A Companion to Chivalry
Edited by ROBERT W JONES & PETER COSS
Why is the concept of chivalry difficult to define?
I think because it can mean so many things. The way most people recognise the term is as a set of precepts: a ‘code’ of behaviour (although it is less a code and more a set of guidelines, and barely even that). People could act ‘chivalrously’ or ‘unchivalrously’, but what determined whether an action was deemed one or the other changed depending on the period, and the circumstances. The word can also be used to talk about the culture of those who considered themselves chivalrous (and I think this is how all of us who contributed to the Companion use the term). That culture wasn’t just military. It was courtly and Christian, and could be sincere and calculating. I hope that in the range of chapters we selected for the Companion our readers will get some sense of just what a complex and varied subject chivalry is.
Who was expected to be chivalrous in the medieval period?
Again, that is a more complex thing than it sounds, because chivalric culture didn’t just belong to the knight, nor even just the aristocracy. It belonged to anyone with pretensions to, or a connection with, those elements of medieval society. Women, churchmen, clerks, merchants; pretty much anybody was part of chivalric culture (although, as Peter Sposato and Sam Claussen’s chapter on chivalric violence shows, they might not be willing participants). All at various times drew on and responded to a culture that was ‘chivalric’.
Were standards of chivalry meant to be attainable or were they idealistic?
Now that’s a tricky one, and the subject of many hundreds of undergraduate papers over the decades! There is no doubt that the many medieval texts on chivalric behaviour set standards very high, ad accepted the most would fall short. The bulk of romance literature, and especially the high medieval Arthurian tales are of flawed heroes, men who cannot quite make the grade, for all their virtue. But, of course, this is to understand ‘chivalry’ as a set of high ideals. If you take chivalry as
How is our modern idea of chivalry different from how medieval people would have understood it?
Here I would direct the reader to Clare Simmons’ excellent chapter on ‘Chivalric Medievalism’, which discusses exactly this: how the modern world has used, and abused, the medieval chivalric culture. Firstly, for most people modern chivalry is rendered now to holding open doors for ladies, and standing when they enter or leave a room, that sort of thing. This is a very far cry from medieval chivalry, obviously. There are benevolent reflections of knighthood, in the likes of the charitable fraternity of the Knights of Columbus, or the Order of St John. However, as Clare also shows, there is also a darker side to the way in which chivalry is understood today, developing from some of the less palatable aspects of the nineteenth-century understanding of the concept. This tends to focus on chivalry as a masculine pursuit, with physical prowess, and a white, militantly Christian, and Eurocentric focus. Like other medieval (and particularly martial) concepts, such as the crusades, there seems an almost willful desire to focus only on a small part of a society every bit as complex and contradictory as our own.
You’re a re-enactor as well as a historian; how does the concept of chivalry affect that experience?
It doesn’t really. When all is said and done, reenactment, costumed interpretation and Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are all just play and play-acting: attempting to bring the past alive and inform the public about the past in a different, immersive, and, hopefully, entertaining way. When reenactors ‘fight’ each other they don’t avoid hurting each other out of a sense of a chivalric code, as medieval combatants might (or might not!) have done, but because it is just a hobby.
What I would say is that it is the experience of being a reenactor, wearing the clothing and armour of the time, that helps to give a different understanding of some of the practicalities that shaped chivalric culture. I have also seen groups recreate a courtly meal, with each individual having their role in the presentation of the dishes, the carving of the table, and the serving of the lord and his lady. This kind of experiential learning not only brings the period alive for the public audience but also helps to contextualise and add depth to the sources that we as historians are reliant on for our understanding of the chivalric past.
Tell us about your book’s cover image.
The cover image comes from a very famous German manuscript called the Manesse Codex. It’s a collection of songs and poems written by the Minnesänger, a group of courtly and noble poets who write love songs. Each poem is accompanied by a ‘portrait’ of the poet in question, including the Holy Roman Emperor, kings, dukes, barons, and commoners. The one we picked, is of Duke Heinrich von Breslau, depicted at a tournament, in his armour, his helm, and shield carried by servants, accompanied by musicians and receiving a garland from the watching ladies. There was just something about it that managed to encapsulate so much of the vibrancy of chivalric culture, although, of course, chivalry wasn’t all pageant and pomp.
ROBERT W. JONES is Alumni Association Coordinator and tutor at Advanced Studies in England, an independent study abroad programme based in Bath, England. He is also a Visiting Scholar in History at Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.