12.09.22, Saul, Chivalry in Medieval England

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Robert William Jones

The Medieval Review 12.09.22

Saul, Nigel. Chivalry in Medieval England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 416. ISBN: 978-0-674-06368-6.

Reviewed by:
Robert William Jones

Chivalry is a topic that has spawned a vast number of studies. This is inevitable given the all-encompassing importance that it had for medieval society and culture. As such, there is a deal of pressure upon scholars of the subject to say something fresh, or at least to recast the material in a new mould. Professor Saul cites his work as "the first book to explore chivalry's place within a wider history of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest to the aftermath of Henry VII's triumph at Bosworth in the Wars of the Roses," as the dust jacket puts it. This is quite some boast, and quite some challenge.

Saul's work comprises eighteen chapters covering a mixture of chronological and thematic subjects spanning the full history of medieval England. In his introduction he lays out the multivalent meanings ascribed to the term in both the middle ages and modern times, then goes on to discuss the introduction of chivalric concepts to England the Normans and the development of chivalric culture under the Plantagenets. At this point Saul makes some comparisons that are commonly found in less academically rigorous works; the knight is described as "the Sherman tank of medieval warfare" whilst knighthood was "a form of chivalric freemasonry" (15 and 18). Such over-simplifications might lead one to worry about the rest of the work but, in fact, Saul becomes more academically rigorous. He goes on to discuss the decline of knighthood in the thirteenth century and its reinvigoration at the hands of Edwards I and III. He then switches to a more thematic treatment of the role of chivalry. He considers its role in limiting knightly violence (he is of the opinion that one of the key features of chivalry that it served as a system of mutual self- protection for the knightly class), the role of chivalry within the development of notions of aristocracy and nobility, literature and literacy, Christianity, the search for fame and honour, fortification as a symbol of chivalry and woman's place within chivalric society. He then returns to his chronological approach by considering knighthood's second decline in the years following Agincourt, the reinvigoration of chivalry by the house of York before its final death with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. This Saul sees as being a result of the increasingly legalistic approach to war that came about in the fourteenth century and the state's increasing dominance over the prosecution of war, and the monarchy's co-opting of the chivalric and knightly ethos for service and administration.

There are two underpinning themes to the work. The first is the importance of chivalry in the success or failure of English monarchs in their rule. Thus kings such as Richard I and Edwards I and III and IV are seen as successful because they were able to embody and harness the chivalric culture and elite, whilst Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI, militarily ineffective, were unable to maintain their position and saw knighthood decline as a result. The second theme is the shaping and reshaping of the knightly class from a loose confederation of warriors through exclusive nobility to little more than a reward for loyal service divorced from its military roots. Of these two themes the latter is more compelling. The success or failure of monarch's regimes was clearly bound up with more than their acceptance of chivalry and handling of the knightly class, whilst the popularity of knighthood waxed and waned as a result of that class's perceptions of the opportunities for plunder and honour or the economic environment as much if not more than because of a monarch's martial enthusiasm.

Saul covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space, and it is perhaps inevitable that some areas are dealt with less fully than others. He is clearly more comfortable when dealing with the later Middle Ages; his chapters on chivalry and knighthood in the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses give their subject matter a fuller treatment with more analysis than those covering the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The chapter on "Chivalry and Empire" seems particularly weak. With a brief reference to William Marshal--whose position as the archetypal knight of the period surely warranted him being given more consideration--the chapter focuses on lauding Richard I as England's first chivalric king. The question of an English "empire" is barely considered, let alone the role of chivalry in shaping it, despite the fact that the concept of an Anglo-Norman or Plantagenet Empire is both contentious and widely discussed by historians. Another chapter that feels somewhat thin is that of "Chivalry and Women." Whilst Saul considers their position within chivalric romance and the reality of aristocratic women's lives, looking at their piety and patronage, he concludes that this was all subsumed by masculine identities and that, marginal players in chivalric culture, they found "fulfilment in the promotion of family and dynastic interests" (282).

All this having been said, there is nothing inherently wrong with Saul's work; he is clearly aware of the latest research in the subject, and his style is accessible and readable. There are, of course, more detailed treatments of individual topics out there and of the matter of chivalry itself. Keen's seminal,Chivalry, which Saul himself recognises as being of great importance, is a key example, but one could also include Peter Coss's The Knight in Medieval England, 1000-1400 and The Lady in Medieval England, 1100-1500, as well as a myriad of detailed studies of the various aspects of chivalry Saul discusses. What the book does provide is a useful, if a somewhat limited, overview of the topic that would be a beneficial text for an undergraduate student to use as a stepping-stone towards the more specific and detailed works. One more thing I would note; the same work is also available under the title of For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066- 1500 published by The Bodley Head.

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Robert William Jones