This year I once again taught a fourth-year undergraduate seminar on chivalry. Since it is quite possible that I may never teach it again, I am glad to say that it was a particularly satisfying iteration of the course. Below you will find one student's concluding thoughts. It may give you an idea of how happy I am, and why.
by Elisia Evans
by Elisia Evans
Throughout this course my understanding of chivalry has developed and changed regarding the new information that was introduced to our class. As new material was introduced I asked myself new questions about the topic and eventually landed on a conclusion that encompasses a variety of sources that were studied in class. I have come to see chivalry as a combination of the ideas I developed on the subject throughout the course.
At the beginning of the course I presented my ideas of chivalry as relating to the daring hero of Hyrule, Link, and the steadfast honour and sense of duty of Brienne of Tarth. To my understanding of the time chivalry was a term used to describe the traits of these two characters: dutiful, honourable, reliable, and brave. To pledge fealty and keep it, or to embark on quests at great personal risk, were examples of chivalrous behaviour. As far as I was concerned at this stage of my understanding of chivalry, this was the extent of the meaning of the word.
After reading Charny and Lull at the beginning of the course I was introduced to the true complexity of the idea of ‘chivalry’. Charny’s A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry was one of the most valuable sources we explored in this course because it provided a decent foundation for an accurate understanding of this elusive concept. Charny introduces a much more serious and professional definition of chivalry. He outlines the different types of knights and the different methods they might use to gain prestige in their knightly tasks. He often declares that “he who does best is most worthy (Charny 52)” and constantly asks these men to do more. This is extremely demanding considering how difficult being a mediocre knight would be, let alone one that meets Charny’s crazy standards. There is also an entire section devoted to the discouragement of physical pleasure entitled “A Good Man-at-Arms Should not Pamper his Body (68)”. This passage denies knightly men even soft sheets on their beds. The message I took away from Charny was that being a good knight sucked but was apparently worth it for the reputation and honour with which it is associated. Lull’s book The Book of the Order of Chivalry explained to me that these self-torturing men at arms were part of an ‘order’. This was important to my understanding of chivalry because it introduced the idea of chivalry being a type of legitimate profession or club. At this stage in my understanding of chivalry I was not sure who would ever in a million years want to attempt to meet Charny’s standards and enter into the world of ‘chivalry’.
The identity of these men was soon illuminated by Duby’s article, “Youth in Aristocratic Society”. This was one of the most valuable sources for my academic understanding of knights, as well as a personal favourite. This article explained that knights were often the second sons of wealthier families and could not inherit land and thus had to make their own way in the world. For entertainment and a chance at a future they wandered around getting into trouble and fighting one another. These men developed into professional warriors, embarked on crusades and fought in tournaments. This article explains the origins of the men who are expected to dedicate themselves to the ideas proposed by Charny. My ponderings concerning the employment of these men was answered by our studies of jousts, challenges, and warfare. The literature concerning knights, such as the stories of Lancelot and Erec, gave me an impression of how the public viewed these men at arms because this was the media representation of chivalry to the literate populace. From these sources I was able to gather the origins of knights and that they were typically romanticized and respected because of their valiant deeds of arms and reputed honour.
After learning about the relationship between knights and civilians I was completely surprised. During the 100 years war, on which I found Knights and Peasants to have been a valuable read, men at arms were reported to have taken part in some bad behaviour. Fields were burned, cities were sacked, and non-combatants were forced to participate as a means of survival. This blurred the idea of chivalry in my eyes. In his book Wright points out that only a small number of the men at arms participating were actually members of the order of chivalry. This does not ease my mind because in Gillingham’s article on William the Marshal he describes the role of chivalry in warfare as being selected and somewhat diluted. There does not seem to be much room for an honour code when one is fighting for his life. However, I have deduced that Chivalry’s role in warfare was to ensure safe ransoms. Knight’s would only willingly surrender to other gentlemen and would then be ransomed back to their king. It seems to be that at this moment men at arms remembered the rules with which they so strongly abide during peace. My overall conclusion, although incomplete at this time, was that Chivalry was a pipedream; people saw its value much more in theory than in practice.
The final development of my idea of chivalry brought all of this together. I settled on the idea that knights had unrealistic expectations put on them by men like Charny and their adoring public. I now see chivalry as the equivalent of a gentlemen’s club; select members, large egos, a great deal of games played, and not much accomplished. I also believe that chivalry is swept under the rug during war, especially a war as frustrating and confusing as the 100 years war. However I would like to point out that in the document on jousts during a peace period there was a great deal of tournaments hosting chivalrous behaviour which shows the drive to remember chivalry as soon as the fighting subsides. In modern day warfare there is not much difference, soldiers forget their restraint and sometimes their morality while they are at war. In conclusion knights were real men who sometimes did not match up to the idea presented by Charny and the authors of the Epics read in class. I think this is why the idea of chivalry is so hard to place.