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NEAR the end of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain’s

time traveller, backed by a force of only fifty-two boys in a cave stronghold,

confronts the host of twenty-five thousand knights that has come to

wipe out the source of trouble in Camelot. Efficient military technology

destroys the knights en masse. Attacking in the darkness, they die in droves on

concentric rings of electrified fences; others are shot down from platforms

mounting electric lights and rapid-firing Gatling guns; finally, all that remain

drown when a mountain stream is directed into the great ditch filled with the

fleeing chivalry.

Whatever the complexities of Twain’s views regarding knighthood and

‘modern’ technology by this stage in his own life,1 this horrific and unforgettable

tableau captures the popular, simplistic explanation of the end of

chivalry: knighthood died with its shining armour blackened by gunpowder.

The technology of the unheroic killed off the heroes from a prudent distance.2

Of course a contrary popular view, though probably a minority opinion,

suspects that despite improved military technology, chivalry was never quite

done in, or at least was never so safely interred as to be immune from one

revival or another. ‘Chivalry is not dead’: the old tag is usually said in a voice

caught between the mockery and nostalgia we feel for ideas and behaviour that

seem so immovably a part of our past. In this view chivalry took a leisurely

route to its own quasi-demise in the post-medieval European world, expiring

slowly and in such good form that the process recalls the slow and stately end

of its great twelfth-century exemplar William Marshal, as told unforgettably

by Georges Duby.3 Even an image of death almost operatic in its pace and

1 See Kaplan, Mr. Clemens, which elaborates the linkage between Twain’s view of technology

in this novel and the failure of the typesetter in which he had invested heavily.

2 At the scholarly level, however, debate over the role of technology in late medieval and early

modern warfare is anything but simplistic, though the debate is beyond the scope of this book.

For an overview, with many citations, see Rogers, ed., The Military Revolution Debate. Evaluation

of the debate from a late medieval perspective, is provided by Rogers’s essay in this volume, ‘The

Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War’, by the introduction of Ayton and Price, eds.,

The Medieval Military Revolution, and by Prestwich, Armies and Warfare. Cf. claims for an even

earlier period in Bartlett, ‘Technique militaire’.

3 Duby, Guillaume le Maréchal, 1–23.

formality may be too abrupt, for who would not be reluctant to sign a specific,

dated death warrant to mark the end of so persistent and so complex a phenomenon?

Explaining this process of transformation need not be attempted here. But

briefly following our lines of investigation to their conclusion in the postmedieval

period will help us to see the issues more fully, by seeing their entire

lifespan. What happened to the complex and powerful mixture of knighthood,

public order, licit violence, lay piety, ecclesiastical authority, and royal sovereignty?

Two incidents transpiring within a generation of each other early in

the seventeenth century will help to direct our enquiry.