CHIVALRY AND VIOLENCE

God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton

God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton

Introduction

Criminality was not confined to rough mercenaries and prisoners on parole, however.

We might imagine, for instance, that the concept of ‘chivalry’, acting as a (theoretical) code of conduct, might help ameliorate the lawless tendencies of the more upmarket male population.

As the fighting dies down, ruling elites generally settle into ways by which they can better exploit the new arrangements. This creates an opportunity to establish social norms which promote stability, reduce levels of violence and minimise the repercussions of criminality amongst the ‘civilian’ population (however loosely one defines such a status in a medieval context).

Elite and Entitled

This was not altruism. It was in the interests of rulers and their nobles to create more stable and productive societies, if only to allow them to capture a greater share of the fruits of that productivity. The most obvious manifestation of this logic in a Western context was the concept of chivalry (which became increasingly formalised towards the end of this period) but there were cultural equivalents elsewhere, such as the parallels one finds in the Muslim concept of furusiyya.

What was promised in theory was far more limited in practice, however. These codes tried to reduce the inherent problems of entitled violence in medieval society but often caused as many problems as they tried to solve.

At the core of the idea of chivalry, for instance, lay the recognition of social tension. All medieval states, particularly the crusader states and their neighbours, needed many armed and highly skilled fighting men. But they were also acutely aware of the dangers that these individuals posed to social order.

Then as now, leaders had a duty to establish tolerable conditions of safety and security for their subjects. As a result, almost all elite groups had informal rules which tried to dictate (or, more realistically, ‘encourage’) better behaviour, particularly amongst their armed men. The lower classes would be protected from the more predatory inclinations of the wilder elite males; productivity and economic surplus would increase; the poor would survive and the rich would get richer. In theory, everybody won.

Oversexed and Over Here

Practice, however, was very different. On the one hand, chivalry was certainly a code of conduct for the appropriate restraint of armed men and their violent tendencies. The semi-religious underpinning of the code stressed (rather optimistically) the role of knightly powers as a positive force in the permanent struggle against sin and the forces of evil.

But, the reality of medieval warfare as a whole, and crusading warfare in particular, told a very different story – a story of murder, rape, destruction and the systematic exploitation of the weak. For knights and other upmarket soldiery, settling problems by violence was often a first, rather than a last, resort. This was precisely the opposite of what chivalry ostensibly intended. Alongside this, even more paradoxically, almost all the literature of chivalry praised, and often idealised, the use of arms. Violence, and violent men, were understood to be continually in need of control – but even the code of chivalry itself was perverted to help glorify that violence.

The Tension of Violence and Virtue

The issue of chivalry was beset from the very beginning by the tensions in that fundamental dichotomy. The crusades gave a further twist to these troubling dynamics. The spirit of crusading was imbued in the fighting nobility – with the emphasis firmly on the ‘fighting’ rather than the ‘nobility’. Knights liked to fight, and they liked the spiritual rewards offered by fighting on a crusade – the two things went very naturally together.

It is no coincidence, for instance, that of the 17 English barons and earls who King Henry III explicitly banned from participating in the massively brutal tournaments in Northampton and Cambridge in 1234, no less than 14 took the cross as crusaders. Similarly, in July 1278 his son Edward I (‘Hammer of the Scots’ and, as the nickname suggests, himself no stranger to violence) held a tournament at Windsor – of the 38 knights who are named as having received equipment for the games, no fewer than 15 had been with him on the English crusade of 1270.

The Ambiguity of Chivalry

Chivalry thus played a highly ambivalent role in the Crusades and medieval society as a whole. Its very existence was a tacit recognition that there needed to be a means of channelling violence into more socially positive or religiously approved areas of activity. But proficiency in the arts of violence (‘prowess’) was simultaneously held in high esteem, as the ultimate justification for the entitlement of an elite. The skills of war and murder were, perversely, admired and set up as standards against which the achievements of young armed men might be measured.

Ironically, one of the easiest ways to square this intellectual circle was to restrict the protections offered by chivalry to those who were already most entitled – this helped confine negative consequences to those who were least able to protect themselves or to complain about their treatment. Chivalry was thus twisted to extend its greatest benefits to those who were already strong, while simultaneously allowing the continued exploitation of the weak.

Upmarket male violence, whether on crusade or elsewhere, continued despite, or perhaps even because of the strictures of a chivalric code.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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