That chivalry may be considered a great military confraternity as well as
an eighth sacrament, will be conceded. But, before familiarizing themselves
with these ideals, the rough spirits of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh
centuries had to learn the principles of them. The chivalrous ideal was not
conceived "all of a piece," and certainly it did not triumph without sustained
effort; so it was by degrees, and very slowly, that the church succeeded in
inoculating the almost animal intelligence and the untrained minds of our
ancestors with so many virtues.
In the hands of the church, which wished to mould him into a Christian
knight, the feudal baron was a very intractable individual. No one could be
more brutal or more barbarous than he. Our more ancient ballads - those which
are founded on the traditions of the ninth and tenth centuries - supply us
with a portrait which does not appear exaggerated. I know nothing in this
sense more terrible than Raoul de Cambrai, and the hero of this old poem would
pass for a type of a half-civilized savage. This Raoul was a kind of Sioux or
other redskin, who only wanted tattoo and feathers in his hair to be complete.
Even a redskin is a believer, or superstitious to some extent, while Raoul
defied the Deity himself. The savage respects his mother, as a rule; but
Raoul laughed at his mother, who cursed him. Behold him as he invaded the
Vermandois, contrary to all the rights of legitimate heirs. He pillaged,
burned, and slew in all directions: he was everywhere pitiless, cruel,
horrible. But at Origni he appears in all his ferocity. "You will erect my
tent in the church, you will make my bed before the altar, and put my hawks on
the golden crucifix." Now that church belonged to a convent. What did that
signify to him? He burned the convent, he burned the church, he burned the
nuns! Among them was the mother of his most faithful servitor, Bernier - his
most devoted companion and friend - almost his brother! but he burned her with
the others. Then, when the flames were still burning, he sat himself down, on
a fast-day, to feast amid the scenes of his sanguinary exploits - defying God
and man, his hands steeped in blood, his face lifted to heaven. That was the
kind of soldier, the savage of the tenth century, whom the church had to
Unfortunately this Raoul de Cambrai is not a unique specimen; he was not
the only one who had uttered this ferocious speech: "I shall not be happy
until I see your heart cut out of your body." Aubri de Bourguignon was not
less cruel, and took no trouble to curb his passions. Had he the right to
massacre? He knew nothing about that, but meanwhile he continued to kill.
"Bah!" he would say, "it is always an enemy the less." On one occasion he slew
his four cousins. He was as sensual as cruel. His thick-skinned savagery did
not appear to feel either shame or remorse; he was strong and had a weighty
hand - that was sufficient. Ogier was scarcely any better, but
notwithstanding all the glory attaching to his name, I know nothing more
saddening than the final episode of the rude poem attributed to Raimbert of
Paris. The son of Ogier, Baudouinet, had been slain by the son of
Charlemagne, who called himself Charlot! Ogier did nothing but breathe
vengeance, and would not agree to assist Christendom against the Saracen
invaders unless the unfortunate Charlot was delivered to him. He wanted to
kill him, he determined to kill him, and he rejoiced over it in anticipation.
In vain did Charlot humble himself before this brute, and endeavor to pacify
him by the sincerity of his repentance; in vain the old Emperor himself prayed
most earnestly to God; in vain the venerable Naimes, the Nestor of our
ballads, offered to serve Ogier all the rest of his life, and begged the Dane
"not to forget the Saviour, who was born of the Virgin at Bethlehem." All
their devotion and prayers were unavailing. Ogier, pitiless, placed one of
his heavy hands on the youthful head, and with the other drew his sword, his
terrible sword "Courtain." Nothing less than the intervention of an angel from
heaven could have put an end to this terrible scene in which all the savagery
of the German forests was displayed.
The majority of these early heroes had no other shibboleth than "I am
going to separate the head from the trunk!" It was their war-cry. But if you
desire something more frightful still, something more "primitive," you have
only to open the Loherains at hazard, and read a few stanzas of that raging
ballad of "derring-do," and you will almost fancy you are perusing one of
those pages in which Livingstone describes in such indignant terms the manners
of some tribe in Central Africa. Read this: "Begue struck Isore upon his
black helmet through the golden circlet, cutting him to the chine; then he
plunged into his body his sword Flamberge with the golden hilt; took the heart
out with both hands, and threw it, still warm, at the head of William, saying,
'There is your cousin's heart; you can salt and roast it.'" Here words fail
us; it would be too tame to say with Goedecke, "These heroes act like the
forces of nature, in the manner of the hurricane which knows no pity." We must
use more indignant terms than these, for we are truly amid cannibals. Once
again we say, there was the warrior, there was the savage whom the church had
to elevate and educate!
Such is the point of departure of this wonderful progress; such are the
refractory elements out of which chivalry and the knight have been fashioned.
The point of departure is Raoul of Cambrai burning Origni. The point of
arrival is Girard of Roussillon falling one day at the feet of an old priest
and expiating his former pride by twenty-two years of penitence. These two
episodes embrace many centuries between them.
A very interesting study might be made of the gradual transformation from
the redskin to the knight; it might be shown how, and at what period of
history, each of the virtues of chivalry penetrated victoriously into the
undisciplined souls of these brutal warriors who were our ancestors; it might
be determined at what moment the church became strong enough to impose upon
our knights the great duties of defending it and of loving one another.
This victory was attained in a certain number of cases undoubtedly toward
the end of the eleventh century: and the knight appears to us perfected,
finished, radiant, in the most ancient edition of the Chanson of Roland, which
is considered to have been produced between 1066 and 1095.
It is scarcely necessary to observe that chivalry was no longer in course
of establishment when Pope Urban II threw with a powerful hand the whole of
the Christian West upon the East, where the Tomb of Christ was in possession
of the Infidel.
In legendary lore the embodiment of chivalry is Roland: in history it is
Godfrey de Bouillon. There are no more worthy names than these.
The decadence of chivalry - and when one is speaking of human
institutions, sooner or later this word must be used - perhaps set in sooner
than historians can believe. We need not attach too much importance to the
grumblings of certain poets, who complain of their time with an evidently
exaggerated bitterness, and we do not care for our own part to take literally
the testimony of the unknown author of La Vie de Saint Alexis, who exclaims -
about the middle of the eleventh century - that everything is degenerate and
all is lost! Thus: "In olden times the world was good. Justice and love were
springs of action in it. People then had faith, which has disappeared from
amongst us. The world is entirely changed. The world has lost its healthy
color. It is pale - it has grown old. It is growing worse, and will soon
The poet exaggerates in a very singular manner the evil which he
perceives around him, and one might aver that, far from bordering upon old
age, chivalry was then almost in the very zenith of its glory. The twelfth
century was its apogee, and it was not until the thirteenth that it manifested
the first symptoms of decay.
"Li maus est moult avant," exclaims the author of Godfrey de Bouillon,
and he adds, sadly, "Tos li biens est fine's."
He was more correct in speaking thus than was the author of Saint Alexis
in his complainings, for the decadence of chivalry actually commenced in his
time. And it is not unreasonable to inquire into the causes of its decay.
The Romance of the Round Table, which in the opinion of prepossessed or
thoughtless critics appears so profoundly chivalrous, may be considered one of
the works which hastened the downfall of chivalry. We are aware that by this
seeming paradox we shall probably scandalize some of our readers, who look
upon these adventurous cavaliers as veritable knights. What does it matter?
Avienne que puet. The heroes of our chansons de geste are really the
authorized representatives and types of the society of their time, and not
those fine adventure-seeking individuals who have been so brilliantly sketched
by the pencil of Cretien de Troyes.
It is true, however, that this charming and delicate spirit did not give,
in his works, an accurate idea of his century and generation. We do not say
that he embellished all he touched, but only that he enlivened it.
Notwithstanding all that one could say about it, this school introduced the
old Gaelic spirit into a poetry which had been till then chiefly Christian or
German. Our epic poems are of German origin, and the Table Round is of Celtic
origin. Sensual and light, witty and delicate, descriptive and charming,
these pleasing romances are never masculine, and become too often effeminate
and effeminating. They sing always, or nearly so, the same theme. By lovely
pasturages clothed with beautiful flowers, the air full of birds, a young
knight proceeds in search of the unknown, and through a series of adventures
whose only fault is that they resemble one another somewhat too closely.
We find insolent defiances, magnificent duels, enchanted castles, tender
love-scenes, mysterious talismans. The marvellous mingles with the
supernatural, magicians with saints, fairies with angels. The whole is
written in a style essentially French, and it must be confessed in clear,
polished, and chastened language - perfect!
But we must not forget, as we said just now, that this poetry, so greatly
attractive, began as early as the twelfth century to be the mode universally;
and let us not forget that it was at the same period that the Percevalde
Gallois and Aliscans, Cleomades, and the Couronnement Looys were written. The
two schools have coexisted for many centuries: both camps have enjoyed the
favor of the public. But in such a struggle it was all too easy to decide to
which of them the victory would eventually incline. The ladies decided it,
and no doubt the greater number of them wept over the perusal of Erec or Enid
more than over that of the Covenant Vivien or Raoul de Cambrai.
When the grand century of the Middle Ages had closed, when the blatant
thirteenth century commenced, the sentimental had already gained the advantage
over our old classic chansons; and the new school, the romantic set of the
Table Round, triumphed! Unfortunately, they also triumphed in their manners;
and they were the knights of the Round Table who, with the Valois, seated
themselves upon the throne of France.
In this way temerity replaced true courage; so good, polite manners
replaced heroic rudeness; so foolish generosity replaced the charitable
austerity of the early chivalry. It was the love of the unforeseen even in
the military art; the rage for adventure - even in politics. We know whither
this strategy and these theatrical politics led us, and that Joan of Arc and
Providence were required to drag us out of the consequences.
The other causes of the decadence of the spirit of chivalry are more
difficult to determine. There is one of them which has not, perhaps, been
sufficiently brought to light, and this is - will it be believed? - the
exdevelopment of certain orders of chivalry! This statement requires some
We must confess that we are enthusiastic, passionate admirers of these
grand military orders which were formed at the commencement of the twelfth
century. There have never been their like in theworld, and it was only given
to Christianity to display to us such a spectacle. To give to one single soul
the double ideal of the soldier and the monk, to impose upon him this double
charge, to fix in one these two conditions and in one only these two duties,
to cause to spring from the earth I cannot tell how many thousands of men who
voluntarily accepted this burden, and who were not crushed by it - that is a
problem which one might have been pardoned for thinking insoluble. We have
not sufficiently considered it. We have not pictured to ourselves with
sufficient vividness the Templars and the Hospitallers in the midst of one of
those great battles in the Holy Land in which the fate of the world was in the