Is Chivalry Death?

Tyrion accuses Tywin of helping Walder Frey orchestrate the Red Wedding.  Linked via Wikia, ©HBO.

“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.

Sneaky warfare: musician assassins at the Red Wedding. Linked via Wikia, ©HBO

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.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_Crécy

Arrow fodder? Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crécy. Image: Jean Froissart, Chroniques (Vol. I)

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).

medieval-deer-hunt

Medieval nobles saw deer hunting as the highest form of hunting and saw it as preparation for war. Image: Livre de La Chasse by Gaston Phoebus

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.

God-Speed-Leighton

So much for knights in shining armor. Image: God Speed by Edmund Leighton. Licensed via Creative Commons.

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

  1. Season 3, Episode 10, 9:58 []
  2. Hotspur: Henry Percy Medieval Rebel p. 16 []
  3. Boardman p.16 []
  4. According to English chronicler John Hardyng (c. 1378). []
  5. For English chronicler John Hardyng’s poem on coming of age in the Hundred Years’ War see Boardman p. 18 []
  6. Introduction to the Study of English History by Samuel Rawson Gardiner p. 90 []
  7. p. 20 []
  8. p. 16 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

32 Comments

  • Reply November 11, 2013

    Olga

    Tywin wasn’t trying to save lives though, he was concerned with saving his own neck. There is a difference between meeting in combat and being murdered, people are not murdered in battle, they are killed. Despite the fact that monarchs didn’t have a standing army and nobles often took tenants to war the tenants still made the agreement and knew they would be facing death in battle if called to arms. It’s different to being murdered at dinner when you think you are in a safe house, and there were people at the Red Wedding who would not have been near any battlefield.
    War-rape is an entirely different matter as well, it was designed to humiliate the enemy and was well outside normal societal rule. After all there were still technically laws against rape in the middle ages. There is no rules of chivalry in war. Chivalry was a court game.
    The men at Towton were expecting death. Were the men claiming sanctuary at Tewkesbury expecting to be dragged out and beheaded? Is it then acceptable to execute men without trial to avoid rebellion, like Hastings?
    Once societal rule and law starts breaking down then you have anarchy.

    • Reply November 11, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      >>”Tywin wasn’t trying to save lives though, he was concerned with saving his own neck.”
      This is true and Tyrion calls him on it. (I almost mentioned that point and probably should have.) I’m not trying to imply that Tyrion is a hero. For the most part, he’s pond scum. But, he raises a good point.

      You could argue that the war itself – a rebellion against a king – is illegal. Technically, all rebellions are illegal – however, justified they may be – until the rebel forces win. So, just to play devil’s advocate, if a war is already killing people illegally, does it matter if more people die illegally?

      I’m not praising Tywin for his actions, but, what’s the goal? Is it to save lives or be fair? One might argue you can’t have both in a time of war. Shouldn’t the goal of war be to avoid death?

      • Reply November 14, 2013

        Olga

        It always matters when people die illegally. If you start trying to justify how many lives a murder will save then you can justify Edward IV having Henry VI killed in the Tower when he was supposedly under his protection, or Edward V and Prince Richard being murdered/disappearing when they were under the supposed care of their uncle, if that was their fate. All three of those men being put out of the way avoided rebellion. Was it to save lives or for the comfort of the king? War is costly, when it came to the York kings I doubt their first concern was their people, their bloody reigns proves that well enough.
        The goal is power, whatever the cost, and nothing more. Attempting to justify it is propaganda, another thing the Yorks were good at. I often wonder why the Lannisters were “named” after the Lancastrians when they are so Yorkish.

        • Reply November 14, 2013

          Jaime Adair

          Ouch! You make a fair point… except for the slag on the Yorks! Let’s not forget that the Lancasters (Bolingbroke) were the first usurpers. Poor House of York. 🙁

          • November 14, 2013

            Olga

            When Cecily of York was taken to Henry VI after her husband was defeated Henry sent her and the children to live under house arrest with her sister, and a pension.
            When Richard Neville was defeated Edward IV placed guards outside Anne Neville in sanctuary, then he stole her lands and declared her legally dead so he could divide the wealth among himself and his brothers.
            When Edward IV died his Richard slandered his brother, his mother, imprisoned his nephews and killed his sister-in-law’s brother and son. He then accused her of witchcraft and bastardised her children.
            You’re not going to win me over on the Yorks 🙂

      • Reply January 18, 2014

        Chas D.

        In a lot of ways I actually view this questioning to have parallels with modern concerns about the US using the Atomic Bomb on Japan to end WWII. In that way Tywin’s argument comes across almost like Truman’s argument for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And likewise such decisions have their personal gain (keeping the USSR out of Japan).

    • Reply November 11, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Re: the rules of chivalry in war
      I too was under the impression that chivalry was mainly just a courtly mode of behavior (e.g., courtly love). But, it wasn’t. Chivalry actually related to three “codes” of behavior: (a) warrior chivalry, (b) religious chivalry, and (c) courtly love chivalry. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chivalry.
      The first few chapters of Andrew Boardman’s “Hotspur” talks about the difficulties in discerning the nature of chivalry from a six hundred year remove.

      • Reply November 24, 2013

        Olga

        That’s on Harry Hotspur I take it? Sounds like I’ll have to add it to my reading pile.

        • Reply November 24, 2013

          Jaime Adair

          Yes, it is. It is surprisingly interesting given the book is on such a relatively obscure topic. The beginning of the book is really quite compelling in terms of medieval life and values (the chivalry stuff) as well as the Percy-Neville feud. But, it is starting to get a little dry now that I’m a few chapters into it. I’m not a huge military history buff and it does go on at length about Hotspur’s different campaigns.

          • November 24, 2013

            Jaime Adair

            Just in case I didn’t say it… The book is called “Hotspur: Henry Percy, Medieval Rebel” and it is by Andrew W. Boardman. For anyone else reading this thread, as usual, AFAIK, the book is out of print, but you can buy it used from Amazon etc. for a reasonable amount (under $20 or $30 USD) or find it a university library using World Cat.

  • Reply November 11, 2013

    Craig

    Without adherence to some basic rules of conduct, such as the guest rule, the notion that even an enemy hosted under your roof is deserving of hospitality, even a feudal society breaks down entirely. When barbarism is the norm, when there is no basis for negotiation, trust or treaty, force becomes the only rule. Under such conditions, as we have seen she brutal regimes have come to power in Asia, Africa and Europe in modern times, it becomes not a question of ten thousand dying in battle, but of hundreds of thousands and even millions dying in a continuous and untrammelled struggle for survival.

    • Reply November 11, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      >>”Without adherence to some basic rules of conduct, such as the guest rule, the notion that even an enemy hosted under your roof is deserving of hospitality, even a feudal society breaks down entirely.”
      Craig, this is an excellent point.
      Perhaps this is why we find Tywin’s actions so reprehensible? Perhaps, they are too close to the line?

      Olga and Craig, thanks for spurring on this debate. These are great comments to make us all reflect on the nature of war today (Veterans/Remembrance Day).

    • Reply November 22, 2013

      Khaleesi

      I agree, I like the perspective of the article, and although I’ve met people who agree with Tywin I am not one of them. The article makes a good point about fewer soldiers dying in battle but I believe the ensuing struggle the commonfolk have to go through in a destabilized society is worse and causes more deaths. It’s better for the society as a whole to solve the conflict in the field and have the common people able to go about their lives mostly undisturbed–peasants will still labor under Starks or Lannisters. But it was selfish of the Lannisters to destabilize the whole continent in their attempts to gain control over it.

      • Reply November 24, 2013

        Jaime Adair

        I’m hoping Craig will reply to this. But, your point about destabilizing society and the Lannister’s selfishness is really good.

        re: Tywin
        I think I will write a post about this one actually.

        • Reply November 25, 2013

          Craig

          The Code of Chivalry of course goes hand in hand with notion of Noblesse Oblige, that nobles were obliged to rule their lands and treat their peasants in a manner that was fair and just. They had certain economic and moral responsibilities towards those that worked for or served them. The symbolism of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is no mere coincidence. War is followed by disease, starvation and death because an agrarian medieval society is built on the labour of peasants in the field. When the foundation of the structure is destroyed by war, the rest soon topples.

          • May 24, 2014

            rosswittenham

            I know this is a late reply, but I think it’s worth pointing out the ramifications of this action on the last couple of episodes. Particularly in relation to the struggle within the Lannister family. Tyrion rejected the plea bargain Jaime had arranged because he doesn’t trust Tywin. When Tyrion is told he’ll be sent to the wall he replies ‘Ned Stark was promised the same thing and we both know how that turned out.’ Tyrion doesn’t trust his father to honour a deal, partly because he knows what happened at the Red Wedding. If you show someone that you are willing to use dishonourable tactics, you cannot expect them to trust you later on.

          • May 24, 2014

            Jamie Adair

            Along with honor, oaths are a major GoT theme. Apparently, according to Michael Hicks, oaths were so strong in the late Middle Ages that war hostages could go home to get money for their ransom on the promise they would return!

      • Reply January 18, 2014

        Chas D.

        Agreed, Tywin’s actions completely upset the entire continent and throw the question of who has control of the North into balance. I am aware of what comes next, but to me without getting too spoiler–it looks like all hell breaks loose up in the North, which means it’s just that weaker for when the Others come a knocking and overrun.

        That said Robb has his own problems to answer for for putting personal honor above his duty to his kingdom, which also shows the problems of chivalry in a roundabout way. I also think I should mention Jamie’s frustration at being able to keep so many “contradictory vows” also ties into your musings. Chivarly, like anything else, is an ideal that works… in theory, but in practice has its own drawbacks.

  • Reply February 17, 2014

    stevenattewell

    Great article, one caveat: Tywin, Walder, and Roose’s actions at the Red Wedding also caused the deaths of 3,000+ Northmen in the camps. The leadup to the Red Wedding caused even more: in order to get Robb’s army to the point where Roose and Walder’s forces could take him, Roose sent 3000 men to their deaths at Duskendale, and another 2,000 killed/captured/fled at the Ruby Ford. That’s 8,000 men killed in this supposedly surgical operation.

    Then we have to tack onto the cost of that the lives that are going to be lost in the rebellion against Roose Bolton because he forfeited political legitimacy, and the ongoing violence in the Riverlands.

    So I don’t think there’s even a good argument that the Red Wedding saved lives.

    • Reply February 18, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Hey Steven,
      Nice to hear from you. That is very good math – you’re right actually. But, I’m not ready to admit defeat yet! lol. (Despite the pounding I’ve taken on this entire thread… ) At the Red Wedding, Walder Frey deliberately sets out to get the Stark troops sloshed to aid in the massacre, so it isn’t strictly “a dozen people at dinner” like Tywin says. However, this didn’t register when I wrote the post – I guess I was buying into Lannister propaganda (rolling eyes at self 🙁 ). If it had been a more surgical operation, however, the point remains: is honor on the battlefield a better route than assassination?

      • Reply February 18, 2014

        stevenattewell

        It depends on long-term processes we can’t determine yet. For example, most people would agree that a coup d’etat is more surgical than a war aimed at regime change – however, the long-term effect of a coup d’etate can be multi-decades long civil wars that kill huge numbers of people.

        In the case of the RW, I don’t think a surgical operation was ever possible – if they’d just killed the highborn guests, Robb’s army would have taken revenge on the spot. And neither Bolton nor Frey were going to make a move if Robb’s army significantly outnumbered theirs.

        Moreover, I think Tywin always intended the destruction of Robb’s army because of the danger of the army would link up with Stannis to fight the Lannisters.

  • Reply February 19, 2014

    Jaime Adair

    Well, okay, so here’s a stupid question. What’s the difference between a coup d’etat and a war aimed at regime change? Is it just the speed? Is it a coup d’etat is faster (sudden) – and done by a small military group whereas a war occurs over time? Also – (I’m asking seriously, not philosophically) – given what you just wrote about the long-term effect of a coup d’etat, can a coup ever be truly surgical?

    BTW, I should have mentioned this earlier in this thread, but Steven runs a fantastic podcast on Game of Thrones. Check out: http://racefortheironthrone.wordpress.com/

  • Reply March 3, 2014

    rosswittenham

    A couple of thoughts. I liked your point about toughening lads up. I am reminded of a statistic (I think I heard it in Platoon of all places) that many modern soldiers shoot to miss. Obviously that’s not a possibility in close quarters combat.

    With regard to Tywin Lannister’s actions. I believe he carried them out with the best of intentions. Surely a successful war is one that is won quickly and decisively. Tywin Lannister was unable to beat Robb Stark in the field, but the war wasn’t going to be over shortly.

    The issue is that he compromised on his integrity in order to get to that position. Chivalry may have been a mere facade, but it worked so long as it was maintained. Once it is gone, your enemies know not to trust you. I believe this is the main theme in Macbeth.

  • Reply April 4, 2014

    Grant

    In international law at least, there’s no law against being a rebel. Considering how many great powers have secretly or openly helped rebels over the past century alone, they couldn’t very well make it illegal.

    • Reply April 6, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Is that true? I’ve never checked that point specifically actually, but I would think it was illegal – at least at various points in history. I think rebellion was considered treason in medieval England. (You were rebelling against the king.) I’m also wondering about the American Revolution. Wasn’t that technically illegal? But maybe it isn’t illegal from the perspective of international law today.

  • Reply April 4, 2014

    Grant

    Legally (and in practical matters) the two are very different. Using Jay Ulfelder’s lexicon:

    Coup d’etat: A sudden usurpation of state power by illegal or extra-constitutional means involving the use or threat of force.

    This typically will involve some leading members of society, possibly some elements of the state, will be rather quick and will generally not involve major battles over a period of time.

    A war with the intended political goal of achieving regime change (which, by the way, isn’t quite an accurate description of Robb or Tywin’s political objectives) is going to involve two or more armed groups of people fighting battles for a period of time at least, and one side may not even have any attachment to territory being fought over. A coup may lead to a war, but a coup is not a war.

    http://dartthrowingchimp.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/a-coup-lexicon/

  • Reply April 4, 2014

    Grant

    The idea of chivalry also contains in it the basics of society deciding that some things are simply too horrible for them to condone. We see similar things in international law and the language of human rights today. In Westeros the idea of sacred hospitality not stopping tens of thousands from dying in the war might be true, but I think it misses the point of hospitality. It isn’t there to stop the people from dying. It is there to culturally condemn any who would kill their guests and to make it unacceptable behavior among the powerful.

    And yes, it is the powerful making the rules. There’s no escaping that, nor do we ever escape that. Those with money and soldiers have the ability to decide behavior while those who have neither have no ability to decide behavior. That reality has not changed in tens of thousands of years, nor is it ever going to change. That’s not pleasant, but it’s the reality we have no choice but to exist in.

    • Reply April 7, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I had to think about this comment – and read it twice because I wasn’t sure if I agreed. But, you’re right, chivalry was more than just window dressing. It was also a way to control a group of otherwise extremely violent young men.

      It’s interesting because you make a kind of oblique point that the hospitality “rule” is an extension of chivalry – I hadn’t thought of that before. I didn’t know/realize that the Westeros hospitality rule was particularly for the rich and powerful, but that makes sense. If it didn’t exist, there would be all out warfare under everyone’s roofs.

      One person in the real world who did violate that hospitality custom – if such a thing has ever existed in the late medieval period – is Vlad the Impaler. When I did some research about him, I was surprised to learn that killing dinner guests was one of his favorite tricks. (I guess I read this years ago – during a big Dracula phase in my early teens – but I’d forgotten all about it. :))

  • Reply April 7, 2014

    Grant

    Pretty much every single nation on earth has laws against rebelling against the government, but in international law there isn’t much that says you can’t be a rebel. Of course, there’s also nothing requiring other nations not to treat you as a criminal and any war crimes you might commit can be held against you in various courts at the national and international level.

    • Reply April 7, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      That’s true actually. I had a friend who used to work for the government investigating war criminals who had immigrated to her country. I would assume that each country has different laws as to how they handle war criminals (who committed their crimes in other countries). Some countries might prosecute, others might extradite I would think.

  • Reply May 25, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    There is the story in Froissart’s Chronicles about King Edward III (3rd) of England pardoning 6 burghers of Calais whom he had previously condemned to death at the request of Queen Philippa “The queen of England, who at that time was very big with child, fell on her knees, and with tears said, “Ah, gentle sir, since I have crossed the sea with great danger to see you, I have never asked you one favour: now, I most humbly ask as a gift, for the sake of the Son of the blessed Mary, and for your love to me, that you will be merciful to these six men.?”

    The king looked at her for some time in silence, and then said; “Ah, lady, I wish you had been anywhere else than here: you have entreated in such a manner that I cannot refuse you; I therefore give them to you, to do as you please with them.” The queen conducted the six citizens to her apartments, and had the halters taken from round their necks, after which she new clothed them, and served them with a plentiful dinner: she then presented each with six nobles, and had them escorted out of the camp in safety.”

    Here is the link if anybody fancies reading the full extract http://faculty.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/FROISSART/CALAIS.HTM
    It’s the first story in this particular translation of the Chronicles. I have heard that modern opinion is that one cannot always be sure that Froissart is 100% accurate. This story was in the school library at my primary school and it caught my imagination then. It may not be exactly “Chivalry” but it is certainly courtesy.

    • Reply May 25, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Well, that’s very interesting because I’ve read about queens playing a moderating role on their husbands – in fact, they were expected to – and promoting peace, acting as a mediator, and that’s a great example.

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