By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary
The High Middle Ages were home to a class of warrior aristocrats perched atop high medieval society, but these nobles were a far cry from the chivalric knights that one often associates with the era. Where did the chivalric ideal come from? Take a close look at origins and nature of the chivalric code.
A New Heroic Ideal
In the High Middle Ages, chivalric knights who were able to restrain their violent impulses and channel their violence into a good cause did so because certain 12th-century authors elaborated a code of conduct or ethics that medieval nobles were expected to follow. Attempting to curb the violence and warfare that was plaguing Europe, authors created the chivalric ideal often associated with the High Middle Ages, blending older, heroic ideals with new, ecclesiastical interests. By combining elements that appealed to nobles with elements that protected the people from nobles, medieval thinkers created the chivalric ideal.
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Peace and Truce of God movement did not appeal to medieval knights because it condemned and restricted actions they were not permitted to do. Throughout the High Middle Ages, certain members of the clergy moved away from this condemnatory stance. Instead of simply telling knights what they could not do, they began to suggest there were things knights could do to make them better individuals. Knights were taught that their ability to fight could be put to good use on behalf of and within medieval society.
Learn more about how small innovations and events could and did have huge effects during the High Middle Ages
Chivalry, as it emerged during the 12th century, was a potent weapon in the fight against unrestrained noble violence because the codes offered knights the opportunity to play a positive role within society. A disclaimer is necessary before attempting to define chivalry: although chivalric literature is filled with ogres, dragons, and highly improbable events, it is complex, despite seeming fairytale-ish. There’s a great deal of variety within the different chivalric romances. Certain authors, including Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France, were able to craft many different kinds of chivalric heroes, each of which had his own peculiar characteristics. The variety among different authors could be even greater. This makes the attempt to define one chivalry perilous. There were almost as many different chivalries as there were chivalric romances.
Even so, common elements recur again and again in chivalric romances, both in terms of the qualities the knight should possess, and what the knight was supposed to do with these good qualities.
Qualities chivalric knights were supposed to possess are stock qualities one finds in heroic literature of every period. Knights were expected to be brave, honest, loyal, and generous, and to display prowess. Fighting well was not sufficient; chivalric heroes fought spectacularly well. They didn’t simply lop off one limb with a single blow from a sword. Such heroes would cut a torso in half or cleave a person down the middle.
Learn more about knights; the armored warriors who came to form a hereditary aristocracy with unique legal privileges
The chivalric ideal, the behavior of knights, and how they were to employ these qualities, was somewhat more distinctive. Chivalric knights were expected to be courteous, to speak well, and exhibit good manners, doing things that heroes of the Early Middle Ages, such as Beowulf, did not. The former were expected to use these qualities to protect those who could not protect themselves. Knights were supposed to use their prowess, loyalty, and generosity to defend clerics, peasants, widows, virgins, orphans, or people who were any combination of the above. The more defenseless, the better. Presented with the opportunity to leap to someone’s defense, the chivalric knight seized the opportunity gladly.
There was one group of people to whom chivalric knights were supposed to devote more attention than any other: young, sometimes single women. Chivalric knights were supposed to engage in a form of behavior that historians call “courtly love.”
Love and Romance
The chivalric hero was supposed to fall in love and find a lady to whom he would devote all of his attention, to whom he would obey in all things. He would devote his life to winning her esteem. Once he had won her affection and respect, he would find himself ennobled to her in the moral, rather than the legal sense. The knight would find himself becoming a better person from having fallen in love with his lady, and be even more inspired to defend the defenseless.
Courtly love, the love that a chivalric knight was supposed to feel, could come in different guises in different romances. Sometimes it was a very chaste and platonic love, a love from a distance. In some instances, the love was neither chaste nor platonic but fully consummate, and in other stories, it was love within a marriage; certain chivalric heroes marry and were expected to marry, their ladies. Sometimes the love they had was unabashedly adulterous. The lady with whom you loved didn’t have to be your wife, but the wife of your lord, for example. Chivalric authors differed among themselves as to which type of love was the best form of courtly love.
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How medieval authors tried to transmit these ideals and values to medieval knights was in the literary genre of chivalric romance, the first of which appeared around the middle of the 12th century. The authors of chivalric romances came from diverse backgrounds. They could be men or women, clerics or laypeople. One group of people heavily over-represented among the authors of chivalric romance and included some of the most famous medieval authors were the court chaplains of medieval Europe.
Priests and Clerics
Chaplains were clerics or priests attached to noble courts, the court of a count or a duke for example, and served a specific noble individual. Because of their function, court chaplains were a peculiar group within medieval Europe. They were clerics with ecclesiastical interests at heart. Because they were attached to specific courts, however, they were perhaps the most worldly of the medieval clergy, constantly moving in aristocratic circles. They knew and lived with the nobility. Due to their background and training, court chaplains were almost ideally suited to create a code of ethics and literature that balanced appeal to the nobles, and an attempt to inculcate alien values into the nobility—ecclesiastical values, especially the value of peace and meekness, the need to restrain one’s violence.
Learn more about how the emergence the chivalric romance in literature. changed actual behavior
Even before the emergence of the chivalric romance genre, medieval clerics had attempted to use literature to reshape the medieval nobility. One of the most interesting precursors to the literary genre of the chivalric romance was something known as the “courtesy book.” Courtesy books emerged in the first half of the 12th century. Written by clerics, they were generally written for and often dedicated to high-ranking members of the medieval nobility. A courtesy book contained a list of advice for members of the nobility, especially advice concerning table manners and personal behavior, that the nobility was expected to adopt.
With these courtesy books and romances outlining the chivalric code of ideal behavior, clerics hoped to maintain peace and order in reaction to the violence of the era.
Common Questions About Chivalry and Knights
Yes. The Code of Chivalry enacted a moral system wherein the knights would behave according to bravery, courtesy, and absolute deference to women.
Yes. Chivalry was a way of behaving that was taught and enacted during the Middle Ages by knights to balance the horrors of the viciousness and death of the Dark Ages.
No. Chivalry was a code of conduct for males alone to protect and honor moral aspects of life and the act of conducting affairs.
In today’s world, the terms have changed and the living environment has become far less dangerous. Not only do knights not exist anymore, but the code of conduct for chivalry has become one of manners and etiquette in dealing with people.