Martin Aurell has become one of the leading French writers on nobility and chivalry in the High Middle Ages. In this book, originally published in 2011 as Le chevalier lettré, he demonstrates that medieval knights were both literate and cultured, and that these traits were a valued part of the chivalric ethos. His work harkens back to that of C. Stephen Jaeger, who provides a blurb for the back of the dust jacket. Jaeger's The Origins of Courtliness (1985) first began to dispel the notion of a gulf between learned clerics and supposedly crude knights, with his argument that many of the ideals of courtliness were influenced by those of Stoicism, absorbed and taught by the bishops and clerics who tutored young knights. Over the last thirty years a number of other scholars have convincingly shown that there was no sharp separation between the leaders of the church and leaders of society, many of whom came from the same families, and that aristocrats sought (with greater or lesser success) to be considered both Christian and refined. Aurell builds on this work with a veritable catalogue of the literary and cultural influences knights received, in an always interesting but often repetitious and confusingly organized work.
After an introduction that claims the term Renaissance exclusively for the High Middle Ages (rather than qualifying the concept as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance), the book addresses literacy among knights, the role of literature in knightly efforts to become cultured, knights as writers as well as readers, learned women, efforts to overcome violence, and courtly behavior that included good manners, generosity, the game of love, and religion. The lettered knight, Aurell stresses in his conclusion, was a central feature of a period that witnessed increased interest in learning, a rising population, growth in cities and trade, and the establishment of centralized states. Throughout, Aurell treats literary interest and learning as an aspect of courtliness, rather than as a separate set of skills. He is as interested in dancing, hygiene, and tournaments as in literacy itself.
The book begins not with knights but rather with what Aurell calls scholasticism (5). By the term he does not mean the application of discursive reasoning to theological topics, as most scholars use the term, but rather reading, writing, and manuscript production. Only after a long discussion of the theoretic distinction between orality and literacy in society and of the variation even among the learned in the extent of their Latinity, does he turn to knights. Here he quickly limns in the very old picture of knights as dubbed warriors who appeared, along with feudalism, with the collapse of Carolingian authority. From the late twelfth century on, he says, they followed a "code of chivalry" that made them into a church-sanctioned order (17-18). This simplistic picture relies on the equally generalized version put forward by Dominique Barthélemy in his La chevalerie (2007) and includes none of the nuances and contradictions of chivalry analyzed by Jean Flori, David Crouch, or Richard Kaeuper--even though all of the latter are in the bibliography.
Aurell's overall method is to make a generalization about some aspect of knightly behavior, then give examples from a broad range of literary and historical sources to illustrate the point. No distinction is drawn between sources intended to be read as factual and those (like Arthurian stories) written as fiction. Aurell does however note well along (240) that most fictional stories had an explicitly moral tone and were intended to influence behavior. This approach, a generalization followed by medieval examples, makes for a lively text, but it is not particularly analytical--that is, he makes little effort to address the question of what issues particularly concerned medieval authors, or how they chose which traits to emphasize. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries are treated as a single unit, with scarcely any sense of change or development over the period. The early eleventh century, when knights first appeared in France, is curiously absent, although Aurell makes intermittent excursions into the fourteenth century. As there is little distinction between centuries, there is even less between places. Descriptions of a typical palace and its furniture, for example, treat together examples from Spain, France, England, and Italy, taken indiscriminately from epic poetry, the lais of Marie de France, a treatise on etiquette, and a Franciscan's memoirs (106-107).
A topic to which Aurell keeps returning is that of the troubadours or jongleurs. Like too many other scholars, most notably Georges Duby, he treats the admiration of noble women from afar, as found in troubadour poems from southern France, as explicable by a paradigm of vassal knights serving in the courts of older, more powerful married men, as typically found in northern France (149-150, 335). This admiration he unproblematically calls courtly love, without reference to the convincing argument of Fredric Cheyette that southern noblewomen might be treated as powerful and in command because they were powerful and in command (Ermengard of Narbonne, 2001, in Aurell's bibliography in the French edition).
In general, the role of women in aristocratic culture is not well served here. A section on women as readers and writers is tucked away at the end of a chapter entitled "Knighthood and Literary Creation," which is primarily a series of plot summaries of medieval romances. Women are said to be especially concerned with cleanliness (107) and to be the principal readers of psalters (197). Indeed, increased male interest in religious issues is described as "feminization" (226). A section on shame and immodesty begins with women, even though the rest of the chapter is about men (296). But it is encouraging that Aurell treats female literacy among the laity as normal, at least for those in the upper echelons of society, rather than assuming female ignorance.
Organized religion is also poorly served. The church is primarily depicted as a source of the learning that was taught to lettered knights, but the intense efforts to find a purer, more apostolic form of life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries does not appear. Instead, knights are depicted as becoming less concerned with monasticism in the thirteenth century, which may be true, but only because monks were outcompeted as exemplars of holiness by the friars. There is little indication of the struggles that both warriors and clerical theologians went through in trying to reconcile knightly violence with Christianity or to channel this violence into acceptable venues. Instead Aurell suggests that churchmen simply opposed sin and bloodshed. They hoped instead, he indicates, for a classless society, a curious statement given the extent to which the concept of hierarchy was built into Christian cosmology, made even more curious by the suggestion that Dante would seem "an enlightened spirit" by modern standards (386).
Aurell appears to have written for an educated French audience who are not medievalists. There is really no English-language equivalent for this type of book, somewhere between a popular survey and a scholarly work. This has aspects of both. The book is footnoted throughout, pauses periodically for brief historiographic discussions, and has a very extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. Anglophone as well as modern French authors are very well represented, along with a smattering of Germans, Italians, and Spaniards. And yet the book often stops to give an introductory overview of such topics as the effort that went into knightly training (39), certainly already well known to any medievalist picking up a book on aristocratic literacy.
One comes away with the feeling that the work might read better in French than in English. Perhaps a close translation is not always to be desired. Although the English is technically correct, one often wishes for a different word. The following examples are all from p. 1. A knight is described as in danger of being "expropriated," when what is meant is having his property seized. A later addition to a manuscript is called a "belated" addition. A knight's sense of superiority to royal officials is labeled a "philistine attitude." Knights and clerics are said to have "a certain synergy between their respective existences... despite the apparent discordance between their respective statuses." And it is difficult to interpret the meaning of "the sprout demography of lineages" (391). In addition, the French scholarly tendency to describe the previously accepted view of matters in apparent agreement, before presenting a quite different argument, reads in English like self-contradiction. For example, Aurell describes at some length a supposed gulf between literate clerics and illiterate knights before abruptly turning to knightly literacy (13-28).
Overall this book will serve as a useful corrective for anyone who still thinks of high medieval knights as illiterate and uncivilized (violent, yes, coarse and crude, no). Most medievalists will find little in the arguments that is new. Yet Aurell does provides a wealth of anecdotes from medieval sources, many of which may be unfamiliar and worth pursuing.