By Steven Mulhberger
Did knights write? What did they write about? A look at serious writings by 13th and 14th-century men-at-arms.
People who have studied the Middle Ages are aware that knights – and other men-at-arms — were not very literate, either by medieval or modern standards. Latin was the high-prestige language which was used by the clergy, and they dominated education and set the standards for all other Christians.
But warriors, whose importance in fighting the many wars of the Middle Ages is obvious, nevertheless had a rather exalted view of their place in Christian society. They deferred to the clerical leadership because of their sacramental power but not as far clerics might have wished.
Because they believed that they had a god-given role in enforcing Christian standards, warriors developed over centuries a body of knightly lore. Much of this was created, or at least compiled by, clerical writers sympathetic to warriors. An example would be Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances, a genre he practically invented. Chretien was a “clerk” who was a skillful and prolific writer and used that talent to devise the mythology of “chivalry” and “courtly love.”
Knights and men-at-arms independently created a warriors’ culture that focused on fighting and the privileges and duties of warriors, including knights and squires. As chivalry developed, the culture became more sophisticated. When we get to the 14th century, we find men-at-arms writing works that are in some ways comparable to the books and treatises produced by the clerical elite. We will look at some of them.
Ramon LLull (1232-1316) was a Catalan knight who following the defeat of one Crusade used his energies and his chivalric experience to promote further expeditions. He changed his weapons for pens and used them to teach men-at-arms the duties of their order. LLull’s Book of the Order of Chivalry was a short booklet of seven chapters that covered the basic knowledge that knights—or squires, candidates for knighthood — might be expected to know. For example, one of his short chapters defined the knightly virtue of franchise which lords shared with knights. A sample of LLull’s writing:
Chivalry and franchise belong together, and the franchise and seigneury of the king or the prince belong together, for it behoves the knight to be frank so that the king or prince can be a lord. And this being so, the honor of the king or any other lord must join together with the honour of the knight in such a way that the lord of the land is lord and the knight is honoured.
LLull addressed the Book of the Order of Chivalry primarily to knights, to teach them their duties, the meaning of their arms and armor, and perhaps most interesting, the relationship between kings to knights as he was with the traditions and character of knights alone.
The second half of 13th century saw a literary project launched by another Crusading knight – The Life of St. Louis by Jean de Joinville. St. Louis was King Louis the IX of France, who launched a major expedition against Egypt. Joinville was an active knight and a friend and counselor of the King who as such accompanied him on that Crusade, and fought next to Louis until they were both captured. Despite that defeat and a further defeat he suffered in Tunisia, Louis was a very impressive figure in European politics. His success in organizing two Crusades was matched by his personal piety and sponsorship of the religious reform movements of the 13th century. When Louis died in 1270 there was an immediate outcry from French interests to have the King recognized as a saint, or better yet, a martyr. The aged Joinville was recruited to give a first-hand account of Louis’ deeds and virtues.
Joinville’s account had the characteristics of both a saint’s life written by clerics (a very popular genre), and a military biography by someone who understood war. Joinville’s account of the Crusade against Egypt must have been very impressive to contemporaries because it was detailed and convincing; the illustration of the sufferings of the Crusaders showed that warriors’ special talents were powerful.
The effort was successful and King Louis was recognized as a saint.
A half-century later another French knight, Geoffroi de Charny, wrote not one but three books on what he called “chivalry,” by which he meant the duties of all “men-at-arms.” Charny was an energetic or “strenuous” knight whose military career lasted from 1337 to 1356 (the latter date being the defeat of the French army at Poitiers). Charny not only fought the English, but devoted himself to teaching his comrades what they needed to know to repel the invaders. Charny’s efforts were inspired or commissioned by King Jean II of France, who created an elite “Order of the Star” in hopes that instruction in virtue, law, and piety would make a difference to French performance on the battlefield.
It did not.
Yet Charny’s instruction provides us with a lot of information about what the elite fighters in Charny’s day felt was important: His three books were Charny’s Book (or Livre Charny), The Book of Chivalry, and the Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments and War. All three of these were devoted to making sure that “men-at-arms” understood the laws and customs that French warriors were expected to follow. The Questions, perhaps the most unusual of the three works, was a collection of problems that members of the Order of the Star were expected to resolve. Here are a few of them:
Question J13 – Charny asks: A knight, armed as a knight, enters and jousts in an emprise [= formal deed of arms] for squires and a squire in the emprise knocks him out of the saddle with a stroke of the lance. Will the squire win the horse? What do you say? What do others think?
Question 10T – Charny asks: A squire or two or three armed for the tourney find a knight outside of the melee. So they stop him and pull him down and take the horse off to the stake. When evening comes the knight demands his horse because there was no knight present at his loss. The squires say no. What should happen according to the law of arms for tourneys?
Question 87T – Charny says: Fifty knights have taken it upon themselves to fight against a hundred on a certain named day; and the day of the battle comes. The fifty defeat the hundred and many deeds of arms are done by either party. Which would you prefer: to be considered the best knight of the hundred or the worst of fifty in respect of this day?
All three books have similar goals. Instruction aimed at the Knights of the Star and King Jean. Jean’s challenge as king was to defeat the English occupying French provinces. To do this he needed to improve the professional capability of the leading men-at-arms of France. The Questions were something like a seminar on the laws of arms. The members of the Knights of the Star were to be challenged to answer. Presumably the members of the Order, who were drawn from the upper ranks of France’s fighting nobility, would be capable of answering these questions. And if not…
The other two were more like conventional books. Charny’s Book was a verse account of both chivalric behavior and failures of men-at-arms to live up to the knightly virtues. The Book of Chivalry was a more extensive prose discussion of many of the same issues treated in Charny’s Book. For instance, Charny discussed at some length the career of Julius Caesar, whom he considered to be a very perfect knight, but, who came to be hated by the Romans because they did not in Caesar’s eyes praise him sufficiently. Charny drew on the histories of such famous knights as Judas Maccabeus to provide examples of flawed leaders. Charny also described the way that knighthood was founded and why the ceremonies were created; the honor of the Order of Chivalry, which order Charny considered to be the best of all orders, except (perhaps!) the order of the clergy. The Book of Chivalry contains far more than this. It is an eloquent spiritual handbook and historical guide.
In the same period that Charny was fighting and philosophizing, another prominent noble, this time an English duke, Henry of Lancaster, wrote what might be considered a personal guide appropriate to a knight, The Book of Holy Remedies. Henry was quite aware that his military life was inevitably sinful; at the same time a knight doing his duty could earn the forgiveness of his sins. Henry, like other late medieval Christians, focused on suffering and redemption. He was following the late medieval theory that those who hoped to win salvation would have to suffer for their sins on earth or end up suffering eternally in Hell. Henry writes:
I pray you, Lord …that I might so suffer all pains and sorrows patiently for love of You, sweet Lord, to repay you some part of what I owe for the most horrendous griefs, pains and vilanies that you suffered, sweet Lord, so graciously for wretched me.
Henry discusses all sorts of sins of which he is guilty, but he is particularly concerned with the failures of fighting men like himself, and the way a knight’s suffering can contribute to salvation. Charny’s books took a very similar strategy; but where Henry was trying to reform himself, Charny was determined to reform the whole body of men-at-arms.
We began by contrasting two kinds of writing produced in the High and Later Middle Ages: writing by clerics, mostly in Latin, and devoted to serious subjects like theology, logic, philosophy and more; and writing by warriors, devoted to issues relevant to what can be called “the life of arms.” If the subjects that knights wrote upon were more restricted than those clerics studied, we see that as the Middle Ages progressed that some knights were capable of serious and sophisticated discussions of their profession. It would not be long until knightly literacy was far from unusual.
Steven Muhlberger, before his retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: Zofingen Stadtbibliothek Pa 31 fol.86