Real Knights, Real Chivalry: Part 2

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

jesterIf the knights in Timeline are unsympathetic, the members of the knightly class described in the best-selling novel The Jester by James Patterson and Andrew Gross are downright vile and despicable. The story, set in 1096, concerns a fictional “peasants revolt” in Veille du Pére in southern France. 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,” 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 (to top it all off) raising taxes by 10 percent.

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.”

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 treatise called Seneschaucy, written around 1272. This is not a political or social discourse, simply an administrative handbook covering every major office on a knightly manor, from the carter and the cowherd right up to the steward and the lord. Here is the treatise’s chief advice regarding how a knight was expected 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 experience, honest men of mature age … who have never been convicted of deceit or wrong-doing.”

Although Seneschaucy never specifically mentions the concept of chivalry, its portrait of a knight as a lord and estate manager seems to fall right in line with the basic principles of chivalrous behavior: Be kind but don’t be gullible; be firm but also equitable; 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, indiscriminate taxation or any other sort of “wickedness” as valid methods of treatment for those who work the land.

Myth #3: Chivalry was simply a pragmatic approach to warfare as a money-making venture

archersAnother 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 and aristocratic characters, both French and English, none of whom seem to have any use for the principles of chivalry – except when it puts them in a position to make a profit from loot or ransom 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 due to a worthy and chivalrous knight, the captain of the archers who is tasked with driving away the defenders sees the Sir Simon’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.”

To provide a counterpoint to this distinctly avaricious view of chivalry, we can turn to Ramon Llull, author of Libre del ordre de cavayleria (The Book of the Order of Chivalry). Llull lived in Spain in the later half of the 13th century — he was an active tourneyer and crusader, served as the seneschal of the king of Majorca, wrote courtly poetry, taught at the Franciscan College at Miramar, and, later in life, preached Christianity in Spain and North Africa. Llull knew quite a bit about both the glories and duties of chivalry, and he understood that chivalry should not be confused with military tactics or preparation for battle:

“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.”

Llull’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 or as a rationale to be in a position to garner the best spoils after a military encounter, and it does not seem to be directed at a culture that simply wanted to feel good about “smashing people’s brains out.” Llull, Charny and the author of Seneschaucy are all describing a chivalry that was meant to be respected, internalized and put into practice.

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

Exploring the real words of real knights 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 do not abandon our hope that decency and honor will prevail in the face of corruption and selfishness. We still espouse and admire high ethical standards, even if few people achieve them.

Medieval 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 in the 21st century. The voices and writings from history demonstrate that chivalry could be, and undoubtedly was, put to use in real life, by real knights.

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Also in Real Knights, Real Chivalry

  1. Real Knights, Real Chivalry: Part 2
  2. Real Knights, Real Chivalry: Part 1

View the entire series