Courteous combatants

Medieval Knighthood V - The Knight and Chivalry
July 11, 1997

Our understanding of chivalry has come a long way since Richard Barber won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1970 for The Knight and Chivalry. He has done much to advance our knowledge in that time with a number of books and articles which have contributed to dispelling many of the myths surrounding the romantic figure of the medieval knight. He has responded successfully to the need for a new edition of his seminal work that is now comprehensively revised to take account of most (but not all) of the important literature of the intervening period. The result is a book that manages to be accessible and authoritative and is handsomely produced.

As the title suggests, Barber primarily concerns himself with the interaction of the knight with the very real application of chivalry, especially as viewed from the contemporary perspectives of the medieval world, making the book slightly less conceptual in its approach than Maurice Keen's masterly study of 1984.

The book is in five parts: the development of the knight is followed by the links between chivalry and literature, war, religion and the state; over half the writing is devoted to the literary angle and to tournaments. This is therefore a thematic study, not a chronological one; yet by its end the author has skilfully led us from the bruising and belligerent miles of the tenth century to the "intellectual and physical grace" of the renaissance courtier, a change that reminds one of the transformation of the imperial Roman equester ordo from cavalry troops to what Barber describes as "wealthy financiers and administrators who had no military connections whatsoever".

A great strength of the book is that Barber never loses sight of the military raison d'etre of both knight and chivalry, even when discussing religion or courtly manners (though curiously he affords relatively limited space to warfare). He intentionally limits himself by his definition of a knight - "a mounted warrior who enjoys a specific social status and a distinct ethos, which eventually blossoms into the wider culture of chivalry". The knight's predecessor was simply "a mounted warrior". Barber identifies the early 12th century - specifically when the ritual of dubbing took hold - as the point when the transition from one to the other took place. This is the most contentious issue of the book. He offers some plausible evidence (albeit at times two-sided) in support of his argument but, as he admits, "the complex and uncertain image of the 'proto-knight' deserves a study of its own". Quite: one can almost envisage the ghosts of Anglo-Saxon cnihts nodding their helmed heads in acquiescence. Barber's interest in "classic knighthood" is perfectly legitimate - and extremely rewarding to the reader - but to many it will strain the concept of a military elite denoted by its own social, political and martial ethos as existing only from the 1100s. Has this not always been the way of military elites from the Band of Thebes to the military household's (familia) of medieval barons and princes? Barber is overly reliant on social considerations for his assessment; and even here John Gillingham has recently put forward a strong case for a healthy representation of knights among the English gentry in the 11th century.

The culture of chivalry that undoubtedly did flourish from the time Barber stipulates may be just one reflection of the 12th-century renaissance and the wider scope of subjects it offered by increased amounts of vellum circulating in a period of great literary expansion and economic growth. This was a time when society grew more complex and intellectually progressive, so one might expect its glossary to broaden concomitantly. Furthermore, Barber is too narrow in his treatment of the generic emergence of the term miles in literary evidence to lend full support to his argument: a close examination of medieval Latin military terminology reveals the unhelpful synonymity employed by writers; even as late as the 13th century miles could imply a simple foot-soldier.

Elsewhere the author remains on safe - but never dull - ground. He assimilates a good deal of recent research into medieval warfare so as faithfully to portray the knight as a highly efficient professional warrior, aware of military strategy and tactics, who adopts a code of chivalry not least for the cynical cover it afforded him for profit-taking and for the safeguards it bestowed on him in combat: the monetary value of his life and equipment meant that ransom rather than death was the lucrative intention of his opponents. Unsurprisingly, those outside the chivalric code - more than merely the "widows and orphans" that it was meant to encompass, but noncombatants in general - grew disillusioned with the whole selfish concept of chivalry; Barber shows that the dissatisfaction of the common people reached new heights with the excesses of the Hundred Years War.

Barber repeats his message that dubbing ushered in the new era of knighthood in Medieval Knighthood, the latest in an edited series that promotes rigorous research into this area.

His theme is in part taken up and upheld by D'A. J. D. Boulton's revealing piece on the knighting of counts and kings' sons in England between 1066 and 12, where again the differentiation remains determinedly social rather than military, bringing with it its own confusions of social distinctions (earls as "counts"?). The status of knight and/or clerk is yet another area of difficulty: Michael Clanchy's absorbing investigation of Abelard's usage of military vocabulary in his Historia Calamitus and Ad Putter's discussion of knights and clerics in the court of Champagne (1152-1181) usefully highlight the issues posed by the clericus militaris. The hackneyed catch-all of oratores, bellatores et laboratores - those who pray, those who fight and those who labour - is clearly insufficient to capture the connections between the three. That Abelard - or any cleric - should employ militaristic language is easily comprehensible given the links of family and patronage in the first two orders: as Clanchy stresses, Abelard himself was the son of a knight and was imbued with many knightly characteristics. Two papers by Elspeth Kennedy and Ruth Harvey further explore literary and linguistic influences on knights, with Harvey examining the intriguing matter of whether knights had access to the Romance literature of other languages, raising the important question of second-language competence among the noble classes.

Sociolinguistic studies of knighthood need not obscure the primary role of the knight: to fight. Military matters are dealt with here in two important papers by Charles Coulson and Matthew Bennett. Coulson adds to his impressive research record on castellology with his major piece on urban defences in 14th-century England which, adopting earlier themes of his studies, contends that town fortification was prompted more by (yes, here they are again) social factors than by genuine military threats. This summary does not do justice to over 70 pages of detailed argument in which Coulson draws on some impressive evidence (most effective when it is economic and political) in support of his claim. However, persuasive as the article is, Coulson perhaps over-eggs the pudding. Fourteenth-century England was, it is true, a relatively peaceful realm; but, as George Price has argued convincingly in a recent edition of Medieval Life, fortification was a response to real threats: licences to crenellate were predominantly issued in areas faced with raiding and other military dangers. The decline in the military importance of defences was relative and gradual: the Jacobite invasion of England in 1745 stalled at the siege of Carlisle.

Bennett's re-evaluation of the medieval warhorse, the destrier, dispenses with the notion that it was comparable to a shire horse and was instead considerably smaller. He also reiterates much recent research into medieval warfare by underlining the strength of pre-14th century infantry in seeing off a cavalry charge, offering the battle of Hastings, a close-run thing, as a case in point. In fact, as Bennett rightly points out, the knight - chevalier, cavalryman, mounted warrior - was required to fight on foot as well as on horseback, stressing the priority of his military role. What of social standing then?

Sean McGlynn is a research student, London School of Economics.

Medieval Knighthood V

Editor - Stephen Church and Ruth Harvey
ISBN - 0 85115 628 2
Publisher - Boydell and Brewer
Price - £35.00
Pages - 266

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