Arms and Armor: A Farewell to Persistant Myths and Misconceptions
By Dirk Breiding
Perspectives on Medieval Art – Learning through Looking, edited by Ena Giurescu Heller and Patricia C. Pongracz (New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2010)
Introduction: Attempting to study the European Middle Ages without encountering the concepts and ideals of chivalry, in all their various forms and manifestations, would probably be an impossible undertaking. One may go further still and argue that most children in today’s Western society, by the time they have their first history lessons at school, have already come across images of, and stories about, the knight in shining armor. This is hardly surprising: courtly romances have lost none of their appeal during half a millennium, and, in terms of subject matter and protagonist, they usually leave little to be desired. What person, especially if he or she already has an interest in the Middle Ages, would not be intrigued by the exploits of a hero who has been (romantically) characterized as follows?
But the image remains—the knight in shining armor, gleaming, protected, hidden, isolated behind helm; yet gallant, courtly, protector of the weak, of maidens, of orphans, widows; dedicated to God, devoted to the distant lady, never turning back from the challenge of a joust, brave and gentle, proud and courteous, forever riding oﬀ in search for adventure, in quest of Holy Grail or holy war.
A somewhat more somber approach was offered by a scholar who reduced the appeal of chivalry to the combined presence of four essential topics: women, adventure, weapons and horses. In his view, which is not entirely unjustified, these topics have always been the chief interest of all mounted warriors. Indeed, if the term ‘women’ is courteously exchanged with ‘love’, and—by way of a little modernization—a motorized vehicle is substituted for the horses, it becomes clear what has made, and continues to make, chivalry and the knight so popular: the underlying themes are timeless, the hero’s behavior is exemplary and thus worthy of imitation, and the promised gains and achievements are most desirable. In short: love, adventure, and gadgets have always been essential ingredients for a good story. It is therefore hardly surprising that tales of chivalry are still popular today, while the figure of the knight, to some extent, became the model for many subsequent (super-)heroes of Western society, be it the North American cowboy, James Bond, or Batman.