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22.04.02 Crouch/Deploige (eds.), Knighthood and Society in the High Middle Ages

22.04.02 Crouch/Deploige (eds.), Knighthood and Society in the High Middle Ages

Debates within Western medieval studies about how we should understand chivalry are as old as the academic discipline itself. Whether we can see chivalry as a unified code of conduct across periods and societies, to what extent we can relate literary representations of chivalric life to lived social realities, and to what extent we can disentangle medieval realities from modern fantasies of chivalry are perennially interesting questions within numerous medievalist fields.

David Crouch and Jeroen Deploige’s invaluable collection, Knighthood and Society in the High Middle Ages, offers a rich and rewarding survey of just such questions. Offering a range of perspectives informing readers of the current state of chivalric studies, this well-organized and consistently engaging collection features historians focusing on late-medieval Western Europe, primarily in French, Provencal, German, Flemish, English, and Crusading contexts. With excellent essays thinking generally about chivalry balanced with richly sourced local studies, and with each essay framed by effective abstracts and conclusions, this insightful and thought-provoking volume should be on the shelf of any medievalist working on materials related to knightly culture.

After an excellent introduction by David Crouch and Jeroen Deploige that surveys chivalry both as a historical phenomenon and as a “Historiographical Construct” (4) that has significantly shaped academic inquiry into medieval Western Europe, the volume begins with a section entitled “Noble Warriors, Warring Nobles” (27). In “Chivalry in Feudal Society According to French Evidence,” Dominque Barthélemy argues that, considering the importance of “the feudal habit of sparing enemies of the same social status” in “classical chivalry,” we should see the rise of the tournament both as the “culmination of chivalric ideals and practices” and as primarily a venue for young knights to “display prowess” (29). Barthélemy consistently reads the display of prowess as a key to chivalry--and convincingly urges us to date this much earlier than is typically done, with many instances of performative prowess (through such rituals as tournament and dubbing) aimed at achieving the key feudal goal of the recognition of one’s rights through means other than raiding. Downplaying the influence of the “Peace of God movement” (29) in the rise of chivalry, Barthélemy looks instead to the “ritualised conflicts between noblemen” that were “tempered by codes of behaviour formulated at princely courts” (36). Barthélemy revises readings of ritual dubbing that have associated it with upward social mobility, instead insisting that it was more about the maintenance of “rank” (39). After richly instantiating chivalric methods of displaying prowess that served the same purposes as pre-chivalric violence, Barthélemy argues that, despite some medieval analysts’ differing views on the place of chivalry, the “feudal class” continued to see their elite status as being secular “vassals” with an essential “duty toward the king” (5).

In “Knighthood in the Empire,” Jörg Peltzer explores knighthood in the Holy Roman Empire. Exploring the eleventh-century status of the miles as a “socially inclusive” category that encompasses both upper and lower nobles within its world of “warrior” and “vassal” (53), Peltzer proceeds to show how “chivalrous identity” (57) in the Empire was cultivated both by ecclesiastical notions of the “militia Christi” (55) linked with Crusading, and by lay courts in which the “secular values of knighthood” (57) circulated. Discussing the upward trend of knighthood in the late-twelfth century, Peltzer argues that, while social “climbing” could indeed transpire within the Empire’s chivalric courts, it involved the reinforcement of both ecclesiastical and secular values that helped consolidate the “existing social order” (63). Asserting that twelfth-century chivalric culture in the Empire had the effect of making “the differences between knighthood and aristocracy” become “blurred” (66), Peltzer argues that “knightly birth became the decisive marker” of a distinctly “lower aristocracy” (67), made up of the “ministeriales and the low-ranked freeborn knights” who had earlier ascended social ranks--but who henceforth would be sharply separated from the “counts and barons” (68).

In “Knights, Mercenaries and Paid Soldiers: Military Identities in the Anglo-Norman Regnum,” Eljas Oksanen offers an outstanding study of the increasing importance of mercenaries in a Europe experiencing “unprecedented commercial expansion, urban growth” and “monetisation” (71). Oksanen contextualizes the rise of chivalry within a twelfth- and thirteenth-century era of social and economic change that “altered the logistics of warfare” (92), by looking closely at the use of “paid knightly service” (75) within the Anglo-Norman world. After firmly establishing the material background of massive administrative growth and the “money economy” (79), Oksanen approaches the rise of a “new aristocratic culture” by looking at the ethnic stereotyping of the Welsh and the Flemings as “foreign soldiers” (80). Oksanen explores how the Welsh became a crucial part of the Angevin war machine, while also becoming subject to a “convenient stereotype of savagery” (83). Through compelling readings of the poet Jordan Fantosme’s presentation of the Flemish as “foreign forces” (87) causing disruptions within the Angevin world, Oksanen convincingly shows how ethnic stereotyping here also helped Anglo-Norman elites distinguish themselves as elite. Oksanen places the rise of chivalry within the context of an aristocracy facing “increasingly stiff competition” from various “groups” (such as merchants and clerks) who had also benefitted from the “twelfth-century renaissance” (89), with mercenaries offering a convenient Other against which knights could distinguish themselves as uniquely chivalrous.

The second section of the volume, “Knighthood and Lineage” (95), offers a rich engagement with issues of gender, class, and medievalist historiography. In her thought-provoking contribution, “The Chivalric Family,” Sara McDougall re-conceives the medieval “aristocratic family” by interrogating the perennial medievalist insistence on the “patrilineal clan” and the inheritance practice of “primogeniture” (98). Directly confronting the legacy of Georges Duby’s writing about a “shift in family structure from horizontal and clan-based kinship” to a “vertical patrilineal noble family structure” as “deliriously good” (99) but misguided, McDougall exhorts medievalists to “shake free of the various deeply misleading notions that we owe to Duby” (100). Focusing on Northern France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, McDougall compellingly argues that we should define the “noble family” as a “broadly conceived kin-group” that included “maternal” as well as paternal “lineage,” and which should be seen as “fluid” due to the dynamics of frequent new marriages, changing political conditions, and shifting kin relationships--with the one constant being a “collective” commitment to “the acquisition and retention of property and titles” (100-101). Exploring the subtle politics of marriage, divorce, remarriage, widowhood, and legitimacy in a landscape where inheritance was always a central concern, McDougall persuasively advises us to reject Duby’s notion of a “male-dominated legalism” dominating “medieval social order” (113), and instead to see the medieval noble family as a flexible identity shaped by dynamic and shifting sets of kin-alliances evolving with changing social and political circumstances.

In “Sigard’s Belt: The Family of Chocques and the Borders of Knighthood,” Jean-François Nieus explores issues of militarism and the aristocracy of Flanders, while ultimately making a case that the “Sigard (I)” mentioned in the “liber traditionum of St. Peter’s Abbey” was, despite historians having typically assumed that he was a “lowly individual,” in fact a “very prominent member” of the “Flemish nobility” (121). Nieus’s essay is particularly successful in highlighting the way that military successes in the early era of chivalry paved the way for descendants’ courtly advantages: the success and prestige of such figures as Sigard III required the “inheritance” of not just the wealth, but also the connections and prestige accrued by “generations of distinguished forebears” (141).

The volume’s third section, “Martial Ideals in Crusading Memories” (143), shows how chivalry was shaped immensely by efforts to conquer and hold Crusader kingdoms in the so-called Latin East. In “Knightly Ideals at the Siege of Acre, 1189-1191,” John D. Hosler explores medieval Western expectations concerning knightly behavior. Hosler offers rich readings of four medieval texts, while using a critical lens informed by Richard Kaeuper’s categories linking the fundamental chivalric value of “prowess” with “status,” “honour,” and “piety” (148). Hosler leads us to the vital insight that any grappling with texts as revealing historical reality must recognize the “cognitive bias” of medieval analysts whose representation of “what happened” was materially shaped by chivalry’s sense of “idealised conduct” steering their texts to simultaneously focus on “what should have happened” (146, author’s emphasis).

In “Writing the Knight, Staging the Crusader: Manasses of Hierges and the Monks of Brogne,” Nicholas L. Paul explores the crucial importance of Crusading, the material culture of Christian piety, and a particularly illuminating example of chivalric “life-writing” (170). Discussing a massive body of twelfth- and early-thirteenth-century texts related to an alleged “fragment of the True Cross” (168) housed at the abbey of Brogne, Paul shows how the monks’ preoccupation with the life of Manasses of Hierges both permeates this archive and illuminates notions of aristocratic behavior. Paul pays particular attention to the use of the “crusading frontier” as a “stage for knighthood” (167), detailing the ways that the monks of Brogne use “theatrical” techniques while “framing” Manasses’s activities in “the East” (182) as indicative of a chivalric ideal that fuses martial bravery with Christian piety.

The fourth section of the volume, “Women in Chivalric Representations” (193), offers an especially refreshing set of insights into chivalric culture. In her lushly illustrated contribution, “The Chivalric Woman,” Louise Wilkinson uses a wide range of materials--including French romance, Latin university writings, conduct manuals, heraldic seals, and architecture--to show how noble women’s behavior was seen as equally caught up in noble life, and therefore also relevant to chivalry’s view of conduct as subject to a code. Wilkinson compellingly explores the various ways in which women were expected to participate in the same noble life in which chivalry articulated itself, exploring such phenomena as household residence and management, hospitality practices, and rituals related to piety. Focusing on women’s presence at tournaments and their participation in the culture of heraldry, Wilkinson convincingly shows how women, despite being excluded from knightly activity itself, were fully invested in the martial aspects of chivalry. Wilkinson’s emphasis on noble women being just as focused on questions of blood-based lineage and marriage alliances shows how important it is to avoid a masculinist approach to chivalric culture.

In “The Knight, the Lady, and the Poet,” Nicolas Riffini-Ronzani provides another fascinating focus on women’s participation in chivalric culture, through a sustained study of the twelfth-century trouvère Huon of Oisy’s Tournoiement des Dames. Riffini-Ronzani uses charter evidence to show how Hugh became a prominent figure in Champagne, Flanders, and the Latin East. Through a study of the geographical connections of the women participating in the poem’s tournament, Riffini-Ronzani suggests that Hugh was looking away from the powerful Flanders on his border, in a poetic effort aimed at expanding his political network by attracting French elites from the court of Philip II Augustus.

The volume’s final section, “Didactics of Chivalry” (249), features fascinating discussions of the vital role of ethical instruction in the consolidation of chivalry as an ethical code. In “Teaching Chivalry in the Empire (ca. 1150-1250),” Claudia Wittig powerfully complements the work of historians like Maurice Keen and Richard Kaeuper by highlighting the ways in which chivalry does not simply emerge from historical conditions, but was in fact “consciously constructed, promoted and disseminated by a variety of means” that includes “prescriptive texts” designed to “regulate the behaviour and to influence the value system of their specific audiences” (252). In a richly illustrated study, Wittig focuses on the lower ranks of secular elites in the Holy Roman Empire, and asserts that chivalry provided these audiences with a means of acquiring and consolidating “social prestige” (252). Closely examining Thomasin von Zerclaere’s didactic treatise Der Welsche Gast, Wittig shows how social criticism of the need for moral knighthood exists right alongside examples of the social prestige and attractiveness of the knightly lifestyle. Wittig asserts that didactic texts representing knights as “elegant and honourable men” rather than “brutal warriors” appealed especially to a class of “ministeriales and lesser aristocracy” (274) who were zealous to integrate themselves into the elite of the Empire by “legitimising” (251) their role through their status as chivalric subjects.

In “When Was Chivalry? Evolution of a Code,” David Crouch compellingly builds on Maurice Keen’s historicization of chivalry by exploring conduct literature. After surveying the multivalence of the term “chivalry,” as well as the rationale for not seeing chivalry as a fully formed ethical code until the early thirteenth century, Crouch asserts that we should attend to earlier concepts that paved the way for chivalry as a behavioral code, such as the notion of the preudomme as the “ideal of a superior public man” that can be seen in eleventh- and twelfth-century troubadour poetry, in chansons de geste, and in “vernacular biography” (281). Envisioning chivalry as a mature code having “crystallised” out of “twelfth-century social discourse” focused on “what was moral, right and superior conduct” (282), Crouch proceeds to explore three types of texts--a “Schoolroom or Catonian Tradition” (282), seen most clearly in the Disticha Catonis that dominated Latin instruction, but also migrated into both the “vernacular” (283) and into non-school-based texts as it spread its brand of moralism; a “Biblical or Salomonic Tradition” (286) that supplemented Catonic “humanism” with both “biblical authority and a theological edge” (287); and the “instructional or Vernacular Tradition,” the “most significant of the three,” in which we can see “medieval conduct” being theorized both through the French enseignement and the Occitan ensenhamen (289). Explaining the background to the epochal rise of the Ordene de Chevalerie identified by Keen, Crouch argues that, once the ensahemen began to adopt a “moral-theological” outlook (295), chivalry took its coherent shape as a distinct ethical code, with the “figure of the knight” now the target for its “hyper-moral” (294) vision of ethical instruction.