Our popular ideas of the chivalric world are off base, according to historian Richard Kaeuper. The gallant knights on horseback and banners unfurling before exciting tournaments largely come from people in the 19th century who saw the Middle Ages through a romantic haze.
Chivalry was a violent, often grisly, phenomenon. “It’s hands-on cutting and thrusting. It’s a very bloody profession, and [people from the last several centuries] admire it to excess,” says Kaeuper, a professor at the University of Rochester. But he also insists that chivalry is more than a timeless warrior code.
Kaeuper has devoted his career to changing these misconceptions, with books such as Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (University of Pennsylvania, 2009) and Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Clarendon Press, 2001). Now he’s completing a book, commissioned by Cambridge University Press, called Medieval Chivalry, which looks at the concept generally.
Chivalry’s Path Through Europe
Though its influence is still felt, chivalry is specific to a historical period—from roughly the second half of the 11th century into the 16th century—and it underpins medieval society in many ways. “It’s an immense topic that goes everywhere,” he says.
The term “chivalry”—unlike “feudalism”—is a medieval one, and an essential concept for the age. It denotes “deeds of great valor performed by knights,” he says.
But it also refers to the collective body of knights present in an action and—most important—a set of ideas and practices. He writes that “virtually every medieval voice we can hear accepts a chivalric mentalité and seems anxious to advance it (and often to reform it toward some desired goal) as a key buttress to society, even to civilization.”
Chivalry is “pretty much a French creation,” and then it moves through Western Europe. The English, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Germans not only adopt it but also make it their own.
He identifies three phases of chivalry. The first, he calls “knighthood before chivalry”—the beginnings of the military profession in the period before kings and other noblemen would have called themselves knights.
In the second period, such high-born men begin to cultivate an identity as knights. Tournaments come into being and literary romance and epic flourish.
And in the third phase, which he calls “chivalry beyond formal knighthood,” the influence of chivalry pervades society. By then, it’s a “set of ideas that organizes thought and behavior.”
Kaeuper uses five “model” knights to guide readers through the concepts of his book: cross-Channel, 13th-century hero William Marshal; 14th-century king of Scotland Robert Bruce; 14th-century French knight and author Geoffroi de Charny; late 14th-century Castilian warrior Don Pero Niño; and 15th-century English knight and author Thomas Malory, still famous for his Le Morte d’Arthur.
All the figures—whose lives illustrate changes over time in chivalry and its geographical range—are the authors or subjects of a major textual work. “They’re active participants” in the chivalric world, he says.
As a historian, Kaeuper finds enormous value in literary texts. “I use a lot of miracle stories, as well as standard imaginative literature,” he says. “They’re important—because they are imaginative, because they show what people are worried about, what they’re hoping for.”
Lessons for Today?
The title of his book is deliberate because Kaeuper wants to emphasize that what he is examining is medieval chivalry, not post-medieval chivalry or neo-Romantic chivalry. Describing his task as “cutting a path through the thickets of Romanticism,” Kaeuper says that people in the 1800s in England and continental Europe, and to a lesser extent, the United States, looked back to the Middle Ages in a search for national identity and in an effort to escape problems of modernity.
“Far from dark,” he writes, “the medieval past was not only colorful and fascinating, but too important and too useful to be ignored. The romantic revivers did not and perhaps could not recognize that they were altering the original drastically and investing it with meanings that would have surprised its first practitioners.”
According to Kaeuper, the chivalric world resonates still—and he feels its power as it touches on issues of violence, religion, governance, and more.
“It’s a scary subject, because it’s so serious,” he says. “The editor of one of my books wrote to me and said, ‘This isn’t just about the Middle Ages. This is a modern book.’ That’s not the goal. My goal is to understand the Middle Ages. But you can see how it applies.
“If you start thinking modern as you go into the past, you distort the past. If you start with the past and see if it informs the present, I think you’re on the right path.”