Growth And Decadence Of Chivalry
Author: Gautier, Leon
Growth And Decadence Of Chivalry
Tenth To Fifteenth Century
Writers on the history of chivalry are unable to refer its origin to any
definite time or place; and even specific definition of chivalry is seldom
attempted by careful students. They rather give us, as does Gautier in the
picturesque account which follows, some recognized starting-point, and for
definition content themselves with characterization of the spirit and aims of
chivalry, analysis of its methods, and the story of its rise and fall.
Chivalry was not an official institution that came into existence by the
decree of a sovereign. Although religious in its original elements and
impulses, there was nothing in its origin to remind us of the foundation of a
religious order. It would be useless to search for the place of its birth or
for the name of its founder. It was born everywhere at once, and has been
everywhere at the same time the natural effect of the same aspirations and the
same needs. "There was a moment when people everywhere felt the necessity of
tempering the ardor of old German blood, and of giving to their ill-regulated
passions an ideal. Hence chivalry!"
Yet chivalry arose from a German custom which was idealized by the
Christian church; and chivalry was more an ideal than an institution. It was
"the Christian form of the military profession; the knight was the Christian
soldier." True, the profession and mission of the church meant the spread of
peace and the hatred of war, she holding with her Master that "they who take
the sword shall perish with the sword." Her thought was formulated by St.
Augustine: "He who can think of war and can support it without great sorrow is
truly dead to human feelings." "It is necessary," he says, "to submit to war,
but to wish for peace." The church did, however, look upon war as a divine
means of punishment and of expiation, for individuals and nations. And the
eloquent Bossuet showed the church's view of war as the terrestrial
preparation for the Kingdom of God, and described how empires fall upon one
another to form a foundation whereon to build the church. In the light of
such interpretations the church availed herself of the militant auxiliary
known as chivalry.
Along with the religious impulse that animated it, chivalry bore,
throughout its purer course, the character of knightliness which it received
from Teutonic sources. How the fine sentiments and ennobling customs of the
Teutonic nations, particularly with respect to the gallantry and generosity of
the male toward the female sex, grew into beautiful combination with the rule
of protecting the weak and defenceless everywhere, and how these elements were
blended with the spirit of religious devotion which entered into the
organization and practices of chivalry, forms one of the most fascinating
features in the study of its development; and this gentler side, no less than
its sterner aspects, is faithfully presented in the brilliant examination of
Gautier. And the heroic sentiment and action which inspired and accomplished
the sacred warfare of the Crusades are not less admirably depicted in these
pages; while in his summary of the decline of chivalry Gautier has perhaps
never been surpassed for penetrating insight and lucid exposition.
There is a sentence of Tacitus - the celebrated passage in the Germania -
that refers to a German rite in which we really find all the military elements
of the future chivalry. The scene took place beneath the shade of an old
forest. The barbarous tribe is assembled, and one feels that a solemn
ceremony is in preparation. Into the midst of the assembly advances a very
young man, whom you can picture to yourself with sea-green eyes, long fair
hair, and perhaps some tattooing. A chief of the tribe is present, who
without delay places gravely in the hands of the young man a framea and a
buckler. Failing a sovereign ruler, it is the father of the youth, or some
relative, who undertakes this delivery of weapons. "Such is the 'virile robe'
of these people," as Tacitus well puts it; "such is the first honor of their
youth. Till then the young man was only one in a family; he becomes by this
rite a member of the Republic. Ante hoc domus pars videtur: mox rei publicae.
This sword and buckler he will never abandon, for the Germans in all their
acts, whether public or private, are always armed. So, the ceremony finished,
the assembly separates, and the tribe reckons a miles - a warrior - the more.
That is all!"
The solemn handing of arms to the young German - such is the first germ
of chivalry which Christianity was one day to animate into life. "Vestigium
vetus creandi equites seu milites." It is with reason that Sainte-Palaye
comments in the very same way upon the text of the Germania, and that a
scholar of our own days exclaims with more than scientific exactness, "The
true origin of miles is this bestowal of arms which among the Germans marks
the entry into civil life."
No other origin will support the scrutiny of the critic, and he will not
find anyone now to support the theory of Roman origin with Sainte-Marie, or
that of the Arabian origin with Beaumont. There only remains to explain in
this place the term knight (chevalier), but it is well known to be derived
from caballus, which primarily signifies a beast of burden, a pack-horse, and
has ended by signifying a war-horse. The knight, also, has always preserved
the name of miles in the Latin tongue of the Middle Ages, in which chivalry is
always called militia. Nothing can be clearer than this.
We do not intend to go further, however, without replying to two
objections, which are not without weight, and which we do not wish to leave
behind us unanswered.
In a certain number of Latin books of the Middle Ages we find, to
describe chivalry, an expression which the "Romanists" oppose triumphantly to
us, and of which the Romish origin cannot seriously be doubted. When it is
intended to signify that a knight has been created, it is stated that the
individual has been girt with the cingulum militare. Here we find ourselves
in full Roman parlance, and the word signified certain terms which described
admission into military service, the release from this service, and the
degradation of the legionary. When St. Martin left the militia, his action
was qualified as solutio cinguli, and at all those who act like him the
insulting expression militaribus zonis discincti is cast. The girdle which
sustains the sword of the Roman officer - cingulum zona, or rather cinctorium
- as also the baldric, from balteus, passed over the shoulder and was intended
to support the weapon of the common soldier. "You perceive quite well," say
our adversaries, "that we have to do with a Roman costume." Two very simple
observations will, perhaps, suffice to get to the bottom of such a specious
argument: The first is that the Germans in early times wore, in imitation of
the Romans, "a wide belt ornamented with bosses of metal," a baldric, by which
their swords were suspended on the left side; and the second is that the
chroniclers of old days, who wrote in Latin and affected the classic style,
very naturally adopted the word cingulum in all its acceptations, and made use
of this Latin paraphrasis - cingulo militari decorare - to express this solemn
adoption of the sword. This evidently German custom was always one of the
principal rites of the collation of chivalry. There is then nothing more in
it than a somewhat vague reminiscence of a Roman custom with a very natural
conjunction of terms which has always been the habit of a literary people.
To sum up, the word is Roman, but the thing itself is German. Between
the militia of the Romans and the chivalry of the Middle Ages there is really
nothing in common but the military profession considered generally. The
official admittance of the Roman soldier to an army hierarchically organized
in no way resembled the admission of a new knight into a sort of military
college and the "pink of society." As we read further the singularly primitive
and barbarous ritual of the service of knightly reception in the twelfth
century, one is persuaded that the words exhale a German odor, and have
nothing Roman about them. But there is another argument, and one which would
appear decisive. The Roman legionary could not, as a rule, withdraw from the
service; he could not avoid the baldric. The youthful knight of the Middle
Ages, on the contrary, was always free to arm himself or not as he pleased,
just as other cavaliers are at liberty to leave or join their ranks. The
principal characteristic of the knightly service, and one which separates it
most decidedly from the Roman militia, was its freedom of action.
One very specious objection is made as regards feudalism, which some
clear-minded people obstinately confound with chivalry. This was the favorite
theory of Montalembert. Now there are two kinds of feudalism, which the old
feudalists put down very clearly in two words now out of date - "fiefs of
dignity' and "fiefs simple." About the middle of the ninth century, the dukes
and counts made themselves independent of the central power, and declared that
people owed the same allegiance to them as they did to the emperor or the
king. Such were the acts of the "fiefs of dignity," and we may at once allow
that they had nothing in common with chivalry. The "fiefs simple," then,
In the Merovingian period we find a certain number of small proprietors,
called vassi, commending themselves to other men more powerful and more rich,
who were called seniores. To his senior who made him a present of land the
vassus owed assistance and fidelity. It is true that as early as the reign of
Charlemagne he followed him to war, but it must be noted that it was to the
emperor, to the central power, that he actually rendered military service.
There was nothing very particular in this, but the time was approaching when
things would be altered. Toward the middle of the ninth century we find a
large number of men falling "on their knees" before other men! What are they
about? They are "recommending" themselves, but, in plainer terms, "Protect us
and we will be your men." And they added: "It is to you and to you only that
we intend in future to render military service; but in exchange you must
protect the land we possess - defend what you will in time concede to us; and
defend us ourselves." These people on their knees were "vassals" at the feet
of their "lords"; and the fief was generally only a grant of land conceded in
exchange for military service.
Feudalism of this nature has nothing in common with chivalry.
If we consider chivalry in fact as a kind of privileged body into which
men were received on certain conditions and with a certain ritual, it is
important to observe that every vassal is not necessarily a cavalier. There
were vassals who, with the object of averting the cost of initiation or for
other reasons, remained damoiseaux, or pages, all their lives. The majority,
of course, did nothing of the kind; but all could do so, and a great many did.
On the other hand we see conferred the dignity of chivalry upon
insignificant people who had never held fiefs, who owed to no one any fealty,
and to whom no one owed any.
We cannot repeat too often that it was not the cavalier (or knight), it
was the vassal who owed military service, or ost, to the seigneur, or lord;
and the service in curte or court: it was the vassal, not the knight, who owed
to the "lord" relief, "aid," homage.
The feudal system soon became hereditary. Chivalry, on the contrary, has
never been hereditary, and a special rite has always been necessary to create
a knight. In default of all other arguments this would be sufficient.
But if, instead of regarding chivalry as an institution, we consider it
as an ideal, the doubt is not really more admissible. It is here that, in the
eyes of a philosophic historian, chivalry is clearly distinct from feudalism.
If the western world in the ninth century had not been feudalized, chivalry
would nevertheless have come into existence; and, notwithstanding everything,
it would have come to light in Christendom; for chivalry is nothing more than
the Christianized form of military service, the armed force in the service of
the unarmed Truth; and it was inevitable that at some time or other it must
have sprung, living and fully armed, from the brain of the church, as Minerva
did from the brain of Jupiter.
Feudalism, on the contrary, is not of Christian origin at all. It is a
particular form of government, and of society, which has scarcely been less
rigorous for the church than other forms of society and government. Feudalism
has disputed with the church over and over again, while chivalry has protected
her a hundred times. Feudalism is force - chivalry is the brake.
Let us look at Godfrey de Bouillon. The fact that he owed homage to any
suzerain, the fact that he exacted service from such and such vassals, are
questions which concern feudal rights, and have nothing to do with chivalry.
But if I contemplate him in battle beneath the walls of Jerusalem; if I am a
spectator of his entry into the Holy City; if I see him ardent, brave,
powerful and pure, valiant and gentle, humble and proud, refusing to wear the
golden crown in the Holy City where Jesus wore the crown of thorns, I am not
then anxious - I am not curious - to learn from whom he holds his fief, or to
know the names of his vassals; and I exclaim, "There is the knight!" And how
many knights, what chivalrous virtues, have existed in the Christian world
since feudalism has ceased to exist!
The adoption of arms in the German fashion remains the true origin of
chivalry; and the Franks have handed down this custom to us - a custom
perpetuated to a comparatively modern period. This simple, almost rude rite
so decidedly marked the line of civil life in the code of manners of people of
German origin, that under the Carlovingians we still find numerous traces of
it. In 791 Louis, eldest son of Charlemagne, was only thirteen years old, and
yet he had worn the crown of Aquitaine for three years upon his "baby brow."
The king of the Franks felt that it was time to bestow upon this child the
military consecration which would more quickly assure him of the respect of
his people. He summoned him to Ingelheim, then to Ratisbon, and solemnly
girded him with the sword which "makes men." He did not trouble himself about
the framea or the buckler - the sword occupied the first place. It will retain
it for a long time.
In 838 at Kiersy we have a similar scene. This time it is old Louis who,
full of sadness and nigh to death, bestows upon his son Charles, whom he loved
so well, the "virile arms" - that is to say, the sword. Then immediately
afterward he put upon his brow the crown of "Neustria." Charles was fifteen
These examples are not numerous, but their importance is decisive, and
they carry us to the time when the church came to intervene positively in the
education of the German miles. The time was rough, and it is not easy to
picture a more distracted period than that in the ninth and tenth centuries.
The great idea of the Roman Empire no longer, in the minds of the people,
coincided with the idea of the Frankish kingdom, but rather inclined, so to
speak, to the side of Germany, where it tended to fix itself. Countries were
on the way to be formed, and people were asking to which country they could
best belong. Independent kingdoms were founded which had no precedents and
were not destined to have a long life. The Saracens were for the last time
harassing the southern French coasts, but it was not so with the Norman
pirates, for they did not cease for a single year to ravage the littoral which
is now represented by the Picardy and Normandy coasts, until the day it became
necessary to cede the greater part of it to them. People were fighting
everywhere more or less - family against family - man to man. No road was
safe, the churches were burned, there was universal terror, and everyone
sought protection. The king had no longer strength to resist anyone, and the
counts made themselves kings. The sun of the realm was set, and one had to
look at the stars for light. As soon as the people perceived a strong
man-at-arms, resolute, defiant, well established in his wooden keep, well
fortified within the lines of his hedge, behind his palisade of dead branches,
or within his barriers of planks; well posted on his hill, against his rock,
or on his hillock, and dominating all the surrounding country - as soon as
they saw this each said to him, "I am your man"; and all these weak ones
grouped themselves around the strong one, who next day proceeded to wage war
with his neighbors. Thence supervened a terrible series of private wars.
Everyone was fighting or thinking of fighting.
In addition to this, the still green memory of the grand figure of
Charlemagne and the old empire, and I can't tell what imperial splendors, were
still felt in the air of great cities; all hearts throbbed at the mere thought
of the Saracens and the Holy Sepulchre; the crusade gathered strength of
preparation far in advance, in the rage and indignation of all the Christian
race; all eyes were turned toward Jerusalem, and in the midst of so many
disbandments and so much darkness, the unity of the church survived fallen
It was then, it was in that horrible hour - the decisive epoch in our
history - that the church undertook the education of the Christian soldier;
and it was at that time, by a resolute step, she found the feudal baron in his
rude wooden citadel, and proposed to him an ideal. This ideal was chivalry!
That chivalry may be considered a great military confraternity as well as
an eighth sacrament, will be conceded. But, before familiarizing themselves
with these ideals, the rough spirits of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh
centuries had to learn the principles of them. The chivalrous ideal was not
conceived "all of a piece," and certainly it did not triumph without sustained
effort; so it was by degrees, and very slowly, that the church succeeded in
inoculating the almost animal intelligence and the untrained minds of our
ancestors with so many virtues.
In the hands of the church, which wished to mould him into a Christian
knight, the feudal baron was a very intractable individual. No one could be
more brutal or more barbarous than he. Our more ancient ballads - those which
are founded on the traditions of the ninth and tenth centuries - supply us
with a portrait which does not appear exaggerated. I know nothing in this
sense more terrible than Raoul de Cambrai, and the hero of this old poem would
pass for a type of a half-civilized savage. This Raoul was a kind of Sioux or
other redskin, who only wanted tattoo and feathers in his hair to be complete.
Even a redskin is a believer, or superstitious to some extent, while Raoul
defied the Deity himself. The savage respects his mother, as a rule; but
Raoul laughed at his mother, who cursed him. Behold him as he invaded the
Vermandois, contrary to all the rights of legitimate heirs. He pillaged,
burned, and slew in all directions: he was everywhere pitiless, cruel,
horrible. But at Origni he appears in all his ferocity. "You will erect my
tent in the church, you will make my bed before the altar, and put my hawks on
the golden crucifix." Now that church belonged to a convent. What did that
signify to him? He burned the convent, he burned the church, he burned the
nuns! Among them was the mother of his most faithful servitor, Bernier - his
most devoted companion and friend - almost his brother! but he burned her with
the others. Then, when the flames were still burning, he sat himself down, on
a fast-day, to feast amid the scenes of his sanguinary exploits - defying God
and man, his hands steeped in blood, his face lifted to heaven. That was the
kind of soldier, the savage of the tenth century, whom the church had to
Unfortunately this Raoul de Cambrai is not a unique specimen; he was not
the only one who had uttered this ferocious speech: "I shall not be happy
until I see your heart cut out of your body." Aubri de Bourguignon was not
less cruel, and took no trouble to curb his passions. Had he the right to
massacre? He knew nothing about that, but meanwhile he continued to kill.
"Bah!" he would say, "it is always an enemy the less." On one occasion he slew
his four cousins. He was as sensual as cruel. His thick-skinned savagery did
not appear to feel either shame or remorse; he was strong and had a weighty
hand - that was sufficient. Ogier was scarcely any better, but
notwithstanding all the glory attaching to his name, I know nothing more
saddening than the final episode of the rude poem attributed to Raimbert of
Paris. The son of Ogier, Baudouinet, had been slain by the son of
Charlemagne, who called himself Charlot! Ogier did nothing but breathe
vengeance, and would not agree to assist Christendom against the Saracen
invaders unless the unfortunate Charlot was delivered to him. He wanted to
kill him, he determined to kill him, and he rejoiced over it in anticipation.
In vain did Charlot humble himself before this brute, and endeavor to pacify
him by the sincerity of his repentance; in vain the old Emperor himself prayed
most earnestly to God; in vain the venerable Naimes, the Nestor of our
ballads, offered to serve Ogier all the rest of his life, and begged the Dane
"not to forget the Saviour, who was born of the Virgin at Bethlehem." All
their devotion and prayers were unavailing. Ogier, pitiless, placed one of
his heavy hands on the youthful head, and with the other drew his sword, his
terrible sword "Courtain." Nothing less than the intervention of an angel from
heaven could have put an end to this terrible scene in which all the savagery
of the German forests was displayed.
The majority of these early heroes had no other shibboleth than "I am
going to separate the head from the trunk!" It was their war-cry. But if you
desire something more frightful still, something more "primitive," you have
only to open the Loherains at hazard, and read a few stanzas of that raging
ballad of "derring-do," and you will almost fancy you are perusing one of
those pages in which Livingstone describes in such indignant terms the manners
of some tribe in Central Africa. Read this: "Begue struck Isore upon his
black helmet through the golden circlet, cutting him to the chine; then he
plunged into his body his sword Flamberge with the golden hilt; took the heart
out with both hands, and threw it, still warm, at the head of William, saying,
'There is your cousin's heart; you can salt and roast it.'" Here words fail
us; it would be too tame to say with Goedecke, "These heroes act like the
forces of nature, in the manner of the hurricane which knows no pity." We must
use more indignant terms than these, for we are truly amid cannibals. Once
again we say, there was the warrior, there was the savage whom the church had
to elevate and educate!
Such is the point of departure of this wonderful progress; such are the
refractory elements out of which chivalry and the knight have been fashioned.
The point of departure is Raoul of Cambrai burning Origni. The point of
arrival is Girard of Roussillon falling one day at the feet of an old priest
and expiating his former pride by twenty-two years of penitence. These two
episodes embrace many centuries between them.
A very interesting study might be made of the gradual transformation from
the redskin to the knight; it might be shown how, and at what period of
history, each of the virtues of chivalry penetrated victoriously into the
undisciplined souls of these brutal warriors who were our ancestors; it might
be determined at what moment the church became strong enough to impose upon
our knights the great duties of defending it and of loving one another.
This victory was attained in a certain number of cases undoubtedly toward
the end of the eleventh century: and the knight appears to us perfected,
finished, radiant, in the most ancient edition of the Chanson of Roland, which
is considered to have been produced between 1066 and 1095.
It is scarcely necessary to observe that chivalry was no longer in course
of establishment when Pope Urban II threw with a powerful hand the whole of
the Christian West upon the East, where the Tomb of Christ was in possession
of the Infidel.
In legendary lore the embodiment of chivalry is Roland: in history it is
Godfrey de Bouillon. There are no more worthy names than these.
The decadence of chivalry - and when one is speaking of human
institutions, sooner or later this word must be used - perhaps set in sooner
than historians can believe. We need not attach too much importance to the
grumblings of certain poets, who complain of their time with an evidently
exaggerated bitterness, and we do not care for our own part to take literally
the testimony of the unknown author of La Vie de Saint Alexis, who exclaims -
about the middle of the eleventh century - that everything is degenerate and
all is lost! Thus: "In olden times the world was good. Justice and love were
springs of action in it. People then had faith, which has disappeared from
amongst us. The world is entirely changed. The world has lost its healthy
color. It is pale - it has grown old. It is growing worse, and will soon
The poet exaggerates in a very singular manner the evil which he
perceives around him, and one might aver that, far from bordering upon old
age, chivalry was then almost in the very zenith of its glory. The twelfth
century was its apogee, and it was not until the thirteenth that it manifested
the first symptoms of decay.
"Li maus est moult avant," exclaims the author of Godfrey de Bouillon,
and he adds, sadly, "Tos li biens est fine's."
He was more correct in speaking thus than was the author of Saint Alexis
in his complainings, for the decadence of chivalry actually commenced in his
time. And it is not unreasonable to inquire into the causes of its decay.
The Romance of the Round Table, which in the opinion of prepossessed or
thoughtless critics appears so profoundly chivalrous, may be considered one of
the works which hastened the downfall of chivalry. We are aware that by this
seeming paradox we shall probably scandalize some of our readers, who look
upon these adventurous cavaliers as veritable knights. What does it matter?
Avienne que puet. The heroes of our chansons de geste are really the
authorized representatives and types of the society of their time, and not
those fine adventure-seeking individuals who have been so brilliantly sketched
by the pencil of Cretien de Troyes.
It is true, however, that this charming and delicate spirit did not give,
in his works, an accurate idea of his century and generation. We do not say
that he embellished all he touched, but only that he enlivened it.
Notwithstanding all that one could say about it, this school introduced the
old Gaelic spirit into a poetry which had been till then chiefly Christian or
German. Our epic poems are of German origin, and the Table Round is of Celtic
origin. Sensual and light, witty and delicate, descriptive and charming,
these pleasing romances are never masculine, and become too often effeminate
and effeminating. They sing always, or nearly so, the same theme. By lovely
pasturages clothed with beautiful flowers, the air full of birds, a young
knight proceeds in search of the unknown, and through a series of adventures
whose only fault is that they resemble one another somewhat too closely.
We find insolent defiances, magnificent duels, enchanted castles, tender
love-scenes, mysterious talismans. The marvellous mingles with the
supernatural, magicians with saints, fairies with angels. The whole is
written in a style essentially French, and it must be confessed in clear,
polished, and chastened language - perfect!
But we must not forget, as we said just now, that this poetry, so greatly
attractive, began as early as the twelfth century to be the mode universally;
and let us not forget that it was at the same period that the Percevalde
Gallois and Aliscans, Cleomades, and the Couronnement Looys were written. The
two schools have coexisted for many centuries: both camps have enjoyed the
favor of the public. But in such a struggle it was all too easy to decide to
which of them the victory would eventually incline. The ladies decided it,
and no doubt the greater number of them wept over the perusal of Erec or Enid
more than over that of the Covenant Vivien or Raoul de Cambrai.
When the grand century of the Middle Ages had closed, when the blatant
thirteenth century commenced, the sentimental had already gained the advantage
over our old classic chansons; and the new school, the romantic set of the
Table Round, triumphed! Unfortunately, they also triumphed in their manners;
and they were the knights of the Round Table who, with the Valois, seated
themselves upon the throne of France.
In this way temerity replaced true courage; so good, polite manners
replaced heroic rudeness; so foolish generosity replaced the charitable
austerity of the early chivalry. It was the love of the unforeseen even in
the military art; the rage for adventure - even in politics. We know whither
this strategy and these theatrical politics led us, and that Joan of Arc and
Providence were required to drag us out of the consequences.
The other causes of the decadence of the spirit of chivalry are more
difficult to determine. There is one of them which has not, perhaps, been
sufficiently brought to light, and this is - will it be believed? - the
exdevelopment of certain orders of chivalry! This statement requires some
We must confess that we are enthusiastic, passionate admirers of these
grand military orders which were formed at the commencement of the twelfth
century. There have never been their like in theworld, and it was only given
to Christianity to display to us such a spectacle. To give to one single soul
the double ideal of the soldier and the monk, to impose upon him this double
charge, to fix in one these two conditions and in one only these two duties,
to cause to spring from the earth I cannot tell how many thousands of men who
voluntarily accepted this burden, and who were not crushed by it - that is a
problem which one might have been pardoned for thinking insoluble. We have
not sufficiently considered it. We have not pictured to ourselves with
sufficient vividness the Templars and the Hospitallers in the midst of one of
those great battles in the Holy Land in which the fate of the world was in the
No: painters have not sufficiently portrayed them in the arid plains of
Asia forming an incomparable squadron in the midst of the battle. One might
talk forever and yet not say too much about the charge of the Cuirassiers at
Reichshoffen; but how many times did the Hospitaller knights and the Templars
charge in similar fashion? Those soldier-monks, in truth, invented a new idea
of courage. Unfortunately they were not always fighting, and peace troubled
some of them. They became too rich, and their riches lowered them in the eyes
of men and before heaven. We do not intend to adopt all the calumnies which
have been circulated concerning the Templars, but it is difficult not to admit
that many of these accusations had some foundation. The Hospitallers, at any
rate, have given no ground for such attacks. They, thank heaven, remained
undefiled, if not poor, and were an honor to that chivalry which others had
compromised and emasculated.
But when all is said, that which best became chivalry, the spice which
preserved it the most surely, was poverty!
Love of riches had not only attacked the chivalrous orders, but in a very
short space of time all knights caught the infection. Sensuality and
enjoyment had penetrated into their castles. "Scarcely had they received the
knightly baldric before they commenced to break the commandments and to
pillage the poor. When it became necessary to go to war, their sumpterhorses
were laden with wine, and not with weapons; with leathern bottles instead of
swords; with spits instead of lances. One might have fancied, in truth, that
they were going out to dinner, and not to fight. It is true their shields
were beautifully gilt, but they were kept in a virgin and unused condition.
Chivalrous combats were represented upon their bucklers and their saddles,
certainly; but that was all!"
Now who is it who writes thus? It is not, as one might fancy, an author
of the fifteenth century - it is a writer of the twelfth; and the greatest
satirist, somewhat excessive and unjust in his statements, the Christian
Juvenal whom we have just quoted, was none other than Peter of Blois.
A hundred other witnesses might be cited in support of these indignant
words. But if there is some exaggeration in them, we are compelled to confess
that there is a considerable substratum of truth also.
These abuses - which wealth engendered, which more than one poet has
stigmatized - attracted, in the fourteenth century, the attention of an
important individual, a person whose name occupies a worthy place in
literature and history. Philip of Mezieres, chancellor of Cyprus under Peter
of Lusignan, was a true knight, who one day conceived the idea of reforming
chivalry. Now the way he found most feasible in accomplishing his object, in
arriving at such a difficult and complex reform, was to found a new order of
chivalry himself, to which he gave the high-sounding title of "the Chivalry of
the Passion of Christ."
The decadence of chivalry is attested, alas! by the very character of the
reformers by which this well-meaning Utopian attempted to oppose it. The good
knight complains of the great advances of sensuality, and permits and advises
the marriage of all knights. He complains of the accursed riches which the
Hospitallers themselves were putting to a bad use, and forbade them in his
Institutions; but nevertheless the luxurious habits of his time had an
influence upon his mind, and he permitted his knights to wear the most
extravagant costumes, and the dignitaries of his order to adopt the most
high-sounding titles. There was something mystical in all this conception,
and something theatrical in all this agency. It is hardly necessary to add
that the "Chivalry of the Passion" was only a beautiful dream, originating in
a generous mind. Notwithstanding the adherence of some brilliant personages,
the order never attained to more than a theoretical organization, and had only
a fictitious foundation. The idea of the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre
from the Infidel was hardly the object of the fifteenth-century chivalry; for
the struggle between France and England then was engaging the most courageous
warriors and the most practised swords. Decay hurried on apace!
This was not the only cause of such a fatal falling away. The portals of
chivalry had been opened to too many unworthy candidates. It had been made
vulgar! In consequence of having become so cheap the grand title of "knight"
was degraded. Eustace Deschamps, in his fine, straightforward way, states the
scandal boldly and "lashes" it with his tongue. He says: "Picture to yourself
the fact that the degree of knighthood is about to be conferred now upon
babies of eight and ten years old."
Well might this excellent man exclaim in another place: "Disorders always
go on gathering strength, and even incomparable knights like Du Guesclin and
Bayard cannot arrest the fatal course of the institution toward ruin."
Chivalry was destined to disappear.
It is very important that one should make one's self acquainted with the
true character of such a downfall. France and England in the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries still boasted many high-bred knights. They exchanged the
most superb defiances, the most audacious challenges, and proceeded from one
country to another to run each other through the body proudly. The
Beaumanoirs, who drank their blood, abounded. It was a question who would
engage himself in the most incredible pranks; who would commit the most daring
folly! They tell us afterward of the beautiful passages of arms, the grand
feats performed, and the inimitable Froissart is the most charming of all
these narrators, who make their readers as chivalrous as themselves.
But we must tell everything: among these knights in beautiful armor there
was a band of adventurers who never observed, and who could not understand,
certain commandments of the ancient chivalry. The laxity of luxury had
everywhere replaced the rigorous enactments of the old manliness, and even
warriors themselves loved their ease too much. The religious sentiment was
not the dominant one in their minds, in which the idea of a crusade now never
entered. They had not sufficient respect for the weakness of the Church nor
for other failings. They no longer felt themselves the champions of the good
and the enemies of evil. Their sense of justice had become warped, as had
love for their great native land.
Again, what they termed "the license of camps" had grown very much worse;
and we know in what condition Joan of Arc found the army of the King.
Blasphemy and ribaldry in every quarter. The noble girl swept away these
pests, but the effect of her action was not long-lived. She was the person to
reestablish chivalry, which in her found the purity of its now-effaced type;
but she died too soon, and had not sufficient imitators.
There were, after her time, many chivalrous souls, and, thank heaven,
there are still some among us; but the old institution is no longer with us.
The events which we have had the misfortune to witness do not give us any
ground to hope that chivalry, extinct and dead, will rise again to-morrow to
light and life.
In St. Louis' time, caricature and parody - they were low-class forces,
but forces nevertheless - had already commenced the work of destruction. We
are in possession of an abominable little poem of the thirteenth century,
which is nothing but a scatological pamphlet directed against chivalry. This
ignoble Audigier, the author of which is the basest of men, is not the only
attack which one may disinter from amid the literature of that period. If one
wishes to draw up a really complete list it would be necessary to include the
fabliaux - the Renart and the Rose, which constitute the most anti-chivalrous
- I had nearly written the most Voltairian - works that I am acquainted with.
The thread is easy enough to follow from the twelfth century down to the
author of Don Quixote - which I do not confound with its infamous predecessors
- to Cervantes, whose work has been fatal, but whose mind was elevated.
However that may be, parody and the parodists were themselves a cause of
decay. They weakened morals. Gallic-like, they popularized little bourgeois
sentiments, narrow-minded, satirical sentiments; they inoculated manly souls
with contempt for such great things as one performs disinterestedly. This
disdain is a sure element of decay, and we may regard it as an announcement of
Against the knights who, here and there, showed themselves unworthy and
degenerate, was put in practice the terrible apparatus of degradation. Modern
historians of chivalry have not failed to describe in detail all the rites of
this solemn punishment, and we have presented to us a scene which is well
calculated to excite the imagination of the most matter-of-fact, and to make
the most timid heart swell.
The knight judicially condemned to submit to this shame was first
conducted to a scaffold, where they broke or trod under foot all his weapons.
He saw his shield, with device effaced, turned upside down and trailed in the
mud. Priests, after reciting prayers for the vigil of the dead, pronounced
over his head the psalm, "Deus laudem meam," which contains terrible
maledictions against traitors. The herald of arms who carried out this
sentence took from the hands of the pursuivant of arms a basin full of dirty
water, and threw it all over the head of the recreant knight in order to wash
away the sacred character which had been conferred upon him by the accolade.
The guilty one, degraded in this way, was subsequently thrown upon a hurdle,
or upon a stretcher, covered with a mortuary cloak, and finally carried to the
church, where they repeated the same prayers and the same ceremonies as for
This was really terrible, even if somewhat theatrical, and it is easy to
see that this complicated ritual contained only a very few ancient elements.
In the twelfth century the ceremonial of degradation was infinitely more
simple. The spurs were hacked off close to the heels of the guilty knight.
Nothing could be more summary or more significant. Such a person was publicly
denounced as unworthy to ride on horseback, and consequently quite unworthy to
be a knight. The more ancient and chivalrous, the less theatrical is it. It
is so in many other institutions in the histories of all nations.
That such a penalty may have prevented a certain number of treasons and
forfeitures we willingly admit, but one cannot expect it to preserve all the
whole body of chivalry from that decadence from which no institution of human
establishment can escape.
Notwithstanding inevitable weaknesses and accidents, the Decalogue of
Chivalry has none the less been regnant in some millions of souls which it has
made pure and great. These ten commandments have been the rules and the reins
of youthful generations, who without them would have been wild and
undisciplined. This legislation, in fact - which, to tell the truth, is only
one of the chapters of the great Catholic Code - has raised the moral level of
Besides, chivalry is not yet quite dead. No doubt, the ritual of
chivalry, the solemn reception, the order itself, and the ancient oaths, no
longer exist. No doubt, among these grand commandments there are many which
are known only to the erudite, and which the world is unacquainted with. The
Catholic Faith is no longer the essence of modern chivalry; the Church is no
longer seated on the throne around which the old knights stand with their
drawn swords; Islam is no longer the hereditary enemy; we have another which
threatens us nearer home; widows and orphans have need rather of the tongues
of advocates than of the iron weapon of the knights; there are no more duties
toward liege-lords to be fulfilled; and we even do not want any kind of
superior lord at all; largesse is now confounded with charity; and the
becoming hatred of evil-doing is no longer our chief, our best, passion!
But whatever we may do there still remains to us, in the marrow, a
certain leaven of chivalry which preserves us from death. There are still in
the world an immense number of fine souls - strong and upright souls - who
hate all that is small and mean, who know and who practise all the delicate
promptings of honor, and who prefer death to an unworthy action or to a lie!
That is what we owe to chivalry, that is what it has bequeathed to us. On
the day when these last vestiges of such a grand past are effaced from our
souls - we shall cease to exist!