I only just discovered that, for the next four days, the Getty museum in Los Angeles, California has an exhibit about chivalry. It ends on November 30th, 2014. The museum created two videos for the exhibit, which made me reflect on the origins of chivalry.
If you love knights and all things martial, definitely check out the combat demonstrations in the first video. It brings to life the fighting styles in the Italian manuscript The Flower of Battle (Il Fior di Battaglia) c. 1410.
Both videos are embedded in the window above. If you watch the second video without seeing the first video, it’s a little misleading. The second video makes it seem like courtly love and chivalry are synonymous. The video skirts the dark side of chivalry and focuses on the manifestations of courtly love in art.
The Getty is simply showing specific aspects of chivalry, notably ones that relate to their manuscripts; they aren’t trying to be omissive.
Chivalric ideals have become a form of propaganda in our society that have far outlived the medieval age. The blending of courtly love and chivalry has led to a knight in shining armor archetype (think: Disney) that rarely existed. George RR Martin subtly resists these archetypes in favor of historical fact. Knights were more apt to brutalize maidens than rescue them.
For example, it is the knights like Ser Meryn Trant who beat Sansa whereas the men like Tyrion, Dontos, and the Hound who reject knighthood (or don’t meet to its ideals) are the ones who protect her. At a symbolic level, there’s some truth in the somewhat ironic image of knights beating maidens. Chivalry originated as a way to protect the defenseless from marauding nobles.
Warrior classes played an essential role in protecting medieval people from invading (and enslaving) armies. Many cultures over the last few millennia, including European (nobility), Japanese (samurai), and maybe even Indian (Kshatriya, or the warrior varna or caste), had warrior classes. However, some of these classes abused their power and failed to meet their obligations as protectors.
In medieval Europe, chivalry was a warrior’s code — the code of knightly conduct — that focused on behavior befitting a warrior. In how knights came to see chivalry, it might be similar to the samurai code bushido, which means “samurai’s way.” The meaning of chivalry was controversial even in the Middle Ages, and many writers presented their own interpretation of its meaning in texts (basically instruction manuals). The chivalric ideals included largesse (generosity and lavish display), loyalty, military prowess, and courtesy.
Ultimately, chivalry came to focus primarily on the ends that benefited the nobility rather than the Church’s initial attempt for it. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chivalry had evolved to focus — in large part — on treating other members of the aristocracy with respect and courtesy in times of war. This wasn’t the Church’s original intent.
Initially, in the late twelfth century, the Church promoted chivalry to rein in an increasingly violent caste. In other words, a dominant class – who were hardened to violence from childhood, who trained in military arts daily, idealized war, and who (when war wasn’t available) hunted deer in a ritualized manner to keep their skills sharp — had become a bloodthirsty and uncontrollable element in society. Quelle surprise. Northern Europe’s military caste was a problem: chivalry was an attempt to redirect this caste’s energy. The lethal competition between competing nobles harmed bystanders.
This isn’t to say there weren’t good nobles who upheld their obligations to their vassals and tenants to protect them.
Chivalry wasn’t the first attempt to rein in noble violence.
As early as the eleventh century, noble violence and private wars had become so common that two Church movements originating in France — the Peace of God and the Truce of God — formed to try to manage them. Local clergy in Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Languedoc (France) began issuing Peace of God (Pax Dei) proclamations to protect defenseless noncombatants – notably the peasants and clergy – against noble violence. The fact the noble attacks occurred enough to warrant taking this stance was significant.
With Pax Dei, the Church pledged to excommunicate any noble who attacked or robbed a church or peasants, struck the clergy, or stole donkeys and other farm animals from the poor. Invading churches, burning houses and peasant villages, and beating the vulnerable were also banned. Eventually, the Pax Dei also protected children, women (virgins and widows), and merchants and their goods.
By the early eleventh century, King Robert, the Capetian (987-1031) supported the Pax Dei movement. The nobles themselves swore oaths to the villagers that they would uphold the peace.
The common people loved the Pax Dei movement, but it wasn’t that effective. Nobles could buy their way out of violent attacks by making large donations to the Church. But, Pax Dei did pave the way for other movements to subdue noble violence like chivalry.