16 Pages

Knights and Squires

T HE theory of chivalry, which itself owes much to pre-Christian morality, lies at the roots of the modern conception of gentility. The essence of perfect knighthood was fearless strength, softened by charity and consecrated by faith. A certain small and select class had (it was held) a hereditary right to all the best things of this world, and the concomitant duty of using with moderation for themselves and giving freely to others. Essentially exclusive and jealous of its privileges, the chivalric ideal was yet the highest possible in a society whose very foundations rested on caste distinctions, and where bondmen were more numerous than freemen. The world will always be the richer for it; but we must not forget that, like the finest flower of Greek and Roman culture, it postulated a servile class; the many must needs toil and groan and bleed in order that the few might have grace and freedom to grow to their individual perfection. In its finest products it may extort unwilling admiration even from the most convinced democrat-

When, however, we look closer into the system, and turn from theory to practice, then we find again those glaring inconsistencies which meet us nearly everywhere in medieval society. A close study even of such a panegyrist as Froissart compels us to look to some other age than his for the spirit of perfect chivalry; and many writers would place the palmy days of knighthood in the age of St. Louis. Here again, however, we find the same dIfficulty; for in J oinville himself there are many jarring notes, and other records of the period are still less flattering to knightly society. The most learned of modern apologists for the Middle Ages, Leon Gautier, is driven to put back the Golden Age one century further, thus implying that Francis and Dominic, Aquinas and Dante, the glories of Westminster and Amiens, the saintly King who dealt justice under the oak of Vincennes, and twice led his armies oversea against the heathen, all belonged to an age of decadence in chivalry. Yet, even at this sacrifice, the Golden Age escapes us. When we go back to the middle of the 12th century we find St. Bernard's contemporaries branding the chivalry of their times as shamelessly untrue to its traditional code. "The Order of Knighthood 11 (writes Peter of Blois in his 94th Epistle) "is nowadays mere disorder . . . . Knights of old bound themselves by an oath to stand by the state, not to flee from battle, and to prefer the public welfare to their own lives. Nay, even in these present days candidates for knighthood take their swords from the altar as a confession that they are sons of the Church, and that the blade is

given to them for the honour of the priesthood, the defence of the poor, the chastisement of evil-doers, and the deliverance of their country. But all goes by contraries; for nowadays, from the moment when they are honoured with the knightly belt, they rise up against the Lord's anointed and rage against the patrimony of the Crucified. They rob and despoil Christ's poor, affiicting the wretched miserably and without mercy, that from other men's pain they may gratify their unlawful appetites and their wanton pleasures . . . . They who should have used their strength against Christ's enemies fight now in their cups and drunkenness, waste their time in sloth, moulder in debauchery, and dishonour the name and office of Knighthood by their degenerate lives." This was about 1170. A couple of generations earlier we get an equally unfavourable impression from the learned and virtuous abbot, Guibert of N ogent. Further back, again, the evidence is still more damning; and nobody would seriously seek the golden age of chivalry in the 11th century. It is indeed a mirage; and Peter of Blois in II70, Cardinal Jacques de Vitry in 1220, who so disadvantageously contrasted the knighthood of their own time with that of the past, were simply victims of a common delusion. They despaired too lightly of the actual world, and sought refuge too credutously in an imaginary past. Even if, in medieval fashion, we trace this institution back to Romulus, to David, to Joshua, or to Adam himself, we shall, after all, find it nowhere more flourishing than in the first half of the 13th century, imperfectly as its code was kept even then.