The image of the knight in the popular media has taken quite a rocky evolutionary journey over the course of the past 50 years or so. Influenced by Victorian poets and painters, the picture of the knight throughout the 1940s and ’50s was one of a saint in armor, demonstrating a brand of chivalry that was, in the words of Dr. Richard Barber, “a mere escape from reality … an empty shell, a pretty relic of the past, fit to while away an idle moment.” Books and motion pictures of the era portrayed knightly characters (both fictional and historical) as poets, lovers and champions of the poor and downtrodden — noble, impartial and courteous to the point of absurdity.
But as academic research over the course of the past decade has peered with greater depth into medieval society in general, and the lives of medieval knights in particular, the ideals of chivalry have taken something of a beating. The heroic, genteel character of the knight has been supplanted by a standard image that is uncultured, oppressive and violent. It’s a view that is now widely accepted by academicians and popular audiences alike. Professor Peter Arnade, quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune, encapsulated this notion when he said, “Chivalry is mostly a fiction … It was a feel-good movement among the military to make them feel like they were doing something other than smashing people’s brains out, which is what they were doing.”
Both of these views — the genteel and the brutal — have a valid basis in history and literature, which only serves to confuse the issue even further. The noble, polished image of the knight stems from the legendary tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Medieval legends of these knights as paragons of heroic virtue, such as the Lais of Marie de France and the chivalric romances of Chretien de Troyes, were further distorted by Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson in the Gothic revival of the 19th century, resulting in an almost godlike ideal of chivalrous behavior. In contrast, the unsavory image of the knight as an unscrupulous soldier seeking plunder and vengeance in the name of “honor” can be found in the pages of medieval chroniclers such as Matthew Paris and Froissart, in depictions of battle and tournament such as the Maciejowski Bible and the Manasseh Codex, and is reinforced by satirical authors of the period, including Dante and Cervantes.
But somewhere between the “knight as saint” and “knight as sociopath” there lies a middle ground. Common sense would seem to indicate that not all knights were brutal, predatory thugs — if they had been, Western culture would never have survived the Middle Ages. Nor is it reasonable to believe knights were all iconic, transcendental models of virtue and chastity — human nature hasn’t changed that much in the course of the past millennium.
Whether in the halls of academia, the pages of popular novels or upon the movie screen at the local cinema, these disparate portrayals of knights as both villains and angels raise an essential question: Did “chivalry” ever really exist as a practical, approachable social ideal?
To answer that question, this article is going to explore, not the medieval romantic epics (which were no more realistic reflections of their time periods than Hollywood action movies are of modern culture) nor period historical chronicles (which, like all news sources, were subject to the biases of the authors), but rather the words of actual knights and lords who pursued and even wrote about the ideals of chivalry on a realistic, functional level.
Consider the contrasts between the following “myths of chivalry,” which are based on modern interpretations of the knightly ideals, and quotes taken from sources written by and for real knights. The resulting understanding of “chivalry” may provide a more balanced, practical image of knights and the code of honor they admired.
One of the more prominent disputations of the cause of chivalry came from the book Timeline by Michael Crichton (as well as from the movie adaptation of the same name). The book is one of the author’s signature mixtures of fact and fiction — in this case the “fiction” is a time machine and the “fact” is the Hundred Years War. Timeline is set in 1357 during the siege of Castelgard, a minor skirmish between Sir Oliver de Vannes (an English knight) and Sir Arnaut de Cervole (a mercenary captain).
Crichton says the 14th century was “a world that gave lip service to the ideals of chivalry while indiscriminately pillaging and murdering … where women … took lovers at will and plotted assassination and rebellion. It was a world of shifting boundaries and shifting allegiances … (and) constant warfare.”
Driving this unsavory opinion of knights and chivalry home on a more personal level, Crichton describes one of the more sympathetic medieval characters in the book in this way: “Sir Guy de Malegant … is a knight of renown — for his many acts of murder and villainy.” (Keep in mind, he’s talking about one of the good guys.)
For a different perspective of chivalry in this region and period, perhaps we can turn to Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who was born in the first decade of the 14th century and who died at Poitiers in 1356. Charny’s knightly career was a celebrated one: he campaigned all across France in the 1340s, went on crusade, was elevated to the prestigious Order of the Star in 1355, and was selected to carry the Royal standard of France, the Oriflamme, into battle.
Charny wrote a treatise on chivalrous behavior called Livre de chevalerie (The Book of Chivalry), which is an eminently practical “how to” manual focusing on conduct appropriate to “worthy men-at-arms.” (For Charny, chivalrous behavior was not limited to knights.) The fictional knights in Timeline seem to be at odds with Charny’s advice:
Charny’s view of chivalry may not be romantic or genteel, but it is certainly humane and responsible. This real knight of the 14th century would have had nothing but contempt for the knights of Timeline, who torture, murder, and rape indiscriminately, and who would surely fall into his definition of “doers and consenters of evil deeds.”
Real Knights, Real Chivalry