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.
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.
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 want” exclaims the author of Godfrey de Bouillon, and he adds, sadly, “Tos li biens est finés.”
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 Crétien 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 defiance, magnificent duels, enchanted castles, tender love-scenes, mysterious talismans. The marvelous 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, Cleomadès, 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 explanation.
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 the world, 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 balance.
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.
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