In legendary lore the embodiment of chivalry is Roland: in history it is Godfrey de Bouillon.
our selection from La Chevalerie by Léon Gautier published in 1884. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Chivalry.
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 cease altogether.”
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