13 CHIVALRIC SELF-CRITICISM AND REFORM

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PREVIOUS chapters have shown knights absorbing ideas and cooperating

with practices from the spheres of clergie and royauté, while filtering

through their own high sense of power, privilege, and calling any ideas and

practices that seemed constricting or intrusive. Yet reform was not simply

forced upon knighthood from outside, by those who were not knights or not

primarily knights. The knights themselves clearly had ideals. Even had clerics

and royal career administrators ceased to direct a steady stream of exhortations,

some of the chivalrous would have found a continual reform programme

necessary and desirable. Many knights knew that the great ideal could

be better implemented in the world and, to the extent that it was, that the

world would be a better, nobler place. The warriors themselves agreed that

there was, in other words, ideal chivalry, though they might have debated the

details; they thought that difficult and imperfect men must try to do better.

Clergie or royauté, of course, held that chivalry would still need reform even if

it were practised according to the ideals sketched in this chapter.

We can best discover the ideals of the knights themselves in works written

by them or by those quite close to them. The vernacular manuals or handbooks

written to instruct knights provide a classic source. The Book of Chivalry

by Geoffroi de Charny and The Book of the Order of Chivalry by Ramon Llull

are especially important.1 But before considering these it will be helpful to

glance at the programme in an earlier work.

The Romance of the Wings

The Romance of the Wings (Le Roman des Eles), written by Raoul de Hodenc in

about 1210, shows a clear reforming intent from its opening page, even if this

intent is wrapped, as always, in extravagant praise of chivalry as an ideal.2

1 As emphasized by Keen, Chivalry, 6–17.

2 Busby, ed., Ordene de Chevalerie. Translations of quotations in this section from pp. 161–75.

Raoul says that the very name chevalerie is full of ‘such loftiness and dignity’,

that, ‘rightly speaking, [it] is the true name of nobility’. Only knights drink

from the inexhaustible, divine fountain of courtesy: ‘it came from God and

knights possess it’ (ll. 11–15, 25).

Because of its very loftiness, it stands so far above all other lofty names, that if they were

to recognize its lofty nature, they would not dare to do some things they now do.—

Why?—Out of shame. But they are not aware of the exigencies of their name, for a man

may take himself for a knight though he know not what appertains to the name, save

only ‘I am a knight’. (ll. 40–9)

He thinks it ‘indisputably true that they should be such as their name says’. Yet

‘many have no understanding of knighthood’. He is specifically worried that

the dominance of prowess in the thinking of knights will drive out two other

qualities that he wants to see held in great esteem: liberality and courtesy. He

tries to be careful, but his enthusiasm carries him along:

Do I mean to say that there is such a thing as a wicked knight? By no means, but some

are at the least worth more than the others, whatever the case; and there are many such

who are so superior in prowess that they do not deign to exercise liberality, but rather

trust so much to their prowess that pride strikes them at once.’ (ll. 27–8, 116–26)

He imaginatively recreates the thinking of such a man: ‘Why give? What can

they say about me? Am I not he of the great shield? I am he who has conquered

all, I am the best of my kind, I have surpassed Gavain in arms’ (ll. 128–34). To

such prideful knights, obsessed with prowess, Raoul responds:

Ah, lords, whatever anyone may say, it is no part of knighthood for a knight to despise

liberality on account of his prowess, for to tell the truth, no-one can rise to lofty esteem

by means of prowess unless that prowess has two wings; and I will tell you what the

matter and manner of those two wings ought to be. (ll. 135–43)

The treatise does just that, providing detailed explanations of seven feathers on

the right wing of liberality, seven on the left wing of courtesy.

Raoul fears that an excessive belief in prowess in his own time will reduce

the largesse so important to chivalry; significantly, his great enemy is the

miser, where Geoffroi de Charny’s is the cowardly and inactive man. From the

right wing the knight learns that he must be courageous in liberality, give to

rich and poor alike, spend without care for landed wealth (saying, ‘A knight,

God protect me, will not rise to great heights if he enquires of the value of

corn’), give what is promised, promptly and liberally, and provide fine feasts.

The left wing is also composed of seven feathers, each a specific component

of courtesy. The knight must honour and guard Holy Church, avoid pride;

refrain from boasting (he should ‘strike high and talk low’), enjoy good enter-

tainment, avoid envy, avoid slander (since simultaneous physical and verbal

feats are an impossibility), and be a lover and love truly for love’s sake (ll.

144–end).3

As Keith Busby, the editor of the text, has suggested, the message is ‘largely

social, and it concentrates on telling knights how to behave rather than elaborating

on the symbolic significance of knighthood’. Though the poem makes

its case in religious and moral terms, it ‘could not be called essentially religious’.

4 So close is its link with topics we have discussed that we might safely

call the poem reformist.