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The Downfall of Chivalry – in the 13th century?

By Steven Muhlberger

One can find countless examples of people in our modern world lamenting the ‘end of chivalry.’ It might be surprising to hear that medieval people were making the same claims, as far back as the 13th century.

Medieval observers – clerics and knights in particular – often discussed the behavior and expectations of knights by reference to familiar virtues and vices. They were often concerned with how their religion, which emphasized peace and non-violence, could justify violence by professional warriors. Virtues were simplified lists of what might be expected of Christian warriors or what should be avoided (the Vices). Some of these individual virtues were obvious. Largesse (generosity) was the laudable gift-giving by wealthy lords to support their military followers. Nobility was the obligatory effort of knights who wished to assert their high rank.

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Other virtues were specific to the military profession: prowess was the ability to fight at a high level. Chivalry meant a number of things, starting with the mastery of horsemanship, then mastery of cavalry tactics, and eventually the traits that ranking warriors might need on the battlefield or court.

There was not a single agreed-upon list of chivalric virtues. In fact, we have a text from the early 13th century which documents dissatisfaction among the lesser knights of the Anglo-Norman realm. It might be called, with some freedom, “The Downfall of Chivalry.”

What I am calling “The Downfall” is a number of passages from The History of William Marshal written about the famous knight of the 12th and 13th centuries by John (the only name we know him by). He was a clerk in the service of the Marshal family, and wrote a long poem about the adventures of the Marshal and his role in war and politics in the courts of Henry II, the Young King Henry, Richard I and John. The Marshal is the hero of John’s poem and the exemplar of chivalry.

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John has much to say about chivalry and related virtues. He also thought that as important as the military aspects of chivalry were, largesse (generosity) was essential to the maintenance of chivalry. Without largesse the community of chivalric fighting men (also called chivalry) could not exist. And indeed, chivalry in the sense of a chivalric community was in danger. John the poet shows the mourners for the Young King Henry (d. 1183) lamenting the loss of chivalry and generosity.

Alas, how chivalry is now dead and buried and cast aside…Now those who are poor knights will have to go looking for their daily bread. There will be nobody again prepared to give them horses, arms and money…but that is the way of the world. After that, those young knights still looking to win fame and glory had to go in search of it throughout the land.

Here is John speaking of the failure of Largesse and Fortune:

Fortune very soon changed its face towards them [William Marshal’s entourage] for it changed chivalry into inactivity and idleness. Largesse became an orphan, and the world was deprived of light by what Fortune had destroyed.

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This is a lament for the loss of the true chivalry of the past and a critique of the people who have abandoned their duty to maintain it. The great lords of the past made it possible for knights of the past to gain wealth and fame through service. Now, John the poet says that the lords no longer care about the knights who were the base of their power. Indeed, the downfall of chivalry was as characteristic of the present as it had been of the Young King’s time:

Because of the Young King …every man had undertaken…to uphold the ideals of Chivalry which is now very close to extinction, for hunting with hounds and hawks, and formal jousting, are so much the order of the day that Chivalry is helpless to defend itself.

Defining chivalry and chivalric ideals, and determining how they have related to each other have always been interesting to students of the Middle Ages.  The dissatisfaction of John the poet and presumably by his audience adds to what we can say about the interaction of greater lords and their military followers. Sometimes relations between greater horsemen and lesser ones – who in some periods might all be called knights – could be uncomfortable.

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Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.

Click here to read more tales from Steve Mulhberger

Top Image: A 13th century knight –  Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 1463. fol. 4v

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