Literature of the Chivalric Knights

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileade, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

Most people have an image of the medieval chivalric knight: the hero with impeccable grace and courtesy, saving damsels in distress while jousting for sport. The chivalric code guiding the conduct of knights was embodied in a wide range of literary sources. Investigate the genre of chivalric literature, from “courtesy books” to romances.

Sword on top of open book
(Image: Marcin-linfernum/Shutterstock)

A Wealth of Advice in the Courtesy Books

Even before the emergence of the genre of the chivalric romance, medieval clerics had attempted to use literature to reshape the medieval nobility. One of the most interesting precursors to the literature of chivalry was the “courtesy book.” Courtesy books emerged in the first half of the 12th century, written by clerics, and intended for high-ranking members of the medieval nobility. It contained a list of advice for members of the nobility, especially concerning table manners and personal behavior, that the nobility was expected to adopt. They advised medieval nobles not to speak while eating, in case the food fell out of their mouths, to refrain from complaining about food that was served to them, sticking fingers in the mustard, wiping their mouths with the tablecloth if there was one at hand, or blowing their noses into the tablecloth.

Most of this advice contained in the medieval courtesy books seems sound enough, but it may appear peculiar today. For instance, the nobles were instructed that if their faces itched while they attended a dinner party, they were not to scratch them using their hands. Instead, they were supposed to take a piece of bread, scratch the itch with it, and eat the bread to be polite.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, Wondrium.

If you were at a dinner party today and witnessed such behavior, you would probably be unnerved. But there’s a logic to this advice. In the Middle Ages, there were no individual dishes out of which people ate. Rather, there was one large communal dish into which everyone dipped bread, and ate whatever one could sop up. It was considered bad manners to scratch yourself and stick your hand into what was everyone else’s dinner. It was better to do the right thing: scratch it and eat the bread yourself, so no one else had to suffer as you were about to suffer for having eaten that piece of bread.

Courtesy books were somewhat superficial in their attempt to reshape the nobility, and they were a failure for the same reasons that the Peace and Truce of God movement failed. They were a nattering list of things knights and nobles should not do anymore. No one likes to be lectured in that manner. The courtesy books, written in Latin, were inaccessible to nobles in the 12th century, who likely couldn’t read it or any language.

Learn more about Augustines core teachings on the nature of language, good and evil, and free will

Life Lessons in the Chivalric Romance

A lady giving a favor to a knight about to do battle.
Chivalric romance explores the relationship between a knight’s love of martial prowess, his love of fighting, and his relationship with love of a lady. Painting – God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900. (Image: By Edmund Leighton – Sotheby’s Sale catalogue/Public domain)

The chivalric romance was vastly superior to the courtesy book in part because of the manner of its presentation. It contained thrilling adventures of chivalric heroes and consisted of engaging stories that drew listeners in. Unlike the courtesy book, which was intended to be read, the chivalric romance was intended to be performed orally, often composed in the vernacular languages, not in Latin, but in old French, a language that was verbally accessible to the medieval nobility. The nobles listened to the chivalric romances because they weren’t prescriptive guides, but instead were great stories that were easily understood.

The first romances appeared around 1150, the genre spreading like wildfire between 1150 and 1200. Romances were being written left and right in an increasingly greater geographical area. Perhaps the most famous author of chivalric romances during this pioneering period was a French author by the name of Chrétien de Troyes. De Troyes was a court chaplain attached to the court of the Count and Countess of Champagne in France, responsible for writing some of the most famous of the medieval chivalric romances. These included Erec and EnideYvain, also called The Knight with the Lion, and most famously Lancelot, also known as The Knight of the Cart. In these romances, de Troyes crafted some of the most memorable chivalric heroes, exploring the relationship between the knight’s love of martial prowess and his love of fighting, and his relationship with the love of a lady, as well as the ways these desires might interfere with and reinforce one another.

Learn more about the Chivalric Code

Delve into Chrétien’s Romances

Some of de Troyes’ romances are straightforward and to the point. Erec and Enide as well as Yvain, would both qualify as romances that caution against the knight neglecting his chivalric duties. In Erec and Enide, a young knight named Erec is so in love with his young wife that he cannot tear himself away from his marital bed. He forgoes martial prowess entirely, too occupied to go and fight as a knight should.

However, by neglecting his prowess, he loses his reputation. He puts in danger his wife’s love for him, and the rest of the romance consists of the adventures he undertakes to regain his prowess, which equals the love of his wife. The hero achieves the right balance in his life between his love of fighting and the love of the woman to whom he is to dedicate himself.

Learn more about how de Troyes pioneered the genre of the medieval romance

Yvain, too, wrestles with the issue of how to attain the right balance between fighting and loving but approaches it from a different angle. Whereas Erec neglects prowess for his wife, Yvain does the opposite. After marriage, he leaves to partake in tournaments, and he is so wrapped up in jousting and fighting with others that he forgets to return home on time. In response, his wife leaves him. Yvain goes mad and becomes a savage animal. Having lost the love of his wife, the rest of the romance is dedicated to his attempts to recapture her love, behaving as a chivalric knight should. Both Erec and Enide and Yvain deal with courtly love in the context of marriage that ends happily.

The most famous romance that Chrétien de Troyes wrote is Lancelot, also called The Knight of the Cart. (Image: Amy Thewamy – Flickr: Lancelot/Public domain)

Not all chivalric romances are as direct in their messages. The ambiguity and complexity of de Troyes’ most famous work, Lancelot, is still argued over today. Lancelot is complex because his love does not occur within the context of marriage. Lancelot is a knight of the Round Table, and he is in love with Guenevere, the wife of his lord, King Arthur. He does not love Guenevere from afar, certainly not when he can help it. Theirs is, in fact, an adulterous relationship, a consummated love, and a heated love affair. 

Lancelot’s behavior is odd during the course of the story. His devotion to Guenevere knows no bounds. He discovers a single strand of her hair on a comb. He is so overcome by love that he jabs himself in the eye repeatedly with it so that he can see it up close. Scholars wonder if de Troyes was mocking courtly love in this poem, because, in this instance, it was an adulterous, consummated love taking place outside the context of marriage; or whether de Troyes was serious in depicting Lancelot as the ultimate chivalric hero, one who would go to any length, even though the love of his life was the wife of his lord.

Perhaps it was because of this complexity that Lancelot remains a figure in popular culture today, whereas Erec and Enide, and Yvain, are forgotten by all but medieval scholars.

Common Questions About Chivalry in Literature

Q: What was the early nature of chivalry?

Chivalry began as a written code of conduct in romantic literature by scribes that translated into the reality of knights’ actual manner of being.

Q: How does courtly love involve chivalry?

Courtly love was a type of game of social practices involving the seduction and beginnings of love developed during the Middle Ages, which chivalrous knights and ladies participated in and was considered right and proper.

Q: Does chivalry exist today?

When a man holds a door open for a woman or puts his coat over her when she is cold are examples of a type of chivalry. Modern society has less use for chivalry than medieval society due to the lack of violence and social distortion.

This article was updated on October 23, 2019

Keep Reading
The Intersection of Screenwriting and the Legend of King Arthur – The Torch Podcast
Who Invented the Middle Ages?
Why the Middle Ages Matter Today