Thursday, December 17, 2009

Richard W. Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: the Religious Ideology of Chivalry

Here is what I wrote about Richard Kaeuper's Holy Warriors for the online Medieval Review, a valuable electronic source for up-to-date reviews. It's free and sends the reviews right to your mailbox, and because it is electronic it allows and encourages reviewers to say more than they could in a print review. Here's where you can find subscription information, and here's where you go to search for past reviews.

Richard Kaeuper's most recent book is the product of remarkable learning. It takes a classic, well-studied topic of undoubted importance and, based on the author's wide and deep reading of both primary and secondary sources, not only sheds new and valuable light on its ostensible subject--the relationship between chivalry and religion in the Middle Ages--but also illuminates many other aspects of medieval history. Readers may well come away from this book with a whole new understanding of subjects that they thought they knew well. This reviewer, fresh from teaching a course on the Crusades, might well do things differently next time, thanks to Kaeuper's discussion of chivalry as struggle or labor.

Two decades ago, in his War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages (1988), Kaeuper found himself doubting that the values of chivalry as understood in the High Middle Ages were an unambiguous force for promoting civility and order: "The code of chivalry encouraged as much violence as it curbed" (7). Further research, notably extensive reading in chivalric epics and romance, led him to find unconvincing an older understanding of the relationship between Christianity and chivalry, that chivalry was a process of a more pacific clerical establishment slowly imposing its values on the warrior aristocracy. In Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (1999) he traced a convincing picture of the autonomous value system of knights who though they might aspire to courtliness and piety saw the core of their social identity in their prowess, and their right and duty to use force when they judged it appropriate.

The current book is a logical extension of Chivalry and Violence in that it focuses again on the self-image of knights, specifically how knights justified their way of life religiously. It is Kaeuper's primary contention that knights (or more generally well-armed, professional soldiers) had independent religious ideas that they adopted and adapted to suit their own needs, ideas that were related to those put forward by the clergy, but not a pale reflection of clerical theories and demands. This thesis deserves some detailed exploration before we look at an important secondary theme of the book, which is Kaeuper's demonstration that some of the most important theories of salvation were shaped by the existence and self-assertion of a Christian knighthood, the members of which could be either valuable allies or dangerous enemies of clerical interests and high-minded ecclesiastical efforts to reform the world.

First, let us look at what Kaeuper says about knightly self-image and how it related to the way penance and salvation were understood in medieval culture in general. Texts written by and for knights that tackled serious issues--practically by definition religious issues--upheld warrior values such as prowess (courage, skill, the prime warrior virtue) despite the frequent disapproval of clerics, but also identified other aspects of the knightly profession with universally admitted aspects of the economy of salvation. We might, following Kaeuper and the Book of Job, consider the equation of the struggle for salvation with militia (1-2); militia in medieval usage could mean not just military service or knighthood, but hard struggle, even suffering. The struggle or labor of human life was part of the punishment derived from the sins of Adam and Eve; but submitting oneself to hard work and other kinds of suffering were also constantly praised and encouraged by sermonizers and ascetic writers, because done right, as Christ did, it was the road to salvation. Knights believed that their own way of life was labor and led to pains experienced by no other mortals (though one wonders what their mothers thought of that argument), comparable, some said, to the work and suffering of Christ. Thus knights, when thinking about their participation in the process of salvation, could point to a perfectly orthodox claim to Christian respectability (if not one that was uncontested): imitatio Christi. Indeed, there was a lively debate; when rating their own spiritually valuable ascetic achievements, knights argued that monks could not bear the burdens of military life, and vice versa. Kaeuper provides a number of stories from his wide reading which illustrate the terms of that debate, with all its gruesome and humorous aspects, as in fact he does when discussing other arguments that arose from clerical-chivalric tensions. It is one of the great virtues of this book is that Kaeuper constantly keeps the reader aware that clerics often found themselves facing arguments justifying knighthood that were difficult to answer.

Kaeuper devotes a long chapter to discussing how the effort of the twelfth-century clerical reformers to create a working theology to guide the laity intersected with the developing ideology of chivalry--this being the century when chevalerie ceased to mean "horsemen" or "skill with horses" only, and became a moral status or aspiration. Reform in the twelfth century involved among other things an organized effort to define various legitimate professions of the human community, how each contributed at its best to the Christian life, and the dangers inherent in each profession. Among the lay ordines knighthood took a leading place, because the warrior aristocracy was the chief rival of the clergy in power, wealth and respectability. It may be that as much effort was put into defining and critiquing the military ordo as was devoted to all other laypeople together. For reformers there was much about warfare to criticize, but it was impossible to simply denounce or ignore the problem of the Christian warrior. Ecclesiastical authority had already conceded, in the form of crusade theology (still evolving, still rife with contradiction), that appropriate military service could gain salvation. Clerics used violence, and had to justify and theorize it. In this case, too, their expertise in learning failed to impose their formulation--that only violence authorized by the clergy and directed towards enemies of the faith was legitimate--on an unquestioning audience. Chivalric writers and clerical writers sympathetic to them appropriated what they liked about the theory of ordines and the theory of crusade, adapting what was useful to their own purposes and discarding the rest. Witness the way that treatises on chivalry, right from the very beginning, appropriated the language of ordo and ordines to give the "order of chivalry" an undoubted predominance in the Christian community, save only for the formal respect due to priests for their unique sacramental role. Witness the way proper warfare of any kind was seen by knights as equal in worth to expeditions to the Holy Land or against other unbelievers, equally pleasing to God.

Kaeuper continues to be interested in the end of the self-justifying, consciously Christian knightly identity and devotes his final chapter to "writing the death certificate for chivalric ideology." Here he provides the reader with a fuller and more convincing analysis of the death of medieval knighthood than he did in Chivalry and Violence, although it is not entirely satisfying. Kaeuper offers up several factors that contributed to the "death of chivalry." He suggests that since after the Reformation the penitential economy of the Middle Ages no longer made sense in much of the Christian West, its logic no longer could be appropriated to depict the well-armed professional warrior as a member of an autonomous Christian ordo. At the same time various developments made it easier to see knights as servants of the State (the Prince?) than as members of an international brotherhood, while the state became the source of all honor (a view seen, for instance, in the sixteenth-century biography of the Chevalier Bayard). It would have been interesting and useful if Kaeuper had said more about the tension between the ideas of knights as members of a "national" state (or subjects of a Sovereign) and knights as members of a class that transcended boundaries and allegiances. Admittedly he said quite a bit on this subject, but one feels that there is more to be said. It would have been interesting to see Kaeuper engage with the recent work of Crouch and Keen on the evolution of European ideas of nobility.

This book is well and entertainingly written, and is well-presented and designed. The University of Pennsylvania Press is to be congratulated for being willing to include the large bibliography and the extensive (and rich) scholarly apparatus that add much of value to Kaeuper's presentation. One can no longer take these things for granted, even from academic publishers. Also remarkable is the inclusion of a striking thirteenth-century illustration of an armored knight about to fight a phalanx of vices. It is reproduced on both the cover and the frontispiece, providing the reader with one incomplete but color reproduction plus one complete in black and white. This allowed the author to present a striking image to his reader, in a way that makes vivid some of the symbolism relevant to his argument. These things cost money and are sometimes skimped on; in this case the money was well spent.

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