Medieval Fictions

Stuart Airlie

  • Chivalry by Maurice Keen
    Yale, 303 pp, £12.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 300 03150 5
  • The Rise of Romance by Eugène Vinaver
    Boydell, 158 pp, £12.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 85991 158 6
  • War in the Middle Ages by Philippe Contamine, translated by Michael Jones
    Blackwell, 387 pp, £17.50, June 1984, ISBN 0 631 13142 6
  • War and Government in the Middle Ages edited by John Gillingham and J.C. Holt
    Boydell, 198 pp, £25.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 85115 404 2
  • Prussian Society and the German Order by Michael Burleigh
    Cambridge, 217 pp, £22.50, May 1984, ISBN 0 521 26104 X

Few images from Medieval Europe are as familiar, or as potent, as that of the armoured knight on horseback, riding off in quest of adventure. It is an image that has inspired varied imaginative treatment down to our own times, in films like John Boorman’s vulgar and energetic epic Excalibur or Bresson’s stark, pessimistic Lancelot du Lac. It is rumoured that Jancso is now preparing a film, inspired by the work of Georges Duby, of the great clash of knights at Bouvines (1214), one of the few decisive set-piece battles of the Middle Ages. Such artists, like their Romantic predecessors, find in the culture of Medieval knighthood what they want or need to find. Historians can behave like this too, as the example of Huizinga indicates, and the temptation is particularly strong for anyone trying to discover what realities underlay the gorgeous trappings of chivalry. Such trappings were part of Medieval reality and contemporaries too came under the spell of the mounted knight; the Middle Ages could succumb to its own enchantments. The historian of Medieval knighthood has to recognise the tension between aspiration and achievement that inspired and disappointed contemporary commentators, as well as to approach with imaginative sympathy that least sympathetic of human activities, war, which provided the raison d’être for the parfyt and gentle knight.

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