Chivalry Arthurian-Style, ca. 1200

Onward! Or, rather, further backward in time, to our third text. So, colleagues in my academic field have made the very good point of late that whatever medieval writers like the anonymous author of the prose Lancelot of the Lake might have said about how Christian knights should behave--honorably, chivalrously, courteously, and so forth--for some undefinable but arguably most likely most part, they didn't. Quite the reverse.

As Richard W. Kaeuper has shown in his Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), the knights of the Middle Ages were far from the knightly gentlemen imagined by the likes of the Victorian Kenelm Henry Digby in his Broad-Stone of Honour, or Rules for the Gentleman of England (first published 1822). While Digby eulogized the knights of the "Ages of Faith" (the term seems to be Digby's coinage) as embodiments of the very essence of Christianity, their service of God grounded in a "perfect and total devotion of mind and heart, of soul and body," such that "a love of the Christian faith became the very soul of Chivalry," Kaeuper argues that real medieval knights were rather more brutal than such anachronistic paeans would lead us to believe. In Kaeuper's nuanced account, the ideals of chivalry as they were developed over the course of the Middle Ages did as much to encourage the knights in their warrior brutality as they did (pace Digby) to curb their violence.

Likewise, in his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), Steven Pinker adverts to Kaeuper's evidence in his survey of the history of the atrocities committed over the millennia of humanity's existence as a species, from the murders and sacrifices that we can read from the Iceman and bog bodies of prehistory to the total war of Homeric Greece and the Hebrew Bible to the crucifixions and tortures of the Roman Empire to the rapes and abductions committed by supposedly chivalric knights to the public executions and fairy tales of early modern Europe to the duel of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (chapter 1, A Foreign Country). Knights in this telling fall along a long continuum of warfare and indifference to the suffering of other human beings, as likely to abduct as to protect the ladies to which they pledged themselves. In Pinker's words (p. 18): "How did the knights ever earn their reputation for being gentlemen? According to Lancelot [as quoted by Kaeuper], 'Lancelot had the custom of never killing a knight who begged for mercy, unless he had sworn beforehand to do so, or unless he could not avoid it.'"

Some gentleman, eh? And yet, Pinker would insist--which is the burden of his book's whole argument--violence really has declined, and he has the data to prove it. Well, some data. Well, as much data as one can realistically compile from the kinds of sources that we have, which tend at least for counting purposes to begin only in the Middle Ages, although Pinker also spends a great deal of time arguing from the archeological record about how much more likely men in non-state prehistoric societies were to die in warfare than in any state, even twentieth-century ones (chapter 2, The Pacification Process). But the Civilizing Process proper only began in chapter 3, following the Middle Ages, because, as Pinker shows in figure after figure starting in the year 1200, all forms of violence have declined since then, particularly in Europe.

Actually, Pinker argues, not just particularly, but starting in Europe. Homicides, duels, violence against blasphemers, heretics, and apostates, cruel and unusual punishments, capital punishment, slavery, and war: all have decreased from the Middle Ages to the present day, in some contexts to the point of non-existence, even with the twentieth century's great bloodbaths and persecutions. So how did it come about that human beings gave up the brutal practices of millennia in such a relatively short time? (I know, it may not seem short to those of us used to thinking in decades or, now with the Internet, in 24-hour news cycles, but it was. Human prehistory goes back tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years if you count the earliest fossils. History goes back to about 3000 BC, a mere 5000 years ago. Pinker's charts on the recorded decline of violence start around 800 years ago. We're talking a thin sliver of even recorded history, about 16% worth, about 0.41% of the period that we have evidence for homo sapiens as a species. Ask a Neanderthal about human violence. Oh, right, you can't.)

I hope you can see where I am going here. It is one thing to argue that medieval knights were still amazingly brutal by modern standards. It is wholly another to say that the development of ideas about chivalry did not contribute to the development of those modern standards by which we now judge them. What, then, did? According to Pinker, following Norbert Elias: manners. Manners like when and where to spit or urinate, how not to touch someone you were sharing a bed with, and how to hold your knife. Or, my favorite, how to blow your nose. See, if you were a medieval knight, you wouldn't have a handkerchief, so what should you do? Well, if you were sitting at table, you could turn away and blow your nose so that the stuff that shot out fell on the ground. This was being polite in the year 1200. As Pinker puts it: "The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross" (p. 69).

But somehow, amazingly, manners improved. By the fifteenth century, it was considered unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth or to use the same hand with which you held your meat. By the sixteenth century, only rustics blew their noses into their hats or sleeves, and only tradesmen used their arms or elbows. Civilized youths knew to use a handkerchief and to turn away if someone more honorable was present. Those who used two fingers to blow their nose knew to trod away immediately anything that fell out on the ground. Likewise, those who used a handkerchief would know not to open it and peer in it afterwards "as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of [their heads]." By the seventeenth century, it was considered filthy even to use a handkerchief without concealing the dirty work behind a serviette, while by the early eighteenth century, a proper Christian would always hide his face with his hat and make sure to avoid any noise. Even better, he would get out his handkerchief, use it quickly, and return it to his pocket folded without anybody noticing at all. A far cry from the knight who used to blow his nose on the floor!*

And all this while, violence was on the decline. Pinker credits the humanitarian breakthrough of modernity ultimately to the Enlightenment, when Europeans started reading and writing epistolary novels which encouraged them to imagine themselves into another person's mind, but by this time, at least according to his homicide charts, the rate of homicides had been dropping logarithmically for hundreds of years, particularly in England (see figures 3-1, 3-2, 3-3, and 3-4, all of which take their starting point at the year 1200 and show a constant decline thereafter). Clearly, something else had been encouraging those inclined to violence to behave differently long before the invention of the pocket handkerchief or Richardson and Rousseau wrote novels that made grown men weep. Could it have been? No, surely not. It couldn't have been...chivalry. Could it?** (As Elias tells it, the story is of course somewhat more complicated, involving the development of commerce and the rise of the modern state, but what is chivalry after all other than a system of manners? Surely, even imperfect guides are still guides.)

Which brings us to the advice that the Lady of the Lake gives to the eighteen-year-old Lancelot as he arms himself to leave for King Arthur's court. As noted by Pinker and Kaeuper above, Lancelot as he appears subsequently in the story was far from Digby's gentle, perfect knight. And yet, when he was sitting at table, he most likely turned his head before he blew his nose. Even knights have to start somewhere if they are going to learn to be more civilized. This is what the Lady told Lancelot about being a knight:
And understand this, that knighthood was not created and set up light-heartedly, nor because some men were originally of more noble or of higher lineage than the others, for all people are descended from one father and one mother [i.e., Adam and Eve]. But when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome justice, at that time all men were still equal in lineage and nobility. And when the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong, they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the peaceful and to maintain their rights, and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing and outrageous behavior.
To provide this protection, they established those who were most worthy in the opinion of the common people. These were the big and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body. However, knighthood was not given to them frivolously, or for nothing, but with it a great burden was placed on their shoulders. And do you know what that was? Originally, when the order of knighthood began, a man who wished to be a knight, and who was accorded that privilege by right of election, was told he should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compassionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to further wrong. A knight should not, for fear of death, do anything which can be seen as shameful: rather, he should be more afraid of shame than of suffering death. 
The knight was established wholly to protect the Holy Church, forshe should not avenge herself by arms, or give back evil for evil; and for that reason the knight was established to protect the Church, who turns the left cheek, when she is struck on the right. And you should know that originally, as the Scriptures reveal, no one was so bold as to mount a horse, if he was not a knight; and that is why they were called knights. And the arms which the knights carried, and which no one who is not a knight should carry, were not given to them without reason: rather, there was reason enough, and they have great significance….
The Lady goes on to tell Lancelot all about the imagery of his weapons and armor and how they signify the responsibility he has to protect Holy Church, at which litany she concludes:
Thus you understand that the knight should be lord over the people and a servant to the Lord God. He should be lord over the people in all things, and he should be a servant to the Lord God, in that he should protect and defend and maintain the Holy Church, that is, the clergy who serve the Holy Church, and the widows and orphans, and the tithes and alms which are assigned to the Holy Church. 
She also describes his proper moral state, and how he should behave:
British Library, MS Royal, 2 A XXII
The Westminster Psalter
A knight should have two hearts, one as hard and impenetrable as diamond, and the other as soft and pliable as hot wax. The one which is as hard as diamond should oppose those who are treacherous and cruel, for as diamond cannot be polished, in the same way the knight should be fierce and cruel towards the cruel men who do their best to damage and destroy justice. And as soft, hot wax can be shaped and made to do whatever you wish, in the same way good and compassionate people should be able to lead the knight to everything which pertains to graciousness and gentleness. But he should take good care that the heart of wax is not accessible to those who are cruel and treacherous, for any good he did them would be utterly wasted; and the Scriptures tell us that the judge damns himself when he delivers a guilty man from death and lets him go. And if he savagely attacks, with a heart as hard as diamond, the good people who need only compassion and mercy, then he has lost his soul, for the Scriptures say that a man who loves treachery and cruelty hates his own soul, and God Himself says in the Gospels that whatever you do to those in need, you do to Him.
A man who dares to receive knighthood should have all these things. And anyone who does not wish to act in the way I have described to you here should take great care not to be a knight; for when he strays from the right path, he will be disgraced, firstly in the world, and then before the Lord God. The day he receives the order of knighthood, he promises the Lord God he will behave in the way described to him by whoever makes him a knight--who knows better than to describe it. And once he has broken his word to the Lord God and to Our Lord, then he has rightly forfeited the honour he expected to have in the eternal bliss, and he is quite rightly disgraced in the world, for the men of valour in the world should not tolerate among themselves a man who has broken his word to his Maker. But a man who wishes to be a knight must have the finest and purest of hearts; and anyone who does not wish to be like that should take care not to undertake so noble an enterprise, for it would be better for a youth to live all his life without knighthood than to be disgraced on earth and lost to the Lord God, for knighthood is a terrible burden. 
--Lancelot of the Lake, trans. Corin Corley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 52-56.
Now, to be sure, we are not yet here to the absolute ideal of Our Lord, who enjoined us to turn the other cheek when we are attacked (Matthew 5:39). The knight is expected to be hard against the treacherous and cruel who seek to destroy justice, but he is also to be as soft as wax to "the good people who need only compassion and mercy." There is a difference, the Lady would insist, between Pulp Fiction's Marcellus Wallace ("I'm 'a get medieval on your ass") and Justified's Raylan Givens: nobody in Pulp Fiction wears a (metaphorical) white hat, but Deputy U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens never shoots first.***

Cultural change happens at different paces. We are arguably undergoing a major cultural change in our country in just these past few months, thus the attention that expressions of praise for "white men" like my original post can provoke. In my head, an eternity ago last summer, I was trying to find a way to say, "Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, there are aspects of the tradition on which we as Americans depend that we would do well to acknowledge were in fact supported by those whom we now too often vilify as 'white'." And yet, within my own lifetime, even describing the Anglo-American/European/Western tradition as "white" has become as rude as eating one's boogers after blowing one's nose.

*Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners (1939), trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
**Actually, I think it was not just chivalry, but Christianity: medieval Christians had been imagining themselves into the experience of others for centuries, already, as I have argued, in the twelfth century with commentaries on the Song of Songs in which they imagined themselves loving and suffering with the Virgin Mary and Christ. See my first book.
***Which, of course, means he has to be even more badass than the criminals, because he has to be able to outdraw them even when they draw first. Which means that, over the course of the series, Raylan manages to kill even more people than Boyd Crowder--making whom the greater bad guy?

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