chapter  2
15 Pages

Brutality and Violence in Medieval French Romance and Its Consequences

More than a few recent studies of courtly society have emphasized its chivalrous character and courteous profile-noble, polite, and softened manners-compared with the much less cultured values articulated in the “undomesticated” and “tumultuous” First Feudal Age, an era portrayed further by Georges Duby as one of uncouth and hurtful swordplay, as a world of male warriors whom the Church forever tried to civilize. Refined, humanistic, and feminine values enter the European stage around 1100.2

The new social ideals have been authoritatively captioned in Stephen Jaeger’s important analysis, The Origins of Courtliness, in which, for the formative period under his review (939-1210, and even earlier), he identified a number of courtly, that is, ethical and behavioral values such as discretion, compassion, moderation, humility, patience, affability, urbanity, and gentleness of spirit.3 The present argument, drawing partly on Joachim Bumke’s distinction between the ideal and the reality of courtly society, will demonstrate a revisionist view, namely, that numerous brutal and bloody episodes in midtwelfth-century French romance reveal an unrepentant and unreformed taste for violence, aggression, and revenge.4 By corroborating the “historiographical myth” of that nineteenth-century social construct called “chivalry,” as Barthelemy put it recently,5 I contend that these violent elements, very broadly speaking, reflect a certain realityperhaps by trickle down-into poetry and letters, of the worst features of “the military side of aristocratic knighthood.”6 The heroic-minded warrior class, imbued with a shame culture, was not eclipsed with the emergence of the courtly vernacular.7 That paragon of peaceful chivalry, Sir Gauvain, the new “ladies’ man,” was doubtless overshadowed by legions of hawkish warmongers like Wace’s old Cador.8