Cultural Discordance and the Evolution of Chivalry: Western European Conflict as Moral Imperative

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The philosophical concepts of Chivalry develop from a mixture of what seem to be essentially two incompatible ethical systems; The Judeo-Christian ethical system and the warrior virtues of the Celtic/German tribal people of Europe. These two systems on the surface do not seem compatible and taken together should mix as well as oil and water. The ideology of Christ and that of the tribal people of Europe are in opposition in almost every way. So how did these two systems come together to form the underpinning of both Western society and the ethical imperative of the warrior class which dominated that society?

The answer to this question lies within the violent cultural mélange that was taking place in Europe at the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of this stew pot of cultural clash the ethical system of Chivalry arose. Chivalry combined aspects of Christian piety and ethics with the violent and individualistic hero worship of the European tribal people. Both these groups had inherited what was left of the fallen Roman Empire. The glue that held the church and tribal people together was their belief in the Roman idea of empire. The individualist warrior class that arose from the fall of Rome was a mess of conflicting beliefs. Those beliefs coalesced out of a mixture of German/Celtic barbarism, Roman civil ethics, and Christian mysticism. These cultures which had clashed during the long fall of Rome merged and began a thousand year domination of the ideology of the Western European upper classes. This emerging ideology would be called Chivalry after the French word for horseman and would arguably become the most important ethical philosophy of the middle ages.

 

Christian Morality and Chivalry

The warrior class in Europe had internalized Roman and Aristotelian philosophy during the long years of Roman domination, but with the fall of Rome the Catholic Church was working feverously to instill Christian beliefs and ideas into the ruling classes among these warriors. The Heliand or  Saxon Bible is one of these endeavors. To make Christian theology palatable to the warrior class Catholic monks recreated the New Testament gospels into a story that matched the type of heroic epic that German culture was accustom too. In the Heliand Joseph and Mary are transformed into heroic warrior figures Joseph a noble “Knight” and Mary a princess. Christ is the son of God and the promised “Warrior King” who will unite all the tribes.  It is a very different interpretation of the Gospel with magic, castles, and mystical heroes. A tale suited to entice the German pagans to convert. The Heliand is very similar to the same type of Arthurian tales that had been popular just after the fall of Rome in Briton and one might wonder if the origins of the Arthurian legends are not a lost mythology created by earlier Briton Christians seeking converts as well. Arthur is undoubtedly a British Christ figure. The once and future King who works to unite all the kingdoms in peace and equality.  A man prophesied to return from the dead and save Briton in a time of trouble. Far too many similarities exist to the Heliand to dismiss this as chance.

In the introduction to the Heliand by Ronald Murphy he states the Heliand” is intended to bring the gospel home to the Saxons in a poetic environment in order to help the Saxons to cease their vacillation between their warrior loyalty to the old Gods and to the might of Christ”[1]. Murphy believes that this work was never meant to be read in the church itself but was meant to be a Bible for laymen and warrior chiefs. It was to be recited in the mead halls as an epic poem. This epic was just different enough from the original gospel to fit into the warrior beliefs of these German tribes, just as the tales of Arthur fit into this same mold. Both works were geared towards turning a warrior tribal people away from their old religions to the new Christian faith. Sidney Painter in his work sees knighthood as an extension of several different philosophical ideologies. One philosophy dominated by the Germanic tribal warrior’s belief in prowess at arms, a second devoted to the Church militant, and a third devoted to a late outgrowth of chivalry devoted to sensual pleasures. The first two overlap greatly and it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish the holy knight from that one who holds the ideas of Christ first and foremost.  “From the sixth to the eleventh centuries the church strove to curb the typical vices of the warrior class or to turn them into channels it approved”[2] the Heliand was just one of the ways that the church sought to indoctrinate the warrior class. Another method that Painter discusses is the sublimation of violence to more useful efforts that served the church. The crusades were the culmination of these efforts. The crusades marked the ultimate power of the Church over the ideas of chivalry and the knights that followed those ideas. Here the church could use their influence over the flowering philosophy and develop for itself an army of true believers willing to die for their cause. When Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade on November 27, 1095 little did he realize how well the church had done its job at inculcating the people of Europe with the ideas of Christianity or how heart felt was the fervent desire to show their dedication to the cause of Christ. This desire was born out of a clash of cultures, the Christian ethics had merged with the tribal aggressive and warlike nature and born from this fusion were the knights of the church.“The response was immediate and tremendous. Cries of  ‘Deus le Volt’ God wills it interrupted the speech”[3]. With the crusades in full swing and the promise of eternal salvation for dying in the service of the church, the ideas of Christian piety would be stamped onto chivalry until well after the renaissance.

 

German and Celtic Hero Worship and Its role in the formation of Chivalry

 

“About this time, the king of England resolved to rebuild and embellish the great castle of Windsor, which King Arthur had first founded in time past, and where he had erected and established that noble round table from whence so many gallant knights had issued forth, and displayed the valiant prowess of their deeds at arms over the world.”[4]

 

The ideas that helped bind Christian morals and tribal warrior virtue into a coherent chivalric idea was the idea of the heroic individual. This idea helped navigate the difficulty in creating a warrior class that at once reveled in prideful boasts and great deeds, kept faith with their liege lord, and at the same time gave more than lip service to the ideas of virtue and humility that came with a belief in Christ. A cursory look at European cultural identity will show that the framework on which the chivalric philosophy rested existed in Europe prior to the influence of either Romans or Christians. This framework existed in both the Germanic and Celtic tribes that made up the bulk of the European population. These people had a tradition of what approximated Knighthood only lacking according to Sidney Painter “the nourishment of twelfth century France to spring into full flower.”[5] By this Painter means that the ideas of chivalry manifested and paired with the ideas of Christian courtesy and the Feudal commitment in the twelfth century and with this fusion it became a complete philosophy. The individualist hero had become the tame individual whose individuality was measured and tempered by his feudal obligations. As the middle-ages progressed Knighthood evolved from the rampaging Beowulf to the courteous Lancelot. Both literature and culture reflected the new individual as hero. The knight transformed in the twelfth century from tribesman to loyal servant while still maintaining his individuality. “[T]he fundamental quality of feudalism is reflected in one of the chief doctrines of their metaphysics: the self-sufficiency of the individual”[6] This individuality allowed the warrior class to embrace the Christian ethic of individual salvation. It encouraged that individual to see himself as a warrior of Christ rather than just a tribal thug.

Of course the evolution to this feudal knight began long before the twelfth century. We can see the beginnings of these warrior elite in the Romano-Celtic stories of King Arthur. To even consider the ideas of Chivalry without a discussion of Arthur would be to do no justice to the subject. Painter focuses almost solely on the contributions of the Germans and French to the ideas of Chivalry but it is in the sagas and stories of the early Britons that most of our mythology about knights and Chivalry are created. Those twelfth century French nobles who put the finishing touches on this warrior philosophy certainly had Arthur in mind as many of the stories of Arthur and his knights appear in France at this time. The warrior idea then develops from both the tribal German and the tribal Celtic tradition. The Germans provide Beowulf and Percival as the founding knights of their branch of Chivalry and the Celtic/Romans providing Arthur, and Galahad. The Celtic tradition also gives us the ideas surrounding the Holy Grail as it is a substitution of many different magical cups and bowls in Celtic mythology.

 

Contradictory Beliefs and Social Cohesion

The fall of Rome was a time of upheaval and of conflict. Small kingdoms rose and fell constantly. Western Europe had been thrown into a dark age without Rome to lead and warriors were constantly vying for power among themselves and with the Christian church. How does social cohesion come out of the conflict between these very different and competing systems of value. Much of this can be explained away by the fact that Chivalry was for the most part a very individualistic philosophy and that the individual was allowed to create for himself a way of thinking that could encompass the contradictions. That the church had bent over backwards to accommodate that type of thinking is evident by such things as the Heliand and the church’s ability to embrace pagan gods as saints and incorporate the worship of these gods into Christian theology. This allowed Christianity to out compete some of the other religious philosophies that had much more rigid theological rules. This does not however explain how a religion that at its core promotes peace and love could be shoehorned to fit the fractious warrior ethics of the tribal peoples of Europe.

To understand this I think one must understand the place the Church gave itself in medieval society. The church became not the tribe itself but an extension of the tribal family. We begin to see church leaders called father and brother. Female leaders become mother. We have what to the tribal people of Europe is an even more important place for the church than as a political entity. The Church becomes family and as such family is more central to their lives. This fits into the tribal sensibility in a way that other religions lacked. God was the head of the family the Father Head. It was a very personal religious experience very removed from the impersonal gods of both the German and Celtic tribes. This family aspect helped tie the tribal warrior to the Church. The idea of the Mother of God and her mercy may be one of the most important aspects that the Church allowed. This helped bind the warrior class to the teachings of the Church. You constantly find Mary mentioned alongside God in every medieval text, “that is those who love, serve, and honor God and His gentle Mother.”[7] Even here in a text that explains the very rules of war and Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charney you have admonition after admonition to the mother of God. This aspect of the family appealed greatly to the tribal people and the belief that these supernatural beings were here now and part of a larger family of man helped mediate a truce between the conflicting ideas of a tribal warrior culture and the Christian feudal culture that had begun to supplant it.

 

Late Medieval Knighthood the Culmination of Chivalry

Knighthood and the ideas of Chivalry are intertwined and where one ends and the other begins is a question almost more fit for philosophers than historians. What we do know is that the end result of the conflict between the ethical ideas of Christianity and the individualistic ideas of tribal Europe created the vibrant feudal culture and brought about the rise of the philosophy of Chivalry among the Nobility. As the middle ages waned these ideas slowly began to diminish in importance until they are often little more than philosophical ideas without real world application. By the end of the 14th century chivalry had begun to wane. The ideas were celebrated in songs and story but the ideas no longer held true to the newer generations. The tribal culture had been completely subdued and the Church was on the verge of a century of breakup and dissolution because of its own excesses. Without these two philosophical powerhouses to drive it chivalry was to die and be replaced by a more modern and less warrior centered culture. Nobles would hire others to make war for them and these mercenaries would change the face of combat. Chivalry would live on and from time to time be trotted out as spectacle. Even today the last vestiges of the old ideas flitter around the corners of our society influencing us as a culture is ways we may not even realize.

 

Conclusion

The medieval value system was in essence a continuation of all the Western values dating back to at least the time of Greece. We see in the Greek the very same elevation of the individualist hero that we have in the later European middle ages. This is of course because both Greece and Europe share an Indo-European heritage in which the individual warrior/hero is exalted. This idea of the individual hero became somewhat submerged in the state centered Rome. Where the Empire and civilization becomes the central figure and the individual sublimated himself to the idea of Rome. The rise of Christianity in the late Roman period pairs perfectly with this idea of the centrality of “State” over the individual where the idea of the state as father is replaced with the idea of “God” as father. You can see that in Augustine’s City of God where he states that the Romans of antiquity were virtuous pagans but that the city while great was one of this world and has now been replaced by his City of God.

The values of the early medieval warrior are not those values cherished by the Romans. The European knight is not a Roman hero who wins because he is part of a greater Empire but something far older; he is the winner of the Hero’s portion. An individual striving and winning by his own prowess.  The values of the Church and of Rome often run in direct contradiction to the earlier ethical ideas of the Germans and Celtics. Stressing humility over pride. Medieval chivalric values become a series of contradictory beliefs that must all be held at once. You are an avenging warrior, who is also a child of a forgiving God. Your must prized value is pride and nobility, but you must also be humble and free of sin. You are a virile man who lusts after women, wine, and song, but you must also be the chaste paragon of virtue who is a symbol of the state. Is it any wonder the poems include someone like Lancelot who was both the most noble of all warriors but who was fatally flawed.  Chivalry contradicts itself because it was cobbled together out of so many different ideas and cultures. The importance of chivalry is that while it was a flawed philosophy it worked and drug Europe out of the Dark ages maintaining order and at least some peace between cultural groups that may have never recovered after the fall of Rome without it and those who followed it.

 

Speculation

This article attempts to draw a conclusion about the evolution of Chivalry out of several disparate ethical and cultural entities. There is one other ethical system that existed prior to the fall of Rome that may or may not have influenced the rise of Chivalry in Western Europe, The ethics of Aristotle specifically those ethics discussed in his work Nicomachean Ethics. Did these ethics have any influence over the development of Chivalry? The roman warrior elite would have certainly been exposed to Aristotle along with many of the early Christian philosophers. Is it a stretch to believe that these ideas could have trickled down into the warrior elite of medieval society?

 

 

 

Rome and Aristotle’s role in Chivalry

We find in the values of the early Middle Ages a stable system of belief that would eventually be called chivalry. Early modern writers on the subject such as Sidney Painter suggested that Chivalric ideas are directly centered on German and Anglo Saxon ethics and Christian beliefs. He gives very little credit to ideas of a Roman tradition and no mention of Aristotle at all in his book French Chivalry. This may be a mistake, the Roman tradition is all important to the medieval mind. Rome was the center of knowledge and power to conquerors like Charlemagne who sought to recreate Rome in his own Empire. This was not just lip service to these men they believed in Rome and in rebuilding the Roman Empire. They read the histories or had them read to them. Aristotle was an important part of this Roman idea. In Norman F. Cantor’s work The Last Knight he acknowledges that at least late in the late middle ages young knights were being educated in Aristotle, “These short tomes were written by university scholars educated in Aristotelian tradition, the principles the Mirror of Princes inculcated was drawn heavily from Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.”[8] This is an important admission and points to the fact that knights may have often been educated in these ideas. If we look at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics we can see the entirety of what could be called the Chivalric virtues laid out hundreds of years prior to any Western writer referring to them. In book three Aristotle lists these virtues as Liberality, Magnificence, Greatness of soul, Proper Ambition, Gentleness, Agreeableness, Sincerity, Wittiness, Modesty. These read almost the same as the knightly virtues with just slight differences and it is certainly closer to the tribal virtues that informed early chivalry than any of the Christian virtues that contradict many of these. Could Aristotle really be the father of the medieval ethic? Charlemagne certainly sought out and emulated the Roman idea as much as possible. Could his influence have added the ideas of Aristotle to the instruction he gave his own fighters. Or is this just a case of parallel evolution of ideas where tribal customs match philosophical ideas. This subject is worthy of further in depth study much more than what can be accomplished in this article.

[1] Murphy, G. Ronald, trans. the Heliand: the Saxon Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 16.

 

[2] Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 66.

 

[3] Steven Runciman. The First Crusade.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43.

 

[4] Jean Froissart, and Geoffrey Brereton. Chronicles (London: Penguin Classics, 1978), 66.

 

[5] Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 32.

[6] Maurice De Wulf, Philosophy & Civilization in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ, US: Princeton University Press. 1922), 61

 

[7] Geoffroi de Charney, Richard W. Kaeuper, and Elspeth Kennedy. A knight’s own book of chivalry: Geoffroi De Charny (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 80.

[8] Norman F. Cantor The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era (New York: Free Press, 2004),88.

 

 

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