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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter I. Introduction
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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter I. Introduction Post by :DGrasser Category :Nonfictions Author :Thomas Bulfinch Date :January 2011 Read :821

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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter I. Introduction

On the decline of the Roman power, about five centuries after
Christ, the countries of Northern Europe were left almost
destitute of a national government. Numerous chiefs, more or less
powerful, held local sway, as far as each could enforce his
dominion, and occasionally those chiefs would unite for a common
object; but, in ordinary times, they were much more likely to be
found in hostility to one another. In such a state of things the
rights of the humbler classes of society were at the mercy of
every assailant; and it is plain that, without some check upon the
lawless power of the chiefs, society must have relapsed into
barbarism. Such checks were found, first, in the rivalry of the
chiefs themselves, whose mutual jealousy made them restraints upon
one another; secondly, in the influence of the Church, which, by
every motive, pure or selfish, was pledged to interpose for the
protection of the weak; and lastly, in the generosity and sense of
right which, however crushed under the weight of passion and
selfishness, dwell naturally in the heart of man. From this last
source sprang Chivalry, which framed an ideal of the heroic
character, combining invincible strength and valor, justice,
modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion to
weakness, and devotedness to the Church; an ideal which, if never
met with in real life, was acknowledged by all as the highest
model for emulation.

The word "Chivalry" is derived from the French "cheval," a horse.
The word "knight," which originally meant boy or servant, was
particularly applied to a young man after he was admitted to the
privilege of bearing arms. This privilege was conferred on youths
of family and fortune only, for the mass of the people were not
furnished with arms. The knight then was a mounted warrior, a man
of rank, or in the service and maintenance of some man of rank,
generally possessing some independent means of support, but often
relying mainly on the gratitude of those whom he served for the
supply of his wants, and often, no doubt, resorting to the means
which power confers on its possessor.

In time of war the knight was, with his followers, in the camp of
his sovereign, or commanding in the field, or holding some castle
for him. In time of peace he was often in attendance at his
sovereign's court, gracing with his presence the banquets and
tournaments with which princes cheered their leisure. Or he was
traversing the country in quest of adventure, professedly bent on
redressing wrongs and enforcing rights, sometimes in fulfilment of
some vow of religion or of love. These wandering knights were
called knights-errant; they were welcome guests in the castles of
the nobility, for their presence enlivened the dulness of those
secluded abodes, and they were received with honor at the abbeys,
which often owed the best part of their revenues to the patronage
of the knights; but if no castle or abbey or hermitage were at
hand their hardy habits made it not intolerable to them to lie
down, supperless, at the foot of some wayside cross, and pass the
night.

It is evident that the justice administered by such an
instrumentality must have been of the rudest description. The
force whose legitimate purpose was to redress wrongs might easily
be perverted to inflict them Accordingly, we find in the romances,
which, however fabulous in facts, are true as pictures of manners,
that a knightly castle was often a terror to the surrounding
country; that is, dungeons were full of oppressed knights and
ladies, waiting for some champion to appear to set them free, or
to be ransomed with money; that hosts of idle retainers were ever
at hand to enforce their lord's behests, regardless of law and
justice; and that the rights of the unarmed multitude were of no
account. This contrariety of fact and theory in regard to chivalry
will account for the opposite impressions which exist in men's
minds respecting it. While it has been the theme of the most
fervid eulogium on the one part, it has been as eagerly denounced
on the other. On a cool estimate, we cannot but see reason to
congratulate ourselves that it has given way in modern times to
the reign of law, and that the civil magistrate, if less
picturesque, has taken the place of the mailed champion.

THE TRAINING OF A KNIGHT

The preparatory education of candidates for knighthood was long
and arduous. At seven years of age the noble children were usually
removed from their father's house to the court or castle of their
future patron, and placed under the care of a governor, who taught
them the first articles of religion, and respect and reverence for
their lords and superiors, and initiated them in the ceremonies of
a court. They were called pages, valets, or varlets, and their
office was to carve, to wait at table, and to perform other menial
services, which were not then considered humiliating. In their
leisure hours they learned to dance and play on the harp, were
instructed in the mysteries of woods and rivers, that is, in
hunting, falconry, and fishing, and in wrestling, tilting with
spears, and performing other military exercises on horseback. At
fourteen the page became an esquire, and began a course of severer
and more laborious exercises. To vault on a horse in heavy armor;
to run, to scale walls, and spring over ditches, under the same
encumbrance; to wrestle, to wield the battle-axe for a length of
time, without raising the visor or taking breath; to perform with
grace all the evolutions of horsemanship,--were necessary
preliminaries to the reception of knighthood, which was usually
conferred at twenty-one years of age, when the young man's
education was supposed to be completed. In the meantime, the
esquires were no less assiduously engaged in acquiring all those
refinements of civility which formed what was in that age called
courtesy. The same castle in which they received their education
was usually thronged with young persons of the other sex, and the
page was encouraged, at a very early age, to select some lady of
the court as the mistress of his heart, to whom he was taught to
refer all his sentiments, words, and actions. The service of his
mistress was the glory and occupation of a knight, and her smiles,
bestowed at once by affection and gratitude, were held out as the
recompense of his well-directed valor. Religion united its
influence with those of loyalty and love, and the order of
knighthood, endowed with all the sanctity and religious awe that
attended the priesthood, became an object of ambition to the
greatest sovereigns.

The ceremonies of initiation were peculiarly solemn. After
undergoing a severe fast, and spending whole nights in prayer, the
candidate confessed, and received the sacrament. He then clothed
himself in snow-white garments, and repaired to the church, or the
hall, where the ceremony was to take place, bearing a knightly
sword suspended from his neck, which the officiating priest took
and blessed, and then returned to him. The candidate then, with
folded arms, knelt before the presiding knight, who, after some
questions about his motives and purposes in requesting admission,
administered to him the oaths, and granted his request. Some of
the knights present, sometimes even ladies and damsels, handed to
him in succession the spurs, the coat of mail, the hauberk, the
armlet and gauntlet, and lastly he girded on the sword. He then
knelt again before the president, who, rising from his seat, gave
him the "accolade," which consisted of three strokes, with the
flat of a sword, on the shoulder or neck of the candidate,
accompanied by the words: "In the name of God, of St. Michael, and
St. George, I make thee a knight; be valiant, courteous, and
loyal!" Then he received his helmet, his shield, and spear; and
thus the investiture ended.

FREEMEN, VILLAINS, SERFS, AND CLERKS

The other classes of which society was composed were, first,
FREEMEN, owners of small portions of land independent, though they
sometimes voluntarily became the vassals of their more opulent
neighbors, whose power was necessary for their protection. The
other two classes, which were much the most numerous, were either
serfs or villains, both of which were slaves.

The SERFS were in the lowest state of slavery. All the fruits of
their labor belonged to the master whose land they tilled, and by
whom they were fed and clothed.

The VILLIANS were less degraded. Their situation seems to have
resembled that of the Russian peasants at this day. Like the
serfs, they were attached to the soil, and were transferred with
it by purchase; but they paid only a fixed rent to the landlord,
and had a right to dispose of any surplus that might arise from
their industry.

The term "clerk" was of very extensive import. It comprehended,
originally, such persons only as belonged to the clergy, or
clerical order, among whom, however, might be found a multitude of
married persons, artisans or others. But in process of time a much
wider rule was established; every one that could read being
accounted a clerk or clericus, and allowed the "benefit of
clergy," that is, exemption from capital and some other forms of
punishment, in case of crime.

TOURNAMENTS

The splendid pageant of a tournament between knights, its gaudy
accessories and trappings, and its chivalrous regulations,
originated in France. Tournaments were repeatedly condemned by the
Church, probably on account of the quarrels they led to, and the
often fatal results. The "joust," or "just," was different from
the tournament. In these, knights fought with their lances, and
their object was to unhorse their antagonists; while the
tournaments were intended for a display of skill and address in
evolutions, and with various weapons, and greater courtesy was
observed in the regulations. By these it was forbidden to wound
the horse, or to use the point of the sword, or to strike a knight
after he had raised his vizor, or unlaced his helmet. The ladies
encouraged their knights in these exercises; they bestowed prizes,
and the conqueror's feats were the theme of romance and song. The
stands overlooking the ground, of course, were varied in the
shapes of towers, terraces, galleries, and pensile gardens,
magnificently decorated with tapestry, pavilions, and banners.
Every combatant proclaimed the name of the lady whose servant
d'amour he was. He was wont to look up to the stand, and
strengthen his courage by the sight of the bright eyes that were
raining their influence on him from above. The knights also
carried FAVORS, consisting of scarfs, veils, sleeves, bracelets,
clasps,--in short, some piece of female habiliment,--attached to
their helmets, shields, or armor. If, during the combat, any of
these appendages were dropped or lost the fair donor would at
times send her knight new ones, especially if pleased with his
exertions.

MAIL ARMOR

Mail armor, of which the hauberk is a species, and which derived
its name from maille, a French word for MESH, was of two kinds,
PLATE or SCALE mail, and CHAIN mail. It was originally used for
the protection of the body only, reaching no lower than the knees.
It was shaped like a carter's frock, and bound round the waist by
a girdle. Gloves and hose of mail were afterwards added, and a
hood, which, when necessary, was drawn over the head, leaving the
face alone uncovered. To protect the skin from the impression of
the iron network of the chain mail, a quilted lining was employed,
which, however, was insufficient, and the bath was used to efface
the marks of the armor.

The hauberk was a complete covering of double chain mail. Some
hauberks opened before, like a modern coat; others were closed
like a shirt.

The chain mail of which they were composed was formed by a number
of iron links, each link having others inserted into it, the whole
exhibiting a kind of network, of which (in some instances at
least) the meshes were circular, with each link separately
riveted.

The hauberk was proof against the most violent blow of a sword;
but the point of a lance might pass through the meshes, or drive
the iron into the flesh. To guard against this, a thick and well-
stuffed doublet was worn underneath, under which was commonly
added an iron breastplate. Hence the expression "to pierce both
plate and mail," so common in the earlier poets.

Mail armor continued in general use till about the year 1300, when
it was gradually supplanted by plate armor, or suits consisting of
pieces or plates of solid iron, adapted to the different parts of
the body.

Shields were generally made of wood, covered with leather, or some
similar substance. To secure them, in some sort, from being cut
through by the sword, they were surrounded with a hoop of metal.

HELMETS

The helmet was composed of two parts: the HEADPIECE, which was
strengthened within by several circles of iron, and the VISOR,
which, as the name implies, was a sort of grating to see through,
so contrived as, by sliding in a groove, or turning on a pivot, to
be raised or lowered at pleasure. Some helmets had a further
improvement called a BEVER, from the Italian bevere, to drink. The
VENTAYLE, or "air-passage," is another name for this.

To secure the helmet from the possibility of falling, or of being
struck off, it was tied by several laces to the meshes of the
hauberk; consequently, when a knight was overthrown it was
necessary to undo these laces before he could be put to death;
though this was sometimes effected by lifting up the skirt of the
hauberk, and stabbing him in the belly. The instrument of death
was a small dagger, worn on the right side.

ROMANCES

In ages when there were no books, when noblemen and princes
themselves could not read, history or tradition was monopolized by
the story-tellers. They inherited, generation after generation,
the wondrous tales of their predecessors, which they retailed to
the public with such additions of their own as their acquired
information supplied them with. Anachronisms became of course very
common, and errors of geography, of locality, of manners, equally
so. Spurious genealogies were invented, in which Arthur and his
knights, and Charlemagne and his paladins, were made to derive
their descent from Aeneas, Hector, or some other of the Trojan
heroes.

With regard to the derivation of the word "Romance," we trace it
to the fact that the dialects which were formed in Western Europe,
from the admixture of Latin with the native languages, took the
name of Langue Romaine. The French language was divided into two
dialects. The river Loire was their common boundary. In the
provinces to the south of that river the affirmative, YES, was
expressed by the word oc; in the north it was called oil (oui);
and hence Dante has named the southern language langue d'oc, and
the northern langue d'oil. The latter, which was carried into
England by the Normans, and is the origin of the present French,
may be called the French Romane; and the former the Provencal, or
Provencial Romane, because it was spoken by the people of Provence
and Languedoc, southern provinces of France.

These dialects were soon distinguished by very opposite
characters. A soft and enervating climate, a spirit of commerce
encouraged by an easy communication with other maritime nations,
the influx of wealth, and a more settled government, may have
tended to polish and soften the diction of the Provencials, whose
poets, under the name of Troubadours, were the masters of the
Italians, and particularly of Petrarch. Their favorite pieces were
Sirventes (satirical pieces), love-songs, and Tensons, which last
were a sort of dialogue in verse between two poets, who questioned
each other on some refined points of loves' casuistry. It seems
the Provencials were so completely absorbed in these delicate
questions as to neglect and despise the composition of fabulous
histories of adventure and knighthood, which they left in a great
measure to the poets of the northern part of the kingdom, called
Trouveurs.

At a time when chivalry excited universal admiration, and when all
the efforts of that chivalry were directed against the enemies of
religion, it was natural that literature should receive the same
impulse, and that history and fable should be ransacked to furnish
examples of courage and piety that might excite increased
emulation. Arthur and Charlemagne were the two heroes selected for
this purpose. Arthur's pretensions were that he was a brave,
though not always a successful warrior; he had withstood with
great resolution the arms of the infidels, that is to say of the
Saxons, and his memory was held in the highest estimation by his
countrymen, the Britons, who carried with them into Wales, and
into the kindred country of Armorica, or Brittany, the memory of
his exploits, which their national vanity insensibly exaggerated,
till the little prince of the Silures (South Wales) was magnified
into the conqueror of England, of Gaul, and of the greater part of
Europe. His genealogy was gradually carried up to an imaginary
Brutus, and to the period of the Trojan war, and a sort of
chronicle was composed in the Welsh, or Armorican language, which,
under the pompous title of the "History of the Kings of Britain,"
was translated into Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, about the year
1150. The Welsh critics consider the material of the work to have
been an older history, written by St. Talian, Bishop of St. Asaph,
in the seventh century.

As to Charlemagne, though his real merits were sufficient to
secure his immortality, it was impossible that his HOLY WARS
against the Saracens should not become a favorite topic for
fiction. Accordingly, the fabulous history of these wars was
written, probably towards the close of the eleventh century, by a
monk, who, thinking it would add dignity to his work to embellish
it with a contemporary name, boldly ascribed it to Turpin, who was
Archbishop of Rheims about the year 773.

These fabulous chronicles were for a while imprisoned in languages
of local only or of professional access. Both Turpin and Geoffrey
might indeed be read by ecclesiastics, the sole Latin scholars of
those times, and Geoffrey's British original would contribute to
the gratification of Welshmen; but neither could become
extensively popular till translated into some language of general
and familiar use. The Anglo-Saxon was at that time used only by a
conquered and enslaved nation; the Spanish and Italian languages
were not yet formed; the Norman French alone was spoken and
understood by the nobility in the greater part of Europe, and
therefore was a proper vehicle for the new mode of composition.

That language was fashionable in England before the Conquest, and
became, after that event, the only language used at the court of
London. As the various conquests of the Normans, and the
enthusiastic valor of that extraordinary people, had familiarized
the minds of men with the most marvellous events, their poets
eagerly seized the fabulous legends of Arthur and Charlemagne,
translated them into the language of the day, and soon produced a
variety of imitations. The adventures attributed to these
monarchs, and to their distinguished warriors, together with those
of many other traditionary or imaginary heroes, composed by
degrees that formidable body of marvellous histories which, from
the dialect in which the most ancient of them were written, were
called "Romances."

METRICAL ROMANCES

The earliest form in which romances appear is that of a rude kind
of verse. In this form it is supposed they were sung or recited at
the feasts of princes and knights in their baronial halls. The
following specimen of the language and style of Robert de
Beauvais, who flourished in 1257, is from Sir Walter Scott's
"Introduction to the Romance of Sir Tristrem":

"Ne voil pas emmi dire,
Ici diverse la matyere,
Entre ceus qui solent cunter,
E de le cunte Tristran parler."

"I will not say too much about it,
So diverse is the matter,
Among those who are in the habit of telling
And relating the story of Tristran."

This is a specimen of the language which was in use among the
nobility of England, in the ages immediately after the Norman
conquest. The following is a specimen of the English that existed
at the same time, among the common people. Robert de Brunne,
speaking of his Latin and French authorities, says:

"Als thai haf wryten and sayd
Haf I alle in myn Inglis layd,
In symple speche as I couthe,
That is lightest in manne's mouthe.
Alle for the luf of symple men,
That strange Inglis cannot ken."

The "strange Inglis" being the language of the previous specimen.

It was not till toward the end of the thirteenth century that the
PROSE romances began to appear. These works generally began with
disowning and discrediting the sources from which in reality they
drew their sole information. As every romance was supposed to be a
real history, the compilers of those in prose would have forfeited
all credit if they had announced themselves as mere copyists of
the minstrels. On the contrary, they usually state that, as the
popular poems upon the matter in question contain many "lesings,"
they had been induced to translate the real and true history of
such or such a knight from the original Latin or Greek, or from
the ancient British or Armorican authorities, which authorities
existed only in their own assertion.

A specimen of the style of the prose romances may be found in the
following extract from one of the most celebrated and latest of
them, the "Morte d'Arthur" of Sir Thomas Mallory, of the date of
1485. From this work much of the contents of this volume has been
drawn, with as close an adherence to the original style as was
thought consistent with our plan of adapting our narrative to the
taste of modern readers.

"It is notoyrly knowen thorugh the vnyuersal world that there been
ix worthy and the best that ever were. That is to wete thre
paynyms, three Jewes, and three crysten men. As for the paynyms,
they were tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst whiche were named, the
fyrst Hector of Troye; the second Alysaunder the grete, and the
thyrd Julyus Cezar, Emperour of Rome, of whome thystoryes ben wel
kno and had. And as for the thre Jewes whyche also were tofore
thyncarnacyon of our Lord, of whome the fyrst was Duc Josue,
whyche brought the chyldren of Israhel into the londe of beheste;
the second Dauyd, kyng of Jherusalem, and the thyrd Judas
Machabeus; of these thre the byble reherceth al theyr noble
hystoryes and actes. And sythe the sayd Incarnacyon haue ben the
noble crysten men stalled and admytted thorugh the vnyuersal world
to the nombre of the ix beste and worthy, of whome was fyrst the
noble Arthur, whose noble actes I purpose to wryte in this person
book here folowyng. The second was Charlemayn, or Charles the
grete, of whome thystorye is had in many places both in frensshe
and englysshe, and the thyrd and last was Godefray of boloyn."

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