Reviewed by: Matthew Strickland Author: Nigel Saul Publisher: Bodley Head Price (RRP): £25
Dutch historian Johan Huizinga noted that “next to religion, chivalry was the strongest of the ideas which filled the minds and hearts of those men of another age”.
In this excellent study, Nigel Saul offers a grand sweep of chivalric culture in medieval England from the Normans who imported chivalry into the kingdom in the wake of 1066, to the age of Malory and an effervescence of late 15th-century knighthood under the Yorkist kings.
A series of thematic chapters explores the relationship of chivalry with war and violence, with religion and crusading, with women and with courtly literature, as well as the central concepts of honour, fame and commemoration. In an original and highly effective format, however, these are placed between a series of chronologically framed chapters firmly grounding developments in chivalric culture within time and place and sketching the changing contours of warfare, military organisation and the evolving status of knighthood within aristocratic society.
Such an approach makes this far more than an elegant and wide-ranging synthesis. By deftly weaving together a remarkable range of topics, and setting them against the backdrop of political, military and social developments, Saul provides a multi-layered and refreshingly new analysis.
The crucial relationship between chivalry and kingship runs like a silken thread throughout. The author clearly maps not only how the great warrior kings such as Edward I, Edward III, Henry V and Edward IV harnessed the cult of chivalry to their own military and political ends, reshaping and reviving it in the process, but how kingship itself was transformed into what he aptly terms “chivalric monarchy”.
Thus, for example, Edward III’s creation of the Order of the Garter imbued his wars in France with the allure of Arthurian romance. As significantly, the remarkable run of English victories between 1337 and 1360 established “a new paradigm of militant chivalric rule” in which aggressive campaigns abroad – what one 15th-century observer called “werre outward” – became regarded as the touchstone of good kingship and a vital prerequisite for the prosperity of the realm.
This was a dangerous legacy to kings such as Richard II, who fell short of such expectations.
Yet if the prospect of rich ransoms and booty formed a key incentive for men to go war, Saul reminds us that few contemporaries saw anything incompatible between profit and honour: rather, wealth gained in war was sure evidence of prowess and feats of arms.
Nevertheless, as he shows in a typically insightful chapter exploring the enticements of campaigning through the lens of the experience of English knights during the Hundred Years’ War, examples of spectacular gains or losses were the exception, and most of those who followed Edward III or Henry V to France probably just about broke even. Many, perhaps most, nobles fought primarily for the greatest prize – renown.
More open to question is the assertion that before the age of chivalry, there was nothing really akin to “the quest for fame and pride in the achievements of fame” which so motivated the later medieval aristocracy.
As poems such as Beowulf or the Battle of Maldon indicate, desire for ‘word fame’ through prowess in war was as much common currency to the warrior elites of early medieval Europe, even if their literary and material culture has left but the faintest trace by comparison with the rich survivals from medieval England.
If Saul’s touch is surest in the 14th and 15th centuries, we are throughout in the hands of a master, whether in assessing the role of Arthurian romance, courtly culture, and of Christian beliefs in the formation of chivalric ideas, or in gauging the impact of chivalry on the realities of warfare.
Chivalry, he rightly concludes, both ritualised war and created “a repertory of symbols, actions and devices which could simultaneously glamorise war, mitigate the worst of its horrors and embolden those who took part in it”.
Professor Saul’s achievement is to provide for the first time a holistic overview of English chivalric culture in its historical perspective. This is a fine book, whose richness of texture defies a brief review, but which will undoubtedly become a classic.
Matthew Strickland is author, with Robert Hardy, of The Great Warbow: From Hastings to the Mary Rose (Haynes, 2011)