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.

In looking both narrowly and sympathetically at his subject, the historian imitates the knights themselves, who noted at least the external signs of knighthood with the eyes of practised interpreters. The ability to decipher the heraldic symbols that fluttered theatrically over the warriors was a valuable part of a knight’s intellectual equipment. As Maurice Keen points out, heraldry was ‘one of the prime keys to a secular chivalrous erudition that was at once literal and visual, practical and ideological’. Dr Keen’s book is a brilliantly successful attempt to describe and explain this secular erudition. In doing justice to the knights, he rescues them from their detractors, Medieval and modern. St Bernard fulminated against the knights with their banners, painted shields, silver spurs and war horses clothed in silk: all this, he snorted, was not the badge of knighthood but the dress of women. More than seven centuries later another great cultural critic, Huizinga, brought an even more devastating charge against chivalry: that it had not existed, or rather, that the fantastical accounts of chivalrous deeds in late Medieval chronicles and romances were the expressions of a decadent sensibility, of a culture in decline where chivalry had long ceased to have any reality outside the imagination of poets and chroniclers. Huizinga’s views have been effectively challenged before now, most recently in Malcolm Vale’s fine study, Chivalry and War (1981). Dr Keen joins him in criticising Huizinga’s thesis, and in recognising his stature.

The fabulous world of Medieval romances might seem to back Huizinga’s charges of unreality, and Keen is aware of this, noting that the romances conjure up a world where ‘rivers flow that can only be traversed by bridges fashioned from glass or from the blades of swords’. A useful introduction to this world is provided by the reissue of Vinaver’s The Rise of Romance. A lot of information is packed into this short book, and in an age of semiological analysis Vinaver’s cool view of those who seek and find a continuously coherent system of symbolism in Medieval literature is refreshing. Nevertheless, the book’s tone (very C.S. Lewis) does now seem rather old-fashioned and bellelettrist and one’s understanding of Chrétien de Troyes is not increased by the parallels that Vinaver draws between him and John Steinbeck; nor does the long section on Flaubert serve to throw much light on Medieval or modern literature. Dr Keen, however, makes illuminating use of the romances as sources for an understanding of the Medieval mind. He points out that ‘despite the profoundly religious spirit of the Grail Romances, they reflect attitudes that are strikingly nonsacerdotal.’ This is one of the main themes and concerns of the book: that Christian knighthood was seen by its proponents as valid in its own terms, as expressing only part of itself in the adventure of the Crusade, as inspired by Christian ideals but not under the control of the ecclesiastical authorities. This state of affairs enabled knights to have their cake and eat it: ‘Behold,’ wrote a Crusader poet, ‘without renouncing our rich garments, our station in life, all that pleases and charms, we can obtain honour down here and joy in Paradise.’

Chivalry thus appears as something more than the sum of its parts, these parts being military, aristocratic and Christian, and Dr Keen holds them in balance, refusing to accord a misleading predominance to any one. He firmly rejects the idea that dubbing was an eighth sacrament. He sees the origins of chivalry in the warrior bands of the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded Rome. The military service of young aristocrats in a lord’s household coincides with the beginnings of vassalage as described by Bloch, originating in an atmosphere heavy with the odour of household bread. The world of chivalry was a world where men were linked to each other by strong personal bonds forged in battle and further reinforced by the rituals of the aristocracy. Carousing together in a hall, young warriors would be regaled with stories of the deeds of their ancestors and their heroes, stories that confirmed their perception of themselves as a group. In this respect 12th-century Flanders was not so different from the world of Beowulf and Heorot.

Although the gorgeous flower of chivalry was to soar far above its roots in the Teutonic war-band, the aristocracy’s delight in war remained a constant. This aristocracy defined itself through the instruments of war, their display and use, and above all through the sword. If the Church provided liturgies for the hallowing of weapons, sacral and magic swords had a pre-Christian origin. The great heroes of chivalric mythology were revealed through their swords; Roland had Durendaal, Arthur had Excalibur, and in the heat of a duel Lancelot recognised a fellow knight of the Round Table by his sword. When Perceval was dubbed knight, he kissed his weapon. Sword responded to sword; swords were symbols. When Edward I’s judges asked Earl Warenne by what warrant he held his lands, the Earl brandished, not charters and legal records, but his ancestral sword, sign of his lineage and of his right to hold lands by the law of conquest. In his stimulating work on Medieval literacy, From Memory to Written Record, Michael Clanchy has stressed the importance of this conflict in Medieval culture between the clerks’ notions of records and rights which were expressed in parchment (notions congenial to desk-bound historians) and the notions of warriors, men of the sword. In the barbarian period, the Gothic queen Amalasuntha was rebuked by her armed following for presuming to educate her son: going to school was not the business of a future war-lord.

All this is not to say that knights were illiterate boors. One of the merits of Dr Keen’s book is that it displays the richness and variety of chivalric culture in which literacy had a place. But knights were hard men. The great scholar Abelard, to be sure, was taught to read and write as his knightly father had been before him, but he also learned the aggression of his social class and brought the competitiveness of the duel to his scholarly debates. Churchmen attempted to harness the energy of knights in projects like the Crusade and in Orders like the Templars, but it was acknowledged that violence was a necessary tool of government in a fallen world. A ninth-century monk realised that secular rule could not be carried on without use of the sword and commerce with women.

Both these elements are important in chivalry. As objects of sexual and economic desire women were subject to much knightly attention. The elaborate code of service and subjection to a lady found in courtly love was not just a game. The presence of women in the audience at tournaments spurred men on in their combat with each other, turning this combat into a form of sexual display. Women occasionally took a more active part in chivalry’s rituals: Dr Keen has a nice story of the ‘vamping’ of the Black Prince by Joan of Kent and he emphasises that Lancelot was instructed in the mysteries of knighthood by the Lady of the Lake: ‘a great lady of regal family and endowed with magical powers, but not a priest’. The mysteries of knighthood and woman fused in the thus doubly mysterious figure of Joan of Arc, and Keen points out how her deeds ennobled her family and enabled her to be assimilated to the tradition of the nine Heroines of Antiquity. There was, to some extent, a place for active women in the mentality of chivalry – a mentality that might otherwise seem to have placed them on a pedestal as passive inspirers of male deeds.

Dr Keen’s knights are therefore depicted as inhabiting a world replete with a range of traditions and ideals, and this is as it should be. A view of knightly jousts as the sterile posturings of bully-boys fails to comprehend the richness of this culture, its ability to guy itself without corroding itself, an ability seen in the extraordinary adventures of Ulrich von Lichtenstein, whose transvestite combats in defence of his lady’s honour Keen locates with relish in a very real 13th-century context. A more mystical fusion of the forces of eroticism and knighthood can be found in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s account of Parzival overcoming Arthur’s best knights while they were in a love-induced trance.

Yet there were boors in knighthood’s ranks, and sophisticated play with rituals of weaponry and woman could mask baser concerns. So at least some churchmen believed. Writing in Northern France around 1100, Abbot Guibert tells us many stories of knightly violence and unbridled sexuality, including one tale that suggests that beneath the wearing of a lady’s favour and the antics of Ulrich von Lichtenstein lay a world of obsessive sexual fetishism. The obsession was undoubtedly present in Guibert’s own mind, but his testimony has been used by Georges Duby to paint a more sombre picture of knighthood than Dr Keen’s. Keen considers the questions which were addressed in one treatise to aspiring knights – questions designed to probe the aspirant’s suitability in the spheres of morality, valour and nobility of birth. He comments that this ‘eminently sensible list of questions, with a few changes of vocabulary, would be no discredit to a selection board for commissions in an armoured regiment today’. This is a valid point, but the behaviour of many knights suggests that they could as easily have answered the ritual questions that Joe Valachi and Vincent Teresa claimed were put to potential members of the Mafia. Knights were primarily warrior aristocrats (though Chivalry shows just how coarse that generalisation is) and war, after all, is hell.

The historian, however, can afford to, indeed has to, see war as many other things. Philippe Contamine’s indispensable survey, War in the Middle Ages, now available in a welcome and clear English translation by Michael Jones, offers us a naming of parts for the study of war: ‘military skill, armament, recruitment, composition and life in the armies, moral and religious problems posed by war, the relationship between war and its political and cultural context’. Professor Contamine can’t cover all these topics in equal depth but he has a good try, and readers will find here accounts of Medieval armour, the cost of horses, and the development of artillery, as well as a useful short chapter on the history of courage. These accounts are located in a chronological framework that stretches from the late Roman Empire to the advent of the Renaissance. What should be emphasised is how useful it is to have so much information between one pair of covers, and that this information is provided by a careful historian who has here produced both a work of reference and a stimulus to further research.

The collection of essays edited by Gillingham and Holt is concerned with war and the state – and in particular with the machinery used by governments to pay for these enormously expensive wars. This is a valuable group of papers by pupils and associates of John Prestwich which reflects his own rigorous questioning of the sources to elicit a clear picture of the realities of the wars that so concerned the Medieval state. The contributors offer the results of research into chronicles, poems, financial records, as well as drawing on narratives of dreams and visions, on the historical geography of river boundaries, and on knowledge gained from watching the equestrian activities of Princess Anne. This last source is tapped by Professor R.A. Brown in a provocative paper on the social status of the Norman knight, calling for sympathy with the ‘sheer love of war’ which can be found in the governing classes of the Middle Ages. To exercise this sympathy is not necessarily to be pro-war but it is a sympathy that no historian of warfare can do without. Perhaps Professor Brown’s call will produce some more writing of the imaginative kind that made John Keegan’s The Face of Battle so refreshing (it is unfortunate for Medievalists that its chapter on Agincourt is probably the weakest in the book). Only John Gillingham focuses on fighting as such, in a piece on the generalship of Richard I. As he remarks, however, and as the other contributors amply confirm, Medieval war involved too much expense, organisation and political complexity – in short, too much investment – for everything to be staked on a single battle. We thus have the paradox that if, as is often claimed, Medieval society was a society organised for war, it was a society whose wars knew few pitched battles. It experienced, however, almost everything else that war brought in its train, and this is why the study of aspects of Medieval warfare is a good way into the study of much else besides.

If the general reader still exists, he will find, doubtless with some surprise, that with his account of the troubles of the German Order (the Teutonic Knights) in the 15th century Michael Burleigh has achieved a fascinating description of an aristocratic warrior-class in crisis. The world he evokes embraces much more than war (in fact, fighting makes little appearance): Burleigh has a fine eye for detail, for the larger issues at stake (‘Germany’ v. Poland, towns v. aristocrats), and for the gaps between ideal and reality in the lives of his subjects. Organised chivalry in Mr Burleigh’s Prussia seems riven with disputes and tensions, and we learn much of rivalries between different nationalities in the Order, of power struggles within its ruling oligarchy, of its harshness towards those subject to its lordship and ‘protection’, and of the casual brutality and festering resentments, the ‘boredom, heavy drinking, trivial pranks, tough talk, violence and cliquishness’, which marked the life of the barracks. Mr Burleigh’s and Dr Keen’s books touch on the same themes but in radically different keys, and complement one another most instructively. Burleigh’s narrative is a grim one of the failure of an ideal, and he writes with mordant enthusiasm and energy. His study is documented from rich sources, which enable him to bring into focus the struggle between the corporate ideals of the Order and the individual concerns of the men who composed it. He does so by presenting a series of episodes, such as the quarrel over the death-bed attempts of one Big Nick to will private property to people outside the Order. The geographical setting – harsh winters of thick ice and snow and the subsequent floods during spring thaws – is well sketched from, inter alia, the reports of Dutch drainage committees, and he turns with ease from this to the question of paganism among the Prussian peasants and their economic difficulties after the battle of Tannenberg.

Professor Contamine is right to claim that Medieval warfare has been unfairly neglected by students of Medieval society. Even if war is, as Virginia Woolf claimed, a ‘preposterous masculine fiction’, it still deserves at least as much attention as some rather more fashionable fictions appear to command. The works under review made 1984 a good year for Medieval war studies, and it is to be hoped that other explorers will follow some of the paths traced in these new maps of hell.