Teaching With Chivalry Part II: Students and Chivalry

Scott Farrell comments:

In this segment, Professor Bellitto discusses:

  • Resources to help students understand what chivalry is, and consider how it was used in medieval society in both an idealistic and a practical sense.
  • Different methods of exploring the ideals of chivalry and knighthood, including oral presentations, debates and an introduction to selected primary source material.

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Cairns_BookPerhaps the best way to get at the comprehensive nature of the Middle Ages without taking too much time from the rest of a longer course would be to focus on one of the most captivating aspects of the medieval period for students: chivalry. The teacher should begin with the excellent volume, The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches,» edited by Howell Chickering and Thomas H. Seiler1. This text is geared for teaching and contains an historiographical review of the modern study of chivalry, surveys of courses that treat chivalry, bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, and a particularly valuable section on medieval visual imagery. Teachers should also become acquainted with the publications of TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) which provide highly useful and lively introductions, guides, references and curricular materials for teachers interested in bringing medieval history, literature and related subjects to their students2. The student’s starting point, however, should without question be Trevor Cairns’ well-illustrated Medieval Knights,» a slim, inexpensive volume of discrete, easy-to-understand chapters on essential aspects of knighthood3.

The Knight and ChivalryChivalry can be approached from a variety of angles, depending on a teacher’s goals on student proclivities and on classroom resources. A unit on chivalry could begin with a few students going to the library to look up key ideas or people for a five-minute oral presentation; if possible, students should be directed to Bradford Broughton’s two-volume Dictionary of Medieval Knighthood and Chivalry.» 4 A pair of studies by Maurice Keen» and Richard Barber» are good sources of research for teachers or selected readings for students5. Because historians disagree on what chivalry meant and who precisely knights were, the unit could continue with issues for discussion which introduce students to historical debate and conflicting evidence. One of the main questions students may wish to debate is the role the Church played in forming knights into a distinct layer of medieval society (“those who fought”), especially with respect to the frequently sacramental rituals of “dubbing.”6 Students should also be encouraged to read primary sources. Selections from medieval manuals by Ramon Llull and Christine de Pisan give a flavor of the period while mixing the military and spiritual sides of knighthood7.

© 2003 Christopher Bellitto, Ph.D.

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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.

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About Guest Author

This piece is one of many essays, reviews and excerpts written by Chivalry Today's guest columnists. Biographical information about our guest authors can be found at the end of each article.
  1. Howell Chickering and Thomas H. Seiler, eds. The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1988). A number of ideas for the present article grew from The Study of Chivalry; the present author acknowledges his great debt to its editors and authors.— Introductory sources for the European Middle Ages are George Holmes, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Donald Matthew, Atlas of Medieval Europe (New York: Facts on File, 1983). Rich anthologies of primary sources are offered by John Revell Reinhard, ed., Medieval Pageant (London: Haskell House, 1970) and Patrick J. Geary, ed., Readings in Medieval History (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1989). []
  2. For more information on TEAMS materials, which are reasonably priced, contact the Consortium at Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 103 Walwood Hall, Kalamazoo, MI 49008. []
  3. Trevor Cairns, Medieval Knights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). Another general, chronological approach is offered by Frances Gies, The Knight in History (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). []
  4. Bradford Broughton, Dictionary of Medieval Knighthood and Chivalry, vol. 1, Concepts and Terms (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986) and vol. 2, People, Places and Events (1988). In general, see also Joseph R. Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages (New York: Scribner, 1982—). []
  5. Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), is the recognized leader in scholarly work on the topic. A popular book, and therefore more readily accessible to the student reader, is offered by Richard W. Barber, The Knight and Chivalry (New York: Scribner, 1970); see especially his detailed introduction into the major components of chivalry. For a more academic resource and broader perspective, consult Georges Duby, Chivalrous Society, trans. Cynthia Postan (Berkeley: University of Calif. Press, 1977). []
  6. Students should see Cairns, Medieval Knights, pp. 42-47. Teachers can consult Colin Morris, “Equestris Ordo: Chivalry as a Vocation in the Twelfth Century,” Studies in Church History 15 (1978), pp. 87-96. []
  7. Ramon Lull, The Book of the Order of Chivalry, trans. William Caxton (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1926). Christine de Pisan, The Books of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry, trans. William Caxton, ed. A.T.P. Boyles (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1932). Note that teachers may have to retype their selections since these editions reprint Caxton’s 15th-century spelling and style. []

About Guest Author

This piece is one of many essays, reviews and excerpts written by Chivalry Today's guest columnists. Biographical information about our guest authors can be found at the end of each article.