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The Eternal Shifting of Chivalry

Abigale Upham
16 March 2013
Professor H. Blurton
English 156
The idea of chivalry has been with us for hundreds of years. However, rather than being a
consistent set of rules Chivalry has managed to constantly morph throughout different historical
and literary periods into a multitude of theories regarding idealized conduct. The first attempt to
develop a sort of Chivalry is seen in stories like The Book of Roland where is is framed as a
loyalty between two men, typically a king and his vassal, and places a high value on maintaining
honor and religion. This origination is later tested and teased by Arthurian Romances that begin
to define chivalry less through heroic war scenes and more through the personal pursuits of
knights attempting to come to a deeper understanding of self, love and lust. Authors eventually
strayed even further from Chretien Romances by drafting handbooks that served to guide society
through issues of love, honor, battle, and manner through what they termed chivalric qualities
and behaviors. While each phase of Chivalry is shaped by its own unique set of qualities, none
are free from underlying tensions including questions of what pretenses and actions can qualify
under the hood of Chivalry, discrepancies in selfish or selfless motives, and a difficulty in
applying idealized heroism to real world happenings.
The Song of Roland is still considered to be the national epic of France. To this day it is
seen as a long adventurous poem featuring a chivalric French hero who dies in combat for his
Christian religion and country. A closer reading of the original text leads us to wonder what
exactly the intertwined concept of hero and chivalry produced by the story is and how successful
this definition proves to be by the end. One major facet necessary to earning a heroic title and
being seen as a noble chivalric man lies in ones ability to express prowess on the battle field. A
greater part of the epic features repeated extreme fighting scenes where soldiers are sliced in half
from their helmets through to their horses. Roland is pictured in a number of these scenes
dominating and defiling the opposing pagan forces. His heroism is continually represented
through his his warrior prowesses, regardless of if his army is winning or losing.
Interestingly, prowess in battle is only chivalric if the opponent is of equal status to ones
own. A key technique used to obtain a reputation of chivalry and honor is to make Charlemagne
and Rolands battles appear noble by allowing the Muslims some level of worthiness as well.
The text spends a great deal of the introduction developing the Pagans as a very general yet
incredibly worthy rival. When he is mounted on his horse, He bears his arms with great ferocity.
He is well known for his courage; Had he been a Christian, he would have been a worthy
baron (896-899). Pagans and Christians are represented in a stunningly similar manner both
possessing wisdom, nobility, prowess-in-battle, riches, and strong men. Once equality is
established, the text ascribes a nature of evil to the Pagans to give Charlemagne and Roland an
excuse for battle and a means of seeming chivalric and honorable through their victories. We
are right, but these wretched Pagans are wrong (1212).
The extreme importance of honor in being chivalric is driven home in Rolands dramatic
demise. The text grants Roland an escape from being shamefully killed by a Pagan by having the
horn kill him instead thus securing his status, honor, and therefore his chivalric title. Roland
feels that his death is near; Through his ears his brains are seeping. He beseeches God to
summon all his peers, And then prays (2259-262).
As also brought about by the depiction of Rolands death, chivalrys beginnings were not
only influenced by strength and honor on the battle field but also by Christianity. The Song of
Roland embraces a strong loyalty to the Christian religion throughout the story embedding it as a
quality of a truly chivalric knight. The epic seems to be informing society of a worthy and
desired code of conduct sought at least in part through religion. It insinuates that those who
follow will also be rewarded through religion by saving ones soul and granting entrance to
This intertwining of religion and honor as chivalric qualities knights and society should
try to assume is represented in Rolands first refusal to blow the horn and instead save his name,
honor and loyalty to his king, and his following death where the epic rewards Rolands decisions
by depicting heavens carrying his soul up to heaven. Before his own demise, Roland makes sure
that each lesser chivalric hero in the story also dies a rightly Christian death. During his own
death Roland turns his face towards Spain so everyone can say he died facing his enemy,
confesses his sin, and offers his right glove to God. These behaviors mime his relationship with
Charlemagne and, more broadly, the correct relationship a knight should maintain with his
king. These reoccurring parallels of chivalric qualities and religious redemption set Christianity
as a shaping factor of chivalry in this time.
Religious loyalty undoubtedly holds its influence on chivalry, but a strong sense of male
loyalty is also a sturdy and crucial component. Today our depiction of chivalry tends to involve a
man behaving in gentlemanly manner towards a woman. On the other hand, The Song of Roland
features very few woman and none are of much value to the plot line. One of the few female
characters we are introduced to is a maiden who instantly dies of grief once she catches word of
Rolands death. Such scenes say nothing of a mans dedication to or even interest in women. All
we learn is that without man, woman is nothing.
Instead of emphasizing marriage, love or lust between a man and a woman the text
focuses almost completely on a certain marriage between two men: a king and his knight.
Relations between men even follow our modern day tradition of the marriage ceremony
including vows to love, honor and obey followed by a kiss. It is a pledge, but a pledge of a vassal
to his king. Roland often reassures Charlemagne that he could not love him any more, a theme
we see in later romantic episodes of courtly love where the knight is sick with passion for a
maiden. This pledge of loyalty is seen as far more important, respected, desired and ultimately
chivalric than is a relationship with or pledge to any woman.
Chivalry seems to have not been born out of romance, but instead from politics which
lies in contrast to our typical beliefs in the 21st century. This theory is further supported by the
structure of the epic into about 3 sections: Ganelons treason, Rolands death and the French loss,
and Charlemagnes revenge and French victory. Each section posses an air of chivalric pledges
between knights and their kings along with a warning of the rewards and punishments that
transpire from loyalty and treason.
Naturally, the beginning of any social phenomenon does not go without its tensions and
the development of chivalry is no exception. Its religious and vassalage foundations can be
questioned with regards to their perceived motives of loyalty and selflessness. Historically The
Song of Roland and similar epics featuring chivalric ideology occur during the Crusades which
spanned four centuries and were predominately characterized by failure. Similarly, The Song of
Roland concludes fairly tragically with our supposed heroic king stuck in a tiresome circle of
unending wars. Most of the remaining characters are fraught with tensions perhaps symbolizing
that the creation of Chivalry clearly has not reached a satisfactory stage of development.
The disappointment and anxiety in The Song of Roland also reflects the anxiety of the
time about the rightness behind the cause for the Crusades. Specifically the idea that passage to
heaven would be granted for anyone who at least attempted to fight in the wars is troublesome in
that the whole motivation to fight for Christianity is to save your own soul. The theory doesnt
persuade someone to change ones ways or devote ones self to religion for moral reasons, but
instead markets an easy way out of sins. It can easily be argued that such motives are egotistical
in nature framing a large part of the Crusades as blooming from self interest. This is quite the
contradiction to value The Song of Roland is trying to provide through chivalry.
Anxiety over legitimacies and applicability of chivalry is further highlighted in the
multitude of excuses Roland gives for not blowing the horn ranging from dishonoring himself
personally to dishonoring his kinsmen and friends to dishonoring his religion. All reflect three
separate motives (self duty, companion duty, and religious duty) and conjure tensions regarding
what is the correct priority and value to be placed on each.
We see more evidence of this anxiety in the contrast raised between Roland and Oliver
when faced with the issue of if the horn should be blown or not. In this moment the epic is much
less about a religious rivalry between Christians and Pagans and more so involved with
questioning Rolands behaviors and their chivalric legitimacies. On the surface it appears that the
poem fully supports Rolands character, but its tendency to go out of the way to reference
Olivers differing perspective leaves the construction of chivalry more open ended.
By the end of the poem chivalry has obviously been exemplified as being derived from
prowess in battle, religion, courtly dedication and level of nobility, but deeper sources of credible
honor are still ambiguous. Does one elicit chivalric honor through loyalty to his king or through
revenge? Is equality in battle for the sake of religious validation or for ensuring the honor in
ones own ego? Is dying more respectable for a knight or can reaching out for help also be
chivalric? Even The Song of Roland cant help but reflect broader tension among self, society
and politics that are found across most Chivalric genres.
Epics in general are typically thought of as having some relationship to culture, nations
and the societies found within as they rise and fall, much like we see in the structure of The Song
of Roland. On the other hand, romance novels focus on the individual within society and that
individuals rise and fall. This distinction sets up a switch in chivalric trends starting in the first
Arthurian Romances like Eric and Enide where the text begins to target character individuality
and interiority. Epic chivalry is founded off of politics whether it be the court or religion, but Eric
and Enide twist those pending codes and add new elements as well creating a story that revolves
around figuring out the intertwining of politics, society, love, lust, and self. Regardless, the story
is not without its disturbances and uncertainties between political male pledges and pledging to a
woman and more innate natural desires.
Battles are more heavily used as a technique for bringing together the tensions of political
and personal priorities and values. Erec and Enide redefines the structure and use of battles
typical of epics where a knight or king leads an army into combat in the name of his country or
religion into an adventurous quest typically carried out by one knight and consisting of
enchanted elements like giants and magical gardens, missions for identity, and pursuits of love
and lust. This redefining presents the reader with a completely different mode for understanding
chivalry by creating a noticeably different setting for how we are introduced to its qualities.
The focus on self in these new renditions of battles and quests means that we learn about
chivalry through characters thoughts more so than their actions as was the strategy in The Song
of Roland. Support for shifting the structure of adventure comes in the assumption that what Erec
learns along his personal journey will make him a better knight and therefore more chivalric in
the end.
Part of the discovery of self and its influence on building a character into a more worthy
knight draws from introducing women, love and lust to stories of chivalry. A knights persona is
from here forth partially defined through his feelings for and interactions with women.
On only page six of Erec and Enide we are fed lines like one could see himself reflected in her
as a mirror suggesting that the male, and therefore chivalry, are dependent on feminine
components. However, Enides description is also very aesthetically focused presenting the issue
of having a pretty woman being more important to knighthood than finding love. Regardless,
even the plausibility of Enide suffering from trophy-wife syndrome represents womens
newfound power in chivalric romances. Before, a knight would have to yearn after his kings
acceptance and favoritism to determine his own worthiness. Now a knights ability to posses the
most beautiful woman ranks of higher importance. This theory may be fraught with feministic
tensions, but it none the less is an entrance for women into the chivalric landscape.
Following novels build from the start that Erec and Enide have provided in making
romances and chivalry female as opposed to male oriented. Still, Erec and Enide are able to bring
forth a strong centralization of domestic over public happenings. The two characters seem to
spend too much time in bed together forcing sexuality as a new element of chivalry. Such
domestic focuses also prove to be a problem in the story as Erec has to tangle with ways to fit his
private desires into public society while still maintaining his worthiness as a knight. Erec is laden
with the responsibility of paving the way for future chivalric writing by finding a medium
between traditional chivalric definitions revolving around pledges to his court, religion, and
warrior prowess and integrating emerging qualities of interiority and pleasurable desires like love
and lust.
The contrast between Charlemagne and King Arthur also emphasize chivalrys shift from
strictly military strengths to more social focuses. Wealthy and generous was the king...
Alexander, who made so many conquests that the entire world stood at his feet, was very rich
and very generous, yet compared to Arthur he was poor and niggardly (83). Arthur rules during
a time of peace, unlike the epic figures of Roland and Charlemagne. The luxurious peace time
setting and Arthurs constant scenes of gift giving, banquet hosting, leisurely sport, and
surrounding of beautiful women reflects chivalrys new construct as one which tangles in social
battles as opposed to countries and religions at war.
The Arthurian romances continue to challenge and bend the traditional layers of chivalry
in The Knight of The Cart. Here chivalry is presented as even more about a solitary and magical
quest and also enhances the functionality of women in the text. The first half of Lancelots story
is about saving Guinevere while the second is about the happenings after finding her so that the
entire structure of the book circles around the queen. In this way, Chivalry becomes more
dependent on women than it previously had been in Erec and Enide. Where Enide is a piece of
Erecs quest for self identification, Lancelot is on a journey solely to find Guinevere and in so
doing is allowed to also assume his own identity. Guinevere does not merely assist in shaping
Lancelots identity, but is the reason for and in control of its discover. We especially see this
notion played out in the second half of the story where Lancelots identity has been revealed, but
Guinevere still manages to posses it by telling him what to do in battles and owning his complete
attention in tournaments of life or death.
Guineveres control of Lancelots identity represents yet another dramatic shift in courtly
love and chivalry by transmitting power from the residing in war and kings to romantic desire
and women. We see a clear representation of this in Rolands aptness to risk his life for
Charlemagne contrasted to Lancelots willingness to sleep in the dangerously enchanted bed,
symbolic of sex and intimacy, to show that he will go up against any challenge in the name of
love. Finally, power of religion is also transferred to the women in chivalric romances. Many
instances in The Knight of the Cart depict Lancelot worshipping things like Guineveres hair and
brush in a rather religious manner further solidifying womens newfound power, influence, and
control in chivalry.
The traditional component of honor and its relationship to shame is also questioned in
The Knight of The Cart. Early on in the story we see Lancelot faced with a predicament where he
can get into a cart typically meant for criminals and risk losing all honor or refuse and possibly
lose Guinevere forever. After brief hesitation, he prioritizes love over name conjuring the image
of a brand new chivalric character who can maintain heroic titles while simultaneously losing his
honor for love. Lancelot helps to solidify questions of correlation between desire and chivalry
raised by Erec and Enide. However, Lancelots hesitations before sacrificing himself for love
throughout the story depict a certain level of anxiety still residing in the bringing together of
politics and personal life.
The notion of loyalty is also toyed with by the relationship between Lancelot and
Guinevere. While Roland represents loyalty to a king as priority and Erec loyalty to an
intertwining of self, court, and ones wife, Lancelot takes the issue to a an entirely new level by
pledging his loyalty to adultery. Intimacies outside of marriage conjure heightened tensions
between traditional and new world ideas where people can deliberately go against their kings and
possibly still be seen as chivalric. Lancelots seemingly chivalric trials and battles for Guinevere
are juxtaposed to the storys end where the the text more or less disintegrates into random
disorganized craziness. It is uncomfortable that there cant really be an acceptable, easy or happy
ending for Lancelot and Guinevere even though he is meant to be our hero.
Adultery also brings about more tensions with chivalry and its legitimacies as a selfless
code of conduct as relationships once again become politicized. The queens newfound ability to
host relationships with knights poses the opportunity for knights to be drawn closer to the king
and to power. This begs the question of a knights sincerity to love as a motive. Are women
simply a tool to get within a closer grasp of power? This theory that chivalry is used for personal
gain can be traced back to The Song of Roland making readers wonder if perhaps the idea of
chivalry is unfortunately a twisted sort of irony.
More irony can be found in the fact that a large portion of Lancelots story is composed
of chivalric trials and chivalric behaviors that are impossible to use as real world skills. He
spends a great deal of time climbing magical sword bridges, putting out spontaneously flaming
beds and lifting the unimaginably heavy slab of his own tomb. While all are heroic in their own
right to save the distressed woman, no such adventures would appear in reality. This lack of
transferability underlies chivalry as at best idealized and ultimately dysfunctional in actual
society. Chivalrys inability to adapt to real world scenarios is heavily realized through Andreas
Capellanus and Geoffroi de Charnys hand books on chivalric behavior.
In Capellanuss The Art of Courtly Love the realization that chivalric knighthood is
merely a theory and no longer applicable to real life is made clear. It outlines codes of behavior
for chivalric love, lovers and courtly love itself and picks up where tensions regarding adulterys
place in chivalry left off in The Knight of The Cart. Cpellanus claims, "True love can have no
place between husband and wife" and although they may feel even "immoderate affection" for
one another, the most ennobling love is generally secret and extremely difficult to obtain.
In the preface we are introduced to an unidentified young man named Walter presented as
a new soldier of love, wounded with a new arrow, not knowing how to aptly govern the
reigns of the horse that soldier himself rides nor to be able to find any remedy [him]self
paralleling Lancelots own depiction of love as being all encompassing. Interesting Walter is
modeled as a soldier, traditionally a quality necessary to be an honorable chivalric knight, but
also as having no control over and skill of his weaponry and horse, both being prior fundamental
elements in epics. Rules like the inability to love until one matures paints love as a sign of being
a man instead of battle victories. The paradox sets teaching the way of love in opposition to
mastering the ways of war bringing chivalry into a fully modern perspective that, by the end of
the period of chivalric handbooks, proves to be just as ineffective.
In the end, Capellanus goes back to contradict every guideline he has suggested and
instead claim that women should be avoided at all costs. His regression represents yet another
continued tension that just cannot be shaken from the topic and debate of chivalry: who is
chivalry for? Is chivalry for ones religion, country, court, honor, for women, for the self?
Similarly Charny's A Knights Own Book of Chivalry attempts to offer an explanation of
values and a manner of life for Christian knights by someone who was himself a knight. It
provides insight to chivalry, warfare and gender by focusing on what a knight would have needed
to know when traveling, fighting, appearing in court, and engaging fellow knights. His text
brings together all of the qualities and elements associated with knighthood and chivalry that we
have explored in attempting to come to one definition and code.
Unfortunately, Charnys writing was plagued with poor timing that marked the end of
chivalry as it had been known up to The 100 Years War, a theory supported by the inapplicable
shortcomings of his guidelines (especially on the battlefield). One supporting scene is that where
an honorable knight goes stumbling over his own robe and into a peasantry spear where he meets
his demise. Here an attempt to enact chivalry as it has been seen in epic and romantic literature
proves a failure in true society.
At the same time, Charnys book can be said to revamp chivalry as a new set of modern
day morals rather than a strict code of conduct and war tactic. Chivalry is boiled down to a much
less structured collection of virtues like generosity, lvoe of man, purity, courtesy, and
compassion. Values like do not boast, boost others, uphold a courteous and polite manner, do not
gamble or be gluttonous, and surround oneself with inspiring thoughtful company and
conversation all begin to be associated with a more sustainable and realistic portrayal of chivalry.
Charnys code of conduct is simply another phase of shifts in a long line of morphing
theories of chivalry. The entire exploration of chivalry from epic to romantic to guideline
depictions follows a strong Sig Et Non (yes and no) structure meaning that the way to go about
figuring out knowledge and philosophizing is to ask one question, figure an answer, ask another
question, and so on. Theories of chivalry are continuously applied to story lines throughout all
the different genres and texts exploring its definition in order to reach a greater understanding of
its makeup. There is constant tension across genres from unfinished endings, shifting and
questionable morals and loyalty pledges to simply the debate of whether theories of chivalry are
even applicable to real life.
Works Cited
Burgess, Glyn. 1990. The Song of Roland. England: Penguin.
Capellanus, Andreas. 1960. The Art of Courtly Love. New York: Columbia University Press.
Charny, De Geoffroi. 2005. A Knights Own book of Chivalry. Philadelphia, Pensilvania,:
University of Pensilvania Press.
Staines, David. 2010. The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes. Bloomington, Indiana: :
Indiana University Press.
Carroll and Kibler. 2002. The Knight of the Cart by Chretien de Troyes.