The laxity of luxury had everywhere replaced the rigorous enactments of the old manliness, and even warriors themselves loved their ease too much.
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.
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 sumpter-horses 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 Mezières, 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 practiced 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.
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