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  • Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry by Richard W. Kaeuper
  • Katherine Allen Smith
Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry. By Richard W. Kaeuper. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 331. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-2297-5.)

Building upon his earlier study of Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 1999), in Holy Warriors Richard Kaeuper continues to explore the paradoxes of chivalry, this time as manifested in the religiosity of medieval warriors. Whereas previous scholars approaching this subject from the perspectives of church history and the history of crusading have tended to assume warriors’ passivity in spiritual matters, Kaeuper strives instead to define knightly piety as knights themselves understood it and to recover a distinctive lay martial Christianity that was often at odds with the Church’s official teachings. [End Page 155]

After a first chapter dedicated to sources and methodology, chapter 2 presents a case study of two knightly guides, the fourteenth-century writers Geoffroi de Charny and Henry of Lancaster, who proclaimed the martial life—campaigning against fellow Christians, tourneying, and all—to be fully consonant with Christian ideals. Here and in later chapters, Kaeuper insists that knights did not uncritically accept clerical critiques of the warrior life, but defined a piety that embraced the chivalric values of loyalty, bravery, and physical endurance. Chapters 3 and 4 show how, faced with the moral critiques of clerical reformers, knights insisted that the physical hardships of war were a form of Christian asceticism equal to or more meritorious than that practiced by churchmen. In chapter 5 Kaeuper develops an original reading of the chansons de geste as a literature of ascetic suffering, in which the distinction between crusading warfare and warfare between Christians fades into the background; what is important to knights is not the religion of their opponents but the opportunities that battle presents for bodily mortification and self-sacrifice. As the battlefield became a site for the performance of knightly piety, it was natural that knights should look to Christ to lead them into the fray, and chapter 6 shows how strongly warriors identified with Christ in his guises as champion of the Church and, increasingly in the later Middle Ages, heroic sufferer. Chapters 7 and 8 reconstruct knightly responses to the clerical elaboration of a lay theology that asserted the superiority of the priestly and monastic “labor” of prayer over the inherently sinful “labor” of war and promoted new forms of lay penance. Again, Kaeuper argues, knights pushed back by asserting the spiritual value of their martial labor and the efficacy of heroic physical penance over inner contrition. By way of conclusion, chapter 9 addresses the decline of chivalry in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, identifying the anti-chivalric ideals of humanists and early Protestants as well as the early-modern nation-state as the main agents responsible for chivalry’s demise.

Kaeuper’s knowledge of the vernacular literature of chivalry, chivalric biographies, and handbooks is unequaled, and he makes excellent use of Latin exempla and penitential texts to demonstrate how clerical writers tailored religious instruction to knightly needs. He is occasionally less than convincing when reading the clerical sources as evidence for knightly mentalities; for instance, the assertion that the Cistercian Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii “conveys strongly held knightly ideals” (p. 133) is not borne out by the accompanying short analysis which focuses largely on the Old French version of the tale by Marie de France. Kaeuper generally handles his evidence with great care and sensitivity to problems related to authorship and audience; this reviewer noted only one slip: the misidentification of the chronicler Ralph of Caen, a priest, as a “Norman knight” (p. 29). Such quibbles aside, Holy Warriors is a groundbreaking work and is sure to remain the starting-point for studies of chivalry and religion for some time to come. The book is beautifully and entertainingly written, and complemented by rich endnotes and a substantial bibliography (which, however, curiously omits the manuscript sources cited in the notes).

Holy Warriors should be required reading for medievalists interested in knighthood and chivalry as well as the institutional Church, lay spirituality, and penance...


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