Chivalry and Violence in Late Medieval Castile
An interview with Samuel A. Claussen
Dr Claussen, thank you very much for joining us in this issue. Would you please describe your studies to date and tell us what made you choose the Middle Ages?
Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to participate. As an undergraduate I studied history at a school without any medieval curriculum and I suppose that absence intrigued me and led me to learn more about it. I initially entered medieval history with an interest in Wales, due partly to my own personal connections to Wales and partly to an appreciation for Arthurian literature. Many of the modern iterations of the Arthurian tradition paint such a rosy and romantic image of the Middle Ages that I was drawn in to the stories of knights and kings, seeking to understand how things worked in medieval Europe. This naturally led me to investigating the medieval sources themselves. By the time I’d finished my master’s degree in Aberystwyth, I was deeply enmeshed in medieval history and culture.
Your book contends that violence was inherent in the late Middle Ages, arguing against recent theories that claim the period was relatively peaceful.
That’s right. I do think that violence was a regular part of the European Middle Ages. I think that medievalists sometimes fall in love with the Middle Ages and feel compelled to defend it, leading us to emphasize its admirable qualities. But I would argue that even if we love the topic of our studies, we need to be honest in assessing it. The literature, chronicles, and material culture of the Middle Ages tell a story of a violent world. I wouldn’t say that the Middle Ages were necessarily more violent than antiquity or modernity, but I do think that we need to acknowledge the violence, even the brutality, that permeated European civilization in this period.
What made you focus your case on Spain and on Castile in particular?
As with my attraction to medieval history generally, I came to Castilian history both through my own ignorance and a tenuous personal connection. By the time I resolved to pursue a Ph.D., I knew very little about the Iberian world and wanted to learn more. There is a lot of good history on medieval Iberia, written in both Spanish and English. But the particular question of chivalry and violence has been studied significantly less in the Anglophone world. I wanted to learn more and also share the story of Castile with my peers in the field who are so familiar with England and France. I chose Castile rather than the Crown of Aragon, Portugal, Navarre, or Granada largely because of my own language skills and because of the central role that Castile would play going into the modern world. As for a personal connection, I grew up in rural New Mexico, one of the frontiers of the Spanish Empire. And while I learned a bit about Spanish history in grade school, we almost never discussed what came before Spain. I wanted to explore the longer history of my home, in a manner of speaking.
Tell us how you came to identify chivalry and “its knightly practitioners” as the causes of Castile’s troubles.
A good chunk of the scholarship on this period in Castilian history highlights either the weakness of individual kings as the cause of Castile’s troubles or larger economic and social forces. As I read the chronicles of the period, though (which, admittedly, were largely written by chivalric men), they told a lot of stories about individual knights and men-at-arms. Knights and the chivalric elite drove their understanding of their world. If we take that perspective, we suddenly start to see that knightly values such as honor, prowess, and lineage play an outsized role in the events of the period. Dynastic wars that destabilized the politics of the kingdom often boiled down to slighted honor among the knightly nobility. The whole idea of holy war against Islam, which became so important in the 15th century, was a crucial part of the chivalric identity. And even after removing myself from the explicitly chivalric sources, other sources confirm this approach. Peasants and clerics do not necessarily lament general economic disruption or the weakness of kings, but the violence perpetrated by individual knights and their retinues.
When compared to the rest of Europe at the time, were conditions in Castile exceptional?
Chivalry was certainly a phenomenon across much of Europe and in western Europe the similarities from place to place are much more remarkable than the differences. Several major characteristics, such as endemic war, social tensions and mobility, and dynastic strife, were certainly witnessed in England, France, and Italy in this period. Castile’s geopolitical situation was a bit unique largely because of the real presence of a neighboring Muslim kingdom. No other kingdom in late medieval western Europe shared this experience and I would argue that this made certain chivalric characteristics – especially the drive for holy war against Islam – much more profound for Castilians than for others. It’s true that any European knight could consider crusading to the Holy Land or to northern Europe, but in Castile, the long Islamic presence crystallized into a much grander part of the individual and corporate culture and ideology than it did in other parts of Europe.
If so, why did its knights feel empowered to act as they did? Had they embraced – or perverted – a version of chivalry all their own?
I do think that the European-wide ideology of chivalry empowered knights by its very nature. Knights in France, England, Florence, and the Iberian Peninsula regularly express the idea that their martial profession gave them a great deal of latitude in their behaviour. One of Edward I of England’s barons, when asked by the royal government by what right he claimed his lands and lordships, reputedly grasped his ancestral sword, claiming that such was the only justification he needed. The late medieval Breton knight Olivier de Clisson’s motto was “Because I like it”. I wouldn’t say that Castilian (or European) knights had perverted chivalry. Rather, our own modern understanding of chivalry is somewhat distorted. Chivalry encouraged knights to defend or augment their personal and familial honor with couched lance or sword in hand. Any who would trample that honor – fellow knights, Muslim neighbors, the king himself – would face the chivalric wrath.
Was chivalry the driver for the chaos in Castile or did it instead provide convenient cover?
This is a fascinating question and a sort of Gordian knot for the study of these large ideas. In a sense, were men (and women) violent to begin with and formulated ideas to justify their violence? Or were men (and women) largely peaceful and driven to violence by existing ideas. I think both are true. There are some excellent examples of knights who were clearly hungry for political power or economic advantage and likely would have pursued those interests with or without the ideological justifications provided by chivalry. Yet they only existed in a context of the chivalric world, so it is unsurprising that they used the language and norms of their day to explain or justify their behaviour. On the other hand, there are clear examples of knights who wondered what the right thing to do was based on chivalric morality. Should they fight with their Portuguese neighbors? Should they rise up against the king’s authority? Chivalry was not simply a code of behaviour but a dynamic source of debate and discussion about knightly activity.
Did the Church have any power to intervene or was the code of chivalry beyond even its influence?
Clerical figures and the institutional Church at large certainly worked diligently to intervene in chivalric behaviour and ideas. And I think they were sometimes successful, though not as often as they’d like. Ecclesiastical influences on chivalry, though, could encourage both violence and peace. So, for example, Castilian knights were granted crusading-style indulgences if they fought against the Muslims of Iberia. In that case, the Church had a long history of encouraging violence and, indeed, helping to develop the powerful religious element of the chivalric mind. However, clerics such as the Bishop of Burgos also appealed to knights to stop fighting amongst themselves, hoping for a reduction of violence within Christendom itself. I would argue that this never came to fruition.
What influence, if any, did events at Castile have on the eventual formation of the great Spanish Empire that followed?
The influence of Trastámara Castile on the Spanish Empire was enormous. In my book, I present some evidence that the success of someone like Isabel of Castile was rooted in her ability to overcome the challenges of her predecessors by co-opting and redirecting the power of the chivalric elite. Without the royal government coming to terms with the realm’s chivalric violence, I think it would be nigh impossible to consider Castile not only flourishing, but establishing a global empire only a few decades after a rather nasty dynastic civil war. Unravelling the relationships between chivalry, violence, holy war, and the central government was absolutely essential for the foundations of the Spanish state and the stability of the Trastámara and ultimately the Habsburg government. I think this is not simply a modern observation, but something that people such as Isabel of Castile and those around her understand quite profoundly.
What is next for you now? Do you plan more work in this field?
I do plan to continue examining questions of violence, ideology, statecraft, and chivalry in the Spanish world. I am currently expanding my own understanding of Castilian and Spanish history forward a few decades from the 15th century and I hope to study the relationship between chivalry, violence, and the Habsburg state in the 16th century. I’m especially interested in the ways the chivalric conquistadors of the New World and the Pacific understood their relationship with the royal government, with their knightly predecessors, and with the “new” peoples of the world. I refuse to abandon my identity as a medievalist, so perhaps we can call this post-late medieval history?
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
My favourite method is seeing publishers and their lists at conferences! In our COVID world, I have sorely missed this. In the meantime, mailing lists have been absolutely crucial to me as well as social media groups which aim to circulate the latest titles. Publishers being aware of such online groups could be one way to continue staying connected.
SAMUEL A. CLAUSSEN is Assistant Professor of History at California Lutheran University.
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