Steven Isaac

title.none: Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Isaac)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.006 00.09.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Steven Isaac, Northwestern University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Kaeuper, Richard. Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 331. $45.00. ISBN: 0-198-20730-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.06

Kaeuper, Richard. Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 331. $45.00. ISBN: 0-198-20730-1.

Reviewed by:

Steven Isaac
Northwestern University

Richard Kaeuper's study of the violence inherent in chivalry bridges the difficult gap between reality and mentalité . Covering a period from the earliest twelfth century up through Malory's publication of the Morte d'Arthur in the later fifteenth, and ranging across a variety of sources (from fantastic literature to more prosaic chronicles to even drier bureaucratic records), Kaeuper has built a picture of an ethos constantly under construction and tension. The forces at work were not merely the external ones of public and ecclesiastical authority, but more importantly the dynamic brought into the arena by the knights themselves who practiced consciously or not the changing values of chivalric behavior. The traditional independence of a warrior elite, coupled with an emphasis on honor and prestige that could only be proved through violent competition, meant prowess would be the premier trait of chivalric culture. The value and role of violence thus becomes a measure of the relationship of the participating aristocracy with attempts at royal control and spiritual direction, as well as society at large.

Prowess, that penchant for violent deeds, was more than just a measure; it determined the relationship of a coalescing chevalerie with nascent state and church attempts to bridle it. Kaeuper starts building his analysis in the solid bedrock of historians like Orderic Vitalis, Suger, and Galbert of Bruges. Their well-known narratives decry those who disturb the public peace and laud those rulers who can curb the violent, i.e., the martial aristocracy. Already, the tension shows: there is a need for violence, but only if practiced by the 'right' parties. Within both historical and imaginative writing, "common or garden crime" garners little attention compared to the nearly obsessive concern over knightly depredations. Medieval writing both about and within the chivalric tradition tended to include social criticism along with reformist suggestions.

This criticism especially appears in elements of the relationship of knights to spiritual authority in both literary and historical documents. From the early chansons de geste onward, characters display a vigorous piety, but what they are willing to accept from religious figures remains limited. Simply put, they accepted convenient practices and downplayed whatever was "not compatible with their sense of honour and entitlement" (47). When they avoid penances, Gawain and Gaheriet exemplify the attitude of many knights that their hard profession constituted an on-going asceticism. The divine author of prowess has approved their deeds. This sacralization shows up in historical pieces such as the Song of Dermot and the Earl or a biography of the Black Prince. The hermits of many tales (and not a few chronicles) hold an important place in this relationship also. These not-so-isolated mouthpieces direct many adventures, explain much of the symbolic action, and nurture questing knights. They do all this with a maximum of personal piety and a minimum of ecclesiastical authority. In fact, they often perform their functions along with a healthy criticism of the institutional church (59).

Of course, the medieval church played its own role in the development of chivalry. It was an unsteady pillar upon which the church based some of its attempts to regulate the violence of Christendom's many warriors. Gratian declared prowess to be a gift from God, particularly if used in the achievement of peace. The blurred line between reality and imagination is especially vivid in Orderic Vitalis's retelling "as undebatable fact" of the deeds of William of Orange in God's cause. The compulsion to display prowess led to the many acts, however, that excited clerical condemnation; it was unchecked, selfish violence that drew the ire of Urban II, of Bernard of Clairvaux, and Alain of Lille. As chivalry, both as a group and an ideology, became more fixed, churchmen began finding an accommodation with it. The emphasis changed in the writings of a Bernard or a John of Salisbury to the proper practice of chivalry rather than the legitimacy of its existence. Even the prohibitions against tournaments were relaxed.

Some explanation of the church's transformation may rest in Kaeuper's threefold model of chevalerie, royauté , and clergie . As the ideals of chivalry became that of kings also, the church found a tool that might curtail public violence. The double-edged nature of the sword, however, was that kings, for all that they might be "founts of justice," were also knights raised on the chivalric need to display prowess. It made controlling the knights he needed for prestige and authority difficult; moreover, he had his own need to prove himself on the field of battle. The records are clear that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries kings in England and France slowly, but successfully, established a monopoly over the practice of licit violence within their realms. The chivalric literature is utterly silent regarding the growing bureaucracy that managed justice on both sides of the Channel. Royal justice is noted, however, but typically under manipulation by evil men, or misguided in the hands of willful kings who forget to whom they owe their thrones (as in the repeated experiences of William of Orange or the feuds of Raoul de Cambrai). Even where royal justice is flawed, the principle and primacy of such justice is confirmed by the peace that descends once right (i.e., feudal) practice is restored.

What Kaeuper demonstrates most effectively from multiple viewpoints is that the ordo of chevalerie established its own peculiar relationship with secular and ecclesiastical authority, and on terms which it felt it could impose at the least cost to its traditional independence and social pre-eminence. William Marshal's biography reflects both aspects. Like the chanson heroes, dealings with an ungrateful lord dominated much of his life. As for the church, there is the oft-noted scene when Marshal tires of the importunities of the priests. If he must give any more away, then salvation is simply out of reach for all.

The rest of this study is devoted to the heart of the tension in chivalry: its glorification of violence even as it purported to restrain the same. Throughout all the chivalric literature, prowess becomes not so much a premier virtue "as a one-word definition of chivalry" (135). This "demi-god" dominated the chivalric texts, and Kaeuper lets it do so in his own prose to avoid either a romantic or antiseptic distortion of the medieval view. He again does an admirable job of moving adeptly between imaginative and historical texts: from the "staggerynge, pantyng, blowyng, and bledyng" of Malory's heroes to the blood-red grass in Barbour's chronicle of Robert Bruce. Lancelot , in near-Pythonesque scenes, is "Death itself." Whether in Perceval or an account of the Hundred Years War, the standard ravaging of the land comes through bleakly.

If violence held everyone's attention, many various ideas for reforming/restraining competed meekly with one another and prowess itself. One example alone is quite illuminating: the range of attitudes expressed by Gawain's brothers on how to treat women. Agravain saw nothing wrong in rape, Gaheriet advocated protecting them, and Guerrehet opted to pursue a mutual love. When Gawain must judge his brothers' answers, he grants that mutual love is the best ideal, but that Gaheriet's policy of protection is best for avoiding shame and conflict. The complexity of the problem is further borne out by the annual oath at the Round Table not to commit rape. The need for repetitious swearing is telling. Kaeuper points out that part of the issue here is that women simply are "non-knights." In this as in many other examples, the chivalric ethos voices no conclusive word upon the limits of violence.

Even the handbooks written by knights themselves admit the vigor of the violent behavior they sought to restrain. Raoul de Hodenc's Romance of the Wings fears the love of prowess will cause liberality and courtesy to wither among knights. Ramon Llull, even amid his praises for chivalry, labels knights "the Devil's ministers."

Only when this penchant for violent vindication has been suppressed does Kaeuper admit the true end of chivalry. Dueling was a last expression of this dynamic, and its suppression by the English and French monarchs "more specifically the relocation of honor's source from violent proof to the monarchy itself" finished completely the domestication of the once wayward aristocracy.

On the whole, Kaeuper's argument is not only convincing, but his presentation of the tensions throughout is quite captivating. He especially let the texts present his case, which they do with the boldness that marks so much medieval verse. His own metaphors are delightful, but they come dangerously close to distracting, especially the involved ones involving electro-magnetic principles (perhaps I was supposed to remember the Connecticut Yankee at those points?). More important, though, is the absence of Germany, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula from a book ostensibly about medieval Europe. One text alone from the Spanish kingdoms appears on occasion, while the Empire receives bare mention. One can only wonder about the extent of chivalric culture in Europe's eastern regions. At one point, Kaeuper describes France "as the model for most other realms" (98), but in an argument so sensitive to subtle tensions, it seems out of place to let France speak for the other regions. For the territories along the Channel, Kaeuper's evidence is thorough and holds up; elsewhere, though, it remains to be seen.