War and Peace in the Works of Chaucer and his Contemporaries
By Karl Heinz Göller
Die Geisteswissenschaften stellen sich vor. Veröffentlichungen der Universität Innsbruck, edited by Wolfram Krömer and Osmund Menghin (Innsbruck, 1983)
Introduction: Even today the concept of the Middle Ages in scholarship and research is marked by one-sided viewpoints. This is particularly true in the case of war and peace, knightly combat, and the ideals of chivalry. Numerous publications claim that a proper understanding of the Middle Ages must proceed from the basic premise of a naive and unreflected, fundamentally positive attitude towards war and armed conflict. An author like Gerhard Nebel may well represent an extreme position in this respect: with regret he casts a nostalgic look back at an age in which men were always running about, weapon in hand, on the lookout for a possible opponent, while modern man has become a mollusk (that is a spineless soft-bodied animal). Cornish is certainly nearer to the consensus of opinion prevalent in this century when he characterizes the essence of medieval warfare in the following way: “…the game of war, thus played, is a noble sport, which encreases the dignity of humanity.”
Particularly in the study of medieval literature, the concept of knightly combat has become a controversial focal point. Of course there were critics who stressed the negative aspects of medieval chivalry, as for instance, the glorification of war for its own sake, love of bloodshed, disregard for the suffering of the poor, and moral degeneration. As a rule, however, it was the positive aspects which were emphasized. This is already recognizable from the titles of the books. Thus the very influential work of Prestage on chivalry deals according to its subtitle with ‘its Historical Significance and Civilizing Influence’.
But whenever authors of work on chivalry and war during the Middle Ages have tried to determine the exact historical influence and result of chivalric ideals, they have run into difficulties. That is why there are such widely varying hypotheses concerning the ‘Golden Age’ of chivalry. Nearly all the periods from the early 12th to the late 15th century have been suggested. The net result will inevitably be that there never was a Golden Age of chivalry. The ideal knight is only to be found in fiction, that is in literature, which, however, as we can read even in modern standard works, bears the stamp of the ideals of courtly chivalry from 1100 to 1300, in England naturally with the well-known retardation.