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

years old.


     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

cease altogether."


     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

the dead.


     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!

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center