Real Knights — Real Chivalry (Or: If They Were So Genteel, How Come They Had Swords?)

Reprinted from the Summer, AS XXXIX edition of the Ars Caidis. Back issues are available on the publication’s webpage – contact the editor for details.

Note: Number links in the text will pop up a box with a corresponding footnote.

Extra note for fighters: “Footnotes” provide details about the book or article that the noted information was taken from. They do not have anything to do with taking off your boots.

By Sir Guillaume de la Belgique
(©2004 Scott Farrell)


“Chiv-al-reee,” lamented the great medieval lyricist Billy Joel, “is such a lonely word.” (Actually, I think Billy Joel was singing about “honesty,” but you get the point [ref name=”1″]Joel, Billy, 52nd Street, CBS Records, 1978[/ref]) Today, some people equate the word “chivalry” with ultra-gallant Victorian courtesy, imagining aristocratic gentlemen in evening attire spouting indecipherable poetry on the prows of sinking ships. For others, it brings to mind legends of the Knights of the Round Table who were all brave and merciful and admirable and had standards of marital fidelity roughly equivalent to your average stoat.

However, in the realm of “serious academia” (defined as “professors who think the SCA is to the study of history what the Big Mac is to gourmet cuisine”), there seems to be an ever-growing consensus that chivalry was a big ol’ medieval joke — sort of like modern concepts of “business ethics” or “political integrity.” Consider what Peter Arnade, associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos, had to say about medieval chivalry in a recent article:

Chivalry is mostly a fiction … It was a feel-good movement among the military to make them feel like they were doing something other than smashing people’s brains out, which is what they were doing.” [ref name=”2″]Dolbee, Sandi, “Knight Vision,” San Diego Union Tribune, June 5, 2003, p E-1[/ref]


Is Professor Arnade indulging in revisionist history, trying to reinterpret the values and ideals of the past through a filter of modern morality? Is he trying to reconcile the bloody chronicles of medieval military history with the unrealistically romantic literature of the period? Or is he just bitter about the fact that he’s stuck in an unglamorous junior faculty position and will spend most of his career sharpening pencils and washing coffee cups for more senior members of the teaching staff?

Whatever his viewpoint, Arnade’s succinct statement reflects a pendulum swing in popular attitude regarding the concept of chivalry and “knightly behavior.” Whereas a few decades ago medieval knights were portrayed as semi-saintly heroes in books and movies, more recent “knightly” characters have been cast as villains, demonstrating attitudes that range from cruelty and dishonesty to sadism and duplicity — always, of course, accompanied by poor personal grooming habits.

But if medieval knights were nothing but vicious, bloodthirsty thugs, wouldn’t all of Europe have been in flames approximately 22 minutes into the Middle Ages? And if chivalry was nothing but a fiction, why has the image of the “knight in shining armor” survived as an emblem of heroism and duty?

Whether in the halls of academia or the pages of popular novels, portrayals of knights as murdering, thieving scumbags raise an essential question: Did “chivalry” ever really exist?

Perhaps an answer can be found, not in romantic epics (which were no more realistic reflections of their time periods than Steven Segal movies are of modern culture) nor in historical chronicles (which, like all news sources, were subject to the biases of the authors), but in the words of actual knights and lords who pursued and even wrote about the ideals of chivalry on a practical, functional level.

Consider the following contrasts between modern statements about chivalry and quotes taken from sources written by and for real knights. The resulting concept of “chivalry” may provide a more balanced, practical image of knights and the code of honor they followed.

Myth #1: Knights Were Duplicitous and Bloodthirsty

One of the more prominent black eyes given to the cause of chivalry came from the book Timeline by Michael Crichton (as well as from the thoroughly forgettable recent movie adaptation). The book is one of the author’s signature mixtures of fact and fiction — in this case the “fiction” is a time machine and the “fact” is the Hundred Years War. Timeline is set in 1357 during the siege of Castelgard, a minor skirmish between Sir Oliver de Vannes (an English knight) and Sir Arnaut de Cervole (a mercenary captain)[ref name=”3″]Crichton, Michael, Timeline, 1999, Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-41762-3, p xiii[/ref].

Crichton says the 14th century was:

A world that gave lip service to the ideals of chivalry while indiscriminately pillaging and murdering … where women … took lovers at will and plotted assassination and rebellion. It was a world of shifting boundaries and shifting allegiances … (and) constant warfare [ref name=”4″]Ibid, p 174[/ref].

Driving his somewhat sociopathic perception of chivalry home on a more personal level, Crichton describes one of the more likable knights in the book: “Sir Guy de Malegant … is a knight of renown — for his many acts of murder and villainy.[ref name=”5″]Ibid, p 219[/ref]” (Keep in mind, he’s talking about one of the good guys.)

For a different perspective of chivalry in this region and period, perhaps we can turn to Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who was born in the first decade of the 14th century and who died at Poitiers in 1356. Charny’s knightly career was a celebrated one: he campaigned all across France in the 1340s, went on crusade, was elevated to the prestigious Order of the Star in 1355, and was selected to carry the Royal standard of France, the Oriflamme, into battle [ref name”6″]Keen, Maurice, Chivalry, 1984, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-03360-5, p 12[/ref].

Charny wrote a treatise on chivalrous behavior called Livre de chevalerie (“The Book of Chivalry”), which is an eminently practical “how to” manual focusing on conduct appropriate to “worthy men-at-arms.” (For Charny, chivalrous behavior was not limited to knights.) The fictional knights in Timeline seem to be at odds with Charny’s advice:

Men who want to wage war without good reason, who seize other people without prior warning and without any good cause and rob and steal from them, wound and kill them … who use arms (dishonorably) behave like cowards and traitors … Indeed all such people who are thus doers or consenters or receivers in relation to such deeds are not worthy to live or to be in the company of men of worth … Cursed be these persons who devote their lives to committing such evil deeds in order to acquire such dishonorable fame! And indeed any lords who have such men under their control and have knowledge of their ill doings are no longer worthy to live if they do not inflict such punishment on them that would persuade anyone else who might have a desire for wrongdoing to draw back [ref name=”7″]Kaeuper, Richard W. and Elspeth Kennedy, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context and Translations, 1996, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 0-8122-1579-6, p 177-179[/ref].”

Charny’s view of chivalry may not be spiritual or genteel, but it is certainly humane and responsible. This real knight of the 14th century would have had nothing but contempt for the knights of Timeline, who torture, murder, and rape indiscriminately.

Myth #2: Knights terrorized and exploited the peasants and “working class”

If the knights in Timeline are unsympathetic, the members of the knightly class described in the best-selling novel The Jester by James Patterson are downright vile and despicable. The story, set in 1096, concerns a fictional “peasants revolt” in Veille du Pére in southern France [ref name=”8″]Patterson, James and Andrew Gross, The Jester, 2003, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 0-316-60205-1, p 9[/ref]. In the book, the local peasants are habitually mistreated by their feudal lord, Baldwin of Treille, and his household knights. In the opening scene, Peter the Hermit passes through the village, gathering followers to free Jerusalem. Although the villagers are given many incentives to join the “peasant’s crusade,” including “freedom from servitude upon your return, [ref name=”9″]Ibid, p 13[/ref]” the local baron persuades them from going to the Holy Land by burning several buildings in the village, raping a young woman, torturing and drowning the miller’s son, and raising taxes by 10 percent [ref name=”10″]Ibid, p 17-19[/ref]. Swell guy, huh?

The book’s main character, an innkeeper named Hugh de Luc, describes the estate management practices of Sir Baldwin in a letter of redress to King Philip:

We are (fighting) cruel injustice … (We) demand laws, so that rape and murder could not be committed on us freely, and property destroyed without cause … We ask … the right to a fair tax; the right to grievance and recompense for harsh penalties forced upon us; the right to face an assailant at trial, noble or not; the right to own land, fairly paid to our lord, for years of labor and toil [ref name=”11″]Ibid, p 346[/ref].”

A more realistic view of the way in which a knight was expected to run his estate, in contrast, may be found in the anonymously authored Seneschaucy, written around 1272. This is not a political or social discourse, simply an advice book covering every major office on a knightly manor, from the carter and the cowherd right up to the steward and the lord. Here is how a knight was directed to conduct himself in order to maintain a productive estate:

The lord ought to be fair and true in word and deed, he ought to love God and honesty, and he ought to hate wrong, and wickedness. He ought not to take advice … from men who are too rude or dishonest, from flatterers, mockers, or anyone who can be bribed to give evidence. He ought to take advice from men of men of experience, honest men of mature age … who have never been convicted of deceit or wrong-doing [ref name=”12″]Oschinsky, Dorothea, Walter of Henley and Other Treatises on Estate Management and Accounting, 1971, Clarendon Press, p 293[/ref].”

Although Seneschaucy never specifically mentions the concept of chivalry, its portrait of a knight as a manager seems to fall right in line with the basic principles of chivalrous behavior: Be kind but don’t be gullible; be firm but generous; behave in an exemplary manner and expect those who serve you to do the same. Nowhere in its description of the lord’s office does Seneschaucy mention arson, rape, or extortion as valid methods of treatment for those who work the land.

Myth #3: Chivalry was just a word to describe the tactics of soldiers who rode horses

Another book that presents the “gritty” side of chivalry is Bernard Cornwell’s The Archer’s Tale. This book, set in mid-14th century France, follows a company of English archers through the landscape of the Hundred Years War. They encounter a variety of knightly characters, both French and English, none of whom seem to have any use for the principles of chivalry — except when it provides an advantage on the battlefield.

One of the English knights attached to the band of archers is Sir Simon Jekyll, who, during the siege of La Roche-Derrien, requests the assignment of being first to scale the walls during a night assault on the city. While Sir Simon claims this is an honor, the captain of the archers tasked with driving away the defenders sees the knight’s request in a different light: “What honor was there in being the first onto a wall that another man had captured? No, the bastard did not want honor, he wanted to be well placed to find the richest plunder in town [ref name=”13″]Cornwell, Bernard, The Archer’s Tale, 2001, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-621084-4, p 4614) Keen, p 8[/ref].”

To provide a counterpoint to this distinctly avaricious view of chivalry, we can turn to Ramon Lull, author of Libre del ordre de cavayleria (“The Book of the Order of Chivalry”). Lull lived in Spain in the later half of the 13th century — he was an active tourneyer, served as the seneschal of the king of Majorca, wrote courtly poetry, taught at the Franciscan College at Miramar, and preached Christianity in Spain and North Africa with such zeal and conviction that he was stoned to death in 1316 [ref name=”14″]Keen, p 8[/ref]. Lull knew quite a bit about both the glories and duties of chivalry, and he understood that cavalry training is not the same as chivalry:

The custom and good enseygnement (training) that a knight doth to his horse is not so much to maintain the order of chivalry as is the good custom and good enseygnment that he doth to himself and to his children. For chivalry is not only in the horse nor in the arms, but it is in the knight that well induceth and enseyneth his horse, and accustoms himself and his sons to good enseygnments and virtuous works. And so a wicked knight which induceth and enseygneth himself and his sons to evil enseygnments and doctrines, he enforceth to make of himself and his sons beasts, and his horse a knight [ref name=”15″]Byles, Alfred T.P. (editor), The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, 1926, Oxford University Press/Early English Text Society, p 114[/ref].

Lull’s analogy reveals a very subtle and complex understanding of the difference between riding a horse and being a role model. These words were not written by someone who viewed chivalry as a fiction, and it was not directed at a culture that simply wanted to feel good about “smashing people’s brains out.” Lull, Charny and the author of Seneschaucy all describe a chivalry that was meant to be internalized and put into practice.

None of this should be taken as a claim that chivalrous behavior was an overriding and universal concept in the Middle Ages. Historical chronicles do, in fact, reveal that knights could be cruel, violent, dishonest and unwashed — but, of course, the same could be said for merchants, priests and scholars of the time as well.

Re-enacting history provides a very valuable lesson with regards to the realities of chivalry: Human nature has changed very little throughout the centuries. Today, ethical behavior (in business or politics, for instance) is highly admired, even if infrequently seen. Yet just because personal integrity may be the exception rather than the norm, we still espouse and admire high ethical standards, even if few people achieve them.

Period texts encouraging chivalrous behavior among the noble class provide an implicit statement that admirable, virtuous conduct might have been uncommon, but it was no more “fictional” in the Middle Ages than it is today. The voices and writings from history demonstrate that chivalry could be, and undoubtedly was, put to use in real life, by real knights.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider purchasing a back issue of Vol. XXXIX of the Ars Caidis, the journal of the Arts and Sciences published by the Kingdom of Caid, a branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. All proceeds go to the Kingdom of Caid’s Arts and Sciences office.

Read more about the Code of Chivalry at these websites:
Chivalry Today
Chivalry Bookshelf
Medieval History Magazine

Enjoy more of Guillaume’s slightly warped views of medieval history in his books and audio CDs

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