Arthurian literature (King Arthur is the lightning rod of the chivalric imagination) is especially optimistic about a knight’s character, although the emphasis is always on the “true” knight. The tales of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and the rest were, from 1100 until about 1400, the era’s principal entertainment, the very first romances.
The nonfiction writing of the day, however, which is rare and often as fanciful as fables, tells a rather grittier story of the knight.
The “Age of Chivalry” was often bestial and frequently sanctimonious. One story will suffice to illustrate why oversentimentality about The Knight is brazenly vulgar.
There is a chanson de geste, one of nearly two hundred “French” ballads of the period (France wasn’t really France yet) written by trouvères (troubadours) about the paladins (knights) of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, concerning a great hero, one Raoul de Cambrai. It’s of a specific subgenre: “rebellious vassals.” An eyewitness account, the author swore.
Raoul is a Catholic, a loyal son of the Church, although possibly a recent convert from one or another paganism. The assumption of his “faith” makes it rather shocking to read how he razes a convent during one of his campaigns in the Côte-d’Or.
Later on in his tent, shaking the dust and ashes from his clothes, washing the blood from his hands, he tells his seneschal – a combination steward and lieutenant – to “Prepare me food and you will do me a great boon.” (Murdering nuns works up in a man a powerful appetite.) Raoul is very specific about what he wants: “roasted peacocks and deviled swans, and venison in abundance.” And he means to see that every one of his men is filled, since he “would not be thought mean by my barons for all the gold of a city.”
But the seneschal is slack-jawed. At the risk of life and limb he excoriates his liege lord:
“In the name of Our Lady,” he cries, “what are you thinking? You are denying holy Christianity and your baptism and the God of majesty! It is Lent, when everyone ought to fast; it is the holy Friday of the passion on which sinners have always honored the cross.”
Here, no doubt, his voice begins to shake with shame and rage:
“And we miserable men who have come here, we have burned nuns and violated the Church, and we shall never be reconciled to God unless his pity be greater than our wickedness.”
Now it is Raoul’s turn to be aghast. He shows the seneschal a powerful fist. “You son of a slave,” he begins – we can only imagine the look of loathing on the knight’s face – and he proceeds to shriek at his trembling steward: Those damned nuns had the audacity to insult two of my squires! They had to pay – and pay dearly. And, by God, they did pay! He is astonished at his aide’s impudence and naiveté. The seneschal of so great a lord ought to understand the ways of the world.
But then Raoul sighs, and the threatening fist drops to his side.
“Still,” he shrugs, “you are right: I had forgotten that it is Lent.”
So Raoul, his meal meatless now, sits down to play chess with one of his barons.
As one scholarly commentator on the chanson wryly sums up:
“Thus are Christ’s forty days in the wilderness piously commemorated.”
Since the very inception of chivalry men have been sorrowfully mindful of the gap between the ideal and the reality; have been aware of the tension between bright sanguinity and dark chagrin. But the early knights who swore to protect the weak even as they trampled them under foot weren’t exactly hypocrites, if only because they believed in both hierarchy and human frailty in a way we no longer do.
They knew the difference between good and evil at least as clearly as we, but they lacked our optimism about the character and the primacy of what is good. And they felt that societal status was ordained by fate, which is to say: by God.
The rule of law was still imperfectly realized. There was a legacy of Roman law, and there was a slowly evolving common law that served to adjudicate some conflicts, and yet what we confidently understand as justice today was then confounded by the absence of constitutions, concepts of civil rights, and professional law enforcement. Justice was ad hoc and highly subjective; there seemed to most in society to be no alternative to the oppressive hierarchy of privilege, as for example in the droit de seigneur, the rule by which a feudal lord had the right to engage in sexual intercourse with the bride of a vassal on their wedding night. Although such claims were honored more in the breach than the observance, they loomed as an icy reminder of the seigneur’s power.
Then again, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there was also a gradual loosening of feudal bonds: serfs – indentured servants – became peasants and began to have some ownership rights. Increased income led to mobility, and European cities began to expand; artisans and merchants began to thrive. Various constraints – legal, ethical, and religious – began to temper the knight’s reckless sense of empowerment.
It’s not that chivalry never existed. It did, especially in the imagination of good men. Perhaps we may say of chivalry what G. K. Chesterton said about the Christian ideal: “It has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Raoul lived by the sword and died by the sword. He had the makings of a true knight, except he lacked courtoisie and franchise. He lacked a loving heart and a noble mind.