The word “chivalry” evokes a powerful emotional response from both historians and the public. The most common image is that of the medieval knight on horseback in mail armor, colorful surcoat, bearing a shield blazoned with heraldic symbols, and wielding a heavy lance couched against his side while charging the enemy. This image of martial prowess frequently accompanies vague notions of a code of honor or romantic inclinations, which require the knight to defend the honor of ladies, to be honest and generous, and to act with “honor”. Historians have equally muddled conceptions of chivalry and its role in European history from the Eleventh centuries on, arguing over when it became a widespread conception, when it fell into disuse, and the relative importance of chivalry’s martial, religious, and courtly overtones. When and how chivalry declined is a contentious issue – at stake is whether its lofty ideals were abandoned almost immediately, or persist to the present day.
Chivalry is difficult to define. The common working definition contains three elements that inform each other: the military expertise of medieval heavy cavalry, the social group dedicated to military service as heavy cavalry, and the codes of conduct and courtly behavior associated with this social group.[i] Jeremy duQuesnay Adams contends that American and British historians focus on the first and third definitions of chivalry, but that French historians place higher emphasis on the first and second definitions of chivalry, dropping the third meaning from serious consideration.
Three classic works illustrate the change in the historiography of chivalry after 1884. Leon Gautier insisted that chivalry was an ideal of Christian military service rather than an institution.[ii] The chivalric ideal resulted from the combination of the ancient Germanic coming of age ceremony described by Tacitus and the moral value assigned by the Medieval Church, an argument echoed by Richard Barber over a century later.[iii] This chivalric ideal developed into an eighth sacrament of the Medieval Church with its own virtues and unique set of commandments, resulting in a brotherhood of equals among all knights.[iv]
During the Interwar period, French and English historians reinterpreted chivalry as the medieval system of knighthood and associated codes of conduct rather than an ideal of Christian military service, and extended its duration to include the fifteenth century.[v] Relying on literary sources, Johan Huizinga contended that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chivalry decayed as both an institution and ideal. Despite warrior classes’ universal need for a masculine ideal of perfection that embraces combat, honor, and romantic love, chivalry was merely a screen to justify violence and selfishness. As the ideal faltered over time, the screening pageantry became more excessive and ridiculous.[vi]
Raymond Lincoln Kilgore expands this theme, arguing that French literature clearly shows increasingly ludicrous displays of chivalric fancy. Kilgore finds the seeds of chivalric decay almost to the origin of the ideal itself, which grew from a merely military and feudal cult of honor to become the “noble” code of gentlemanly behavior. The Church’s use of chivalry as a form of religious ordination made the ideal even more difficult to achieve.[vii] The chivalric ideal quickly faltered, with material gain replacing religion as a motivating factor in the knightly ethos, as illustrated by the sack of Byzantium during the Fourth Crusade.
Huizinga and Kilgore argue that by the fourteenth century, chivalry was little more than an excessive system of courtly etiquette, which included contests involving grandiose displays of politeness, vows, and formal challenges. Relying on displays such as Edward III’s challenge to Philippe de Valois for the crown of France, Kilgore argues that empty vows and challenges are the prime indicator of the decadence of late medieval chivalry. The purpose of the elaborate charade was to allow participants to avoid the reality of war, political intrigues, and the corruption of the Medieval Church.[viii] Malcolm Vale agrees with these earlier interpretations, contending that while chivalry did have a role in creating the laws of war and international law, its primary value was as a collective dream with a strong ethical component continuing as late as the fifteenth century.[ix]
The work of Georges Duby provides a prominent example of postwar French development in the social history of chivalry. Relying on social science methodology with etymology as a primary analytical tool, Duby traces changes in the words miles and nobilis, used to describe both warriors and members of the French nobility, from the tenth through thirteenth centuries. The first use of miles to indicate knighthood appears in 971 A.D. By 1032 A.D. miles is becoming a substitute for vassus and fidelis, indicating that the mounted warriors indicated by miles are becoming the loyal vassals of French lords.[x] When Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century, the highest nobles describe themselves as miles, using the word to describe entire family groups, retaining the word nobilis to describe aristocratic non-combatants. Duby argues that the use of a common title and adoption of common social values by high and low nobility indicates a flattening of social differences.[xi]
The development of the knightly class of feudal society dominated the postwar discussion of chivalry among French historians, creating two competing understandings of the development of the chivalric class. The Germanists, who argue that the class evolved from Merovingian and Roman sources of nobility, and the Romanists, who argue that chivalry was the creation of new men whose primary qualification was ability for combat. These schools find a common interpretive framework in Duby’s depiction of the chivalric social class as a combination of older nobility and warriors emerging from the lower levels of society.[xii]
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, historians challenged Huizinga’s and Kilgore’s theses of chivalry’s decay and decadence. In 1974, John Barnie contended that modern historians who found its values incomprehensible, and were familiar with clerical and romantic texts rather than the mentalite of its practitioners misunderstood chivalry.[xiii] Rejecting Huizinga and Kilgore’s assertions that the discrepancy between the battlefield behavior of knights and the codes found in treatises is evidence of decline and decay of the chivalric ideal, Barnie argues that their argument is based on the misplaced assumption that actual military behavior had to precisely align with Church doctrine and fictional descriptions.[xiv] Despite the difficulty in living up to the extremes of the chivalric ideal, each generation has its exemplars of chivalry who accomplished just that – Godfrey of Bouillon, St. Louis, and Henry of Gosmont, Duke of Lancaster. This last example shows that even in the fourteenth century, the upper reaches of the English nobility took the traditional codes of chivalry seriously, as Henry of Gosmont fought to defend the faith as a Crusader in Lithuania, Cyprus, and Rhodes. Young knights scrambled to serve under Henry due to his reputation as a dedicated Crusading figure rather than his success during the Hundred Years War.[xv]
Rather than focusing on romantic literature, Barnie believes that fourteenth century tracts on war provide a better idea of the eclectic chivalry practiced in the field. Their discussions of rules of just war, points of honor, and strategy are not evidence of a decline in chivalry, but an example of the pragmatic use of chivalric ideals.[xvi] When evaluated through the lens of honor provided by this evidence, excesses such as the Black Prince hosting the captured King John of France after the Battle of Poitiers and serving him at a banquet due to his higher rank, become part of the ideal of chivalry rather than a symptom of decadence or decay.[xvii]
Social historian Maurice Keen moved away from analyzing words and literary usage to focus on the pragmatic reasons for the three accepted aspects of chivalry, arguing that the military and social aspects of chivalry needed each other.[xviii] The key question in Keen’s interpretation is whether chivalry was ever more than just the social forms that its detractors claim. He contends that even during the Middle Ages, people used the word chivalry with multiple meanings and nuances. In different settings, chivalry referred to: a body of cavalry, orders of knighthood, a social class, or the ideal code of behavior for all three.[xix]
Keen examines three medieval works on knighthood, including the anonymous Orderne de chevalerie of the first half of the thirteenth century, Ramon Lull’s Libre de ordre de cavarleria of the fourteenth century, and Geoffroi de Charny’s mid-fourteenth century Livre de chevalerie to track changes in the ethos of chivalry. All three works rely heavily on the Christian symbolism of knighthood, but espouse an expanding array of chivalric virtues. Where the Orderne touts the premier importance of loyalty and virtue, Lull adds avoiding pride and idleness to the virtues, and the duties of defending the Church, training sons to knighthood, and pursuing criminals. Charny provides the most comprehensive vision of chivalry, equating the order of chivalry with religious vocation.[xx]
Beyond reviewing the changing ideals demonstrated by these manuals, Keen examines the technology of warfare to find social reasons for the development of chivalry. He finds this in the Chanson de Roland and the Bayeaux Tapestry. The Chanson de Roland, dated between 1100-1300 A.D. depicts the earliest known cavalry charge using couched lances, while the Bayeaux Tapestry, a rendering of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 A.D., illustrates four methods of using spears while mounted.[xxi] The new method of using the lance drove the development of chivalry in France and elsewhere. This fighting method, pioneered by the Normans was not widespread until after 1140 A.D.[xxii]
Using the heavy couched lance rather than the lighter spear radically altered the equipment cavalrymen required for fighting and surviving. Heavy mail hauberks, helms, improved saddles, additional horses, and retainers to care for it were expensive. In France, knights and petty nobility needed the access to the wealth of the greater nobility, who needed the knights to serve as elite troops and officers because of the constant warfare among themselves. The seigneurial courts where the knights gathered with the greater nobility were the sources of the chivalric ideals of courtly and battlefield behavior found in treatises on knighthood. The diaspora of French knights to England, Italy, Spain, and the Holy Land during the eleventh and twelfth centuries rapidly spread these ideals throughout Europe.[xxiii]
Having provided a concrete explanation for the secular development and later religious cooption of chivalry, Keen addresses the Huizinga school’s assertion that by fourteenth century it had fallen into decay and decline. War dominated European life in this era in the same way it had in the tenth and eleventh centuries, ensuring that society focused on martial themes. Determining whether the chivalric practices of European nobility were decadent requires more than an examination of apparent excess in literary sources, but also analysis of the risks taken on by this social class.[xxiv]
Although battles between armies were rare during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when they occurred the losing side suffered extraordinary casualties. At Poitiers (1356), Courtrai (1302), and Halidon Hill (1333) approximately 40% of the losing force died in combat. The casualties were almost exclusively men from the chivalric order – knights and squires.[xxv] Beyond risk in the field, chivalric ideals played important social and political roles. Men at arms equipped themselves at high cost – a single warhorse costing the equivalent of half a years’ wages – and provided their own training. Nobles also used their chivalric lifestyles to attract and retain their own followers who accompanied them on campaign in the service of their lords.[xxvi] Even the drive for individual distinction served a social purpose in this milieu – the chance of enhanced social status encouraged young men of the chivalric order to pursue martial skills that society needed them to possess.
These truths lead Keen to argue that Huizinga, Kilgore, and Vale are wrong in their assertion that chivalry was declining and decadent during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[xxvii] Relying on romantic literature, Jennifer R. Goodman extends Keen’s argument into the Age of Discovery, arguing that rather than disappearing during the fifteenth century, chivalric ideals drove European exploration into the seventeenth century.[xxviii] She finds a deep connection between the Medieval chivalric ideal in the literature surrounding Marco Polo, Henry the Navigator, and Cortes. Evidence for chivalry as a contributing factor to exploration include Henry the Navigator’s planned Crusade to North Africa and Bartolome de las Casas’ suggestion for a chivalric order to reform the behavior of conquistadors.[xxix]
Goodman asserts that Huizinga and other detractors of late Medieval and Renaissance chivalry do so in order to preserve the Renaissance as a distinct period from the Middle Ages, drawing on Petrarch’s designation of the Renaissance period as a rebirth of culture. Huizinga needed chivalry to decline in order to support his greater thesis – that the Middle Ages are on the wane before the dawning of the Renaissance. To achieve this, Goodman argues, required Huizinga to ignore the primary evidence that tournaments and other chivalric activities continue into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[xxx]
Chivalry is an important concept beyond the confines of France, England, and Spain. The German incarnation of the chivalric ideal differed significantly from the rest of Europe. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Holy Roman Empire needed servants as administrators, leading to the development of unfree “serf-knights” based on the castellan. These imperial servants labored under many of the same restrictions as French and English serfs, not having the right to change their allegiance or dispose of their lands. Providing both administrative and military service, the serf-knights gained power and prestige based on their ties to their feudal lords. Because they were unable to switch allegiances, German serf-knights were more trusted than their French counterparts, and acted as a source of stability for their lords. German knighthood did not gain social awareness of itself until the twelfth century.[xxxi]
Moorish Spain also developed a unique chivalry, which flourished during the eleventh century. In contrast to the French model, Moorish knights did not develop a distinctive outward style, having no heraldry or tournaments. Moorish chivalry included ideals of military prowess and honor, and developed its own distinctive doctrines of chivalric love based on Islam. The teachings of Mohammed and the fundamental opposition of sexes inherent in Islam provide the basis of both Muslim polygamy and chivalric love. Like Christian chivalric codes, Muslim codes emphasized charity, generosity, and fearlessness.[xxxii]
Finally, chivalry was not a uniquely European or Mediterranean conception. China’s knight-errant, or yu-hsia, was not an exact analogue to the Christian or Muslim chivalric knight, but it remains a useful analytical tool for examining the similarities and difference between Eastern and Western cultures. Appearing during the period of the Warring States between 403-221 B.C., the knights-errant took justice into their own hands, generally in an altruistic fashion, as a reaction to the chaos of the period.[xxxiii]
Unlike the European knight, the Chinese knight-errant had no ties to established religion. Instead, they stood in opposition to the dominant Confucian ideal by extending their concepts of duty and honor to cover both family and strangers. Rather than fulfilling only the strict requirements of “yi”, the knights-errant extended it to mean doing more than strictly necessary to fulfill the bounds of honor. Where Confucians valued moderation and solidarity, the yu-hsia, leaned toward extremism and freedom.[xxxiv]
There is significant debate over the social class of the Chinese knights-errant. One view holds that they did not constitute a class, but were only independent men who acted chivalrously, while others argue that they were unemployed artisans that became soldiers, or that they represent a segment of Chinese society located between the nobility and serfs. Regardless of social status, the yu-hsia had neither lands to support them, nor feudal obligations to superiors.
The historical and cultural debate over the meaning and reality of chivalry continues. Recent works examine the relationship between chivalry and development of military professionalism, the role of chivalry in American popular culture, and the influence of chivalry on the American Civil War. Twenty-first century military science fiction continues to draw on the imagery and language of chivalry, with the main character of John Ringo’s The Last Centurion claiming that he and his fellow soldiers conceive of themselves as “paladins” during their military service. Clearly, the influence of the chivalric ideal continues to echo in the modern world.
[i] Adams, Jeremy duQuesnay “Modern Views of Chivalry, 1884-1984,” The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Practices, eds. Howell Chickering and Thomas Seiler (New York: Simon and Schuster 1988), 41-89.
[ii] Adams, 46.
[iii] Barber, Richard. The Knight and Chivalry, revised edition (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995), 4.
[iv] Adams, 47.
[v] Adams, 50.
[vi] Ibid, 52.
[vii] Kilgore, Raymond Lincoln. The Decline of Chivalry as Shown in French Literature of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937), 4.
[viii] Kilgore, 9-11.
[ix] Vale, Malcolm. War and Chivalry: Warfare and Aristocratic Culture in England, France, and Burgundy at the nd of the Middle Ages (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981), 8-10.
[x] Duby, Georges. The Chivalrous Society trans. Cynthia Poston. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 158.
[xi] Ibid, 161.
[xii] Adams, 56. Duby, 167.
[xiii] Barnie, John. War in Medieval English Society: Social Values in the Hundred Years War, 1337-1399 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 56.
[xiv] Ibid, 57-58.
[xv] Ibid, 59.
[xvi] Ibid, 67.
[xvii] Ibid, 79-82.
[xviii] Adams, 71.
[xix] Keen, Maurice. Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 2.
[xx] Ibid, 6-12.
[xxi] Ibid, 26-28.
[xxii] Barber, 6-7.
[xxiii] Ibid, 28.
[xxiv] Ibid, 219.
[xxv] Ibid, 222.
[xxvi] Keen, 224-226.
[xxvii] Ibid, 237.
[xxviii] Goodman, Jennifer R. Chivalry and Exploration, 1298-1630 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1998), 4-5.
[xxix] Goodman, 22.
[xxx] Ibid, 18-20.
[xxxi] Keen, 34-37.
[xxxii] Burckhardt, Titus. Moorish Culture in Spain, trans. Alisa Jaffa (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), 93-94, 108.
[xxxiii] Lin, James J. Y. The Chinese Knight-Errant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1.
[xxxiv] Ibid, 8.