September 15, 2013


On Their Honor : The thriving of the medieval cult of chivalry. (Charlotte Allen, September 23, 2013, Weekly Standard)

Nigel Saul, a professor of medieval history at the University of London, tries to put paid to these common assumptions. He argues that chivalry was a thoroughly masculine creation aimed directly at reshaping that most masculine of human activities: warfare. Its focus wasn't on rescuing damsels in distress, but on fostering an ethos of knighthood that upheld loyalty to one's comrades and superiors and respect for one's enemies, who were also knights, in combat. Furthermore, Saul argues, the warfare-linked idea of chivalry pervaded aristocratic culture (in England, at least) to the point that the fortress-like crenellations of medieval castles became a standard architectural feature of gentry homes during the 13th and 14th centuries. 

Chivalry was not a movement or institution cut off from the mainstream of society; on the contrary, it formed part of the wider ethos and value system of society. It was central to the identity of the English medieval elite.

Chivalry arrived in England with the Norman Conquest... [...]

Partly because Continentals were shocked at the apparent barbarity of all-or-nothing Anglo-Saxon and Viking warmongering, and partly because the Roman Catholic church had been trying for decades to tame feudal nobles' incessant infighting by advancing the concept of the "just war," the Normans instituted a new battlefield ethos in which captured knights, as the social and moral equals of their captors, were to be held for ransom instead of being killed outright. The new rule, which took hold as the 12th century unfolded, bespoke a respect for the knight's status that transcended his particular feudal or national loyalties. It demanded a reciprocal courtesy that was similarly transcendent. 

It was this new standard, Saul argues, that transformed medieval English warfare and culture. The knight became more than a mere warrior; he was "an idealized figure," Saul writes, who "was given a role to perform in a divinely ordered hierarchy, that of protecting the other two orders of society, the clergy and the labouring classes. He was invested with nobility, good fortune and charisma."

A body of literature comprising romances, poetry, and histories focused on knighthood and its virtues quickly arose. It included not just the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table embodying chivalric ideals of courage, humility, and graciousness, but also quasi-legendary chronicles of the new Norman baronial dynasties that had established a more recent foothold in England. The crusader-king Richard the Lion-Hearted, appearing as the living embodiment of knightly heroism in the service of religious faith, became an English folk hero. The new art of heraldry centered on the colorful visual display of the symbols of bravery and honor that every knightly family sought to advertise. The tournaments in which knights regularly jousted on horseback weren't mere pageantry for impressing the ladies; they were the practical means by which the knights honed and perfected the skills that served them in battle. 

By this route chivalry, which had originated as a practical military code, developed into a code of manners defining a civil elite no longer composed of men exclusively of military experience, but embracing lawyers, civil servants and others who sought respectability in the partial embrace of aristocratic culture.

In other words, chivalric values became democratized. 

Posted by at September 15, 2013 7:48 AM

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