- Chivalry in Medieval England by Nigel Saul
Nigel Saul’s most recent work seeks to integrate medieval chivalry more fully into the larger narrative of English history. He not only analyzes the development of chivalry as a military code of behavior for the aristocracy, but he also considers the cultural and political aspects of knighthood. By doing so, he provides an important account of how chivalry extended well beyond the battlefield and helped to shape the cosmology of the medieval nobility.
The work is largely structured chronologically. In the first part, he considers the development of chivalry during the High Middle Ages. He then pauses to consider the relationship of chivalry to other aspects of medieval society, from economics to literature. He then finishes with a discussion of the decline of chivalry in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the first part, Saul outlines the factors for the development and expansion of chivalry in England, arguing that chivalry began in England in 1066 with the Norman Conquest of William I the Conqueror. The Norman military strategy of ransoming to protect nobles’ lives was supported in part because of the lucrative nature of chivalry from 1066 to 1204 as knights’ services were constantly needed by the crown, who likewise was able to generate revenue from feudal duties of service. His principal examples are William Marshal, whose success in tournaments resulted in the wealth and status needed to win high royal favor and influence, and Richard the Lionheart, who successfully used warfare to legitimize increases in royal prerogatives.
In the next few chapters, Saul considers how knighthood was reinforced by Church and state. In chapter 3, Saul considers how knighthood was idealized and Christianized so as to confer divine sanction on warfare. In the period from 1204 to 1290, he examines the decline in knights due to changing economic and social conditions, such as their desire to display their status through finery and moated manor homes, and the growing division between knights and magnates. Chivalry was then reinforced by Edward I to serve his military needs. When offering to pay knights for service failed, Edward recognized that honor might be a more powerful incentive. By popularizing tournaments and reviving Arthurian legends, he greatly encouraged knight participation in his campaigns by raising the status of doing so. These trends are continued in chapter 6, which examines the period from 1327 to 1399. Edward III, likewise, saw value in prompting chivalry among his knights, as evidenced by the creation of the Order of the Garter, and he took it further by having it confirmed by God in the cult of St. George. [End Page 676] It is the rejection of these values by his successor Richard II that ultimately contributed to his downfall.
Having outlined the early history of chivalry, Saul turns his attention to a series of chapters that engage in different aspects of chivalry. Saul examines the economics of knightly warfare both as a reflection of desires for material wealth and as evidence for chivalric prowess. He then considers the rules or laws of chivalry. In addition to outlining the development of formal codes, he also argues that earlier norms regarding appropriate violence were effective in restraining behavior because of the high value and honor associated with chivalry. Paradoxically, the value placed on avoiding battle meant that harrying of villages and peasants was common in the actual practice of warfare. In chapter 9, Saul explains why knighthood and nobility were initially joined in the High Middle Ages but knighthood declined in esteem in the Later Middle Ages. Part of the reason for this is that the lineage reflected in a coat of arms could be inherited in easier ways than knighthood, and knighthood carried military obligations that one might wish to avoid. It is also partly due the growth of the gentry, who were distinct from the nobility.
Saul then analyzes the complex relationship between chivalry and violence. While chivalry promoted heroic violence as proof of manliness and prowess, it also imposed restraint by prioritizing the values of courtliness...