THE first principles of whatever subject we may attempt to trace in history, are ever obscure, but few are so entirely buried in darkness, as the origin of Chivalry. This seems the more extraordinary, as we find the institution itself suddenly accompanied by regular and established forms, to which we can assign no precise date, and which appear to have been generally acknowledged, before they were reduced to any written code.
Although definitions are dangerous things — inasmuch as the ambiguity of language rarely permits of perfect accuracy, except in matters of abstract science — it is better, as far as possible on all subjects of discussion, to venture some clear and decided position, that the subsequent reasoning may be fixed upon a distinct and unchanging basis.
If the position itself be wrong, it may be the more 2 speedily proved so from the very circumstance of standing forth singly, uninvolved in a labyrinth of other matter; and if it be right, the arguments that follow may always be more easily traced, and afford greater satisfaction by being deduced from a principal already determined. These considerations lead me to offer a definition of Chivalry, together with some remarks calculated to guard that definition from the consequences of misapprehension on the part of others, or of obscurity on my own.
When I speak of Chivalry I mean a military institution, prompted by enthusiastic benevolence, sanctioned by religion, and combined with religious ceremonies, the purpose of which was to protect the weak from the oppression of the powerful, and to defend the right cause against the wrong.
Its military character requires no proof; but various mistaken opinions, which I shall notice hereafter, render it necessary to establish the fact, that religious ceremonies of some kind were always combined with the institutions of Chivalry.
All those written laws and regulations affecting knighthood,1 which were composed subsequent to its having taken an acknowledged form, prescribed, in the strictest manner, various points of religious ceremonial, which the aspirant to Chivalry was required to perform before he could be admitted into that high order.
What preceded the regular recognition of Chivalry as an institution, is entirely traditional; yet in all the old romances, fabliaux, sirventes, ballads, &c., not one instance is to be found in which a squire becomes a knight, without some reference to his religious faith. If he be dubbed in the battle-field, he swears to defend the right, and maintain all the statutes of the noble order of Chivalry, upon the cross of 3his sword; he calls heaven to witness his vow, and the saints to help him in its execution. Even in one of the most absurd fables2 of the chivalrous ages, wherein we find Saladin himself receiving the order of Chivalry from the hands of the Count de Tabarie, that nobleman causes the infidel sultan to be shaved, and to bathe, as a symbol of baptism, and then to rest himself upon a perfumed bed, as a type of the repose and joy of Paradise. These tales are all fictitious it is true; and few of them date earlier than the end of the twelfth century; but at the same time, as they universally ascribe religious ceremonies to the order of knighthood, we have every reason to suppose that such ceremonies formed a fundamental part of the institution.
Before proceeding to inquire into the origin of Chivalry, I must be permitted to make one more observation in regard to my definition; namely, that there was a great and individual character in that order, which no definition can fully convey. I mean the Spirit of Chivalry; for, indeed, it was more a spirit than an institution; and the outward forms with which it soon became invested, were only, in truth, the signs by which it was conventionally agreed that those persons who had proved in their initiate they possessed the spirit, should be distinguished from the other classes of society. The ceremonial was merely the public declaration, that he on whom the order was conferred, was worthy to exercise the powers with which it invested him; but still, the spirit was the Chivalry.
In seeking the source of this order through the dark mazes of the history of modern Europe, it appears to me that many writers have mistaken the track; and, by looking for the mere external signs, have been led into ages infinitely prior to the spirit of Chivalry.
Some have supposed the institution descended 4 to more modern times, from the equestrian order of the ancient Romans; but the absence of all but mere nominal resemblance between the two, has long placed this theory in the dusty catalogue of historical dreams.
Others again have imagined that the Franks, and the rest of the German nations, who, on the fall of the Roman empire, subdued and divided Gaul, brought with them the seeds of Chivalry, which spontaneously grew up into that extraordinary plant which has flourished but once in the annals of the world. This opinion they support by citing the customs of the German tribes3 who, not only at particular periods invested their youth with the shield and the javelin, but also (especially towards the period of the conquest of Gaul) chose from the bravest of the tribe a number of warriors, to be the companions and guards of the chief. These were termed Leudes, and we find them often mentioned under the whole of the first race of French kings. They served on horseback, while the greater part of each German nation fought on foot only; and they were bound to the chief by an oath of fidelity.4 The reception of an aspirant into the body of Leudes, was also marked with various ceremonies; but in this, if we examine correctly, we find neither the spirit nor the forms of Chivalry. The oath of the Frank was one of service to his prince; that of the knight, to his God, and to society: the one promised to defend his leader; the other to protect the oppressed, and to uphold the right. The Leudes were in fact the nobility of the German tribes, though that nobility was not hereditary, but they were in no respect similar to the knights of an after age, except in the circumstance of fighting on horseback.
A third opinion supposed the origin of Chivalry to be found amongst the ancient warlike tribes of Northmen, or Normans, who, towards the ninth century, 5 invaded in large bodies the southern parts of Europe, and established themselves principally in France; and certainly both in their traditions, and even in their actions, as recorded by Abbon, an eyewitness to their deeds in the siege of Paris, there is to be found an energetic and romantic spirit, not unlike that which animated Chivalry at the rudest period of its existence. Still, there is much wanting. The great object of Chivalry, the defence of the weak, was absent, as well as every form and ceremony. The object of the Northman’s courage was plunder; and all that he had in common with the knight was valour, contempt of death, and a touch of savage generosity, that threw but a faint light over his dark and stormy barbarities.
Many persons again, have attributed the foundation of all the chivalrous institutions of Europe to the bright and magnificent reign of Charlemagne; and, as this opinion has met with much support, amongst even the learned, it is worth while more particularly to inquire upon what basis it is raised. Of the reign of Charlemagne, we have no so many authentic accounts as we have romances, founded upon the fame of that illustrious monarch. Towards the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, when Chivalry was in its imaginative youth, a thousand tales of wild adventure were produced, in which Charlemagne and his warriors were represented with all the qualities and attributes of those knights, whose virtues and courage had by that time wrought deeply on the heart and fancy of the people. We should be as much justified, however, in believing that Virgil was a celebrated necromancer, or that Hercules was a Preux Chevalier — characters which have been assigned to them by the very same class of fables — as in giving any credit to the distorted representations that those romances afford of the days of Charlemagne.
In regard to the tales of King Arthur, I am perfectly inclined to use the energetic words of Menestrier, 6 who, in speaking of the famous knights of the round table, says without hesitation, “All that they tell of King Arthur and that fictitious Chivalry of which they represent him as the author, is nothing but a lie;”5 for, though beyond all doubt the romances of Chivalry afford a great insight into the manners of the times wherein they were written, they are, nevertheless, quite worthless as authority concerning the ages which they pretend to display, and which had preceded their composition by nearly three centuries.
After rejecting the evidences of such tales, we find nothing in the authentic records of Charlemagne which gives the slightest reason to suppose that Chivalry was known, even in its most infant state, during his reign. Though his great system of warfare had that in common with Chivalry, which all warfare must have — feats of daring courage, heroic valour, bursts of feeling and magnanimity, and as much of the sublime as mighty ambition, guided by mighty genius, and elevated by a noble object can achieve — yet the government of Charlemagne was in fact, any thing but a chivalrous government. Too powerful a hand held the reins of state, for Chivalry either to have been necessary or permitted; and in reading the annals of Eginhard, his life of Charlemagne, or the account given by the Monk of St. Gall, we find a completely different character from that which is visible in every page of the history of the knightly ages. We find, indeed, that Charlemagne, according to the immemorial custom of his German6 ancestors, solemnly invested his son Louis with the arms of a man. A thousand years before, in the forest of the North, his predecessors had done the same; and Charlemagne, one of whose great objects ever was, to preserve both the habits and the language of the original country7 free from amalgamation with those of the conquered nations, not only set the example 7 of publicly receiving his son into the ranks of manhood and warfare, but strictly enjoined that the same should be done by his various governors in the provinces. But this custom of the Franks, as I have before attempted to show, had no earthly relation to knighthood. Were nothing else a proof that Chivalry was perfectly unknown in the days of Charlemagne, it would be sufficient that the famous capitularies of that monarch, which regulate every thing that can fall under the eye of the law, even to the details of private life, make no mention whatever of an institution which afterwards exercised so great an influence on the fate of Europe. Nor can we trace in the annals of the surrounding countries, a mark of Chivalry having been known at that period to any other nation more than to the Franks. Alfred, it is true, invested Athelstan with a purple garment and a sword; but the Saxons were from Germany as well as the Franks, and no reason exists for supposing that this ceremony was in any degree connected with the institutions of Chivalry. There have been persons, indeed, who supposed that Pharaoh conferred knighthood upon Joseph, when he bestowed upon him the ring and the golden chain, and probably the Egyptian king had fully as much knowledge of the institutions of Chivalry as either Charlemagne or Alfred.
Of the annals that follow the period of Charlemagne, those of Nithard, Hincmar, and Thegan, together with those called the Annals of St. Bertinus and of Metz, are the most worthy of credit; and in these, though we often meet with the word miles, which was afterwards the name bestowed upon a knight, it is used simply in the signification of a soldier, or one of the military race.8 No mention whatever is made of any thing that can fairly be looked upon as chivalrous, either in feeling or institution. All is a series of dark conflicts and 8 bloodthirsty contentions, amongst which the sprouts of the feudal system, yet young and unformed, are seen springing up from seed sown long before. In the picture of those times, a double darkness seemed to cover the earth, which, a chaos of unruly passions, showed no one general institution for the benefit of mankind, except the Christian religion; and that — overwhelmed by foul superstitions and guarded chiefly by barbarous, ignorant, selfish, and disorderly priests, lay like a treasure hidden by a miser, and watched by men that had not soul to use it. This was no age of knighthood.
Up to this period, then, I fully believe that Chivalry did not exist; and having attempted to show upon some better ground than mere assertion, that the theories which assign to it an earlier origin are wrong, I will now give my own view of its rise, which possibly may be as erroneous as the rest.
Charlemagne expired like a meteor that having broken suddenly upon the night of ages, and blazed brilliantly over a whole world for a brief space, fell and left all in darkness, even deeper than before. His dominions divided into petty kingdoms — his successors waging long and inveterate wars against each other — the nations he had subdued shaking off the yoke — the enemies he had conquered avenging themselves upon his descendants — the laws he had established forgotten or annulled — the union he had cemented scattered to the wind — in a lamentably brief space of time, the bright order which his great mind had established throughout Europe was dissolved. Each individual, who either by corporeal strength, advantageous position, wealth, or habit, could influence the minds of others, snatched at that portion of the divided empire which lay nearest to his means, and claimed that power as a gift which had only been intrusted as a loan. The custom of holding lands by military service had come down to the French from 9 their German ancestors, and the dukes, the marquises, the counts, as well as a whole herd of inferior officers, who in former days had led the armies, or commanded in the provinces as servants of the crown, now arrogated to themselves hereditary rights in the charges with which they had been intrusted; and, in their own behalf, claimed the feudal service of those soldiers to whom lands had been granted, instead of preserving their allegiance for their sovereigns. The weak monarchs, who still retained the name of kings, engaged in ruinous wars with each other and in vain attempts to repel the invasions of the Northmen or Normans, first tolerated these encroachments, because they had at the time no power of resisting, and then gradually recognized them as rights, upon the condition that those who committed them should assist the sovereign in his wars, and acknowledge his title in preference to that of any of his competitors.
Thus gradually rose the feudal system from the wrecks of Charlemagne’s great empire. But still all was unstable and unconfirmed; the limits of the different powers in the state undecided and variable, till the war of Paris, the incompetence of the successors of Charlemagne, and the elevation of Hugues Capet, the Count of Paris, to the throne, showed the barons the power they had acquired, and crowned the feudal compact by the creation of a King, whose title was found in it alone.
Great confusion, however, existed still. The authority of the sovereign extended but a few leagues round the city of Paris; the Normans ravaged the coast, the powerful and the wicked had no restraint imposed upon their actions, and the weak were every where oppressed and wronged. Bands of plunderers raged through the whole of France and Germany, property was held by the sword, cruelty and injustice reigned alone, and the whole history of that age offers a complete medley of massacre, bloodshed, torture, crime, and misery.10
Personal courage, however, had been raised to the highest pitch by the very absence of every thing like security. Valour was a necessity and a habit, and Eudes and his companions, who defended Paris against the Normans, would have come down as demigods to the present day, it they had but possessed a Homer to sing their deeds. The very Normans themselves, with their wild enthusiasm and supernatural daring, their poetical traditions, and magnificent superstitions, seemed to bring a new and extraordinary light into the very lands they desolated. The plains teemed with murder, and the rivers flowed with blood; but the world was weary of barbarity, and a reacting spirit of order was born from the very bosom of confusion.
It was then that some poor nobles, probably suffering themselves from the oppression of more powerful lords, but at the same time touched with sincere compassion for the wretchedness they saw around them, first leagued together with the holy purpose of redressing wrongs and defending the weak.9 They gave their hands to one another in pledge that they would not turn back from the work, and called upon St. George to bless their righteous cause. The church readily yielded its sanction to an institution so noble, aided it with prayers, and sanctified it with a solemn blessing. Religious enthusiasm became added to noble indignation and charitable zeal; and the spirit of Chivalry, like the flame struck forth from the hard steel and the dull flint, was kindled into sudden light by the savage cruelty of the nobles, and the heavy barbarity of the people.
The spirit spread rapidly, and the adoration of the populace, who almost deified their heroic defenders, gave both fresh vigour and purity to the design. Every moral virtue became a part of knightly honour, and the men whose hands were every ready to draw the sword 11 in defence of innocence — who in their own conduct set the most brilliant example — whose sole object was the establishment of right, and over whom no earthly fear or interested consideration held sway, were readily recognized as judges and appealed to as arbitrators. Public opinion raised them above all other men, even above kings themselves; so much so, indeed, that we find continually repeated, in the writings of the chivalrous ages, such passages as the following;
Thus gradually Chivalry became no longer a simple engagement between a few generous and valiant men, but took the form of a great and powerful institution; and, as each knight had the right of creating others without limit, it became necessary that the new class thus established in society, should be distinguished by particular signs and symbols, which would guard it against the intrusion of unworthy or disgraceful members.
The time at which fixed regulations first distinguished Chivalry from every other order in the state, cannot be precisely determined; certainly it was not before the eleventh century. Then, however, it is probable, that this was done more from a general sense of its necessity, and by slow and irregular degrees, than by any one law or agreement. Every thing in that age was confusion, and though the spirit of Chivalry had for its great object the restoration of order, it is not likely that its own primary efforts should be very regular, amidst a chaos of contending interests and unbridled passions, which rendered general communication or association difficult, if not impossible. Each knight, in admitting another to the noble order of which he himself was a member, probably added some little formality as he thought fit, till the mass of these 12 customs collected by tradition, formed the body of their ceremonial law.
The first point required of the aspirants to Chivalry in its earliest state, was certainly a solemn vow, “To speak the truth, to succour the helpless and oppressed, and never to turn back from an enemy.”10
This vow, combined with the solemn appeal to Heaven in witness thereof, was the foundation of Chivalry; but, at the same time we find that in all ages, only one class of people was eligible to furnish members to the institution; namely, the military class, or in other words, the northern conquerors of the soil; for, with very few exceptions, the original inhabitants of Europe had been reduced to the condition of serfs, or slaves of the glebe. Some few, indeed, had held out till they forced the invaders to permit their being incorporated with themselves upon more equal terms, but this was very rare, and the race rustique, as it was called, though it furnished archers to the armies, was kept distinct from the military race by many a galling difference. This lower race, then, could not be invested with the honours of Chivalry; and one of the first provisions we find in any written form, respecting the institution of knighthood, is designed to mark this more particularly. Ad militarem honorem nullus accedat qui non sit de genere militum [To military honor, no one may be added who are not of the military race - Elf.ed] says a decree of the twelfth century. We may therefore conclude that this was the first requisite, and the vow the first formality of Chivalry.
It is more than probable, that the ceremony, next in historical order, attached to the admission of an aspirant into the ranks of knighthood, was that of publicly arming him with the weapons he was to use, in pursuance of his vow. This is likely from many circumstances. In the first place, to arm him for the cause was naturally the next proceeding to his vowing himself to that cause, and also by his receiving those arms in the 13 face of the public, the new defender that the people had gained became known to the people, and thus no one would falsely pretend to the character of a knight, without risking detection. In the second place, as I have before said, the arming of the German youth had been from the earliest ages, like the delivery of the virile robe to young Romans, an occasion of public solemnity; and it was therefore natural that it should be soon incorporated with the ceremonial of the new military institution, which now took the lead of all others.
The church of course added her part to secure reverence for an order which was so well calculated to promote all the objects of religion, and vigils, fasts, and prayers, speedily became a part of the initiation to knighthood. Power is ever followed by splendour and display; but, to use the energetic words of a learned and talented writer of the present day,11 the knights for long after the first institution of Chivalry, were “simple in their clothing, austere in their morals, humble after victory, firm under misfortune.”
In France, I believe, the order first took its rise; and, probably, the disgust felt by some pure minds at the gross and barbarous licentiousness of the times, infused that virtuous severity into the institutions of Chivalry which was in itself a glory. If we may give the least credit to the picture of the immorality and luxury of the French, as drawn by Abbon in his poem on the siege of Paris, no words will be found sufficient to express our admiration for the men who first undertook to combat, not only the tyranny but the vices of their age; who singly went forth to war against crime, injustice, and cruelty; who defied the whole world in defence of innocence, virtue, and truth; who stemmed the torrent of barbarity and evil, and who, from the wrecks of ages, and the ruins of empires, drew out a thousand 14 jewels to glitter in the star that shone upon the breast of knighthood.
For long the Christian religion had struggled alone, a great but shaded light through the storms of dark and barbarous ages. Till Chivalry arose there was nothing to uphold it; but from that moment, with a champion in the field to lead for the knowledge that had been imprisoned in the cloister, the influence of religion began to spread and increase. Though worldly men thereunto attached the aggrandizement of their own temporal power, and knaves and villains made it the means of their avarice, or the cloak of their vice, still the influence of the divine truth itself gradually wrought upon the hearts of men, purifying, calming, refining, till the world grew wise enough to separate the perfection of the gospel from the weakness of its teachers, and to reject the errors while they restrained the power of the Roman church.
In the mean time, Chivalry stood forth the most glorious institution that man himself ever devised. In its youth and in its simplicity it appeared grand and beautiful, both from its own intrinsic excellence, and from its contrast with the things around. In its after years it acquired pomp and luxury; and to pomp and luxury, naturally succeeded decay and death; but still the legacy that it left behind it to posterity, was a treasure of noble feelings and generous principles.
There cannot be a doubt that Chivalry, more than any other institution (except religion) aided to work out the civilization of Europe. It first taught devotion and reverence to those weak, fair beings, who but in their beauty and their gentleness have no defence. It first railed love above the passions of the brute, and by dignifying woman, made woman worthy of love. It gave purity to enthusiasm, crushed barbarous selfishness, taught the heart to expand like a flower to the sunshine, beautified glory with generosity, and smoothed even the rugged brow of war.15
For the mind, as far as knowledge went, Chivalry itself did little; but by its influence it did much. For the heart it did every thing; and there is scarcely a noble feeling or a bright aspiration that we find amongst ourselves, or trace in the history of modern Europe, that is not in some degree referrible to that great and noble principle, which has no name but the Spirit of Chivalry.
1 La Père Menestrier, Ordres de Chevalerie; Jouvencel; Favin Théâtre.
2 Fabliau de l’ordene de Chevalerie dans les fabliaux de Le Grand d’Aussi.
3 Tacit. de Mor. Germ.
5 Menestrier de la Chevalerie et ses preuves, page 230.
6 Tacitus de Morib, German.
7 Eginhard Ann.
8 See note I.
9 Charles Nodier on St. Palaye.
10 Ordene de Chevalerie Fabliaux.
11 Charles Nodier.