Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST CHRISTIAN HISTORICAL FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Defining Chivalry

Modern discussions about whether “chivalry is dead” often revolve around whether men should open doors for women. Yet such discussion demonstrates just how little is known and understood about the concept of chivalry today. 

To be sure, chivalry defied definition even in the centuries where it was the dominant ethos of educated classes in Western Europe. The biographer of William Marshal, one of the most famous knights of the late 12th and early 13th century, a man who was often held up as a perfect chivalrous knight, himself asked: “what is chivalry?” 
His answer:

So strong a thing,
and of such hardihood,
and so costly in learning,
that a wicked man or low
dare not undertake it.

In this entry, I’d like to review what we do know about chivalry and the extent to which it influenced medieval society.



Chivalry evolved out of the military and literary traditions of antiquity and emerged at the beginning of the High Middle Ages as a concept that rapidly came to dominate the ethos and identity of the nobility. Chivalry is inextricably tied to knighthood, a phenomenon distinct to Europe in the Middle Ages. There have been cavalrymen in many different ages and societies, but the cult of knighthood, including a special dubbing ceremony and a code of ethics, exists only in the Age of Chivalry -- roughly 1000 - 1450.

Chivalry was always an ideal. It defined the way a knight was supposed to behave. No one in the Middle Ages seriously expected every knight to live up that ideal, much less all of the time. Even the heroes of chivalric romances usually fell short of the ideal at least some of the time – and many only achieved their goal and glory when they overcame their baser instincts or their natural shortcomings to live, however briefly, like “perfect, gentle knights.”



In other words, chivalry was a code of behavior that young men were supposed to aspire to – not already have. The code was articulated and passed on to youths in the form of romances and poems lionizing the chivalrous deeds of fictional heroes. It was also recorded in the biographies of historical personages viewed as examples of chivalry, from William Marshal to Geoffrey de Charney and Edward, the Black Prince. Finally, there were a number of textbooks or handbooks that attempted to codify the essence of chivalry.

So what defined chivalry? First and foremost, a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. He was also supposed to be upon a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.” The troubadours, meanwhile, had introduced for the first time the notion that “a man could become nobler through love.” Thus love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature.


The chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide and Yvain, The Knight with the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. But the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.



In more practical terms, one of the handbooks on chivalry written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull lists the virtues of a knight as nobility, loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), love, courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal, on the other hand, stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness.

Geoffrey de Charney, the French hero from the Hundred Years’ War, also wrote a handbook on chivalry that is particularly valuable because he was a man with a powerful reputation as a chivalrous knight. (He was killed at the Battle of Poitiers defending the French battle standard, the oriflamme.) Charney puts the emphasis on love as a spur to great deeds and stresses that a knight must love “loyally” (with exclusive devotion to his one true love), but includes good manners, generosity, humility, fortitude, and courage among the qualities of chivalry as well. As a reflection of his career, Charney places greater value on fighting – stressing its hardships, deprivations, and risks – over frivolous tournaments.

William Marshal’s biographer, on the other hand, writing in the early 13th century, sees in tournaments a means of giving men a chance to demonstrate their “worth” – i.e., their courage, audacity, and skill at arms. These are the skills, combined with unwavering loyalty to his liege, that enable Marshal to rise from landless knight to regent of England. While Marshal (or at least his biographer) put the emphasis on courage, the themes of courtesy and discretion with respect to ladies, and generosity, are also present.



Readers interested in learning more about this fascinating concept can turn to:

Bibliography


Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. The Boydell Press, 1970, 1974, 1995.

Duby, George. 1985. William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. Random House, 1985.

Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Quarto Publishing, 1990.

and many other sources!


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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3 comments:

  1. Always interesting and educational, Professor.

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  2. Thank you for another great entry. I would guess that by the time Charney wrote about chivalry in 14th century, the tournaments were subjected to many rules, and as a result they became less dangerous perhaps than they were in time of William Marhal.

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    Replies
    1. And you are correct! Although, there were still isolated incidents of tournament deaths right into the 16th century.
      Thanks for commenting!

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