Write a well-developed essay (500-800 words) on ONE of the topics below. While all of the topics call for some personal response, be sure your analysis is supported by specific references to one or more of the texts we have studied together. Type the essay, double-spaced, using 12-point New Times Roman. Please print on only one side of the page. Use this page as your cover sheet, and circle on it the number of the topic you have chosen. (40 pts.)
Essay Prompt: Analyze one of the heroic figures we have studied since the midterm—i.e., Count Roland, Dante the Pilgrim, or Hamlet the Dane—as a model of the knightly ideal of the Middle Ages. What specific virtues and behaviors of the medieval knight does the character illuminate either positively (possessing the virtue) or negatively (falling short of the virtue). Conclude by critiquing the ideal as a model of behavior for today. You might begin (or end) by asking whether a person could live fully by this code in today’s world.
THE KNIGHTLY IDEAL
The ideal of the knight is a part of the medieval mind that has in its fundamentals remained with Europe to this day. In its modern form of the gentleman it still exerts an incalculable influence. Like all medieval ideals, it is a class idea; it does not stretch beyond the pale, even where the normal and unrebuked indifference and cruelty to the peasants, those beasts of another blood, is tempered by Christian chivalry. But as lived by the great Crusaders, as idealized in chivalry and the romances, before the artificiality of the troubadours and the degeneration of its natural basis, it is a priceless part of our heritage.
The knight or chevalier was the possessor of at least enough land to support the full equipment of a horseman. His steed lifted him above the common man to a fighting class in which, theoretically, all riders were equals in a brotherhood of arms. This gave him the right to fight his peers, a privilege which the absence of window-glass and the consequent cold and dark houses made a pleasant form of exercise, more exciting than his other occupation, hunting. Plundering and robbing, too, was profitable; so was the business of defeating other knights and collecting ransoms. There were not enough external foes to keep these gentlemen busy, so that private warfare occupied most of their attention. The Church first tried to limit it, to protect its own lands and later the peasants. The Truce of God enjoined a peaceful week-end, and finally limited the open season for human game to Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of certain weeks only. This was not very successful; then she had the happy inspiration of sending the trouble-makers off the Holy Land with as many of the worse elements in society as could be prevailed upon to accompany them for the sake of booty and the love of God.
Out of these rather unpromising materials the Middle Ages developed the order of chivalry and all the knightly virtues. It sought a blend between the barbarian warrior and the Christian saint, and though this reached its consummate expression in the foundation of the great crusading Orders of the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights, which added the monastic to the knightly vows, in some measure chivalry became itself an order, blessed, sanctified, and inspired by the Church. Knighthood was made, not the hereditary appurtenance of land, but a personal distinction, to be won by high and low alike–within the class of nobles–only after long training, proved worth, and religious ordination.
The knight was first and last a warrior. Hence valor, personal and physical, was his prime quality. The reckless courage of Roland, who from pride and confidence refused to blow his mighty war-horn for Charlemagne when the Moors ambushed the rear guard of the Frankish army, and thus doomed his fellows to destruction, had its counterpart in many of the great fighters, like Godfrey of Bouillon and Richard the Lion-Hearted; it was forever making impossible anything like sound military tactics.
The French knights lost to the English bowmen at Crecy from the very defects of their chief virtue. Of equal importance was loyalty; for the performance of numerous vows of medieval society, the very structure of feudal obligations, depended upon it. To secure the performance of service from the Church, or made on some holy relic, was always invoked; but the knight was expected to keep his word, though the wise took precautions. Roland expresses this feudal loyalty admirably as he goes into battle:
And for his lord great evil a good man must endure
And bear great heat, moreover and likewise bitter cold.
And flesh and blood of his body to lose he must be bold.
Smite with the lance. With Durendal the battle will I try,
The good blade the king gave me. And if I hap to die,
He that shall have it hereafter, shall say about the sword,
That it was a good vassal’s who was faithful to his lord.
The traitor, not to his country but to his overlord, is the object of chief execration. Ganelon in The Song of Roland, who betrays the hero; Sir Modred, the rebel against King Arthur; King John of England, false to his brother [King Richard] in Palestine—these are the favorite villains. Not only are traitors placed in the lowest circle of Dante’s Hell, but traitors to their lords are placed below traitors to kin, his suzerain. According to the typically feudal atonement theory of Anselm, Adam’s fall lay in his violation of God’s trust in him, and his wanton desertion to the side of the traitorous Lucifer.
In the great medieval poems, the tragedy is typically the conflict between two loyalties, and the inevitable disaster it must bring. Tristram is destroyed between loyalty to his king and to his lady Iseult; Paolo owes allegiance both to his brother and lord and to his love Francesca; Hagen, in the Niebelungenlied, is driven by allegiance to his lord’s wife to murder treacherously his friend and guest Siegfried; saddest of all, the good and noble Lancelot, very model of a perfect knight, is crushed between what he owes Arthur and what he owes his lady Guinevere. Touching are the words of Rudiger in the Niebelungenlied. To him Queen Kriemhild appeals, that he should slay her enemies, his guests: “Bethink thee, Rudiger, of thy great fealty, of thy constancy, and of thine oaths, that thou wouldst ever avenge mine injuries and all my word.” Sadly he replies, “There’s no denying that I swore to you, my lady, for your sake I’d risk both life and honor, but I did not swear that I would lose my soul. ‘Twas I that bade the highborn lording to this feast.” Again friendship and hospitality are pitted against fealty. “Woe is me, most wretched man, that I have lived to see this day. I must give over all my honors, my fealty, my courtesy, that God did bid me use . . . I shall act basely and full evil, whatever I do or leave undone. But if I give over both, then will all people blame me. Now may he advise me, who hath given me life.”
The third of the knightly virtues was largesse or bounty, most useful and prime means of winning men in those days. Such liberality was necessary to secure retainers, and largely their reward. Perhaps most characteristic of all was honor, dignity, or self-respect, the mask of the superior class, not to display which set the knight below the level of his comrades. He must stand on his rights as a man, resenting every insult and returning blow for blow. From this sprang both the long stupidities of outraged “honor,” of the duel and the feud, and pride and cruelty to inferiors. To these warrior virtues, however, were added the more Christian traits of magnanimity, fairness, justice, and that courtesy that is the offspring of mingled pride and humility. From courtesy sprang both the romance of the knight-errant, wandering abroad to succor the distressed, and the artificial codes of knightly love that in its later love that in its later days supplanted the earlier fighting chivalry.
For illustrations of the perfect knight we might turn to the valorous, pure, and humble Godfrey of Bouillion, who shared the simplicity and childlike faith of the First Crusade, in his setting of Homeric heroes; or better still to that medieval gentleman and saint, Louis IX of France, wise and firm ruler, dispensing patriarchal justice under the oak tree at Vincennes, simple and pious, brave and courteous fighter. “He was the most loyal man of his time,” writes his vassal the Sire de Joinville, and “kept faith even with the Saracens, and to his own disadvantage.” Romance is full of such figures, hardly surpassing reality—Lancelot, Galahad, King Arthur himself.