Prowess and Honour

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In the first place, the essential linkage of violence with honour slipped. The

value of honour, of course, did not diminish. Who could doubt that belief in

honour continued in early modern European society, or that it drew strength

from its medieval predecessor? ‘The Renaissance cult of honour and fame’,

Malcolm Vale observes, ‘owed more than it was prepared to acknowledge to

the medieval cult of chivalry.’19 The argument here is, rather, that prowess was

no longer so regularly fused to this concept of honour, no longer the universally

praised personal means of attaining honour, edged weapons in hand.

State-formation played a key role in this change, probably aided by changes

in military technology. Stated in the baldest terms, the state finally achieved

the working monopoly of licit violence within the realm that had been its distant

goal for centuries—or at least it came to a new and undoubtedly

significant step on its movement towards that victory.20 Much larger armies,

equipped with siege trains of much larger cannon, figure prominently in most

analyses.21 Historian are, of course, wisely cautious about hurrying noblemen

off the stage too precipitously. As Malcolm Vale has noted, ‘the nobility in

England and on the Continent adapted themselves to changes dictated by new

18 The fourth key to chivalric strength (suggested in Chapter 10) was the role of chivalry in

establishing relationships between the genders. This Epilogue suggests basic changes in the view

taken of prowess and in its links with honour, piety, and status. The link between love and

prowess, too, must have altered in the post-medieval era; but it would be prudent to leave treatment

of such a topic for specialists in the history of gender relationships in early modern Europe.

19 Vale, War and Chivalry, 174.

20 The classic argument appears in Stone, Crisis of the Aristocracy, 199–270. Even if current scholarship

opposes the general thesis of a crisis, and of royalist triumph, the evidence Stone mustered

in support of growing royal control of the means of violence seems significant. Bonney, Political

Change, 441, suggests that ‘[t]he nobles were defeated as a political force acting independently of

the crown and resorting to the sanction of armed rebellion’. In Rebels and Rulers, II, 221, Zagorin,

speaking of the princes and grands, argues that ‘if they still possessed substantial social and political

power over their inferiors, they had largely lost their ability and will to maintain armed resistance

against royal sovereignty’. Hale writes of the ‘civilizing’ and ‘demilitarizing’ of the ‘armoured

castes of western Europe: War and Society; Schalk suggests (to a medievalist, perhaps too starkly)

a move from a medieval view of nobility linked with the function of fighting to a view, by the late

sixteenth century, of nobility as pedigree: From Valor to Pedigree. James argues that the Tudor state

monopolized chivalric violence: ‘English Politics’.

21 For the military revolution and state formation in various countries, see Downing, The

Military Revolution. Black argues for the importance of the period after 1660 (i.e. beyond the usual

terminal date for the military revolution) and for the absolutist state as a cause of military change

rather than a consequence: A Military Revolution? On the role of military innovation, see Rogers,

‘Military Revolution’; Parker, The Military Revolution; Eltis, The Military Revolution.

techniques of war and military organization’.22 Even when belief in the key

role of heavy cavalry in warfare had succumbed to battlefield facts, the chivalrous

could still happily command units (even infantry units, supplied with

firearms) in the ever-larger national armies raised to fight the king’s wars. If

standing armies were coming into being on the continent from the midfifteenth

century, the crown continued to rely on militant nobles to raise soldiers,

put down internal rebellion, and act as military governors.23

Historians likewise recognize that the generous measure of state triumph in

warlike violence involves the way people thought as well as the way they

waged war. Beyond recruitment and supply, taxes, tactics, and technology, we

need to consider the altered self-definition of the nobles, their increasing

acceptance of a cluster of ideas about violence and honour.24 The Duc de

Trémoille in mid-seventeenth-century France copied into his letterbook a

description of the Duke of Parma, a famous captain of the previous generation;

he notes that the duke was engaged in ‘making war rather with his wits

and speeches than with the force of his arms’.25 The nobles were even coming

to see chivalry (whether vocation or status) as closely linked to the crown; it

meant service in what might almost be termed a ‘national chivalry’.26 This was

the lesson learned by the Earl of Essex, the Comtes de Bouteville and des

Chapelles, as we have seen, only at the very end of their lives. Honour need not

be acquired and defended by personal acts of violence; it comes from the sovereign

rather than from autonomous displays of prowess.

The very assumptions and actions of men like Bouteville and des Chapelles

may, however, seem to deny these changes. From roughly the mid-sixteenth

century a veritable cult of duelling stands as a remembrance of things past that

is all but immovable in the face of all other changes taking place. Tournament

was gone, or as near as mattered, and judicial combat was likewise on its way

into memory, but autonomous individuals could still remove any stain to

their sacred honour by spilling an opponent’s blood in the duel, the obvious

descendant of these forms. Duelling certainly demonstrates at least a partial

22 Vale, War and Chivalry, 162. Hale, War and Society, 94–5, similarly argues that ‘[i]t has been

suggested that the adoption of unchivalrous gunpowder weapons and the declining importance

of cavalry led to a decreasing appetite for military service among the aristocracies of Europe.

Neither assumption can be taken seriously.’ Hale likewise discounts ‘the case for the suggestion

that artillery was an instrument centralizing power’: p. 248.

23 Hale, War and Society, 247–8; Vale, War and Chivalry, 162–3.

24 Discussed in Vale, War and Chivalry, 100–74; Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, 132–72.

25 Quoted in Dewald, Aristocratic Experience, 57. Of course, many medieval captains used their

wits well, but the shift of emphasis away from prowess is fascinating. Some contemporary observers

noted the same phenomenon, but were on the other side. At Elizabeth’s court, the poet Samuel

Daniel regretted the lowered ‘virilitie’ of an age in which ‘more came to be effected by wit than by

the sword’ and decried ‘all-drowning Sov’raintie’. Quoted in McCoy, Rites of Knighthood, 105, 118.

26 Keen, Nobility, Knighthood, 167–70.

continuance into the early modern era of the old chivalric theme of a defence

of honour through violence, and the old chivalric sense of political and even

ethical autonomy as well. This survival of the chivalric obsession with honour

and the perhaps even heightened assertion of personal independence seemed

to the participants not so much an illegal as an extra-legal practice, a statement

of their freedom from troublesome restraints in important matters of their

own choosing.27

Of course the institutional force of both Church and State formally opposed

the duel, and sometimes even took genuine steps to restrain it. The pattern will

look familiar to anyone who has studied the arguments and measures directed

at other troublesome chivalric practices, such as private war or the early tournament.

The sense of a genuine opposition of ideals is obvious, as is the caution

that the governors knew must accompany any clash with the deeply held

beliefs of those whose support was still essential to successful governance.

Royal legislation sometimes explicitly raised the issue of sovereignty and (as

we have seen) royal administrations sometimes insisted that spectacular violators

suffer the full punishment of the law; but the crown seldom pressed the

issue to its logical and rigorous conclusion. As François Billacois suggests concisely,

‘Duel is the supreme affirmation that aristocracy and monarchy are

essentially opposed associates in a coherent political system.’28

Yet we must recognize that duelling is not the same social practice as its

ancestor, private war. Perhaps the crown was all the more willing to look the

other way because duel involved only individuals in private combat; the days

of calling out a veritable army of armoured relatives and tenants and going to

war, pennants flying, had come down to a few men with pistols or rapiers in a

dark alley or a convenient field. Public order was, of course, still threatened in

theory, but was obviously less threatened in fact; the public stance of those in

charge could be maintained by growling and occasionally making examples of

spectacular offenders.

In fact, insistence on the right to duel may inversely illustrate the degree of

success the state was achieving in the separation of prowess and honour.

Duelling, from this point of view, represents a reaction to growing royal control

over violence on a grander scale. Such a view is finely illustrated in the

statement of a sixteenth-century French nobleman, appropriately named

Guillaume de Chevalier, that duelling had increased among his contemporaries

because nobles were doing less fighting on the battlefields as a result of

stronger monarchy.29

306 Epilogue

27 See in general Billacois, Le Duel; Kiernan, The Duel; Schalk, From Valor to Pedigree, 162–74.

28 Billacois, Le Duel, 391.

29 Quoted in Schalk, From Valor to Pedigree, 169–70. Cf. Vale, War and Chivalry, 165–7.