Tracing Chivalry Through Knighthood Essay, Research Paper
Tracing Chivalry Through Knighthood
Throughout my semester of studies on knighthood, I have noticed two major swings in its goal. At first the knight existed only as a vassal, a mounted warrior for fighting. Then as the first crusade came around in 1095 it turned the knights attentions to their new quest in Jerusalem. As many joined the ranks of such sects as the knights of the temple, their job became increasingly religious and their status became one of the church. The second transformation comes with the appearance of court life. As the knights became more entangled in the ways of court life, the code of morals known as chivalry becomes more refined and available to fewer people. At the same time, with the appearance of the knight in the court came a more elite and aristocratic type of knight. This being said, the chivalry of the 12th and 13th centuries can be explained as a culmination of the elitist ideals of knighthood along with the social pressures of the courts and the times.
To best be able to describe the evolution of the 13th century knight we must first understand its roots, its origins. The origins of knighthood has always been the feudalistic society of the 8th century. The Frankish Kingdom at this time was one of peasants. The few rich land owners became magnets for young men looking to make something of themselves, and in the spirit of feudalism bands of men formed together to form forces to be reckoned with. Feudalism is a form of society were a person?s loyalty is not towards the abstract notion of ?state,? but to a lord to which they have chosen to be indebted. This lord- vassal relationship is the basis to the idea of loyalty which is the foundation of all knighthood. The social status of the knight at this point in history is quite low, they are the paid labor, the hired muscle. The lord must now equip his new knight with all that is needed to fight, a sword, a shield, armor, a horse, a helmet, as well as food rations. The usual cost of this was about 45 cows.(web page, http://student.maxwell.syr.edu/anderson/equip.htm)
But this is all was going to change. Knights would be drawn away from their meager household duties towards the east in God?s crusade of 1095-1099. The feudal society had become to rough and tumble for many, especially those associated with the church. These indebted vassals were fighting and rampaging though the countryside at will. These sentiments were much of the motivation for what came to be known as the peace and truce of God. The peace of God was a papal decree that protected certain individuals from violence at all times. These people were the clergymen, as well as all women. The truce of God put strict limits of when fighting could occur between anyone at all. Declared at the diocese of Cologne in 1083, this was the church?s first step towards trying to bring some order to the chaos that was feudalism.
Through the first crusade, the church was able to give fighting a war a religious aura. Those who fought and died went to heaven, and those who killed were merely doing the work of Christ. This concept was very appealing to the knights of the time, and many joined the crusade. For joining something so holy, the church starts to give knights the status of clergymen, and the knight as a social class begins to mold itself into something better then it ever has been before. The Templars are the direct result of this; they are a hybrid monk and warrior, and therefore have the social status of the clergy.
As the greatest knight of the 11th century, William Marshal, in fact, so impressed with the knights of the Temple, became one in his last years(Duby, 14-15). The Templars are very pious and strict, ?They detest chess and dice; they abhor hunting and take no place in the silly chase of birds. They detest and abominate actors, magicians, storytellers, immodest songs and plays; these for them are vanities and follies.?(reader, p.295) Other Knights of the time who read about the Templars see them as an example to follow, knowing they are looked down upon well by God.
In the times following the crusades the Knights became more of a recognized social status. Even the errant Knights, those looking alone to seek their fortune, were recognized as part of something great just because they dressed as a knight. These were the years of the tournaments. Tournaments were the places where knights could prove their worth. In the 11th century knights who were deemed worthy could be part of courts of Dukes or Barons of certain areas of what we now know as France. In this time a knight such as William Marshal shined, he held all of the qualities of a knight, know as chivalry. William thanked God for his success, and ?In his mind, chivalry, the source of grace and favor, was indeed what the theologians of the time defined as sacrament.?(Duby, 69) Chivalry, explained by Duby contains many ideals of the church, loyalty and generosity, as well as others, not generally related to the church. These ideals were feats of valor, as well as the ability to win the love of ladies.(Duby, 86-87)
Interestingly enough, the chivalry that knights such as William Marshal followed was different than that of the Templars. For one thing, it became commonplace, mostly influenced by the tournaments, to go above the call of duty and preform feats of valor to gain attention and the hearts of the ladies. At this time Andreas Capellanus was writing books such as ?The Art of Courtly Love,? entire books that explained how men were supposed to talk and interact with ladies so as to win their hearts and eventually have sex with them. Again we see a rift from the views of the church and the Templar knights, the idea of preforming feats of valor to prove ones worth does not seem to coincide with the ideals of the Templars, for they never would waste their time with anything other than the jobs of the church. Neither could one find Templars in an attempt to woo a lady, for they are strictly forbidden to do so. Yet, this was the knighthood of the time, and the churches views were put aside, at least in part.
What is chivalry then, this brings us up to about the 12th and 13th centuries, where all of the knightly concepts have matured through hundreds of years of trials and tests. The last great tale of the Arthurian world, chivalry in this context is at is ripened state.
The chivalry of this era is based on the aristocratic social status of knights, in this case, the Knights of The Round Table. Those knights who work directly for the King of The Britons, Arthur, as well as directly for God, as he has put them on a quest for the Holy Grail. The credentials of these knights are impeccable, and they are of the highest social class possible. Chivalry was in effect a code of morals for these knights to live by, well mannered and truthful, deadly, yet charitable to the weak and merciful, generous and loyal, as well as courageous and valiant. The list continues, gallant and selfless, well born and well trained in the arts of fighting and chivalry(in the original horse riding sense). We are already familiar with the importance of loyalty in the lord vassal sense of the word, as we are with the generousness associated with Charlemagne in the ?Song of Roland.? The concepts that define chivalry in this later era are many of the same as previous centuries, yet with focus more on some of the more personal aspects of chivalry.
The idea of who one is loyal to is now more up for discussion. It is true that the knights are in all ways loyal to their lord, yet now with new concepts that force knights to seek the hearts of women, women are in some ways the objects of great loyalty. I am reminded of the scene in ?Monty Python and the Quest for The Holy Grail? where Lancelot receives a note from what he believes to be a lady in distress. He follows the words of the note and will stop at nothing to see to it that that lady is safe. This was filmed in the spirit of chivalry?s loyalty to ladies. Battles are fought and wars are waged(such as Arthur vs. Lancelot) for the honor of a woman.
In the ?Death of Arthur,? when Lancelot has defeated Mador,?Lancelot, who knew Mador well… saw that he had driven him to the point where he could kill him if he wished, and took pity on him.?(107) This passage shows Lancelot?s compassion for the weak and his mercy. Here is where I see some of what make?s 13th century chivalry different. It seems as if the focus is on projecting an image of ones self on one?s opponent in a way that says, ?I am better than you.? It is all about being in the commanding position, proving one?s power by letting the opponent live. It seems as if these knights live for the feeling of giving mercy. This is shown again on page 145, when Arthur says, ?Did you see what Lancelot did for me today? He was in the position to kill me but refused to touch me. In faith, today he has surpassed in goodness and courtesy all the Knights I have ever seen;?(145) While in truth, they are engaged in a war where many men are being killed, it seems to be that this chivalry is focused more on the merciful and gallant side of war.
The Lady of the Lake, in ?Lancelot of the Lake,? gives an explanation that describes the duality of the knight. ?A knight should have two hearts,? she says, ?one as hard and impenetrable as a diamond, and the other as soft and pliable as hot wax.?(Corley, p. 2) It is this balance between the time to run one?s sword into the chest of the opponent and the time to spare a life that makes a true knight. The attainment of this balance is shrouded in much mythology, so that I am not sure it would survive in an increasingly modern world. This proves to be the truth, as the 15th century comes along and we experience the decline of the knight.
As the era of knighthood comes to a close, we can see that in a country of peasants a minority of knights cannot continue to be what they were in the early middle ages. The role of the knight has become increasingly social and aristocratic. The chivalry of ?The Death of Arthur? remains to be the apex, and therefore what is remembered today in popular culture images. While many of the traits of chivalry exist today, the times have changed and what once was the supreme goal of men is no more. Looking at modern satires of chivalry such as Monty Python, we can begin to understand how absurd some of the customs of knighthood were and what was gallant then is now just a funny joke.