In our latest blog post, Dr Samuel Claussen recalls the origins of his new book which reveals the role played by chivalric ideology, and its violent results, in late medieval Castile, where far from inhibiting violent behavior, the code of chivalry instead appears to have encouraged it. Dr Claussen’s book is the first in English to tackle this subject – for which we thank, in part, five nameless welders….
Sharing a room in a London hostel with five welders in the summer of 2008, I took to reading Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur to pass the time when the archives were closed. Aside from the colorful stories, the romantic affairs, and the model knights, what struck me about Malory’s work was the constant bloodshed. Arthur’s knights were constantly fighting one another, hacking each other’s mail to pieces and bleeding one another dry before offering mercy and becoming fast friends. My fascination with the violence itself and the author’s apparent effort to modify that violent behavior fascinated me. Over the next ten years I wrote a book about it.
My book examines chivalry and violence in Castile between roughly 1369 and 1492. My goal was to see how different aspects of knightly identity were bound up with violence, how deeply violent ideas influenced knightly behavior, and what the effects of chivalric violence were on Castilian society. The results were more revealing than I expected. Not only in politics and religion, but in social hierarchy, economic status, and even gender identity, violence was at the core of the chivalric identity just as Spain was on the cusp of its global empire and golden age.
As I worked through the source material (chronicles, imaginative literature, poetry, petitions to the royal government), I was struck by the complexity of the topic and the ways in which modern historians have evaluated the sources. Many of my sources prescribe ideal behavior to their chivalric audience, imploring them not to slaughter innocent peasants, fight against fellow Christians, or rape women. And the literary exemplars of chivalric behavior (figures such as Amadís de Gaula) make explicit their commitment to such ideals. What do we do with such prescriptions? Did knights and men-at-arms live up to the ideals of their age? Or does the need for constant reminders suggest that knightly behavior was badly in need of reform? Modern historians have struggled with this very issue, arguing over whether chivalry served to make chivalrous gentlemen out of glandular brutes or served to encourage knights to pursue their own ends through violent behavior.
My sources make it difficult to believe that chivalry helped to appeal to the better angels of our nature in creating a more peaceful society. Yet I am reluctant to suggest that the Middle Ages were necessarily more brutal, childlike, or ignorant than many other periods. Rather, I have become more convinced that in the Middle Ages as much as in the modern period, the better angels of our nature are in constant dialogue and competition with the worse and much more violent angels of our nature.
This guest post was written by Samuel A. Claussen, Assistant Professor of History at California Lutheran University.