No: painters have not sufficiently portrayed them in the arid plains of
Asia forming an incomparable squadron in the midst of the battle. One might
talk forever and yet not say too much about the charge of the Cuirassiers at
Reichshoffen; but how many times did the Hospitaller knights and the Templars
charge in similar fashion? Those soldier-monks, in truth, invented a new idea
of courage. Unfortunately they were not always fighting, and peace troubled
some of them. They became too rich, and their riches lowered them in the eyes
of men and before heaven. We do not intend to adopt all the calumnies which
have been circulated concerning the Templars, but it is difficult not to admit
that many of these accusations had some foundation. The Hospitallers, at any
rate, have given no ground for such attacks. They, thank heaven, remained
undefiled, if not poor, and were an honor to that chivalry which others had
compromised and emasculated.
But when all is said, that which best became chivalry, the spice which
preserved it the most surely, was poverty!
Love of riches had not only attacked the chivalrous orders, but in a very
short space of time all knights caught the infection. Sensuality and
enjoyment had penetrated into their castles. "Scarcely had they received the
knightly baldric before they commenced to break the commandments and to
pillage the poor. When it became necessary to go to war, their sumpterhorses
were laden with wine, and not with weapons; with leathern bottles instead of
swords; with spits instead of lances. One might have fancied, in truth, that
they were going out to dinner, and not to fight. It is true their shields
were beautifully gilt, but they were kept in a virgin and unused condition.
Chivalrous combats were represented upon their bucklers and their saddles,
certainly; but that was all!"
Now who is it who writes thus? It is not, as one might fancy, an author
of the fifteenth century - it is a writer of the twelfth; and the greatest
satirist, somewhat excessive and unjust in his statements, the Christian
Juvenal whom we have just quoted, was none other than Peter of Blois.
A hundred other witnesses might be cited in support of these indignant
words. But if there is some exaggeration in them, we are compelled to confess
that there is a considerable substratum of truth also.
These abuses - which wealth engendered, which more than one poet has
stigmatized - attracted, in the fourteenth century, the attention of an
important individual, a person whose name occupies a worthy place in
literature and history. Philip of Mezieres, chancellor of Cyprus under Peter
of Lusignan, was a true knight, who one day conceived the idea of reforming
chivalry. Now the way he found most feasible in accomplishing his object, in
arriving at such a difficult and complex reform, was to found a new order of
chivalry himself, to which he gave the high-sounding title of "the Chivalry of
the Passion of Christ."
The decadence of chivalry is attested, alas! by the very character of the
reformers by which this well-meaning Utopian attempted to oppose it. The good
knight complains of the great advances of sensuality, and permits and advises
the marriage of all knights. He complains of the accursed riches which the
Hospitallers themselves were putting to a bad use, and forbade them in his
Institutions; but nevertheless the luxurious habits of his time had an
influence upon his mind, and he permitted his knights to wear the most
extravagant costumes, and the dignitaries of his order to adopt the most
high-sounding titles. There was something mystical in all this conception,
and something theatrical in all this agency. It is hardly necessary to add
that the "Chivalry of the Passion" was only a beautiful dream, originating in
a generous mind. Notwithstanding the adherence of some brilliant personages,
the order never attained to more than a theoretical organization, and had only
a fictitious foundation. The idea of the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre
from the Infidel was hardly the object of the fifteenth-century chivalry; for
the struggle between France and England then was engaging the most courageous
warriors and the most practised swords. Decay hurried on apace!
This was not the only cause of such a fatal falling away. The portals of
chivalry had been opened to too many unworthy candidates. It had been made
vulgar! In consequence of having become so cheap the grand title of "knight"
was degraded. Eustace Deschamps, in his fine, straightforward way, states the
scandal boldly and "lashes" it with his tongue. He says: "Picture to yourself
the fact that the degree of knighthood is about to be conferred now upon
babies of eight and ten years old."
Well might this excellent man exclaim in another place: "Disorders always
go on gathering strength, and even incomparable knights like Du Guesclin and
Bayard cannot arrest the fatal course of the institution toward ruin."
Chivalry was destined to disappear.
It is very important that one should make one's self acquainted with the
true character of such a downfall. France and England in the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries still boasted many high-bred knights. They exchanged the
most superb defiances, the most audacious challenges, and proceeded from one
country to another to run each other through the body proudly. The
Beaumanoirs, who drank their blood, abounded. It was a question who would
engage himself in the most incredible pranks; who would commit the most daring
folly! They tell us afterward of the beautiful passages of arms, the grand
feats performed, and the inimitable Froissart is the most charming of all
these narrators, who make their readers as chivalrous as themselves.
But we must tell everything: among these knights in beautiful armor there
was a band of adventurers who never observed, and who could not understand,
certain commandments of the ancient chivalry. The laxity of luxury had
everywhere replaced the rigorous enactments of the old manliness, and even
warriors themselves loved their ease too much. The religious sentiment was
not the dominant one in their minds, in which the idea of a crusade now never
entered. They had not sufficient respect for the weakness of the Church nor
for other failings. They no longer felt themselves the champions of the good
and the enemies of evil. Their sense of justice had become warped, as had
love for their great native land.
Again, what they termed "the license of camps" had grown very much worse;
and we know in what condition Joan of Arc found the army of the King.
Blasphemy and ribaldry in every quarter. The noble girl swept away these
pests, but the effect of her action was not long-lived. She was the person to
reestablish chivalry, which in her found the purity of its now-effaced type;
but she died too soon, and had not sufficient imitators.
There were, after her time, many chivalrous souls, and, thank heaven,
there are still some among us; but the old institution is no longer with us.
The events which we have had the misfortune to witness do not give us any
ground to hope that chivalry, extinct and dead, will rise again to-morrow to
light and life.
In St. Louis' time, caricature and parody - they were low-class forces,
but forces nevertheless - had already commenced the work of destruction. We
are in possession of an abominable little poem of the thirteenth century,
which is nothing but a scatological pamphlet directed against chivalry. This
ignoble Audigier, the author of which is the basest of men, is not the only
attack which one may disinter from amid the literature of that period. If one
wishes to draw up a really complete list it would be necessary to include the
fabliaux - the Renart and the Rose, which constitute the most anti-chivalrous
- I had nearly written the most Voltairian - works that I am acquainted with.
The thread is easy enough to follow from the twelfth century down to the
author of Don Quixote - which I do not confound with its infamous predecessors
- to Cervantes, whose work has been fatal, but whose mind was elevated.
However that may be, parody and the parodists were themselves a cause of
decay. They weakened morals. Gallic-like, they popularized little bourgeois
sentiments, narrow-minded, satirical sentiments; they inoculated manly souls
with contempt for such great things as one performs disinterestedly. This
disdain is a sure element of decay, and we may regard it as an announcement of
Against the knights who, here and there, showed themselves unworthy and
degenerate, was put in practice the terrible apparatus of degradation. Modern
historians of chivalry have not failed to describe in detail all the rites of
this solemn punishment, and we have presented to us a scene which is well
calculated to excite the imagination of the most matter-of-fact, and to make
the most timid heart swell.
The knight judicially condemned to submit to this shame was first
conducted to a scaffold, where they broke or trod under foot all his weapons.
He saw his shield, with device effaced, turned upside down and trailed in the
mud. Priests, after reciting prayers for the vigil of the dead, pronounced
over his head the psalm, "Deus laudem meam," which contains terrible
maledictions against traitors. The herald of arms who carried out this
sentence took from the hands of the pursuivant of arms a basin full of dirty
water, and threw it all over the head of the recreant knight in order to wash
away the sacred character which had been conferred upon him by the accolade.
The guilty one, degraded in this way, was subsequently thrown upon a hurdle,
or upon a stretcher, covered with a mortuary cloak, and finally carried to the
church, where they repeated the same prayers and the same ceremonies as for
This was really terrible, even if somewhat theatrical, and it is easy to
see that this complicated ritual contained only a very few ancient elements.
In the twelfth century the ceremonial of degradation was infinitely more
simple. The spurs were hacked off close to the heels of the guilty knight.
Nothing could be more summary or more significant. Such a person was publicly
denounced as unworthy to ride on horseback, and consequently quite unworthy to
be a knight. The more ancient and chivalrous, the less theatrical is it. It
is so in many other institutions in the histories of all nations.
That such a penalty may have prevented a certain number of treasons and
forfeitures we willingly admit, but one cannot expect it to preserve all the
whole body of chivalry from that decadence from which no institution of human
establishment can escape.
Notwithstanding inevitable weaknesses and accidents, the Decalogue of
Chivalry has none the less been regnant in some millions of souls which it has
made pure and great. These ten commandments have been the rules and the reins
of youthful generations, who without them would have been wild and
undisciplined. This legislation, in fact - which, to tell the truth, is only
one of the chapters of the great Catholic Code - has raised the moral level of
Besides, chivalry is not yet quite dead. No doubt, the ritual of
chivalry, the solemn reception, the order itself, and the ancient oaths, no
longer exist. No doubt, among these grand commandments there are many which
are known only to the erudite, and which the world is unacquainted with. The
Catholic Faith is no longer the essence of modern chivalry; the Church is no
longer seated on the throne around which the old knights stand with their
drawn swords; Islam is no longer the hereditary enemy; we have another which
threatens us nearer home; widows and orphans have need rather of the tongues
of advocates than of the iron weapon of the knights; there are no more duties
toward liege-lords to be fulfilled; and we even do not want any kind of
superior lord at all; largesse is now confounded with charity; and the
becoming hatred of evil-doing is no longer our chief, our best, passion!
But whatever we may do there still remains to us, in the marrow, a
certain leaven of chivalry which preserves us from death. There are still in
the world an immense number of fine souls - strong and upright souls - who
hate all that is small and mean, who know and who practise all the delicate
promptings of honor, and who prefer death to an unworthy action or to a lie!
That is what we owe to chivalry, that is what it has bequeathed to us. On
the day when these last vestiges of such a grand past are effaced from our
souls - we shall cease to exist!