Chivalry Was Already Dying in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #8b)

Few aspects of medieval history capture the imagination quite like the medieval knight.

The chivalric ideal

At the same time, few aspects of 13th century medieval history are as grossly misrepresented in mainstream entertainment as the medieval knight.

My previous post about knights in the Middle Ages touched on how the process of becoming a knight involved training in manners, music, and poetry when a young boy was a page, and sacred vigil and dedication of his sword when a squire was elevated to knighthood.

These gentlemanly pursuits tie in with an important ideal of western knighthood, namely the code of chivalry.  The chief tenets of this, according to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle, included honor, generosity, loyalty, and dedication to God and Church (p. 173).

Rather than born on the battlefield, however, chivalry had its origins in the troubadour poetry of Aquitaine, France, the birthplace of the famed Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

According to the Gieses, Eleanor’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, like her mother, “was also a patroness of poets, notably the celebrated Chrétien de Troyes, creator of the Lancelot-Guinevere romance.” (p. 87).

They go on to explain how Chrétien’s romances shifted the emphasis of the King Arthur stories from Arthur himself to that of his knights, particularly Lancelot and Percival.  In this way, the concept of “courtly love”—the selfless devotion and adoration of a knight for a lady—became connected to the knightly ideal:

The youthful [knight] aspirant was thoroughly imbued with the code of chivalry.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the chivalric ideal was fostered by the legends that had grown up around Charlemagne and Roland, and in England by the newer King Arthur stories.  Chrétien and other poets, English, French, and German, glorified the code by which knights were supposed to live…[.] 

Percival was admonished to spare the vanquished enemy who asked grace, to assist maidens and women in distress, to pray in church regularly, and not to talk too much—this last evidently a reflection on the knightly inclination to boast. (pp. 172-4).

Poetic licentiousness

Being born of literature, chivalry, in practice proved little more than a corresponding fiction.  The Gies write,

Despite precepts, codes, and admonitions from the Church, however, the knight’s life was normally lived on a lower plane than that embodied by the chivalric ideal.  The reason was that the great majority of knights were, horse and armor aside, penniless. (p. 174)

The system of primogenital inheritance, where a man’s eldest son inherited all of his assets to the exclusion of his younger sons, had much to do with the impoverishment of the average knight.  So too did that fact that knights began their careers with a heavy investment into the cost of a warhorse, weapons, and armour.

The Gieses book Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages discusses the typical fate of these young knights, even the eldest sons, who often had long delays before their fathers died and they succeeded to their inheritance:

Except those who went into the Church, all young noblemen, heirs as well as cadets, underwent a period of vagabondage, often with a mentor chosen to initiate them into the game of knight-errantry – war, tournament, adventure.  Travelling in bands of companions, the young knights led a life in which pleasure mingled with violence, death was commonplace, and turbulence reigned. (p. 143)

Tournaments were particularly popular among knights, not only for the athletic contests and training for warfare that they were.

A medieval tournament

According to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Man: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century, the enthusiasm for tournaments was owning the fact that “the horses and armour of defeated knights because the property of their conquerors.” (p. 158).

So too did the defeated knights themselves get captured, in tournaments and real warfare as well, which required they ransom themselves to their captors for money.

The chivalric commandment to spare the vanquished thus was generally obeyed.  The motivation for such, however, was economic rather than philanthropic.

Knights for hire

Knight who were younger sons commonly ventured even further and longer afield than firstborns, in Crusades and expeditions and also by joining companies of routiers (i.e. mercenaries, also referred to as Brabantines) in continental Europe.

In being unmarried, landless, and trained in only a single purpose—warfare and killing—the routier life, although the polar opposite of the chivalric ideals, was often the only profitable path available.

From the perspective of a great lord or the king, rather than rely on the annual military service own by his vassals under the feudal system, routiers were often the preferably choice.  Vassals were often reluctant to leave their castles and their duties of estate management, no matter how much they might enjoy a good war.

The beauty of routiers to a lord, according to the Gieses, was that, “In place of self-willed vassals whose terms of service might run out the day before a battle, he got mercenary soldiers who did as they were told and stayed as long as they were paid.” (p. 48)

Routiers, however, were a despised group—“the scum and scourge of Europe” (p. 252), according to John T. Appleby, author of John, King of England.  Appleby goes on to explain that,

[M]ercenary soliders … plundered, raved, and pillaged wherever they went, spreading terror and destruction in their wake.  They brought an element of cold-blooded ferocity into mediaeval warfare that appalled their contemporaries, most of whom … fought as though a battle were merely a glorified tournament.  Their conduct was so inhuman that the Third Lateran Council [of 1179] forbade and Christian ruler to employ them. (p. 252)

Incidentally, this Lateran decree prevented neither Kings Richard the Lionheart nor John of England from employing routiers, thus calling their observance of the code of chivalry into serious question.

One English knight of the 13th century who’s said to have genuinely upheld the values of chivalry, however, is the legendary William Marshal.

A fourth-born son with great prowess on the tournament circuit and in battle, William became one of the wealthiest lords in the kingdom through a combination of outliving all his brothers and gaining royal favour.  This latter advantage was further both cause and effect of him serving as a trusted advisor to four kings of England.

According to the Gies in Life and a Medieval Castle,

William Marshal was universally praised by contemporaries for his “loyalty,” that is, his unwavering fidelity to the obligations between vassal and lord, even when it came into conflict with the king. (p. 54)

Still, according to Appleby, William remained a favourite of King John, who is quoted as telling William in 1204, “I know you are so loyal … that nothing could turn your heart from me.” (p. 126).  William was also chosen as regent to nine-year-old King Henry III upon King John’s death.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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