Chivalry (Martial Arts)

The age of chivalry flourished between a.d. 1100 and the opening of the sixteenth century. It was a time when the mounted nobility of Western Europe lived out their lives in obedience to the code of chivalry, which charged each knight with the defense of the Church, his sovereign king, and the weak and the poor. He was to be just and brave and highly skilled in warfare. As a soldier of God, he must be sinless, pious, and charitable. In time a knight’s duties would include the safeguarding of women, which brought an aura of romance to chivalry. By the time of the early crusades, knighthood and chivalry were inseparably bonded.

Chivalry sprang up almost simultaneously throughout Western Europe without an inspirational founder. It spread as a contagious dedication of the armed nobility to the Christian faith, to audacity on the field of battle, and to gallantry in the presence of noble ladies. The source of this phenomenon, with all of its pageantry and heroism, must be traced to evolving events of an earlier time.

When the western part of the Roman Empire collapsed in A.D. 476, German tribes that had menaced the empire’s northern borders for centuries moved south to settle among the more numerous Romanized inhabitants. In those chaotic times, the new invaders were often quartered on both state lands and the holdings of private landowners. Of the several Germanic tribes that tramped across the tumbled bastions of Rome’s old provinces, the Salian Franks were most closely related to the later development of medieval chivalry and knighthood.

Clovis, one of the earliest Frankish leaders, established in 481 a Germanic kingdom on the discarded civilization of Roman Gaul, where an evangelizing church had already impressed its influence. Clovis, for piously political reasons, became a Christian without learning to turn the other cheek. He first extended his rule over the Ripuarian Franks. Before his death in 511 he had, through treachery, murder, and brutal conquest, enforced his rule on surrounding Teutonic peoples—Alemanni, Burgundians, and Visigoths. His military campaigns, because they won converts for Christianity, went forward with the blessings of the Church.

Clovis’s Frankish state was an unstable predecessor of Charlemagne’s resplendent realm, which flourished three centuries later as the Carolingian Empire. Between the times of these two Frankish rulers, the embryo of medieval knighthood and chivalry began slowly to evolve. But there would have been neither knighthood nor chivalry had not the system of feudalism emerged from the Frankish historical experience.

A typical early German institution was the Gefolgschaft, or comitatus in its Latin form, in which a distinguished war leader gathered about him a select group of young men from his tribe to engage in warfare for glory and booty. We learn from the Germania of the Roman historian Tacitus that young German warriors, already invested with the shield and spear according to custom, swore a sacred oath that they would protect their chief in battle and try to emulate his bravest deeds but never exceed them, for it would have been a violation of their oath ever to outshine their veteran leader. This was as much a practical matter as one of loyalty: it was from the leader that the warriors would receive a share of the war booty, which might include a horse, weapons, and other gifts looted from the enemy as plunder. If their leader should die in battle and they returned home unscathed, or if they abandoned their weapons and fled the field, they became outcasts and faced a life of scorn. Some ended their shame by their own hand.

The strong bond that existed between a war chief and his loyal followers became a fixed element in the military structure of the Merovingian dynasty that began with Clovis and ended in the mid-eighth century. During this time, the military leaders and their young warriors became the lords and vassals of a feudal system in which the war booty of old became grants of conquered lands divided into fiefs, for which the endowed warrior pledged his loyalty and his military service.

To visualize this precursor of knighthood and chivalry, one should know that a medieval vassal was not a menial or serf, as modern usage sometimes implies. The word vassal is Celtic in origin and in time came to mean a loyal soldier or knight. Nor did the nobility, including lords and vassals, make up a substantial part of medieval society. The privileged class comprised no more than 10 percent of the entire population, often much less. Within this very small assemblage of landed gentry rested the wealth, the political power, and the military strength of the domain, thus enabling the noble class to become an hereditary aristocracy. The numerous remainder of society was made up mostly of toiling peasants who tilled the soil they did not own and performed other servile duties that fell to their lot. Their relationship to the lord whose lands they worked was called manorialism and had little to do with the feudal hierarchy.

During the decentralization of political power that for centuries followed the fall of Rome, many displaced warriors sought domestic security in an inconstant age. Their hope was to find a propertied magnate willing to accept them as military vassals in return for land. The process created an integrated feudal hierarchy of lords and vassals that rested like a small pyramid upon the vast populace of peasants. At the apex of this martial consortium was the king, who held his realm from God. Below him were the royal vassals, such as viscount and barons, whose fiefs were generally expansive. These they parceled out among the higher-ranking members of the noble class, who then became vassals. They, in turn, were able to continue the practice of subinfeudation, going down the broadening levels of the pyramid to the bottom, where one would find a few humble knights holding modest fiefs, whose income was barely enough to support them and their families. When a lord sponsored every knight and every tract of feudal land became hereditary, European feudalism became complete, with the fief serving as the basic bond of lord/vassal dependency.

A collection of feudal estates, little more than a disparate cluster of landholdings, soon weakened the power of the king. Most fiefs had been created essentially for military purposes, and the men who received them had been trained for warfare and became the soldiers who controlled the military strength of the kingdom. If war threatened, the king was obliged to call upon his royal vassals to provide arms for the coming encounter. They, in turn, called upon their own vassals to answer the call to arms. Because there was so much intermittent fighting in the Middle Ages, warfare became an oppressive burden for the knightly class, and an agreement was reached that limited a knight’s obligated military duties to forty days a year.

At the heart of the feudal fabric was the armored knight, whose ideal role in life was to uphold the code of chivalry to which he had dedicated himself. The term chivalry, defining the code of western knights, appears in Middle English as chivalrie and is related to the French chevalier (knight). In late Latin, we find the word caballarius, meaning horseman or cavalier. The medieval knight, therefore, was an armored horseman, bearing shield, sword, and lance, the weaponry of his day. Soon chivalry and cavalry become synonymous.

A medieval knight in full battle dress on horseback. Knights were bound to the code of chivalry, which charged each knight with the defense of the Church, his sovereign king, and the weak and the poor.

A medieval knight in full battle dress on horseback. Knights were bound to the code of chivalry, which charged each knight with the defense of the Church, his sovereign king, and the weak and the poor.

A candidate for knighthood, after serving as a page, often began his apprenticeship at the age of 12 under a veteran knight, who instructed him in both military and worldly matters. When his term as squire was over, he followed his sponsor into battle as his bearer of arms; and when he was judged to be ready for knighthood he was dubbed by his sponsor, who tapped him on the shoulder with the flat of his sword. The initiation ceremony for knighthood varied in its formalities from place to place, but the code of chivalry was firmly fixed in its ethos, if not always in its fulfillment.

The earlier pagan practice in which elder warriors bestowed arms upon younger initiates, without benefit of prayer and benedictions, was sanctified when the Church took part in the ceremony, adding religious symbolism and solemnity. Eventually, the secular nobility and the clergy shared the investiture ceremony of knighthood.

At an earlier time, the knightly ceremony, when performed on the battlefield, was sudden and brief. A young arms-bearer, having distinguished himself in combat, might be recognized by an older knight, who would simply strike him with his fist or the flat of his sword and call out: “Sir knight!” It is not likely that many of the noble demands of chivalry were transmitted in such a nimble encounter, but they would be learned later.

The ceremony of knighthood was greatly changed by the end of the eleventh century. Now, the knight-to-be took a ritual bath to cleanse him of his sins. He then spent a night alone at the altar of his local church in quiet prayer, with his arms beside him. At dawn he went to mass, received communion, and listened to the celebrant affirming his obligations to knighthood and chivalry, the role of the knight being often likened to the role of a priest in a perilous society.

We learn of a more elaborate knightly ceremony from the writings of a thirteenth-century bishop, Guillaume Durand. He tells us in his Pontifical that the sword of the knightly candidate was placed on the altar by the officiating bishop, who called upon God to bless the weapon so that the wielder might defend churches, widows, and orphans against the cruelty of heretics and infidels. The initiate was admonished that he must be a good soldier, faithful and courageous; and with words from the Old Testament, he was reminded that the Lord God had formed his hands for battle and his fingers for war.

The bishop then girded the sword on the new knight, who unsheathed it, brandished it three times, and returned it to its scabbard. Finally, the bishop gave the knight a slight blow on the cheek and exhorted him to “awake from evil dreams and keep watch, faithful in Christ and praiseworthy of fame” (Barber 1995, 27).

The consecration of a warrior and his arms gave moral strength to chivalry and knighthood, as well as support for the feudal system in which they flourished. Chivalric behavior became an ideal of civilized fellowship among the privileged class, and although much easier to achieve in contemporary ballads than in real life, became a code of conduct that served society as a model of knightly aspiration.

During periods of peace, knights engaged their energies in the tournament, an armed sport that allowed them to flaunt their military skills and personal courage before an assembly of their peers. Contenders came from far and wide to the domain of some renowned prince, where many pavilions and platforms were raised around a mock battlefield. Here the challenging knights would rest their heraldic shields, affirming that they were of noble birth and pure character and truly sons of chivalry’s elite. The encounter of two knights, called jousting or tilting, took place on horseback, with each knight trying to unhorse the other with lance and sword. Although the weapons were blunted, the martial passion of the combatants led to some brutish duels. The tournament remained a display center for knightly courage and prowess until the Renaissance.

When warfare came to feudal Europe, whether from land disputes, breaches of contract, or other contentious causes, it was often a brief local affair. The ones who suffered most from these internecine clashes were the defenseless peasants and the Church, whose lands were often bound up in the network of feudal dependencies. It was the Church that tried to subdue the violence of an unruly society when it proclaimed the Pax Dei (Latin; Peace of God) in 989, and a half century later, the Truga Dei (Truce of God). The first banned warfare against the weak and so sought to save women, children, and priests from the brutalities of the age. The second, more ambitious, decree attempted to mark out whole religious seasons of the year when fighting would be prohibited. Neither decree was entirely successful, but each lessened to some degree the incessant warfare of the armed nobility.

Toward the end of the eleventh century, European knighthood was to receive a challenge from the Near East that would extend knighthood’s conventions and its belligerency as far as the Holy Land and even beyond. The Seljuk Turks, a menacing military force arising out of Asia made up of warriors who embraced Islam fervently, overran the exposed eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire. The Greek emperor, Alexius Comnenus, appealed to Pope Urban II to send military aid for the Christian cause; the events that followed revealed the quixotic essence of medieval knighthood.

The pope, himself a man of France, gathered about him an assembly of Frankish leaders at Clermont in 1095. He first reminded them that they were of the Frankish race “chosen and loved by God” and that the deeds of their ancestors should inspire them to take the road to the Holy Land and wrest it from the accursed Turks who had mutilated their Christian brethren and desecrated the holy places. Urban, sorely mindful of the intermittent warfare that was despoiling Europe, severely reproached the gathering of French nobility: “You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant . . . you rage against your brothers. You, the oppressors of children, plunderers of widows . . . vultures who sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly. If you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood or advance boldly as a knight of Christ” (Krey 1921, 30).

The papal speech created a mild hysteria that aroused Western chivalry to advance upon Jerusalem as a great crusading army, shouting its battle cry: “God wills it!” Urban did not know that he had set into motion a prolonged war between the cross and the crescent that would continue well into the thirteenth century.

There were eight crusades between 1096 and 1270. Except for the rowdy mobs of ravaging peasants who were later massacred by the Turks, the First Crusade began in high spirits, with a righteous purpose and banners flying. The response to the call came mostly from the knighthood of France, which left an enduring French stamp on the movement. The crusading army fought its way through Asia Minor and Syria, taking Jerusalem from Muslim control in 1099 and setting up a Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Turkish attacks on the new Frankish protectorate, followed by the fall of Edessa in 1144, inspired a new crusade. The second effort achieved little against a revival of Muslim military aggression, but the capture of Jerusalem by the famed Saladin in 1187 quickened a new papal call. The Third Crusade attracted the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I, Philip II of France, and Richard I, called the Lion-Hearted, of England. Known as the King’s Crusade, it did little more than capture a few cities along the Mediterranean coast. In the chronicles of chivalry, the romanticized King Richard must remain unhonored: Saladin released his Christian captives; Richard massacred 2,700 of his own prisoners of war.

The Fourth Crusade of 1204 debased the chivalric ideal of crusading knighthood. Its forces overwhelmed the Christian world of Byzantium, partitioned much of its territory, and impressed upon the land a Frankish imprisonment that, fortunately for the Greeks, did not last longer than 1261.

In 1212, the response to the religious call was answered by bands of adolescents from France and Germany. Called the Children’s Crusade, it was not a crusade at all but a calamitous outpouring of innocent faith that displaced countless numbers of children from their homes and led many into the slave markets of the Levant. The Fifth Crusade accomplished nothing, and its successor, under Frederick II, managed to negotiate some treaties favorable to the Christian side.

The earlier high purpose of the crusading movement was regained during the last two fated crusades led by the sainted Louis IX of France. His first expedition was an assault on Damietta in Egypt, where he surpassed his knights in valor by leaping into the surf on landing and wading ashore with shield and lance. It was an act of daring that might have earned him an honored place in the heroic lines of the chansons de geste (French; songs of heroic deeds), but his effort was of no avail in Egypt. He tried to redeem himself in 1270, an enfeebled old warrior, but he failed again, giving up his life on an alien Tunisian shore.

In the fourteenth century, the crusading movement was briefly revived, and French chivalry was again represented at Nicopolis in 1396, when the king of Hungary led a campaign against the advancing Turks. Early battle successes were reversed when the French knights, spurning wise counsel, attacked the Turkish front in a spirited charge but were massacred by a vengeful sultan, except for twenty-five of the wealthiest nobles, who were held for exorbitant ransoms. In 1444 the last medieval crusade, undertaken by knights from Poland and Hungary with the support of a Burgundian naval force, reached Varna on the shores of the Black Sea, where it was scattered in defeat.

Nevertheless, the spirit of the crusades endured through a unique blending of monasticism and chivalry in the military orders of the Templars and the Hospitallers. The first of these, taking their name from their quarters near the Temple of Solomon, were the Knights Templars. Like Western monks, they took the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they also pledged themselves to the code of chivalry and dedicated themselves to fighting in the defense of pilgrims. Eventually, their knightly zeal succumbed to ventures in trade and banking, which made the order enviably wealthy. In 1312, the French king Philip IV (called the Fair), in order to seize the Templars’ riches, collaborated with Pope Clement V to destroy the order on grounds of sacrilege and Satanism.

The Hospitallers, whose full title was The Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, also took the three monastic vows, but they carried out their chivalric duties in caring for sick pilgrims and crusaders. They fared better than the Templars. At the failure of the earlier crusades, the order went to the island of Rhodes where, in 1312, they received the confiscated property of the disbanded Templars. They came to be called the Knights of Rhodes, and with their naval force, they kept the eastern Mediterranean free of Muslim corsairs until, in 1522, they were driven out by the Ottoman Turks; they later found a home on Malta. In 1961, Pope John XXIII recognized the Knights of Malta as both a religious community and an order of chivalry.

The chivalric age also left many enduring monuments. During the crusading movement, the eastern Mediterranean coast became studded with defiant stone castles that French knights had built to safeguard the Holy Land against Islam. The massive walls and towers left on the Levant a lasting imprint of medieval France.

The age of chivalry was one of contrasts and contradictions. Jakob Burckhardt, the renowned scholar of the Italian Renaissance, visualized medieval consciousness as something that “lay half dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil . . . woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues” (Burckhardt 1944, 81). His perception somewhat clarifies how the carnage of knightly battle could be so oddly tempered by the romantic respite of courtly love. Born of chivalric ideals, it evolved into a body of rules defining the proper conduct of noble lovers.

Most aristocratic marriages in the Middle Ages were made chiefly for the dowry of feudal lands the wife would bring to the union. Often a knight simply married a fief, and his wife came as an encumbrance. She entered into his life as a household helper and childbearer, rarely as a romantic lover. Medieval poets wrote that the true love of a knight must not be his wife, or even a damsel he might have wedded for love. Such marriages were incompatible with true chivalric love. A knight’s chosen lady could be another noblewoman, married or not. When a knight had chosen his lover-to-be, he wrote her amorous letters and promised to prove his constant devotion by performing valorous deeds. Once they had given their hearts to each other, they pledged that their love would forever remain secret, and he swore that he would serve her for all his days, no matter what her commands might be. He was expected to compose songs and poems to extol her virtues, and it was fitting for him to sigh for his lady and suffer the pain of love’s melancholy heartache.

Chivalry’s demand that the suitor remain gallant in all things sometimes unfairly challenged a knight when his frivolous lady commanded him to perform extravagant feats to prove his love for her. According to the poets, Queen Guinevere, faithless wife of King Arthur, ordered Lancelot to undergo a round of ordeals before she surrendered to him in their adulterous love affair. Yet, the central theme of such unchaste love remained firm—a knight must perform heroic deeds for his lady.

The theme of chivalric love emerged in the poetry of the troubadours of southern France, who sang their voluptuous verses in the Provengal tongue. Then came the romantic minstrels of northern France, the trou-veres, and the minnesingers of Germany, whose balladry carried on the same harmonious motif. The love theme that wanders through the tales of medieval knighthood and its chivalric code was enriched by the grande dame, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Married first to Louis VII of France, then to Henry II of England, she brought the songs of the troubadours into the royal court. Later, at Poitiers, she organized the first love court, where the code of courtly romance was woven into the military discipline of knightly chivalry and where an assembly of noblewoman settled quarrels between lovers and judged which gallant knight had loved the best. The proceedings of such courts were frivolous and artificial. Ideally, the knightly lover was expected to keep some distance from his lady, knowing that his love must remain hopeless. In truth, the lover’s muted yearnings were not always unheard or unrewarded, and adultery often became an emotional release for many noblewomen hopelessly caught in a loveless marriage of convenience.

The rules for lovemaking among the nobility were set down in an irreverent manual by Andreas Capellanus, De Arte Honeste Amandi (Latin; On the Art of Loving Honestly). It became a guide for knightly romance and elevated courtly love to a form of religion. Although that religion came into conflict with the Church’s stand against adultery, it provided a clear mirror reflecting the romantic idealism of medieval nobility.

From the abundance of melodic poetry and heroic literature that served the cause of chivalry, there emerged several enduring narratives, such as Lancelot, by Chretien de Troyes; Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Isolde; Le Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris; and the legends of the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and searched for devotedly by King Arthur’s knights.

From the time of the Norman Conquest, French literature exerted a strong influence on English literary forms, and until the fourteenth century the French language replaced English in general composition. Jean Frois-sart, the itinerant historian from Valenciennes, became prominent among the literati of the fourteenth century. His major work, Chronique de France, d’Angleterre, d’Ecosse et d’Espagne (simply called the Chronicle), carries his account of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Not a history in the modern sense, because Froissart was preoccupied with knightly deeds and “the fine feat of arms,” it is rather a saga of chivalric display in the midst of battle.

The diverse documents of the later Middle Ages give us an ambivalent image of a chivalrous knight. One side shows us a young noble hero in bright armor, astride a magnificent white charger, lance poised, ready to defend his monarch, his ladylove, the Church, the poor and oppressed, and all good Christians who sought shelter under his protective shield.

The other side shows that knightly warfare was direct and savage. The crusader, heavily protected, first with chain mail, later with plate armor, was equipped with battle-ax and double-edged sword, forged in fire to slay the enemy swiftly. The Black Prince, Edward of England, who was prince of Wales during the Hundred Years’ War, was, in spite of his violence in battle, compassionate to his war prisoners. In contrast, as was mentioned above, Richard the Lion-Hearted slaughtered his Muslim prisoners during the Third Crusade. As much as the code of chivalry was obeyed, it was also ignored. In any case, knightly comportment was reserved for the gentry. A knight extended his chivalrous courtesies only to a member of his class; and his ethereal devotion to his lady did not bridle his predatory advances toward women of the lower class.

The vast number of enthralled peasants who tilled the soil and reaped the crops on the feudal estates were part of another world, dominated by the small but powerful aristocracy. Revolts of the peasantry were inevitable. In 1358, the French peasants rose up in a jacquerie (peasants’ revolt), demanding relief from their economic and judicial oppression; and in 1381, the Wat Tyler Rebellion, just across the English Channel, convulsed England’s gentry. In Luther’s time, German peasants vented their rage against their noble masters. These risings were put down with vindictive slaughter, showing that the gentle knight of legend was also a ruthless killing machine.

And yet, chivalry as an exemplary way of life left rules of gentlemanly conduct for Europe’s future society. After gunpowder made castles and armored knights obsolete, the ideals of chivalry were preserved in Baldassare Castiglione’s topic of the Courtier, which set standards of chivalric courtesy in the urban courts of Renaissance Italy, and the faded image of medieval knighthood emerged again in modern times as the Knights of the Golden Fleece, the Order of the Knights of the Garter, and the French Order of the Star. European monarchs continue to confer the title of chevalier or knight on distinguished public figures.

The ghost of the armored knight as a bloodied savage fighter lies with his bones under the sod of countless battlefields. As a virtuous warrior of ballad and song, he lives on in popular legend.

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