The Magazine

On Their Honor

The thriving of the medieval cult of chivalry.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The word “chivalry,” associated with the Middle Ages and its knightly ethos of courtesy and dragon-slaying, has a bad rap nowadays. “Chivalrous” refers to the patsy in shining armor who opens doors for women, picks up the tab on dates, and is willing to be there with sensitive sympathy (along with hopes of future romance) when the cad whom his ladylove really loves dumps her. For his pains, the chivalrous man will be punished with the wrath of feminists (“I can open my own door!”), the faint contempt of the woman he is orbiting (“Let’s just be friends”), and the jeers of his more alpha, and thus more cynical, contemporaries, who will deride him for being a “white knight” who puts women on a “pedestal” they don’t deserve.

‘The Black Prince invested as a Knight of the Garter’  by Charles West Cope

‘The Black Prince invested as a Knight of the Garter’ by Charles West Cope, 1844

getty images

It is interesting to know, then, that most professional medieval historians, the academics who make their living studying the later Middle Ages, during which the idea of chivalry arose, have by and large displayed the same dismissiveness about chivalric ideals as, say, the man-o-sphere blogger Roissy. In the view of many medieval historians, chivalry was so much fancy window-dressing in a culture whose main concerns were jostling for land, power, and wealth. Chivalry was said to be a women’s thing; poets entertained the ladies with romances about Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere while their hardheaded husbands conducted the nastier real business of enlarging their holdings and prestige, oppressing the serfs, and so forth. Alternatively, some historians have argued that the entire idea of medieval “chivalry” was an invention of 19th-century Romantics (think Tennyson’s Idylls of the King), who had no historical foundation in the Middle Ages.

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, which brought mounted horsemen armed with swords and lances to the British Isles as a fighting force for the first time. Before then, in Anglo-Saxon times and among the Vikings who established footholds throughout Great Britain, warriors fought almost entirely on foot, and their weapon of choice was the axe. Horses were prized symbols of status and useful for transport and rapid movement of troops, but Anglo-Saxons dismounted to fight. They also hacked each other to death in battle, and the victors plundered the bodies of the dead for booty. Surviving losers taken prisoner could expect to be killed or mutilated. 

The Normans changed all this with the introduction of cavalry warfare, in which the mounted knight—nearly always a member of the aristocracy, because few besides aristocrats could afford the expense of maintaining and armoring horses—was a central figure. Horses were more effective in offensive warfare, and, as the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry illustrates, the Norman Conquest strategically was a matter of a hard-hitting horseback breakthrough of the defensive shield-wall of Anglo-Saxon foot warriors strung along the cliffs of England’s southern coast.

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. That process was helped by the fact that knights who held land but possessed no titles of nobility were not entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Such knights were relegated to the House of Commons, where they shared the benches with prosperous and socially ambitious urban burgesses who aspired to possess their own coats of arms and elite statuses—and thus identified with the knights and their culture. 

Over the longer run, however, the social bifurcation of the titled nobility and the mere knights proved to be deleterious to the latter. By the beginning of the 13th century, large numbers of the landed gentry had decided that the time, expense, and training knighthood entailed wasn’t worth the relatively small payoff in social prestige. The number of landholders shirking formal knighthood and its duties became so critical that, in 1224, Henry III, concerned about shrinking numbers of cavalry, issued a writ ordering everyone holding property worth a certain amount to take up the knightly rank willy-nilly. 

Henry’s son, Edward I, aggressively promoted a renewal of English knighthood with a cult of King Arthur that starred Edward himself. He commissioned a massive replica of Arthur’s Round Table for Winchester Castle and staged elaborate tournaments and dubbing ceremonies all over England. Most significant, as far as the knights were concerned, Edward began paying them for military service, and, as might be expected, their ranks swelled significantly. They coalesced into a formidable and highly efficient fighting force and created their own powerful dynasties of professional soldiers.

At the same time, Edward and his successors systematically undermined the ethical code by which victorious knights treated their defeated fellow knights with respect. Edward had ambitions to rule all of Britain, and he devoted much of his reign to successfully bringing Wales to heel and to somewhat less successful campaigns in Scotland. Those who resisted he treated not as honorable enemies but as rebels and traitors; that is, as common criminals deserving of the most gruesome forms of execution. The Scottish warrior and landholder William Wallace was not the only Celt of knightly, even princely, rank to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for standing in the way of Edward’s aims. The tactics of warfare itself devolved from clashes between trained armies to the routine burning and pillaging of towns and the massacre of civilians. Losing combatants were often put to the sword rather than taken prisoner.

The long-term result was that the knightly ethos of honor and brotherly bonds became subsumed into an overriding ethos of loyalty to the crown. Edward’s royal offspring—notably Edward III during the 14th century and Edward IV during the 15th—fostered their own chivalric revivals. Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348 as a kind of exclusive chivalric club under the patronage of the warrior-saint George, who became the national saint of England. His son, Edward the Black Prince, leader of numerous expeditions into France to further his father’s claim to the French throne, became another Richard the Lion-Hearted in the popular imagination, even though the young man specialized in the new, debased war-making that was becoming the medieval norm. 

By the latter half of the 15th century, when Edward IV revived the by-then-moribund Order of the Garter, chivalry was largely a matter of court ceremony. Blood lineage and the possession of a coat of arms “were taking precedence over knighthood as ensigns of personal dignity,” Saul writes, and few men were coming forward to perform knightly military service. By the time Henry VII, who owed next to nothing to English knights or nobles, seized the throne in 1485 at the expense of Richard III, the reigning courtly ethos was the consolidation and centralization of brute royal power. Chivalry, long in decline, was finally dead.

Yet even as it slid into decrescence as a military culture, chivalry continued to be honored in literature and art. Such works as Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” and the haunting alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the 14th century, and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in the 15th, explored the combination of physical courage and moral humility that was the essence of the chivalric ideal. The illustration from the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter that adorns the cover of Saul’s book, depicting the Lincolnshire knight Sir Richard Luttrell clad in plate armor and sitting astride his enormous warhorse while being handed his helmet and shield by his wife and daughter-in-law, whose gowns are blazoned with the heraldic symbols of their families, is a veritable snapshot of the meaning that chivalry imparted to every aspect of a medieval knight’s outer and inner life.

That meaning is not quite defunct, even now. The humane treatment of prisoners of war, as established by the Geneva Convention, is a legacy of chivalry. And so, Saul asserts, are such modern phenomena as individual self-fulfillment and the cult of celebrity, both deriving from the knight’s quest for brave deeds and society’s recognition of his prowess. Still, he concludes, chivalry “involved a celebration of assertive warrior values with which we, today, cherishing our own very different priorities, feel uneasy.” 

This thoroughly researched and elegantly written volume suggests that this need not be so. Instead of deriding the chivalrous as wusses, we ought to be looking back at the real-life knights who created and tried to uphold chivalric ideals. They aimed to be men in the best sense of the word, and they offered models of courageous and civilized masculinity that we sorely need today. 

Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.