Monday, 19 May 2014

Knightly Qualities

Another medieval Monday, and today I wanted to talk about two books that convinced me that knights weren't very nice, regardless of what the average Ren Faire might believe. One was the Morte de Arthur, by Thomas Mallory. The other, rather earlier story of Raoul de Cambrai, by... well, a couple of different people at least, none of whom we're entirely sure about. I'm sure you know the basic story of the Morte de Arthur. Knights running around having adventures, forgetting where they've placed the grail, fighting evil and generally doing good, right?


You see, there are some bits of it that sort of fit that pattern. Where someone is described as evil, the knights of Camelot typically come around and kill them at some point. But they also kill a good number of one another in mindless contests of arms, and a good number of their spouses/lovers/intendeds in the wake of believing them to be sleeping with someone else. Arthur, it should be pointed out, condemns Guinevere to burn at the stake for the whole thing with Lancelot, who rescues her and conveys her to a nunnery in time for the Pope to sort everything out, in what probably seemed like a slightly more obvious plot move at the time. There are plenty of instances in the book of knights or kings sleeping with women by force or trickery, taking whatever they wanted from those around them, and generally behaving in ways we would condemn as evil if it weren't the knights of the round table doing it.

Which brings us to the monster that was Raoul de Cambrai. In a lot of ways, he's not the hero of his book. That's Bernier, his vassal/eventual killer. Yet he's described in heroic terms by the writers of the chanson de geste, as the greatest knight that ever drew breath. Assuming that they weren't being very sarcastic indeed (and it really doesn't look like it), that's a bit odd. Because Raoul de Cambrai is a monster. He slaughters towns, he burns down nunneries with his best mate's mother in them. He kills people at the drop of a hat.

And yet, when Bernier turns against him, it's not for the aforementioned murder of his mother and everyone around her. No, it's because Raoul hit him. Now, I'm going to be generous and suggest that the writers were pointing out the absurdity of this, where Raoul could do so many evil things, but it's only that direct harm to Bernier that allows him to be freed from the obligations of vassalage. Yet even with that, it still says a lot that Raoul continues to be referred to as a good knight.

The thing here is that being a good knight, even a knight good enough for the Round Table, had little to do with notions of chivalry superimposed on it. There were essentially just four qualities required of a real knight:

The ability to afford the armour

The ability to get on with large groups of well armed and often slightly drunk people without getting their head cut off

Loyalty to whoever was paying their wages


Frankly, the first three fade into insignificance next to the last one. Prowess with weaponry was everything. You could borrow armour (William Marshal did at the start of his tournament career). You could get away with being grumpy or rude around the castle, up to a point. Loyalty generally only lasted until you started to lose. But you had to be able to swing a sword. Do that well, and you were a great knight, seemingly regardless of anything else.

1 comment:

Deniz Bevan said...

I sort of thought along these lines too, when I read Mallory. But the part I find really frustrating is the way these stories were written - they just seem to have no logic A to B to C about them. It's more realistic, of course, but it doesn't make for very satisfying storytelling. Although I feel weird to be criticising Mallory.