Some Knights To Remember (Chivalric Literature for the Common Fighter)

By Sir Guillaume de la Belgique
(©2003 Scott Farrell)

Recently, Felinah and I were having dinner with Baroness Kyriath. While dinner discussions between the three of us — and by “three of us” I mean “Felinah and Kyriath” — often involve subjects like “blood-sucking insects,” “medieval torture instruments,” or “parasitic diseases of the brain,” this evening’s conversation was along a slightly less gruesome topic. (Many of you may be wondering, if Kyriath insists on bringing up inappropriate, grotesque or revolting topics at the diner table, why we continue to dine with her. This is undoubtedly because you have never tasted Kyriath’s chocolate mousse.)

In any case, on this particular evening, Kyriath was telling us about an article she’d read regarding literacy among knights in the Middle Ages. She explained that during medieval times, the term “literate” was used to refer specifically to someone who could read and write Latin, and who had been educated in Classical literature. “According to this,” she said, “since many knights were responsible for correspondence and maintaining household accounts, probably a lot of them could actually read and write. So, really, being a fighter is no excuse for not being well-read.”

Then, Felinah and Kyriath both turned and gave me a look which strongly implied that it was my, personal, fault that most SCA fighters would rather spend their Saturday afternoons getting hit in the head with a stick than reading books filled with words like “fewter” “holpen” or “overthwartly.”

So, young fighters and aspiring knight-types, the time has come for me to encourage the warriors of Caid to rise to a new level of knowledge and culture if I am to obtain what literary scholars refer to as “a second helping of chocolate mousse.” What follows is a “compendium” of “medieval chivalric literature” which you should “read” in order to “educate” yourselves and dispel the perception that you are a “bone-headed rattan jockey.” By doing this, you’ll begin to appreciate that there’s more to the Middle Ages than just armor and swords and combat. You will see that there is a rich literary tradition of stories filled to the point of obsession with descriptions of armor and swords and combat. Here, then, are some medieval works of literature which you might enjoy reading — at least during those portions of the day when it’s too hot to fight.

Roland Down The River

First on any fighter’s reading list should be “The Song Of Roland,” an 11th century knightly epic which is primarily distinguished by the fact that it is not, technically, a song. It is, however, one of the “chansons de geste,” (literally, “funny little wagon”) which became quite popular in the medieval period known as “the days before sleeping pills.”

The Song Of Roland describes, for approximately 4,000 lines (although at times it seems like only twice that many), the conclusion of Charlemagne’s seven-year campaign against the moors in Spain — a campaign which was so successful that it ended with Charlemagne fleeing home to France. As he was crossing the Pyrenees, however, his men were ambushed by a Moorish force which had, undoubtedly, come to demonstrate to Charlemagne how much they had appreciated his visit in their country.

Throughout the poem, one of Charlemagne’s most noble and trusted peers, Count Roland, single-handedly holds the Moors at bay with only slight assistance from Count Oliver, Count Gerer, Count Otun and about half of the French army — all of whom fight with such bravery and valor that by the end of the book they are slaughtered like cattle. The Moors are aided in their ambush by the duplicity of Ganelon, Charlemagne’s evil advisor, who is probably bitter about the fact that he is, secretly, one of King Lear’s daughters.

Much of the epic is concerned with the question of whether or not Roland will sound his horn. If he does, Charlemagne will hear it and return with the rest of the French army. Roland does not want to play the horn, however; he wants to fight. But the other knights want Roland to play his horn. Soon, the knights begin to wonder whether or not Roland even knows how to play the horn. Roland assures them that he does know how to play the horn, and that plenty of people have seen him playing the horn, he just doesn’t want to play it right now. The knights assure Roland that no one will think he is a foofy, artsy fighter, because he plays the horn, but Roland insists that playing the horn is not nearly as important as fighting. This debate goes on and on, causing modern scholars to wonder whether the Song Of Roland is, in fact, the meeting minutes from an early knights’ council.

Hagen Days

The epic German poem, the Nibelungenlied, was written in the 13th century, and, if you began reading it at that time, you might almost be finished with it by now. As I recall from my “Medieval And Renaissance Literature” class, one of the most effective means of understanding the Nibelungenlied, from a literary standpoint, is to recount the story’s dynamic characters and plot in a discussion group, and every time someone says “Nibelungenlied,” everyone in the group has to drink a shot of that renowned German beverage, tequila. I believe the resulting discussion went something like this:

“The Nibelungenlied is the tale of two women, Kriemhild and Brunhild. Unlike other medieval epics, the female characters of the Nibelungenlied have important roles, and the women of the Nibblelunkinleed are, in many ways, more crucial to the story than its male characters. The Neebeelegenlan begins with the introduction of Siegfried, who is the son of King Siegmund and Queen Siegelind. Sickfried is knighted at a huge festival in the second chapter of the Newbielincolnlogs, and Siegelind sends Singfried to find Lady Kriemhild so that Siegfriend can court her for his wife. Then Freegmund … wait, I mean, Frickaseed, rides with twelve warriors to find Worms and fall in love. With Kriemhild, not with the worms. Then Hagen tells the story of how Sigfreud fought the Nakedbabes and won the legendary sword Almond … Osmond … Bosley … whatever, by slaying seven giant hundreds…”

At this point, as I recall, the discussion group was so overwhelmed with the literary magnificence of the Nibelungenlied that many of them had to go lay down. Or throw up.

Mort And Arthur

Of course, the greatest of all chivalric literature is “Le Morte D’Arthur” which tells the story of the heroic feats of the knights of the round table. Le Morte D’Arthur was written in the 15th century, during the height of the age of chivalry and romance, by Thomas Mallory, a man who was so devoted to the causes of chivalry and romance that he spent much of his life in jail for armed robbery and rape.

Although Le Morte D’Arthur fills two substantial volumes, the story itself is so totally gripping and compelling that it is absolutely impossible to put it down throughout, I would estimate, the first six pages. After that, it all kinda starts to sound the same. Uther fights the Duke of Tintagel. Arthur fights the Romans. Tristram fights Breunis Saunce Pité. Lancelot fights Sir Turquin. Gawain fights Sir Marhaus. Students everywhere fight to finish this darned book before mid-terms …

But, in the end, the spirit of chivalry, honor and courtly love prevail, and, as Mallory so touchingly observed,

We may se all day, for a lytyll blaste of wyntres rasure, annone we shall deface and lay aparte trew love, for lytyll or nowght, that coste muche thynge.
(I think this is what he told the guards when they unlocked his cell to empty his chamber pot.)

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I hope this scholarly overview of the important works of chivalric literature will inspire everyone, fighters and non-fighters alike, to explore the many great writings of the Middle Ages. Your experience with the splendor and pageantry of the SCA will give you an insight into these books that few readers ever achieve, and, in the end, your fewter will be holpen in a more overthwartly manner than ever before. Or, if you don’t believe that, you can always go back to getting hit in the head with a stick.

Order Guillaume’s somewhat “overthwartly” books and CDs in the SirGuillaume.com Market Square

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