Today’s installment concludes Chivalry,
our selection from La Chevalerie by Léon Gautier published in 1884.
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Previously in Chivalry.
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 tomorrow 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 jabliaux — 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 death.
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 the dead.
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 humanity.
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 practice 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!
This ends our series of passages on Chivalry by Léon Gautier from his book La Chevalerie published in 1884. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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