“Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men at battle than a dozen at dinner?” Twyin Lannister rhetorically asks Tyrion when Tyrion disparages Tywin’s role in the Red Wedding.1 Tywin’s question embodies one of the central philosophical issues in Game of Thrones: did chivalry cause more harm than good?
Tywin and Lord Frey’s actions possibly prevented thousands of deaths. By resolving the conflict with Robb Stark quickly, Tywin may have saved the lives of half his army and even some of Robb’s troops. Yet we find Tywin’s trickery repellent – his actions weren’t out in the open (not to mention breaking with the Westerosi/Dark Ages tradition of safety for guests). Twyin’s actions violated chivalric conduct – codes that began over 700 years ago, armies still followed in World War I, and linger on in our psyches today.
Chivalry was a code of conduct for knights, a horse warrior’s code if you will. While the most famous aspect of chivalry is the romantic honoring of women (courtly love), noble warriors aspired to religious and military ideals as well. Ideals being the key word here.
Not only did chivalry encourage knights to be skilled fighters, it urged them to be loyal to their lords, protect the weak, tell the truth always, and reject monetary rewards (or at least not be motivated by them). At the Red Wedding, Walder Frey violated chivalric code by betraying his overlord (the Tullys) and Tywin’s covert support went against the honesty and openness implied in chivalry.
Historians believe that few medieval nobles questioned chivalry: it was an assumed paramount value. As historian Andrew Boardman puts it, chivalry embodied “all that was noble in life.”2 Men accepted chivalric values without question. “It was a clear cut case of ‘how it was’. This was how a man of breeding came to conduct himself in time of war.”3
In practice, however, sometimes chivalric ideals were nothing more than a veneer of aspirational civility coating over the brutality of a ruling military caste. And, noble culture was the one that all the lower classes, especially the gentry, aped.
The English “gentle” upbringing required instruction in the art of war.
During the Hundred Years’ War, noble boys began to learn to read at age four and kill shortly afterwards.4 Killing deer was an essential part of their culturalization process – that is, how they came to be comfortable killing and assume their roles as leading battles and administering justice (aka sentencing people to brutal symbolic deaths). Just like we might train troops using modified versions of violent video games, deer hunting served to teach young boys to be comfortable killing. By fourteen years at the very latest, noble boys would be sent out to hunt deer, “see them bleed,”and toughen up (“catch an hardynesse”).5 By sixteen, the boys had to be comfortable killing: they would be attacking castles and participating in battles (skirmishes).
Unlike today where war is fought at a distance, noble sons needed to be inured to violence to psychologically withstand blood-splattered medieval hand-to-hand combat – where peeling each other out of armor with war hammers, hacking each other to death with battle axes, and bludgeoning with maces were the norm. Some boys, such as Henry Hotspur Percy, saw these horrors when they went to war with their fathers or guardians when they were as young as nine.
Did medieval nobles really believe in chivalry? Like religious belief today, adherence to chivalric practice probably varied by person and situation. Historian Gardiner described the aspirational nature of chivalry as follows: “Chivalry was to the medieval warrior… what monasticism was to the medieval churchman.”6 Chivalric behavior on the battlefield was a tall order – especially when you’re fighting for your life. In fact, Boardman argues that medieval nobles sought to fight against other nobles so they could fight against somebody following the same rules.
Boardman somewhat sarcastically notes, “To gain honour and esteem from his contemporaries a knight had first to subdue his enemy, put him within an inch of his life, and then, after capturing him, treat him to a sumptuous dinner while he awaited his ransom.”7 In contrast, the lower classes pressed into service were nothing more than disposable arrow fodder.
Chivalry was hypocritical. While contemporaries liked to believe that chivalric code shielded them or ensured they wouldn’t commit war crimes, in reality this was far from the case. During the Hundred Years’ War, English chevauchées – the sharp knife-like attacks that sliced deep into France – burned cities to the ground, destroyed crops, resulted in famines, and left streams of French peasants pleading for mercy from their assailants. English soldiers forgot about courtly love and protecting the vulnerable as they raped women in the French towns they pillaged. These oblique attacks on the French king were relatively speaking nothing more than a paper cut to him but created unspeakable suffering for those without a voice.
During the Late Middle Ages, the chivalric ideal of not receiving monetary rewards was sometimes overlooked. Greed for power and ego motivated Edward III to invade France and kick off the Hundred Years’ War. During the 1450s, Warwick-the-Kingmaker was nothing more than a war profiteer with his “privateering.” As Boardman so aptly puts it, “the darker side of medieval chivalry is well documented for all to see in the many acts of blind stupidity, war crimes and downright barbarism that one might construe today as verging on the criminally insane.”8
But, to return to the original question, did chivalry do more harm than good? Perhaps. Many Wars of the Roses battles were fought openly at expected rendez vous points. Guerrilla style sneak attacks weren’t common – except perhaps against the Scottish. Maybe if chivalry wasn’t involved, wars would have been resolved more decisively.
Judging by our reactions to Tywin’s behavior, I’d argue that chivalry isn’t truly dead. Based on simple mathematics, as yucky as it feels, Tywin may be right. Even with the deaths of Robb Stark’s men which Twyin conveniently neglected to admit killing, Tywin likely saved lives. So why doesn’t he get praised?
After all, a death is a death. Does it matter if it is wrapped up with the pretty bow of chivalry? I’m sure the thousands buried in the mass graves at Towton would tell you it doesn’t.
By Jamie Adair
- Season 3, Episode 10, 9:58 [↩]
- Hotspur: Henry Percy Medieval Rebel p. 16 [↩]
- Boardman p.16 [↩]
- According to English chronicler John Hardyng (c. 1378). [↩]
- For English chronicler John Hardyng’s poem on coming of age in the Hundred Years’ War see Boardman p. 18 [↩]
- Introduction to the Study of English History by Samuel Rawson Gardiner p. 90 [↩]
- p. 20 [↩]
- p. 16 [↩]