Now that I’ve talked about Brave and Song of the Lioness, I thought I’d write about chivalry in an historical context, and the sentimentalized manner in which it has been harnessed by the Christian Patriarchy movement.
Medieval chivalry was not all about being nice to ladies. Certainly, there were chivalric tales that dealt with love affairs, including fairly explicit descriptions of adulterous affairs, such as versions of stories about Lancelot and Guinevere. Chivalry was mainly about violence. It regulated violence between members of the aristocratic class, but it also glorified violence and held the physical prowess of knights above all else.
Accounts from the period of the Hundred Years War, such as Chandos Herald’s The Black Prince and Froissart’s Chronicles, demonstrate the impact of chivalric ideas, and give frank descriptions of the level of violence inflicted by knights on enemy civilian populations. Aristocrats from different countries had more in common with each other than they did with peasants in their own countries. Wars were conducted largely through chevauchees–pillaging–of the enemy’s countryside and population; peasants were frequently massacred. Captured knights could normally expect fair treatment in exchange for ransom; captured foot soldiers were simply killed. It was unacceptable for a knight to rape a noblewoman; peasants were fair game. In some countries waging private war was acceptable, and knights could plunder towns by declaring war on them.
The chivalric ideal attempted to restrain violence even as it enabled it, reserving the legitimate use of force for the knightly class and telling them to use their power for the defence of the Church and the maintenance of public order, but equipping them with a code that applied only to them, and the ability to pursue their own version of justice, or to take what they wanted by force.
Chivalric tales were also graphically violent, as evidenced by the epic poem Raoul de Cambrai, which does, in fairness, argue the virtue of moderation. Other romances are, at least to modern eyes, rather homoerotic. Lancelot and Galahad, in particular, are subjects of much admiration among their fellow knights. And in one romance I read, King Arthur rapes a young girl. King Arthur! And no one cares, because she’s a peasant. When her father finds out it was King Arthur, he says he hopes she’s pregnant. Our concept of chivalry has obviously undergone serious revisions.
As this professor notes, our notion of chivalry stems from a romanticized 19th century fascination with the Middle Ages, expressed in novels such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and paintings by the pre-Raphaelites. Romanticized courtly behavior meshed well with and informed Victorian concepts of gentlemanly and ladylike attributes.
In Part II I’ll discuss this sentimental version of chivalry.
For further reading. Full disclosure: I get a very small percentage of the sale if you use this link to buy the book on Amazon. If you’d like to buy the book, I’d be most grateful if you did it from here!
Richard Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe and War, Justice, and Public Order
Maurice Keen, Chivalry
Matthew Strickland, War and Chivalry
Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry
Constance Brittain Bouchard, Strong of Body, Brave and Noble