Chivalry And Violence In The Hundred Years War

Chivalry is a word that conjures up beautiful images. Gentlemen in shining armour mounted on white horseback, rescuing the unfortunate, defending the weak and oppressed, serving virtuous rulers and protecting the Christian Faith are all represented by this word. The romantic mythology surrounding medieval chivalry is what this image represents. Medieval men-at-arms and knights were primarily violent practitioners, with chivalric worldviews that emphasized honor and prowess. However, chivalry was an ideology with many contradictions and tensions. This complex ideology is not only reflected in the fact that men are incapable of attaining the ideals. Honor, prowess loyalty, courage and mercy were all celebrated in chivalric cultures, alongside other values that are associated with court culture. The difficulty in defining chivalry is well known by historians, but it is also difficult to quantify its impact in the real world, since it was interpreted differently in different cultures and times. In this way, the study noble conduct is of great importance in medieval history. It can be gleaned from the contrast of theoretical prescriptions against actual aristocratic behavior.

Maurice Keen’s seminal study from 1984 defined chivalry in terms of an ethos that represented the norms values practices and rituals associated with medieval aristocratic culture. Richard Kaeuper, in a recent study, has outlined a more specific definition of chivalry as the values and ideals that knights practiced or described. In its latter meaning, chivalry has been associated with romantic stories that portrayed knightly behavior in a heroic light. The term “chivalry” is now used to describe a timeless ideal of civilized and elegant masculinity that reflects a modern, nostalgic fantasia of a medieval world where knights treated war like a noble sport. John Gillingham described chivalry, “as an ethical code which sought to minimize the brutality and violence of conflict through the treatment of prisoners, especially when they were of a more ‘gentle-born’ background.” I think that the treatment of defeated, high-status opponents is one of the most important characteristics of chivalry. First, to determine the impact chivalry had on the audience, we must compare the behavior and attitudes of the knights to the theories espoused by Froissart in his Chroniques. In reality, it’s impossible to determine the exact motivations behind an individual action and prove that the text or ideas influenced the person. Sidney Painter declared in a famous statement that he was unable to find a moment when knights avoided rapine, casual manslaughter and protected the clergy. He also said they respected the non-combatants’ rights during war. Froissart Chroniques was a text that offered a sophisticated and subtle discussion on knightly virtues. While championing popular values like loyalty, courage, prowess, and honor amongst its audience, it also raised questions about the tensions of knighthood. Froissart asked questions about knightly violent acts, particularly those directed at civilians. Froissart, in later Chroniques books and revisions of earlier materials, explored more and more the difference between the noble ideals and brutal realities of wars and politics. Froissart didn’t just want to describe knightly conduct, he wanted to promote a standard of behavior that was justified and articulated by the romantic ideals he presented. His Chroniques were a complex mix of celebrations of bravery, prowess and adventure as well as a thoughtful discussion about the effects of violence and victims of war.

Because chivalry and the martial world of the mounted, aristocratic Knight are inextricably linked, I will use the word ‘chivalry,’ as defined by Taylor, to refer the people that formed the class. So, chivalry’s existence was based on that of knighthood. In addition, I will not use the word ‘chivalry” as a theory term like some military history scholars have done recently. Kaeuper’s argument that “to define chivalry by the more romantic, civilized messages that are supposedly found in chivalric literature is to ignore the presence of many contradictory topics in the same texts” would be a mistake. It’s unrealistic to believe that knights or men-at-arms would have achieved such lofty standards. The chivalric culture was so rooted in prowess that it was impossible to suppress the powerful urges for honor and prowess. This was due to the constant celebration of the virtues of courage and prowess in tournaments or jousts. Even more moderate virtues such as compassion, magnanimity or restraint became distorted due to the brutality of warfare.

Prowess and Honor were the brightest star in the constellation “chivalry”. The chivalric elite were influenced by these celestial bodies, as they understood that prowess was not just about material gain, but also about honor, fame and glory. These latter two became the “veritable currency” of the chivalric lifestyle, the reward for valor, earned through their efforts, risking their lives. Jean Froissart in his Chroniques preface urged young men to aspire for such achievements and to achieve fame and honor. Prowess and honour are central to chivalric thinking. It produced a culture and identity centered on violent acts, especially when it came to asserting, defending, and vindicating individual, family, and corporate honour. Kaeuper asserts that ‘the laity cherished this right to violence when it came to matters of honor.’ Froissart recounted the story of Peter Courtenay’s arranged battle with Guy de la TRAMoA?le in 1388. Charles VI stopped it. Courtenay, after the failed encounter, was allowed to return to Calais with the help of Clary. Clary was prompted to ask Courtenay, who complained to the countess St Pol during the trip, to defend France’s honor after Charles VI stopped the joust at one lance. Clary, in the joust which followed, wounded Courtney. The French royal council rebuked Clary for breaching safe conduct. This use of force as a response to perceived disrespect of honor or propriety, was fueled by other chivalric emotions, such as anger, hatred, vengeance and fear. Julian Pitt-Rivers argues that honor is a powerful justification to take violent action to protect one’s status. Forgiveness could also be seen as weak or effeminate by men. In fact, the combination of powerful emotions, such as anger, hatred, and revenge, with the fear and humiliation of being called a coward, made violence a very powerful motivator.

Achieving untrammeled honor can also lead to honor becoming a socially subversive factor. Honor encouraged violence, but it also anchored more cooperative values like trustworthiness and reciprocity. It was in keeping oaths or promises that reciprocity, trust and knightly reputations became most apparent. In fact, loyalty was defined by the ability to keep an oath and be faithful to it.


  • nicholashopkins

    Nicholas Hopkins is a social media teacher, writer and educator. He has been blogging since 2009, and has since published over 20 articles and taught social media in high school and college. He is currently a social media teacher and blogger at Nicholas Hopkins Academy.