Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Insights from Ramon de Lull’s book of chivalry
“Never has their been a perfect knight. Knighthood is, by definition, an office that strives for a distant ideal, a changing ideal, but one that seeks to emulate the ancient virtues associated with chivalric office. Knights will by definition fail as they are human, but attain their grace in the striving for virtue, for the perseverance of seeking to overcome the vanities of the body and soul, to do what is 'right'. It is a striving for excellence even as we know that perfection is beyond our grasp, but that fact alone does not allow us to stop in our quest for it.
Historically, knights were the defenders. Beginning as warriors, some defended the populace while others pillaged. Their virtues were warrior ones, revered by warrior cultures the world over; prowess, strength, courage, loyalty. These are the virtues of the pure soldier, the killing machine who when he uses his considerable strength for good, contributes greatly to society even as he is estranged from it. Estranged because to excel in the extreme, be jettisons the concerns of hearth and of the soul, focusing his whole being upon the martial task at hand-he must not fail or the society to which be belongs will perish.
Society quickly settled from the warfare of the dark ages that spawned this free-roaming warrior. The church grew in power and influence alongside the growth of ease at court. These developments, made possible owing to the leisure accorded by a more stable Europe, gave voice to others concerned with what the knights were and what they should become. The clerk and the lady, chiefly, were the two main influences upon the course of knighthood, next to the influences of the warriors themselves.
The church believed the knights should become 'knights of Christ', using their considerable strength to defend the faith and to become the physical defenders of the church and her ideals. The church contributed the powerful virtues of faith, temperance and humility; three cornerstone virtues of what has come to be knighthood. Lull writes, a knight should first: defend his faith and protect the Holy Church, second defend his lord and protect the weak including women, widows and orphans, keeping himself ready for action by continuous exercise by attending jousts and tournaments.... accept office in secular government if the king chooses him, and he should act as judge or magistrate in local justice courts...[and] it is his duty to pursue criminals and bring them to justice.
The lady and the demands of court also shaped what the knight was to become. She demanded, through the romance literature that remains a powerful influence today, that the knight act with strength on one hand, and courtesy and respect on the other. A knight should respect women, he should defend them in their hour of need, eschewing the magnetic gravity of mere lust. Love could be a powerful influence over the knight, a strengthening force, that could propel the knight to greatness beyond his own capability. The church agreed, arguing only that the spiritual love of Christ was superior to the love of a woman; but the important detail was that love as an ennobling motivator was added as a chivalric element that was to stay. As a nobleman and dispenser of justice, the knight was required to seek justice, to defend the right, and to dispense of his wealth with largesse, showing the generosity that thwarted greed and thus helped the knight to ennoble himself in deed as well as blood.
These things are of course ideals. The expectations for 'chivalrous conduct' have certainly changed throughout the history of knighthood; these elements of virtue have stood the test of time in their purity, changing only in how we interpret them from age to age. It was said that renown was the key quality of a knight. Renown, the fame by which a knight is known for his virtue or malice, is not glory, it is not honor, it is the 'good name' earned through the pursuit of virtue. A pursuit that others have recognized, according you honor because of it, honoring you enough to increase your fame both in their own hearts and in the estimation of others. Renown is what you earn; you thus earn the armour that will defend you when you fail; provided that you continue to strive for excellence, keeping the virtue of humility close to the heart that the knight not fall to the sin of pride in the guise of vanity.