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The age of chivalry was doomed

Posted in Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Friday, 29 July 2011

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This edited article about chivalry originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 998 published on 25 April 1981.

Jousting, picture, image, illustration

Jousting knights at a tournament by Peter Jackson

For some 300 years Europe, especially Western Europe, was dominated not just by kings and princes and leading nobles, but by an international brotherhood of knights. Their lives and their attitudes are summed up in the word “chivalry” (in French, chevalerie, from chevalier, meaning “knight” or “horseman”). Films, television, books and paintings have kept the word alive. They depict knights in armour fighting fierce hand-to-hand battles on horseback and on foot; charging down on each other at tournaments; rescuing ladies in distress; penning courtly odes of love to ladies or singing them songs; helping the poor and oppressed; being always courteous, and being at all times perfect knights. But just how chivalrous were these knights? What is the truth behind the glamour?

The age of chivalry began in the 12th and 13th centuries, when knights from all over Europe headed east to rescue Christian shrines from the Moslem “infidels”. It was a noble ideal, but all too often chivalrous ideals gave way to greed, selfish rivalries and barbarism that matched or outstripped those of the “heathen” enemy. However, encouraged by the Church, the nobles had accepted the idea of chivalry as a code of conduct, even if few managed to keep to it.

It crossed national boundaries. The code’s key factor was allegiance to one’s king and lord. Even treachery – in capturing a city, for instance – was allowed provided no oath was broken in the process. And, unlike the common soldier, who had few or no rights, a captured noble could expect to be comfortably imprisoned while a ransom was raised for him. Money was part of the background of chivalry.

Despite all this, chivalry seems romantic enough from a distance. Yet, basically, it was a way of controlling fighting, not stopping it. Fighting was the chief sport of the nobility, so chivalry could hardly be expected to alter that. As the Middle Ages continued, chivalry became more and more criticised by ordinary people. Taxed to the hilt to pay for wars, murdered by marauding gangs, despised by most of the nobles, they led lives that were often wretched.

The climax came in the 14th century, when the prolonged Hundred Years’ War began in the 1340s and desolated much of France, and when a third of Europe’s population was wiped out by the Black Death. The poor – those of them who survived – were liable to be attacked not only by their country’s enemies, but by mercenaries who sold their swords to the highest bidder. And the people of the rising middle classes fared no better when towns were stormed, for they were all massacred. The age of chivalry was drenched in blood.

Chivalry even hindered progress in the art of war. The English, rapidly becoming a united nation, unlike the French, had a truly national army, with respected professional longbowmen. The French knights despised their crossbowmen and common soldiers. For them the only true fight was between mounted knights. Archery was a key factor in the terrible defeats of the French by the English at CrÈcy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415).

Yet the English lost in the end, partly because the French found in Joan of Arc, who led their soldiers in battle, a shining example of what chivalry should have been and so rarely was. Even famous exponents of chivalry at its most admired, like Edward III’s valiant son, the Black Prince, stained their glory by occasional deeds of infamy.

So what can be said for this code, which governed the actions of the noble warriors throughout much of a sorely-tried Europe? One thing can be affirmed. Without chivalry the proud, warlike, all-powerful brotherhood of knights would have been even more of a menace than it was. In those often desperate times, chivalry was a true ideal, an ideal that a handful lived up to and which at least slightly lessened the proud ferocity of the rest.

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