Friday, October 19, 2012

Virtuous knights

"Knights were meant to be virtuous..." So said said one of my students in the fourth-year chivalry seminar. He was commenting on a question I asked the class to answer. How did crusading affect the way warriors were viewed?

So far we have not really been talking about what most people call "Knights". I think that before 1100, we have to be careful to say that we are seeing soldiers/men who provide military service (milites) or horsemen (chevaliers) or henchmen (knechts/knights) or military dependents (vassals). But the knights who represent the idea of chivalry to us, the knights of the medieval romances, or Walter Scott, I don't think they've come down the pike yet. Did great lords identify themselves as knights? In most regions, very rarely.

These armed horsemen were not expected as far as I can tell to be exemplars of individual virtue. Their virtue was a simple evaluation of whether they were rapacious and murderous, or not. And with the preaching of the crusade, whether they were fighting in a good cause against outsiders, or beating up on their Christian brothers at home. The armed horsemen were evaluated as part of a group that might be contributing to the public good or running wild breaking the peace.

As we move into the 12th century, however, we will see the poets devoting a lot of energy to the virtues and vices of individual knights, fictional ones by and large, but distinct individuals nonetheless.

Comments, anyone?

Image: from a website promoting virtue.

1 comment:

  1. I think it depends how exactly you define 'chivalry' and 'knight'. John Gilligham, among others, has argued reasonably convincingly for real-life chivalry in the sense of 'sparing high-status opponents' as an eleventh-century phenomenon. And he's now looking at changes to the treatment of women after battles. (I think this paper has either been published now, or is about to be).

    If you're looking more generally at literature celebrating the virtues of mounted warriors, then I think Waltharius would probably still be in an older (pre-chivalrous) tradition. I discuss that a bit in my book in the chapter about Carolingian ideals of war, and I've got an article on the poem's morality due out in Early Medieval Europe at some point. But what about Ruodlieb? It's a long time since I've read it, but wouldn't that count as chivalrous?