Prowess and Status

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In one final way we can see the breakdown of the durable fusions that had

formed medieval chivalry. Chivalry ceased to function as the undoubted indicator

of nobility.

The trappings of chivalry were at least in part appropriated by increasing

numbers of people from non-noble social levels. The process was old and had

already made considerable strides—and created significant tensions—within

medieval centuries. Each effort to use chivalric culture as a barrier against lesser

beings naturally generated even more interest on the part of the sub-chivalric to

scale or breach that wall. Borrowed chivalric forms unmistakably reappeared

beyond the inner circle of those who could proudly claim to be knightly or

noble; aspirants in surrounding social circles eagerly brought these forms into

their lives. Bourgeois interest in reading romance, in jousting, and in heraldry

is well known. In the mid-fourteenth-century crisis of French chivalry, brought

about most directly by repeated battlefield defeat, Geoffroi de Charny heaped

praise—and urged greater valour—upon all those who lived by the profession

of arms, not on the nobles alone. In England the fifteenth-century readers of

Sir Thomas Malory’s great work, though far from simply the bourgeois body

once claimed, seem to have covered a wide social range. By the seventeenth century

even London apprentices described themselves in chivalric language and

participated in what William Hunt has termed civic chivalry.31

308 Epilogue

31 Hunt, ‘Civic Chivalry’.

As the social pyramid broadened, increasing numbers of the elite originated

in legal and administrative families ‘of the robe’ rather than the older military

families ‘of the sword’ (to use language from France).32 Service to the State

(even in the humdrum matters of diplomacy and administration, as well as in

the rigours of war) proved to be an acceptable means of continuing influence.

Living well, in comfortable and costly, if unfortified, country houses, or at

court, even proved to be a seductive substitute for the very rigours of campaign

and combat that Charny extolled in the mid-fourteenth century as the

key to true superiority. Even education might be desirable; and if medieval

aristocrats would have laughed at the idea that they were not educated, knowing

that they had carefully learned what they needed to know, their late

sixteenth- or seventeenth-century successors would have meant something different

by the term.33

Thus chevalerie and its complex relationships with clergie and royauté, which

have formed the core of this study, were transformed. The autonomy of

chivalry and its private violence gradually disappeared, swallowed up by the

growth of state power and public violence, blessed by the Church.34 These

processes were not, let it be said again, sudden and post-medieval, but, rather,

the outcome of trends at work for half a millennium of European history. In

one dimension the process left a stubbornly resistant residue of autonomous

violence in the devotion to the duel. But the State had progressed towards sovereign

control of warlike violence within the realm and the Church had made

its peace with the sort of war that the State continued to lead with enthusiasm

beyond its borders. After the break-up of the medieval Church, any lingering

impulse for crusade could well be absorbed in the holy war against Christians

with incorrect theological views.

Like a massive steel cable gradually coming unwound, the strands of

chivalry, twisted tightly into place from the twelfth century, were pulled apart

by the host of cumulative changes so actively at work. Change was evident in

such diverse agencies as royal courts and armies, political and religious

thought, mercantile companies, battlefield techniques, the classroom, the

myriad of forms marking the social hierarchy. Over several centuries the

32 See the similar language of Sir Robert Naunton at Elizabeth I’s court in England: he claims

her nobles were divided into militi and togati: see McCoy, Rites of Knighthood, 10.

33 Schalk argues, for example, that the mid-sixteenth-century French nobility was not educated

(in a bookish sense) and that only gradually did education become a marque de noblesse; by the

mid-seventeenth century the nobles were associated with the culture that comes with education:

From Valor to Pedigree, 174–5. Hale notes the endless popularity of Castiglione’s The Courtier and

the founding of military academies from the 1560’s: War and Society, 97–8. Cf. Motley, Becoming

a French Aristocrat: the education of court nobility, 1580–1715 (Princeton, 1990).

34 The independent piety of knights obviously intersects with Reformation themes. I am working

on a general study of the religion of knights.

cumulative effects of these forces altered the self-conception of the lay, male,

elite. If the nobility had several centuries of active life ahead of it as this cable

unwound in the early modern period, it would not be as an elite that was

chivalric in any way that could have been fully recognized or approved by

William Marshal, Geoffroi de Charny, or Sir Thomas Malory.