Too Good to be True?: The good knight Jacques de Lalaing

Guest post written by Nigel Bryant, translator of the book The Book of the Deeds of the Good Knight Jacques de Lalaing.

Nigel Bryant examines the evidence for a 15th-century model of ideal knighthood.


“The good knight Jacques de Lalaing”.  How good can a good knight be?  This biography of the 15th-century knight Jacques de Lalaing, a stellar figure at the court of Duke Philip (“the Good”, incidentally) of Burgundy, presents him as a paragon of chivalry in every respect.  

The education he receives is a model for the instruction of all knights; he’s eloquent in speech beyond his years, his conduct perfect, his behaviour towards ladies and maidens impeccable; he’s unbeatable in combat, and sent forth by the duke across Europe from Portugal to Scotland to take on all challengers as a representative of Burgundian knighthood.   

And most famously – modelling himself in turn on the heroes of epic and romance – in true knight-errant fashion he takes up a stand on a river island in Burgundy and, in an elaborately staged series of combats on horseback and on foot, defends ‘the Fountain of Tears’ against all comers for an entire year.  This perfect knight, as glamorous in his time as any sporting hero of today, then gives Duke Philip dazzling service in his war against the rebels of Ghent (before being killed, ironically, by an unglamorous cannon ball).   


Is this not, one might be forgiven for thinking, all too good to be true, an idealised account full of literary tropes?  That assumption may well be unwise.  The danger with succumbing too readily to scepticism is that The Book of the Deeds of Jacques de Lalaing isn’t a biography at all.  It’s not a work written by a single hand, by a poet indulging in romantic whimsy.  It’s a dossier, a compilation (probably made by a herald, himself an eyewitness) of existing documents including heralds’ records, a detailed letter written by Jehan Lefèvre – King of Arms of the Order of the Golden Fleece – and a previously lost section of Lefèvre’s fine Chronicle.  


And the prime concern of heralds and Kings of Arms was accurate record.  If they record that Jacques and his deeds were as they describe (and they describe them in fascinating, eyewitness detail), then we have good reason to trust that – however improbable they may sometimes seem – this remarkable knight and his deeds were exactly as they say.   

If at times they sound like the tropes of epic and romance, it’s not just because those tropes were the idiom for recording the deeds of an outstanding figure; it’s also because those tropes were the subject’s own models for his actions and his life.  What reason do we have to doubt that he followed those models to the utmost?  Why should he not have done?  We shouldn’t fear being charged with naivety for trusting the accuracy of this dossier.  The ideals and actions of the time were not our own.  


And whether we choose to trust it or not, this book is exceptional source material, giving vivid, detailed insights into the outlook and behaviour of the 15th-century nobility.  It shows in striking fashion that the ideals of chivalry were still very much alive even then, even as the nature of warfare changed.   

Jacques de Lalaing was a perfect embodiment of those ideals, and this dossier, the Book of His Deeds, presented him to his contemporaries as a complete model that was real, attainable and still absolutely relevant: a “good knight” indeed. 

NIGEL BRYANT is well known for his lively and accurate versions of medieval French works. He was awarded the 2019 Norris J. Lacy Prize for outstanding editorial achievement in Arthurian studies. 

His latest translation is The Book of the Deeds of the Good Knight Jacques de Lalaing.  

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