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How and to what extent did war and violence contribute to the definition of chivalry as both a historical and social phenomenon?

By Dom Hyde

Edited by William Harrop


What springs to mind when you think about chivalry? Far removed from the popular view of gentlemen holding open doors and sacrificing items of clothing to prevent their companion’s feet getting muddy, chivalry was originally a concept embedded in the brutality of medieval warfare. In this fascinating article, an inquisition is launched into the extent of the influence of medieval warfare itself in sculpting the social phenomenon of chivalry. Specific reference is given to both secular and religious sources in influencing, and even distorting the realities of medieval chivalry, affecting how we understand it today.

The historical and social phenomenon of chivalry has, since its birth, been attractive to the layman and scholar alike, with a lively and vigorous branch of medieval study devoted to it.[1] Even so, however, there is no unanimous agreement on how to define chivalry. Most historians recognise that war and violence contributed to the definition of chivalry; however, there is much debate regarding the extent. I will argue that, whilst being violent or partaking in war was not always the most important trait in being considered chivalric, war and violence did indeed contribute most to the actual definition of chivalry. This topic is extremely vast, and so I will focus on how chivalry was originally defined between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries – the so-called ‘Age of Chivalry’ in the medieval west.[2] Firstly, it is necessary to explain the issues with defining chivalry before exploring the extent to which war and violence contributed to the idea of chivalry in contemporary sources. However, as I will demonstrate using modern scholarship, these sources tended to underestimate or divert the role of violence which, in reality, contributed most to the definition of chivalry in medieval Europe.

As aforementioned, the act of precisely defining chivalry is widely considered to be almost impossible.[3] The nature of chivalry as a social construct inevitably creates issues as it was, and still is, constantly being reshaped and customised.[4] However, this is not to say that definitions have not been attempted. There is general agreement between scholars that chivalry contained a set of ideals which belonged to a knightly class; however, there is no common agreement after this.[5] Whilst many historians have argued that chivalry was exclusive to a noble or aristocratic group, others such as Jennifer Wollock, Maurice Keen, Clifford Rogers and Richard Kaeuper have argued it was not confined to the secular elite but simply those who took up a profession in arms.[6] This becomes most apparent when medieval definitions are taken into account. Kaeuper notes that medieval contemporaries saw chivalry as either heroic martial skill, a group of knights or warriors on a field of battle, or simply a knightly code of behaviour.[7] Keen similarly notes that a chivalrous individual was one capable of equipping himself with arms, therefore also reinforcing the role of war and violence in the definition of chivalry.[8] For the remainder of this essay, in order to avoid contradiction, when discussing the idea of chivalry I simply refer generally to the actions, behaviour or ideals of a knightly or warrior class.

Sources from this period, in all forms, differ in the extent to which violence contributed to their definition of chivalry. Religious sources generally tended to denounce the use of excessive violence as part of a chivalric ideal, instead focussing on encouraging knights to pursue a righteous path.[9] For instance, Robert of Flamborough, the thirteenth-century abbot, condemned avaricious knights as equal to idolaters, whilst ecclesiastical preachers or authors praised the ideal of a merciful knight instituted by God, emphasising an ethical rather than purely martial quality.[10] However, a vast number of other religious sources built on the growing religious piety and encouraged violence towards Christian – namely Catholic – ends.[11] The most famous example of redirected knightly violence is, of course, the crusades which were in part an attempt to restrain the illegitimate violence of knightly companies, thereby restoring chivalric ideals.[12] Therefore, knights – those who embodied chivalry – were portrayed as, or encouraged to be, violent in ecclesiastical sources so long as it was committed righteously.

Secular literature is, however, more complex yet still emphasises the qualities of virtuous martial prowess. By the twelfth century, chivalry had become more formal, ritualised and literary with contemporaries including Chrétien de Troyes and Philippe de Mézières emphasising ideals such as loyalty, generosity, courtesy and justice.[13] Similarly, the role of love in chivalric literature is distinctive and reduces the prominence of violence as the main definition of chivalry, albeit to a limited extent.[14] Kaeuper notes that all medieval writers voiced concerns for unrestrained violence and some, such as Alan of Lille, condemned knightly violence altogether in line with the ‘Peace Movement’ initiated by the church.[15] For instance, the chanson de geste Girart de Roussillon roundly condemned unjust war at the same time as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s portrayal of war as a regrettable necessity.[16]

Most authors, however, praised those who achieved success through legitimate and martial skill.[17] Geoffroi de Charny and the anonymous chanson d’Aspremont both commend those who fight for a worthy cause: often the chivalric and religious ideal of securing order and defending the weak or oppressed.[18] De Charny in particular, who ‘lived and died in arms’ himself, set out a scale of honour for chivalric individuals whereby joust, mêlée, war, and crusade are ascendingly honourable pursuits.[19] This clearly reflects the idea that, whilst violence was the underpinning quality of chivalric knights, religious ethics were what made knights chivalric. The knight Ramon Llull, whom Kaeuper coins ‘the most popular writer of a manual on chivalry’, also presented chivalry as a simultaneously ethical and violent term in The Book of the Order of Chivalry.[20] Within the text, he reflects on his past sins and his subsequent adoption of a more religious life.[21] However, violence maintained a key role in his definition of chivalry. He emphasised knights as armed support of their rulers whilst urging knights to exercise themselves at jousts and tournaments, even though such events were banned by the church, therefore underlining the superiority of prowess over religion.[22] Llull even states that fear is required to restore peace and justice and confirms that ‘Chivalry resides in no other place as agreeably as in nobility of courage’.[23] In this renowned text, then, it is apparent that whilst violence and ethics both played a key role in determining chivalry, violence trumps religion as the most important contributing factor in defining chivalry.

Kaeuper’s emphasis on the concern for “all” medieval writers over violence must be challenged; not all writers believed in the importance of ethics with many seemingly ignoring the necessity of values.[24] Many courtly romances claimed that the highest honour was won through prowess, whilst chansons de geste, the staple of knightly entertainment, praised raw violence and the joys of warfare.[25] Many texts told tales of renowned military leaders such as King Arthur, Charlemagne and great classical rulers, such as Alexander the Great and Caesar, thereby eulogising warfare.[26] Similarly, many so-called ‘Books of Chivalry’ were simply translations of Roman military tactics and training and thus stressed martial skill as the true definition of chivalry.[27] Although these texts did emphasise the undoubted importance of war and violence, it is impossible to escape from the role of ethics in defining chivalry through contemporary texts as a whole. Kaeuper, widely regarded as one of the premier scholars of medieval chivalry, is therefore right to point out that belief in the right kind of violence carried out by the right people ‘is a cornerstone of this literature’ and the consequent definition of chivalry.[28]

Although literature certainly influenced the definition of chivalry, scholars have noted that these sources often did not reflect the historical reality.[29] Many have commented on the embedded bellicosity of the medieval world which naturally led to war and violence contributing largely to the definition of chivalry.[30] Lords and rulers encouraged martial prowess and military skill in a bid to strengthen their military might and expand territory. [31] For example, the addition of certain symbols to heraldry was exclusive to those successful in battle.[32] Militarily adept men such as Edward III and William IX of Aquitaine were praised for their achievement whilst military training for knights began before they reached puberty.[33] Chivalry and war both adapted alongside each other, thus reinforcing the connection between the two.[34] Furthermore, Keen notes that knights themselves were unlikely to have reliably understood or agreed with the moralistic and escapist contemporary literature and so the role of violence in defining chivalry was, in reality, far superior to that of ethical qualities.[35] Hence, Rogers even claims that no contemporary conception of chivalry realistically forbade attacks on the civilian population, citing Honoré Bouvet who believed that ‘sometimes the innocent must suffer’.[36] The role of violence in chivalry was therefore strongly embedded in the definition of chivalry and took a much more central role than the qualities emphasised in contemporary literature.

In conclusion, it is apparent that war and violence contributed to the definition of chivalry to a large extent. However, this point of view has often been blurred by inaccurate and romanticised literature.[37] The pre-existing idea of a rough warrior was profoundly and increasingly refined by both religious and secular literature which, ultimately, was an inaccurate representation of society.[38] Paradox and contradiction is ubiquitous throughout chivalric literature and so this literature must be challenged in its definition of chivalry.[39] Whilst religious or ethical qualities did play a role, to a lesser extent, in defining the ideal of a perfect knight, particularly through crusade or maintaining order, many definitions simply referred to the physical prowess of chivalric individuals.[40] It is also worth commenting that the role as peacekeepers or crusaders necessitated war and violence and therefore even ethically imbued chivalry was principally violent. The bellicose and warlike period of the middle ages subsequently allowed chivalry to flourish as a chiefly martial ideal.[41] Yet, strangely, it is not this warlike ideal which has survived to the present day but the moralistic values emphasised by a large majority of contemporary sources.[42] Tellingly, the oldest surviving chivalric order, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, has long since dropped any martial ideal and goes by its motto of ‘nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and sick’.[43] Kaeuper is accurate, therefore, in his statement that chivalry simply reflects its context.[44] In the dynamic and martial world of the middle ages, chivalry thrived as a primarily violent and warlike ideal.

[1] Kaeuper (2001), 2, 12.

Keen (1996), ix.

Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 2-3.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Keen (2005), 1.

Bumke (1982), vii-viii.

Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 3.

Saul (2012), 3.

[4] Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 2-3.

Saul (2012), 3.

Kaeuper (2001), 29.

[5] Ibid., 2.

Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 2, 12.

Wollock (2011), 13.

Saul (2012), viii.

Crouch (2005), 21.

[6] Keen (1996), 21.

Kaeuper (2001), 302, 308.

Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 2, 6.

Kennedy (1988), 72-3.

Saul (2012), viii.

Wollock (2011), 11.

Keen (2005), 1-2, 13.

Rogers (1999), 145.

[7] Kaeuper (2001), 4.

[8] Keen (2005), 1-2.

[9] Kaeuper (2009), 12.

Duby (1980), 180.

[10] Kaeuper (2009), 14, 16.

Keen (2005), 5-6.

Saul (2012), 2.

[11] Kaeuper (2009), 6, 9-10.

Saul (2012), 1-2.

[12] Keen (1996), 9-10.

[13] Keen (1996), 2, 6.

Keen (2005), 2.

Keen (1999), 4.

Saul (2012), 196.

[14] Keen (1996), 41.

Wollock (2011), 2.

[15] Kaeuper (2001), 28.

Kaeuper (2009), 14.

Hackett (1988), 41.

[16] Harper-Bill & Harvey (1988), xii.

[17] Kaeuper (2001), 2-3, 22-5.

[18] Kaeuper (2009), 21-2.

Keen (1996), 4.

[19] Ibid., 4, 7-8.

Keen (1999), 13.

[20] Kaeuper (2009), 2, 10-11.

[21] Keen (2005), 8-9.

[22] Keen (2005), 11.

Keen (1996), 6.

[23] Llull (2013), 41, 49.

[24] Kaeuper (2001), 28.

[25] Keen (2005), 2.

Saul (2012), 178, 196.

Kennedy (1988), 84.

Kaeuper (2009), 6-7.

Hackett (1988), 40.

Keen (1999), 4.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Keen (2005), 5, 16.

[28] Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 2.

Kaeuper (2001), 22.

[29] Bumke (1982), vii.

Kaeuper (2009), 4.

[30] Kaeuper (2009), 10, 17, 35.

Kaeuper (2001), 13.

Keen (1996), 1-2.

Keen (1999), 1-4.

Reuter (1999), 13.

Housley (1999), 134-5.

Duby (1980), 166.

[31] Kaeuper (2009), 5, 10.

Keen (1996), 3.

Duby (1980), 183.

[32] Keen (1996), 8.

[33] Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 1.

Harper-Bill & Harvey (1988), xi-xii.

[34] Allmond (1999), 261-3.

Saul (2012), 4.

[35] Keen (2005), 2-3, 4, 5, 13.

Kaeuper (2009), 6, 14.

Kaeuper (2001), 2, 29, 302, 307-8.

Keen (1996), 18.

Duby (1980), 162-3.

Bumke (1982), viii, 7.

Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 2.

Kennedy (1988), 72-3.

Saul (2012), vii, 3, 181, 187, 370.

Crouch (2005), 17, 29-30, 37.

[36] Rogers (1999), 153.

[37] Saul (2012), vii.

[38] Crouch (2005), 29.

Stevenson & Gribling (2016), 12.

Duby (1980), 170, 181.

Keen (2005), 5, 16.

Keen (1999), 4.

Kaeuper (2001), 22.

Kaeuper (2009), 4, 8.

[39] Ibid., 8.

Kaeuper (2001), 1-2.

[40] Keen (1996), 19.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Kennedy (1988), 5.

Bumke (1982), 3.

[43] Knights of Malta, https://www.orderofmalta.int/sovereign-order-of-malta/knights-of-malta/  (09.03.2018).

[44] Kaeuper (2005), 2.


 Allmond, C. (1999), ‘War and the Non-Combatant in the Middle Ages’ in M. Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 253-72.

Bumke, J. (1982), The Concept of Knighthood in the Middle Ages, trans. W.T.H. Jackson & E. Jackson, New York: AMS Press.

Crouch, D. (2005), The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France 900-1300, Harlow: Pearson/Longman.

Duby, G. (1980), The Chivalrous Society, trans. C. Postan, London: University of California Press.

Hackett, M.W. (1988), ‘Knights and Knighthood in Girart de Roussillon’ in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood II: Papers from the third Strawberry Hill conference 1986, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 40-45.

Harper-Bill, C. & Harvey, R. (1988), ‘Introduction’ in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood II: Papers from the third Strawberry Hill conference 1986, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, xi-xiii.

Housley, N. (1999), ‘European Warfare c.1200-1320’ in M. Keen (ed.) Medieval Warfare: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 113-135.

Kaeuper, R.W. (2001), Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kaeuper, R.W. (2009), Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Keen, M. (2005), Chivalry, London: Yale Nota Bene.

Keen, M. (1999), ‘Introduction: Warfare and the Middle Ages’ in M. Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1-9.

Keen, M. (1996), Nobles, Knights, and Men-at-Arms in the Middle Ages, London: Hambledon Press.

Kennedy, E. (1988), ‘The Quest for Identity and the Importance of Lineage in Thirteenth-Century French Prose Romance’ in C. Harper-Bill & R. Harvey (edd.), The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood II: Papers from the third Strawberry Hill conference 1986, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 70-86.

Llull, R. (2013), The Book of the Order of Chivalry, trans. N. Fallows, Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Reuter, T. (1999), ‘Carolingian and Ottonian Warfare’, in M. Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 13-35.

Rogers, C.J. (1999), ‘The Age of the Hundred Years War’ in M. Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 136-60.

Saul, N. (2012), For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066-1500, London: Pimlico.

Stevenson, K. & Gribling, B. (2016), ‘Introduction: Chivalry and the Medieval Past’ in K. Stevenson & B. Gribling (edd.), Chivalry and the Medieval Past, Medievalism, Volume VII, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1-14.

Wollock, J.G. (2011), Rethinking Chivalry and Courtly Love, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

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