Image: The Franklin (evolved to mean a freeholder), a character in “The Canterbury Tales”, a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century and ‘told’ by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. This series of illustrations is from “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales”, edited by John Saunders, publ. J.M. Dent & Co, 1889, and are based on those in the Ellesmere Manuscript. (Now in the public domain.)
Review by Miri Rubin in The Guardian of 22 Jul 2011:
“Reflecting on Marie Antoinette’s sorry fate, Edmund Burke lamented in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): “Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone . . . “
Burke knew chivalry to have been a “mixed system of opinion and sentiment”, which had its origin in “antient chivalry”. Railing not only against the recent violence in France but against a century in which industry and commerce came to prevail, Burke vividly laments the loss of the civilising force of the code which warring, landowning, legislating men had called their own: chivalry, the English form of the French term, chevalerie.
The lament for chivalry lost is often accompanied by distaste for that which has come in its place – commerce, trade, bureaucracy – or those arrivistes who seek to join the ranks of chivalry through their efforts in these spheres, whom Burke calls “sophisters, economists, and calculators”. Chivalry’s demise is imagined as a loss to all – of courtesy, consideration towards women, generosity as well as physical style and courage. A world in which powerful men are no longer trained into chivalry is depicted as brutish and ugly. Horses against explosives, men against metal and chemicals, the lament was sounded again as the world was torn to pieces in the trenches of the first world war.
The era of chivalry was the idealised fantasy that grew out of the military superiority of the armed horseman, and which lasted roughly between the invention of the stirrup and the invention of gunpowder. Nigel Saul is just the right person to tell the story as experienced in England, with a row of academic studies as well as popular books on medieval English royals, nobles and gentry. One of the strengths of his new book is its attention to the visual and the material. The knights of England had property and wealth, and they flaunted them. Chivalry was not only a code of behaviour but a style honed both on the battlefield and in impressive residences, and it was apparent by the 11th century in the courts of northern French aristocrats.
In England the story begins with the Norman conquest, a clash between dramatically different technologies of war. The mounted warriors who accompanied Duke William – most from Normandy, but several from other French regions and Flanders – sustained this expensive and demanding form of warfare from the incomes of their estates, soon to be augmented by the lands of England. They were trained from childhood in the arts of mounted warfare, and their households were geared towards military exploits.
Behind each man fighting on horseback – each chevalier – was an elaborate set of arrangements which secured loyal service and effective help: grooms and squires, wives and daughters, stewards and chaplains, all involved in enhancing the knight’s renown. The home is where much of the culture of chivalry was performed and enacted – in the tales taught the young, in the rituals of table and bed, and everywhere in the honour which was to be enhanced and preserved at all cost.
The ideology and practices developed in periods of war and conquest evolved into more sedentary, perhaps even bureaucratic forms of action. For England was a much-governed country, in which justice emanated from the king but was delivered locally by men of honour and experience, worthy of his trust. As the English state grew increasingly ambitious – not least during the active reign of Edward I (1272-1307) – forms of taxation were devised to support warfare in Wales, Scotland and France. Knights became the backbone of this representative politics, deliberating apart from the grander nobles in a separate chamber, the Lords.
This form of government in which knights were so central to debates in parliament, and to exploits on the battlefield, as well as to delivery of law and order in the shires, nurtured and elaborated the basic tenets of chivalry, the cult of honour and manly courage. Saul calls this phase “Chivalric Kingship”, epitomised by the long reign of Edward III (1327-1377). The king who fought in Scotland and in France, who led the great victory at Crécy, also saw the stalemate of occupation and demoralising garrison life which followed for many Englishmen on French soil. He embraced the culture of chivalry and enhanced it by creating at Windsor the Order of the Round Table, bringing the familiar themes of the Arthurian fellowship into the lives of 14th-century men and some women. Those rituals and the Garter insignia have survived until this day, when its sovereign is the Queen, who with her heir presides over 24 knights and ladies companion, royals and remarkable others, such as Margaret Thatcher.
The games of court could not mask the dramatic challenges that faced those men who aimed to live as knights in the second half of the 14th century. The black death (1348-49) upturned the economy and shook social relations. Land lost its value and many serfs moved to towns and cities. Landlords responded like men of business, moving from arable to pasture, developing prospects in mining, fisheries, rabbit rearing and trade, above all the export and exploitation of wool.
Necessity meant that those raised to ride and wield the sword, who could conduct themselves expertly in a court of law and recite the exploits of Lancelot and Gawain, were called as never before to track the movement of prices and the demand for the produce of their lands. The knight in shining armour had more and more to do with merchants, financiers and lawyers. These professionals, in turn, rose in status and wealth; the most successful – such as the Pastons of Norfolk, of epistolary fame – rose to the ranks of knighthood. Such knights were more likely to raise quills than swords in anger.
The bloodbath that was the wars of the roses in the third quarter of the 15th century tested beyond endurance the belief that chivalry was an ethos which preserved life and limb and protected the weak and dependent. A century before Shakespeare dramatised the dysfunctional nature of the dynastic/chivalric arrangement in Henry VI Part I, another Warwickshire man, Sir Thomas Malory, offered to the world beyond chivalry a summary of its greatest moments, in his Mort d’Arthur, written in 1469-70. He was the exemplary knight of the shires for a few decades before going rogue, when he was serially tried for rape, arson, assault, theft and more. His epic was written from prison, where he dwelt – and ultimately died – as a debtor.
Malory’s chivalry is not the celebratory, mythical, ritualised ethos of the round table and courtly love. Saul rightly emphasises how prosaic, indeed practical, it is. The last man standing is not the charismatic Arthur but the sound Lancelot. And Malory’s sponsors were London merchants. One of them, the mercer William Caxton, saw the potential of this type of literature if circulated in print. In his prologue to the 1485 edition, he promised that readers would find therein “noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin”.
Friendship and cowardice, virtue and sin – chivalry in England was never one without the other. Sometimes the very men who became epitomes of chivalric virtue turned away from its presumptions in disgust. In 1354 Henry of Grosmont, first Duke of Lancaster, a famous fighter, crusader and champion at jousts, wrote a devotional book in which he appealed to Christ and the Virgin Mary, seeking balm for his wounded soul. The wounds had resulted from indulgence of the senses, the life of a great knight. Sir John Clanvowe, another crusader, wrote The Two Ways in 1373, excoriating the infusion of contemporary culture with tales of knightly excess: “For the world holds them worshipful those who are great warriors and fighters, and who destroy . . . many lands and waste and give much good to those who have enough and spend outrageously on food, drink, clothing and building, and in living in ease, sloth and many other sins.”
Yet it was not only such warlike and excessive knights who were celebrated. The caring knight – Robin Hood above all – was as much a hero of chivalry as were the mythical habitués of Camelot. Chivalry’s code aimed to restrain vigour even as it encouraged its exercise. It is full of contradictions, hence its history is rich, and its legacy too.
Interest in chivalry was revived in the Victorian cult of things medieval, aesthetic as well as moral in scope. It inspired such initiatives as the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules and the codification of laws of war, which Saul links to the later formulation of the Geneva convention. Yet lampoons of chivalry are equally powerful, as epitomised by John Tenniel’s drawings of ungainly knights on horseback that illustrated Through the Looking Glass. That unyielding parody has given us the chivalry of Monty Python and Spamelot, and recently a new Camelot too. Nigel Saul’s clear-sighted history makes these survivals all the more apparent, and all the more puzzling.”