Reviewed by: Steve Marritt
Author: David Crouch
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £40
In 1070, ‘knight’ was a description of a military role which men of various social backgrounds might fulfil, but by 1300 ‘knighthood’ was a defining element of noble status, with its own rituals and symbols and rights and responsibilities, and difficult to enter for those not born to it.
For David Crouch, this development is representative of a “social transformation” through which an “unconscious aristocracy (a social élite definable by modern historians)” became an exclusive and hierarchical “nobility (a self-conscious and privileged social élite identifiable to contemporaries)”.
Professor Crouch does not claim to be the first to identify this transformation. Indeed, in an earlier book, The Birth of Nobility (2005), he showed how centuries of scholars have struggled to explain it, and how important it has been, not only to our understanding of the medieval aristocracy, but also to how historians have modelled medieval cultural, political, and social structures as a whole.
Because the aristocracy was the most significant medieval secular social group, changes within it affected the whole of society, culture, law, politics, piety and power. The question for historians has been not whether the aristocracy’s transformation took place, but how and why.
For Crouch, previous explanations grounded in theories about feudalism or family structure, the growth or decline of royal power, the moral influence of the church, or in our understanding of agrarian, economic or military developments, are not satisfactory. For him, the crucial element is increasing self consciousness within this social elite itself, manifested in its representation of itself.
This both created and then came to be defined by the knightly ethos.
Crouch is a brilliant scholar who has been working on the medieval aristocracy for 30 years. His 1992 work The Image of Aristocracy examined their rituals and symbols and The Birth of Nobility looked at how they have been understood by historians. In a way, this book is the completion of a trilogy.
He takes the ideas he formulated there about this self-conscious development of exclusivity and explores how it came about through a broad spectrum of themes he considers to have been important to the make up of the aristocracy.
He begins with the knight and knighthood, moves on to military culture, then looks at relationships with the king, before considering domination by violence, the exercise of noble justice, and codes of conduct, chivalry and piety. Much work on the aristocracy is based in contemporary chronicles and romance literature – and Crouch is a master of both.
But the real strength of each chapter of this book is that his years of work in the archives have given him an unrivalled knowledge of the documents and government records produced by and for the aristocracy themselves. These are here in abundance and provide precious and telling insights into the real lives of the medieval aristocracy.
Two caveats. First, this is not a book for the complete beginner. Crouch assumes a sound basic knowledge of English medieval history and for extensive discussion of other interpretations of this social transformation you are referred to his earlier work.
In fact, the more you know, the more you will get out of this book, not least because – and this is the second caveat – it is possible to enjoy the book and gain a great deal from it, but not to be completely convinced by the overarching claims.
I am, I think, convinced for now, but it is worth highlighting that not everyone will be, or even should be.
Steve Marritt is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Glasgow