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SINCE the greatest opportunity for exercising prowess was war, a delight

in war becomes an important corollary to the worship of prowess at the

centre of chivalric ideology. Such an emphasis raises fascinating if difficult questions.

Did knights love war so fully they could engage in it without fear? Does

chivalric literature accurately portray their conduct of war? Did their chivalric

ideas and ideals modify warfare, making it a somewhat kinder, gentler enterprise?

Does chivalric literature accommodate any countercurrent voices for

peace? If chivalric literature praises loyalty, to what were knights loyal?

A Delight in War and Tournament

If Geoffroi de Charny, the renowned warrior and theoretician of chivalry in

mid-fourteenth-century France, praised war as the ultimate chivalric enterprise,

he echoed an even more enthusiastic and unrestrained voice sounded

nearly two centuries earlier in the poetry of Bertran de Born. Bertran’s glowing

account of the coming of spring quickly modulates into praise for the joys

of displaying prowess in war:

The gay time of spring pleases me well, when leaves and flowers come; it pleases me

when I hear the merriment of the birds making their song ring through the wood; it

pleases me when I see tents and pavilions pitched on the meadows; and I feel great happiness,

when I see ranged on the fields knights and horses in armour.

And it pleases me too when a lord is first to the attack on his horse, armed, without

fear; for thus he inspires his men with valiant courage. When the battle is joined, each

man must be ready to follow him with pleasure, for no one is respected until he has

taken and given many blows.

I tell you, eating or drinking or sleeping hasn’t such savour for me as the moment I

hear both sides shouting ‘Get ’em!’ and I hear riderless horses crashing through the

shadows, and I hear men shouting ‘Help! Help!’ and I see the small and the great falling

in the grassy ditches, and I see the dead with splintered lances, decked with pennons,

through their sides.1

1 Paden et al., eds, Poems of the Troubadour, 338–43.

In abbreviated form, this sentiment appears again in the thirteenth-century

Story of Merlin:

Mild weather had come back with the pleasant season when the orchards and woodlands

are in leaf, when the birds sing sweetly and softly and the blossoming, leafy forests

ring with their singing, when the meadows are thick with grass and the gentle waters

go back into their beds—and when it is better to make war than any other time of the


‘Peace’, as Maurice Keen notes concisely, ‘was not regarded in the middle

ages as the natural condition of states.’3 Writing to the French king Charles VI

in 1387, Honoré Bonet observed that ‘it is no great marvel if in this world there

arise wars and battles, since they existed first in heaven’.4 Explicit assertions

that the coming of peace saddened the knights, that they preferred war, appear

throughout chivalric literature. When peace is made between Arthur and

Galehaut in the Lancelot do Lac and the Lancelot, ‘[m]any, who preferred war,

were saddened by this’.5 Of course, some of the motives of actual knights may

have been purely economic, stemming from their need for booty; but usually

it is the delight in prowess that is openly praised.6 In the First Continuation of

the Perceval, a knight announces, ‘my name is Disnadaret: I’m much more

fond of war than peace, and never tire of doing battle.’7 Boson in Girart de

Roussillon is described as a man whose ‘taste for war’ is ‘always new’.8 The

author of the Middle English romance William of Palerne relates of the young

hero William, newly knighted, that there ‘was no glader gom tat ever God

made’ when he learned of an impending war between the Roman Emperor

and the Duke of Saxony.9 When Claudas announces that war with Arthur is

coming, ‘The good and bold knights were happy and joyful at this, for they felt

2 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 309; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 256

3 Keen, Laws of War, 23.

4 Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 81. Bonet refers, of course, to Satan’s rebellion and soon also

discusses the wars chronicled in the Old Testament. He is, in fact, deeply troubled by the issue of

war and divine will. He argues (pp. 118–19) that peace is all but impossible, that war is built into

the stars, men, and animals, though he admits God might be able to bring about peace and that

good men can be lords over the power of heavenly bodies. Yet he soon declares that God, as lord

and governor of battles, has instituted war, that it is in accord with all law, human and divine, and

that soldiers are the flails of God’s righteous (if hidden) justice (pp. 125–6, 157).

5 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 138; Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 328; Sommer, Vulgate Version,

III, 250.

6 In Girart de Roussillon (Meyer, ed., tr.) the problem with ending the war is seen in the plight

of poor knights. How will they live without war? The answer is easily found in a new war, not of

Christian versus Christian, but against the pagans. See laisse 633. Again, in laisse 672, the solution

for knights who want to prove their worth is clear: let them fight pagans.

7 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 114. Cf. Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 116–17, 244–5, 262–3,

298–9, 364–5 (‘A peace such as this does not enhance prowess, nor any other peace’), 372–3, 398–9,

460–1; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 296.

8 Meyer, Girart de Roussillon, laisse 474. 9 Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, l. 1092.

they had been at peace too long. But it grieved the mean-spirited and the cowardly,

who preferred peace to war.’10

The sentiment is often repeated. Knights in the twelfth-century Chanson

Gaydon ‘have no desire to make peace, they have always heard the war-cry, and

they love war more than Nones or Compline. They would rather one town

burned than two cities surrendered without a struggle.’11 Classic warrior

speeches urging immediate and vigorous war against the Romans are given to

the notables of Arthur’s court by Geoffrey of Monmouth (in his History of the

Kings of Britain), and by Lawman (in the Brut).12 The theme of warriors lauding

war was venerable on this side of the Channel, as on the other.13

If knights liked piling up honour and the material rewards of battle, at least

some of them also sensed an aesthetic element in war. The author of The Story

of Merlin, shortly after he had declared spring as being the best time for war,

pictured Arthur and his knights after they had rampaged in near darkness

through the encampment of their enemies, in the campaign to relieve the siege

of Trebes: ‘Then it was broad daylight and the sun began to rise. The sun

shone on the armour, which flashed in the light, and it was so beautiful and

pleasing to look at that it was a delight and a melody to watch.’14 In this text,

as in many others, the author wants his readers to see colourful banners, rich

pavilions and costly armour. The biographer of Robert Bruce similarly pauses

to admire the massed English chivalry at the outset of the battle of Loudon

Hill in 1307; the morning sunlight gleamed on shields and polished helmets:

their spears, pennons and shields illuminated the entire field with light, their best and

embroidered bright banners and various horse trappings and varied coat armour and

hauberks that were white as flour made them glisten as if they were angels from

heaven’s realm.15

Yet the text may bring such trappings into view just as sword strokes and lance

thrusts destroy them.16 Peter Haidu has made the interesting suggestion that

we are observing a celebration of conspicuous consumption in the wanton

Knighthood in Action 163

10 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 288; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 42. Later in this same work

Mordred, in a conversation with Kay, denounces the young Perceval: ‘He looks like a simple

knight . . . who prefers peace to war.’ Kay agrees, noting that Perceval’s shield bears no signs of

fighting: Carroll, ibid., 325; Micha, ibid., 192.

11 Ll. 4802 ff, quoted in Daniel, Heroes and Saracens, 26.

12 Thorpe, tr., Geoffrey of Monmouth, 231–5; Allen, tr., Lawman, Brut, ll. 12426–50.

13 For a survey of views in Middle English literature, see Gist, Love and War, 113–46, 194.

14 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 311; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 261.

15 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour’s Bruce, II, ll. 220–34.

16 The Song of Roland and the poetry of Bertran de Born provide splendid examples. In ‘Lo coms

m’a mandat e mogut’, for example, Bertran writes, ‘And nothing will keep splinters from flying to

the sky, or taffeta and brocade and samite from ripping, and ropes and tents and stakes and shelters

and high-pitched pavilions’: in Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 108–9.

destruction of so much finery; in a society in which few could even imagine

such extravagance, the knights can not only wear and use fine and costly clothing

and equipment, they can destroy it in the great game of war.17

If the great game was not always and everywhere available for knights to

hone and demonstrate their prowess, tournament was available, even in the

absence of war, as scholars regularly point out; it became the great sport and,

in time, the great social event of chivalry.18

Early tournaments made good substitutes for war, and in both literature

and life the tournament which quickly warmed up to the temperature of battle

appears prominently.19 Tournaments were at first distinguished from war

only in the prearranged nature of the combat, an absence of deliberate destruction

visited on non-combatants, and the provision of some safe zones from the

fighting in which knights could rest and recover. Otherwise, the knights—and

accompanying bodies of footmen—ranged over the countryside, and sometimes

through narrow urban streets, manoeuvring, ambushing, attacking at

will. Even though tournaments gradually restricted their scope and functioned

by ever clearer forms and rules, there can be little wonder that they were

known as ‘schools of prowess’.20

The place of tournament in knightly ideology will likewise be evident to any

reader of chivalric literature. From the time of Chrétien de Troyes in the last

quarter of the twelfth century, descriptions of magnificent tournaments fill

page after page of chivalric romance; they have become settings around which

plots turned, events in refined literature demanded by refined audiences.

Those who heard or read these works evidently could not have enough of

colourful display and valorous action. In a splendid instance of art and life

playing leapfrog, the imagined becomes the actual; the actual outdoes even the

imagined.21 Each great occasion must be decorated with its magnificent tournament;

each peerless knight errant wandering on some erratic orbit out of

touch with the solar centre of the court can only be brought home by his

admirers spreading news of a great and tempting tournament. ‘No knight

should avoid a tournament if he can get there in time’, is the straightforward

advice of an honourable vavasour in the Lancelot.22

17 Haidu, Subject of Violence, 46–9.

18 For general discussions, see Barber and Barker, Tournaments and Keen, Chivalry, 83–102.

19 For dangers associated with historical tournaments, see Barker and Barker, Tournaments,

139–49. A tournament of 1273 became known as the ‘Little war of Chalons’: Prestwich, Edward I,

84–5. Classic literary examples in Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 302–7; Pickens, tr., Story of

Merlin, 335–54. Literature sees dangers to the knightly caste and courtly society, rather than to the


20 See citations in Keen, Chivalry, 99.

21 See the discussion in Benson, ‘The Tournament’.

22 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 259; Micha, ed., Lancelot, V, 216.

For nearly half a millennium (and increasingly before an audience featuring

women as well as men), tournaments become a stock feature of chivalric life

both as lived and as portrayed in literature: horse hoofs pound, lances splinter,

shields crack, swords bite into helmets—in a continuum of tourneying that

blurs chivalric ideology and practice. Passionate belief in tournament as the

ideal sport unquestionably figures as one line in the creed spoken by those who

worshipped at the high altar of prowess.

Any real disparity between historical events and literary portrayals appears

when literary texts ignore the gradual safeguards that knights actually used,

especially blunted weapons for combats à plaisir, instead of the sharp lance

heads of combats à outrance. Literary tournaments are potentially deadly

affairs, with no hint of rebated weapons, perhaps to emphasize the sense of

danger and the vigour of the combatants.

The Fact of Fear? Voices for Peace?

Did they ever play the game, whether in war or tournament, with sweaty

palms and shaking hands? In any sane person the prospect of being wounded,

maimed, or killed with edged weapons in fierce combat would surely produce

to some degree the phenomenon of fear. That warriors in all ages have experienced

and more or less mastered these fears we can take as given. Replacing

fear with gritty endurance and courage or even converting it into steel-edged

battle fury must be a prime goal of any successful warrior culture.23 High

praise for honour secured through prowess and larded with visions of loot is

the ideological path usually taken. Yet the tensions are obvious. If knights seldom

left any record of their intimate thoughts, chivalric literature allows us

occasionally to hear amidst the trumpet-calls the small but insistent voice of

fear.24 As a battle waxes fierce, we learn that ‘even the bravest were afraid (li

plus hardis ot paör)’.25 The Chanson de Guillaume shows a warrior so fearful that

his loose bowels have soiled his saddle blanket.26 More traditional historical

sources make the same point. The Song of Dermot and the Earl, written at about

the turn of the thirteenth century, tells a chilling tale of two armies encamped

at night near Wexford in Ireland, expecting battle on the morrow. Suddenly a

Knighthood in Action 165

23 His biographer tells us the late fourteenth-century Castilian knight Don Pero Niño was

instructed as a youth to emulate St James, whose body was chopped bit by bit, but who steadfastly

refused to renounce his faith: see Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 20–1. Geoffroi de Charny

regularly praises steady endurance: see Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry. With an eye to

German chivalric literature and to the distinction between the world and the court, Stephen Jaeger

discusses fear in ‘Sociology of Fear’.

24 See the discussion in Verbruggen, Art of Warfare, 43 ff.

25 Roche-Mahdi, ed., tr., Silence, l. 5464.

26 Muir, tr., The Song of William, Ernest Langlois, ed., La Chanson de Guillaume, laisse 28.

‘phantasm (un enfantesme)’ comes upon the English camp and the watch is

sure they are beset by an armed enemy. ‘St David! Barons, Knights!’ calls out

Randolf FitzRalph; men come tumbling out of the huts and Randolf (thinking

him one of the enemy) strikes the first man he sees, bringing the fellow to

his knees. The phantom soon passes to the Irish camp, causing them, in turn,

to think that they are entrapped by their enemies. Yet in the morning the two

sides formed up and got to their martial work.27 Such phantasms of fear must

often have stalked camps and battlelines; Froissart tells a similar story of the

Flemish camp in the early morning hours before the battle of Roosebeke in


Parodies of knightly ways, of course, speak more openly of fear.29 But in his

Livre Charny, even Geoffroi de Charny, the very soul of courage, admits

plainly that a knight thinks of fleeing as arrows and lances rain down upon

him, as he sees his friends lying dead on the ground around him: ‘Is this not a

great martyrdom?’ he asks.30 Yet he knows martyrdom is the cost of honour

and he knows the rewards if fear is mastered. In his Livre de chevalerie he pragmatically

urges knights not to think what the enemy will do to them, but what

they will do to the enemy.31

Against the profound commitment to war reiterated in chivalric literature

could any reforming voices praise peace? The question touches one of the deep

paradoxes of chivalric ideology, of course, for the ideal goals of spiritual and

social peace, which the critics and reformers pressed and which some knights

must have accepted, were, finally, incompatible with the widespread worship

of prowess.32 Obviously, if war is the highest expression of prowess, the best

opportunity for prowess, knights need war. When in romance a knight brings

peace to some castle, region, or kingdom, that martial achievement usually

spells the end of prowess there and thus the end of interest; the romance

27 Orpen, ed., tr., Song of Dermot, 72–7.

28 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 243–5. Froissart reports that some thought the disturbance was the

revelling of devils delighted at the souls they would win for hell that day.

29 See Whiting, ‘Vows of the Heron’, 263–4.

30 Taylor, ‘Critical Edition’, 18–19, quotation at ll. 457–8: ‘N’est ce grant martire / Qui a tel

ouvrage s’atire?’

31 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 194–5. William of Palerne, in a fourteenth-century

English romance, calls out to his men not to flee, even if they are afraid of the enemy: see Bunt,

ed., William of Palerne, l. 3343. He wants them to think of their lovers instead: l. 3370.

32 Burns, in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xvi, says the prose romances ‘attempted to combine the

irreconcilable interests of earthly chivalry and military conquest with the spiritual quest for peace’.

One example of the paradox: near the end of The Death of King Arthur Arthur laments unthinkable

losses in battle with Mordred: ‘Ah! day, why did you ever dawn, if you were to reduce the

kingdom of Great Britain to such great poverty when its heirs, who are lying here dead and

destroyed in such suffering, were so renowned for prowess?’ If these losses are unusually great, the

prowess praised at the end of his statement, of course, requires battles. Cable, tr., Death of King

Arthur, 221; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 245–6.

moves on to the next adventure, the next setting for prowess, the next battle

zone. ‘That day they rode in peace,’ says the author of the Merlin Continuation,

‘finding nothing that one should record in a story’.33 Fighting for peace is

acceptable to these professional warriors only so long as there is no real danger

of a surfeit of peace; they could scarcely cheer any smothering of chances

for displays of prowess that so well repay their hard efforts in the bright

coinage of honour (and in other coinages as well).

Yet reforming voices raised in the interests of peace can also be heard in

chivalric literature, at least as a brake on enthusiasm. They never draw on fear,

nor on the reluctance we know prudent commanders felt about risking all in

open battle. The ideals usually come, instead, from the world of clergie.

When Chrétien de Troyes presents a world weighed down by the hero’s failure

to ask the Fisher King questions which would have cured him and restored

his pacific rule, he reveals a cursed land that seems to be afflicted by war:

Do you know what we must withstand,

if the king cannot hold his land

and for his wounds obtains no cure:

The married women will endure

their husband’s deaths, lands will be wrecked,

and orphaned maids will live abject,

with many deaths among the knights,

calamities and other plights.34

In the anonymous Perlesvaus which picks up Chrétien’s unfinished story, the

link is explicit: because Perceval failed 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’.35 As if to ensure that his point has registered, the author repeats

the link of grail curse, war, and universal violence shortly thereafter: the curse

means that ‘all lands were engulfed by war; whenever a knight met another in

a forest or glade they would do battle without any real cause’.36

A hermit in the continuation of the Perceval by Gerbert says that ‘God did

not make knights to kill and to make war on people, but to uphold justice and

defend Holy Church’. How knights are to achieve these high professional

goals in an imperfect and violent world without killing and making war is, of

course, not specified. Yet peace is praised. Perceval’s last secular act in this

romance, before retiring from the world as a hermit, himself, is to give an

Knighthood in Action 167

33 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 249; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 292.

34 Cline, tr., Perceval, ll. 4675–87.

35 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 27; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 38.

36 Bryant, Perlesvaus, 35; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 50.

extended peace to the land: ‘Perceval remained in his own land and for seven

years he held it in peace, free of war, untroubled by any man.’37

Sometimes the wickedness and sheer lack of wisdom in fighting Christian

against Christian is stressed. Girart’s war with King Charles in Girart de

Roussillon, is stopped by divine intervention: God sends a great storm and the

banners of both sides are symbolically destroyed by fire.38 Several characters in

this chanson get the message and speak out for the peace God obviously wants;

Galeran de Senlis advises the king that one who fights a long and unjust war

must pay for it. The former enemies are soon, however, hard at work fighting

side by side against pagan foes, Slavs, Saxons, and Frisians.39 In The Story of

Merlin, Queen Guinevere argues the same line, after a tournament at her wedding

has got out of hand: the knights, she says, should save their prowess for

the Saxons and not waste it in destroying one another.40 This same advice was

given to the kings of England and France in the closing years of the fourteenth

century by Philippe de Mézières: they must think whether they want to appear

before the throne of divine judgement with blood dripping from their fingers

‘through following the advice of your knights, nurtured in bloodshed’.41

Could the fears have been even more comprehensive? R. Howard Bloch’s

argument for a general, brooding fear about the social cost of warfare in early

chivalric literature can be extended throughout the literature of the entire

chivalric era.42 This persistent countercurrent, however thin and infrequent,

suggests either that at some subliminal level the fear of violence gave knights

themselves some second thoughts, or that some authors were speaking their

own minds to the necessary but dangerous warriors. Whoever wrote the Vows

of the Heron (likely to have been someone interested in the peace and prosperity

needed by the commercial society of the Low Countries) produced a

‘grimly satirical’ text early in the Hundred Years War. This biting parody of

chivalric vows of wartime prowess links the knights with ‘unsuccessful, mean

or revolting acts’ by an author ‘who realized that only peace could bring prosperity’.


Less savage but equally interesting critiques appear in better-known texts. If

Cador speaks out powerfully against the softening effects of peace in Geoffrey

of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, his successors Wace and

37 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 266, 301. 38 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 166.

39 See ibid., laisses 184, 186, 190. In fact, a leitmotif of this poem is the cost of starting and continuing

wrongful war.

40 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 352; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 333.

41 Coupland, ed., tr., Letter to King Richard II, 90. He at one point calls the warriors sharptoothed

locusts, at another leeches who so greedily suck the lifeblood of the poor that they burst:

pp. 132–3.

42 Bloch, Medieval French Literature and Law.

43 Analysed, with full textual citations, in Whiting, ‘Vows of the Heron’.

Lawman give a short but powerful answering speech in praise of peace to no

less a figure than Gawain.44 The Mort Artu, written a century later, regularly

cautions against the danger of ‘a war which will never come to an end’, the war

which in fact destroys the Round Table by the end of this romance.45 Nearly

two centuries later, Malory carried the theme forward in the monumental closing

section of his Morte Darthur. He pictures Arthur reduced to tears as he

mutters, ‘Alas, alas, that ever yet thys warre began!’46 The knights who support

Lancelot in this struggle know the cost: ‘in thys realme woll be no quyett, but

ever debate and stryff, now the felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn.’ And

Lancelot himself, undergoing the transformation that marks his character both

in the Mort Artu and here, declares that ‘better ys pees than allwayes warre’.47

Warning statements may be more indirect, and partial, yet even more dramatic.

In an unforgettable scene in the Perlesvaus, Perceval drowns his

mother’s enemy, the Lord of the Fens, by suspending him upside-down in a

vat of his own knights’ blood, to allow the man finally to get enough of the

blood of knights for which he has seemingly longed. The result is a land with

untroubled joy. Yet Perceval has, just before this, responded to his mother’s

pleas for a more peaceful solution with a firm dictum: ‘ “My Lady,” he said, “it

is thus: you must make war on the warlike and peace with the peaceful.” ’48

Conduct of War

Could one not argue, however, that in the inevitable warfare of early European

history chivalry functioned as a restraining force, that war on its sliding

medieval scale of possibilities—from the dispute of two lords over a mill to the

dispute of two kings over a province—was less horrific because its key practitioners

were knights? As John Gillingham and Matthew Strickland have

shown, chivalric ideals may indeed have made fighting less barbaric for the

knights themselves. Gillingham has argued strenuously that a reduction in

torture and killing of prisoners came with the advent of chivalry. Strickland

suggests even more broadly a lessening of the horrors of war for the knights;

Knighthood in Action 169

44 Thorpe, tr., Geoffrey of Monmouth, 231–2; Arnold, ed., Brut de Wace, 562–4; Allen, tr.,

Lawman, Brut, 318.

45 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 114, 117, 123; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 114, 118, 125.

46 Vinaver, ed., Malory.Works, 691. The line also appears more than once in the Stanzaic Morte

Arthur, on which Malory drew. See Benson, ed., King Arthur’s Death, e.g., ll. 2204–5, 2442–3.

Lancelot often expresses a desire for peace late in this romance, e.g. ll. 2498–9, 2596–603. Even the

lords of England are said to complain that ‘Arthur loved nought but warring’: l. 2975. In her last

conversation with Lancelot, Guinevere urges that he ‘keep thy reme from war and wrake’ and

decries a world with ‘nought, / But war and strife and batail sore’: ll. 3666, 3720–1.

47 Benson, Morte Arthur, 699, 701.

48 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 151–2, 150; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus. 234–5, 232.

despite their martial culture, medieval warriors tried to limit the occurrence

and mortality of serious combat, granted truces and respites, treated prisoners

well, and ransomed rather than massacred them.49

Chivalric literature, especially from the thirteenth century, supports the idea

of a lively concern about the proper way knights should treat each other when

they fight. Since single combats or small group encounters are pictured in

romance, the writer may have tournament in mind as much as the chaos of

battle.50 The focus is on taking unfair advantage of another; the use of horses

in combat is a topic of special importance. Can one fight an unarmed or inadequately

armed opponent? Is an opponent’s horse a legitimate target? Should

a mounted man attack one already unhorsed? Should a mounted man ride his

great warhorse over an enemy knocked flat on the ground?51

Chrétien de Troyes, near the end of the twelfth century, tells his readers that

Yvain and the Storm Knight ‘fought most honourably’ because neither strikes

his opponent’s horse.52 Early in the next century, the biography of William

Marshal tells the vivid story of William, fully armed and acting as rear-guard

for Henry II, confronting Richard the Lion-Heart, unarmed and in active pursuit

of his father. When Richard pointed out the disparity to William, the

Marshal simply disabled Richard’s horse with his lance.53 The courtesy here,

certainly the prudence, lay in not striking at Richard himself. In The Marvels of

Rigomer (written about the same time), important characters—and sometimes

the author himself—speak out against the idea of several fighting against one,

claiming that knights in their day simply fight to win, but that in the good old

days such practice was considered felony.54 Gawain, the hero of this text, is

said to want to defeat an opponent using nothing but ‘strict chivalry (droit

chevalerie)’.55 Le Bel Inconnu takes the same line, declaring that in the good old

days knights fought one-to-one, but now twenty-five will attack a solitary


Over the next several decades the vast cycle of romances based on Lancelot

and the Grail provides repeated discussions of ideal martial behaviour. When,

in the Merlin Continuation, Gawain fights a knight at a ford, and knocks him

49 John Gillingham, ‘Introduction of Chivalry’; Strickland, War and Chivalry.

50 A point of view in agreement with Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 20.

51 The examples that follow are largely drawn from Old French literature. For many examples

drawn from Middle English texts, see Gist, Love and War, 155–90.

52 Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 855–8. 53 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 8803–49.

54 Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 45, 84–5, 184; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 1995–2007,

3619–798, 8511–38.

55 Foerster, Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 11501–3.

56 Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâgé, ll. 1011–24, 1066–82, 5818–21. The editor and

translator suggest a date ‘from 1191 into the first quarter of the thirteenth century’ (p. xii). The elusive

nature of any ‘golden age’ of chivalry is once again evident in these passages.

from his saddle, he is taught proper manners: ‘Either come down on foot,’

shouts the dismounted man, gripping his lance, ‘or you will cause your horse

to be killed; then you will be completely humiliated.’ Though Gawain with

one blow splits the man’s head like a melon, he has accepted the dictum.57

Having learned, he teaches. Not long after, when Morholt, who had unhorsed

him, charges him on horseback, he cries out, ‘Morholt, if you don’t dismount,

you’ll make me kill your horse, for which the blame will be mine and the shame

yours.’ Morholt accepts the admonition at once, exclaiming, ‘You have just

taught me a courtesy so great that I will observe it all my life, provided I am

not in too bad a situation.’58 The reform quality of the passage is as clear as the

prudent qualifier, which clings to it like a burr.

This same romance pictures Arthur, having unhorsed Pellinor, voluntarily

dismounting to fight on foot, ‘something no one had yet done in the kingdom

of Logres, although later many a valiant man would do it’.59 Such basic lessons

are preached repeatedly: not only do good men disdain mounted advantage,

they refuse to fight several against one, and (as Lancelot instructs Mordred)

they will not fight, armed, against an unarmed man.60

Yet all these romances show somewhat more ambiguity on the question of

riding over prostrate opponents. The valiant Bors rides his horse over a

flattened opponent, for example, until the trampled man yields. Even Lancelot

can appear graciously dismounting to fight an unhorsed enemy in one passage

and then shortly thereafter ride over another’s body ‘until he had completely

broken it’ so that ‘the knight fainted in his great agony’.61 Debate and ambiguity

continue through the texts of the post-vulgate cycle of romances.62 A

similar tension can be found in Malory’s Morte Darthur.63

On one aspect of knightly fighting chivalric literature is quite unambiguous:

the standard display of all-important prowess takes the form of combat on

horseback, at least as long as the knights could keep their saddles. Malory has

Sir Lamerok say to his brothers, unhorsed on the sixth day of the great tournament

at Surluse:

Bretherne, ye ought to be ashamed to fall so of your horsis! What is a knyght but whan

Knighthood in Action 171

57 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 231; Paris and Ulrich, eds, Merlin, II, 84–5.

58 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 272; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 375.

59 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 179–80; Paris and Ulrich, Merlin, II, 191. These ‘later’ displays of

courtesy have, of course, actually already appeared in romances that preceeded this one in date of


60 E.g. Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 44, 61, 93; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 152, 221, 347; IV, 69;

V, 207–8; Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 130; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 257.

61 Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 44, 34–5; Micha, Lancelot, II, 152–3, 116–17.

62 See, e.g., Asher, Merlin Continuation, 13, 17, 27–8; Quest, 190, 275; Sommer, ed., Zeitschrift,

42, 53, 76; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 361; Piel, ed., Demanda, 396.

63 Examples can be found in Stroud, ‘Malory and the Chivalric Ethos’, 336.

he is on horseback? For I sette nat by a knyght whan he is on foote, for all batayles on

foote ar but pyllours in batayles, for there sholde no knyght fyghte on foote but yf hit

were for treson or ellys he were dryvyn by forse to fyght on foote. Therefore, bretherne,

sytte fast in your sadyls, or ellys fyght never more afore me!64

This link between a focus on mounted prowess in all ideological statements

and the changing role of heavy cavalry in actual combat provides us with a fact

of considerable importance. Many scholars have argued that chivalry began to

take on recognizable form at roughly the time a basic set of changes appeared

in the favoured mode of fighting. Mounted shock combat had arrived.65 With

feet planted in sturdy platform stirrups and lance firmly tucked under the arm,

an individual knight or a thundering line of knights could be expected to

deliver the decisive blow on the tournament field or the battlefield. In fact,

such a charge delivered at lance point all the combined force of man and

mount. Two lines of such units clashing produced a roar of battle so deafening

that, as one medieval writer after another swears, ‘you could not hear

God’s thunder’.66

We now know that the dominance of heavy cavalry on medieval battlefields

was much less total than was once thought.67 Moreover, war typically took the

form of the less-than-heroic raid, or the grind of siege operations, and even setpiece

battles might depend on dismounted knights rather than the sweeping

cavalry charge, pennons snapping in the wind. The knights themselves, most

famously the English in the course of the Hundred Years War, could fight with

much success on foot. Some of the most famous engagements of even the

twelfth century had been won by dismounted knights.68 Moreover, specialist

footmen with crossbows and eventually with longbows, engineers with

increasingly powerful forms of counterweight artillery, throwing ‘stinking

Greek fire’69 or sizeable projectiles, sappers with humble picks and shovels—

all actually formed essential elements of military victory.70

64 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 408. This same knight is surprised when Palomides wants to

fight him on foot: ‘hit wolde beseme a knyght to juste and to fyght on horsebacke’ (p. 367).

65 A discussion of the classic thesis of Heinrich Brunner, with an emphasis on the significance

of the stirrup, appears in White, Medieval Technology, 1–38.

66 See comments in D. J. A. Ross, ‘Pleine sa hanste’, and idem, ‘L’originalité de “Turoldus” ’.

67 See especially DeVries, Infantry Warfare.

68 Strickland, War and Chivalry, 23; Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, 19–20.

69 Muir, tr., Capture of Orange, 113; Régnier, ed., Prise d’Orange, l. 1118.

70 For the most recent and thorough overviews, see Prestwich, Armies and Warfare; Strickland,

War and Chivalry; Bachrach, ‘Caballus and Caballarius’. The actual breeding of suitable horses is

explored in R. H. C. Davis, Medieval Warhorse; the relationship between military technology and

military service in Ayton, Knights and Warhorses.

Yet the powerful strata of medieval society maintained and projected in the

literature they patronized a belief in the superiority of the mounted warriors

who were chivalry.71 The Lancelot do Lac, playing with cheval and chevalier,

states that when knighthood originated ‘as the Scriptures reveal, no one was

so bold as to mount a horse, if he was not a knight; and that is why they were

called knights’.72 In his equally mythical account of the origins of chivalry,

Ramon Llull places the choosing of the horse as the knight’s characteristic

beast immediately after his account of the selection of the knight for his characteristic


One literary passage after another links chivalric ideology with mounted

shock combat. Boson, in Girart de Roussillon, we learn, is ready to fight anyone,

once he was on his horse.74 Having discovered the liaison between his

queen and Lancelot, Arthur, in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, pragmatically

doubts if Lancelot can be taken ‘Yif he were armed upon his steed’.75 The

author of the Perlesvaus tells us that Lancelot, besieged by robber knights in a

hall, ‘would have cared little for their threats if he had had his horse with him,

but in combat he was not so sure of himself on foot as on horseback, nor has

any good knight ever been’.76 Being Lancelot, he, of course, accounts for himself

well, breaking out of the hall, cutting off the leg of one of his mounted

opponents at the thigh, and getting the essential horse, ‘and at once he felt

more assured’.77 If we want a real-life parallel—though with a less successful

conclusion—we need only consider Richard Maluvel, a twelfth-century

Scottish knight, who did marvellous feats of arms in a battle at Alnwick: ‘As

long as he was on his horse he feared nothing; he had a splendid horse and he

was splendidly accoutred; but once his horse was slain, he promptly surrendered’.


Horses are, of course, significant characters in early chivalric literature;

those ridden by heroes are often named and may be as individualized as any

other character. Aliscans, for example, features Vivien’s horse which even

Knighthood in Action 173

71 The same mounted self-image appears in manuscript illuminations and on seals. As Ayton

points out, the illustrations in the Ellesmere manuscript shows the knight and squire mounted not

on the palfreys they would have routinely ridden, but on their status horses, the great beasts they

would ideally ride into battle: Knights and Warhorses, 31–2. Rezak surveys chivalric use of seals in

‘Medieval Seals’.

72 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 53; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 143. This text

mentions in passing a significant bit of imagined chivalric history, the first appearance of a

warhorse covered in protective iron. Corley, ibid., 384; Kennedy, ibid., 550.

73 Byles, ed., Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, 15. He later feels compelled, significantly, to remind

his reader that chivalry lies not in horse and arms, but in the knight himself: p. 114.

74 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, ll. 6289–90.

75 Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, l. 1751.

76 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 135; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 206.

77 Bryant, Perlesvaus, 139; Nitze and Jenkins, Perlesvaus, 213.

78 Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 328. Michel, ed., tr., Chronicle, ll. 1878–86.

understand’s the hero’s conversation.79 In more than one story about William

of Orange, the great hero fights with an interesting mixture of motives: the

desire to defeat pagans threatening Christendom and the desire to possess his

opponent’s marvellous horse.80 Two centuries later the register of the Black

Prince provides the proud names of some of his destriers: Grisel de Cologne,

Morel de Burghersh, Bayard de Brucell, Bayard Dieu.81 Such horses possess

equine prowess. In Yder we hear warhorses captured by the hero making a terrible

racket as they neigh and try to injure one another.82 In the alliterative

romance William of Palerne, the warhorse that had served the hero’s father recognizes

the returning son, bows down on its forelegs before him, and carries

him proudly into battle, conscious of the knight’s valour.83

French knights seem to have prided themselves on a particular act of

knightly horsemanship, quick turns for a second charge against a surprised foe.

Turning ‘in the French style’ is mentioned admiringly in more than one chanson

de geste.84

The author of the Mort Artu (a man much interested in tactical details)

informs his readers that King Arthur, on his way to the climactic battle against

the traitor Mordred, wisely went at a pace that would not tire the warhorses

for the critical moment of battle.85 Whoever wrote The Story of Merlin was likewise

fascinated with horses and comments closely on the details of mounted


The staple of all combat in all chivalric literature, of course, is the encounter

of two mounted knights, lances ‘straight out’ in the words of the Chanson de

Roland.87 Many thousands of these combats appear in works that were listened

79 Ferrante, tr., Guillaume d’Orange, 201; Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 35. Don Pero Niño’s

biographer asserts that ‘horses [have] been found that in the thick of battle have shewn themselves

as loyal to their masters as if they had been men’. They are so ‘strong, fiery, swift and faithful, that

a brave man, mounted on a good horse, may do more in an hour of fighting than ten or mayhap

a hundred could have done afoot’: Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 11. He later describes such

a horse, ridden by his hero against the Moors. Hit by many stones, the horse half-wheeled, causing

Pero Niño to feel shame at turning from his foe. But the horse, ‘which was gallant and loyal,

returned to the charge, feeling the will of its rider, amd thrust itself into the midst of the Moors’:

p. 194.

80 Wienbeck et al., eds, Aliscans, 77. In the Crowning of Louis, William likewise covets his

pagan opponent’s great horse: see Hoggan, tr., Crowning of Louis, 15; Langlois, Couronnement de

Louis, 22.

81 Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 30–1. 82 Adams, ed., tr., Romance of Yder, 76–7.

83 Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 3282–95.

84 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 199, 206. Muir, tr., Song of William, 195; Suard, ed.,

Chanson de Guillaume, 204.

85 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 205; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 226.

86 E.g. Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 240; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 135: ‘Right away the

squires ran to put their armour on. They got on their horses and lined up by rows and then

squeezed right together, just as the knights showed them to do.’ This text and others provide

numerous battlefield scenes which turn on procuring horses for unhorsed comrades.

87 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, l. 1204.

to or read for centuries. Audiences seemingly never tired of the details: one

lance pierces shield, hauberk, and body; or both lances splinter spectacularly,

perhaps leaving the two knights unhorsed and temporarily dazed, soon to rise

and go at each other with their sharp swords. Tens of thousands of lines of

poetry and later of prose are devoted to the variations on this pattern. The rare

comic scenes only make the same point more obliquely: the huge pre-knightly

Rainouart in the William of Orange cycle mounted on a charger for the first

time—backwards—or learning the economical use of the sword as opposed to

his beloved but rather undiscriminating club (which crushes both the enemy

and his valuable horse).88 In literature, chivalry fights its battles with lance,

shield, and sword astride a cheval. Virtually every problem that arises in the

great bulk of chivalric literature is solved by the outcome of such encounters.

The yawning gap between ideal and practice seems significant. If knights

often—and by the later Middle Ages increasingly—fought on foot, but appear

without fail as mounted fighters in chivalric literature, is this not a good case

for discounting the evidence of imaginative literature? In fact, though the literary

portrayal is not a guide to battlefield practice in this regard, it is assuredly

an important window into chivalric mentalité. The evidence of romance is, we

should note, redoubled by that of historical writing (Froissart, the Chandos

Herald) and of manuscript illumination (Sir Geoffrey Luttrell in the Luttrell

Psalter): in all representations of themselves knights want to be seen mounted

on great chargers, a noble man atop a noble beast, literally above commoners.

89 Purveying this image must have been considerably more important than

getting the particulars of battle right.

Moreover, the image was less far off than might seem, if we think of the

entire range of deeds in a life of prowess and not just moments of full-scale

battle. Tournaments filled more days than such battles and usually meant a

classic mounted encounter. Even during campaigns jousts à outrance were

fought before or in place of battle, as individual knights or small groups challenged

each other to these ‘jousts of war’, lovingly described by chroniclers and

biographers. Hunting, too, meant horsemanship, another species of prowess,

another active display of lordship. Even funerals make the final point, as one

or more caparisoned warhorses preceded the warrior’s body in procession.90

The literary accounts may also reveal a congruence in timing between

romance writing and military technique. Michael Prestwich suggests that after

some significant experience of fighting on foot in the twelfth century, English

Knighthood in Action 175

88 Muir, tr., Song of William, 196; Suard, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, 206; Wienbeck et al., eds,

Aliscans, 251, 261.

89 Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 13, provides the scene from the Luttrell Psalter.

90 Ayton provides a good discussion in Knights and Warhorses, 20–39.

knights became reluctant to dismount on thirteenth-century battlefields. They

had to relearn a willingness to fight on foot in warfare with the Scots in the

early fourteenth century.91 The flourishing of chivalric literature and the setting

of its conventions would fit nicely into this chronology. The physical,

social, and military superiority of the knight atop his huge warhorse could easily

have become a fixed theme in the heyday of the writing of chivalric works.

Looting and Destruction

If chivalry made warfare better for knights, what of everyone else? Historians

have long been tempted to believe that knights tried to limit damage to noncombatants;

some have attributed the horrors of medieval warfare to common

soldiers who could simply not be regulated by their social superiors in brighter

armour.92 What does the ‘historical’ and ‘literary’ evidence show?

In the second half of the twelfth century the poetry of Bertran de Born glories

in the very opportunities for looting non-combatants that war brings the

knightly. Hoping that strained relations between Richard the Lion-Heart and

Alfonso de Castile will bring war in the late twelfth century, he writes, in

words that have become well known:

Trumpets, drums, standards and pennons and ensigns and horses white and black we

soon shall see, and the world will be good. We’ll take the usurers’ money, and never a

mule-driver will travel the roads in safety, nor a burgher without fear, nor a merchant

coming from France. He who gladly takes will be rich.93

His poetry joins other works that show the knight’s hand holding the torch

that fires peasant homes, bourgeois shops, even churches. Bertrand declared

that ‘War is no noble word when it’s waged without fire and blood’.94 The

English king Henry V agreed; speaking three centuries later he declared that

‘War without fire is like sausages without mustard.’95 This sentiment was far

from theoretical: accounts of one fourteenth-century English chevauchée after

another show that English commanders seldom denied themselves their mustard

while campaigning in the French countryside. We also know that the

royal fleet which carried Edward III and his army to Brabant in 1338 indis-

91 Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 317–19.

92 Idealist writers of the time could hope the same; Philippe de Mézières wrote in 1395 that

‘countless ills and cruelties . . . occur in war, against and outside the laws of chivalry’: see

Coupland, Letter to King Richard II, 52–3, 126.

93 Paden et al., eds., Poems of the Troubadour, 398–9.

94 Ibid., 358–9. He says in another poem; ‘War wants you to shed blood and set fire and never

avoid giving, or tire of it’ (pp. 454–5).

95 Quoted in Gillingham, ‘Richard I’, 85.

criminately plundered merchant shipping in the Channel.96 Private wars in all

ages regularly caused widespread arson.97

This association of warfare with destruction by fire appears as a commonplace

in many chansons. Near the end of the twelfth-century Coronation of Louis,

William of Orange hopes that his seemingly endless fighting for king and

Christendom may be over: ‘But that was not to be for as long as he lived, for

the Frenchmen took to rebelling again, making war against each other and acting

like madmen, burning down towns and laying waste the countryside. They

would not restrain themselves at all on Louis’s account.’98 In the Chanson

d’Aspremont, Girart, Duke of Burgundy, refers to such local warfare almost

casually in a speech to his knights:

If my neighbor starts a quarrel with me,

With fire burns my land to cinders;

And I, his, on all sides;

If he steals my castles or keeps,

Then so it goes until we come to terms,

Or he puts me or I put him in prison;99

‘Then so it goes.’ Girart is simply recalling the facts of raid, arson, and counterraid

at home, as a contrast to the great battle to the death they are facing now,

against a pagan host.

The language of Raoul de Cambrai speaks to the same subject with characteristically

brutal clarity: ‘Then they cross the boundary of Vermandois; they

seize the herds and take the herdsmen prisoners; they burn the crops and set

fire to the farms.’100

Girart de Roussillon, another chanson, presents the same picture, although

with greater epic exaggeration. When Fouque, speaking for Girart, warns

King Charles that his baronial style of war is to burn every town, hang every

knight, and devastate every land taken, the royal response is to promise even

worse by way of revenge. When the sage Fouque stays in an abbey while on a

mission to the king, he is so pleased with their hospitality that he gives the

monks a revealing promise: the bourg where the monastic house is located will

not be destroyed or ruined in the coming war.101 As warfare goes on for years

in this chanson, the knights cut down vines and trees, destroy wells, and turn

Knighthood in Action 177

96 See Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 98, and the sources cited there. Though only

one example from among hundreds, this case is interesting because ships of all nationalities

suffered—not simply those of the enemy.

97 E.g. the raid discussed in ibid., 82–3.

98 Hoggan, tr., Crowning of Louis, 56; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 83.

99 ll. 5012–17; my translation. 100 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul, laisse 59.

101 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, 113, 121–2.

the land into a desert; they pillage and destroy even churches and monasteries.

One monastery goes up in flames with a thousand royalist refugees inside.

Those captured in the war, the poet tells us, are hanged or mutilated. Charles

later claims that Girart has killed or wounded 100,000 of his men and that he

has ravaged and devastated his realm: ‘His great valour is only wickedness

(mauvaistez).’ Merchants who hear a false report of Girart’s death respond

with joy, since his war always heaped evils upon them. Fleeing from the victorious

king at the nadir of his fortunes, Girart and his wife must endure similar

maledictions from a widow and daughter in a household which lost knightly

father and son in Girart’s war. Even Girart’s wife tells him that he has killed

and despoiled more men than he can reckon, earning the rebuke of God. King

Charles is not spared criticism himself, however; the Bishop of Saint-Sauveur

rebukes the king for having burned 10,000 churches on his own, causing

monks and priests to flee. In his sermon denouncing the war, late in the poem,

the pope tells the warriors that God is angry; they have burned churches and

their clergy; they have caused great suffering among simple folk; they have

destroyed towns and caused great sorrows. They must make restitution for

their own souls and those of their ancestors. At the end of his life, Girart,

thinking about making final amends, proposes grants to support 500 poor

people and 1,000 monks; but he hears that it is not enough, for he has driven

100,000 people from their homes and his father’s earlier warfare has actually

killed no fewer.102

Epic exaggeration, of course. Yet the knightly role in warfare appears much

the same in works traditionally classified as romance. Despite its fashionably

classical setting, the Eneas attributes knightly warfare to imagined Trojans and

Latins. The Trojan knights ‘dispersed the peasantry, who were not trained for

battle,’ sacked a nearby castle, and ‘set out for home, gathering booty from the

countryside. They plundered and seized everything and they burdened a thousand

sumpter horses with wheat.’103

Two knights in William of England enthusiastically conduct war against the

lady whose lands border those of their lord, not knowing that this lady is their

mother. Confronting them before she learns of their identity, the mother

curses the two knights, damning the day they were born. They have, she

claims, killed her men or held them for ransom, harassed her to the point of

death, ravaged her land so that nothing worth six pennies remains standing

outside fortified spots. ‘They waged the entire war. They are the most evil on

earth.’ Of course, once she learns the two are her sons, all is forgiven. William,

102 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisses 113, 121, 283, 320, 356 (especially ll. 5528–31), 413–15,

521, 525, 633 (the pope’s sermon, especially from l. 9384), 606.

103 Yunck, tr., Eneas, 125–31: Grave, ed., Eneas.

her husband, has already told them that their warfare has been at once treacherous

(to their mother) and loyal (to their lord). The contradictions in

knightly warfare could scarcely be presented more starkly.104

Such estimates of the warfare conducted by knights are common. In the

Didot Perceval Arthur’s men land in France ‘and ran through the land and took

men and women and booty and you may be sure that never before had a land

been so dolorous.’105 In the Chevalier du Papegau we encounter ‘a great cry and

noise made by people fleeing before a knight who was laying waste to all the


The language itself can be instructive. In more than one romance, war

appears in the telling guise of a great and destructive storm. Early in Chrétien’s

Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion, a frightening storm descends whenever any

knight pours water over a stone at a magic spring. When the Storm Knight,

defender of the spring, chastises Calogrenant for causing the storm, he speaks

the language of knightly war:

Vassal, greatly have you

shamed and injured me, without proper challenge.

You ought first to have challenged me.

if you had just cause,

or at least sought amends,

before you brought war against me. . . .

He who is injured has the right to complain;

and I complain and with justice,

that you have driven me from my house

with lightning and rain;

you have wronged me

and cursed be he who finds it good,

for against my woods and my castle

you have levelled such an attack

that great towers and high walls

would have been of no avail to me. . . .

But know from now on

you will have no truce or peace from me.107

After Yvain has killed the Storm Knight, Lunete counsels her widowed lady,

Laudine, to seek advice on how to defend the spring, for failure will bring

Knighthood in Action 179

104 Staines, tr., Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, 486, 488; Holden, ed. Guillaume d’Angleterre, ll.

2934–6, 3041–58.

105 Skells, tr., Perceval in Prose, 71–2.

106 Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 14; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du papegau, 14.

107 Kibler, tr., Knight with the Lion, ll. 491–516. The Old French crackles with legal terminology

of defiance, plaint, etc.

utterly destructive war.108 Laudine presents this view to her court through her

seneschal, in justification of her decision to marry her husband’s conqueror:

My lords, war is upon us:

not a day passes that the king isn’t

making preparations as fast as he can

to come lay waste to our lands.

Before these two weeks are over

everything will be laid waste

unless a good defender be found.109

Near the end of the romance, Yvain’s own words again explicitly link the storm

and war. He decides that to win back his lady’s affection he will return

and wage war at her spring;

and there he’d cause so much

thunder and wind and rain

that she would be compelled

to make her peace with him.110

William of England identifies war with storm in even more explicit fashion.

During a terrifying storm at sea, the author says the four winds are at war, acting

‘as do lords of the land who burn and ravage castles for their pleasure’. This

comparison is possible, says the poet, because the lords ‘devastate the world,

just as the winds devastate the waves’.111

This impressionistic linkage of knightly violence with at least quasi-natural

forces also appears in the pedestrian Chevalier du Papegau. Arthur, here a

young hero, confronts a hideous fish-knight who grows his own armour as a

monstrous hide. This creature’s approach causes a commotion ‘as great as any

storm’, and in the course of the fight he whirls like a tornado through fields

and meadows. After defeating him, Arthur and his friends trace the monster’s

trail to the sea where a fierce storm batters the search party so severely they fear

for their lives.112

In the continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval by Gerbert de Montreuil, and in

the Perlesvaus, the dread Knight of the Dragon besieges his enemies, ‘destroying

castles and cities and knights and whatever he can attack’, not only with a

mortal army, but with a shield which features a fire-spewing dragon’s head as

a boss; he consumes his opponents with this sulphurous medieval forerunner

108 Kibler, tr., Knight with the Lion, ll. 1627–9, 1640–1.

109 Ibid., ll. 2085–91. 110 Ibid., ll. 6524–9: the verb is guerroier.

111 Staines, tr., Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, 478–9; Holden, ed., Guillaume d’Angleterre, ll.


112 Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 14–25; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du papegau, 14–24.

of a flamethrower, supplied, we find it no surprise to learn, from the arsenal of


This popular Perceval legend connects war to a haunting and socially comprehensive

image—the terre gaste, the land laid waste.114 In his Perceval,

Chrétien pictures entire regions desolated by knightly warfare. The beautiful

Blancheflor tells Perceval, who seeks lodging in her castle, that she has been

besieged ‘one winter and one whole summer’. Her garrison of 310 knights has

been cut down by violent death and capture to 50. This terror is the work of

‘one knight: Clamadeu of the Isles’ cruel seneschal Anguingueron’. His siege

has produced a veritable wasteland in this region:

For if, without, the youth had found

the fields were barren, empty ground,

within there was impoverishment;

he found, no matter where he went,

the streets were empty in the town.

He saw the houses tumbled down

without a man or woman there.

. . .

The town was wholly desolate.115

The initial setting of the poem lies in the forest soutaine, the ‘lone and wild forest’,

to which Perceval’s mother has fled from the chaos and warfare that swept

the land following the death of Uther Pendragon, the future King Arthur’s

father. With her husband badly wounded and Perceval’s two elder brothers

both slain on the very day they were made knights, Perceval’s mother hopes to

keep him from the world of knightly combat. The first time he utters the word

knight she falls in a faint.116

Chivalric biography is even less reticent about the realities of knightly warfare.

The Chandos Herald, writing the life of the Black Prince late in the fourteenth

century, tells his readers how his master’s host behaved between the

Seine and the Somme during their invasion: ‘the English to disport themselves

Knighthood in Action 181

113 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 245–55; idem, tr., Perlesvaus, 153, 162–4; Williams and Oswald, eds,

Gerbert de Montreuil, ll. 8906–10153; Nitze and Jenkins, eds., Perlesvaus, 237, 250–4. Such texts

remind us that in many minds strong, intuitive bonds linked war—on any scale—and fire, its

inevitable accompaniment, with hellfire and demons.

114 Bloch, Medieval French Literature.

115 Cline, tr., Perceval, 51–2, ll. 1749–55, 1773; Roach, ed., Roman de Perceval. The continuator

Gerbert of Montreuil thought that the devastation of a siege would be so complete that

Gorneman, Blancheflor’s kinsman, could scarcely recognize her land when he saw it restored to

prosperity: ‘Gorneman was bewildered, for he had not been there since Clamadeus had laid waste

the land and the country all around; but now it was as splendid a sight as you have heard from my

description’: Bryant, Perceval, 229.

116 Bryant, Perceval, 1–7; Roach, Roman de Perceval, ll. 69–634.

put everything to fire and flame. There they made many a widowed lady and

many a poor child orphan’.117 It is helpful to remember that this passage

appears in a laudatory life, setting forth the prowess and piety of Edward, the

Black Prince, son of Edward III.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the biographer of William Marshal, it is true,

pictured William, during the burning of Le Mans, helping a woman drag her

possessions from her flaming home; William nearly suffocated on the smoke

which entered his helmet. But the action was scarcely typical of the times or

even of the hero’s life. The biography tells us that the mature William advised

Henry II to delude the French king into thinking he had disbanded his army,

but then to carry devastation into French territory. Of warfare between Henry

II and his sons, the biographer observed that many places in his day still

showed the scars of that war. These scars, in other words, had yet to heal after

forty years.118

Chronicles, less concerned with the mix of prescription and description than

imaginative literature, point specifically and repeatedly to knights as the bane

of their author’s hopes for a more orderly life. The historian Matthew Paris

tells a striking story of Hubert de Burgh leading a troop harrying the lands

belonging to King John’s enemies in England; looting as thoroughly as they

could and destroying what they could not carry off, even churches seemed fair

game. But then Christ himself appeared to Hubert in a dream, admonishing

him to spare and worship the crucifix when next he saw it. The very next day

a priest whose church was being looted ran up to Hubert carrying a large

crucifix. Remembering the warning, Hubert fell to his knees, adored the cross,

and restored the looted goods to the priest.119 Such worthy restraint led to the

telling of the story; the common practice, of course, looms in the background.

Orderic Vitalis tells an even more striking story in Book XII of his

Ecclesiastical History. His account deserves quotation in full, for the unforgetable

picture it paints is worth many words of more abstract analysis. On a

raiding expedition which yielded an important prisoner and much booty,

Richer de Laigle ‘did something that deserves to be remembered for ever’:

While country people from Grace and the villages around were following the raiders

and were planning to buy back their stock or recover it somehow, the spirited knights

(animosi milites) wheeled round and charged them, and when they turned tail and fled

continued in pursuit. The peasants had no means of defending themselves against a

117 ‘Mais les Englois poier iaux esbatre / Misent tout en feu et a flame. La firent mainte veve

dame / Et maint povrae enfant orfayn’: Pope and Lodge, eds., The Black Prince, ll. 236–9.

118 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 2193–2222. Unvarnished accounts of devastation also appear prominently

in the fifteenth-century biography ofDonPero Niño: see Evans, tr.,The Unconquered Knight.

119 Paris, Chronica Majora, III, 290–1, cited and discussed in Cazel, ‘Religious Motivation’,


mailed squadron and were not near any stronghold where they could fly for refuge, but

they saw a wooden crucifix by the side of the road and all flung themselves down

together on the ground in front of it. At the sight Richer was moved by the fear of God,

and for sweet love of his Saviour dutifully respected his cross. He commanded his men

to spare all the terrified peasants and to turn back . . . for fear of being hindered in some

way. So the honourable man, in awe of his Creator, spared about a hundred villagers,

from whom he might have extorted a great price if he had been so irreverent as to capture


Not seizing the bodies of the peasants whose homes he has already looted (out

of respect for the potent symbol of the cross) earns him the adjective honourable

or noble (nobilis); indirectly, Orderic speaks volumes about ordinary

practice.121 Not that he is reluctant to speak his mind directly. Often he

describes casual brutality outright. In the course of feudal warfare carried on

right through the holy season of Lent, Count Waleran, ‘raging like a mad boar,

entered the forest of Bretonne, took prisoner many of the peasants he found

cutting wood in the thickets, and crippled them by cutting off their feet. In this

way he desecrated the celebration of the holy festival rashly, but not with

impunity.’122 Orderic describes the followers of Robert, the future Duke of

Normandy, as ‘of noble birth and knightly prowess, men of diabolical pride

and ferocity terrible to their neighbours, always far too ready to plunge into

acts of lawlessness’.123 Of lords such as Robert of Bellême and William of

Mortain, he writes, ‘It is impossible to describe the destruction wrought by

vicious men of the region; they scarred the whole province with slaughter and

rapine and, after carrying off booty and butchering men, they burnt down

houses everywhere. Peasants fled to France with their wives and children.’124

When this same Robert fought with a neighbour, Rotrou, over the boundaries

of their lands, Orderic says:

they fought each other ferociously, looting and burning in each other’s territories and

adding crime to crime. They plundered poor and helpless people, constantly made

Knighthood in Action 183

120 Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 250–1.

121 The author of Girart de Roussillon tells us, with disapproval, that Girart and Boson slaughtered

a hundred knights gathered around a wayside cross in search of sanctuary during battle.

Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 413. The poet says God turned the war against Girart’s

side after this.

122 Chibnall, Ecclesiastical History, VI, 348–9. 123 Ibid., III, 102–3.

124 Ibid., VI, 58–9. This description might be compared with the actions of the giant knight

Malduit who ravages the land because Yvain has insulted his shield: ‘He rode wherever he thought

he might find people, knocking down tents and pavilions and shelters, destroying whatever he

encountered, killing knights and ladies and maidens, sparing only the dogs’: Kibler, tr., Lancelot

Part V, 175–7; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 250–61. Malduit appears to be a symbol of knightly war;

the victims, however, are here made exclusively knights and ladies, rather than villagers and


them suffer losses or live in fear of losses, and brought distress to their dependants,

knights and peasants alike, who endured many disasters.125

Knightly ferocity and brutal acquisitiveness likewise appear when we cross

the Channel. Outright private war was less likely in England, where it was formally

forbidden by law, but some English knights took every opportunity that

crown weakness presented and did what they could at other times. William

Marshal’s father, to take a well-known example, was during the civil war as

thoroughgoing a robber baron as any lord denounced by Orderic. William’s

Histoire praises John Marshal as ‘a worthy man, courtly, wise, loyal, full of

prowess (preudome corteis e sage . . . proz e loials)’; it also shows him collaborating

with a Flemish mercenary, dividing up regions of southern England for

exploitation like any Mafioso; it further tells us that at this time England knew

great sadness, great war, great strife, because there was no truce, no agreement,

no justice while the warfare lasted.126

The Anglo-Saxon chronicle similarly evaluated conditions in another part of

the country, East Anglia:

For every man built him castles and held them against the king; and they filled the land

with these castles. They sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced

labour on these castles; and when the castles were built they filled them with devils and

wicked men. By night and day they seized those whom they believed to have any

wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold and silver they

put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures. . . . When the

wretched people had no more to give, they plundered and burnt all the villages, so that

you could easily go a day’s journey without ever finding a village inhabited or field cultivated

. . . and men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.127

At the end of the fourteenth century even Froissart was still inserting into

his narratives admonitory tales of what happened to church violators. An

English squire who seized a chalice from a priest’s hands at the altar in a raid

on the village of Ronay (and then gave the celebrant a backhanded blow to the

face) soon whirled out of control on the road and, screaming madly, fell with

broken neck and was reduced to ashes. His fearful companions swore never to

rob or violate a church again. ‘I do not know whether they kept their promise’,

comments Froissart.128

125 Chibnall, ed., tr., Ecclesiastical History, VI, 396–7.

126 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 27, 31–8, 63 on John Marshal, 125–30 on the state of England. Crouch

says John and his men ‘issued regularly from the defiles of those grey hills [of north-east

Wiltshire], demanding tribute and obedience from all those lowlanders who had no protection of

their own’: William Marshal, 12.

127 Quoted in Davis, King Stephen, 83–4. 128 Brereton, tr., Froissart, 162–3.

His contemporary, Honoré Bonet, knew. In his famous Tree of Battles he

tells the French king that ‘nowadays . . . the man who does not know how to

set places on fire, to rob churches and usurp their rights and to imprison the

priests, is not fit to carry on war’.129 Far from protecting the helpless, the warriors

loot them without mercy, ‘for in these days all wars are directed against

the poor labouring people and against their goods and chattels. I do not call

that war, but it seems to me to be pillage and robbery.’130 One is reminded of

Merigold Marches, the routier leader executed in Paris in 1391. He had seized

people for ransom, burned and looted in wartime France; his claim that he had

acted as one should in a just war was brushed aside; his crime was not the activities

themselves, however, but simply that he, a mere mercenary, had lacked

proper status and authority.131

Chivalry brought no radical transformation in medieval warfare, as it

touched the population as a whole; above all, it imposed no serious check on

the looting, widespread destruction, and loss of non-combatant lives that

seem to have been the constant companions of warfare. Recent historical

scholarship suggests that we have no reason to think that chivalry should have

transformed war in this broad sense, nor that knights were somehow unchivalrous

cads for not attempting it. As a code, chivalry had next to nothing to do

with ordinary people at all.132


Yet knighthood needed to emphasize its own internal cohesion, its own management

of the highly competitive force of prowess. From its origins, chivalry

had shown a collective dimension; it placed the particular knight within the

entire group or class of knights, all—in idealistic plan—living by something

like a common ethos. If chivalry was to be more than a purely individualistic,

even radically anarchic force, a corresponding military virtue was needed to

bind the individual to the collective ethos. That virtue was loyalty and it was

attached as firmly as possible to prowess in chivalric ideology. Loyalty functioned

as the rudder which steered the great vessel of prowess into acceptable


Knighthood in Action 185

129 Coupland, ed., tr., Tree of Battles, 189.

130 Ibid. A few years later Philippe de Mézières called contemporary warriors leeches who

sucked the blood of the poor until they burst, though he piously hoped that the victims would be

better off, having less distracting wealth: Coupland, Letter to King Richard II, 58–9, 132.

131 Discussed in Keen, Laws of War, 97–100.

132 See, e.g., Strickland, War and Chivalry, passim; Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 1–12,

231–43; Hewitt, Organisation of War, 93–140; Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 184–269;

Keen, ‘Chivalry, Nobility’; Gillingham, ‘War and Chivalry’; idem, ‘William the Bastard’.

As this practical, working corollary to prowess, however, loyalty is easily

misunderstood as essentially political and highly idealistic. Beginning students

often mistake it for nothing short of steadfast devotion to king and country,

or to the church as a holy abstraction. We might better attach it to the broadest

conception of law, intending by that term what it so often means in

literature: the entire body of beliefs that guide practice and provide selfdefinition.

133 In the Vulgate Cycle of romances, loyalty often means adherence

to the oath taken by all Round Table knights.134

We could almost say the focus of a knight’s loyalty was chivalry itself, since

chivalry provided such guides, such an identity. ‘A knight who is treasonous

and disloyal’, announces a knight in the Lancelot do Lac, ‘is one who has

renounced knighthood.’135 A guilty knight brought to the point of death by

Lancelot, in the Lancelot, in effect begs for mercy by arguing that the hero

would be disloyal to chivalry to refuse: ‘Noble knight, have mercy on me!

Indeed, it would be disloyal and brutal to kill me after I’d admitted defeat and

begged for mercy.’136 The danger lurking here, as so often, is a distorting

romanticization in which knights appear in pastel hues, fervently believing in

all the ideals, in each of the reform plans that emanated from the worlds of

clergie and royauté. Of course, knights were not unfailingly loyal to kings, not

endlessly obedient sons of Holy Mother Church, and seldom appeared in life

in pastel hues.

But they could show behaviour consistent with ideals of their own group

and thus behave predictably; they could be loyal, then, in the sense of being

held trustworthy both by their social and political superiors and inferiors (at

least down through the ranks of knights, that is). Adherence to the sworn

word, to obligation, is crucial to the reliability and predictability that stand at

the heart of loyalty. ‘Sir knight,’ says an old woman to Yvain in one of his

adventures, ‘if there’s any loyalty in you, keep your promise to me. . . . Truly,

if you were a knight, you wouldn’t break your oath, even if it meant your

life.’137 The statement could almost stand as a definition of loyalty, but it

scarcely stands alone. ‘God help me,’ Hector says to Marganor (who has

arranged a fight between one of his knights and Hector in the Lancelot), ‘I

133 Roland, for example, speaks out ‘following the law of chivalry (Dunc ed parled a lei de chevalerie)’:

Brault, ed., Chanson de Roland, l. 752.

134 As noted by Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 9, n. 2. Examples appear in this text and in

other works in this cycle.

135 Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 222; see the same sentiment in Rosenberg, tr.,

Lancelot Part I, 91, Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 172. In the romance of Yder, Kei is said to

have no chivalric virtue because he lost it through disloyalty: Adams, ed., tr., Romance of Yder,


136 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 190; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 322.

137 Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 173; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 244.

consider you a loyal knight because you made the knight respect the compact

you had with me.’138 Lancelot is, of course, the great exemplar: returning from

the tournament at Pomeglai to hateful captivity, as he had promised, Lancelot

is greeted by Meleagant’s worried seneschal as ‘the most loyal knight in the

world’.139 Lancelot even denounces Fortune as ‘traitorous and disloyal’, for

being so fickle, ‘ever changing like the wind!’140

‘Loyal’ is not surprisingly one of the most common terms of virtue applied

to knights in chivalric literature. The prowess of the loyal was exercised in the

proper manner and for the right causes; their violence was predictable as well

as praiseworthy. Pharian’s nephew, early in the Lancelot, makes the link of loyalty

and prowess explicit: ‘disloyalty turns a good knight into a bad one, and a

knight who is true fights well and confidently even if he has never done so

before.’141 A worthy opponent of Lancelot later in this romance echoes this

point of view clearly in the exact words we have already noted from the

Lancelot: ‘A knight who is treacherous and disloyal is one who has renounced

knighthood.’142 Gawain expresses surprise that a treacherous heart can show

great prowess.143 He heroically bears being bound and whipped by the evil

Caradoc in Lancelot, but ‘almost went out of his mind’ when he was called a

traitor, that is, when accused of disloyalty. Kay of Estral announces in this

same text, ‘I have always feared being disloyal more than dying.’ And Pharian,

in Lancelot, cautions Claudas against ‘some act of disloyalty or treachery that

would lose him the honour of this world, towards which all prowess struggles,

and the honour of the other, everlasting one, which is the great joy of

Heaven’.144 The author of the Lancelot even states that Meleagant’s disloyal

nature spoiled his commendable prowess: ‘he would have been quite valiant if

he had not been so disloyal.’145

A great show of prowess is taken, conversely, to mean corresponding loyalty.

Bors tells the model knights Claudin and Canart (captured in the war

against Claudas): ‘in God’s name . . . you will not be placed in chains or irons,

but keep your word on your honour as worthy knights, for the great prowess

Knighthood in Action 187

138 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 190; Micha, ed., Lancelot VIII, 294 (a section of the romance

much concerned with issues of oaths and loyalty to obligations).

139 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 29; Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 221.

140 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 187; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 302–3.

141 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 14. I have substituted the term ‘knight’ for the ‘warrior’ in

the translation, since this is what the text says.

142 Ibid., 91.

143 Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 205.

144 Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 288; 314; Part I, 39.

145 Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 5 (using her footnote to alter the translation); Micha, Lancelot, II,

8–9: ‘kar preus estoil il assés, s’il ne fust si desloials’.

God has given you would be put to ill use indeed if you committed any act of

disloyalty or treachery.’146

In all these texts prowess and loyalty are bonded as solidly as prowess and

honour. This important fusion helped to create chivalry and give it great

strength. Yet chivalry itself was an ambivalent force where a peaceful life and

public order were concerned. Its strengthening did not radically transform the

general conduct of war as Europeans of all social ranks experienced it so bountifully

in these centuries.

146 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 314; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 147.