Dr. Richard Abels,

The United States Naval Academy

 Medieval chivalry is best defined as an aristocratic ethos that prescribed what qualities and attributes a knight ought to possess, and which helped distinguish the military aristocracy of Western Europe in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries from rich commoners and identify them as a social elite. Rather than think of it as an established 'code,' it is best to envision chivalry as an evolving and disputed ethos that lacked a single agreed upon meaning.  

Medieval chivalry, or at least the nineteenth-century understanding of it, has influenced modern, romantic conceptions of honor, especially military honor. Marine Corps seems especially attune to this, as evidenced by its recruiting commercials: 'Once there were men who knew the meaning of honor [visual: close-up of a knight and his sword]--there still are, the Marines! [knight's sword becomes Marine sword, close-up of a Marine]. The ideal of chivalry has attracted generations of young people to the military life. It underlies such movies as "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Top Gun," and even "Rambo."

Chivalry, in each of its incarnations, is an ethical system that emphasizes personal honor. As Maurice Keen wrote: "the most important legacy of chivalry to later times was its conception of honour ... Transaction of honour, a contemporary anthropologist has said, 'provide ... a nexus between the ideals of society and their reproduction in the actions of individuals--honour commits men to act as they should'... Chivalry's most profound influence lay in just this, in setting the seal of approbation on norms of conduct, recognized as noble when reproduced in individual act and style." (Chivalry 249) Chivalry helped fashion the nineteenth-century ideal of the 'gentleman,' in which concepts of courtliness/courtesy, skills in games and war, courage (especially in combat), loyalty to friends, personal honor (public approbation/esteem tied to the avoidance of anything shameful and commitment to doing the right thing, even if it meant risking life and limb), the idea of the 'constant quest to improve on achievement' (M. Keen 15), and individualism were tied together. Chivalry also shaped one aspect of romantic love: the idea that the male could win/be worthy of his 'lady love' by winning approbation through noble/honorable acts.


I. POPULAR MODERN CONCEPTION OF CHIVALRY AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY.  Chivalry today is often used as a term for “gentlemanly” behavior, manifested through courtesy toward the 'fair sex,’ honor, courage, loyalty, physical prowess (the Marine Corps commercials), fighting 'fair' (movies in which hero disarms opponent during a duel, only to hand him back his sword--parodied in Monty Python).

The modern popular idea of 'chivalry' derives from a Romantic image of the Middle Ages created in the late eighteenth century by novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe) and developed in the nineteenth-century by gentlemen enthusiasts such as Kenelm Henry Digby and artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites. It reflected dissatisfaction with modernity, a repudiation of the Enlightenment ideas of rationality, progress, and science and the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. "Chivalry" was associated with nostalgia for a passing or passed age of aristocratic sensibility. This is what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote of the beheading of Marie Antoinette:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette, the French Queen] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. (Reflections on the French Revolution)

 In France in particular, the passion for chivalry and medievalism was a political and cultural statement in support of the Roman Catholic Church in the culture wars of the mid and late nineteenth century. See, e.g., the so-called "Ten Commandments of the code of Chivalry" invented by Leon Gautier (Chivalry, final revised edition 1891). The nineteenth-century English conception of chivalry is represented in the twentieth century by Hollywood movies such as "Ivanhoe" (1952) and "El Cid" (1961). Probably the best example, however, is not even a 'medieval movie,' but a 'Ruritanian' romance, "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937). The conventions of the genre are brilliantly parodied in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1974).

Historical evaluation of the popular conception:
This Romantic conception of chivalry influenced the views on the subject even by professional academic historians in the first half of the twentieth century, who tended to idealize chivalry. Sidney Painter’s French Chivalry: Ideals and Practices in Mediaeval France (1957) is perhaps the best book on chivalry in the traditional vein (even though Painter’s understanding of chivalry was much more sophisticated and infinitely more nuanced than that of Gautier).

The reason that Painter, one of the finest historians of his generation, could be influenced by the Romantic conception of chivalry is that this conception is broadly correct and is derived from the sources. But, as Painter understood, the popular conception of chivalry as the code of a “gentleman” in the modern sense of that word misstates and misinterprets the purposes and meaning of chivalry. Chivalry was an aristocratic ethos, a mode of behavior that distinguished the European nobility from their social inferiors. In the Middle Ages to be a "gentle man" was a matter of birth rather than behavior. Courtesy meant proper behavior at court; it included the ability to please and amuse ladies, but the operant word here is "ladies" (it's a class thing). Loyalty and faith were essential elements, but chivalric loyalty was feudal and Christian. More recent historians such as John Gillingham, David Crouch, Matthew Strickland, Maurice Keen, and Richard Kaeuper have challenged the Victorian conception of chivalry in more basic ways.  Gillingham, Keen, Kaeuper have argued that prowess, which Kaeuper characterizes as the ‘demi-god of chivalry, was the central quality of chivalry, and, as a result, chivalry promoted rather than moderated violence. "Fighting fairly" is a modern misconception of chivalry. Medieval warfare, as John Gillingham and others have demonstrated, was characterized by pillaging and ravaging; it was directed against civilian populations. Battles were avoided. Strickland has shown, however, that ideas of chivalry were taken very seriously on the occasions that knights fought other knights. Then certain rules were expected to be followed. Chivalry dictated, for example, that quarter be given to defeated knights. Once a captured knight had given his word (parole), he would be released on the promise that he would pay the agreed upon ransom. On the other hand, foot soldiers were killed as a matter of course, and ambush and maneuver were considered consistent with chivalry, as was the massacre of the civilian populations of towns that were taken by storm. The limitations on how one fought mostly belonged to the sphere of the tournament (military games modeled on battle in the 12th century; aristocratic, military pageantry by the 14th century) rather than to warfare. David Crouch’s contribution to the historiography of chivalry is his insight that chivalry in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries was designed as a system of values and conduct for courtiers in noble courts, facilitating their competition with one another for their lords’ favor.

Perhaps the most important insight made by modern historians, beginning with Painter and elaborated upon by both Keen and Kaeuper, is that chivalry was a contested ethos. There was never one agreed upon “code of chivalry.” For some recent historians “chivalry” is best understood as a modern historical construct, not unlike “feudalism.” In the words of Constance Bouchard,

There was no single standard (or “code”) which people of the [twelfth century] always meant when they referred to chivalrous (or courteous) behavior. … In fact, the idea of a fixed “code of chivalry” which medieval aristocrats all knew and tried to observe is a modern, not a medieval invention. Some idealized standard for aristocrats first appeared in literary works at the very beginning of the twelfth century (about a hundred years after the appearance of knights and castles) and had become a common motif by the last decades of that century, but there were no conscious attempts to create explicit definitions of chivalry until the second half of the thirteenth century. … [However] over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries both the authors of the literature and the nobles themselves seemed to be moving toward a vague consensus. (Bouchard, Strong of Body 104, 109)

This “vague consensus” included a set of qualities generally acknowledged as enhancing the honor (public reputation) of a knight and necessary for him to be deemed a preudomme (the most common term used to designate a chivalric knight): prowess, loyalty, courage, courtesy, mesure (self restraint), a concern for honor, and piety. Chivalric qualities, however, could and did come into conflict and in those cases which of them ought to take precedence was a matter of discussion and debate. Essentially, each medieval author of a romance, chanson de geste (epic poem), or handbook of chivalry had his or her own conception of what ‘perfect chivalry’ entailed. The success of that author depended on how well he or she could convince the target audience, a noble court, of the rightness of that conception. Again, rather than think of “chivalry” as an established 'code,' it is best to understand it as an evolving and disputed ethos that lacked a single agreed upon meaning. The advocates of royal and clerical authority tried to shape it, but the ultimate shapes that it took in practice were due to the choices made by the knights themselves.


The knight (heavily armored horse soldier serving a lord, a member of the medieval nobility). In the ideal twelfth-century tripartite division of society, knights were "those who fight for us.”  Although the Latin term miles (literally, ‘soldier’), usually translated in the medieval context as ‘knight,’ had a functional connotation in the tenth and eleventh centuries, denoting a man who fought on horseback, by the early twelfth century knighthood had become associated with nobility. In thirteenth-century England, knighthood was a social rank entered into through a ceremony (‘accolade of knighthood’) and which carried with it military and financial obligations to the Crown. As the costs of the knighting ceremony grew and the obligations began to outweigh the perceived benefits, those who possessed landed estates qualifying them for the rank of knighthood (i.e. land rendering £ 20 or more per annum) began to refuse the honor. From 1224 on English kings issued writs of ‘distraint of knighthood,’ requiring those with sufficient property to become a knight to do so or pay a fine. By the the fourteenth-century, those with the rank of knight formed a minority among those who fought on horseback, who were now generically known as ‘men at arms.’

Feudalism: much debated historical construct of a socio-political system characterized by a warrior ruling elite bound to one another hierarchically through a web of personal bonds (lordship) reinforced by tenurial bonds (fiefs, i.e. property held by a subordinate noble (‘vassal’) from a superior, his lord, in return for the service, in particular the service of an owed quota of knights). Medieval historians now tend to avoid the term ‘feudalism.’

Courtesy: behavior and manners appropriate to members of a court.

Reciprocity (ethos that obliges people to treat others as they themselves have been treated: benefit friends, injure enemies);

Honor (one's public status, reputation--also refers to one's lands and rights).

Basic medieval framework: hierarchy, custom/tradition, corporate rather than individualistic, Christianity, personal rather than abstract relations



1. The term 'chivalry' derives from the French word for knight, chevalier, an aristocratic warrior, presumably of noble-birth, equipped with heavy armor and warhorse. The warhorse is essential; the literal meaning of chevalier is horsemen. Medieval chivalry was a) martial, b) aristocratic, c) courtly. It also was French. Though the 'code of chivalry' prevailed throughout Western Europe in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, it was France that served as the center of chivalric culture.

2. The earliest usage of 'chivalry' (in eleventh- and early twelfth-century texts) was to denote the collective body of chevaliers. The "chivalry" of a prince was the troop of knights who served him. By extension, "chivalry" denoted the knighthood as a separate and specific order within the Christian community. In the latter sense "the chivalry" was synonymous with knighthood.

3. By the early twelfth century the term 'chivalry' also came to stand for the values, ethos, and manners appropriate to the knightly class. These mores derived from 1) feudal obligations, 2) demands made by life in princely courts, 3) the teachings of the Christian clergy. By the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century the ideal of the loyal, courageous, and effective warrior had been refashioned into the IDEAL OF THE KNIGHTLY COURTIER--MANNERS, ELOQUENCE, URBANITY, MUSICAL AND LINGUISTIC ABILITY, AND KNOWLEDGE OF HOW TO SPEAK TO AND PLEASE LADIES became essential aspects of the chivalric knight (see Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, c. 1210, and the works of Chretien de Troyes, e.g. Yvain, ca. 1180).

4. FULL-BLOWN MODEL OF CHIVALRIC VALUES, ETHICS, AND MORALS (fusion of feudal/martial, courtly, and Christian values): RAYMOND LULL (1235-1315), courtier, poet, theologian, mystic, and missionary, SUMMED UP the qualities of the Chivalric knight in his BOOK ON THE ORDER OF CHIVALRY (ca. 1270). The right reason to become a knight is to do right; the wrong reason is for advantage and rank. A proper chivalric knight MUST be 1. able-bodied; 2. of good lineage; 3. have sufficient wealth to support his rank; 4. wise (to judge his inferiors and supervise their labors; to advise his lord); 5. generous (holds open house within the limits of his means); 6. loyal; 7. courageous; 8. honorable. His ethical duties are 1. to defend the Christian faith, 2. to defend his lord, 3. to protect the weak (women, children); 4. to exercise constantly by hunting and jousting in tournaments; 5. to judge the people and supervise their work (the knight acts here as a royal agent and servant); 6. to pursue robbers and evil-doers. A chivalrous knight must avoid 1) pride, 2) lechery, 3) false oaths, 4) and especially treachery (=betraying one's lord, sleeping with his wife, or surrendering his castle).

5. LATE MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY. The basic aspects of thirteenth-century chivalry remained unchanged into the sixteenth century. The 'practice' of chivalry, however, became more and more elaborate. Tournaments evolved from war games into pageants, princes created chivalric orders with elaborate ceremonies, rituals, and show, noble lineage was emphasized through the science of heraldry, and the chivalric knight conformed to a model of behavior that, as one historian put it, was 'exhibitionist and extravagant--often to the point of vulgarity.' BUT the 15th and 16th centuries were still an age in which ritual was vital to expressing social obligations. The flamboyance and munificence of the displays, moreover, was an expression of the dignity of the noble estate; it reflected in economic terms a growing divide between a small noble elite of vast wealth and a much larger petty nobility that sought to make up for sagging seigneurial revenues through service in court (pensions, wages, livery, gifts). It also emphasized the gulf in values between those who fought and those who worked, even if the latter happened to be wealthier than the former.

6. MEDIEVAL CHIVALRY fused three essential aspects of medieval knighthood: WAR, CHRISTIANITY, NOBILITY.



1. By the year 1000 churchmen such as Bishop Adalbero of Laon had divided Christian society into three orders based upon function: those who pray (for us), those who fight (for us), and those who work (for us). The second of these "orders" (or "estates," as they were to be called in France in 1789) was the knighthood/nobility.

2. The knighthood as a social class/order (as opposed to a theoretical construction) came into being in France during the course of the eleventh century through the fusion of two groups: a) the great magnates who claimed descent from the Carolingian (i.e. Charlemagne's) nobility (termed nobiles) and who possessed enormous landed wealth; b) a petty nobility of warrior-retainers (milites), whose "freedom" (i.e., privileges and exemptions from tribute and labor services) derived from the military service they rendered to the magnates. By 1100 in much of France the great landowners as well as their military retainers adopted the title "miles" (knight) to denote their status. This reflected the notion that all those who fought, leaders as well as followers, formed a single group, economically heterogeneous, to be sure, but bound together by shared culture and values. The development of an elaborate dubbing ceremony as a ritual of initiation into knighthood reflects the definition of knighthood as an order in a Christian society.

3. The historical context for the fusion of these groups into the "knighthood" was the emergence of the heavily armored horse soldier as the dominant force in warfare ca. 1000. Power was based, ca. 1000 in France, upon the possession of a castle and the military resources to garrison it, to keep the local peasantry in line, and to defend one's 'lordship' (the territory controlled by the castle) against other predators. The result was a sort of 'thugarchy' in which landed noblemen relied upon warrior retainers, often household men, to dominate and exploit the peasants. Thus the lord's knights would conduct cavalcades upon horseback through the villages 'to show the flag' to the peasants.

4. The horse as a symbol of nobility is understandable in light of the cost of specially bred warhorses (a warhorse in the 15th century cost a knight the equivalent of six-month wages in royal service) and of the training necessary to fight effectively on horseback.

5. By 1100 the 'thugarchy' had stabilized. Nobles tied themselves hierarchically to one another through the bonds of feudalism, which complemented and even superseded ties of kinship. The result was a political society of aristocratic, warrior landholders who formed a nobility of service. Every nobleman held land from a superior, whom he served in war. In theory noble society was stratified into various levels--king, dukes/earls/counts, viscounts, barons, landed knights, household knights--, but the reality was a fluid society in which one's status derived not only from birth and personal qualities but from the ability to maintain and increase familial wealth and resources.

6. The medieval knight, then, was above all else, a horseman, a soldier, a retainer (vassal), and a nobleman. Chivalry was the code of behavior of this class. In essence, it represents the ethos of a military, Christian aristocracy.

7. Chivalry helped differentiate the military, landed aristocracy from the wealthy burghers of the new towns/cities that were emerging in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Interestingly, in Italy, where the landed aristocracy moved into the cities and merged with the urban patriciate, French chivalric culture was adopted by the urban elite.

The knight's hostility to the merchant and to his commercial ethos is best represented by the Poitevin baron-troubadour Bertran de Born (ca. 1185): "And it will be good to live [when the princes go to war], for one will take the property of usurers and there will no longer be a peaceful pack-horse on the roads, all the townsmen will tremble; the merchant will no longer be safe on the road to France."

BUT one must distinguish here between the public ethos of knights and barons and the actual attitudes and economic practices of the great twelfth- and thirteenth-century barons. Historian David Crouch points out that early in the twelfth century “the highest of Norman aristocrats, Waleran, count of Meulan, did not find it beneath him to take an active interest in the wine trade which passed through his lands on the way to England and the herring fleets that used his ports. Such great men did not market their own produce, but in forming close relations with the men who had the skills to do it for them they entered a world that some of them did not seem to find uncongenial. The world of commerce had its own excitements and dangers, and for the magnates with resources to exploit it was one way to accumulate the sacks of coins that made so much else possible. The Marshal [William Marshal] was alert enough to his commercial interests to indulge in town development to improve his lordship of Leinster [in Ireland], with boroughs developed or improved at Kilkenny, Carlow and New Ross” (Crouch, William Marshal, p. 178.)



1. THE MARTIAL/FEUDAL ELEMENT: LOYALTY AND PROWESS. Chivalric values reflected the needs of a feudal society. The key values here was loyalty, specifically loyalty to one's lord, and martial skill. In the central ritual of feudalism, the ceremony of homage and fealty, a vassal (subordinate noble) swore on holy relics to be loyal to his lord. This pledge of loyalty often occurred within the context the acceptance of a fief, i.e. land or some other source of revenue held by a vassal from his lord in return for specified military service. An important point to be made here is that the lord-vassal relationship was governed by the ethos of reciprocity. One ought not to think of the bond as contractual; rather it established a social relationship of 'friendship,' of mutual aid and benefits.

PROWESS meant the ability to fight well on horseback, a critically important quality in this society of warrior retainers. The measure of a chivalrous knight was his ability to fight and his willingness to subordinate his own will and interests to those of his sworn lord. The highest compliment that could be paid to a knight was to call him preux, a man of proved prowess. This aspect of chivalry had its own poet, the late twelfth-century troubadour knight Bertran de Born. One of his poems, “War Cry,” expresses well the love of violence that a knight was supposed to have:

     And it pleases me too
   when a lord is first to the
   attack on his horse, armed,
   without fear; for thus he
   inspires his men with valiant
   courage. when the battle is
   joined, each man must be
   ready to follow him with
   pleasure, for no one is
   respected until he has taken
   and given many blows.

   At the beginning of the
   battle we shall see clubs
   and swords, colorful
   helmets, shields pierced
   and smashed, and many
   vassals striking together, so
   that horses of the dead and
   wounded will wander
   aimlessly. And when he
   enters the fray, let every
   man of rank think only of
   hacking heads and arms,
   for a dead man is worth
   more than a live loser.

   I tell you, eating or drinking
   or sleeping hasn't such
   savor for me as the
   moment I hear both sides
   shouting "Get 'em!" and I
   hear riderless horses
   crashing through the
   shadows, and I hear men
   shouting "Help! Help!" and
   I see the small and the
   great falling in the grassy
   ditches, and I see the dead
   with splintered lances,
   decked with pennons,
   through their sides.

The importance of prowess cannot be overemphasized. In all models of medieval chivalry, whether aristocratic, clerical, or royal, prowess is an essential characteristic. As both Maurice Keen  (Chivalry) and Richard Kaeuper (Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe) observe, chivalry was not an attempt to end violence but to channel it. In doing so, it legitimized violence.

LOYALTY. The reason that loyalty was emphasized was that, in practice, the interests of a lord and his vassals often came into conflict. This was especially true among lords and their landed vassals. In a world that had no effective central authority to enforce contracts, trustworthiness was a key value. In the homage and fealty ceremony vassals pledged their loyalty upon holy relics in an attempt to reinforce the public promise through supernatural sanctions. Modern marriage, in which spouses pledge lifelong fidelity to one another in the presence of God, provides a good analogy here. Because marital fidelity is a matter of individual choice and is not enforced by the state through its laws and police, adultery is not uncommon in our society, though it may be looked upon with disapproval. Nor are marriages always for life, no matter what has been pledged during the marriage ceremony. Similarly, feudal loyalties were often ignored as nobles pursued their own familial interests, and, on occasion, the lordship bond itself was renounced. "Defiance" was a formal ceremony in which a vassal renounced his fidelity; it may be thought of as analogous to divorce.

2. THE COURTLY COMPONENT: COURTLINESS (CORTOISIE), MODERATION, AND LARGESSE. Chivalric values also reflect the needs of a courtly society. The 12th century witnessed the rebirth of court life. This new culture of the court meant that the knight had to know how to conduct himself in the drawing room as well as on the battlefield. A "gentle man," a man of noble birth, now came to mean a courtly man, one who knows how to behave politely as befits a courtier. The skills of the chivalrous knight: kill one's enemy and please the ladies.

The qualities of courtliness. Courtesy, or courtliness, was the behavior deemed proper for court life. The central ideal was "elegance/beauty of manners" (Gottfried of Strassburg, Tristan), the elements of which were SELF-RESTRAINT, CALCULATED UNDERPLAYING OF TALENTS (the point of which is to magnify these accomplishments by first concealing and then minimizing them, so that onlookers will respond with awe and admiration), CONSIDERATENESS, AFFABILITY, GENTLENESS OF SPIRIT/HUMILITY (mansuetudo: benevolent passivity to friends and foes alike, willingness to suffer abuse patiently, an affectation of humility associated with aristocratic deference (source was Cicero) ELOQUENCE, SKILL IN LANGUAGES AND MUSIC. (N.B. similarity to Castiglione's courtier; Renaissance did NOT invent the 'courtier'!)  

3. CHRISTIAN CHIVALRY. The Christian contribution to chivalry involved the redefinition of warfare and knighthood. The Peace and Truce of God movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries attempted to define peace as the natural condition of the Christian community. War was to be limited both in scope and duration (selective pacifism). The other side of the coin was Crusade, the sanctification of war against the enemies of God (Holy War/Crusade).

Like the twelfth-century kings, dukes, and counts, the Christian clergy were interested in domesticating the military nobility and moderating their violence. The "New Chivalry" (a term coined ca. 1128 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian abbot and Church reformer) were to be the soldiers of Christ: the knight who fights for religion commits no evil but does good for his people and himself. He dies a martyr and gains heaven; if he kills his opponent, he avenges Christ. Win/win. The personification of the “New Chivalry” for St. Bernard was the new Military Orders of “monk-knights,” in particular the Order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Templars. In the century after St. Bernard, this idea of Christian chivalry merged with courtly and martial ideals to produce the full-blown Christian chivalry of Raymond Lull (see above).

Knightly piety, however, differed significantly from clerical piety, even St. Bernard’s ideal of the “New Chivalry” and Ramon Lull’s more secularized version of it. Certainly, knights felt the tension between the pull of chivalry, with its emphasis upon prowess exhibited through warfare and in tournament, and the clerical condemnations of both violence perpetrated upon other Christians, whether in war or in tournaments. One of the explanations for the popularity of Crusading among the medieval nobility was that it was penitential warfare that promised remission of sins not by renouncing violence but by directing it against the enemies of God and the Church. The unease that nobles in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries felt about engaging in noble pursuits such as war, tournaments, feasting, and sexual liaisons that the clergy taught them would condemn them to hell if left unatoned lay behind the establishment of and patronage given to monasteries by these lords. The expectation was that the monks would respond to the generosity of their benefactors by naming them in their prayers and interceding with the monastery’s saint on their behalf. Some nobles even sought to enter monasteries in their old age or assume the monastic habit upon their deathbed in order to be granted the privilege of being buried among the monks in the monastic cemetery. Richard Kaueper has shown (Holy Warrior: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry, 2009), however, that this unease is only one part of the story. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the lay nobility developed their own conception of “knightly piety” that valorized all military service to lords, earthly as well as divine, as penitential. In this ideology, the knight “imitated Christ” by exposing himself to hardships, injury, and possible death in the performance of his knightly duties. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century nobles, moreover, often regarded their own order, ‘those who fight for us,’ as socially superior to the clergy. Clergy and monks were looked down upon because they lacked masculine chivalric qualities. The necessity of the sacraments for salvation was, of course, acknowledged, but some nobles treated their household chaplains like the ‘auto mechanics’ of the soul, as servants providing them with spiritual tune-ups.

William Marshal’s ‘art of dying’ provides insight into the piety of one early thirteenth-century English baron who during his life was considered to be “the best knight in the world:

William Marshal (1147-1219) was an English household knight who distinguished himself through his prowess in war and in tournament and through a reputation for unfailing loyalty (see below, section VII). Marshal’s loyal service to King Henry II earned him the hand of a wealthy heiress, Isabel de Clare, from King Richard the Lionheart and the title of Earl of Pembroke from King John. His loyalty to the latter led the dying John to name William as guardian and regent to his young son King Henry III. William proved successful in leading the armies of the young king to success against the invading French. In March of 1219 William fell very ill. Realizing that he was dying, William accompanied by his eldest son William and his household knights retired to his estate at Caversham (Oxfordshire), where he summoned a meeting of the magnates of the realm, including Henry III, the papal legate, and the royal justiciar (Hugh de Burgh), and Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester (the young king's guardian). Rejecting the bishop's claim to the regency, William entrusted the young king into the care of the papal legate.

Marshal’s deathbed gifts to the Church. Marshal during his life had founded three monasteries, two of them in Ireland. The one English monastery was at Cartmel in northern England, the first estate that he had earned in the service of King Henry II, which, according to the foundation charter, he established upon his marriage to Countess Isabel de Clare for the good of his soul, those of his wife and his parents, and those of his lords Henry the Young King, King Henry II, and King Richard. Surprisingly, William’s deathbed bequests to the Church were modest. The legacies he left to monasteries came to a mere 33 pounds to Notley abbey; 10 marks (6 pounds 13s.4d) to the cathedral of Leinster. The most significant gift he made to the Church was that of himself. Fulfilling a vow he made while in crusade in the East, William became a Knight Templar and arranged to buried at the church of the New Temple in London. He gave a manor in Hertforshire to the Templars as a gift, by far his most generous gift to any ecclesiastical institution.


Marshal and the demands of the clergy

A couple of weeks before he died, he was lying in bed surrounded by his household knights. One of them, Henry fitzGerold reminded William that he should be thinking about his soul and that the clerks taught that one cannot be saved unless one gives back all that he has taken from others. “Henry, do not be too hard on me,” responded William Marshal, “the clerks are very severe on us and shave us too close. I have captured 500 knights in my lifetime and have kept their arms, their charges and their harness. But now I can do no more than give myself to God, repenting for all the wrong that I have done. If God’s kingdom is withheld from me on this account I must resign myself. Unless the monks wish to banish me altogether, they must pursue me no further. Either their argument is false or no man can be saved.” John of Earley responded to this, “what you say is true and I can guarantee that not one of your neighbors could say as much at the end of his life. Crosland 148-9.

The day before William died one of his chaplains, Philip, advised him to sell his rich robes in the wardrobe and to use the money for charity to benefit his soul. "Be silent mischievous man," William berated the cleric. "You have not the heart of a gentleman, and I have had too much of your advice. Pentecost is at hand, and my knights ought to have their new robes. This will be the last time that I will supply them, yet you seek to prevent me from doing it." Marshal then ordered that more robes be purchased in London so that none of his men would go without. Painter 287-88; Crouch 145; Crosland 151


Marshal's death

Midday 14 May 1219. To John of Earley: "Summon the countess and the knights, for I am dying. I can wait no longer, and I wish to take leave of them." To wife and household: "I am dying. I commend you to God. I can no longer be with you. I cannot defend myself from death."

The abbot of Reading told the dying earl, "Sire, the legate salutes you. He sends you word by me that last night at Cirencester he had a vision about you. God had given to St.Peter and his successors, the popes, the power to bind and unbind all sinners. By virtue of this power, delegated to him by the pope, the legate absolves from all the sins you have committed since your birth which you duly confessed." Plenary indulgence from pope. Wm confessed, was absolved and died.

The body was carried to Reading abbey and placed in a chapel that Wm had founded. Mass was said, and the corpse was then taken to Staines, where the great barons of the realm met the procession. The bier was carried to Westminster abbey, where another mass was celebrated, and finally interred in the Temple church.

Postscript: years later, about 1240 or so, the body was moved and the tomb opened. The body was putrid with decay. Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler who wrote around 1260, regarded this as evidence of William's sins. William Marshal had died an excommunicant (by the Irish Bishop of Ferns). While John of Earley had no doubt about William's final resting place, it is obvious that not all of his contemporaries agreed.



The emergence of “courtly” aristocratic society in the second half of the twelfth century.

By the twelfth century feudal society revolved around the courts of kings, counts, and other barons. These courts moved with the lord as he peregrinated through his various estates and castles (a necessity for 1) keeping order and control, and 2) for feeding a household that could number in the hundreds). A lord's court included his close kin (wife, children, brothers--those who slept in the chambers of the castle), other members of his household (bachelor knights, chaplains, domestic servants), and landed vassals whom he had summoned to escort or serve him. The status of a lord was reflected by the size and magnificence of his household. Tournaments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were opportunities for lords to display their wealth and position. Their social standing was enhanced by their displays, their largesse, and by the success of their knights in the competition. Vassals, on the other hand, earned these rewards through chivalric deeds and performances.

As David Crouch observed about these knightly courtiers, “Ambition and the need for security were the motivating forces that kept courtiers in attendance on their lord, and shaped their behavior” (191). The twelfth century was a period of economic growth and monetary inflation.  The higher nobility, kings, counts, dukes, earls, were able to benefit from these economic changes, as they founded or improved towns and markets on their lands and made arrangements with merchants that enriched both sides. It is little wonder that among the greatest patrons of chivalry were the counts of Flanders and Champagne, the former the center of a thriving textile industry, and the latter, the setting for the great Fairs of Champagne at which merchants from Flanders and Italy met and made commercial deals.  Lesser noblemen, those with only one or a few castles, on the other hand, lost out.  Because the rents they received from their tenants were fixed by custom, they could not benefit from the rise in food prices and the growth of a commodity market. Indeed, many converted their demesne lands into rented land because they needed ready cash. The signs of nobility—clothing, food, armor—had become more expensive at the same time that the lesser nobility had become poorer. Many of these knights were much poorer than merchants and other members of the urban patriciate, although they continued to view them as “serfs” and “peasants.” (The troubadour knight Bertran de Born once again sums up the feelings of this class of castellans: “It pleases me immensely when I see rotten rich people suffer, the ones who make trouble for noblemen, and it pleases me when I see them destroyed, twenty or thirty from day to day, when I find them without clothes, and begging for bread. A peasant has the habits of a pig, for he is bored by noble living; when a man rises to great riches, his wealth drives him mad. So you must keep his pockets empty in all seasons, spend what's his, and expose him to wind and rain. Whoever doesn't ruin his peasant sustains him in disloyalty. So a man's a fool.”

The best economic hope for these lesser nobles was the patronage of magnates, which is one reason that even landed knights attended the courts of their lords. The greater the noble, the more wealth and patronage he had at his disposal, and the more splendid the court as measured by the quality of men he attracted to it.

An important obligation of vassalage was attendance upon command in the lord's court (reflected in the King Arthur stories). Vassals were supposed to provide their lords with good advice and to help arbitrate disputes among the lords' vassals. Of equal importance to the lord was keeping tabs on those to whom he had given land and upon whose support he depended for his own security. In return for their good service in court, knights could expect gifts and rewards. The greater the lord, the greater his resources for patronage.

Landed vassals would come and go, but the heart of the lord's court, other than his blood relations, was his household (or bachelor) knights. These were often younger sons who inherited status but not property; they served in hopes of earning rewards (gifts, robes, horses, etc.) and, if very fortunate, fiefs. Great men, counts, dukes, and earls, often counted lesser landed knights among their household retainers.

In addition to the household knights one would also find young children in court. These were foster sons, the children of other noblemen sent to the lord's court to learn the art of being a knight. The ties of foster parentage created additional bonds that supplemented those of kinship and feudalism.

Courts were supposed to reflect the power and glory of a lord. Those who entered a noble's household came within the sphere of his protection. To injure one under a lord's protection was to insult that lord. The problem faced by lords was how to maintain peace and order within large households, filled with belligerent young men competing with one another for favor. One solution was to punish harshly those who broke the peace. Another was to foster a code of behavior that was conducive to the maintenance of peace. Cortoisie (courtliness) was a set of behaviors that permitted constant competition among young knights while restraining them from killing each other. It moderated the ethos of revenge. It served to domesticate the knights while preserving their martial values.

A. THE ROMANO-GERMAN SOURCES OF COURTLINESS: CICERO REINTERPRETED: Though "courtesy" was associated strongly with French culture in the twelfth and thirteenth century, recent research (by Stephen Jaeger) has traced the origins of courtliness to German episcopal courts (i.e. the households of bishops) in the tenth and eleventh centuries. German bishops were imperial servants, who were trained for their offices through service as chaplains in the emperor's household. Jaeger summarized his views by saying: "courtliness is medieval Europe's memory of the Roman statesman, of his humanity and urbane skillfulness in guiding the state and in facing the trIals of public life. ... In its social history it first emerges attached to that institution which was and saw itself as the continuator of the Roman empire: the German imperial courts." The single greatest intellectual influence on the construction of the mores of courtliness was Cicero, especially his writings "On Duties" and "On Friendship."

B. LARGESSE. Largesse meant generosity to one's friends (lords, vassals, kinsmen, colleagues) and charity to the poor and the Church. Generosity was an essential quality of the chivalric knight. It was an ethical demand that arose from the ethos of reciprocity: friends were to be rewarded and aided, just as wrongs were to be avenged and enemies hurt. It was also an essential demand of courtly life. Lords imposed their will over their men and demonstrated their power and authority through the distribution of gifts and favors. Vassals, in turn, demonstrated their love of their lord and gratitude for his favors by serving him loyally and by magnifying his reputation through their deeds. The great English household knight William Marshal (1147-1219) was noted for his spontaneous generosity; he acquired wealth in order to distribute it to friends. Bertran de Born, Marshal's contemporary, wrote poems in which he praised generosity above all other chivalric virtues except for prowess (but, then again, he was of a class that depended upon the patronage of counts and kings).

VII. PRACTICAL CHIVALRY IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY: WILLIAM MARSHAL. (Based on John Gillingham,  “War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal", Thirteenth Century England v.2 (1991): 1-13; David Crouch, William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn. London: Longman, 2002)

William Marshal was the fourth son of John fitz Gilbert, hereditary marshal of--keeper of the horses-- of the Anglo-Norman kings . William was born ca. 1147, John's second son by his second wife, Sybil (whom he married in 1145), the sister of Earl Patrick of Salisbury. John was a local baron in southwestern England (Wiltshire and Berkshire), who had considerable local clout, especially during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Mathilda.  As a younger son of a local baron, William was destined to be a serving knight.  He was a household retainer of various lords (including the Angevin kings: Henry the Young King and his father Henry II) and distinguished himself for his prowess in tournaments and war and his loyalty to his masters.  It was not until 1187, when he was forty years old that he received a landed endowment. Henry II gave him the lordship of Cartmel in northwestern England.  He was granted the hand of Isabel de Clare, heiress of Earl Richard (Strongbow) of Striguil in 1189. From 1189-1219, William was de facto Earl of Pembroke (in southwestern Wales) and Striguil (in the Welsh 'marches,' i.e. frontier), lord of Longueville in Normandy, Earl of Leinster (southeastern Ireland) [title of 'earl' granted by King John, 1199]; regent for Henry III's minority (1216-1219).
          William Marshal has received a great deal of attention from modern historians; there have been four major biographies of him since 1933.  The reason for this is an extraordinary primary source, the  Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal (History of William the Marshal), a long (19,214 line) poem composed by "John the Troubadour" c. 1224-6 for William's son Earl William II. The poem had been long lost and was only rediscovered in 1860.  The author's intention, of course, was to glorify William Marshal and to present him as the "flower of chivalry," and the reader of the poem needs to remember that this is a literary work rather than an historical study. None the less, the author did the necessary research, interviewing members of the dead Earl's mesnie (household), most notably John of Earley (or Erley), William's squire, household knight, and closest friend. He also appears to have consulted charters and perhaps even contemporary chronicles. In short, this is an extraordinary source, one of the few biographies of a non-king or non-saint written in the thirteenth century, which explains why William has attracted so much historical attention.  Excerpts from this poem dealing with war and tournaments are posted by the "De Re Militari Society" (the Society's webpage is by far the best online resource for medieval warfare). There are now two translations of this work.  The first is a facing translation in a new edition of the work commissioned by the Anglo-Norman Text Society:
History of William Marshal, ed. A.J. Holden, S. Gregory & D. Crouch, 3 volumes (2002-6), which is often out of print. The second is a translation by Nigel Bryant for Boydell Press.

          The Histoire presents William Marshal as a preudomme, in the words of David Crouch,  as a “practised, intelligent soldier and man of affairs” (Crouch 187).  The poet (and undoubtedly William himself) attributed his success to his possession of exceptional chivalric qualities. Most visible were the feudal qualities: prowess and loyalty. William was an exceptional warrior, who demonstrated his extraordinary prowess in combat (demonstrated both in tournaments and in warfare). He also cultivated a reputation for loyalty by faithfully serving until the bitter end a series of lords on the losing side. He was at the deathbeds of both the Young King Henry and his father King Henry II, and in the case of the former, he even fulfilled the Young King’s vow to go on crusade. (But see below for a more nuanced view of Marshal’s vaunted loyalty.)  William’s “chivalry” was performed also in his lords’ courts. The Histoire portrays William as the consummate coutier. He is praised on several occasions as corteis (courtly),  raisnables (reasonable in his behavior), and prudent or wise. He was affable to his lords and his peers, and apparently was accomplished at telling self-deprecating stories about his accomplishments (which both emphasized his accomplishments and took the curse of them by laughing at himself). Above all William demonstrated mesure, the quality of self-restraint and moderation in word and deed—the quality that Raoul of Cambrai so conspicuously lacked in the epic named after him. When asked to sing by a group of ladies at a tournament, William, like Tristan in Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem, at first demurred but when he finally gave him, he sang beautifully.  William demonstrated a different type of mesure in his dealings with King John. William came into conflict with King John in 1204 because of William’s perceived double-dealing with John’s enemy King Philip Augustus of France (see below). No longer welcomed at court, William withdrew to his lands in Ireland, where by virtue of his marriage to Isabel de Clare he was earl of Leinster.  Unfortunately, this also brought him into conflict with the king, since John was “Lord of Ireland” and John’s men were in possession of much of William’s Irish lands.  The result was a war between William’s supporters and John’s. John responded by summoning William to court, reasoning that the earl’s cause would collapse in his absence. This failed because of the loyalty of William’s men, in particular his squire and friend John of Earley. To deprive William of his military support in Ireland, King John then summoned John of Earley and William’s other two bailiffs to England. Since they held lands “in chief” (directly from the king), a failure to answer the summons meant the loss of their lands. Nevertheless, they chose loyalty to their lord over their private interests and refused the summons. John responded by confiscating their lands and taunted William that his men seemed to fare poorly in his service. When this failed to get a rise out of Marshal, John invented a story about how two of his bailiffs had been killed attempting to lift the siege of Kilkenny and the third, John of Earley, lay mortally wounded. This was a flat out lie; the Irish sea was impassable then (January) and no ship had arrived for months from Ireland. William quietly responded to the ‘news’: “What a pity about the knights, sire, for they were your men too, which makes the business all the more regrettable.” William’s refusal to show any anger or discomfort in the face of provocation is the very essence of mesure. The only courtly qualities not emphasized in the Histoire are those that have to do with the courting of women. William loyally and deferentially served a number of noblewomen, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, but he is never shown flirting with them. In fact, when William was accused of adultery with the Young King’s wife by jealous rivals in Henry’s household, his response was anger and horror. William Marshal undoubtedly heard poems about Lancelot or Tristan but in real life he had no desire to emulate them.


The career of William Marshal reveals the complexities of twelfth-century aristocratic society and the pragmatic aspects of chivalry.  For the latter, we may consider two stories in the Histoire:

1. The author of the Histoire tells a story about how William Marshal, on his way to rendezvous near Paris with two friends who were also rushing to support the Young King, encountered a runaway monk and a noble lady in the forest. After questioning them and discovering that the monk planned to support himself and the lady by money-lending, William took their money (£48) in order to prevent the monk from committing the sin of usury.  Upon meeting up with his companions at a tavern, William told them the story and divided up the money. They urged him to catch up with the eloping couple and take their horses and baggage, but William decided against this course of action.  David Crouch points out that if William had wished to stop the elopement and the future usury, he could have taken the monk to the nearest archdeacon. That he chose not to do so is interesting. One, in fact, might see this as a mugging.  The justification that William apparently gave for his actions—to prevent the sin of usury—doesn’t hold water. In 1201 King John gave William Marshal a Norman Jew, Vives de Chambray. The gift of a Jew was in practice a gift of the profits that came from the Jew’s moneylending, Whatever the poet of the Histoire wanted his audience to think about William Marshal, the real William Marshal had no scruples about benefiting personally from usury.


2. In 1203-1204 King Philip Augustus of France militarily seized the duchy of Normandy and the county of Anjou from King John of England. The justification for this was King John’s refusal to answer a summons to the Parisian court of his nominal overlord for the lands he held in France.  This placed King John’s barons into a dilemma. Many held lands on both sides of the Channel. If they remained loyal to King John, they would lose their lands in Normandy and Anjou. If they did homage to King Philip for their French possessions, they faced the confiscation of their estates in England. William Marshal, whom the poet of the Histoire and modern historians like Sidney Painter portrayed as the epitome of feudal loyalty, managed to hang on to both his English and Norman lands, but in doing so he lost the love and favor of King John who viewed is actions as disloyal.  While serving as John's ambassador to Philip (1204), William Marshal agreed to do homage to Philip for his Norman lands if John had not recovered Normandy within a year.  John approved the deal, but William apparently had not told him that King Philip was insisting that William do liege homage to him for his lands in France. This meant that King Philip would be William’s primary lord in France and, consequently, that William could not personally take arms against him if John launched a campaign to recover his lost territories. The result was William saved his French holding of Longueville but lost the favor of the king, especially after William refused to go on campaign against Philip in France, pleading his homage to the French king. John accused him of cowardice and disloyalty and demanded that William give him his eldest son as a hostage. John went to Poitou in France; William was entrusted with the military defence of England. From this point until 1212 William was out of royal favor.


          William Marshal’s “chivalry” was martial. Modern biographers of William Marshal have focused on his career as a tournament knight, and, accordingly, have portrayed the tournament as the arena in which Marshal displayed the qualities that made him the “flower of chivalry.” John Gillingham, however, has, calculated that of the19,214 lines comprising “The History of William Marshal” 8,350 describe warfare and only 3150 are about tournaments. War, not tournaments, was the main focus of the poet and his audience, the court of William Marshal’s son. The type of warfare depicted in the “History,” furthermore, is not what one might expect from a chivalrous knight.  Battles are rare in the poem. The poet describes only three or four battles, in two of which William fought (Bouvines in 1214 and Lincoln in 1217), as compared with seventeen sieges (Gillingham, “William Marshal” 262). War, then, in the “History” is largely made up of sieges, skirmishes, and pillaging. In 1188 William Marshal, now serving in King Henry II’s household, defended the castle of Gisors against an attack by King Philip Augustus of France. An annoyed Philip took out his frustration by chopping down a then famous elm tree. As soon as the Capetian army had returned to French territory and dispersed, William went to his lord King Henry II and advised him: “’Listen to me sire. Philip has divided and disbanded his troops. I advise you to disperse your men too, but to give them secret orders to reassemble at a given time and place. From there they are to launch a chevauchée into the territory of the king France. If this is done in force, prudently and promptly, then he will find he has to suffer gar greater damage than the loss of one elm.’ ‘By God’s eye’s, said the king, Marshal, you are most courteous (molt corteis) and have given me good advice. I shall do exactly as you suggest.’” (ll. 7782-7852) Henry II followed Marshal’s advice, disbanded his forces with secret orders that they were to muster again at Pacy on the Norman border with France. Henry’s army then crossed into the French royal lands, burning, ravaging, and pillaging the countryside around Mantes. The French were caught by surprise and could do little to stop the Anglo-Norman chevauchée. This was standard operating procedure in French and English warfare in the late twelfth century. What is remarkable is that the poet saw no problem in describing this and other actions in which William Marshal’s troops burned fields, villages, and towns, all the while plundering and killing cattle and noncombatants. As the poet observed, such raids were effective because “when the poor can no longer reap a harvest from their fields, then they can no longer pay their rents, and this, in turn, impoverishes their lords.” (ll. 659-69) The poet has the elderly William Marshal rally his men before their march to relieve the besieged city of Lincoln, telling them that they were not only fighting for their honor but for the safety of their wives, their children, their land, and the existence of their country. As Gillingham remarks, “war is not fought for the sake of individual gain, whether glory, reputation or material gain, but for the common good, a thoroughly conventional message, and one that the History shares with didactic treatises on chivalry.” (Gillingham, “William Marshal,” 261-2)

          Gillingham also points out that the military commanders in the poem think and act strategically. Campaigns were planned with the intent of catching the enemy by surprise; defenders, in turn, were always fearful about being surprised.  Ambushes are described with approval throughout the poem. The poet emphasizes, over and over again, the importance of good reconnaissance. The Marshal, of course, is represented as a great warrior. An incident in the poem that is invariably mentioned by biographers is how in 1197 the 50-year old Marshal ascended a siege ladder, despite his advanced age. As Gillingham points out, what the biographers omit is the reaction of William’s lord, King Richard the Lionheart, who criticized him for being foolhardy and inappropriate. Gillingham also points out that the modern biographers tend to ignore that Richard’s campaign in the Beauvaisis was carefully planned out, with Richard leading one column to take the castle of Milli by surprise and Richard’s mercenary captain Mercadier leading another to capture the bishop of Beauvais.

          If ambushes, deception, and raids designed to ravage the countryside, destroying the enemy’s economic resources were all accepted military activities, then, asks Gillingham, what, if anything, was considered unchivalric by the poet and his audience? For the poet it came down to killing an unarmed knight and abandoning a town that one is obliged to defend. Otherwise, all was fair in war, “a deliberately destructive type of warfare, a warfare characterized by watchfulness, deviousness, and sudden swoops” (Gillingham 262). Not all of the poet’s contemporaries approved of this type of warfare. Clerics actively disapproved. But for soldiers such as William Marshal there was nothing shameful or dishonorable in waging war that targeted peasants and townsmen. Even for the “flower” of late twelfth-century chivalry, warfare was waged more through fire than the sword.



Although a staple of chivalric literature. All of the Arthurian romances depict heroes as champions at tourneys (e.g., Ywain). Although their were probably similar sorts of war games in the 10th century, tournaments as such seem to have arisen toward the end of the 11th or beg. of 12th century as part of the developments that created the SECOND FEUDAL AGE. By 1125 tournamets were pop. in France (esp. northern France) and Germany, so much so that it provoked a papal denunciation by Innocent II in 1130. By 1200 popularity of tournaments had spread throughout western Europe, though France was still known as the home of the best and greatest tourneys (English chroniclers termed tourns "the Gallic battle").

            William Marshal's career reflects the importance of tournaments for knights. The History of William the Marshal mentions sixteen tournaments in which William participated between 1167 and 1183.  As David Crouch points out, most late twelfth-century tournaments were small scale, with about 20 or so knights divided into two teams. William Marshal was a professional tournament knight. Between 1177 and 1179 he entered into a formal partnership with Roger de Gaugie,  another “bachelor” (landless knight) in the Young King Henry’s household, to go on the tournament circuit and split their takings.  According to a list kept by Wigain, the Young King's clerk, the two between them captured 103 knights in the course of 10 months. In one tournament William Marshal captured ten knights along with their twelve horses.


The great lords, such as the Counts of Champagne and Flanders, gained reputation and prestige from their patronage of tournaments, while the ordinary knights gained fame, glory, possibility of material gain (in the form of horses, trappings, armor, and ransom)--or loss--, and an arena in which to prove their worth to potential lords (for wh read 'employers'). TOURNAMENTS SERVED AS TRAINING GROUNDS FOR WAR, AS OPPORTUNITIES FOR OBTAINING BOOTY AND PRESTIGE, AS SOCIAL GATHERINGS OF THE ARISTOCRACY, AS ARENAS FOR THEATER, CEREMONY AND 'PLAY'. In essence, the tournament helped the nobility to define itself, and changed as the nobility's self image changed.


The history of the tournaments mimics the social history of the medieval aristocracy. The tournament of the twelfth century was largely a military affair, meant to give knights practice in fighting in units. Actual battlefield tactics, based on CONROIS of knights (cohesive, feudal tactical units) operating in conjunction with FOOT-SOLDIERS, were employed. Tournaments of the 12th and 13th centuries were dangerous and rough affairs--they were, in essence, war games meant to reflect actual conditions of battlefield combat and were distinguishable from actual warfare only by the presence of roped off 'refuges' where knights could take time out to rest or repair their equipment. Otherwise, they were no holds barred affairs. On occasion a tournament could even substitute for warfare. The counts of Burgundy and Nevers settled their differences at a tournament held on the frontier between their counties in 1172. By doing so, they prevented the ravaging of the countryside, wh, after all, was the most common form of warfare throughout the medieval period (as a generalization, the actual practice of warfare in the Middle Ages resembled Sherman's march to the sea far more than it did Gettysburg.)

The 13th century witnessed a gradual transformation in the tournament, as its pageantry began to become more elaborate, and as JOUSTING began to complement the MELEE. THE EXPENSE OF TOURNEYING ROSE AS THE TOURNAMENT BECAME 'THEATER', a public arena in which barons could show-off their prowess, their chivalric qualities, and their WEALTH. Feasts and pageantry (songs, dances, and formal processions) took up more and more time, and the presence of ladies became an accepted and necessary aspect of the games (knights by the middle of the thirteenth century would fight bearing the sleeves of ladies). This added the proceedings an erotic undercurrent, which might help explain the growing popularity of JOUSTING. Jousting, which emphasized individual martial skills, did not prepare a soldier as well for warfare as did the melee, but it did allow him to be the focus of attention as he demonstrated his prowess. In essence, the purpose of the tournament was changing. Though tournaments never completely lost their military value, they became increasingly stages for chivalric pageantry, demonstrations of chivalry and aristocracy. The tournament was the place in which a nobleman could distinguish himself from a burgher.

This process is perhaps best understood through a weird example, that of the Bavarian knight Ulrich von Lichtenstein (1200-1275) who wrote a pseudo-autobiography in which he described his “Venusfahrt[Venus Tour] (1227) and his “Artufahrt” [“King Arthur Tour] (1240). For the former, he dressed up as "Frau Venus", in full armor with woman's clothing over it, and wearing a blong woman's wig. He travelled from Italy to Bohemia, offering a general to all to joust with him. To each knight who broke three lances with him he gave a gold ring, but if the challenger was defeated, he was to bow to the four corners of the earth in honor of Ulrich's lady. He tells us that he broke 300 lances in a month's jousting. The Artusfahrt saw him doing the same thing, but now disguised as King Arthur and accompanied by six companions. The Arthurian motif caught on in the early 13th century; the earliest example of a tourneying in Arthurian dress is a tournament held on Cyprus in 1223 described by Philip of Novara.

By the 14th century the tournament had become theater as well as war-games, and by the 15th century the tourn. had assumed a complex form with 3 distinct types of combat: the joust, the melee, and the hand-to-hand combat on foot. Jousts and hand-to-hand combat would either precede or follow the melee (known as a tournoi). Jousts 'of peace', an innovation of the thirteenth century, in which rebated lances were used, became more and more popular. The object of such a joust was NOT to dismount one's opponent but to splinter as many lances as possible. To protect the participants tournament armor, which emphasized safety over mobility, was employed, and, by the 16th century, the knight's saddle had become so high that it virtually imprisoned him. Lance rests even obviated the need to lower one's lance, and 'tilts' (barriers erected down the length of the lists, first introduced ca. 1420) prevented knights from accidently running into one another. This sort of joust remained popular into the 17th century, though the death of Henry II of France in a joust in 1559 killed the popularity of tournaments as training exercises for princes. Despite its pageantry and the artificiality of the jousts of peace, the joust (and esp. the late medieval tournois) still helped prepare the knight for warfare. It is often forgotten, that battle in the late 14th and, to an even greater extent, in the 15th century still emphasized heavy cavalry (see Malcom Vale, War and Chivalry).

The most 'chivalrous' as well as artificial form taken by the tournament was the pas d’armes [passage or trial by arms], in which an individual knight would make the beau geste of setting up a pavilion on a cross-roads and challenge all who passed by to joust with them (parodied by the Black Knight episode in Monty Python and The Quest for the Holy Grail). An early form of the pas d'armes is described by Froissart. In March and April 1390 Marshal Boucicaut, the flower of French chivalry, and two of his companions, bored out of his mind by a truce with the English, took up residence for a month at St. Inglevert on the frontier between Boulogne and the English held town of Calais. Three months before this they had sent out herald announcing their intention to meet all challengers on any day except Friday. The challenger could choose to fight with either pointed or abated lances. Each contest was to last 5 tilts. Boucicaut set up four magnificent tents, one reserved for the opponent, and placed on the branches of an oak tree a shield with the coat of arms of the three French knights, a horn to summon them from their tents, and a supply of blunted and pointed lances. All one had to do was blow the horn, pick up a lance, and point to the coat of arms of the opponent that one wished to fight. In the course of a month, the three knights jousted against a total of 120 English knights and 40 knights from other lands. Froissart says that the French knights wounded many challengers, though they themselves emerged unscathed (and with a unmatched reputation for prowess and chivalry).

The pas d'armes, like the tournament itself, became more and more elaborate, as ceremony and ritual came more and more to dominate it. The best example of this is the pas d'armes of the Flemish hero Jacques de Lalaing, held between 1 November 1449 and 1 October 1450. Jacques was the beau ideal of the Burgundian knight. He came from an ancient noble family that had distinguished itself on the Crusade of St. Louis. He served Philip the Good of Burgundy in the conquest of Luxembourg, but it was as jouster that he made his reputation. He travelled far and wide in search of tournaments, jousting before the kings of Castille and of France (and even went to Scotland). In 1453 he was elected a knight of the Golden Fleece, and soon after distinguished himself in the Ghent war, where he was killed at the siege of Pouques when he was beheaded by a cannon ball (!) while he was inspecting a gun emplacement (N.B.).

In Nov 1448 Lalaing announced that he would set up a pavilion on the island of St Laurent on the Saone by Chalon, and would meet any noble challenger there. Lalaing had set up in front of his pavilion a model of a beautiful lady and a unicorn. Around the unicorn's neck hung three shields: a white one, indicating a desire to fight w/ axe; a violet one, for swords; and a black one, for 25 passes with the lance. On the first day of each month beginning on 1 Nov 1449, Lalaing's herald could be found in front of the pavilion waiting to enroll the names of challengers (and to inspect their pedigree to make sure that they could prove their nobility back at least four generations). All one had to do was touch a shield and present one's credentials. In the course of a year, Lalaing fought 22 challengers. He brought the pas d'armes to a conclusion by entertaining all of his challengers in a great feast, and distributing prizes to those whom he judged to fought best: a golden axe, sword, and lance.


I. ROYAL ATTEMPTS. Popes and kings were both made nervous by the popularity of tournaments. Kings saw such gatherings as political threats. The dukes and counts who hosted tournaments used them as opportunities to forge alliances and to solidify their hold over their own vassals. They also provided the perfect cover for launching conspiracies. The opponents of King John and of his son Henry III used tournies to assemble their forces and to plan their rebellions. Kings also resented having to compete with tournaments for their knights' service when they were planning war. But royal opposition proved completely ineffectual, in part because kings themselves were noblemen who, policy aside, enjoyed tournaments and found them, at times, very useful. By the 14th century English and French kings were staging tournaments in order to enhance their own royal prestige.

Nonetheless, even those kings and princes who approved of tournaments were disturbed by their unrestrained violence. Here they proved more successful. The curbing of the tournament's violence is paralleled by the successful imposition of the 'king's peace' throughout northern Europe. It is part of the trend of growing political order and stability in the 13th century.  In France, from mid 12th century on, for instance, we find

i. the use of special tournament armor of padded leather and blunted (bated) weapons.

ii. judges (diseurs) who awarded special prizes to those who most distinguished themselves (e.g. William Marshal's winning of a fish--a giant pike--at the tournament at Pleurs near Epernay in 1177--see Painter, 39-40)

iii. confined tournament fields

iv. the presence of noble ladies as spectators, which became a fixture at tournaments by the middle of the 13th century, as the affectations of courtly love literature more and more influence the language and ethos of chivalry.

v. the movement from a focus upon melee to jousting [individual contests], which reduced the dangers of the tournament, especially with the increasing popularity of jousts of peace with abated (blunted) lanced.

English kings in the 13th century also tried to curb the excesses of the tournaments. Richard I the Lionheart (who loved tournaments) tried to reduce the bloodshed by issuing rules and ordinances. Richard I licensed tournaments at 5 specified areas, all in open countryside, and charged a fee on all those participating--20 marks for an early, 10 for baron, 4 for landed and 2 for landless knights. RI formed a baronial board of control, which required all those participating to pay fees in advance and to swear to keep the peace. Edward I at the end of the 13th century made the rules more stringent, limiting number of followers that baron could bring, ordering the use of only blunted ('bated') weapons, and insisting that grooms and footmen carry only defensive weapons.



CHURCH'S CONDEMNATION OF TOURNAMENTS: Innocent II at Second Council of Clermont (1130) denounced 'those detestable markets and fair, vulgarly called tournaments, at which knights are wont to assemble, in order to display their strength and rash boldness' and PROHIBITED CHRISTIAN BURIAL TO those who died in tournaments. This injunction was repeated at other Church councils (in 1139, 1148, 1157, 1179, 1215, 1245, 1279, 1313) down to 1316, when Pope John XXII gave up the fight and bestowed his blessings on them.

Thirteenth century ecclesiastical writers preached against tournaments. One reported that demons were heard and seen in the form of vultures and crows at tourn. of Neuss in 1241. The famous mid 13th-century preacher Jacques de Vitry said that tournament encompassed all seven deadly sins: pride, since participants strive for empty glory; hate and anger; sloth, bec. failure in the leads to depression; avarice, since men seek to despoil one another and then recoup by exploiting helpless tenants; gluttony, because of feasts assoc. with tournaments; vanity; lechery, since they are fought 'to please wanton women' whose tokens knights adopt.)


High Middle Ages (ca. 1050-1300)

Song of Roland (ca. 1100). Themes & issues: the struggle between Christians (=good) and Muslims/Pagans (=bad); Christian knighthood; loyalty and honor; nature of kingship. Brutal, violent, focused on war.

Typical sentiments (spoken by Roland): “Here we stand, definding our great king. / This is the service a vassal owes his lord: / To suffer hardships, endure great heat and cold / And in battle to lose both hair and hide. / Now every Frank prepare to strike great blows--/ Let’s hear no songs that mock us to our shame! / Pagans are wrong, the Christian cause is right. / A bad example I’ll be in no man’s sight.” (Song of Roland, trans. Patricia Terry, Library of Liberal Arts: lines 1009-1016).

Raoul of Cambrai (ca. 1180). Themes & issues: loyalty to feudal lord versus loyalty to kin; honor; vengeance; nature of kingship; necessity of moderation as complement to martial prowess. About 70 pages long--brutal, violent, focused on war.

Chretien de Troyes, The Knight with the Lion (Yvain). Wonderfully readable late 12th-century romance about a knight's attempt to regain the lost love of his wife. Good on courtly manners, courtly love, the meaning of honor. In Arthurian Romances (Penguin).

Sidney Painter, William Marshal. Modern biography of successful medieval knight who, in the late twelfth and the early thirteenth century, rose from being a household retainer to a great baron and, eventually, regent of England for a child king. Good and readable; based largely on an early 13th-century poem about Wm Marshal; colored by Painter's romantic preconceptions about chivalry and knighthood.

Sidney Painter, French Chivalry. A wonderfully easy read that examines the feudal, courtly, and Christian elements of 'chivalry.' (Perhaps overly influenced by the romantic conception of chivalry.)

Crouch, David. William Marshal. 2nd revised edition. Longmans, 2002. Excellent biography of a knight with an interesting rethinking of the question of feudalism. Crouch includes a chapter on the chivalry of William Marshal that derives from an important article on the subject by John Gillingham. Both Crouch and Gillingham emphasize chivalry as practical expertise in the waging of a very unromantic type of warfare. Cf. Painter, William Marshal.  

Richard W. Kaeuper & Elspeth Kennedy, tans.  A Knight's Own Book: Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny, Pennsylvania U.P.: a handbook of chivalry written around 1350 by a famous French knight.

Late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1500)

Froissart, Chronicles. Late fourteenth-century 'history' of the Hundred Years War (written ca. 1390) emphasizing the 'good stories' (i.e., chivalric accomplishments). What is neat about this work is that Froissart may say that he wishes to honor the memory of those who did great deeds, but he also allows us to see how chivalry served to unify the European aristocracy and preserve their lives on the battlefield. The brutality of war keeps on showing its face, despite Froissart's best efforts.

Tirant lo Blanc. Late medieval chivalric romance that swallows whole earlier 'orders of chivalry.' Chivalry at its most flamboyant. This was the book that Don Quixote was reading when he went mad.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Short 14th-century English metrical romance. Good for courtly manners. Issue of integrity of Gawain in face of certain death.


Barber, Richard. The Knight and Chivalry. revised edition. Boydell and Brewer, 1996. Good, basic overview.

Bouchard, Constance. Strong of Body, Brave & Noble. Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. Cornell U. Press, 1998. Good, solid synthesis of scholarship about noble family and society in twelfth-century France.

Crouch, David. William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, 2nd edn. London: Longman, 2002. Because of a long poetical “biography” written about him soon by commission of his son after his death, the English knight and baron William Marshal is one of the few non-royal lay nobles about whom scholars actually know quite a bit. This has made him a popular subject for biographies, at least three of which have been written by major medieval historians. Crouch’s biography is the most recent and in some ways the soundest, as it is based not only on the 1226 poem (Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal) but on charter evidence. Crouch uses the life of William Marshal to explore and revise common notions about “chivalry” and “feudalism.” He demonstrates that William Marshal was more than a loyal and extraordinarily accomplished tournament knight and warrior, as he is often portrayed, but was a canny courtier who successfully navigated in the dangerous waters of court politics. Crouch’s analysis of the knights in Marshal’s household also challenges received ideas about the nature of “feudalism” in early thirteenth-century England.


Duby, Georges. William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. London, 1986.

Anthropological approach to William's deathbed scene by one of France's greatest medievalists. Interesting as an example of French mentalite school, but shows little original research. Duby uses Marshal to illustrate his ideas about the centrality of household knights (“Youths”) in twelfth-century chivalry and as a window on to contemporary understanding of the obligations and love that nobles felt toward family, lords, and vassals.


Gillingham, John, "War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal", Thirteenth Century England v.2 (1991): 1-13, posted at A seminal article that argues convincingly that 1) the Histoire is concerned more with Marshal's activities in war, both as general and soldier, rather than as "knight-errant" on the tournament circuit; and 2) that the warfare described in the Histoire was the typical warfare of the period, marked by battle avoidance, ravaging of the countryside to deprive the enemy of economic resources and to destroy morale, followed up by sieges. Written in refutation of Duby’s book.

Huizinga, J. The Waning of the Middle Ages. 1919. Influential thesis: late medieval chivalry was aesthetic and emotional ideal that had become completely divorced from reality by the 14th and 15th centuries.

Jaeger, Stephen. Origins of Courtliness. UPA, 1985. A book that has restructured all discussion on the origins of chivalry. Jaeger traces the ethos of courtliness back to 10th century German episcopal courts and emphasizes its Classical Roman roots.

Kaeuper, Richard. Chivalry and Violence (1999). A brilliant study of chivalry as portrayed in medieval vernacular romances. Kaeuper, like Painter, examines how nobles themselves viewed chivalry, and how royalty and clergy attempted to shape the ethos to their liking. The basic thesis is summed up by the title: prowess was the capstone value of chivalry, and, rather than moderating or curbing violence, the ideal of chivalry legitimized it.

Kaueper, Richard. Holy Warrior: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry. (The Middle Ages Series.) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. An examination of how knights developed a conception of piety appropriate to their knightly “order” which valorized the violence and hardship to which they exposed themselves in service to lords.

Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. Yale, 1984. The standard scholarly work on the subject.

Painter, Sidney. William Marshal: Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England. New York, 1933.

This is the first full biography of William Marshal written by one of the great American medieval historians. Painter was a first-rate scholar and knew his sources.  The biography, however, is very much colored by Painter's romantic conception of twelfth-century chivalry. Readable and sound (with the above caveat).

Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry: Ideals and Practices in Mediaeval France. Cornell U. Press,1957. Best scholarly presentation of the traditional view of medieval chivalry.

Stickland, Matthew. War and Chivalry: The Concept and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066-1217. Cambridge U. Press, 2005. Brilliant study of the relationship between chivalry and the conduct of war. A fine example of the new cultural military history.