Out of old Germanic customs of military initiation, crossed with Saracen influences from Persia, Syria, and Spain, and Christian ideas of devotion and sacrament, flowered the imperfect but generous reality of chivalry.
A knight was a person of aristocratic birth—i.e., of titled and landowning family—who had been formally received into the order of knighthood. Not all “gentle” men (i.e., men distinguished by their gens or ancestry) were eligible to knighthood or title; younger sons, except of royal blood, were normally confined to modest properties that precluded the expensive appurtenances of chivalry; such men remained squires unless they carved out new lands and titles of their own.
The youth who aimed at knighthood submitted to long and arduous discipline. At seven or eight he entered as a page, at twelve or fourteen as a squire, into the service of a lord; waited upon him at table, in the bedchamber, on the manor, in joust or battle; fortified his own flesh and spirit with dangerous exercises and sports; learned by imitation and trial to handle the weapons of feudal war. When his apprenticeship was finished he was received into the knightly order by a ritual of sacramental awe. The candidate began with a bath as a symbol of spiritual, perhaps as a guarantee of physical, purification; hence he could be called a “knight of the bath,” as distinguished from those “knights of the sword” who had received their accolade on some battlefield as immediate reward for bravery. He was clothed in white tunic, red robe, and black coat, representing respectively the hoped-for purity of his morals, the blood he might shed for honor or God, and the death he must be prepared to meet unflinchingly. For a day he fasted; he passed a night at church in prayer, confessed his sins to a priest, attended Mass, received communion, heard a sermon on the moral, religious, social, and military duties of a knight, and solemnly promised to fulfill them. He then advanced to the altar with a sword hanging from his neck; the priest removed the sword, blessed it, and replaced it upon his neck. The candidate turned to the seated lord from whom he sought knighthood, and was met with a stern question: “For what purpose do you desire to enter the order? If to be rich, to take your ease, and be held in honor without doing honor to knighthood, you are unworthy of it, and would be to the order of knighthood what the simoniacal clerk is to the prelacy.” The candidate was prepared with a reassuring reply. Knights or ladies then clothed him in knightly array of hauberk, cuirass or breastplate, armlets, gauntlets (armored gloves), sword, and spurs.* The lord, rising, gave him the accolade (i.e., on the neck)—three blows with the flat of the sword upon the neck or shoulder, and sometimes a slap on the cheek, as symbols of the last affronts that he might accept without redress; and “dubbed” him with the formula, “In the name of God, St. Michael, and St. George I make thee knight.” The new knight received a lance, a helmet, and a horse; he adjusted his helmet, leaped upon his horse, brandished his lance, flourished his sword, rode out from the church, distributed gifts to his attendants, and gave a feast for his friends.
He was now privileged to risk his life in tournaments that would train him still further in skill, endurance, and bravery. Begun in the tenth century, the tournament flourished above all in France, and sublimated some part of the passions and energies that disordered feudal life. It might be proclaimed through a herald, by a king or a great lord, to celebrate the ordination of a knight, the visit of a sovereign, or the marriage of royal blood. The knights who offered to take part came to the appointed town, hung their armorial bearings from the windows of their rooms, and affixed their coats of arms to castles, monasteries, and other public places. Spectators examined these, and were free to lodge complaint of wrong done by any intending participant; tournament officials would hear the case, and disqualify the guilty; there was then a “blot on his ‘scutcheon,” or shield. To the excited gathering came horse dealers to equip the knight, haberdashers to clothe him and his horse in fit array, moneylenders to ransom the fallen, fortunetellers, acrobats, mimes, troubadours and trouvères, wandering scholars, women of loose morals, and ladies of high degree. The whole occasion was a colorful festival of song and dance, trysts and brawls, and wild betting on the contests.
A tournament might last almost a week, or but a day. At a tournament in 1285 Sunday was a day of assembly and fete; Monday and Tuesday were given to jousts; Wednesday was a day of rest; Thursday saw the tourney that gave its name to the tournament. The lists, or field of battle, were a town square or an outlying open space, partly enclosed by stands and balconies from which the richer gentry, clothed in all the splendor of medieval costume, watched the fray; commoners stood on foot around the field. The stands were decorated with tapestries, drapes, pennants, and coats of arms. Musicians prefaced the engagement with music, and celebrated with flourishes the most brilliant strokes of the game. Between contests the noble lords and ladies scattered coins among the pedestrian crowd, who received them with cries of “Largesse!” and “Noël!”
Before the first contest the knights entered the lists by marching on to the field in brilliant equipage and stately steps, followed by their mounted squires, and sometimes led in gold or silver chains by the ladies for whose glory they were to fight. Usually each knight carried on his shield, helmet, or lance a scarf, veil, mantle, bracelet, or ribbon that his chosen lady had taken from her dress.
The joust or tilt was a single combat of rival knights; they rode against each other “at full tilt,” and launched their lances of steel. If either contestant was unhorsed the rules required the other to dismount; and the fight was continued on foot till one or the other cried quits, or was hors de combat through fatigue or wounds or death, or until judges or king called a halt. The victor then appeared before the judges, and solemnly received a prize from them or from some fair lady. Several such tilts might fill a day. The climax of the festival came with the tourney; the enlisted knights ranged themselves in opposed groups, and fought an actual battle, though usually with blunted arms; in the tourney at Neuss (1240) some sixty knights were killed. In such tourneys prisoners were taken, and ransom exacted, as in war; the horses and armor of the captives belonged to the victors; the knights loved money even more than war. The fabliaux tell of a knight who protested the Church’s condemnation of tournaments on the ground that if effective it would end his only means of livelihood.69 When all the contests were over the survivors and the noble spectators joined in an evening of feasting, song, and dance. The winning knights enjoyed the privilege of kissing the loveliest women, and heard poems and songs composed in commemoration of their victories.
Theoretically the knight was required to be a hero, a gentleman, and a saint. The Church, anxious to tame the savage breast, surrounded the institution of knighthood with religious forms and vows. The knight pledged himself always to speak the truth, defend the Church, protect the poor, make peace in his province, and pursue the infidels. To his liege lord he owed a loyalty more binding than filial love; to all women he was to be a guardian, saving their chastity; to all knights he was to be a brother in mutual courtesy and aid. In war he might fight other knights; but if he took any of them prisoner he must treat them as his guests; so the French knights captured at Crécy and Poitiers lived, till ransomed, in freedom and comfort on the estates of their English captors, sharing in feasts and sports with their hosts.70 Above the conscience of the commons feudalism exalted the aristocratic honor and noblesse oblige of the knight—a pledge of martial valor and feudal fidelity, of unstinting service to all knights, all women, all weak or poor. Sovirtus, manliness, was restored to its Roman masculine sense after a thousand years of Christian emphasis on feminine virtues. Chivalry, despite its religious aura, represented a victory of Germanic, pagan, and Arab conceptions over Christianity; a Europe attacked on every side needed the martial virtues again.
All this, however, was chivalric theory. A few knights lived up to it, as a few Christians rose to the arduous heights of Christian selflessness. But human nature, born of jungle and beast, sullied the one ideal like the other. The same hero who one day fought bravely in tournament or battle might on another be a faithless murderer; he might carry his honor as proudly as his plume, and, like Lancelot, Tristram, and realer knights, break up fine families with adultery. He might prate of protecting the weak, and strike unarmed peasants down with a sword; he treated with scorn the manual worker on whose labor rested his citadel of gallantry, and with frequent coarseness and occasional brutality the wife whom he had sworn to cherish and protect.71 He could hear Mass in the morning, rob a church in the afternoon, and drink himself into obscenity at night; so Gildas, who lived among them, described the British knights of that sixth century in which some poets placed Arthur and “the great order of the Table Round.”72 He talked of loyalty and justice, and filled the pages of Froissart with treachery and violence. While German poets sang of chivalry, German knights engaged in fisticuffs, incendiarism, and the highway robbery of innocent travelers.73 The Saracens were astonished by the crudeness and cruelty of the Crusaders; even the great Bohemund, to show his contempt of the Greek emperor, sent him a cargo of sliced off noses and thumbs.74 Such men were exceptional, but they were plentiful. It would of course be absurd to expect soldiers to be saints; good killing requires its own unique virtues. These rough knights drove the Moors into Granada, the Slavs from the Oder, the Magyars from Italy and Germany; they tamed the Norse into Normans, and brought French civilization into England on the points of their swords. They were what they had to be.
Two influences moderated the barbarism of chivalry: woman and Christianity. The Church partly succeeded in diverting feudal pugnacity into the Crusades. Perhaps she was helped by the rising adoration of Mary the Virgin Mother; once more the feminine virtues were exalted to check the bloody ardor of vigorous men. But it may be that living women, appealing to sense as well as soul, had even more influence in transforming the warrior into a gentleman. The Church repeatedly forbade tournaments, and was gaily ignored by the knights; the ladies attended tournaments, and were not ignored. The Church frowned upon the role of women in tournaments and in poetry; a conflict arose between the morals of noble ladies and the ethics of the Church; and in the feudal world the ladies and the poets won.
Romantic love—i.e., love that idealizes its object—has probably occurred in every age, in degree loosely corresponding with the delay and obstacles between desire and fulfillment. Until our own age it was rarely the cause of marriage; and if we find it quite apart from marriage when knighthood was in flower, we must view that condition as more normal than our own. In most ages, and above all in feudalism, women married men for their property, and admired other men for their charm. Poets, having no property, had to marry at low level or love at long range, and they aimed their fairest songs at inaccessible dames. The distance between lover and beloved was usually so great that even the most passionate poetry was taken as only a pretty compliment, and a well-mannered lord rewarded poets for inditing amorous verses to his wife. So the viscount of Vaux continued his hospitality and favors to the troubadour Peire Vidal after Peire addressed love poems to the viscountess—even after Peire had tried to seduce her75—though this was a degree of amiability not usually to be presumed upon. The troubadour argued that marriage, combining a maximum of opportunity with a minimum of temptation, could hardly engender or sustain romantic love; even the pious Dante seems never to have dreamed of addressing love poems to his wife, or to have found any unseemliness in addressing them to another woman, single or married. The knight agreed with the poet that knightly love had to be for some other lady than his own wife, usually for the wife of another knight.76Most knights, though we must not often suspect them of marital fidelity, laughed at “courtly love,” resigned themselves in time to their mates, and consoled themselves with war. We hear of knights turning cold ears to ladies offering romance.77 Roland, in the Chanson, died with scarce a thought of his affianced bride Aude, who would die of grief on hearing of his death. Women, too, were not all romantic; but from the twelfth century it became a convention with many of them that a lady should have a lover, Platonic or Byronic, added to her husband. If we may believe the medieval romances, the knight was pledged to the devoir or service of the lady who had given him her colors to wear; she could impose dangerous exploits to test or distance him; and if he served her well she was expected to reward him with an embrace or better; this is the “guerdon” that he claimed. To her he dedicated all his feats of arms; it was her name that he invoked in the crises of combat or the breath of death. Here again feudalism was not a part of Christianity but its opposite and rival. Women, theologically so stinted in love, asserted their freedom and molded their own moral code; the worship of woman in the flesh competed with the adoration of the Virgin. Love proclaimed itself an independent principle of worth, and offered ideals of service, norms of conduct, scandalously ignoring religion even when borrowing its terms and forms.78
So complicated a severance of love and marriage raised many problems of morals and etiquette; and, as in Ovid’s days, authors dealt with these questions with all the nicety of casuists. Some time between 1174 and 1182 one Andreas Capellanus—Andrew the Chaplain—composed a Tractatus de amore et de amoris remedio (Treatise on Love and Its Cure), in which, among other matters, he laid down the code and principles of “courtly love.” Andrew limits such love to the aristocracy; he unblushingly assumes that it is the illicit passion of a knight for another knight’s wife, but considers its distinguishing characteristic as the homage, vassalage, and service of the man to the woman. This book is the chief authority for the existence of medieval “courts of love,” in which titled ladies answered queries and handed down decisions about l’amour courtois. In Andrew’s time, if we may credit his account, the leading lady in this procedure was the princess poetess Marie, Countess of Champagne; a generation earlier it had been her mother, the most fascinating woman in feudal society, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, sometime Queen of France, and later of England. Occasionally, according to the Tractatus, mother and daughter presided together as judges in the court of love at Poitiers.79 Andrew knew Marie well, served her as chaplain, and apparently wrote his book to publish her theories and judgments of love. “Love,” he says, “teaches everyone to abound in good manners”; under Marie’s tutelage, we are assured, the rough aristocracy of Poitiers became a society of generous women and gallant men.
The poems of the troubadours contain several references to such courts of love, maintained by high ladies—the viscountess of Narbonne, the countess of Flanders, and others—at Pierrefeu, Avignon, and elsewhere in France;80ten, fourteen, sixty women, we are told, sat in judgment on cases submitted to them mostly by women, sometimes by men; disputes were settled, lovers’ quarrels healed, penalties laid upon violators of the code. So (according to Andrew) Marie of Champagne, on April 27, 1174, issued aresponsum to the inquiry, “Can real love exist between married people?” She replied in the negative on the ground that “lovers grant everything gratuitously, without being constrained by any motive of necessity; married people are compelled as a duty to submit to one another’s wishes.”81 All the courts, says our merry Andrew, agreed on thirty-one “Laws of Love”: (1) Marriage cannot be pleaded as an excuse for refusing to love…. (3) No one can really love two people at the same time. (4) Love never stands still; it always increases or diminishes. (5) Favors unwillingly yielded are tasteless…. (11) It is not becoming to love those ladies who only love with a view to marriage…. (14) Too easy possession renders love contemptible; possession that is attended with difficulties makes love … of great price…. (19) If love once begins to diminish, it quickly fades away, and rarely recovers…. (21) Love invariably increases under the influence of jealousy…. (23) A person who is the prey of love eats little and sleeps little…. (26) Love can deny nothing to love.82
These courts of love, if they ever existed, were parts of a kind of parlor game played by the ladies of the aristocracy; busy barons took no known notice of them, and amorous knights made their own rules. But there can be no doubt that increasing wealth and idleness generated a romance and etiquette of love that filled the poetry of the troubadours and the early Renaissance. “In June, 1283,” writes the Florentine historian Villani (1280?-1348),
at the festival of St. John, when the city of Florence was happy, quiet, and at peace … a social union was formed, composed of a thousand people who, all clad in white, called themselves the Servants of Love. They arranged a succession of sports, merrymakings, and dances with ladies; nobles and bourgeois marched to the sound of trumpets and music, and held festive banquets at midday and at night. This Court of Love lasted nearly two months, and it was the finest and most famous that had ever been in Tuscany.83
Chivalry, beginning in the tenth century, reached its height in the thirteenth, suffered from the brutality of the Hundred Years’ War, shriveled in the merciless hate that divided the English aristocracy in the Wars of the Roses, and died in the theological fury of the religious wars of the sixteenth century. But it left its decisive mark upon the society, education, manners, literature, art, and vocabulary of medieval and modern Europe. The orders of knighthood—of the Garter, the Bath, the Golden Fleece—multiplied to the number of 234 in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain; and schools like Eton, Harrow, and Winchester combined the chivalric ideal with “liberal” education in the most effective training of mind and will and character in pedagogical history. As the knight learned manners and gallantry at the court of noble or king, so he transmitted something of this courtoisie to those below him in the social scale; modern politeness is a dilution of medieval chivalry. The literature of Europe flourished, from the Chanson de Roland to Don Quixote, by treating knightly characters and themes; and the rediscovery of chivalry was one of the exciting elements in the Romantic movement of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whatever its excesses and absurdities in literature, however far chivalry in fact fell short of its ideals, it remains one of the major achievements of the human spirit, an art of life more splendid than any art.
In this perspective the feudal picture is not merely one of serfdom, illiteracy, exploitation, and violence, but as truly a scene of lusty peasants clearing the wilderness; of men colorful and vigorous in language, love, and war; of knights pledged to honor and service, seeking adventure and fame rather than comfort and security, and scorning danger, death, and hell; of women patiently toiling and breeding in peasant cottages, and titled ladies mingling the tenderest prayers to the Virgin with the bold freedom of a sensuous poetry and courtly love—perhaps feudalism did more than Christianity to raise the status of woman. The great task of feudalism was to restore political and economic order to Europe after a century of disruptive invasions and calamities. It succeeded; and when it decayed, modern civilization rose upon its ruins and its legacy.
The Dark Ages are not a period upon which the scholar can look with superior scorn. He no longer denounces their ignorance and superstition, their political disintegration, their economic and cultural poverty; he marvels, rather, that Europe ever recovered from the successive blows of Goths, Huns, Vandals, Moslems, Magyars, and Norse, and preserved through the turmoil and tragedy so much of ancient letters and techniques. He can feel only admiration for the Charlemagnes, Alfreds, Olafs, and Ottos who forced an order upon this chaos; for the Benedicts, Gregorys, Bonifaces, Columbas, Alcuins, Brunos, who so patiently resurrected morals and letters out of the wilderness of their times; for the prelates and artisans that could raise cathedrals, and the nameless poets that could sing, between one war or terror and the next. State and Church had to begin again at the bottom, as Romulus and Numa had done a thousand years before; and the courage required to build cities out of jungles, and citizens out of savages, was greater than that which would raise Chartres, Amiens, and Reims, or cool Dante’s vengeful fever into measured verse.