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 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.