The Medieval Review 12.02.22

Aurell, Martin. Le chevalier lettré: Savoir et conduite de l'aristocratie aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles. Paris: Librarie Arthème Fayard, 2011. Pp. 540. . . 26 EUR. ISBN 978-2-213-66233-6.

Reviewed by:

Amy Livingstone
Wittenburg University

Could medieval knights read the tales of their exploits so vividly brought to life in medieval literature? This question has long intrigued scholars. While most would likely admit that knights and nobles had some degree of functional literacy, many would balk at the idea of a "literate" or educated knighthood. In this book, Martin Aurell argues persuasively that knights could not only read and write, but that they were "lettered." In doing so, Le chevalier lettré offers a corrective to the recent scholarly trend that focuses on the inherent violence of the medieval knighthood. Aurell suggests that the hesitancy to accept the literacy of medieval knights stems from how "literacy" is or was defined. If a clerical standard is employed then literacy would entail a sophisticated understanding and penning of Latin texts, which would significantly limit the number of knights able to achieve such a standard (97). If, however, literacy is measured by functional competence in Latin or a command of the vernacular, as Aurell proposes, significantly more members of the knighthood would be deemed "literate."

With this volume, Aurell aims to trace the "historical sociology" of knowledge and learning among knights and nobles. Not satisfied with what the knights knew, Aurell also examines how the ideals and values inherent in the literature of the time actually shaped the behavior of medieval elites. One of the prominent themes of this book is the interplay between clerical society and the knights. Building on the work of C. Stephen Jaeger, Aurell argues that the clergy played a formative role not only in educating knights but in molding their behavior. Indeed, the "courtliness" that Aurell sees as transforming knights from warriors into thoughtful and learned members of their society was founded in the schools of the twelfth century and the clerics who taught there. Aurell's analysis of both literary and clerical sources is both insightful and deft. Instead of reiterating what the prescriptive clerical sources say about knights, he is able to tease out the "reality" behind the sources to give them a human face to show how ideas played an important role in the lives of medieval knights.

The book is organized into four rather long chapters (each is well over a hundred pages), with each chapter subdivided into various topics. The book starts at the very beginning of a knight's literacy: his education. In this first chapter, entitled Chevalerie et "Clergie", Aurell begins immediately to develop his theme of integration between clergy and knights. He starts his analysis by considering how young children were educated at home. Informed by recent scholarship, Aurell brings to life the formative role that mothers played in the education of their children. In particular, he argues that they were responsible for teaching their children the rudiments of literacy: the alphabet (56, 74). Educated knights have long been assumed to be the exception, rather than the rule. Yet as Aurell demonstrates, advice manuals aimed at providing guidance for educating a young aristocrat--one even penned by Peter Abelard himself--suggests that medieval parents were concerned that their children receive some sort of education. While a young knight might begin his education at his mother's knee, most went to monastic schools where they interacted with the clergy and often formed lifelong associations with them.

Having established that knights were educated, Aurell examines the question of a knight's literacy. He cites the existence of vernacular advice literature and manuals on proper aristocratic or knightly behavior as proof that they could read. Otherwise why would there be manuals crafted specifically for their use? But Aurell goes one step further and provides individual examples of literary accomplishment. While the literate knight might have been more exceptional in the twelfth century, by the thirteenth century the literary and bureaucratic output of medieval courts suggests many more men of the knightly rank were both literate and educated. Indeed, centralized monarchies required men who were literate to help them govern. When viewed ensemble, the evidence persuades that knights were educated to varying degrees in the second half of the twelfth century and that by the thirteenth century an illiterate knight was the exception rather than the rule.

Aurell proceeds next to examine the relationship between knights and literary output. He begins his analysis at court, where he argues that the military strongholds that knights once called home had transformed into a palace, thus framing a change in knights from strictly warriors to producers and consumers of literature. Using the actual setting in which these stories took place, the book then takes up those who performed at court and what they wrote. Central to the career of the jongleurs and the distribution of their poems were the salons provided by medieval noblewomen. He believes that jongleurs integrated real-life scenarios involving women, who were often their patrons, into their poems (130-33). The book next turns to the professional writers and performers themselves. Aurell demonstrates that these men and women came from a diverse social background and that they were also a multi-talented group, writers but also actors and dancers. This section provides a lively description of the spaces and performances of medieval chansons which give the reader a deeper sense of social context. To conclude this discussion, Aurell returns to his theme of the intersection between clerical and secular culture. Based on the negative impressions of a few clerics, the clergy has often been cast as hostile and critical of courtly literature--asserting that it led to the debasement of the morals and spirituality of those at court. Aurell, however, suggests that this relationship was less oppositional than previously assumed.

Now that the stage has been set, Aurell introduces the main characters and a key component to his argument for knightly literacy: knights who were authors. The increase in lay authors, particularly in Latin, he argues, means that more and more knights were being educated at university and cathedral schools. Three genres of knightly literary expression in particular are examined: chansons, sagas, and memoirs of the crusades. Aurell provides an impressive array of knightly authors. Indeed, he estimates that half of the troubadours may have been of aristocratic background, most concentrated in the south of Europe. As well as songs of love, the crusades also provided a generation of knights with the opportunity for self-expression. One of the great strengths of this analysis is that Aurell includes examples from all over Europe--as well as all ranks within the nobility.

Aurell, however, does not confine his discussion to only male members of the knightly class; he also examines the education and literacy of their sisters, mothers and daughters. Like knights, he argues that elite women were educated at their mother's knee and then parish schools or convents. Aristocratic girls, he asserts, learned to read. Evidence of this literacy can be found in the medieval literature itself where women are often portrayed as reading individually and to an audience. Reading was also an inherent part of women's piety and prayer. Aurell believes that women could also write. He cites the correspondence of aristocratic women, as well as authors like Marie de France. The literacy of elite women has garnered much scholarly attention and Aurell's inclusion of female literacy both recognizes the contributions of this research and emphasizes the important role that women played as patrons and practitioners in the written culture of the Central Middle Ages.

The third and final chapter of this book returns to Aurell's theme of the influence of the clergy on their secular/knightly brethren. He argues that the clergy had a "civilizing" impact on the values of the knight. To develop this argument, Aurell delves into four topics: war, manners, love and religion. Although clerics abhorred the violent preoccupations of hunting and the tournament, they attempted to school knights as to when violence was appropriate: in service to a monarch, in defense of the church or to protect the poor, culminating in the call for crusade. Aurell argues that the clergy targeted knights through their various treatises in order to shape their behavior, which he believes they did. Being able to read led knights to become more "Christianized," indeed civilized. These efforts intersected with ideas of proper manners and courtesy, as exemplified in the practice of chivalry by knights toward non-combatants and in times of peace. While Aurell dismisses the supposition that "courtly love" was ever a reality, he does argue that love modified knights' behavior in regard to their interactions with women. Love, as well as the importance of women, also filters into Aurell's examination of the knights' piety. He draws a parallel between the worship of the Virgin Mary and impact of women on the knights' view of love. Religion was an important part of a knight's life, as evident in the many private chapels they built in their castles. Knightly piety is also central to Aurell's argument for their literacy. Because they were able to read, they were able to interact with clerical writings on a range of topics, allowing their piety to become more theologically informed and nuanced. Through analysis of piety from the mid-twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, Aurell is able to prove that literacy both affected and fundamentally changed how knights understood and practiced their religion.

Aurell is successful in demonstrating the impact that transformations of the twelfth century had on both the education and behavior of medieval knights. The intellectual renaissance meant that more were educated, thus enabling them to read and write in the vernacular and even Latin. The development of centralized governments that employed law and bureaucracies meant that access to power lay through literacy. The developing sense of "class solidarity" reinforced the expectation that men and women of this class should be able to read and write. The synthesis of these elements resulted in a new kind of knight, one that was nonetheless a warrior, but who could control his violent behavior, behave circumspectly toward women, and participate in the more gentle pastimes of court life, many of which were based in reading, writing and recitation.

Le chevalier lettréis a thoughtful and comprehensive contribution to the study of literacy and knighthood. One of its strengths is its inclusivity: it offers a truly Pan-European consideration of the literate knight. Previous scholarship has tended to focus on the "heartland" of feudal Europe: France, England and Germany. Aurell, however, clearly sees medieval Europe far more broadly and includes examples of literate knights from all parts of Europe, including Scandinavia, Poland and medieval Rus. For instance, he examines the sagas of Snorri Sturlson, the encylopedists from Italy, the minnesingers from Germany and crusade memoirs from Spain in conjunction with the southern troubadours and the northern French trouvère. This emphasis is both commendable and persuasive as recent scholarship has pointed out how interconnected these areas were through religion, politics and culture, thus pushing our framing of medieval "Europe" further east. Taken individually, the authors of such works could be dismissed as an individual exception. But when threaded together, a new pattern emerges: the European phenomenon of the educated and literate knight. Aurell also includes analysis of elite women writers and the impact of women on the education and conduct of the knights. Influenced by feminist research, Aurell treats women as agents of change and active participants, rather than passive objects of knightly admiration or as patrons. He interweaves their influence throughout his analysis; from the mother who taught her sons the alphabet to ladies at court who became the subject of knightly literature.

At the same time Aurell casts his net widely, he is also able to compliment his broad scope with individual examples. Examinations of the relationship between knights and literature have tended to take one of two approaches: global or singular. A strength of Aurell's analysis is that he has been able to combine the two. He highlights individuals who demonstrate knightly literacy, but at the same time places them in a broad geographical or literary context. The analysis of knightly piety demonstrates this balance. While there are many excellent works examining the collective piety of knights and nobles, Aurell seeks to provide a more personal view on how knights understood their God. He delves into how they worshipped, where they worshipped (private chapels) and what images or religious artifacts had religious resonance for them. Another virtue of Aurell's analysis is his creativity in finding ways to provide detail about the relationship between knights and literacy/literature. The section "Des châteaux transformés en palais" is one of the most innovative in the book. Here Aurell uses the descriptions in the romances and poems to reconstruct the physical space of the court and palace. Using this literary archeology allows him to bring to life the spaces inhabited by the knights and ladies who attended court and contributed to the production of courtly literature.

This is an extremely rich book. Although its breadth and detail are strengths, they can also be a drawback. Sometimes the details make it hard to appreciate the whole or to see how the myriad of pieces fit together. A more assertive central thesis and/or shorter chapters might have mitigated this problem. Yet even though it is sometimes difficult to digest the entirety of this book, this does not detract from its overall quality. Le chevalier lettré: Savior et conduite de l'aristocratie aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles will be of use and interest to those studying the nobility, the clergy, and literature, but also the history of culture and education. This is an important contribution: creative, inclusive, detailed and persuasive. It demonstrates how intellectual movements, often dismissed as having a limited impact on anyone outside of the cloister, did in fact shape the lives of medieval knights. While other works have discussed literacy (Michael Clanchy's seminal work comes to mind) or conduct (as exemplified by an extensive literature on the lives of knights), this book combines both to provide a rich and penetrating picture of how knights learned, what they learned, how this shaped their behavior and piety, and ultimately had a larger impact on medieval society.