The Fate of the Warrior’s Soul: Crusading, Chivalry, and the Formation of English Knighthood

The Fate of the Warrior’s Soul: Crusading, Chivalry, and the Formation of English Knighthood

Paper by Laura Ashe, Worcester College, University of Oxford

Given at the 2011 Haskins Society Conference, Boston College

Grandes Chroniques de France, British Library Cotton MS Nero E. II pt.2, f.152v

Dr. Ashe begins this paper by asking ‘When and how did knights stop thinking they were going to hell? She notes that many medieval knights were very troubled by their violent actions and military life, but by the 14th century the view that was prominent was that knights were all going to heaven, and that their profession was chosen by God.

Other scholars have suggested that the the the crusade movement and the literary work The Song of Roland were important influences, by Ashe disagrees – in the First Crusade dispensations are very narrow, and writers in the twelfth-century still criticize knights, noting that even when they were on crusade they could still be sinful. She also notes that The Song of Roland was not influential in later literature, and that it does not offer a celebration of military ideals.

Ashe explains that Romances play an important role in developing the ideals of knighthood, more so in English Romances than in French literature. We see that in continental romances the emergence of the courtly chivalric knight, who goes on individual quests, not for some overall purposes. These writings celebrate knighthood for its own sake – ie Lancelot – “chivalry is his purpose and his existence”.

In the literary works from England, such as Romance of the Horn, courtly and chivalrous behaaviour is directly opposed to crusade. For example, in Romance of the Horn a pagan character asks for mercy, but Horn beheads them, which exemplifies the attitude that when you fight against pagans you are not supposed to be chivalrous.

Ashe also notes the important writings of John of Salisbury, who noted the Christian approval for the knight who served his lord, and Jordane Fortain, who talks about the knights fighting off an enemy invasion. Overall, English literature justifies the warrior without using crusade values or French values of courtesy and largesse. Meanwhile French chivalry had a strong economic aspect, and noted that knights were filling in the vacuum of weak kings in both historiography and literature. But in the English literature of 12th and 13th century the defence of the realm is justification enough for the knight.

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