Chivalry (Part 1): Introduction

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Editor’s note: The following comprises Chapter 1 of Chivalry, by F. Warre Cornish (published 1901). Original footnotes are abridged.

Chivalry is a word of many meanings. For the purposes of this book it may be taken to mean a body of sentiment and practice, of law and custom, which prevailed among the dominant classes in great part of Europe between the 11th and the 16th centuries; and which, more completely developed in some countries than others, was so far universal that a large portion of its usages is common to all the nations of western Europe. This institution may be defined as based upon the military and territorial system of the Teutonic nations, which brought into existence a distinction between men of noble blood and the rest of the world. The form which these sentiments and customs took was modified by the institutions of the Roman Empire, and still more by those of the Catholic Church, which, in imposing its creed upon the German invaders, accepted and consecrated their military spirit to the service of religion: and to these influences was added in a later age a new element imported from outside, the worship of woman.

The history of chivalry is not merely the history of a noble caste, though the usages and honours of chivalry belonged to none but gentlemen born, and though those who enjoyed them disdained to admit their inferiors to any share in them. Chivalry also held up an example to men of low degree, and raised the courage, softened the manners and relaxed the morals of the common people. The standard of honour, honesty, decency, and sobriety, which is conformed to by the ruling classes, is to some extent a standard set for those below them in rank. It is only partially true that men imitate the vices of their betters. So far as it is true at all, it is also true that they imitate the virtues of their betters.

Thus the maxims of chivalry, alike in what they condemned and in what they enjoined, were felt as a social force by those who did not submit to their ruling as applicable to themselves. The history of chivalry is not confined to the habits and ideals of the few thousands of men and women who held political and social power in the Middle Ages, but is an important part of the general history of those times. Chivalry was powerful both for good and for evil. So far as it was based on pride and contempt of inferiors, or condoned and regulated vice, it degraded ; so far as it upheld religion, honour and courtesy, it elevated society. It is altogether a mistake one to which recent historians have given countenance to dwell entirely on the former point of view, and to see in the fantastic ceremonialism of chivalry nothing but an empty pageant and a cloak for social immorality. The very ceremonialism was a protest against brutality and anarchy; and the science of love was not only a masquerade of virtue and vice adopting each other’s colours, but both in its origin and its aim tended to raise appetite into sentiment, and sentiment into purity. If the practice of chivalry was compatible with gross immorality, it was an advance on what had gone before, and no higher ideal of sexual relations has ever been put forward than that which the best of the knights professed and practised.

Chivalry, then, may be defined as the moral and social law and custom of the noble and gentle class in Western Europe during the later Middle Ages, and the results of that law and custom in action. It applies, strictly speaking, to gentlemen only. Its three principal factors are war, religion, and love of ladies: its merits and faults spring from those three heads, and all the side influences which attend its growth and decay may be summed up under these.

The whole duty of a gentleman was included in the idea of chivalry; and his life from his early childhood was regulated by it. The principle of service to God, his lord, and his lady underlay everything The word militare, which, in low Latin, meant ‘ feudal service,’ explains to the knight the spirit which is to guide all his actions. He can never escape, nor can he wish to escape, from the rule of service imposed upon him alike by religion, military duty, and love; and from these three elements, intimately connected with pride of birth, comes that frame of character which is expressed by the terms honour and loyalty terms, the virtues equivalent to which were not unknown in ancient times and remote countries, but to which chivalry gave form and consciousness, whilst it also, by misunderstanding and misapplying them, gave rise to strange perversions of mercy, purity, and honesty.

To serve and be served by equals is more ennobling than to use the hired services of inferiors; and, though based on pride of birth, such service combined dignity with submission, and cultivated the virtues of independence, self-reliance and submission to just authority. The devotion of squires to their lords, of which we read so many instances in Froissart, was no artificial sentiment, but true service, exalting both the inferior and the superior, binding them to each other, and producing in both a sense of duty and honour which is the soldier’s highest excellence. Knight and squire worshipped one ideal; and however the noble soldier of the Middle Ages may have fallen below or transgressed the whole duty of chivalry, this relation retained its original character throughout the whole age in which the world was ruled by armoured cavalry. And among the forces which have ruled in the world, those represented by the rustic nobility of Rome, the civic bourgeoisie of Greece, the farmers of Switzerland and the burghers of the Low Countries, the parliamentary lords and gentry of England, the democratic plutocracy of our own time, it would be difficult to refuse a high place, with all its faults, to the chivalry of France and England, if it is only from the fact that they were more conscious of an ideal than any other class of independent and undisputed rulers.

In these ideas of service the knight to be was brought up. War and its mimicry were to be his business, honour and religion the sanction of his actions; to do the pleasure of ladies was his chief solace and the mainspring of his service. The ‘science’ of heraldry, and the distinction of ranks on which it was founded, taught him, whilst valuing his own station, to show reverence to his superiors in rank, and gentleness to his inferiors. He was bred up to think much of ceremony, whether the social ceremony which regulated the courtesies of daily life, or the more serious ceremony of his consecration to knighthood and his bearing in the battle and the tournament. Connected with heraldry and ceremony were the laws and usages of the feudal system, and the symbolical consecration of these by solemn forms, the tenure of land by knight service, and the consequent personal loyalty to his liege lord. Part of his service was due to the Church. He was brought up in the use of her sacraments, and in obedience to her precepts and reverence for her ministers. The Crusader, the Templar, the Hospitaller, and the Knight of Santiago were champions of the Church against the infidel. The knight’s consecration to chivalry was after the form of a sacrament, and to defend Holy Church was part of his vow of initiation. There were, it is true, many knights in all countries and in all times who fulfilled the ideal of chivalry on the field of battle or in the lists, and in the bowers of ladies, and who yet had not a love of God in their hearts. But the least religious acknowledged the authority of religion; and it was the imputation of impiety rather than of immorality which destroyed the Templars; for impiety was in those days a worse imputation than immorality; and the more hateful the crime, the more ready is the popular voice to charge it upon a class which has incurred odium.

War, like hunting, is a pleasure as well as a business; a pleasure so intoxicating that it absorbs a man’s whole thoughts and faculties. The busiest warriors, the La Hires and Hotspurs, had little leisure for singing and dancing, writing love-poems and performing love-vows. But in the lives of all knights the tournament bore a principal part, and the laws and customs of the tournament were inseparable from the love of ladies. And outside the reality or the imitation of war, it would seem that the whole of a knight’s leisure time might be spent in hunting and hawking with ladies, or in music and amorous poetry. Nothing shows the unity of the chivalric sentiment more than the uniformity, during the whole period of which we are treating, of the chivalric literature, whether its note was that of love or of deeds of arms. Indeed, all that occupied a knight’s thoughts could be expressed in terms of the gai saber or ‘gay science’ of poetry and gallantry. The laws of gallantry were more imperious than even those of military honour.

The rise of a noble service of ladies, and its degradation to licensed immorality, may be placed side by side with the perfection of the character of a preux chevalier and its decline in the 15th and 16th centuries into the selfish quarrelsomeness of the duello and the vulgar ostentation of the lists. Causes of corruption were present during the whole period of chivalry, and bad knights and good were always mingled.

If there was a point of culmination, it may be placed between 1250 and 1350; not that chivalry itself was more truly taught and more nobly exemplified then than at other times; but because the Christian world at that time was animated with a higher and fuller life.

During this century, and indeed throughout the period of chivalry, knighthood was an international freemasonry. Every court in Europe was a centre of the gay science and the art and practice of arms. Nations, except for the accident of language, were then less clearly distinguished than, now. Norman, Angevin and Gascon lords held of the Kings of England, and the King of England was a vassal of the King of France. Knights errant and troubadours were welcome everywhere, and their language was a lingua franca common to the courts of France, Germany, and England. The romans, fabliaux, chansons de geste, and ballads of southern and central France were recited and sung in England; and the Celtic literature of Ireland, Wales, and Brittany, and the Teutonic legends of Charles the Great and of the Niblungs, as well as the love-poems of the Arabs, found their way to Provence. Thus the native literature of England took a European colouring. The establishment of Houses of Templars and Hospitallers in every country worked in the same direction; so did the alien priories, religious houses affiliated to larger abbeys overseas; as did also the ecumenical authority of the Roman Church and the community of scholars and divines who held benefices and wrote and disputed in the Universities of all countries, using the common language of the Church. Through the two universal languages, Latin and French, the Middle Ages enjoyed an advantage of common speech and literature which later centuries have lost. We cannot easily overestimate the influence of a common literature in moulding the thought of Europe into likeness: and among the literary influences which broke down national barriers, none was more powerful than that of Provence.

Deeds of arms in war and tournament, social intercourse among the noble class, and all the relations between men and women, both married and single, were regulated by, not merely (as in our day) reflected in, the literature of gallantry. The 12th and 13th centuries were a time of legislation and definition. As Edward I and St. Lewis settled the bases of law and constitutional government, as Thomas Aquinas laid down the axioms of religion and philosophy, as the builders of churches and castles framed laws of construction, proportion, and ornament in architecture, so the constructive and ordering spirit of an age more bound by law and authority, and more occupied in fixing their foundations than any which the world has known, prescribed a rule of sentiment and conduct, to which all knights and ladies rendered unquestioning obedience. The greatness of the 13th century lay in its reconcilement of obedience and innovation. Dante is its representative in both; creating a new language and a new literature with no revolt against the old; living among the rebellious conditions of Italian civic life, but never temporising with or excusing what sins against authority; and yet pointing the way to greater freedom and tolerance hereafter.

This co-existence of romantic and exalted sentiments with a low standard of morals; the consecration of sexual passion by a refined idealism; the submission, according to laws of gallantry, of the stronger to the weaker sex, is so characteristic of the chivalric temper that it exceeded in practical importance both the military and the religious element in chivalry. From the middle of the 12th century to the end of the 14th, when political questions began to take the place of feudal questions, and changes in the art of war endangered the ascendency of the military caste, the law of gallantry was equal, if not superior, to the law of military honour as a guide to conduct; the two usually worked in the same direction; but love, since it was not only a personal sentiment but the illustration of a social law, occupied at least as large a place in the soldier’s mind as soldierly ambition. ‘La galanterie’ says Ste. Palaye, ‘étoit comme l’âme de la société.’ ‘He were never good warrior that could not love aright.’

Such sayings as these come from the heart of mediaeval society. It is impossible to appreciate the motives and actions of a remote age without considering them from within, and from their own point of view; and the student of chivalry must qualify his ideas of morality and honour by the rules under which lords and ladies lived. He may compare one state of society with another, and form a judgment between them by the light of modern experience; but in estimating characters and actions belonging to the past age he must use the rules and measures which were current then. And among these, gallantry must be accepted as ‘the soul of society:’ if he finds the tone of thought on these matters intolerably gross and vicious, he must remember that it is an incident of the passage from barbaric to civilized life; and he must allow something since France set the fashion to the ‘esprit gaulois,’ which is more free-spoken and more licentious than that of Germany and England. Undoubtedly French literature and French interpretation of the gay science had a corrupting influence on English society; but it also exercised a civilising and humanising influence, and the bad cannot easily be separated from the good. We shall have occasion to advert to the Provençal literature of chivalry, which has been dealt with at length in another volume belonging to this series: for the present we need only indicate the fact that the gay science proceeded from Provence and France, and largely affected the thought and sentiment of all Europe.

Chivalry, as we said above, concerns none but those of gentle birth. It is credited with the inhuman disregard of those below its own condition, and this is put down in great measure to French influence. ‘Under the first king whose temper was distinctly English,’ says Green, ‘a foreign influence told most fatally on our manners, our literature, our national spirit… The “chivalry,” so familiar in Froissart, that picturesque mimicry of high sentiment, of heroism, love, and courtesy, before which all depth and reality of nobleness disappeared to make room for the coarsest of profligacy, the narrowest caste-spirit, and a brutal indifference to human suffering, was specially of French creation.’

This view of chivalry, for which Green and his teacher Freeman are largely responsible, contains no doubt a truth: but before we condemn chivalry as having produced the evil which it did not cure, we ought to imagine what had gone before. The savagery of the Norman period, the rigour of William the Conqueror, the selfish tyranny of William Rufus, the cruelty of the barons under Stephen, were neither inspired nor hindered by chivalry; and we should remember that whatever were the vices of the chivalric period, it was during that period that slavery gradually disappeared, and the foundations of equal justice and the power of the Commons were laid.

It is impossible to trace in detail the beginnings of human institutions, because they go back beyond the scope of history. The river Thames is said to rise in the Seven Springs; but the Thames at London Bridge owes its volume to seventy times seven rivers and rivulets, each of which has contributed something to the mass. The origins of chivalry are to be found, if found at all, in the ancient customs of Gauls, Germans, Western Celts, and Arabs. It has no single origin as a separate institution; and we can only take a point of departure where we find it already differentiated from the chaos of customs and sentiments which accompanied its early growth, and which assume form and order, and therefore authority, in the course of the 11th century. We shall assume this period as the point of departure for several reasons. It was now that the Western nations came, under the influence of the Church, into close contact and common action in the crusades; when national distinctions began to take the place of feudal disintegration on the one hand, and of the Carolingian Empire on the other; when the Normans breathed their innovating spirit into the forms of the past; when the universal claims of the Papacy were asserted and maintained; when the feudal system of land-tenure by knightly service was established as an organised unity, and the hierarchy of rank, and consequent military service were brought under rule, and produced something like a freemasonry of noble degree and noble custom throughout Europe. This was the period of the ascendency of mail-clad cavalry, an ascendency which brought Europe under the power of the armed class; now the orders of soldier-clergy were formed; the knights of all nations emulated each other in deeds of valour done against the infidels; heraldry arose and suddenly sprang up into a science; whilst from the Celtic West, from Provence and the neighbouring lands of Moorish Spain, and from the East, the doctrine of gallantry was brought in to leaven the ancient barbarism of the North; tournaments were frequented by knights errant from all countries, and the opening of new trade routes brought East and West into acquaintance with each other, and enlarged the horizon of Christendom.

All these novelties, and the shaping through their action of a new and international order of civilization, may be dated from the first Crusade. We do not say that these movements are to be ascribed to the Crusades as a cause; but rather as an occasion. The Crusades were themselves an effect of an expansion of the human intellect and emotion, the causes of which are hard to investigate, like to those other outbursts of universal energy which mark the age of Charles the Great, the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century, the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th, and the Revolution of the 18th. Besides the Crusades and the rise of chivalry, the distinguishing features of this age may be illustrated by such names as Gregory VII, the organiser of the Papal power, Bernard and Anselm of theology, Scotus of philosophy, Suger the founder of Gothic architecture, William, Count of Poitou and Aquitaine, the troubadour.

We speak of a ‘young age’ and a ‘young nation,’ as if the world had periods of youth and senescence; and such terms may fairly be used to illustrate an analogy. But the world is always young, when new interests are opened to its view. Alexander, by shewing that a Greek army could march anywhere and do anything, founded a new civilisation; the destruction of a rival opened to the Romans the door of universal empire; the adventure of Columbus created a new era in commerce and marine; and many more instances might be cited to show that great movements have had their rise, not so much from the birth of new ideas, as from an opportunity of applying ideas to new conditions.

Such an opportunity presented itself towards the end of the nth century. Pilgrims came back from the Holy Places, lately occupied by the Seljukian Turks, with complaints of misusage. Peter the Hermit took up the cause; Pope Urban II gave it his sanction; all the devotion, all the enterprise, ambition, and restlessness of nations beginning to groan under the tightening of domestic tyranny, the aspiration and the discontent of all Europe, swelled the cry of ‘Dieu le veut;’ and the crowd of enthusiasts was joined by princes who wished to found new kingdoms, and nobles and knights who sought an adventure in which to display their prowess, or hoped to pay their debts by the plunder of the East.

The first Crusade was the marriage of War and Religion, that consecration by the Church of the military spirit, which was the first step in the creation of chivalry.

The history of the Crusades might seem to sum up the history of early chivalry. The Eastern lands were the playground of chivalry. There was practised the whole art of noble warfare. There were exercised the virtues which are summed up in the words religion, and courtesy of war. But one element essential to chivalry is wanting to the earlier Crusades, the love of ladies ; and the absence of this makes itself felt through all the glories of war. The chronicles of the First Crusade are barbarous in sentiment, however lofty in their ideals of religious fervour and military prowess. Godfrey, Tancred, Baldwin, and Raymond, it is true, are not merely mirrors of chivalry, but instances of noble virtue. But their faults and their virtues are so remote from those of our own time that we find it difficult to form a true idea of the men themselves. Their parallels in modern times are to be found, not among Western nations, but in Afghanistan or the Soudan. We observe in them reckless courage, personal pride and self-respect, courteous observance of the word of honour, if plighted according to certain forms, disregard of all personal advantage except military glory; and on the other hand savage ferocity, deliberate cruelty, anger indulged almost to the point of madness, extravagant display, childish wastefulness, want of military discipline, want of good faith alike to Christians and infidels; the virtues and vices of Homeric heroes, not of Christian paladins as imagined in the ideal pictures of Tasso and Spenser.

If we compare with the deeds of these warriors the words and actions of St. Lewis, the last of the crusaders, we are conscious that the world has moved a long way onward. There is less of the joyous enterprise and love of novelty which belongs to the youth of nations and individuals; but there is more deliberate knowledge of what is undertaken; the sense of duty prevails over the ardour of action; the tone of feeling in the king and his followers is less extravagant and sanguine, and therefore less suited to great deeds of arms; but also more serious and devout, more conscious of discipline and responsibility, more capable of balancing right and wrong, and enduring the restraints of justice and mercy, than that which prevailed among the companions of Godfrey of Bouillon.

Labour would be lost in attempting to collect all the influences which came into existence between the 11th and the 13th century, and changed the face of Europe. In that fruitful interval, theology, philosophy, and law were re-modelled; poetry, architecture and music were re-invented and under the influence of the Provencal schools of love and poetry, the ‘gallantry’ of the Arabs altered all the relations of social life, and brought to bear on human action a new and immensely powerful motive.

The worship of women occupies so large a space in the institutions of chivalry that we shall have to refer to it in dealing with every part of the subject. The humanising of war and the growth of courtesy between enemies is not directly derived from the rules of the gay science; but the new relation to women was the most powerful among many causes which combined to make men more gentle in manner, and more temperate and considerate in act and speech, than before the new birth of ideas in the 11th and 12th centuries; a new birth which was not a ‘Renascence,’ since it was in no sense a return to antiquity, but a creation of new ideas and an expression of them in new forms; differing from the outburst of new thought in the time of Charles the Great, in that it was suited to its conditions and was not blighted by a barbarous environment; and differing from the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, in that it was not a rebellious movement, but founded upon authority, law, and custom, and had for its object, or rather as its result, the foundation of a new discipline in all the relations of life, spiritual and temporal, not the emancipation of the human race from false or antiquated authority.

Each movement was suited to its age, and was a genuine growth, not an attempt to keep alive what had served its time and ceased to be vital; nor an artificial imitation and resuscitation of bygone ideas, like the bastard chivalry of the 15th century, oppressed and corrupted by the insolence of personal governments, and the substitution of a paid soldiery for knightly service; or the combination of lawlessness and affectation which disfigured and weakened the high ideals of the Revolution of 1789.

The question of the decay of chivalry is complicated and difficult, and we reserve it for a later chapter. It may be said here, however, that chivalry declined not more from diseases engendered in its own body than from the introduction of new and foreign elements in war and society. Large developments in the art of war, and the employment of archery, infantry and artillery reduced mailclad cavalry to an inferior position, and diminished opportunities of personal distinction. Chivalry by degrees disappeared from war, to shine in the tournament: and as the tournament became more and more an amusement and an occasion for display, rather than an image of war and a school of military skill, it ceased to be real, lost prestige, and degenerated into masquerade. The concentration of military power into the hands of sovereigns broke down the life of feudalism and destroyed the independence of barons and knights. When the heavy-armed knight became a mere trooper, and rode to war side by side with paid men-at-arms as well accoutred, horsed, and trained as himself, vows to do doughty deeds for the love of ladies in the name of the swan or the peacock, love-knots, sleeves, banners and cris-de-guerre became ridiculous, and the days of Don Quixote were not far distant. Chivalry, the ideal of a noble world which churls were to admire and obey, had lived its time, a time of brilliancy and glory; and it expired not without dignity, before the spirit of democracy had arisen to flout it. It may be said without paradox that chivalry survived itself; and that no better representatives of it are to be found in history than the noblemen and gentlemen who fought without parade and affectation on either side in the English Civil War.

To sum up: Chivalry taught the world the duty of noble service willingly rendered. It upheld courage and enterprise in obedience to rule, it consecrated military prowess to the service of the Church, glorified the virtues of liberality, good faith, unselfishness and courtesy, and above all, courtesy to women. Against these may be set the vices of pride, ostentation, love of bloodshed, contempt of inferiors, and loose manners. Chivalry was an imperfect discipline, but it was a discipline, and one fit for the times. It may have existed in the world too long: it did not come into existence too early: and with all its shortcomings it exercised a great and wholesome influence in raising the mediaeval world from barbarism to civilisation.

(Continue to Part 2)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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