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20.08.01 Jones/Coss (eds.), A Companion to Chivalry

20.08.01 Jones/Coss (eds.), A Companion to Chivalry

The study of medieval chivalry has proven a deeply contentious subject ever since modern scholars first began addressing its details in earnest in the mid twentieth century. Much of this contention derives from the fact that the term "chivalry" eludes easy definition. It has been variously described as an "ethos," a "code of values" and a "way of life." It cannot be divorced from the martial world, or from service to one's lord, yet it was simultaneously central to medieval notions of social rank, lineage and family identity, and was imbued with strong religious overtones as a specifically Christian expression of the warrior lifestyle. Even contemporary usage is not always very helpful, varying over time and often being dependent upon language and context. Nonetheless--however defined--chivalry was undeniably integral to the way of life of the medieval nobility and gentry. A Companion to Chivalry seeks--through a collection of fifteen essays--to survey the impressively broad and thematically varied body of scholarship on chivalry, whilst pointing towards areas of focus heretofore largely unexplored.

The collection begins with Peter Coss' concise summary of the existing Anglophone and Francophone historiography, through which he traces the nature, origins and diffusion of chivalry between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. As Coss emphasises, the Anglophone tradition, with Maurice Keen's magisterial Chivalry (1984) at its heart, has adopted a noticeably more secular view of chivalry than its Francophone counterpart, which has approached the subject "on a broader plane" (15). Coss eloquently summarises the collective works of chivalry's leading scholars, from the pioneering Sidney Painter, through Keen and Georges Duby, and on to Jean Flori, Richard Kaeuper, David Crouch, Nigel Saul, John Gillingham, Matthew Strickland and Dominique Barthélemy. Along Anglophone lines, he broadly defines chivalry as a "set of values widely shared by the aristocratic warrior elite," which "operated within a Christian framework," but whose "ideas and behavioural traits...were essentially secular" (38). His largely chronological overview, moreover, draws together the eclectic strands of chivalric culture as it evolved over the course of the High Middle Ages. In so doing, Coss touches upon everything from epic and romance literature, to the rise of the tournament, the spread of heraldry, and the role of the Church and Christian doctrine in shaping what chivalry became by the fourteenth century, thus neatly setting the scene for the diverse range of topics covered in the remaining chapters.

Thereafter, A Companion to Chivalry systematically explores the various thematic strands underpinning the study of medieval chivalry. In Chapters Two and Three, David Simpkin and David Green survey monarchical efforts to harness the loyalty of the chivalric elite. Simpkin highlights the success of the English, Spanish and Hungarian monarchies in developing a commonality of interest with their nobles and knights, utilising patronage networks, and the promise of glory and material gain on the battlefield, to entice their greatest subjects to serve them in war and to take up the most senior posts in royal and provincial administration. Adopting a narrower focus, Green considers the ways in which royal and aristocratic rulers, through the construction of secular chivalric orders, weaponised "conceptions of prowess, loyalty and knightly endeavour" and redeployed them to their own advantage (58), thereby ensuring that "the highest recognition to which a knight could aspire was in the royal gift" (61). Both chapters perceptively emphasise the complicated reality facing medieval rulers that "the organisation [and control] of chivalric society" was always "a matter for cooperation rather than coercion" (46).

Chapters Four through Six segue neatly from secular to monastic chivalric orders, and thereafter to the uneasy contrasts between the ideals and practice of chivalry. Helen Nicholson surveys the character of the New Knighthood that arose in the twelfth century, focusing upon the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights, and illustrating that, although undoubtedly influenced by secular chivalric ideology, as monastic orders "they were cut off from some of the central themes of chivalry, such as the cult of love and the ideal of the solitary knight seeking personal honour, the hero-figure of the secular chivalric romances" (70). Robert Jones, and the pairing of Peter Sposato and Samuel Claussen, then explore the nature of chivalric violence: through Jones, in terms of the institutional structure of medieval armies and the numerous ways in which they were less formal and more organic constructs than the regiments of modern history; and, through Sposato and Claussen, by demonstrating how the knightly elite of Florence and Castile were enticed by the dictates of personal and family honour to commit often barbarous acts of violence.

The remaining chapters adopt a much more eclectic approach. In Chapter Seven, Richard Barber surveys the history of the tournament, assessing its role as a training ground for young knights, as an arena for expressing the chivalric ideals found in contemporary romance literature, and ultimately as a tool of royal and aristocratic political control in the later Middle Ages. Robert Jones, in Chapter Eight, traces the evolution of heraldry, from its noble origins in the mid twelfth century, to its downward diffusion through genteel society at large, to its functioning as a form of personal identification in war and tournaments, to its wider socio-cultural significance as a marker of service connections and as a symbol of family heritage and identity. Moving on to physical manifestations of the chivalric lifestyle, Ralph Moffat, in Chapter Nine, surveys the evolution of arms and armour between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, whilst Oliver Creighton, in Chapter Ten, investigates the heretofore largely unexplored ways in which chivalric landscapes--castles, manor houses, and their surrounding hunting and pleasure grounds--were deliberately cultivated to reflect the chivalric self-image of their owners.

Moving beyond the specific realm of the knightly lifestyle, Louise Wilkinson, in Chapter Eleven, questions the place of aristocratic women within chivalric culture, arguing that they were rather less peripheral to the world of chivalry than most scholars have traditionally assumed. Wilkinson points in particular to the role played by noblewomen as patrons of romance literature; as indirect participants in knightly endeavours both within the romance tradition itself and, in a more practical context, in the pageantry of contemporary tournaments; and even as active upholders of the chivalric ethos in their own right, through their birth, lineage and genteel behaviour. Finally, Joanna Bellis and Megan Leitch, and Matthew Bennett, respectively provide concise overviews of the vast and eclectic body of surviving chivalric literature and manuals of warfare, before matters are brought to a close with a pair of chapters from Matthew Woodcock and Clare Simmons examining the evolution of chivalry into the Tudor age and its subsequent nostalgic revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As its title indicates, A Companion to Chivalry provides a necessary and engaging synopsis of the current scholarship on chivalry in all its varied manifestations. This, and its thematic breadth, are undoubtedly its strong points. The volume helps to contextualise our understanding of medieval chivalry's complexities, as well as its inherent contradictions, from its lack of a precise definition, to the interplay between its ideals and practice, to its political, religious and socio-cultural connotations, to the ways in which its literary and architectural achievements had a real-world impact. The only quibbles one might raise would be with its geographical scope and the precise order of its chapters. Coss' introduction specifically focuses upon chivalry as it evolved in England, France and the Low Countries, and the overwhelming majority of chapters adopt a similar approach. Yet developments in Italy, Spain, the German lands, and even Hungary, are touched upon to varying degrees, leaving the reader rather wishing that one or two more chapters had been dedicated to chivalry's evolution beyond its Anglo-French heartland. Indeed, such is its overarching Anglo-French focus that Sposato and Claussen's analysis of chivalric violence in Florence and Castile feels rather out of the place in the grander narrative sweep of the volume. A slight reworking of the chapter order might also have enhanced the volume's thematic flow. In particular, Ralph Moffat's chapter on "Arms and Armour," with its specifically military focus, might have been better situated after Robert Jones' chapter on the structure of medieval armies, thereby allowing the chapters on heraldry and chivalric landscapes--both of which revolve around chivalric display for public consumption, intricately tied to lineage and family honour--to be read back to back. Overall, though, A Companion to Chivalry provides a masterful summary of half a century of scholarship on medieval chivalry, and will undoubtedly prove a useful reference point for graduate students, whilst clarifying for specialists the current state of the existing scholarship, as well as new avenues worth exploring in the future. ​