By Richard Utz
In her October 7, 2018, article for the Washington Post, “Chivalry isn’t dead. But it should be,” Amy Kaufman questions the use of medievalist values like “chivalry” in defense of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation process for his appointment on the U.S. Supreme Court. Kaufman concludes that chivalry, always more literary than real, was not only a “protection racket” because it obliges women to rely on men to protect them from other men, but also only ever protected certain (noble) women. Upon reading her article, I remembered that I had heard similar medievalist statements before, and directly from the White House.
During an October 19, 2017, news conference, retired Marine General and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defended U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial condolence call to the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers killed on October 4 in Niger. In addition to addressing the complex military casualty notification process, he ventured into some statements that expressed a profound sense of nostalgia about the way things used to be in his own childhood years. Among other matters (Gold Star families, religion, the sanctity of life), he commented on the recent Hollywood sexual harassment and assault accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and implied that such widespread current problems did not exist when he was young. Because men saw it as their duty to protect women from harm, “Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore….”
Kelly’s statements elicited an avalanche of critical responses: The Roosevelt Institute’s Andrea Flynn, for example, recognized his vague yearning for a bygone past as “a poorly coded longing for the days when women and people of color — and above all, women of color — ‘knew their place’ and white men could enjoy unfettered access to most anything they wanted, including women’s bodies.” Flynn and others pointed out that, during Kelly’s formative years, women did not have access to birth control, abortion was illegal, and a woman’s salary could not be considered on a loan application. And there certainly was no legal framework for a woman to defend herself against unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in the workplace and beyond, the ensemble of actions we now summarize as “sexual harassment”.
Ruth Marcus, writing for the Washington Post, rejected the chief of staff’s nostalgic elevation of women: “Speaking for this woman at least, that is not what women want or need. To be put on a pedestal also risks being kept in a box. In the good old days that Kelly mourns, women were not so much elevated by gender as constrained by it.”
And Kate Germano, in the Dallas Morning News, linked Kelly’s statement to a long history of how members of Congress, the public, and the media have glorified male military general officers while overlooking their role in shaping some of the most problematic aspects of military culture. Germano reminds readers how “generations of general officers like Kelly cultivated the exclusively male warrior Marine ideal at the exclusion of women.” She recommends that, “considering the longstanding cultural problems in the Marine Corps related to gender” Kelly’s positions “should be more heavily scrutinized by the public and media since they helped to perpetuate the culture of abuse and discrimination Marine women have faced for decades.”
Both Germano and Marcus hint at a tradition that has its origins in a past farther back than the 1950s of Kelly’s childhood. The Marine Corps has for a long time sought to see its foundations in medieval knighthood. Most visibly, several late twentieth-century Marines recruitment commercials show stereotypical medieval knights and their implied moral codes as the predecessors for their own military service. In perhaps the most widely known such commercial (1987), a knight in plate armor rides down a castle hall full of spectators. A monarch waits for him at the end of the hall, holding a sword that discharges lightning. The knight kneels, the monarch taps him on both shoulders, and the knight magically morphs into a modern Marine officer.
And whom does such a “knight-in-shining-armor” protect, if we may believe Romantic poets, Pre-Raphaelite painters, Disney movies, and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons: Damsels, of course, whom these knights save from distress and put on a pedestal. As John Fraser has demonstrated in America and the Patterns of Chivalry (2009), officers and gentlemen are our modern knights, and they continue this tradition of courtship and courtesy, allegedly treating all women as if they were of noble birth and lived at a medieval court.
What do we really know about this phenomenon of medieval “courtly love” and the gender roles it displayed? The term, l’amour courtois, was invented by French medievalist Gaston Paris in the late 19th century to describe a set of cultural practices he found depicted in the adulterous relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot (King Arthur’s wife and First Knight, respectively) in French writer Chrétien de Troyes’ courtly romance, Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, c. 1180). The code of courtly conduct in this story mandated that love be illicit, secretive, and risky, that the beloved lady be in a position of complete superiority, and that the loving knight’s sole goal in life be to perform feats of prowess to gain his lady’s approval. At the courts of powerful patrons like Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie of France, the celebration of courtly love grew into an influential means of representation that was soon imitated all over Europe. Poems celebrating courtliness, which increasingly required cultural skills and competencies (arts, fashion, rhetoric, music, etc.) in addition to the mastery of armed combat, were written and performed at ducal and princely courts by the troubadours of Southern France, the trouvères of Northern France, and the Minnesingers in the German speaking world. Some of the most famous medieval literary productions, Guillaume de Lorris’ Roman de la Rose (c. 1230), Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova (c. 1295), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1380) also propose examples of how this refined art of love was imagined.
Since our sources for the description of the code of courtly conduct are all fictional, we cannot say with any certitude whether members of the medieval nobility considered courtly love a ‘serious game’ or not. After all, even the code’s most widely known handbook, Andreas Capellanus’ Art of Courtly Love (c. 1185), is often viewed as a parody of knightly conduct. Some of the features of courtly love seem to contradict several other commonly held modern beliefs about medieval culture. Specifically, its deceptive inversion of the actual power relationship between medieval men and women led Gaston Paris and numerous other scholars to conclude that the invention of courtly love changed the history of civilization for the better. When such modern projections onto medieval culture are summarized simplistically (and in defense of a vague white heritage), they end up sounding like historian Rachel Fulton Brown’s assertion, in Three Cheers for White Men, that “when white women (see Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine) invented chivalry and courtly love, white men agreed that it was better for knights to spend their time protecting women rather than raping them, and even agreed to write songs for them rather than expecting them to want to have sex with them without being forced.”
That’s not really what happened.
What we may safely say is that the code of conduct for courtly love implied that knights become more refined, strive hard, physically, morally, and culturally, to be deserving of a lady whom they stylized as the paragon of perfection. However, the choice for them was never between raping or protecting the women of noble families who surrounded them at a medieval court. In fact, in most courtly romances the woman at the receiving end of their courtly attention was the highest-ranking lady at the court, the woman married to their own overlord. And this overlord had every interest to control and channel the otherwise uncontainable sexual energy of his young knights towards codified practices that would enhance the reputation of his court while at the same time safeguarding his own superior status. After all, the code instilled in a playful manner the very kinds of behavior the overlord expected from his young followers in real life: unquestioning obedience and loyalty; ever increasing perfection in military training and the art of courtliness; and all of these efforts were to be performed based on the (normally) impossible dream of having sex with the overlord’s wife, the equivalent of replacing the overlord as duke, king, or emperor. Thus, courtly love did not evolve because (white) men made a conscious move from the violent toward the protective or reverent treatment of women at medieval courts. It evolved because the most powerful men in medieval society recognized the code’s value for maintaining the power structure of feudal society through a complex pastime built on delayed gratification.
And so, when the medieval courtier Heinrich von Morungen (d. 1222) resorted to using the vocabulary reserved for singing the praises of the Virgin Mary to describe his matchless courtly lady, it was not to give her agency or protect her from male violence, but to increase control over her body and strengthen the power of his patron, the Marcgrave of Meissen. And when a member of today’s male military aristocracy, retired Marine General Kelly, suggests in loyal support of his President that we should put women on a pedestal and treat them as “sacred”, his rhetorical strategy resembles the one his medieval knightly predecessor employed. The only difference is that Heinrich von Morungen’s poetry may well be more enjoyable to read than Kelly’s White House prose.
Richard Utz is Chair and Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Click here to view his university web page.
Top Image: Detail of a miniature of Imagination showing the knight as a man with severed arms – from Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500 – British Library MS Royal 19 C VIII f. 32v