Scholars in the mid-20th century hypothesized that many of the new art forms and attitudes that characterize the code of chivalry in medieval Europe must have been the result of the crusades, and might even have originated in Muslim lands. The idea of courtly love, the songs of the troubadours, and the more polished manners of the warrior class, all were attributed to contact with the Islamicate world.
Influence and Patronage of Women
While some of the older arguments were reductive and naïve, new efforts to recover these connections through the study of art, material culture, music, and languages (among other sources) is enriching what we know about the shared culture of medieval elites. It is also breaking down longstanding assumptions about the existence of an inevitable, hard-and-fast Christian-Muslim binary: assumptions that have more to do with medieval and modern polemics than with complex, day-to-day interactions of people in real time.
These interactions, crucial as they clearly are, still don’t explain why the culture of chivalry in Europe came to revolve around, and be significantly shaped by, the influence and patronage of women. Chivalric entertainments revolved as much around love as war, and featured women as powerful protagonists. They were also being authored or instigated by women—notably the lais of Marie de France, which date from the 1160s; and the chivalric romances of Chrétien de Troyes, who attributes the inspiration for his tales, and at least one plot, to his patroness.
Chrétien’s patroness was Marie of Champagne, a daughter of England’s Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine by her first husband, King Louis VII of France.
As Chrétien avers, in the opening lines of this tale, The Knight of the Cart—the story of Lancelot and Guinevere:
“Because my lady of Champagne
Wants a romance to entertain,
I will attempt it willingly.”
According to Chrétien, his role as the versifier of this tale constitutes a negligible aspect of the authorial project undertaken by Marie. As many scholars have suggested, this could reflect his own discomfort with the subject-matter of this particular romance, which revolves around an openly adulterous love affair. And yet he cannot refuse his noble patroness’s powerful command.
One can compare this striking and quite rapid ascent of women to the roles of chivalric heroines and authors to an exactly contemporary change in the game of chess. In the Asian courts where it originated, the equivalent of the queen was a male figure, the king’s chief minister or vizier, who could move only diagonally and one square at a time. Beginning in 12th century Europe, however, this piece became the queen, and the only figure powerful enough to move all over the board.
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Sacralization of Medieval Chivalry
Another aspect of medieval chivalry that can’t be explained with reference to Muslim influences (direct or mediated) is its sacralization: the ways in which the characters of chivalric romance are often revealed as Christ figures, and the representation of chivalrous behavior as an outgrowth of Christian morality and an alternative path to holiness.
Marie’s lais, for example, are full of Christological imagery even though (as she tells us) she is adapting them from (pagan) Breton folktales. In one lai, the Christ figure is a noble knight who is killed by the jealous husband of the lady he loves; for, as Marie makes clear, true immorality is when women are mistreated or mismatched with men who do not deserve them.
Authors of Chivalric Romances
Although we know little about the authors of these chivalric romances, scholars speculate that Marie de France may have been an abbess in Anglo-Norman England, perhaps a noblewoman with ties to the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s also speculated that Chrétien (Christian) of Troyes was a Jewish convert to Christianity in that city, and hence eager to show his bona fides by weaving Christian imagery into his stories.
Most 12th century authors, even those composing in the vernacular, would have had clerical or monastic training. Indeed, the medievalist Stephen Jaeger has located the emergence of courtly ideals in the bishops’ courts and monastery schools of the 11th and 12th centuries, where the sons of noblemen and future clerics and diplomats were given an education in manners as well as scripture. Even so exalted a person as the philosopher Peter Abelard, regarded as the founder of the University of Paris and famous for his eloquent teaching, was known as much in his own day as the composer of love songs.
Preaching Christian Precepts
Peter of Blois, a prominent cleric and diplomat known for his writing popular romances, also strove to capture the attention of lay audiences far beyond the cloister or the court, using stories of chivalry to preach Christian precepts. He preached compassion for the heroes of popular romance as a form of spiritual training, opening the heart to the knowledge of God’s mercy and the love of one’s fellow man. In so doing, he makes any worldly performance a potential vehicle for redemption.
However, this was not an idea that met with the universal approval of other clerics, who were concerned about the disproportionate interest shown in chivalry, compared to theology, among medieval congregations.
Clergy who wanted to be effective transmitters of the Church’s message needed to make the tragedy of the suffering Christ at least as compelling as that of Lancelot or Tristan. So, within a couple of generations, the warlike chevalerie became a set of chivalric that emphasized respect for women and their intellects and honor; the veneration, if not the imitation, of Christ; compassion for the downtrodden; and the link between knightly valor and good behavior.
Common Questions about Code of Chivalry in Medieval Europe
The first is why the culture of chivalry in Europe came to revolve around, and be significantly shaped by, the influence and patronage of women; and the other is medieval chivalry’s sacralization.
Stephen Jaeger located the emergence of courtly ideals in the bishops’ courts and monastery schools of the 11th and 12th centuries, where the sons of noblemen and future clerics and diplomats were given an education in manners as well as scripture.
Peter of Blois strove to capture the attention of lay audiences far beyond the cloister or the court, using stories of chivalry to preach Christian precepts. He preached compassion for the heroes of popular romance as a form of spiritual training, opening the heart to the knowledge of God’s mercy and the love of one’s fellow man.