The changing political and practical realities motivated Europe’s warriors to espouse ideas that went far beyond the knowledge of how to fight effectively on horseback in the service of one’s lord. This new warrior class of chevaliers, or knights, owed allegiance to their lords, and came to regard themselves as a special military caste with its own rules of conduct.
At the end of the 9th century, after the fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire—Charlemagne’s empire—the collapse of this quite centralized administrative state was further hastened by Viking raids, economic disintegration, and the growing power of predatory lords who protected their territories, families, and followers by building castles. These strongholds came to dominate the landscape during the 10th and 11th centuries, as the level of competitive violence increased. In Italy, rival families even built castles and towers in the middle of towns. Eventually, some non-noble castellans (‘castle-holders’) acquired enough power and booty to challenge more established lords, laying claim not only to property and influence but also to rank.
In addition to building and holding castles, both the older aristocracy and these self-made men needed the help of warrior bands to enforce their claims to power. Accordingly, each maintained a private army heavily equipped with the new weaponry and armor that the more widespread availability of iron—and new techniques for smelting it—made possible.
Act of Homage
From their castles, lords (domini) constructed dominions, lordships, and consolidated their holdings by entrusting their men with the defense of territory and rewarding them with gifts and the opportunity to win lands and booty through organized raiding of frontier territories.
The gift implied that the recipient was a subordinate and could be regarded as the giver’s vassal or ‘bound man’: a relationship dramatized in the act of homage, a powerful ceremony that made a knight the homme (‘man’) of his lord.
Typically, the vassal would kneel and place his hands together in a position of prayer, and the lord would cover the clasped hands with his own. He would then raise up his new ‘man’ and exchange a kiss with him. The symbolic importance of these gestures is clear; the lord (dominus) was the dominating figure. He could protect and raise up his man, and also discipline him. The role of the vassal, meanwhile, was to support the lord and do nothing to incur his displeasure.
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Elevated Formulation of Chivalry
Meanwhile, alongside these evolving arrangements, many leaders within the Church were calling on knights to observe peace and avoid targeting defenseless peasants, women, and children—as well as Church property. As part of this larger effort to control the violent competition for land and wealth, both secular and ecclesiastical rulers began to promote a new set of values—not only bravery and loyalty but generosity and civility, too.
This elevated formulation of chivalry appealed to knights because it distinguished them from all the other ‘new men’ who were emerging as powerful figures in this period, especially merchants and bureaucrats. It also appealed to the older aristocracy, whose status in this socially mobile world no longer depended on descent from high-born ancestors; families who did have such ancestors did not necessarily have the wealth to maintain a noble lifestyle, whereas many families who lived as nobility did not have prestigious ancestors. For all these classes of men, the new ideal of chivalry offered a way of legitimating their social positions.
Emphasis on Courtliness
Closely linked to this new ideology was an emphasis on courtoisie, ‘courtliness’, the refined behavior appropriate to a princely court, whether that of a lord or a bishop. This stemmed in part from practical necessity; a great lord who could support a knightly retinue had households full of energetic, lusty young men whose appetites had to be controlled.
Hence, the emerging code of chivalry encouraged its adherents to view noblewomen as objects of veneration who could be wooed and won only by polished manners, poetry, and valiant deeds; in other words, they had to be courted. (Non-noblewomen, though, were fair game and could be taken by force if they did not yield willingly to the desires of a knight.)
Chivalry and Tribute to Women
As is known, whole new genres of song and storytelling emerged in the 12th century to celebrate this allied culture of chivalry and courtliness. They were also attuned to the interests and concerns of women—threats to women’s independence, enforced marriages, disputed inheritances, new fashions in dress, and fantasies of power.
The heroine of one anonymous romance is a woman who dresses as a male knight and travels the world performing valiant deeds. Other heroines accompany their husbands on crusades or quests, defend their castles against attack, or have supernatural powers.
Much of the lyric song tradition initiated by the southern French troubadours and the northern French trouvères also displays special sensitivity to feminine beauty as well as that of the natural world, and pays eloquent tribute to the political and sexual powers of women.
An example can be the famous lyric of Bernart de Ventadorn, one of the protégés of Eleanor of Aquitaine:
When leaves and grass are lush with renewed growth
The beauty of my lady blossoms forth …
I am her slave, her vassal, she my lord;
I pay her homage, hope to have a word
Of kindness, or of love, exchanged for mine
But she is cruel: she will not make a sign.
Common Questions about Allied Culture of Chivalry and Courtliness
The act of homage was a ceremony that made a knight the homme (‘man’) of his lord. Typically, the vassal would kneel and place his hands together in a position of prayer, and the lord would cover the clasped hands with his own. He would then raise up his new ‘man’ and exchange a kiss with him.
Following was the symbolic importance of the gestures in the act of homage: the lord (dominus) was the dominating figure, and he could protect and raise up his man, and also discipline him. The role of the vassal, meanwhile, was to support the lord and do nothing to incur his displeasure.
‘Courtliness’ was the refined behavior appropriate to a princely court, whether that of a lord or a bishop. This emerging code of chivalry encouraged its adherents to view noblewomen as objects of veneration who could be wooed and won only by polished manners, poetry, and valiant deeds.