knight who is talked of will appear,

‘Because, sir,’ he tells Galehaut, ‘we have been imprisoned here for a very long

while, and it has been a long time since we saw jousting or knightly deeds, and

we are wasting our time and our lives. As God is my true witness, if he comes,

I shall fight with him.’24 In the Chevalier de Papegau, a work of very different

tone and quality, the same sentiment appears; the parrot (an enthusiastic and

frequently heard voice for prowess) explains that to be lacking in valour is the

worst prison for a knight.25 Gawain is reluctant to kill Nascien who will not

surrender although defeated (in a tournament turned deadly): ‘ “I do not want

to kill you,” said Sir Gawainet. “That would truly be a shame, for you are most

worthy.” ’26 His worth has, of course, been demonstrated by prowess. Boson,

boasting in Girart de Roussillon about the prowess of the men on Girart’s side

in his war with the king, proudly declares that none of their fathers died in

their beds.27 King Arthur, holding the severed head of Lamorat in his hands,

laments the knight in the classic formula: ‘Indeed, it’s too bad that he is dead

so soon, for had he lived a long time he would have surpassed in chivalry all

those of his lineage.’28 In Malory’s ‘Tale of Arthur and Accolon’, the Damsel of

the Lake saves Arthur in his fight with Accolon because she saw ‘how full of

The Privileged Practice of Violence 133

20 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 239; Micha, ed., Lancelot, V, 123.

21 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation 306; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 111.

22 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 129; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 197, emphasis supplied.

Equating prowess with worth is common. A wise dwarf tells a questing Tor he need not fear delay

by accepting a joust: ‘a valiant man cannot lose by delay,’ he assures Tor, ‘and here you can find

out if you are worth anything’. Asher, Merlin Continuation, 234; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin,

II, 102.

23 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 232; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 556.

24 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 359; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 531.

25 Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 33; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du Papegau, 32.

26 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 336; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 304.

27 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, 401.

28 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 82; Bogdanow, ‘Folie Lancelot’, 80.

prouesse his body was’ and has pity lest ‘so good a knyght and such a man of

worship sholde so be destroyed’. The view of Sir Outlake is similar: ‘that is

grete pyté that ever so noble a man as ye ar of your dedis and prouesse, that

ony man or woman myght fynde in their hertes to worche ony treson aghenst


Great prowess so expresses the meaning of life that after an unsurpassed day

of battle the sated, triumphant knight may yearn for death to close his career

on such a high point. In the war to recover Lancelot’s inheritance from

Claudas, young Claudin, his son, knows that he has fought so magnificently,

that he tells a companion, ‘Truly, dear friend, were it not for my father’s great

loss, I wouldn’t care if I died in this battle, for I believe I’ll never again accomplish

what we’ve done today, you and I.’30 Near the end of the Lancelot do Lac,

King Yder, wonderfully successful on the battlefield, hopes that God will ‘give

him death, for he would never again have such an excellent day’.31

Certainly, prowess is the prominent virtue, and sometimes nearly the exclusive

virtue, in the summing-up of a great man’s life at its close. Mourning her

dead husband, King Bors, early in the Lancelot, Queen Elaine twice laments

‘the great acts of prowess of her lord (les granz proesces son seignor)’. Only his

prowess and his (unspecified) kindnesses merit mention in the queen’s

lament.32 When Gawain is shown a badly wounded knight in a castle hall, he

comments on how unfortunate his condition is, since the man is so handsome.

‘You would truly say it was a misfortune’, says the lady caring for the knight,

‘if you knew how great his prowess was.’33 When later in this text Lancelot

goes mad because of his imprisonment in Saxon Rock, Queen Guinevere

laments the apparent end of ‘his feats of arms, his jousting, his swordsmanship’.

34 The maiden, whose knowledge of herbs saves the poisoned Lancelot

later in this cycle, tells her worried brother, ‘I can assure you that if God grants

that he come through strong and healthy, he’ll yet deliver many fine blows

with sword and lance.’35 The queen, fearing that she has lost Lancelot’s love,

in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, hopes that she will still hear of his deeds of

prowess.36 An untrue report of Arthur’s death, when he is under the power of

29 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 87, 89.

30 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 304; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 103–4.

31 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 385; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 550.

32 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 8; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 14–15; Sommer, ed.,

Vulgate Version, III, 14.

33 Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 414; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 313; Carroll, tr.,

Lancelot Part II, 172–3.

34 Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 231; Micha, Lancelot, VIII, 455.

35 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 147; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 137.

36 Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, ll. 752–9. Even after his conversion to the religious life as a hermit,

his death elicits from Bors this lament and summation: ‘The beste knight his life hath lorn /

That ever in stour [battle] bestrode steed!’ ll. 3892–3.

the False Guinevere, causes the queen to cry out, ‘Dear Lord God, now all

prowess is gone and all joy turned to sorrow.’37 A knight, who has heard a similar

rumour about Lancelot, cries out for his own death: ‘I have no desire to

live any longer now, when the knight who was supposed to surpass all earthly

prowess has died.’ As he carries Galehaut’s dead body to burial at the Dolorous

Guard, a weeping Lancelot laments his great friend’s ‘prowess and valour’.38 A

lady falsely informed by Sir Gawain that her lover, Sir Pelleas, has been slain,

intones the formula: ‘that is grete pyté for he was a passynge good knyght of

his body’. She adds that any lady should love Gawain, since he is well born and

of such prowess.39

Perhaps the most striking instance appears, however, late in Malory’s Morte

Darthur. The king, learning finally beyond doubt of the liaison between

Lancelot and the queen, is told how they were taken together, how Lancelot

escaped by fighting his way out against numerous would-be captors:

‘Jesu mercy!’ seyde the kynge, ‘he ys a mervaylous knyght of proues. And alas,’ seyde

the kynge, ‘me sore repentith that ever sir Launcelot sholde be ayenste me, for now I

am sure the noble felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn for ever, for wyth hym woll

many a noble knyght holde. An now hit ys fallen so,’ seyde the kynge, ‘that I may nat

with my worshyp but my quene muste suffir dethe,’ and was sore amoved.

Without diminishing our sense of the king’s feelings, or of the deeply moving

prose with which Malory sets forth this crisis in the story of Arthurian knighthood,

we can only note that Arthur comments here first on Lancelot’s great

prowess, second on the impending collapse of the great fellowship of knights,

and third on his ineluctable judgement on his queen. As he says shortly after,

it is the loss of the knights, not the loss of the queen, that makes him sorry.40

Identification of Chivalry with Prowess

Only after reading scores of works of chivalric literature can we fully appreciate

the utterly tireless, almost obsessional emphasis placed on personal

prowess as the key chivalric trait.41 Not simply one quality among others in a

list of virtues, prowess often stands as a one-word definition of chivalry in

these texts.42

The Privileged Practice of Violence 135

37 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 266; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 114.

38 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 61, 83; Micha, Lancelot, II, 218, 309.

39 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 102. 40 Ibid., 682, 685.

41 My impression is reinforced by the careful study of Burgess, ‘The Term “chevalerie” ’. Burgess

finds the term is specific, rather than abstract, and generally refers to deeds of prowess and the

mentalité which produces them. I owe thanks to Alan Lupak for this reference.

42 Emphasized even when a knight’s other qualities are disreputable. Blioblieris, in Le Bel

Inconnu, is described as harsh, cruel, proud, and wicked, ‘but no one ever saw a better knight’:

This identification appears regularly in chansons de geste. Folchers rides out

into battle ‘seeking great chivalry’ in Girart de Roussillon. He achieves it,

putting his lance through the heart of ‘the valliant Count Routrou’.43

Characters in the Chanson de Roland link chivalry with deeds of prowess, as, for

instance, does Ganelon (a great knight, even if a traitor) when speaking with

Marsilion. If the pagan leader can kill Roland, he assures him, ‘then you will

have done a noble feat of arms [literally a noble act of chivalry, gente chevalerie]’.

44 William, in the Chanson de Guillaume, observes Rainouart smash a

Saracen’s head into four fragments: ‘You should be a knight’, he shouts


Statements linking chivalry with prowess in the vast Vulgate and Post

Vulgate cycles almost defy sampling.46 In a tournament at Pomeglai,

[Lancelot] drew out his sword like an expert swordsman and delivered heavy blows to

the right and to the left, felling knights and horses with blows of the sword blade and

by the hilt. He grabbed men by the hoods of mail and by the edge of their shields; he

pulled helmets from heads; and he hit and shoved and pounded and struck with his

limbs and his horse, for he was very skilled in doing all that a great knight must do.

Those who witness Lancelot’s work with edged weapons regularly pronounce

him ‘the flower of chivalry’. Arthur, for example, declares that Lancelot has

earned the status of best knight after a tournament at Camelot, and a defeated

Gawain agrees; the stump of Lancelot’s spear has just been extracted from his

side, and he is beginning a month of recuperation.47

A knight who has seen Lancelot perform in a tournament (in the Lancelot)

can scarcely find words sufficient to praise his prowess:

[I]t takes a lot more to be a worthy man than I thought it did this morning. I’ve learned

so much today that I believe there’s only one truly worthy man in the whole world. I

saw the one I’m talking about prove himself so well against knights today that I don’t

Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâgé, ll. 36–41. At the opening of the Lancelot do Lac we

meet Claudas, ‘a king, and an excellent knight’ who was ‘very clever and very treacherous’: Elspeth

Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 1; Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 3. Of many cases in Malory, note

Helyus and Helake who ‘were men of grete prouess; howbehit that they were falsse and full of treson,

and were poore men born, yet were they noble knyghtes of theire hondys’: Vinaver, ed.,

Malory. Works, 437. For examples from a chanson, Girart de Roussillon, see Mary Hackett, ‘Knights

and Knighthood’.

43 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 159, particularly ll. 2744–5.

44 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, 38–9.

45 Muir, tr., The Song of William, 193; Suard, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, 197–8.

46 In addition to the passages quoted below, see, e.g., Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 34; Kibler,

tr., Lancelot Part V, 180, 203, 204, 215; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 280, 312; the corresponding

passages in Micha, ed., Lancelot are II, 115, IV, 273–4, 385, 387; V, 36; and VI, 8, 138.

47 Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 30, 32, 38; Part V, 204–5; Micha, Lancelot, II, 99 (emphasis supplied),

107, 129–30; IV, 389–91.

believe any mortal man since chivalry was first established has done such marvellous

deeds as he did today.

He explains explicitly what these marvels were:

I could recount more than a thousand fine blows, for I followed that knight every step

to witness the marvellous deeds he did; I saw him kill five knights and five men-at-arms

with five blows so swift that he nearly cut horses and knights in two. As for my own

experience, I can tell you he split my shield in two, cleaved my saddle and cut my horse

in half at the shoulders, all with a single blow. . . . I saw him kill four knights with one

thrust of his lance . . . if it were up to me, he’d never leave me. I’d keep him with me

always, because I couldn’t hold a richer treasure.48

In a tournament at Camelot (fighting, by Guinevere’s wish, against the

proud knights of the Round Table), Lancelot again displays his prowess:

Lancelot put his hand upon his good sword, striking left and right like a man to whom

it was more natural than a raptor pursuing its prey. He began killing knights and horses

and striking down whatever he met in his way. . . .

Then were the great marvels of his prowess, which had been testified to in many

places, shown to be true, for he split knights and horses and heads and arms and lances

and shields, and beat down knights to the right and left; he did so much in so little time

that all those who had been pursuing others stopped on his account . . . to watch him

and see the marvels he performed.49

Other heroes perform wonders of prowess, highly praised as the essence of

chivalry. The Mort Artu refers repeatedly to acts of prowess as ‘deeds of

chivalry’ or ‘feats of chivalry’; the link between the two is often apparent.50

Once he has seen Morholt defeat Yvain, in the Merlin Continuation, Gawain

almost foams with praise: ‘Oh, God! what greatness there is in a valiant man!

God, how powerful this man is; how effective he is, and how much he can do!

God! what a fool and how guilty of excess would he be who pressed such a

man to battle, unless he had a good reason!’51

Hector does so well in the war against Claudas that Gawain looks on with

rapt admiration:

Hector threw down his shield, took his sword with both hands and began to slay

knights and horses and clear the space around him so wondrously that there was no one

so bold as to dare to put out a hand to stop him. Looking at him Sir Gawain said to

himself, ‘My God, what a knight we have here! Who would have thought that such a

young man had such prowess in him?’52

The Privileged Practice of Violence 137

48 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 161–2; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 198–9.

49 Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 197; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 359–60.

50 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 36, 139; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 17, 144.

51 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 272; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 374–5.

52 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 303; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 96–97.

In the seemingly endless battles with the Saxons the Round Table knights’

prowess is constantly praised: ‘open displays of knightly prowess could be seen

by all’, we learn; Arthur’s men ‘slaughtered knights and horses, they sent

shields flying from necks and helmets from heads, they chopped off feet and

hands and they did such wonders that scarcely anyone could believe the great

slaughter of the Saxons they did’. Merlin enthusiastically promises them more

of the same, in words that almost define prowess: ‘Today we’ll see who has

prowess in him. Today we’ll see who can fight boldly with sword and lance.

Today the great and worthy knighthood of the Kingdom of Logres [literally,

‘the great acts of prowess of the Kingdom of Logres’, ‘les grans proesces del

roialme de Logres’] will be displayed.’53

Even Galahad, for all his spiritual qualities, attracts similar eulogies. Arthur

the Less, wonders at the ‘great prodigies’ performed by Galahad in battle

against King Mark’s knights, for, the text says, ‘he reached no knight, no matter

how well armed, whom he did not lay on the ground dead or mortally

wounded or crippled’. Such work elicits fulsome praise from Arthur the Less:

Oh God! What can I say of this man? By my faith, no mortal man could do what he’s

doing. Truly, all the other knights in the world are nothing compared to him, for if

everyone else in the world were a knight and he faced them all in one place, I think he

would defeat them all, for it doesn’t seem to me, from what I’ve seen, that he could

grow weary from striking during the lifetime of one man. Now may I have ill fortune

if I don’t from now on call him the best of all those who now bear arms, for I see well

that he deserves it.54

Prowess was thought to bring other qualities in its train (as we will see), and

these qualities may have more appeal for most modern readers than prowess

itself;55 but we will radically misunderstand the medieval view and the

53 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 386, 387, Sommer, ed. Vulgate Version, II, 397–8. The phrase

about open displays of knightly prowess, reads, ‘si peust on ueoir apertes cheualeries faire

darmes’. Even the voluble Parrot in the Knight of the Parrot sings praises for the ‘chivalries’

Arthur has ‘done’. Vesce, Knight of the Parrot, 54; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du Papegau, 52.

Physical strength may take forms modern readers (incorrectly) suspect are parodic. William of

Orange struts with such vigour in the royal hall (in the Charroi de Nîmes) that he bursts the

uppers of his Cordovan leather boots. He similarly leans on his bow with such vigour that it

shatters. Price, tr., The Waggon Train, 62–3; McMillan, ed., Charroi de Nîmes, 61, 64. In the

Chanson de Guillaume even his vigour in eating shows he is a man of prowess; the Saracens eat

men like ripe apples: Muir, tr., Song of William, 152, 159, 165, 193; Suard, ed., Chanson de

Guillaume, 72, 94, 113, 198.

54 Asher, tr., ‘Quest’, 246. A few pages earlier Galahad has ‘struck to the left and right and killed

all those he reached, and he performed so many marvels among them that no one who saw him

would have thought him mortal man but some strange marvel’: p. 237.

55 The ‘worthy man’ tells Arthur: ‘no one recognizes a man of worth so well as a man rooted in

great prowess’: Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 242; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 287. Hervi

of Rivel, attending at Arthur’s table when a monk comes with messages from the queens of

Gaunes and Benoic, tells Arthur that the man is trustworthy, as a former knight of prowess:

medieval reality if we push the bloody, sweaty, muscular work done with lance

and sword swiftly and antiseptically to the side and hasten on to speak of more

abstract, more appealing qualities. What is at issue is less a set of idealized

abstractions than what Malory called ‘dedys full actuall’. Such deeds leave

combatants ‘waggyng, staggerynge, pantyng, blowyng, and bledyng’.56

But is this all merely literary artifice? Did knights actually hack so heroically

and endure so resolutely? Historical accounts, it is true, do not generally follow

lance thrusts and sword strokes in anatomical detail; in the confusion of

most battles it could scarcely have been possible. Usually they praise heroes

more simply by enumerating foes slain.57

Yet time and again a chronicler or biographer assures us he wants to record

the great deeds of his subjects, just as a writer of chanson or romance might. No

less than imaginative literary texts, historical sources show us single great men

turning the tide of battle by their prowess, cutting paths through their enemies,

who fall back in stunned fear. Perhaps this is not merely flattery and

topos; given relatively small numbers, close fighting with edged weapons, and

the sudden surges or panics so often described, one unusual man might well

tilt the balance.

In the pages of the biography of William Marshal chivalry often becomes

prowess pure and simple. At the siege of Winchester, for example, we are

told that groups of knights sallied forth each day ‘to do chivalry (por faire

chevalerie)’.58 The knight can do chivalry just as he can make love: it has this

The Privileged Practice of Violence 139

My lord, believe whatever this man tells you, for kings and princes should heed his words. Be assured that with

his great courage and prowess he so far outshone any other knight in God’s creation that in dire need I would

confidently have turned to him to defend my honour and preserve my head.

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 25; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 55; Sommer, ed., Vulgate

Version, III, 46.

56 Vinaver, ed., Malory.Works, 23, 198. John Barbour’s chronicle has men at least ‘stabbing,

stocking and striking’: McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour’s Bruce, bk. XVII, l. 785. Malory’s

characters describe fierce fighting as ‘noble knyghthode’: Vinaver, Malory.Works, 277. Sir Kay cites

prowess as the quality that earns Gawain a seat at the Round Table: ‘He is beste worthy to be a

knyght of the Rounde Table of ony that is rehersed yet and he had done no more prouesse his lyve

dayes’: ibid., 80. Tristram thinks himself unworthy to be a knight of the Round Table until his

‘dedys’ win him a place: ibid., 300. Unhorsing Kay and matching Lancelot allows the young

Gareth similarly to believe he can ‘stonde a preved knight’: ibid., 181. Blamour fears Tristram ‘May

happyn to smyte me downe with his grete myght of chevalry’: ibid., 253. Sir Darras, whose three

sons Tristan did ‘smyte downe’, agrees Tristan acted ‘by fors of knyghthode’: ibid., 338. Lionel

defeats and kills Calogrenant who tries to intervene in his fight with Bors, ‘for thys sir Lyonell was

of grete chevalry and passing hardy’: ibid., 575.

57 The chronicler of Richard the Lion-Heart’s crusade praises Geoffrey of Lusignan as a

successor to Roland and Oliver for despatching ten Muslims with an axe at the siege of Acre:

Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris, L’Histoire de la guerre

sainte, ll. 4662–70.

58 Meyer, ed., Histoire, I, l. 176; my italics. As Burgess points out, this phrase appears frequently

in twelfth-century Old French imaginative literature with just the meaning suggested here: ‘The

Term “Chevalerie” ’.

dimension as a physical process. At the battle of Lincoln, writes the biographer,

the French did not have to look far to ‘find chivalry’, the quality here

again clearly equated with prowess on the battlefield. Knighting the young

king, the eldest son of Henry II, William asks God to grant him prowess and

to keep him in honour and high dignity. We are also told that it was right for

William to be the ‘master’ of the young king while he prepared for this day

because William increased his pupil’s prowess.59

Most readers of Marshal’s biography, however, will better remember the

vivid visual evidence of prowess. In the classic instance William receives the

news that he has won a tournament with his head on the blacksmith’s anvil

where the deep dents in his helmet are being sufficiently hammered out to

allow him finally to pull the battered iron off his head.60

If Geoffroi de Charny knew this story (more than a century later), he must

have laughed in hearty approval. In his Livre de chevalerie this renowned knight

lauds prowess unceasingly and urges his contemporaries to invest their lives

and their bodies in the honourable following of arms, in individual jousts, in

tournaments, and above all in war. ‘For I maintain’, Charny writes, ‘that there

are no small feats of arms, but only good and great ones, although some feats

of arms are of greater worth than others.’61

Describing the battle of Methven (1306), John Barbour says Bruce’s men

‘Schewyt thar gret chewalry (showed their great chivalry)’; they ‘swappyt owt

swerdis sturdyly / And swa fell strakys gave and tuk / Yat all ye rank about

yaim quouk (They whipped out swords boldly and gave and took such grievous

strokes that all the ground around them shook.’62

Such sword blows are highly prized. Gerald of Wales obviously esteems the

knight Meiler Fitz Henry’s fighting against the Irish:

[S]urrounded by the enemy on every side, [he] drew his sword and charging the band,

boldly cut his way through them, chopping here a hand and there an arm, besides hewing

through heads and shoulders and thus rejoined his friends on the plain unhurt,

though he brought away three Irish spears stuck in his horse, and two in his shield.

He states explicitly the value he finds in John de Courcy: ‘He who had seen

how John of Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads,

and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant


59 Meyer, ed., Histoire, II, ll. 16830–3, I, 2088–9, 2635–6. 60 Ibid., I, ll. 3101–44.

61 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 86–7; Charny’s ideas are explored in detail in this

work. cf. Chapter 13, below.

62 McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbour’s Bruce, bk. II, 366–8.

63 Wright, ed., tr., Historical Works, 256, 279. In Welsh border fighting, a recipient of such a

blow, Ranulf Poer, sheriff of Herefordshire, is cut through the windpipe and veins of the neck and

only manages by signs to summon a priest before he dies: p. 369.

Richard the Lion-Heart regularly chops his enemies’ skulls down to the

teeth.64 Richard Marshal (second son of the famous William) with one mighty

stroke cut off both hands of the man reaching for his helmet in a close

encounter. With an even mightier blow he cut a knight down to the navel.65

Finding a young clerk who has taken revenge on three royal serjeants who

robbed him—piercing one with a crossbow bolt, with a sword cutting the leg

off the second, and splitting the head of the third to the teeth—Louis IX takes

the young man into his service ‘pour vostre proesce’, though he tells him such

prowess has closed off the road to the priesthood.66 Joinville, who tells the

story, later admires three fine blows delivered by a Genoese knight in an expedition

to Jaffa: one enemy is run through with a lance, one’s turbaned head is

sent flying off into the field, one lance-wielding enemy arm is cut off with a

swift back-handed sword stroke, after dodging the foe’s lance.67 Lancelot

could scarcely have done better. Robert Bruce, we learn, could hack off an

arm, or arm and shoulder, or ear, cheek, and shoulder at a single sword


If Robert Bruce’s most noted feat of prowess was to split the head of Henry

de Bohun at the opening of the battle of Bannockburn, he also defended a narrow

river ford alone, against a large body of English knights who could only

come at him singly.69 ‘Strang wtrageous curage he had’, Barbour proclaims

proudly, as the number of bodies in the water mounts; after Bruce has killed

six men, the English hesitate, until exhorted by one of their knights who

shouts that they must redeem their honour and that Bruce cannot last. Yet he

does. When his own men finally appear, they count fourteen slain. Barbour

breaks into fulsome praise:

A der God quha had yen bene by

& sene hove he sa hardyly

Adressyt hym agane yaim all

I wate weile yat yai suld him call

Ye best yat levyt in his day.69

The Privileged Practice of Violence 141

64 Many examples in Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris,

L’Histoire de la guerre sainte.

65 Described in Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 1–2. The chronicle of the crusade of Richard the

Lion-Heart tells of a knight whose right hand is cut off in battle; he is praised for shifting his sword

to his left hand and fighting on: Hubert and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 5777–86;

Gaston Paris, L’Histoire de la guerre sainte.

66 Wailly, ed., Joinville, 50–2. The good king has a second motive, as he explains: he will never

support royal officials in evildoing.

67 Ibid., 230–1.

68 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour’s Bruce, bk. III, ll. 114–5; bk. VI, 625–31, 644.

69 Ibid., bk. XII, ll. 51–61. The blow was delivered by axe rather than sword.

(Dear God! Whoever had been there and seen how he stoutly set himself against them

all, I know well he would call him the best alive in his day.)70

Here, two centuries earlier, is Richard the Lion-Heart in action while on


Never did man such mighty deeds;

He charged among the miscreant breed

So deep that he was hid from sight . . .

Forward and back he hewed a swath

About him, cutting deadly path

With his good sword, whose might was such

That everything that it could touch,

Or man or horse, was overthrown

And to the earth was battered down.

I think ‘twas there he severed

At one stroke both the arm and head

Of an emir, an infidel

Steel-clad, whom he sent straight to hell,

And when the Turks perceived this blow,

They made broad path before him.71

Froissart gives us Sir Robert Salle, confronted outside Norwich by English

rebels in 1381, who want to force him to be their military leader. His refusal

leads to mortal combat:

[Sir Robert] drew a long Bordeaux sword which he carried, and began cutting and

thrusting all around him, a lovely sight to see. Few dared to come near him, and of

those who did he cut off a foot or a head or an arm or a leg with every stroke he made.

Even the boldest of them grew afraid of him. On that spot Sir Robert gave a marvellous

display of swordsmanship. He was himself overwhelmed soon, however, and dismembered.


The biographer of Don Pero Niño records his hero’s fight with a famous

opponent named Gomez Domao, who used his shield so well that no disabling

blow could reach him, and who returned such blows that Pero reported

70 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour’s Bruce, bk. VI, ll. 67–180; l. 315 notes that fourteen

were slain ‘with his hand’.

71 Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 605–26; Gaston Paris, ed.,

L’Histoire de la guerre sainte. Cf. ll. 6478–530, or ll. 7349–61, where Richard ‘cut and smote and

smashed / Through them, then turned about, and slashed / And sheared off arm and hand

and head. / Like animals they turned and fled. / But many could not flee.’ The author (ll.

10453–66) assures his readers he is not flattering; an entire throng witnessed Richard’s blows, splitting

his enemies to their teeth with his brand of steel. In ll. 10494–8 we learn the crusading knights

‘lopped off hands and heads and feet, / Split eyes and mouths with many a wound.’

72 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 222–4.

later that sparks flew from his eyes when they struck his helmet. Finally, the

great Castilian knight ‘struck Gomez so hard above the shield, that he split it

for a hands-breadth and his head down to the eyes; and that was the end of

Gomez Domao’. Pero went forward later in that fight with lance stubs in his

shield, an arrow binding his neck to his armour, and a crossbow bolt lodged

in his nostrils (driven deeper by sword blows that struck it in the close fighting).

His shield was cut to bits, his sword blade was notched like a saw and

dyed with blood. ‘And well do I think that until that day Pero Niño never had

been able to glut himself in an hour with the toil he craved.’73

In fact, both imaginative literature and the historical accounts of their lives

picture knights enjoying a privileged practice of violence; it suggests that they

found in their exhilarating and fulfilling fighting the key to identity.74 It would

otherwise be hard to explain the thousands of individual combats and mass

engagements that fill page after page in each major category of chivalric literature:

chanson de geste, romance, vernacular manual, chivalric biography, chronicle.

Marc Bloch called these interminable combats ‘eloquent psychological

documents’.75 Clearly, the personal capacity to beat another man through the

accepted method of knightly battle—in fact the actual physical process of

knocking another knight off his horse and, if required, hacking him down to

the point of submission or death—appears time and again as something like

the ultimate human quality; it operates in men as a gift of God, it gives meaning

to life, reveals the presence of the other desired qualities, wins the love of

the most desirable women, determines status and worth, and binds the best

males together in a fellowship of the elect. Many writers also recognized it as

a power akin to fire: if noble, necessary, and useful, such violence requires

much care and control.

The ideal chivalric figure is not, of course, a latter-day Viking berserker, driven

by what modern evaluation might call overactive glands or psychopathic

personality. Granted, Arthurian society might well have recognized such a

comparison in Sagremore the Unruly, but he surely stands at the rough end of

the scale. When he is imprisoned, in the Lancelot, his captor, the lord of the

Castle of the Narrow March, admits that he released him lest Sagremore ‘go

The Privileged Practice of Violence 143

73 Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 36–8. In a later battle he splits the iron cap and skull of

a knight who grabs his horse’s reins. From this battle he sent his notched sword, ‘twisted by dint

of striking mighty blows, and all dyed in blood’ to his ladylove: pp. 195, 196.

94 Chivalry regularly means either deeds of prowess or the body of knights on some field in

both Barbour’s chronicle and Sir Thomas Gray’s chronicle: Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica; McDiarmid

and Stevenson, Barbour’s Bruce. Pope and Lodge, eds, Life of the Black Prince, note that the emphasis

of the work is on prowess and piety. Keen notes that to the combatant in the Hundred Years

War ‘[t]he ius militare meant . . . the law of chivalry . . . the law of a certain privileged class, whose

hereditary occupation was fighting’: Laws of War, 19.

75 Bloch, Société Féodale, II, 294.

mad because he is in an enclosed place, and he wanted to engage in battle and

fight with my knights’. Sagremore is justly called the Unruly, this lord says, ‘for

he showed no trace of reason in what he did, and never in all my life have I seen

a single knight perform as many feats of arms as he did’. He was, the text

announces, ‘never much of a knight nor very confident until he was thoroughly

worked up. Then he feared nothing and gave no thought to himself.’76

In Merlin Continuation he is characterized as ‘a very good knight and so unruly

when he was upset that his chivalry was highly esteemed’.77

Yet even if we grant that the knights are so much more than berserkers, there

is, nevertheless, behind great prowess an element of rage and sheer battle fury.

It is hard to imagine the one without the other. We can, of course, see this not

only in such ambivalent figures as Raoul de Cambrai, but in great idols such as

Lancelot and the other Round Table knights. To read much chivalric literature

is to find admired knights regularly feeling rage as they fight; their blood boils;

when honour is challenged, they nearly lose their minds.78 As the tournament

held to celebrate Arthur’s wedding becomes more heated, Gawain can scarcely

be stopped, ‘for he was hot with anger and bent on inflicting pain’.79 In battle

against the Irish and Saxons, ‘Lancelot’s prowess was demonstrated, for he cut

through Saxons and Irishmen, horses and heads, shields and legs and arms’.

The author tells us ‘[h]e resembled an angry lion that plunges among the does,

not because of any great hunger it might have, but in order to show off its

ferocity and its power.’ Lionel tries to restrain him, asking, the most pragmatic

questions about prowess: ‘Do you wish to get yourself killed in a spot where

you can perform no act of prowess? And even if you did perform some act of

prowess, it would never be known. Haven’t you done enough?’ At this suggestion

of restraint Lancelot threatens Lionel with ‘some harm’, and is finally

stopped only by an admonition in the name of the queen.80

76 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 187, 210; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 448–9, 506.

77 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 51; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift, 131–2: ‘moult a prisier de


78 E.g. William of Orange and his opponents in Hoggan, tr., ‘Crowning of Louis’, 39, 40, 43,

53; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 86, 87, 94, 113. Raoul feels ‘all his blood boil’, is ‘unbridled

in his wrath’, goes ‘mad with anger’, and burns nuns in a ‘rage’, etc. (examples in Kay, ed.,

tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 32, 62, 68). Lancelot feels rage in his first tournament: Rosenberg,

tr., Lancelot Part I, 95; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, 231. Lancelot and even Galahad feel rage

as they fight each other, incognito, just to test prowess: Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 92–3; Nitze and

Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 140–1.

79 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 336; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 307.

80 Carrol, Lancelot Part II, 234–5; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VIII, 469–474. Yvain tells him he

should not have gone on: ‘doing so would not have been boldness, but rather folly’. Yvain similarly

holds back the impetuous Lancelot, at the time of Gawain’s capture by Caradoc, swearing,

‘By the Holy Cross, my lord! You can’t go ahead like that! You mustn’t rush in so wildly to show

your prowess! It would be a lost cause. . . . Prowess should be shown only where it can work!’

Rosenberg, Lancelot, Part III, 281; Micha, Lancelot I, 178–9.

Rage in battle is not limited to imaginative literature. Joinville describes the

Comte d’Anjou as mad with rage during a fight along the Nile on St Louis’s

crusade.81 The Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince tells of Sir William

Felton charging into action ‘come home sanz sens et sanz avis, a chevall la lance

baissie’.82 John Barbour reports that at Bannockburn the Scots fought as if in

a rage, ‘as men out of wit’. He describes Sir Thomas Murray, a Bruce supporter,

fighting in Ireland ‘as he war in a rage’. Robert Bruce, to the contrary,

managed to use reason to control such impulses, inherent in chivalry: ‘And

with wyt his chewelry / He gouernyt . . . worthily.’83 Froissart says that when

Philip VI saw the English in battle formation at Crécy, ‘his blood boiled, for

he hated them’.84 Saladin, in Richard the Lion-Heart’s crusade chronicle, is

pictured admiring his opponent, but exclaiming,

With what rashness doth he fling

Himself! Howe’er great prince I be,

I should prefer to have in me

Reason and measure and largesse

Than courage carried to excess.85

The frequent praise of mesure, restraint, balance, and reason in all forms of

chivalric literature can surely be read as countering a tendency that was real,

and dangerous. At a minimum, we know that knights in historical combat frequently

found it hard to restrain themselves and sought release in impetuous

charges, disregarding some commander’s plan and strict orders.86

The Privileged Practice of Violence 145

81 Wailly, Joinville, 88. Joinville was grateful that the man was ‘hors dou sens’ and ‘courouciez’,

because his actions spared Joinville and others.

82 Pope and Lodge, The Black Prince, 84–5.

83 McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbour’s Bruce, III, bk. XIII, l. 143; bk. XVI, l. 199; bk. IX, ll.

373–6. The association of chivalry with a mental state requiring governance is notable. McKim,

‘Ideal of Knighthood’, emphasizes Barbour’s deliberate contrast between the mesure of James

Douglas as ideal knight and the foolhardiness that cost Edward Bruce victories and, finally, his life.

84 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 88.

85 Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, ll. 12146–52; Gaston Paris, ed.,

L’Histoire de la guerre sainte.

86 On Richard I’s crusade two knights, despite his careful plan for counterattack, cannot take

the ignominy of enduring provocative attacks from the Muslims; they charge the enemy and bring

about a general assault, joined by the Bishop of Beauvais. The resulting fight, with lances through

bodies, could almost come from the Song of Roland: see ll. 6421–60 in Hubert tr., and La Monte,

Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston Paris, L’Histoire de la guerre sainte. A Templar similarly

breaks ranks and puts his lance through an enemy’s body. The author says his chivalry made him

do this: ll. 9906–46. Miles de Cogan, who cannot stand the delay during a parley over the fate of

Dublin, leads an attack which takes the city, along with much loot: Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot,

ll. 1674–711. Joinville tells a number of such stories of impetuosity from the crusade of Louis IX,

including one in which the Master of the Temple cries out, ‘For God’s sake, let’s get at them! I

can’t stand it any longer!’ His charge provokes a general action unintended by the French king:

Wailly, ed., Joinville, 78. Froissart says the royal plan of battle at Crécy could not be carried out

because French lords wanted no restraint and pressed forward to show their power: Brereton,

Froissart, 86.

All this violence was effected by a knight’s own skilled hands; chivalry was

not simply a species of officership more distanced from the bloody work with

swords and spears. This is no argument that the medievals knew no generalship;

we have been taught how skilfully medieval knights could carry out

impressive tactical and strategic plans.87 But we must also note that chivalric

literature emphasizes personal might, courage, and skill in hand-to-hand


Summing up hundreds of years of this tradition, Malory refers time and

again to the wondrous work done by his knights’ hands, firmly gripping their

weapons.89 We are assured that Lancelot has won Joyeuse Garde, his refuge,

‘with his owne hondis’, that Arthur ‘was emperor himself through dignity of

his hands’, that he awaits a tournament where ‘[the knights] shall . . . preve

whoo shall be beste of his hondis’. We hear Outelake of Wentelonde proudly

stating his claim to a lady: ‘thys lady I gate be my prouesse of hondis and armys

thys day at Arthurs court’. Such hands wield a lance or sword well. Seeing

King Pellinore cut Outelake down to the chin with a single sword stroke,

Meliot de Logurs declines to fight ‘with such a knyght of proues’.90

Chronicle and biography speak the same language and show the same

emphasis. John Barbour praises Edward Bruce as ‘off [of ] his hand a nobill

knycht’, and assures us that Robert Bruce slew all the fourteen Englishmen at

the ford, noted above, ‘vif [with] his hand’.91 In his first fight Don Pero Niño,

as his biographer tells us, ‘accomplished so many fair feats with his hands that

87 See Gillingham: ‘Richard I’; ‘War and Chivalry’; and ‘William the Bastard’.

88 Gerald of Wales is capable of clearly distinguishing between personal, knightly valour and

generalship. For his description of these qualities in John de Courcy, see Wright, tr., Historical

Works, 281, 318.

89 Many other writers could be cited widely. In the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation a poor

knight asking a lady’s hand of her father, promises that ‘If in one day I can’t bring . . . ten knights

to defeat with my own hands, and you afterwards—all knights renowned for prowess—I don’t want

you to consider me a knight.’ Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 64; Bogdanow, ed., ‘Folie

Lancelot’, 33; emphasis supplied. Inverse cases—fears of the work done by knights’ hands— likewise

appear in this work; see Asher, ibid., 100; Bogdanow, ibid., 127.

90 The examples in Malory almost defy citation. Vinaver, ed., Malory, Works, 415–16, 111, 72–3.

Malory draws on long-held belief. The vast Vulgate cycle, written more than two centuries earlier,

repeatedly emphasizes hands-on prowess. Lancelot, learning of the defeat of so many Arthurian

knights at the Forbidden Hill, declares, ‘he who defeated them can truly say that there is great

prowess in him, if he defeated them with his own hands.’ Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 232; Micha,

ed., Lancelot, V, 96. There is a similar statement from Lambegue in Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV,

71; Micha, Lancelot, I, 260. In a later crisis Guerrehet’s valour saved the day, ‘for he killed four of

them with his own hands and wounded six, including the first whose arm he had severed’: Kibler,

tr., Lancelot Part V, 118; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 21. In the Middle English William of Palerne, the hero

in his first battle does wonders ‘wit his owne hond’, killing six prominent enemies and overcoming

the enemy leader: Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 1195, 1230–54. In the Alliterative Morte

Arthure (Benson, ed., tr., 52), Arthur greets Cador after a battle with the words, ‘You have done

well, Sir duke, with your two hands.’

91 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour’s Bruce, II, bk. IX, l. 486; bk. VI, l. 313.

all spoke well of him’. The biographer is proud that ‘none did so much with

their hands as he’.92

This hands-on work of chivalry was very bloody. The young Arthurian

heroes in The Story of Merlin (Sagremore, Galescalin, Agravain, Gaheriet,

Guerrehet) have fought so well in a battle against the Saxons ‘that their arms

and legs and the heads and manes of their horses were dripping with blood and

gore’. They are described as having done ‘many a beautiful deed of knighthood

[mainte bele cheualier] and struck many a handsome blow, for which everyone

should hold them in high esteem’.93

Similarly, in his biographical chronicle John Barbour stresses the bloody

character of such fighting: grass red with blood, swords bloody to the hilt,

heraldic devices on armour so smeared with blood they cannot be read.94

Gerald of Wales unforgettably characterized Richard I of England as not only

‘fierce in his encounters in arms’, but ‘only happy when he marked his steps

with blood’.95 The historian of the Lion-Heart’s crusade more than once

records Richard hewing off enemy heads and displaying them as trophies, or

riding into camp after a night of skirmishing with more Muslim heads hanging

from his saddle.96 Such trophies were not limited to crusading; after the

bloody battle of Evesham in the English civil war of Henry III’s reign, the

head and testicles of the defeated Simon de Montfort were sent as a gift to

Lady Wigmore.97

The incident might not be too gruesome for romance. A maiden whose

rights Bors defends in Lancelot has given him a white banner to attach to his

lance. After combat with her enemy, Bors ‘saw that the banner which had been

white before, was scarlet with blood, and he was overjoyed’. A little later in the

same text an opponent evaluates Sagremore in revealing terms:

He noticed that his shield had been completely destroyed by lances and swords, and he

saw that his hauberk was broken in several spots; he looked at Sagremore himself,

bloodied with his own blood and with the blood of others. He had great respect for

him, for he thought no knight deserving of greater esteem.98

The Privileged Practice of Violence 147

92 Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 30.

93 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 268; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 185. Heroes are so covered

by gore that their heraldic devices can scarcely be recognized.

94 McDiarmid and Stevenson, Barbour’s Bruce, bk. II, 366–70; bk. X, l. 687; bk. XIII, ll. 183–5.

95 Wright, ed., Historical Works, 160.

96 Ll. 7439–40, 8964–79 in Hubert tr., and La Monte, Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart; Gaston

Paris, L’Histoire de la guerre sainte.

97 Maddicott, Simon de Montfort, 344.

98 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 42–3, 78; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 148–9, 291. For a parallel case

to the bloody banner in a Middle English text (Blanchardyn and Eglentine), see Gist, Love and War,


An old hermit who is a former knight tells Yvain (in the Lancelot) that the custom

at Uther Pendragon’s court was that no knight could be seated unless he

had been wounded.99

Even Lancelot’s great work—often powered by his love for the queen—

necessarily involves hacking and chopping, great bloodshed, frequent decapitations,

and regular eviscerations. He was filled with rage as he rescues a

maiden from other knights:

[Lancelot] struck the head off one, who fell dead to the ground; he took aim at another

and struck him dead. When the others saw this they were afraid of being killed themselves

and scattered this way and that to save their lives. Lancelot pursued them, hacking

and eviscerating and slaying them as if they were dumb animals; behind him were

the somber traces of more than twenty slaughtered men.100

Hector and Perceval, who meet and (as is so often true of knights in chivalric

literature) fail to recognize each other, fall at once to combat:

At every moment they were so quick and so aggressive that it was a wonder to behold;

in great anguish they endured great and terrible wounds that each inflicted on the other

in quick succession, like knights of great prowess, hacking apart their shields and helmets

with their swords and making the blood gush forth on every side.101

It is worth remembering that no great cause, no great love, is at stake in this

fight; the knights meet in the woods; they fight. So near to death are they both

brought that only the appearance of the Grail preserves their lives.

Given its centrality, such prowess must get an early start in the young

knight’s career.102 Accounts of youthful origins of heroes stress just this precocious

display of commendable violence, a harbinger of things to come. In

the Chanson de Aspremont the young Roland and his companions, kept from

battle by an overly solicitous Charlemagne, severely beat the porter guarding

the door of their chamber, and escape. They acquire the horses they need by

beating up the keepers who conduct them to the battlefield. Roland encourages

the others: ‘Young Roland says: “We’ll have these four—come on! / Nor

99 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 174; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 248. Here, one of the occasional

notes of ambiguity can be heard, for he adds that the custom was ended in Arthur’s day, but

replaced by one equally ‘unpleasant’—that no knight be seated at a high feast who has not sworn

on relics that he has defeated a knight ‘by deeds of arms’ within the past week.

100 Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 191; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 328.

101 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 327; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 200–1.

102 For overviews of education in arms, see Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 181–91; Chris

Given-Wilson, English Nobility, 2–7. Patterson notes that ‘The biographers of both du Guesclin

and Boucicaut stress the violence of their heroes’ enfances as evidence of their single-mindedness’:

Chaucer, 176. On the other hand, the education proposed for the knight by Christine de Pisan in

L’Epître d’Othéa à Hector, as Willard notes, was ‘moral rather than military’: ‘Christine de Pisan’,


shall we ask them first for what we want!” / His friends reply: “With the blessing

of God!” ’ When the news comes to King Salemon, the owner of the

horses, that the lads have ‘killed’ the porter, stolen the horses, and beaten his

men, he laughs in warm appreciation of their valour.103

Rainouart, another hero of chanson, was angered as a boy by a beating from

his tutor; he responded by hitting the man so hard that his heart burst.104 A

tutor who fails to appreciate noble largesse and ‘who wished to dominate him’

likewise causes the young Lancelot trouble in the Lancelot do Lac. Lancelot

endures his slap in brave silence, but when the tutor strikes a greyhound he has

just received, he breaks his bow into pieces over the man’s head. Angered at

the man for his broken bow, he then beats him soundly and tries to kill the

tutor’s helpers; they all run for safety. When he tells his patroness, the Lady of

the Lake, that he will kill the tutor anywhere but in her household, ‘she was

delighted, for she saw that he could not fail to be a man of valour, with God’s

help and her own’.105 But the most striking case of early promise of prowess

comes from Tristram, in Malory’s tale. Tristram’s mother, dying as he is born,

says he is a young murderer and thus is likely to be a manly adult.106


This obsession with prowess stands behind the seemingly numberless tests the

chivalrous undergo in this literature to determine who is the best knight in the

world. Marvellous swords can be grasped, or pulled from a stone, or drawn

from a wondrous scabbard only by the best knight in the world. Shields may

only be borne by, beds may only serve the finest knight in the world. We even

learn of a magical chess board which defeats all but Lancelot.107

But the supreme honour of being the best is determined primarily by fighting

everyone else who wants that same honour. Anthropologists and historians

regularly conclude that any society animated by a code of honour will be

highly competitive; it will much value the defence of cherished rights and the

correction of perceived wrongs through showy acts of physical violence. In a

classic formulation, the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers argued:

The Privileged Practice of Violence 149

103 Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, 34–5; Brandin, ed., Chanson d’Aspremont, 42–3.

104 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d’Orange, 272; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 496–7.

105 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 36–7; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 45–7; cf. p.

98; also see Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 29; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 55.

106 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 230: ‘A, my lytyll son, thou haste murtherd thy modir! And

therefore I suppose thou that arte a murtherer so yonge, thow arte full lykly to be a manly man in

thyne ayge.’

107 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 205; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 393.

Respect and precedence are paid to those who claim it and are sufficiently powerful to

enforce their claim. Just as possession is said to be nine-tenths of the law, so the de facto

achievement of honour depends upon the ability to silence anyone who would dispute

the title.108

Writing about the problem of violence in early modern England, the historian

Mervyn James similarly points to ‘the root of the matter’ in the concept of honour,

‘emerging out of a long-established military and chivalric tradition . . .

characterized above all by a stress on competitive assertiveness’. As he notes

concisely, ‘Honour could both legitimize and provide moral reinforcement for

a politics of violence.’109

We will find ample evidence for investigating the politics of violence; the

fierce physical competitiveness so characteristic of what anthropologists have

called honour cultures could scarcely be better illustrated than by extensive

reading in chivalric literature.110 As a code of honour, chivalry had as much

investment in knightly autonomy and heroic violence as in any forms of

restraint, either internal or external. Asked why there is strife between the

queen’s knights and the knights of the Round Table, Merlin answers in plain

terms: ‘You should know . . . that their jealousy has done that, and they want to

test their prowess against one another.’ In the tournament held to celebrate the

wedding of Arthur and Guinevere, the knights ‘began hitting roughly, although

they were playing, because they were good knights”.111 The tournament turns

into a virtual battle, as do so many tournaments in chivalric literature.

Seeing unknown knights appearing prominently on another battlefield earlier

in this same work, Yvonet the Great and Yvonet the Bastard wonder who

they can be. Aces of Beaumont gives them answer in hard, stirring words: ‘If

you want to know who they are, ride over to them and fight so well that they

ask you who you are! For it is by their valiant feats of arms that people know

who the worthies are.112

108 Pitt-Rivers, ‘Honour and Social Status’, 24.

109 Mervyn James, ‘English politics’, 308–9.

110 Hostility is assumed when an unknown knight appears. E.g. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I,

93; Carrol, tr., Lancelot Part II, 153; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 383; VIII, 145.

111 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 379, 335; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 382, 302. When

Arthur rebukes the knights they say that ‘they could not resist it, and they did not know where the

urge came from’. Similarly, Arthur the Less defends his competitiveness in the Post Vulgate Quest;

chastised by Palamedes for going about, attacking knights and considering that courtesy, Arthur


You shouldn’t blame me if I go around attacking you and the other good knights, for I’m a young man and a

new knight who needs to win praise and acclaim, and if I don’t win them now, when will I win them?

Asher, tr., 242; Magne, ed., Santa Graal II, 221.

112 Pickens, Story of Merlin, 273; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 194. Cf. Pickens, ibid., 232, 259,

287, 317, 359; Sommer, ibid., 119, 168, 220, 272, 347.

Intense competition is sometimes shown, only to be criticized. Milun, in

Marie de France’s lay by that name, is so jealous of the much-praised prowess

of a young knight sweeping the tournament circuit that he searches him out

and engages in a fight ‘in order to do some harm to him and his reputation’;

though he thinks he will afterwards look for his long-lost son, he is, of course,

defeated in the joust by that very son.113 Knightly competition has edged out

affection and nearly brought tragic results. Chivalric competition in Marie’s

lay ‘Le Chaitivel’ does end tragically. When four knights in love with a lady

fight in a tournament, three are killed and one is castrated by a lance thrust.114

Yet competition and its results are usually accepted or even highly regarded.

A real man of prowess will bear the marks of other men’s weapons on his body

for life. Running nearly naked in the woods, mad, when he thinks he has lost

the queen’s love, Lancelot is recognized as a man of worship by those who see

him simply in terms of the scars left on his body from his ceaseless combat.115

Almost from the beginning of the classic Arthurian story, as told and retold

in the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Malory’s Morte Darthur, the

rivalries and jealousies among the knights foreshadow the break-up of the

Round Table. Much of this strife originates, of course, in the fierce hatreds

caused by so much killing (and a certain amount of sex) within a restricted

group of warriors and their ladies. Here, in Malory’s words, is Gawain’s view,

at one point:

Fayre bretherne, here may ye se: whom that we hate kynge Arthure lovyth, and whom

that we love he hatyth. And wyte you well, my fayre bretherne, that this sir Lamerok

woll nevyr love us, because we slew his fadir, kynge Pellynor, for we demed that he slew

oure fadir, kynge Lotte of Orkenay; and for the deth of kynge Pellynor sir Lamerok ded

us a shame to our modir. Therefore I woll be revenged.116

Of course, Gawain and his brothers are revenged and the destructive feud

between the houses of Lot and Pellinore rolls on.

But the factionalism and competition in Arthurian stories often result from

simple and immediate jealousy, from resentment that someone else has won

worship. Gawain, while on the quest of the white hart, encounters two brothers

fighting, as one of them explains, ‘to preff which of us was the bygger

knyght’.117 Tristram, or Lancelot, both of whom invariably ends up being ‘the

The Privileged Practice of Violence 151

113 Hanning and Ferrante, trs, Marie de France, 171–4; for their comments, see pp. 177–80, and

Rychner, ed., Marie de France, 136–40.

114 Hanning and Ferrante, Marie de France, 183–4; Rychner, Marie de France, 145–7.

115 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 499. 116 Ibid., 375.

117 Ibid., 64. In the Merlin Continuation (Asher, tr., 228–9, Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, II,

81–3) Gawain strongly denounces their fight as foolish and gets them, as a favour, to promise peace

in the future. Malory has Gawain more simply say that brother should not fight brother and then

threaten them with force if they disagree.

bygger knyght’, provoke endless jealousy, which is openly discussed.118 On the

queen’s urging, Lancelot is anxious to fight the Round Table in tournament:

‘he was filled with joy, for he had often wanted to test himself against those

knights who had tested their own prowess against all comers’.119 Having just

witnessed Lancelot kill Tarquin, in the Morte Darthur, Gaheris pronounces

Lancelot the best knight in the world: he has just eliminated the second best.120

After Lancelot decapitates the wicked Meleagant with a great sword stroke in

the Lancelot, Kay similarly proclaims Lancelot’s well-earned status: ‘Ah, my

lord, we welcome you above all the other knights in the world as the flower of

earthly chivalry! You have proved your valour here and elsewhere.’121

In the Lancelot Bors meets a knight (who turns out to be Agravain) who

stoutly asserts Lancelot is not the knight Gawain is. Their argument over who

is best fighter is, of course, settled by fighting. Bors unhorses his opponent,

and hacks him into a disabled state on the ground. When he refuses to surrender

(‘you will take nothing more of mine away’), Bors hammers his head with

his sword pommel until blood spurts, pulls away the armour protecting the

knight’s throat, and prepares to deliver the fatal blow. Agravain, with an ugly

grimace, agrees Lancelot is the better knight.122

Bademagu leaves court in a huff when Tor gets a seat at the Round Table

before he does. Balin, during his brief perch on the top rung on the ladder of

prowess, wins so much worship that it generates reaction; after he alone can

pull the wondrous sword from its scabbard, Launceor, for example, ‘had grete

despite at Balin for the enchevynge of the swerde, that any sholde be

accompted more hardy or more of prouesse’. Balin and his brother Balaan,

when setting out to fight King Rion, intend to ‘preve oure worship and

prouesse upon hym’. Worship is won by prowess which is of necessity done

unto others.123

Danger, mounted and armed, lance at the ready, thus lurks along every forest

path, in every glade, at every river ford. Knights must ride encased in their

metal as soon as they venture forth from the castles or hermitages in which

they shelter for the night; they must assume hostility from any other knights

whom they may meet. In the prose (Didot) version of the Perceval, the hero’s

sister describes this environment plainly:

Dear brother, I have great fear for you who go thus, for you are very young and the

118 See, for example, Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 411.

119 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 196; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 352–3.

120 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 159. Numerous statements of this sort appear in the pages of


121 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 32; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 225.

122 Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 51; Micha, Lancelot, 179–82.

123 Vinaver, Malory. Works, 81, 42, 44.

knights who go through the land are so very cruel and wicked, and be sure that if they

can they will kill you in order to win your horse; but if you trust me, dear brother, you

will leave this endeavour upon which you are entered and will dwell with me, for it is

a great sin to kill a knight, and also you are each day in great danger of being killed.124

The author of the Perlesvaus suggests that after Perceval’s failure to ask the

right questions in his moment of trial, ‘all lands are now rent by war; no knight

meets another in a forest but he attacks him and kills him, if he can’.125

But is winning all? Is not fighting well just as honourable? The medieval

response to such questions seems somewhat unstable. Sometimes a text

specifies that the honour of the loser has not been sullied. Palomides tells

Gareth, beaten in a joust in the tournament at Lonezep, that he has lost no

honour: ‘And worshypfully ye mette with hym, and neyther of you ar dishonoured.’

No less an authority than Queen Guinevere declares flatly, in Malory’s

words, that ‘all men of worshyp hate an envyous man and woll shewe hym no


In fact, chivalric literature may declare it an honour to die from the blows of

a man of great prowess. Owein, dying in the Quest for the Holy Grail after

Gawain (not recognizing him) has put a spear into his chest, regards his death

as fitting: ‘ “Then I set my death at naught,” said he, “if it comes at the hand

of so fine a knight as you.” ’127 Yvain the Bastard, similarly skewered by

Gawain in the Post-Vulgate Quest, dies with the same sentiment on his lips. An

unidentified knight in this text demands a gift of Galahad: he wants Galahad

to kill him so that he can die by the hands of the greatest knight in the world.128

In the Lancelot, one of the opponents Lancelot defeats in the judicial combat

concerning the False Guinevere tells him, ‘I want to die by your hand, because

I couldn’t die by a better one.’ Lancelot obliges him with a powerful sword

stroke cutting through helmet and skull, and down into the man’s spine.129

Yet winning is undoubtedly better, for all the fair words given to trying

one’s best and losing like a gentleman. As Malory observes, ‘for oftetymes

thorow envy grete hardyness is shewed that hath bene the deth of many kyd

knyghtes; for thoughe they speke fayre many one unto other, yet whan they be

in batayle eyther wolde beste be praysed.’130 Experienced knights such as

The Privileged Practice of Violence 153

124 Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 28–9. When (p. 30) her hermit uncle sees her coming with

Perceval, he assumes that this knight has seized and robbed her.

125 Bryant, tr., Perlesvans, 27; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 38.

126 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 444, 466.

127 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 168; Pauphilet, Queste, 153–4. Gawain is, of course, practising the

wrong kind of chivalry in the view of this text. But the sentiment expressed by Owein (in

Pauphilet, he is called Yvain) the Bastard retains its interest.

128 Asher, tr., Quest, 155, 125; Magne, ed., Demanda, I, 211, 57.

129 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 272; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 140.

Charny and Malory know that even the most capable must expect to suffer

defeat in some fights.131 If all bruises can thus be poulticed in defeat with the

knowledge of having fought well, however, winning decisively eliminates the

need. So many knights must have agreed with Malory’s Palomides, who frequently

appears weeping and lamenting that when a great hero such as

Lancelot or Tristram is on the field he can never win ‘worshyppe’.132

Characters who have been defeated in the initial, mounted fight with lances,

often declare that they have been ‘shamed’, and want a chance to win worship

on foot with sword and shield.133 At one point in the Lancelot no fewer than

sixty-four knights of the Round Table are forced by Arthur to admit that they

have been defeated by Lancelot in a tournament; equally bad, put on oath,

none can claim to have defeated him. Having been beaten by the best does not

soften their feelings, heightened by Arthur’s praise of Lancelot. The author

tells us: ‘These words of King Arthur so embarrassed the knights of the Round

Table that ever afterwards they hated Lancelot with a mortal hatred.’134 The

hatred of the defeated is similarly directed against Bors, who has overcome

fourteen of Arthur’s court at the Forbidden Hill:

they were much more dismayed than before by the fact that they had been defeated by

Bors, who was but a youth, whereas some of them were old, experienced knights of

great strength; every one of them felt great sorrow and resentment in his heart because

they had been defeated by him, and that was one of the things for which they bore the

greatest rancour against Lancelot’s kindred.135

It is true that many knights in chivalric literature find the choice between honourable

defeat and death an easy decision; one after another saves his life at the

last moment as the victor stands over his prostrate body, sword ready for the

final, decapitating stroke. Yet the truly heroic prefer to die without ever yielding,

without ever once having said ‘the loath word’ of surrender. Blamour speaks in

just these terms to the triumphant Tristram, who has just defeated him:

Sir Trystrames de Lyones, I requyre the, as thou art a noble knyght and the beste

knyght that ever I founde, that thou wolt sle me oute, for I wolde nat lyve to be made

lorde of all the erthe; for I had lever dye here with worshyp than lyve here with shame.

And nedis, sir Trystrames, thou muste sle me, other ellys thou shalt never wynne the

fylde, for I woll never sey the lothe worde.

130 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 133–4.

131 For Charny, see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 130–3; Vinaver, Malory. Works, 318.

Malory’s Sir Dynadan gives the maxim, ‘he rydyth well that never felle’.

132 E.g. Vinaver, Malory. Works, 325, 419.

133 E.g. ibid., 355. Mark says to Lamerok, ‘I woll fyght wyth a swerde, for ye have shamed me

with a speare.’

134 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 206; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 397.

135 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 236; Micha, Lancelot, V, 112.

Blamour’s brother, Bleoberis, agrees that ‘though sir Trystrames hath beatyn

his body, he hath nat beatyn his harte, and thanke God he is nat shamed this

day’.136 In this view defeat rests in the fallible body, but shame is locked out of

an infallible heart.

A knight whom Tor defeats in the Merlin Continuation takes just this line:

‘Certainly, I’d rather die a hundred times, if that were possible,’ he declares,

‘than one single time to say or do something that looked like cowardice.’ He

repeats his stand even after Tor flattens him, driving the links of mail into his

head, even after Tor beats his head with the pommel of the sword, so that ‘he

made the blood flow all down his face’.137


A conversation between the Lady of the Lake and the young Lancelot (in the

Lancelot do Lac and Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle) may well be, as Elspeth

Kennedy has suggested, the fountainhead for all later discussions about balance

between prowess and other qualities in chivalry. Responding to his lady’s

Socratic questions, Lancelot says:

It seems to me that a man can have the qualities of the heart even if he cannot have those

of the body, for a man can be courteous and wise and gracious and loyal and valorous

and generous and courageous—all these are virtues of the heart—though he cannot be

big and robust and agile and handsome and attractive; all these things, it seems to me,

are qualities of the body, and I believe that a man brings them with him out of his

mother’s womb when he is born.138

Here the ideal qualities of the chivalrous are pressed to the fore, and prowess—

competitive, bloody work with edged weapons—is veiled in softening and

restraining virtues, as it is, again, when the Lady of the Lake tells Lancelot

about the origins of chivalry. Each of the first knights, she says, knew:

[that he] should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compassionate

towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and

prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or

hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to

further wrong.

The Privileged Practice of Violence 155

136 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 256.

137 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 236–7; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 247–8. The sentiment is

bold, but the defeated knight suddenly loses resolve. A maiden appears to whom Tor grants a

favour: she wants the knight’s head; Tor (though the knight now pleads for his life from the

maiden) swings so stoutly that the man’s head flies six feet from his body.

138 Quotation from Corin Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 51; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do

Lac, I, 141. Cf. Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 59; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 248.

‘A knight’, she says, summing up, ‘should not, for fear of death, do anything

which can be seen as shameful; rather he should be more afraid of shame than

of suffering death.’ She then proceeds elaborately to explain the significance of

knightly arms and armour in terms of desirable qualities, especially protecting

the Holy Church.139

All of the great issues, all of the tensions and paradoxes, lie just out of sight

in this splendid discourse—just beneath the surface here and echoed in famous

books by Geoffroi de Charny and Ramon Llull.140 Knights are presented as the

righteous armed force of Christendom, the practitioners of licit force, the fair

judges in society, wise men motivated and restrained by high ideals, bravely

avoiding shame. Courtesy, generosity, the strong helping the weak against

robbers and killers—such ideals resonate as much today as they did eight centuries


Yet we need to remember how much these are reform ideas, prescriptive

rather than descriptive. We know they do not describe how knights actually

behaved. The evidence as a whole shows a core ideal of prowess, belief in sheer

aptitude with arms, animated by courage, mildly, ideally, tempered by reason,

wise restraint, and strategic pragmatism.

After he has seen Lancelot perform on the battlefield, Galehaut finally manages

to meet him for the first time, and to ask him who he is. Lancelot replies:

‘Good sir, I am a knight, as you can see.’ ‘ “Indeed”, said Galehaut, “a knight

you are, the best there is, and the man I would most wish to honour in all the

world.” ’141 Galehaut has seen prowess personified. It has manifested itself in

almost miraculous work with ashen lance and sharp-edged sword. The battlefield

is strewn with slashed and mangled bodies lying in bloody proof. The vast

body of literature about Lancelot regularly takes just such work as its focus—

not all of the other fine qualities so praised by the Lady of the Lake. We are

tirelessly shown Lancelot thrusting lance and swinging sword, not Lancelot

defending the personnel and tithes of Mother Church or playing the fair judge.

What other characters in the romances praise repeatedly is his awe-inspiring

fighting, not abstract ideals.142

We have already considered evidence showing the fear inspired by the estate

of medieval warriors, often expressed with prudent indirection. Open devalu-

139 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 52–6; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 142–5;

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 59–61; Micha, ed., Lancelot, 248–58.

140 See discussion in Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 67, 69–74.

141 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 135; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 320. This formula

is repeated in the Post-Vulgate Quest of the Holy Grail. Tristan, who has seen Galahad’s prowess

in a tournament, asks him to identify himself. ‘I’m a knight’, Galahad says simply. ‘I know quite

well that you’re a knight’, Tristan responds, ‘and you’re the best in the world’: Asher, tr., Quest,

217; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 484.

ations of prowess are rare, indeed, but a writer like Walter Map is capable of

at least declaring it morally neutral. ‘Goodness only makes a man good’, he

writes; ‘prowess makes him either.’143 An intensely religious knight such as Sir

John Clanvowe could stand traditional chivalric values on end:

ffor byfore God alle vertue is worsshipe and alle synne is shame. And in tis world it is

euene te reuers, ffor te world holt hem worsshipful tat been greete werreyours and

fighteres and tat distroyen and wynnen manye loondis.

(for in God’s sight all virtue is worship and all sin is shame. But the world always

reverses this, for the world holds as worshipful those who have been great warriors and

fighters who destroy and win many lands.)144

The tension between sheer prowess and the restraint of reason or wisdom

animates major texts, most famously in the Song of Roland. ‘Roland is full of

prowess, Oliver of wisdom’, sings the author of that text, as he unfolds for his

audience the complex consequences.145 Raoul de Cambrai more than once

warns that ‘an unbridled man passes his days in sorrow’.146 Near its end The

Story of Merlin pointedly praises a Roman leader as ‘a very good knight, worthy

and bold’, who ‘knew how to fall back and turn about, and . . . knew how

to storm in among foes’.147 Malory, through Sir Tristram, says that ‘manhode

is nat worthe but yf hit be medled with wysdome’.148 The wise Pharian tells his

nephew, Lambegue, in Lancelot, ‘almost never do we see great intelligence and

great prowess lodged together in a youth. And it is true that for your age you

have unusual prowess, enough, in fact, to dim your view of wisdom.’149 Yet we

should note that he goes on to urge unbridled prowess in the right situations,

matched by quiet restraint in council:

The Privileged Practice of Violence 157

142 The household of two hermits term Lancelot ‘the valiant man, who by his chivalry made all

the world tremble before him’: Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 69; Bogdanow, ed., ‘Folie

Lancelot’, 45. Earlier, the ladies on the Island of Joy witnessed Lancelot unhorse a good challenger

so forcefully that the man’s neck is nearly broken and he faints in agony. Their response is to bow,

sing, and dance before his shield, and proclaim him the best knight of the world. Asher, 78;

Bogdanow, 70. A maiden late in the Perlesvaus tells her lady he is ‘the violent Lancelot who killed

your brother. It is no lie that he is one of the finest knights in the world, but because of the vigour

and worth of his chivalry he has committed many an outrage.’ Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 201; Nitze

and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 312.

143 M. R. James, ed., tr., Walter Map, 416–17.

144 Scattergood, ed., Sir John Clanvowe, 69.

145 ‘Rollant est proz e Oliver est sage’, the opening line of laisse 87, in Brault, ed., tr., Chanson

de Roland.

146 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses, 24, 104; and see the related sentiment in laisse 90.

147 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, I, 406; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 434.

148 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 428.

149 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 36; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 151–2. Cf. Meyer, ed., Girart de

Roussillon, 94ff: Girart says to his nephew, ‘Beau neveu, vous êtes preux; votre ardeur juvénile

serait bonne, si vous aviez la sagesse.’

in battle or combat or in lists where the finest knights are gathered, take care to stand

aside for no one, whether younger than yourself or older, but spur your horse on before

all the others and strike the best blow you can. When it comes to arms, you see, no man

need yield to young or old to gain fame and honor; but in important deliberations

young men should attend to their elders. The truth is that there is great honor in dying

boldly and bravely in combat, but only shame and reproach can come from foolish

speech and thoughtless counsel.150

King Bademagu takes another corrective line on prowess as he tells his evil son

Meleagant, jealous of Lancelot and anxious to fight, that ‘size of body and

limbs is not what makes a good knight, but greatness of heart’.151

Even in those passages that praise some hero’s prowess interesting elements

of doubt, or at least cautionary lines of thought, put in an appearance. Gawain

twice fails to have a transforming experience (in the Lancelot) when the Grail

comes into his presence: once he cannot keep his eyes off the beautiful maiden

carrying it and, in recompense, is not served; the second time he is so worn out

with fighting a mysterious knight in the hall of the Grail castle that he is lying,

wounded and almost in a stupor on the floor. Through the very presence of

the Grail heals his wounds, he fails to recognize it. A hermit tells him later that

his failure was ‘[b]ecause you were not humble and simple’.152

In the Lancelot five sons of a duke, fighting their father, convince Lancelot

by lies to join their side. He characteristically goes to work ‘killing whatever he

hit’, and wins the day, even sending the duke’s head flying with one of his great

sword strokes. He is greeted with the usual effusive celebration in the winner’s

castle as ‘the best knight in the world’. Yet, the text tells us, this victory was a

pity, for Lancelot has been fighting on the wrong side, against members of the

Round Table who were aiding the duke.153

We can only wonder at the way in which, with or without conscious intent,

authors give us curiously shaded descriptions of Lancelot and other heroes in

full battle fury. Lancelot is not only compared to a raptor, a wolf, or lion, but

more than once to an ‘evil demon’, ‘the Devil himself ’, ‘Death itself ’. Bors and

even Perceval can likewise be termed ‘demon’.154 William of Palerne is

described by enemies who feel the force of his chivalry as ‘sum devel degised

tat dot al tis harm (some disguised devil who does all this harm)!’155

Balain’s great prowess likewise produces deep ambivalence. The Merlin

Continuation asserts that Balain was the most praised knight on a battlefield,

for ‘he practised a chivalry so expert, wherever he went, that everybody

150 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 36; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 151–2.

151 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 260; Micha, Lancelot, I, 87.

152 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 100–2; Micha, Lancelot, II, 376–88.

153 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 152–3; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 159–64.

watched him marvelling’. Wondering observers, however, say he is no

mortal, but a ‘monster’ or ‘devil’. Even King Arthur said that ‘he was not a

knight like other mortal knights, but a man born on earth for human destruction’.


Those who would reform chivalry knew that they had to come to terms

with prowess. They all hoped to channel or change the force and energy of

this great virtue. Some even harboured futile hopes of substituting another

quality in the uppermost slot. But prowess holds centre stage; it is essential

to the chivalry with which the reformer must deal, however he or she wants

to channel or change it. A layman lacking prowess might show other qualities

in the textbook chivalric list; but at least in the realm of chivalric literature

no one would particularly notice, because no one would particularly

care. The chief virtue must come first. It is probable that complex figures in

chivalric literature, such as Roland himself, or even darker figures, such as

Raoul in Raoul de Cambrai, Claudas in the Lancelot do Lac, or Caradoc in

Lancelot, were so interesting to their contemporaries in medieval society

because of the tension between their admirable prowess and other qualities

warped or missing in them.157

We must recognize how strongly chivalric literature acknowledges the

impulse to settle any issue—especially any perceived affront to honour—by

couching the lance for the charge or swiftly drawing the sword from the scabbard.

Force is regularly presented as the means of getting whatever is wanted,

of settling whatever is at issue.158 Accusations of a more or less judicial nature,

of course, lead to a fight, as does assertion of better lineage. But so does assertion

that one’s lady is fairer than another knight’s lady, a request for a knight’s

name or even an answer to the question, ‘Why are you so sad?’ Of course, as

often as not the fight is over no stated question at all, but simply seems a part

of the natural order of the imagined world of chivalry: two knights meet in the

The Privileged Practice of Violence 159

154 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 160, 198, 204; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 193, 359–61, 388; VI, 150,

160, 195–6; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 315, 317, 326; Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 104;

Bogdanow, ed., ‘Folie Lancelot’, 139.

155 Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, l. 3888.

156 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 197; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 107–8.

157 Claudas, has, for example, given up love and shows no interest in largesse; his loyalty clearly

leaves something to be desired. Yet he is elaborately praised by Pharian as the finest knight in the

world. Rosenberg, tr. Lancelot Part I, 34; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 78. Caradoc is

described as ‘the cruelest and most disloyal of all men who had ever borne arms’. Yet he is also ‘of

great prowess and strength beyond measure’: Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 282. Micha,

Lancelot, I, 182–3. Raoul de Cambrai will be discussed in Chapter 11.

158 Honoré Bonet provides an instructive list of foolish reasons why knights fight: over which

country has the best wine or the most beautiful women, which country has the best soldiers, which

man has the better horse, the more loving wife, the greater success in love, more skill in dancing

or fighting: see Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 207.

forest, they fight.159 The vast and complex literature of chivalry celebrates

knightly violence even as it attempts to reform or deflect it into channels where

it would produce less social damage.

159 Classic examples from Malory: Sir Pelleas ‘wente thereas the lady Ettarde was and gaff her

the cerclet and seyde opynly she was the fayreste lady that there was, and that wolde he preve

uppon only knyght that wolde sey nay’: Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 100. Sir Gareth asserts to the

Black Knight that he has a higher lineage, ‘and that woll I preve on they body!’ (p. 185). The King

of Ireland, summoned to Arthur’s court on a charge of treasonous murder, decides ‘there was

none other remedy but to answere hym knyghtly’ (p. 252). Pellinor, wanting to know Tristram’s

name, decides he will ‘make hym to telle me hys name, other he shall dye therefore’ (p. 314). Sent

by Arthur to discover why a passing knight is sorrowful, Balain tells this knight, ‘I pray you make

you redy, for ye muste go with me othir ellis I muste fyght with you and brynge you by force’

(p. 50).