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22.01.28 Claussen, Chivalry and Violence in Late Medieval Castile

22.01.28 Claussen, Chivalry and Violence in Late Medieval Castile

Towards the end of Jane Austen’s wonderful novel Persuasion, a spirited discussion develops as to whether males are more constant in love than females. When Captain Harville argues that books show women’s inconstancy, Anne Elliot, the female protagonist of the novel, responds to the effect that all these books were written by men. In the same fashion, Claussen reminds us that past and present understandings of chivalry have been shaped by the writings of those who were either knights or who sought to advance a glorified representation of knighthood and chivalry. The colorful veneer of chivalric values, articulated in the Middle Ages, in the Romantic revival of the nineteenth century, and even put to nefarious use later by Franco, obscures a harsh and obvious reality. As Claussen expresses it in lapidary fashion several times throughout his introduction and subsequent chapters, the knights or warriors defined themselves by their capacity for violence. Violence, Claussen argues, was the core ingredient in the construction of social hierarchies and of chivalry.

Violence has long been an important research topic. Since Huizinga’s luminous chapter on the “violent tenor” of life many decades ago, the study of violence has had a long and prestigious presence in historical writing. Most of these works were done in the heyday of social history (1970s, 1980s). While many of these studies focused on England and France, or on the early modern period when religious warfare brought untold violence to most parts of western Europe, Spain in general and the kingdom of Castile in particular have been fairly neglected. For the latter, there is the suggestive book by Salustiano Moreta Velayos on noble malefactors (1971), and now Claussen’s worthy addition. Unlike previous books or articles on the subject, Chivalry and Violence seeks to demystify the self-serving representations of chivalry built over most of the late Middle Ages. Far more important, Claussen’s book advances an explanatory model for the links between literary ideals of chivalry and the nobles’ systemic violence against all levels of society.

In his clear and thorough introduction, Claussen describes with vivid vignettes the way chivalric violence was unleashed throughout the land. Chivalric violence affected all social classes and shaped the relations between the Crown and the nobility, between nobility and the commons, and between Christians and Muslims. Chivalric violence also impacted the construction (or deconstruction) of masculinity and femininity in Castile at the end of the Middle Ages. The very essence of chivalry, Claussen states and restates throughout his work, was violence. Animated by elaborate, often exaggerated, notions of individual and familial honor, and by the concomitant and punctilious protection and advancement of one’s linaje (lineage), knights committed wanton crimes in the supposed defense and promotion of their honor, the honor of their blood lines, and the prosperity of their lineages. Restoring one’s honor after an offense required a violent and “public” response, beginning cycles of feuds such as those in Andalucía, which engulfed the region in violence by the disputes between the Guzmán and Ponce de León kin groups in the second half of the fifteenth century. As Claussen shows in a later chapter, honor served to veil disputes that were often about property and rights, interpreted in the medieval imaginary as affecting elaborate perceptions of self.

Although the history of violence extends throughout all Castilian history before the end of the Middle Ages--Claussen provides some incisive readings of the Poema del Cid and there are numerous examples of chivalric violence from the foundation of Castile into the mid-fourteenth century--his focus is on the Trastámara period, running between the rise of the illegitimate Henry II to the throne in 1369 to Isabella I’s assertion of her rule in 1474. By all accounts, the almost century and a half between the murder of Peter I by his own half-brother and Isabella’s effective restoration of order in Castile witnessed unprecedented violence. Civil wars, royal minorities, an ambitious and unruly high nobility, raids and wars on the Granada frontier, and other ills brought endless political upheavals to the realm. Lords and their retinues sought to expand their domains and wealth at the expense of the Crown or of other noble families. Sometimes the period resembles a war of all against all. Chivalric misdeeds in Castile must also be placed within the framework of numerous military campaigns during the Hundred Years’ War, aggression against neighboring kingdoms, and against Muslim Granada.

Chapter one explores the rise of a new nobility in the wake of the Trastámaras’ ascent to power, focusing on the changing relationships between the king and the Castilian nobility. With the realm divided by civil war in the 1360s, knightly service to the king brought honor and wealth, but the political transformations underway and the perceived weakness and faults of some of the Trastámara rulers (Juan II, Henry IV) led to opposition to the Crown and the depiction of rebellion as an honorable act. These conflicts were punctuated by gory acts of violence, usefully described by Claussen with a wealth of detail. Far more important is the change in the political role of the chivalric classes. While the nobility had always challenged the power of the king at crucial moments, the Trastámara rule opened new ways to resist, undermine, define honor, and promote one’s lineage by direct conflict with the Crown. Nothing is more symptomatic of the nobility’s assertion of its power as an honorable deed than Henry IV’s humiliating and symbolic dethronement outside the walls of Ávila in 1465.

Chapter II turns from the relations between king and nobles to the chronic violence that knights inflicted on the commons. Chivalric violence threatened the lives and economic survival of an enemy’s dependent peasantry. Mining late medieval Castilian chronicles and accounts, Claussen shows the continuous acts of aggression, marked emphatically by the cutting down of vineyards and other crops, the robbery of livestock, and killing of a defenseless (or sometimes not so defenseless) peasantry. These deeds, for which there is a long history in the medieval West, were directed against Christians and Muslims in equal degree. Justified as honorable and as the means of maintaining one’s (and one’s family) reputation, these frequent violent acts were part and parcel of chivalric behavior. There was no honor in these actions, but, throughout history, it has never been difficult to explain the unacceptable in terms of honor and prestige.

In chapter III, Claussen turns to the links between chivalric violence and “holy war.” The long struggle--the so-called Reconquest--against Iberian Islamic realms (first against the Caliphate of Córdoba, then against the diverse kingdoms of taifas, and in the late Middle Ages against the Kingdom of Granada) served as a litmus test for honor and for the advancement of one’s fortunes. The violence inflicted on Muslims and on the Granada hinterland did not differ significantly from that meted out against Christian enemies, Christian peasants, or even the Crown, but war against Islam, whether in the Holy Land or in Iberia, was seen and represented by knightly authors as the “highest good.”

Vengeance propelled the violence associated with “holy war.” Historicizing the past, late medieval writers invoked the Islamic conquest of Spain as “destruction” to be avenged by constant warfare and violence. Claussen presents us with an insightful reading of some signal late medieval texts that emphasized the “Matter of Spain.” Kings who failed to carry out attacks against Granada became easy targets for an ever more troublesome and ambitious nobility. In many ways, the crisis of the late Trastámara kings was closely related to their failure to carry on (or to pretend to carry on) the “reconquest” in full force. These were lessons that Isabella and her advisers learned very well and acted upon from the beginning of her rule.

Chapter IV shifts the action from war against the Muslims to internecine war between Christians. The reality is that late medieval Castilian kings seem to have been in perennial armed conflicts with surrounding kingdoms. The violence unleashed in these peninsular battles (and in some involving the Hundred Years’ War in England and France) did not differ from that deployed against Granada. Trying to justify the honor of attacking other Christians, those writing on these themes engaged in convoluted explanations for violence, attempting to confer honor where there was none. It is this chapter, where Claussen provides a close reading of the struggle between the Guzmáns and the Ponce de León (mentioned above), that illuminates how actual wanton violence and territorial ambitions (or in this case the rights to tuna fishing) were often framed in the context of honor and lineage.

In his final chapter, Claussen seeks to gender the story of chivalric violence. Through several case studies, most of them centered around Isabella I, the author shows literary examples and their real counterparts of cases of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and other nefarious activities. Since honor in Castilian society, as well as in other medieval European countries, was centered most of all on female honor and the female body, literary sources from the Poem of the Cid to Amadis of Gaul showed the importance of women in determining boundaries to sexual violence. Based in part on the popularity of accounts about the life and deeds of Jeanne d’Arc, Queen Isabella navigated the difficult task of projecting masculinity (which nobles had accused her half-brother Henry IV of lacking), while retaining her femininity. Absent from this chapter, however, are accounts of the sexual violence perpetrated by the powerful on the weak, by men over women. The vivid example of Fuente Ovejuna, both Lope de Vega’s rousing eponymous early seventeenth century play and the actual events in 1476, tells us about the agency of women--even if members of the peasantry--and their ability to respond with violence to the abuses of the powerful. A conclusion ties together the book’s different strands in exemplary fashion.

Claussen’s book is another reminder, one profusely illustrated by references to literary texts and historical vignettes, that the glossy representation of chivalry in medieval texts had little to do with the realities of everyday life and the wanton behavior of ambitious nobles in their pursuit of so-called honor. Chivalry and Violence unveils a world of violence, often inflicted on those below. It seems, I fear, that little ever changes in the world and that we still use sundry explanations for unacceptable violence. By judiciously dividing his study of violence into diverse categories, Claussen also allows us to see chivalry under a harsh light from a variety of perspectives. Chivalry and violence, as he powerfully shows, are two different faces of the same coin.

Reviewers--I include myself--have the rather unpleasant custom of seeing the books they examine not as the author intended but as they would have written them. It is no criticism of the book to say that Claussen’s work does raise a series of important issues and questions which may form the core of another book or monographic article. In truth, as Claussen vividly shows, violence in Castile and elsewhere in the medieval West was endemic. This became, as it is shown clearly in this book, much more so in Castile during the Trastámara rule. For a series of complex political and cultural issues, the late fifteenth century saw members of the nobility violently challenge royal authority in new and unprecedented ways, as they did, one should add, in England and France. The question that all these observations prompt is how the reign of the Catholic Monarchs thwarted chivalrous violence in Castile (but not in the Crown of Aragon where violence remained vividly present in places like Ribagorza into the early modern period). Even though literary texts displayed endless examples of personal violence (think of the picaresque novels or Don Quixote), the Catholic Monarchs and their Habsburg descendants kept political violence in check and, while glorifying chivalrous literature, reduced violence in ways that were not replicated anywhere else in the west. Why? Claussen provides some clues in Isabella’s appropriation of chivalrous masculinity, but the workings of subordinating chivalric violence to the Crown remind me of one idea attributed to Max Weber, that is, that what occurred at the end of the Middle Ages was the emergence of the state’s legalized monopoly of violence. Surely, pace Weber, this did not occur in England, France, or the Crown of Aragon. Then why Castile, and how does this relate to the story that Claussen narrates to us in such vivid terms?

I also think the book would have been enhanced by a more comparative approach. While there are occasionally references to violence and chivalry elsewhere, the comparative approach would have yielded a more nuanced understanding of how in Castile the links between chivalry and violence were similar to those in other places and, far more important, how were they different, how they veer away from western European developments in the late Middle Ages and beginnings of the early modern period (referencing the previous query) and why. These small quibbles and my desire to see Claussen expand on some of his findings in future articles or books do not diminish the contributions he has made in describing and explicating a world so different from the romantic notions of chivalry and service with which many of us have been brought up. Myths, I fear, are hard to negate and disprove, but this is as good a beginning as we have. This is book to be read with care for its salutary lessons and original approach about chivalry, violence, and the politics of late medieval Castile.