Le Morte Darthur


§3. An Essay on Chivalry

Thomas Malory

ST. AUGUSTINE replied to the enquiry, What is time? by saying, ‘I know when you do not ask me:’ and a like answer suggests itself to us if we try to find an adequate reply to the question, What is Chivalry? For chivalry is one of those words, like love, duty, patriotism, loyalty, which make us feel their meaning, and the reality of what they mean, though their ideal and comprehensive character hinders us from readily putting it into the forms of a definition. When the alchemist in the Eastern tale compounds, with all the resources of his art, the universal solvent before the expectant eyes of his pupil, the pupil, seeing the mysterious fluid lie quietly in the crucible, exclaims, with not unreasonable doubt, ‘O Sage, be not deceived: how can that which dissolves all things be itself contained in a ladle?’ And how shall chivalry, sparkling and flashing everywhere as it runs through that great complicated tissue of human life which we call modern civilisation,—how shall chivalry, the humaniser of society, be brought within the limits of a definition?

Chivalry, indeed, exists for us in spirit rather than in outward and visible form. It no longer comes to us with the outward symbols of war-horse, and armour, and noble birth, and strength of arm, and high-flown protestations of love and gallantry; yet we never fail to know and feel its presence, silent and unobtrusive as it now is: we recognise the lady and the gentleman not less surely now than they did in old times; and we acknowledge their rights and their power over us now no less than then. And if the spirit of chivalry does live among us still, we may read its past history by its present light, and say in Spenser’s words,—

                ‘By infusion sweete
Of thine own spirit which doth in me survive,
I follow still the footing of thy feete,
That with thy meaning so I may the rather meete.’

Let us then look back to those times when chivalry had an outward, visible form, and was embodied in its own proper institutions, with orders, and statutes, and courts of its own jurisdiction, and rituals, and customs, like those of other great social institutions and members of the body politic.

The deluge of the Teutonic nations which broke up the old Roman civilisation threatened for some centuries to overwhelm Europe with mere barbarism. We know now that the germs of a far higher and better civilisation were everywhere ready to burst into life as soon as the fury of that deluge had spent itself; but for a long period the evil seemed mightier than the good. From time to time the clear head, the noble heart and conscience, and the strong arm of an Alfred, a Charlemagne, or an Otho, might bring a temporary calm and order into the storm; but when the personal influences of such great men were withdrawn, society relapsed again and again into ever new anarchy, and war—at once the effect and the cause of anarchy—savage, cruel war became the business of all men throughout Europe. The selfish, the rapacious, and the unscrupulous fought for power, and plunder, and love of fighting; and while violence could only be resisted by violence, and each man had to defend himself, his family, and his possessions as best he could, with no effectual aid from law and government, there was a constant tendency to increasing barbarism and brutish, or worse than brutish, instead of human, existence.

But man differs from the brutes in this, that while he can fall lower than they, he can also rise higher, and that even the passions and the impulses which he has in common with them may be subdued, and refined, and modified, till they become the servants and instruments of his human life, and the means by which all that is properly spiritual in his being may be reflected and symbolised upon this earth in outward, visible form. The nobler races of men—the historical races, as they have been called—constantly show this aptitude for contending with these downward tendencies of our nature, and for advancing, through the conquest of them, to new and higher life.

And so it was in the Middle Ages. The Church was, no doubt, the great civiliser of the nations: still, whatever aid the State derived from the Church, it then, no less than now, had a position and processes of its own, by which it did its own work of civilisation too. And its first great work for controlling the universal anarchy of which I have spoken was the extension and firm establishment of that half-patriarchal, half-military organisation which we call the Feudal System. Every man who was not rich and powerful enough to be a lord became—willingly or unwillingly—a vassal; and all men, from the king downwards, were bound to each other for reciprocal service and protection—a service and protection partly military, but partly patriarchal, since they were rendered not by men strangers to each other except for what Mr. Carlyle calls ‘the nexus of cash payment,’ but united by ties of family, and neighbourhood, and clanship, and by the interests and sympathies that grow out of these. But the protector of his own vassals easily became the invader of the rights and ravager of the possessions of his neighbour and his vassals; and so the old evils of anarchy and violence grew afresh out of the remedy which had been devised to meet them. The ‘monarchies sank into impotence; petty, lawless tyrants trampled all social order under foot,’ says a learned historian of this period, ‘and all attempts after scientific instruction and artistic pleasures were as effectually crushed by this state of general insecurity as the external well-being and material life of the people. This was a dark and stormy period for Europe, merciless, arbitrary, and violent. It is a sign of the prevailing feeling of misery and hopelessness that, when the first thousand years of our æra were drawing to their close, the people in every country in Europe looked with certainty for the destruction of the world. Some squandered their wealth in riotous living, others bestowed it for the good of their souls on churches and convents; weeping multitudes lay day and night around the altars; some looked forward with dread, but most with secret hope, towards the burning of the earth and the falling in of heaven. Their actual condition was so miserable that the idea of destruction was relief, spite of all its horrors1.’

The palliatives with which men tried to meet the evils of the times indicate the greatness of the evils, but also the moral feeling which was the promise of better things. Such was the so-called ‘Peace of the King,’ by which private wars were not to be entered on till forty days after the committal of the alleged crime which was to be avenged; and the ‘Truce of God,’ by which all these acts of private hostility were suspended from Thursday to Monday in each week. And at the Council of Cleremont, held by Urban II in November, 1095, a severe censure was pronounced against the licence of private war; the Truce of God was confirmed; women and priests were placed under the safeguard of the Church; and a protection of three years was extended to husbandmen and merchants, the defenceless victims of military rapine. We are reminded of the law of Moses, which provided Cities of Refuge for the man who accidentally and without malice killed his neighbour, but who could not look for protection from the vengeance of the family of the slain man except within those special safeguards. In each case there is the same unreasoning rage of the half-civilised man brought face to face with the demands of religion and civil law: and each is obliged to yield something to the other till the better cause has had time to prepare and strengthen itself for a more complete triumph.

Chivalry, then, was the offspring of the same spirit which dictated the Peace of the King, the Truce of God, and the decrees of the Council of Cleremont. Chivalry has another name—Knighthood—and the two are wanted to express all that we mean by either2. The chevalier was the soldier who rode the war-horse: he whose birth entitled him, and whose wealth gave him the means, to ride at the head of his vassals and retainers to the war: all ideas of lordship, and mastery, and outward dignity and power, are here embodied before us. But this ‘chevalier,’ this ‘ritter,’ or rider of the war-horse, was also to be a ‘knecht,’ or servant: ‘He that will be chief among you, let him be your servant.’ The knight was to obey, no less than to command; he was to exert his strength and power, not for selfish ends, but in the service of others; and especially in the service of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed, who could not help or defend themselves. It was, indeed, no new discovery in the world, that such are the duties of him who possesses power, and above all the power of the sword; and they who have tried to trace the origin of chivalry to some particular place and time have had to go to the Germans of Tacitus, to the Crusaders, to the Saracens, to the Romans, the Greeks, the Trojans, the Hebrews, only to come to the conclusion that chivalry belongs in its spirit to man as man; though the form in which that spirit was clothed in Europe in the Middle Ages has an individuality of which some of the sources may be ascertained, and though from that time forward its power has been established, and extended, in a manner, and with a greatness unknown to the ancients.

In those days society was essentially military. In this our own time the main offices, interests, and occupations of the great body politic are non-military, and the army is but a small portion of the nation, specially trained for a minor, though indispensable, function therein. Peace, for its own sake, and for the sake of the objects which can only be obtained by the arts and with the opportunities of peace, is the end and aim of every civilised nation now; and war is only an occasional means to secure that end. But in the Middle Ages war was, or seemed to be, the chief end of life to the greater part of every nation, and especially to all who possessed rank, and wealth, and power, and were in fact the leaders of the nation. And therefore chivalry, the spirit which was to humanise those warriors, needed to be warlike too, and thus to sympathise with those to whom it addressed itself.

Much, too, of its special form it no doubt owed to that wonderful race of heroes, the Normans. The romantic love of adventure; the religious and the martial enthusiasm; the desire to revenge injuries, and to win wealth and power; the delight in arms and horses, in the luxury of dress, and in the exercises of hunting and hawking; the eloquence and sagacity in council; the patience with which when need was they could endure the inclemency of every climate, and the toil and abstinence of a military life; and the gentleness, the affability and the gallantry, which were the characteristics of the Norman race; these must have been more or less impressed on men’s minds wherever the Norman sway or influence extended, from England to Sicily, and must have reproduced something of themselves in the social habits and manners of the times. When we read the description of William of the Iron Arm, the first Norman count of Apulia, so strong, so brave, so affable, so generous, and so sage above other men—a lion in battle, a lamb in society, and an angel in council—we are reminded of the heroes of chivalry in the days of its greatest refinement, the Black Prince, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Walter of Manny, as they still live in the pages of Froissart; or their counterparts in romance, King Arthur, Sir Launcelot, Amadis of Gaul, or Palmerin of England.

The Normans, the latest of the Northern races who descended, full of wild life, from their mountains and forests, upon the comparatively civilised plains of Europe, may have brought a newer and fresher feeling for those old manners and customs which Tacitus describes as characterising the Germans of his time, and which are with so much probability connected with the chivalry of the Middle Ages. In ancient Germany, and in Scandinavia, it was the custom for each youth, when he was of an age to bear arms, to be presented with a sword, a shield, and a lance, by his father, or some near relation, in an assembly of the chiefs of the nation; and from that time he became a member of the commonwealth, and ranked as a citizen. He then entered the train of some chief, of whom he and his brother youths became the followers and companions, forming one brotherhood, though not without ranks and degrees, while a generous spirit of equality ran through all.

In ancient Germany, too, women were held in a peculiar reverence, beyond what was known in the other—and otherwise more civilized—nations of antiquity; and the presence of women in the hour of battle with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, was regarded by those warriors as an incentive to courage, and a pledge of victory, which (as they boasted) their Roman foes were unable to appeal to for themselves. And this old Teutonic reverence for women conspired with the new Christian reverence for the Virgin Mary as the type and representative at once of her sex and of the Church, to supply the purer and nobler elements of the gallantry which forms so large a part, not only of the romance, but of the actual history, of chivalry.

But Christianity exercised not only an indirect, but also a direct and avowed action upon the forms of chivalry, as they attained to their full proportions. Knighthood was certainly a feature and distinction of society before the days of Charlemagne, who in permitting the governor of Friesland to make knights by girding them with a sword, and giving them a blow, adds ‘as is the custom.’ But no ritual of the Church as yet consecrated that custom. Charlemagne girt the sword on his son Louis the Good without religious ceremonies; and a century later the Saxon king of England, Edward the Elder, clothed Athelstan in a soldier’s dress of scarlet, and girded him with a girdle ornamented with precious stones and a sword with sheath of gold, but without religious rites. But in the next century, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, we read that Hereward, a noble Anglo-Saxon youth, was knighted by the Abbot of Peterborough, with confession, absolution, and prayer that he might be a true knight. And this the historian describes as the custom of the English, as indeed it was, or soon became, that of all Europe; the Normans resisting the innovation longest, but at last adopting it with their wonted ardour. The candidate for knighthood confessed his sins on the eve of his consecration (for such it now was), and passed the night in prayer and fasting in the church: the godfathers, the bath, the white garment, and the tonsure (sometimes limited indeed to a single lock) were the symbols of the new and holy state of life to which he was now called: next morning he heard mass, offered his sword on the altar, where it was blessed by the priest; and he was created a knight—either by the priest of highest rank present, or by some knight, who, in virtue of his knighthood, was qualified to confer the sacred office he had himself received—in the name of God, of St. George, and of Saint Michael the Archangel. He swore, and received the holy communion in confirmation of his oath, to fulfil the duties of his profession; to speak the truth; to maintain the right; to protect women, the poor, and the distressed; to practise courtesy; to pursue the infidels; to despise the allurements of ease and safety, and to maintain his honour in every perilous adventure. And the Council of Cleremont, of which I have already spoken—as if in order to give the sanction of the Church in a still more formal and comprehensive manner to the whole system of chivalry—decreed that every person of noble birth, on attaining the age of twelve years, should take a solemn oath before the bishop of his diocese to defend to the uttermost the oppressed, the widow, and the orphans; that women of noble birth, both married and single, should enjoy his especial care; and that nothing should be wanting in him to render travelling safe, and to destroy tyranny.

Thus, as has been justly observed, all the humanities of chivalry were sanctioned by legal and ecclesiastical power: it was intended that they should be spread over the whole face of Christendom, in order to check the barbarism and ferocity of the times. While the form of chivalry was martial, its objects became to a great extent religious and social: from a mere military array chivalry obtained the name of the Order, the Holy Order, and a character of seriousness and solemnity was given to it; and it was accounted an honourable office above all offices, orders, and acts of the world, except the order of priesthood.

The education for knighthood usually began at a still earlier age than that mentioned in the Canons of Cleremont. The castles of the princes and nobles were the schools of those days, at least for the youth of their own class. Every feudal lord had his court, to which he drew the sons and daughters of the poorer gentry of his domains; and if he were a knight distinguished for his merits, his castle was also frequented by the children of men of equal rank and reputation with himself: for the prudent and careful father would often have some brother in arms whom he thought better fitted than himself to educate his children in the accomplishments and duties of his station. So, long after, Ben Jonson, looking back on those old times, and picturing them in their ideal aspect, says, that then

                ‘Goodness gave the greatness,
And greatness worship: every house became
An academy of honour.’

And that this method of education

                ‘By a line
Of institution from our ancestors,
Hath been deriv’d down to us, and receiv’d
In a succession, for the noblest way
Of breeding up our youth in letters, arms,
Fair mien, discourses, civil exercises,
And all the blazon of a gentleman.
Where can he learn to vault, to ride, to fence,
To move his body gracefuller, to speak
His language purer, or to tune his mind
Or manners more to the harmony of nature,
Than in these nurseries of nobility?’

The boy of gentle birth, when he thus began his education, was called by the names of Childe, or Damoiseau, or Valet, said to be a contraction of Vassalet or little Vassal, and also Page, though this last name was originally appropriated to the youths of inferior rank. He usually entered the castle which was to be his school about the age of seven or eight. He was to learn modesty, obedience, and address in arms and horsemanship, and was duly exercised in the use of his weapons, beginning with such as were suited to his strength. He was instructed how to guide a horse with grace and dexterity, how to use the bow and the sword, and how to manage the lance,—an art which was taught him by making him ride against a wooden figure, which, if not struck in true knightly fashion, was so contrived as to turn round and give the awkward cavalier a blow with its wooden sword. He attended his lord in the chase, and learnt all its arts; he attended him also in many offices which we should now call menial, but which were then held to be the proper symbols of modesty and obedience for the youth of highest birth and rank. Thus the Black Prince was held to show the highest respect to the French king, his prisoner, by personal attendance on him. In the words of Froissart: ‘The same day of the battle, at night, the prince made a supper in his lodging to the French king, and to the most part of the great lords that were prisoners  . . .  and always the prince served before the king as humbly as he could, and would not sit at the king’s board for any desire that the king could make; but he said he was not sufficient to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was.’

And not the least important of the youth’s duties were those towards the ladies of the house in which he lived. He was to wait on them rather as attending a sort of superior beings to whom adoration and obsequious service were due, than as ministering to the convenience of human creatures like himself. The most modest demeanour, the most profound respect, were to be observed in the presence of these fair idols. And as not only the youths, but the maidens—the damoiselles no less than the damoiseaux—were sent to the courts of the barons and their ladies for education, it would often happen that this veneration in which the boy was so early trained towards the ladies of maturer years, would find an object in some young maiden whose more suitable age might lead him, as he grew up, from mere boyish regard to that passionate and abiding devotion which was the duty of every true knight to his lady, and by the strength of which he held that all his power for good was to be maintained. Here is a description of the beginning of the loves of Amadis and Oriana, which is as charming as it is simple; and which, though we find it in the pages of a romance, we cannot doubt is a picture of actual life and manners. ‘Oriana,’ says the old book, ‘was about ten years old, the fairest creature that ever was seen; wherefore she was called the one “without a peer” . . . . The child of the sea (that is, Amadis) was now twelve years old, but in stature and size he seemed fifteen, and he served the queen; but, now that Oriana was there, the queen gave her the child of the sea, that he should serve her, and Oriana said that “it pleased her;” and that word which she said, the child kept in his heart, so that he never lost it from his memory, and in all his life he was never weary of serving her, and his heart was surrendered to her; and this love lasted as long as they lasted, for as well as he loved her did she also love him. But the child of the sea, who knew nothing of her love, thought himself presumptuous to have placed his thoughts on her, and dared not speak to her; and she, who loved him in her heart, was careful not to speak more with him than with another: but their eyes delighted to reveal to the heart what was the thing on earth that they loved best. And now the time came that he thought he could take arms if he were knighted; and this he greatly desired, thinking that he would do such things that, if he lived, his mistress should esteem him.’

Such was the beginning of the loves of Amadis and Oriana, so famous in romance, and so generally held by knights and ladies to be a model for themselves. Constancy, such as that of Amadis, was a virtue of the true lover which those times of long inevitable separations and absences demanded in forms hardly known in our days; and in proportion was it insisted upon, and held in honour. So Spenser says:

‘Young knight whatever, that dost arms profess,
And through long labours huntest after fame,
Beware of fraud, beware of fickleness,
In choice and change of thy dear loved dame;
Lest thou of her believe too lightly blame,
And rash misweening do thy heart remove;
For unto knight there is no greater shame,
Than lightness and inconstancy in love.’

The peerless Amadis passed with more than ordinary rapidity to the rank of knighthood. The youth more usually remained an esquire—the next step to that of page—till he was twenty. He attended the knight to whose person he was attached, dressed and undressed him, trained his horses, kept his arms bright and burnished, and did the honours of the household to the strangers who visited it; so that Spenser takes the squire as the type of such courtesy. Here is Chaucer’s description of the squire:

‘With him there was his son, a youngé squire,
A lover and a lusty bachelor,
With lockés curl’d as they were laid in press;
Of twenty years of age he was, I guess.
Of his statúre he was of even length,
And wonderly deliver, and great of strength;
And he had been some time in chevachie (military expeditions),
In Flanders, in Artois, and Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space,
In hope to standen in his lady’s grace.
Embroider’d was he, as it were a mead
All full of freshé flowers, white and red;
Singing he was, or fluting, all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May;
Short was his gown, with sleevés long and wide:
Well could he sit on horse, and fairé ride;
He couldé songés make, and well indite,
Just, and eke dance, and well pourtray and write:
So hot he lovéd, that by nightertale
He slept no more than doth the nightingale.
Courteous he was; slowly and serviceable;
And carv’d before his father at the table.’

I have already spoken of the religious rites with which the esquire was admitted into the order of knighthood, and of the solemn and noble engagements into which he then entered. He had next to ‘win his spurs,’ as it was called; a phrase happily illustrated in the story of Edward III and the Black Prince, which Froissart thus relates:—

‘This battle between Broy and Cressy, this Saturday, was right cruel and fell, and many a feat of arms done that day came not to my knowledge . . . . In the morning, the day of the battle, certain Frenchmen and Almagnes perforce opened the archers of the prince’s battle (division as we should now say), and came and fought with the men of arms, hand to hand. Then the second battle of the Englishmen came to succour the prince’s battle, the which was time, for they had as then much ado. And they with the prince sent a messenger to the king, who was on a little windmill hill: then the knight said to the king, “Sir, the earl of Warwick, and the earl of Oxford, Sir Reynold Cobham, and other, such as lie about the prince your son, are fiercely fought withal, and are sore handled, wherefore they desire you that you and your battle will come and aid them, for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.” Then the king said, “Is my son dead, or hurt, or on the earth felled?” “No, sir,” quoth the knight, “but he is hardly matched, wherefore he hath need of your aid.” “Well,” said the king, “return to him, and to them that sent you hither, and say to them, that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth, as long as my son is alive: and also say to them, that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for, if God be pleased, I will this day’s work be his, and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.” Then the knight returned again to them, and showed the king’s words, the which greatly encouraged them, and repented in that they had sent to the king as they did.’ Brave knights, to be ‘greatly encouraged’ by such stern though manly words. We are reminded of the not less brave and knightly demeanour of Sir Colin Halket and his men at Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington rode up and asked how they were, and the general replied that two-thirds of the brigade were down, and the remainder so exhausted that the relief of fresh troops, for however short a time, was most desirable. But when the duke said that no relief was possible, that all depended on them, the answer which the officer made for himself and his men was, ‘Enough, my lord, we stand here till the last man falls.’

Thenceforth the knight’s career depended, he would not have said on himself, but on God and his lady: and if we may judge by the ordinary language of the romances, his lady was often the object of actual adoration, little differing from that he would have addressed to the saints in the hour of danger or of triumph. Philosophic divines teach us that although the worship of the saints may become in practice a gross and degrading superstition, it has in it an element of true, and in itself ennobling, faith in ideals of humanity more or less perfectly revealed in human form: and so while we smile at the fictions of extravagant fancy in which the mediæval knight was wont to clothe his love, and his professions of love, for his mistress, we cannot reasonably doubt that in the main, and for that time of youthful imaginations rather than of sober reasonings, the knight was right. When I think of what society was, and what it would still be, without the humanizing influences of womanhood and ladyhood, and what it is by means of these, I say that the tree may be judged by its fruits, and that it is from a right noble stock, rightly and wisely cultivated in the main, in those old days, that we are still gathering such noble fruits. Much evil there was along with the good; and, what is worse, much confusion between good and evil. I need not tell the reader of chivalry romances, or of Lord Tennyson’s reproductions of some of their incidents in modern form of thought as well as language, how painfully this confusion defaces many of the fairest characters and most interesting tales of chivalry, while the historical records of the times in which those romances were written and read show that the actual state of morals and manners exhibited the like confusions of good and evil, in the ideals as well as in the conduct of life. But, as I have already observed, we see, at least in the romance before us, the good contending with, and mastering the evil, and this not least in the end of the story of the guilty loves of Guenever and Launcelot, the knight whose fame in romance perhaps surpasses that of Amadis, though even mediæval morality was obliged to censure the constancy of Launcelot’s love, while it might unhesitatingly extol that of Amadis.

Lord Tennyson has, I may assume, made every one familiar with the retirement of queen Guenever to the nunnery of Almesbury, and with the death of Arthur; and I venture for the completion of this sketch to show, though from the present volume, how the old story which the poet chiefly follows relates the death and draws the character of Launcelot. Launcelot, when he heard of those events, went to Almesbury, and after taking leave of the queen, resolved to follow her example; and became a hermit and penitent, taking up his abode in a forest where was an hermitage and a chapel that stood between two cliffs; and there he served God day and night with prayers and fastings. Thus he, and other knights who followed his example, ‘endured great penance six years, and then Sir Launcelot took the habit of priesthood, and a twelvemonth he sang mass.’ At the end of that time a vision directed him to take the body of queen Guenever, now dead at Almesbury, and bury her with king Arthur at Glastonbury. Then the story goes on:—‘And when she was put in the earth Sir Launcelot swooned and lay long still, while the hermit came out and awaked him, and said, Ye be to blame, for ye displease God with such manner of sorrow making. Truly, said Sir Launcelot, I trust I do not displease God, for He knoweth mine intent, for my sorrow was not, nor is not, for any rejoicing of sin, but my sorrow may never have end. For when I remember of her beauty, and of her noblesse, that was both with her king and with her; so when I saw his corpse and her corpse so lie together, truly mine heart would not serve to sustain my careful body. Also when I remember me how by my default, and mine orgule, and my pride, that they were both laid full low, that were peerless that ever was living of christian people, wit ye well, said Sir Launcelot, this remembered, of their kindness and mine unkindness, sank so to my heart, that all my natural strength failed me, so that I might not sustain myself.’ The story goes on to say that there he wasted away, praying night and day at the tomb of the king and queen. He died, and was taken to his own castle of Joyous Gard to be buried. ‘And right thus as they were at their service there came Sir Ector de Maris, that had seven year sought all England, Scotland, and Wales, seeking his brother Sir Launcelot. And when Sir Ector heard such noise and light in the quire of Joyous Gard he alight, and put his horse from him, and came into the quire, and there he saw men sing and weep. And all they knew Sir Ector, but he knew not them. Then went Sir Bors unto Sir Ector, and told him how there lay his brother Sir Launcelot dead. And then Sir Ector threw his shield, sword, and helm from him; and when he beheld Sir Launcelot’s visage he fell down in a swoon; and when he awaked it were hard for any tongue to tell the doleful complaints that he made for his brother. Ah, Launcelot, he said, thou were head of all Christian knights! And now, I dare say, said Sir Ector, thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hands; and thou were the courtiest knight that ever bare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover, of a sinful man, that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou were the goodliest person ever came among press of knights; and thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.’

Let me compare with this Chaucer’s description of the knight of his times:—

‘A knight there was, and that a worthy3 man,
That from the timé that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalry,
Truth and honóur, freedom and courtesy.
Full worthy was he in his lordés war,
And thereto had he ridden, no man farre,
As well in Christendom as in Heatheness,
And ever honoured for his worthiness.
At Alisandre he was when it was won:
Full oftentime he had the board begun
Aboven allé natións in Prusse4:
In Lethowe had he reyséd5, and in Russe,
No Christian man so oft, of his degree:
In Gernade at the siege eke had he be
Of Algesir, and ridden in Belmarie:
At Leyés was he, and at Satalie,
When they were won; and in the Greaté Sea
At many a noble army had he be.
At mortal battles had he been fifteen,
And foughten for our faith at Tramissene
In listés thriés, and aye slain his foe.
This ilké worthy knight had been also
Sometimé with the lord of Palathie
Against another heathen in Turkey;
And evermore he had a sovereign prise6,
And though that he was worthy he was wise,
And of his port as meek as is a maid.
He never yet no villainy ne said
In all his life unto no manner wight:
He was a very perfect gentle knight.’

In an age when all men, not of the clergy, were divided between the two classes of freemen or gentlemen, and serfs or villains, and the villains were in habits and in human culture little better than the domestic animals of which they shared the labours, the knight almost inevitably belonged to the class of free, or gentle, birth. Still, in theory always, and to a great extent in practice, it was not his birth, but his personal merit, which qualified him for knighthood. The personal merit would oftener exist, and still oftener come to light, where it had the advantages and aids of education and general social culture. But if it was recognised in the villain, or man of no rights of birth, he might be, and often was, knighted, and was thereby immediately enfranchised, and accounted a gentleman, in law no less than in name. Thus Froissart tells us of Sir Robert Sale, the governor of Norwich, that ‘he was no gentleman born, but he had the grace to be reputed sage and valiant in arms, and for his valiantness King Edward made him knight.’ He was governor during the popular insurrection of which Wat Tyler and Jack Straw were the London leaders; and he was invited to put himself at the head of one of the risings by men who urged upon him—‘Sir Robert, ye are a knight and a man greatly beloved in this country, and renowned a valiant man; and though ye be thus, yet we know you well: ye be no gentleman born, but son to a villain, such as we be: therefore come you with us, and be our master, and we shall make you so great a lord that one quarter of England shall be under your obeisance.’ He refused, and they killed him. The same king also knighted the man-at-arms, son of a tanner, who was afterwards famous as Sir John Hawkwood. And the courtly as well as knightly Chaucer, who must more or less have reflected the feeling of the royal and noble personages among whom he lived, goes farther, and asserts that not only does virtue make the gentleman, but also baseness of mind the villain or churl:—

‘But understand in thine intent,
That this is not mine intendement,
To clepen no wight in no age
Only gentle for his lineage;
But whoso that is virtuous,
And in his port nought outrageous,
Though he be not gentle born,
Thou may’st well see this in soth,
That he is gentle because he doth
As longeth to a gentleman;
Of them none other deem I can:
For certainly, withouten drede,
A churl is deemed by his deed,
Of high or low, as you may see,
Or of what kindred that he be.’

Akin to this recognition of gentleness of mind and manners, as that which made a gentleman, was the sense of brotherhood among knights and gentlemen, which led them to trust in each other’s honour, even when they were fighting under the banners of hostile kings. The chronicles are full of the instances of such consideration of the English and French knights for each other in the wars between the two nations; and it is not without probability that to these and suchlike manifestations of the spirit of chivalry have been traced the courtesy and humanity which characterise modern warfare in a degree unknown to the ancients.

Much indeed of barbarism and cruelty there was in the usages of war in the best times of chivalry, even of the knights among themselves, and still more when they came, with passions infuriated by resistance, upon the people of lower rank than themselves. Edward III of England, and the knights whom he gathered round him, are held alike by contemporary historians and romance writers, and by those of modern times, to have best exhibited the characteristics of chivalry in its day of greatest refinement as well as splendour; yet no one can read the chronicles of even the admiring Froissart without seeing how much savage passion and cruelty was often mingled with their better dispositions: though we do see also that the cruelty was not because, but in spite of their chivalry. Froissart laments bitterly the iniquity of the massacre by the Black Prince of the people of Limoges, men, women, and children, more than three thousand. And when Edward III, before him, intended, as would seem, to have treated the town of Calais in like manner, not only did the French knights who had offered to surrender declare that they would ‘endure as much pain as knights ever did, rather than the poorest lad in the town should have any more evil than the greatest of us all’—showing that they made no selfish distinction between the noble and the villain—but the English knights, headed by Sir Walter of Manny, that flower of knighthood, protested to the utmost against their king’s purpose. And when he had yielded so far to their urgency as to say that he would be content with the lives of the six chief burgesses, Sir Walter of Manny again remonstrated, saying, ‘Ah, noble king, for God’s sake refrain your courage: ye have the name of sovereign noblesse: therefore now do not a thing that should blemish your renown, nor to give cause to some to speak of you villainy [to charge you with conduct unworthy of a knight and gentleman]; every man will say it is a great cruelty to put to death such honest persons, who by their own wills put themselves into your grace to save their company. Then the king wryed away from him, and commanded to send for the hangman, and said, “They of Calais had caused many of my men to be slain, wherefore these shall die in likewise.”’

It needed a stronger influence than that of Sir Walter of Manny to save their lives: and this brings me to speak of the LADY of the mediæval times; the LADY, who was the counterpart of the KNIGHT, and without whom he could never have existed. Here, indeed, I meet a difficulty which reminds me of what Coleridge says of the female characters of Shakspeare, that their truth to nature, and therefore their beauty, consists in the absence of strongly marked features. It is impossible to read the poems, romances, or chronicles of the mediæval times, without feeling all through how important a part the lady plays everywhere; and yet it is far from easy to draw her from her retirement and bring distinctly before ourselves what she did, and get a picture of her as definite as we can do of the knight. Still I must try to trace the outlines of such a picture of one lady:—Philippa, queen of Edward III, whom Froissart calls ‘the most gentle queen, most liberal, and most courteous that ever was queen in her days;’ and who was the very type and representative of the lady, in the highest and best sense, in an age in which the ladies—such as the princess Blanche, the good queen Ann, the countess of Salisbury, Jane de Montfort, and the wife of Charles de Blois—were renowned for their gentle or their heroic characters.

When Isabel, queen of Edward II, visited Hainault with her son, afterwards Edward III, we are told that William, earl of Hainault, ‘had four fair daughters, Margaret, Philippa, Jane, and Isabel: among whom the young Edward set most his love and company on Philippa; and also the young lady in all honour was more conversant with him than any of her sisters.’ Queen Isabel had come to ask for aid against her enemies, and Froissart gives an account of the discussion between the earl and his council, who objected on prudential grounds to interfering with the quarrels of the English, and the earl’s brother, Sir John Hainault, who maintained that ‘all knights ought to aid to their powers all ladies and damsels chased out of their own countries, being without counsel or comfort.’ The earl finally yielded, saying, ‘My fair brother, God forbid that your good purpose should be broken or let. Therefore, in the name of God, I give you leave; and kissed him, straining him by the hand in sign of great love.’ The whole passage is too long to quote, but thus much gives a lively picture of the temper of the home and court in which the young Philippa was brought up.

Her marriage with Edward, then only fifteen years old, was agreed on, and sanctioned by the Pope. I am sorry to say that the chronicler gives no account of the lady’s bridal outfit7, except in the general terms, that ‘there was devised and purveyed for their apparel, and for all things honourable that belonged to such a lady, who should be queen of England.’ They were married, and she arrived in England and was crowned, ‘with great justs, tourneys, dancing, carolling, and great feasts, the which endured the space of three weeks.’ And then ‘this young queen Philippa abode still in England, with small company of any persons of her own country, saving one who was named Walter of Manny, who was her carver, and after did so many great prowesses in divers places, that it were hard to make mention of them.’ If we couple this statement, that she retained hardly any of her own people, with that which Froissart makes in reviewing her whole life, that ‘she loved always her own nation where she was born,’ we have pleasing thoughts suggested of the cheerful acceptance of new duties in a foreign land by the young wife; while, if I had space to describe in detail the noble life of Sir Walter of Manny, the reader would agree with me that his habitual presence in the English court must have done much to make both Edward and the Black Prince, as well as the rest of the princes and nobles, what they were, as knights and gentlemen.

The next glimpse we get of the queen is when she appears, accompanied with three hundred ladies and damsels ‘of noble lineage, and apparelled accordingly, at the yearly feast at Windsor, in honour of the order and brotherhood of the Knights of the Blue Garter, there established on St. George’s day.’ Again, when the king of Scots had advanced to Newcastle, while king Edward lay before Calais, we see the queen arriving to meet the English army, and going from division to division, ‘desiring them to do their devoir’—duty was then, as now, the English soldier’s word—‘to defend the honour of her lord the king of England, and, in the name of God, every man to be of good heart and courage; promising them that to her power she would remember them as well or better as though her lord the king were there personally. Then the queen departed from them, recommending them to God and St. George.’ She does not seem, like some of the ladies of that generation, to have considered the field to be her place while the battle was going on; but after it was won she returned, and with her council made all necessary arrangements and plans. Shortly after she joined her husband while he lay before Calais, ‘bringing many ladies and damsels with her, as well to accompany her, as to see their husbands, fathers, brethren, and other friends that lay at siege there before Calais, and had done a long time.’ And I think we may attribute it as well to the general humanising influence of all those ladies, as to the personal persuasion of Philippa, that Calais did not suffer the same horrors of war as did Limoges at the hands of the Black Prince. To what I have already quoted from Froissart as to this story, I must now add what he tells us of Philippa, after Edward had refused to hear Sir Walter of Manny. ‘Then the queen kneeled down, and sore weeping, said, “Ah, gentle sir, sith I passed the sea in great peril, I have desired nothing of you; therefore now I humbly require you, in the honour of the Son of the Virgin Mary, and for the love of me, that ye will take mercy of these six burgesses.” The king beheld the queen, and stood still in a study a space, and then said, “Ah dame, I would ye had been as now in some other place; ye make such request to me that I cannot deny you; wherefore I give them to you, to do your pleasure with them.”’

And lastly, as a counterpart to the picture I have already given of the death of the knight of romance, here is the account of the death of her who was the lady of the brightest day of historical chivalry:—

‘In the mean season there fell in England a heavy case and a common: howbeit it was right piteous for the king, his children, and all his realm; for the good queen of England—that so many good deeds had done in her time, and so many knights succoured, and ladies and damosels comforted, and had so largely departed of her goods to her people, and naturally loved always the nation of Haynault, the country where she was born—she fell sick in the castle of Windsor, the which sickness continued on her so long, that there was no remedy but death; and the good lady, when she knew that there was no remedy but death, she desired to speak with the king her husband, and when he was before her, she put out of her bed her right hand, and took the king by his right hand, who was right sorrowful at his heart. Then she said, “Sir, we have in peace, joy, and great prosperity, used all our time together: sir, now I pray you at our departing, that ye will grant me three desires.” The king, right sorrowfully weeping, said, “Madam, desire what ye will, I grant it.” The three requests of the dying woman were—that the king should pay all that she owed to any man; that he should fulfil all the promises she had made to the churches where she had “had her devotion,” and that “it might please him to take none other sepulture, whensoever it should please God to call him out of this transitory life, but beside her in Westminster.” The king, all weeping, said, “Madam, I grant all your desire.” Then the good lady and queen made on her the sign of the cross, and commended the king her husband to God, and her youngest son Thomas, who was there beside her; and anon after she yielded up the spirit, which I believe surely the holy angels received with great joy up to heaven; for in all her life she did neither in thought nor deed thing to lose her soul, as far as any creature could know. Thus the good queen of England died in the year of our Lord 1369, in the vigil of our Lady, in the midst of August.’

We have all pictured to ourselves, again and again, how the lady sat in her bower with her embroidery and her missal or romance, and saw from her lattice window her knight going from the castle with lance and pennon, hoping to meet his foe: how the minstrel recited in the castle hall the feats of arms of this or that hero in some distant battle-field; and how the matron or the maiden heard those feats, and thought with silent joy that it was her lord, her husband, or her lover, whose deeds were thus winning the praises of the troubadour, and the applause of the listening knights and squires. We have all seen in imagination the tournament, with the pomp and splendour of its mimic contests: contests which surpassed the Olympic and Corinthian games of classic antiquity, not only in their gorgeous show, but still more in the presence of the ladies, noble in birth, and fame, and beauty; whose scarf, or glove, the combatants wore as the token of that favour which was their highest incentive to distinguish themselves; and from whose hands the conqueror received the prize of skill and bravery: while the honourably vanquished might be sure that he would have the hardly less welcome lot of being cared for by the same ladies, who never shrank from this their acknowledged and well-fulfilled duty of tending the wounded knight.

Perhaps too we have listened in fancy to the proceedings of the so-called Courts of Parliaments of Love, in which the ladies were wont to hear questions of gallantry gravely argued on both sides by poets pleading in verse, and then to give their judgments according to the logical and metaphysical rules which the schoolmen applied to theological enquiries. But I can now but remind my reader that such things were; and must hasten forward, leaving ungathered flowers that would make many a wreath and nosegay.

The golden age of chivalry was the period from about the middle of the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth century. We may say with Gibbon, that the Crusades were at once a cause and an effect of chivalry. In the Crusades the spirit of knighthood, with all its characteristic features, actuated vast bodies of men of every rank and nation, and found a foe believed by all Christendom to be to it what the individual robber and plunderer was to the knight errant who went forth in his own country to defend or rescue the widow and orphan and their possessions, or the traveller along the road which passed the castle of some powerful though unworthy baron. The chivalry at home was kept alive, and raised to its highest energy, both in man and woman, by the chivalry in the Holy Land. It is in this period that the chief institutions of chivalry took their rise, or reached their full form; while their ruder features were gradually softened with the increasing refinement of the times, till they presented that aspect with which we find them in the days of Edward III and the Black Prince, as drawn by Froissart or Chaucer, or in the romances which were then written or remodelled out of older materials, and which show that even in the estimation of other nations the English court then afforded the pattern of knighthood for Christendom.

Thenceforward the outward forms of chivalry began to decay; very gradually indeed, and not without apparent resuscitations from time to time. But no real revival was possible; for the immortal spirit was seeking new habitations for itself, more fitted to the new world which was succeeding to that of the Middle Ages. And perhaps Cervantes, by helping to tear up with his merciless satire the last remnants of an honest faith in the old forms of chivalry, did as real, though we cannot say as genial, a service to the cause of chivalry itself, as Spenser did in endeavouring to preserve its spirit by transferring it to the region of allegory. The last expiring token of the old spirit in the old forms which I have found, is in the records of the Knights of Malta—the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem—when the news of the great earthquake in Sicily, in 1783, arrived at Malta. Then those poor feeble-minded sybarites remembered for a moment their manhood and their knighthood, and their vows as Hospitallers; they manned their galleys, and, with food and clothing and medicines, and the consolations of their faith, were speedily seen, in their half-military, half-priestly garb—the armour covered by the black robe with the white cross—at the bedsides of the wounded and the dying, as they lay amid the still tottering ruins of their devastated houses. In a very few years, in that same generation, the Order had passed away for ever; but it is pleasant to him who stands in the palace of the Grand Masters among the trophies of their former greatness, or treads the aisles of the cathedral of St. John, where every step is upon the emblazoned gravestone of a knight, to think of this, and not of any less worthy deed, as their last act.

‘The knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword rust:
His soul is with the saints, I trust:’—

but he has left to us an imperishable and a rich inheritance, won for us by him. To him we owe our MANNERS—all that world of existence implied in the names LADY and GENTLEMAN. Through the Middle Ages it was ‘Our Lady,’ the Virgin mother who embodied and represented to all men and women, from the prince to the peasant, their ideals of womanhood and ladyhood. In modern times St. Paul has been held to be the model of a gentleman; in whose acts and writings are found all the principles, maxims, and spirit of a character entirely chivalrous, in the amplest sense of the term: while one of our old dramatists has ventured, in words of touching tenderness and reverence, to point to a yet higher realisation of that ideal;—

                ‘The best of men
That e’er wore earth about him, was a sufferer,
A soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil spirit;
The first true gentleman that ever breathed.’

And it was the transference of these Christian ethics, into the practice of common daily, worldly life, in rude, half-barbarous times, which we owe to the knights and ladies of the Middle Ages; a transference effected slowly, and with much mixture of evil with the good: nor is the work nearly completed yet; but the worth of it can hardly be overrated.

This is not indeed all, but there is much truth in the old motto, ‘Manners makyth man.’ Manners, like laws, create a region and atmosphere of virtue within which all good more easily lives and grows, and evil finds it harder to maintain itself. How large a portion of the small, spontaneous kindnesses of hourly life, in which, after all, so much of our happiness consists, are not only unknown, but impossible, where habitual, unaffected politeness is wanting.

But manners are good, not only as affording a fairer field for the exercise of the higher virtues, but good in themselves. They are a real part of the beauty and grace of our human life. Courtesy, and self-possession, and deference and respect for others; modesty and gentleness towards all men, and recognition in all of the true gold of humanity, whether it bear the guinea stamp or no; love of truth and honour; and not only readiness, but eagerness to help the weak, and defend their cause against the strong; and all these irradiated and glorified, as often as may be, by that sentiment which

‘——gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices;’—

these are the things which make the lady and the gentleman.

And if it should seem as though the chivalry of our own times is reduced to something less noble than that of old, when men risked life, and things dearer than life, in defending the weak and attacking the oppressor in his strongholds—when the hardness of the actual fight against evil-doers was not exaggerated in the romances which pictured the knights contending with dragons and enchanters and giants—we must remember that our nineteenth century world is yet far from cleared of the monstrous powers of evil, which still oppress and devour the weak; and that a battle, not really less resolute, nor, if need be, less desperate, than those of old, is still carried on by those who, under the modest guise of common life, are fighting in the true spirit of chivalry—uniting the most adventurous enthusiasm with the most patient endurance, and both with the gentlest service of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed; and, what is most worthy of admiration, the service of the morally poor, and weak, and oppressed, who, but for such deliverers, must remain in a house of bondage darker than can be built or barred by earthly hands.

But whether we are content with the chivalry of manners, or aspire to a place in the brotherhood of the chivalry of action, our principles, our maxims, and our examples have come down to us as an inheritance from the past:—an inheritance common to all who care to claim it; and won for us by the old knights, fighting in the name of God and of their ladies8.

1.    Sybel’s History of the Crusades, English Translation, p. 11.    [back]

2.    For this distinction I am indebted to my friend the late Rev. F. D. Maurice, whose genius lights up every subject it approaches.    [back]

3.    Valiant.    [back]

4.    Having gone to find adventures in Prussia with the Teutonic knights who carried on war with the still Pagan Lithuania, he had been often placed at the head of the table above the like adventurers from other nations, in compliment to his especial merit.    [back]

5.    Ridden in arms.    [back]

6.    Praise.    [back]

7.    It appears from Morte Arthur, p. 474, that London was the proper place to go to, ‘to buy all manner of things that longed unto a wedding.’    [back]

8.    For facts my principal authorities—whose words I have frequently availed myself of—are Mills’s History of Chivalry, which alone almost exhausts the subject; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Godwin’s Life of Chaucer; Scott’s Essay on Chivalry; Lord Berner’s Froissart; and Southey’s Introduction to Amadis of Gaul.    [back]

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