Knighthood As It Was, Not As We Wish It Were

Review of Chivalry in Medieval England, by Nigel Saul (Harvard University Press, 416 pp, 2011, ISBN 978-0-674-06368-6)

They just don't make 'em like they used to.

How often have you muttered this phrase when thinking of something and wished that things could just be like they used to be. A common sentiment, it is actually responsible for distorting the realities of our collective past because it makes us think that everything "then" was a lot nicer, a lot simpler, and maybe just plain better than how things are now.

Cover of Chivalry in Medieval England by Nigel Saul.
 Cover of Chivalry in Medieval England by Nigel Saul.

Yet in point of fact, the idealistic history we imagine is almost always entirely false and it is the job of historians to sift through that illusory past and figure out where romanticism ends and actual history begins.

In Chivalry in Medieval England, Nigel Saul aspires to these aims as he discusses one of the most distorted topics in medieval history: the code of chivalry. Although not without its minor faults, Saul delivers on his promise to separate the common impression of chivalry as a fantastical code of conduct for brave and heroic knights from the reality that it was an aristocratic lifestyle with frequent internal contradictions which were often openly acknowledged and accepted by the contemporaries who practiced it.

Chivalry as a concept emerged around the 10th century AD in France when the Christian church began attempting to regulate the violence endemic to Frankish society. The term comes from the French word chevalier, or "knight", who derives his name from cheval, or horse. "Knights", or mounted heavy cavalry, had first been used by the Franks in the previous two centuries, perhaps as a response to Muslim invasions from Spain in the 8th century. Although the exact origins of the term "knight" are unknown—as cniht in Old English and knecht in German both refer to a "servant" or "bondsman"—the fact remains that the concept of a servant-soldier fighting on horseback is the central concept of chivalry; peasants need not apply. Then over time, because the Frankish clan structure combined with Western Christian practices, a martial elite arose which came to view violence as its primary and hereditary profession. It was this violence that the church attempted to regulate, giving rise to a code meant for those horse-bound "knights" which later became known as chivalry.

Saul's book picks up this narrative with the Duke of Normandy William the Bastard's invasion and subjugation of England in 1066. Before that time, there is no indication that chivalry as a concept existed in England as there was no strong tradition of horse-bound elite warfare. Although there were exceptions, the Anglo-Saxons as a rule fought on foot while the victorious Normans came with horses, moderately heavy armor, lances, and comparatively organized battle tactics. It was therefore the Norman elite with their social, cultural, economic, and political practices who would develop and perpetuate the chivalric lifestyle in England.

As Saul notes in his introduction, his primary aim is to discuss this English aristocracy of the Middle Ages who put chivalry center-stage. In his 18 chapters (plus a rather brief introduction and conclusion) his discussion ranges broadly across chivalric practice and experience to illuminate the relationship between chivalry and the main political, military, social, and artistic currents of the day. Intertwined with these topical discussions is a loose chronological narrative of its aforementioned origins through its practice and eventual decline in medieval England from the 11th to 16th centuries. Through the very creative and effective use of historical accounts, government records, paintings, and epic poems, Saul does an excellent job of covering each topic he chooses to discuss.

His narrative and most of his topical discussions though, while well-researched and excellently presented, are not groundbreaking in terms of historical conclusions. In Chapter 14, for example, he agrees with the current opinion that chivalry rendered the position of aristocratic women in society rather ambiguous. This is because, while they were made objects of reverence (and therefore could wield power over men desirous of their company), they were at the same time relegated to the position of appendages to men in a hyper-masculine martial society. Moreover, as chivalry became more stylized, women were increasingly restricted in their behavior because any deviation from the chivalric ideal of the passive, beautiful female was gradually more unacceptable. The higher the pedestal, it seems, the harder the fall.

Similarly, in Chapter 11 he discusses the extremely ambiguous relationship between Christianity and chivalry. Chivalry was itself a vocation of secular figures—knights being feudal vassals of political leaders—and yet religion and religious practice were endemic to the lifestyle. Knights were expected to be fully active Christians and were limited by its prohibitions just like any other gentile. However, they could also be guilty of terrible atrocities, generating a tension that was often acknowledged but never really solved. Usually concessions were made by Christian figures in specific situations (as Saul discusses in Chapter 12, killing enemies while on crusade was acceptable because they were heretics and thus outside the Christian hierarchy) while knights stayed their hand against enemy knights whenever advantageous. This dispensation, however, did not extend to the peasantry who were often slaughtered unremittingly whenever they were deemed in the way.

Yet again, none of this is particularly new. What makes Saul most definitely worth one's time though is his understanding that our belief that chivalry was a firmly controlling code of conduct, or even as prohibitive as a set of laws, is entirely anachronistic. This fallacy came about with the "re-discovery" of chivalry in the Victorian Era when the idea was embraced by an increasingly politically marginalized aristocracy and authors who wanted to spin creative tales of pageantry and adventure. As such, our impression that knights roamed the countryside in highly stylized accoutrements battling evil and selflessly saving those in need is the product of art or literature generated long after chivalry ceased to be a factor on the battlefield. Really one need only to attend the nearest Renaissance fair or turn on the latest movie depicting medieval warfare to see just how pervasive this misimpression really is.

Therefore, this is Saul's major contribution to the historical discussion of chivalry and what makes his book well worth the read. Saul hits home the fact that, beyond all else, when discussing chivalry one must never forget the reality that medieval knights fought with a tacit understanding that pragmatism could overrule ceremony wherever necessary. If saving an enemy knight from slaughter was deemed financially or politically favorable, the knight could survive, but certainly not for altruistic reasons; the reward was either land, gold, or war booty. It is this reality that historians often overlook, and so it is this discussion that makes Saul valuable. While it should be remembered that he casts his investigative glance solely upon England (as chivalry often expressed itself in slightly different ways on the Continent), he is able to separate distorting impressions from the reality of practice, as well as summarize chivalry's social, cultural, and religious characteristics, in an effective and easily accessible style. These factors combined, Chivalry in Medieval England is undoubtedly a must-read for anyone trying to understand what chivalry is and what it really meant to those who practiced it.