26 August 2011

Growth And Decadence Of Chivalry part 1 Monday, 22 August 2011

Tenth To Fifteenth Century

     Writers on the history of chivalry are unable to refer its origin to any
definite time or place; and even specific definition of chivalry is seldom
attempted by careful students.  They rather give us, as does Gautier in the
picturesque account which follows, some recognized starting-point, and for
definition content themselves with characterization of the spirit and aims of
chivalry, analysis of its methods, and the story of its rise and fall.

     Chivalry was not an official institution that came into existence by the
decree of a sovereign.  Although religious in its original elements and
impulses, there was nothing in its origin to remind us of the foundation of a
religious order.  It would be useless to search for the place of its birth or
for the name of its founder.  It was born everywhere at once, and has been
everywhere at the same time the natural effect of the same aspirations and the
same needs.  "There was a moment when people everywhere felt the necessity of
tempering the ardor of old German blood, and of giving to their ill-regulated
passions an ideal.  Hence chivalry!"

     Yet chivalry arose from a German custom which was idealized by the
Christian church; and chivalry was more an ideal than an institution.  It was
"the Christian form of the military profession; the knight was the Christian
soldier." True, the profession and mission of the church meant the spread of
peace and the hatred of war, she holding with her Master that "they who take
the sword shall perish with the sword." Her thought was formulated by St.
Augustine: "He who can think of war and can support it without great sorrow is
truly dead to human feelings." "It is necessary," he says, "to submit to war,
but to wish for peace." The church did, however, look upon war as a divine
means of punishment and of expiation, for individuals and nations. And the
eloquent Bossuet showed the church's view of war as the terrestrial
preparation for the Kingdom of God, and described how empires fall upon one
another to form a foundation whereon to build the church.  In the light of
such interpretations the church availed herself of the militant auxiliary
known as chivalry.

     Along with the religious impulse that animated it, chivalry bore,
throughout its purer course, the character of knightliness which it received
from Teutonic sources.  How the fine sentiments and ennobling customs of the
Teutonic nations, particularly with respect to the gallantry and generosity of
the male toward the female sex, grew into beautiful combination with the rule
of protecting the weak and defenceless everywhere, and how these elements were
blended with the spirit of religious devotion which entered into the
organization and practices of chivalry, forms one of the most fascinating
features in the study of its development; and this gentler side, no less than
its sterner aspects, is faithfully presented in the brilliant examination of
Gautier.  And the heroic sentiment and action which inspired and accomplished
the sacred warfare of the Crusades are not less admirably depicted in these
pages; while in his summary of the decline of chivalry Gautier has perhaps
never been surpassed for penetrating insight and lucid exposition.

     There is a sentence of Tacitus - the celebrated passage in the Germania -
that refers to a German rite in which we really find all the military elements
of the future chivalry.  The scene took place beneath the shade of an old
forest.  The barbarous tribe is assembled, and one feels that a solemn
ceremony is in preparation.  Into the midst of the assembly advances a very
young man, whom you can picture to yourself with sea-green eyes, long fair
hair, and perhaps some tattooing.  A chief of the tribe is present, who
without delay places gravely in the hands of the young man a framea and a
buckler.  Failing a sovereign ruler, it is the father of the youth, or some
relative, who undertakes this delivery of weapons.  "Such is the 'virile robe'
of these people," as Tacitus well puts it; "such is the first honor of their
youth.  Till then the young man was only one in a family; he becomes by this
rite a member of the Republic.  Ante hoc domus pars videtur: mox rei publicae.
This sword and buckler he will never abandon, for the Germans in all their
acts, whether public or private, are always armed.  So, the ceremony finished,
the assembly separates, and the tribe reckons a miles - a warrior - the more.
That is all!"

     The solemn handing of arms to the young German - such is the first germ
of chivalry which Christianity was one day to animate into life.  "Vestigium
vetus creandi equites seu milites." It is with reason that Sainte-Palaye
comments in the very same way upon the text of the Germania, and that a
scholar of our own days exclaims with more than scientific exactness, "The
true origin of miles is this bestowal of arms which among the Germans marks
the entry into civil life."

     No other origin will support the scrutiny of the critic, and he will not
find anyone now to support the theory of Roman origin with Sainte-Marie, or
that of the Arabian origin with Beaumont.  There only remains to explain in
this place the term knight (chevalier), but it is well known to be derived
from caballus, which primarily signifies a beast of burden, a pack-horse, and
has ended by signifying a war-horse.  The knight, also, has always preserved
the name of miles in the Latin tongue of the Middle Ages, in which chivalry is
always called militia.  Nothing can be clearer than this.

     We do not intend to go further, however, without replying to two
objections, which are not without weight, and which we do not wish to leave
behind us unanswered.

     In a certain number of Latin books of the Middle Ages we find, to
describe chivalry, an expression which the "Romanists" oppose triumphantly to
us, and of which the Romish origin cannot seriously be doubted.  When it is
intended to signify that a knight has been created, it is stated that the
individual has been girt with the cingulum militare.  Here we find ourselves
in full Roman parlance, and the word signified certain terms which described
admission into military service, the release from this service, and the
degradation of the legionary.  When St. Martin left the militia, his action
was qualified as solutio cinguli, and at all those who act like him the
insulting expression militaribus zonis discincti is cast.  The girdle which
sustains the sword of the Roman officer - cingulum zona, or rather cinctorium
- as also the baldric, from balteus, passed over the shoulder and was intended
to support the weapon of the common soldier.  "You perceive quite well," say
our adversaries, "that we have to do with a Roman costume." Two very simple
observations will, perhaps, suffice to get to the bottom of such a specious
argument: The first is that the Germans in early times wore, in imitation of
the Romans, "a wide belt ornamented with bosses of metal," a baldric, by which
their swords were suspended on the left side; and the second is that the
chroniclers of old days, who wrote in Latin and affected the classic style,
very naturally adopted the word cingulum in all its acceptations, and made use
of this Latin paraphrasis - cingulo militari decorare - to express this solemn
adoption of the sword.  This evidently German custom was always one of the
principal rites of the collation of chivalry.  There is then nothing more in
it than a somewhat vague reminiscence of a Roman custom with a very natural
conjunction of terms which has always been the habit of a literary people.

     To sum up, the word is Roman, but the thing itself is German.  Between
the militia of the Romans and the chivalry of the Middle Ages there is really
nothing in common but the military profession considered generally.  The
official admittance of the Roman soldier to an army hierarchically organized
in no way resembled the admission of a new knight into a sort of military
college and the "pink of society." As we read further the singularly primitive
and barbarous ritual of the service of knightly reception in the twelfth
century, one is persuaded that the words exhale a German odor, and have
nothing Roman about them.  But there is another argument, and one which would
appear decisive.  The Roman legionary could not, as a rule, withdraw from the
service; he could not avoid the baldric.  The youthful knight of the Middle
Ages, on the contrary, was always free to arm himself or not as he pleased,
just as other cavaliers are at liberty to leave or join their ranks. The
principal characteristic of the knightly service, and one which separates it
most decidedly from the Roman militia, was its freedom of action.

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