Teaching With Chivalry Part III: Ethics, Tactics and Literature

Scott Farrell comments:

In this portion, Professor Bellitto presents suggestions on how to achieve the following goals in the classroom:

  • Extending students’ understanding of chivalry through discussions of ethics, greed, honor and the concept of “just war.”
  • Understanding the applications of chivalry as a military doctrine by examining battles, castles and tournaments.
  • Introducing the personal ideals of chivalry through selected readings of Arthurian legends from the Middle Ages to the modern day.


AgincourtAnother question for discussion is the decline of chivalry1. The actual codes of conduct can be gathered from an important study by Keen2. How practice inevitably fell short of myths and ideals can be raised, leading to some interesting exchanges on ethics and honor3. These can be combined with the notion of a just war related to the Crusades and, in an attempt to make links with the modern world, with the rise of fundamentalist Islamic jihads in the Mideast today4. Also, a good debate may be engendered by raising the matters of honor and conduct that existed between a knight held captive by a fellow knight for the greedy motive of ransom. This could be addressed specifically as it related to the slaughter of French knights ordered by the supposed paragon of English chivalry, Henry V, during the 1415 battle of Agincourt.5

Henry-V-NewThe military aspects of chivalry also interest students. Cavalry charges, armor, the crossbow and the longbow’s triumph at Agincourt can be studied in museums and art books6. Malcolm Vale has addressed how artillery and siege engines changed medieval warfare; students can discuss specifically the manner in which long-range battle, as opposed to face-to-face contact, affected chivalrous conduct7. Those interested in castles may trace how artillery affected architecture and could be encouraged to produce models or drawings as a research project8. The use of tournaments as pomp as well as training can also lead to interdisciplinary research projects, especially among students interested in technology, art, costumes and heraldry9. In addition, two films of Shakespeare’s Henry V could illuminate and inform a comprehensive debate on honor, tactics and just war through a comparison of Laurence Olivier’s World War II-era version and the more recent interpretation by Kenneth Branagh. The value of literature as an historical source can at the same time be addressed.

Holy-GrailChivalry comes to life in literature as well, of course, offering the history teacher another ideal opportunity to break down the walls which too often separate these fields of the humanities in faculty curricula and student minds. Students can assess the gap between the ideals of chivalry in literature and what history shows about human failing10. One way to do this would be to turn the unit on chivalry into, in part, a seminar on honor that combines history, literature and ethics using a variety of sources. The failure of honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Quest of the Holy Grail (both available in Penguin paperback editions) can be tested against other, more optimistic Arthurian stories. The description of the Knight in the “Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales can be used as one more case study for the ideals and realities of chivalry. For a more visual, thoughtful treatment of honor, the class may view the film Becket (Richard Burton as Becket, Peter O’Toole as Henry II), which has the added attractions of portraying the Church/state conflicts so central to the study of the Middle Ages and showing scenes which attempt to depict the daily life of the medieval rich and poor11.

MLA-ArthurAn excellent resource for the use of literature in a unit on chivalry in history courses is provided by the medieval installments in the Modern Language Association’s series, Approaches to Teaching World Literature. The volumes gather long lists of primary and secondary readings, articles on diverse teaching methods and a catalogue of films and recordings. A recent collection in the series on Arthurian romances contains brief sections on the literary, historical and archaeological contexts; treatment of specific works, including those by Tennyson, Malory and T.H. White; and suggestions for tailoring Arthurian texts to various student and teacher audiences12.

As this survey attempted to demonstrate, the very comprehensive nature of the Middle Ages is what makes studying the period so rewarding and challenging for both teacher and student. Simply put, we ignore the medieval chapters in European history upon peril of wasting a prime opportunity to turn our students onto history.

© 2003 Christopher Bellitto, Ph.D.

About the author: Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and the Academic Editor at Large of Paulist Press. He is a church historian, teacher, and lecturer whose work is both academic and popular. His most recent books are Ten Ways the Church Has Changed (Pauline Books and Media, 2006), The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2002) and Renewing Christianity: A History of Church Reform from Day One to Vatican II (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2001). “Chivalry: A Door to Teaching the Middle Ages” originally appeared in the August 1995 edition of The History Teacher magazine.

Also in Teaching With Chivalry

  1. Teaching With Chivalry Part III: Ethics, Tactics and Literature
  2. Teaching With Chivalry Part II: Students and Chivalry
  3. Teaching With Chivalry Part I: Lessons of Medieval History

View the entire series

  1. Although dated, Raymond Kilgour’s study offers a classic statement: The Decline of Chivalry as Shown in the French Literature of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1937). A more recent and concise discussion is found in Arno Borst, “Knighthood in the High Middle Ages: Ideal and Reality,” in Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe, ed. Fredric L. Cheyette (Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 180-91. 

  2. Keen, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1965). 

  3. See, for example, Diane Bornstein, Mirrors of Courtesy (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975). 

  4. For the Crusades, students should read Cairns, Medieval Knights, pp. 21-29. There are two good one-volume studies of the Crusades: Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987) and Hans Eberhard Mayer,The Crusades, trans. John Gillingham (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972). Students and teachers may also consult Jonathan Riley-Smith, Atlas of the Crusades (New York: Facts on File 1990), with illustrations, maps and comprehensive treatment of the Crusades’ many elements. An academic treatment of just war is found in Frederick H. Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975). Because just war is a highly complex topic, however, the subject may be too ambitious for a brief unit on chivalry. 

  5. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1976), pp. 107-112. See also John Barnie, War in Medieval English Society: Social Values in the Hundred Years War 1337-99 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1974), pp 58-75. 

  6. Cairns provides good diagrams and illustrations of changes in armor and warfare throughout Medieval Knights. See also Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change ( Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 14-28 and Keen, Chivalry, pp. 23-27. The use of the crossbow is discussed by Quentin Hughes, “Medieval Firepower,” Fortress 8 (1991), pp. 31-43. Keegan gives a complete military analysis of Agincourt in The Face of Battle, pp. 79-116. 

  7. Malcolm Vale, “New Techniques and Old Ideals: Impact of Artillery on War and Chivalry at the End of the Hundred Years’ War,” in War, Literature and Politics in the Late Middle Ages, ed. C.T. Allmand (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 57-72. See also Vale, War and Chivalry: Warfare and Aristocratic Culture in England, France and Burgundy at the End of the Middle Ages (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1981). 

  8. Conrad Cairns, Medieval Castles (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987) is a 48-pg., very comprehensible explanation full of illustrations and diagrams of castles, moats, drawbridges, battlements, even arrowslits. Another good volume, one with many illustrations, is Sheila Sancha, The Castle Story (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979). A more comprehensive picture can be drawn from Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). 

  9. For tournaments, heralds and coats of arms, see Cairns, Medieval Knights, pp. 35-41. Juliet Vale addresses tournaments in a very thought-provoking way in Edward III and Chivalry: Chivalric Society and its Context, 1270-1350 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1982). A more general, richly illustrated approach is found in Richard Barber and Juliet Barker, Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pagents in the Middle Ages (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1989). 

  10. Cairns, Medieval Knights, pp. 53-60. 

  11. For another representation of life in the Middle Ages, screen The Lion in Winter, with Peter O’Toole again playing Henry II, this time as an older but still taciturn king, and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

  12. Marueen Fries and Jeanie Watson, eds., Approaches to Teaching the Arthurian Tradition (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992). Other volumes in the series relevant to the Middle Ages treat Dante’s Divine Comedy (Carole Slade, ed., 1982), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Miriam Youngerman Miller and Jane Chance, eds., 1986), Medieval English Drama (Richard K. Emmerson, ed., 1990), Beowulf (Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., and Robert F. Yeager, eds., 1984), and Canterbury Tales (Joseph Gibaldi, ed., 1980). 

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