The Rise of Chivalry
CHAUCER: The Prologue.
D URING the interval of comparative peace that followed the downfall of the mad Caliph Hakim, a new spirit of religious devotion began to awaken in Christendom.
This was, to a large extent, a reaction from a truly "dark age"—the period which immediately preceded the end of the tenth century. Famine and pestilence had devastated Europe, and had resulted in absolute demoralisation of the population. Travellers went their way in fear not only of robbery, but of a far worse fate. It was whispered that men, women and children had been waylaid in forest depths, torn to pieces, and devoured alive by human wild beasts. The Church, in her efforts to bring about a better state of things, resorted to counsels of despair, and began to preach, in every part of Christendom, that the end of the world was at hand, and that the appointed time was the thou sandth year after the birth of Christ.
The result was an outburst of intense religious excitement which did much to check the progress of evil and outrage. It had a practical outcome, too, as is seen in that curious institution known as the Truce of God. In joining this, every knight took an oath not to commit sacrilege; to treat all travellers with respect; to "keep the peace" during the sacred days of each week — that is, from Wednesday evening to Monday morning; not to fight for purposes of private revenge, and always to defend and keep sacred the persons of women. Here we have clearly the foundation of that spirit of chivalry which plays such a prominent part in the Story of the Crusades.
The appointed time for the end of the world came and went, but the spirit of devotion remained. A new interest was awakened in the scenes of the life-work of the Saviour, and crowds of pilgrims, young and old, of all ranks and professions, hastened to undertake the long and toilsome journey to the Holy Land.
Many of these suffered under the persecution of Hakim; and even after his time, though no active measures were taken against them, they were not received with the favour shown in former days. But this only added zest to the enterprise. To visit the Church of the Holy Tomb, and to return and build a church in his own land, became the ambition of every man of wealth and high rank; while the poor palmer, with his staff and hat decorated with palm sprigs or cockle-shells, became a well-known figure upon the roads of every country in Europe.
Says a writer of that day, "At the time there begun to flow towards the Holy Sepulchre so great a multitude as, ere this, no man could have hoped for. First of all went the poorer folk, then men of middle rank, and lastly, very many kings and counts, marquises and bishops; aye, and a thing that had never happened before, many women bent their steps in the same direction."
Things were made a little easier for them by the conversion of the Huns to Christianity; for this enabled the pilgrims to pass along the land route through Hungary instead of crossing the Mediterranean and travelling through Egypt.
Robert the Magnificent, the father of William, the future "Conqueror," was among these eleventh century pilgrims, and he, like many another, died before he could return home.
Sweyn, the eldest and worst of the sons of Godwin, was another; and Eldred, Bishop of York in the days of William the Conqueror, made the little realm of England famous at Jerusalem by his gift before the Holy Sepulchre of a wonderful golden chalice.
Side by side with this spirit of religious zeal there grew up and developed that remarkable body of sentiment and custom known as chivalry.
Chivalry has been described as the "whole duty of a gentleman"; and when we realise the condition of barbarism, brutality, and vice out of which even Western Christendom was only just emerging in the eleventh century, we can see how important was the work it had to do. Religion, Honour, Courtesy—those were the three watchwords of the knight of chivalry, and they covered a wide area of conduct.
The education of a knight began at the age of seven, and commenced with the personal service, which was regarded in those days as a privilege. The small boy was proud to hold the wine-cup behind the chair of his lord, or his stirrup when he rode on horseback. For the next seven years, though much of his time was spent in waiting upon the ladies of the household, who taught him reading, writing, music, and the laws of chivalry, he also learnt the duties of a squire—how to hunt and hawk, and to look after the kennels and the stables. At the age of fourteen the boy might be called a squire, when his duty, in addition to those mentioned, would be to carve for his lord at table, tasting the food first himself for fear of poison; and also, of course, to attend upon him at all times. Thus he had to arm him for battle, to see that his weapons were in perfect condition, to fight by his side, and to lie before his door while he slept.
When the squire had mastered all his duties and obligations, he had then to "win his spurs," that is, to perform some deed of valour that should prove him worthy of knighthood.
The ceremony of girding on his armour was largely a religious one. The whole of the previous night was spent by him on his knees with his sword held upright between his hands, before the altar upon which his armour was laid. Thus he dedicated himself by prayer and fasting to the service of God, and on the morrow was solemnly consecrated by the Church to his high office, before the armour was actually buckled on.
This last part of the ceremony was the privilege of some fair damsel, to whom the knight was bound to give devotion and respect. "To do the pleasure of ladies was his chief solace and the mainspring of his service."
Another of the features of chivalry was that of "brotherhood-in-arms," by which two knights vowed eternal faith and love to one another. They dressed alike, wore similar armour, prayed together, supported each other in battle and in any kind of quarrel, and had the same friends and enemies.
That their devotion to the rules of chivalry was a very real thing is proved over and over again by the conduct of the knights who took part in the Crusades. It is well expressed by Tristan, in one of the most famous romances of the chivalric age. As he lay dying, he said to his squire, "I take leave of chivalry which I have so much loved and honoured. Alas! my sword, what wilt thou do now? Wilt thou hear, Sagremor, the most shameful word that ever passed the lips of Tristan? I am conquered. I give thee my arms, I give thee my chivalry."
It took many a long year to bring to perfection this great institution, with all its rules and regulations, and chivalry was but in its infancy when the First Crusade began. The two movements developed together, and many a chivalric lesson was learnt by the knights of Christendom from the Moslems of the East. Perhaps, however, one of the most marked effects of the Crusades upon this greatest of mediaeval institutions was the welding together of the various nations of Europe in a common knighthood, bound by the same rules and codes of honour, and fighting for the same cause.
"All wars and brigandage came to an end. The Crusade, like the rain, stilled the wind."
Out of this combination of the spirit of chivalry, with that of the Crusades themselves, sprang certain military orders, which play a very prominent part in the history of the time.
The first of these was known as the Order of the Knights Hospitallers. About the middle of the eleventh century a guest-house or "hospital," where pilgrims could be entertained, was established by a company of Italian merchants, in connection with the Church of St Mary, opposite that of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. This hospital, dedicated to St John, was managed by Benedictine monks, under one called the "Guardian of the Redeemer's Poor." When the First Crusade was over, its hero, Godfrey of Boulogne, visited the place and found that these good monks had devoted themselves during the siege of Jerusalem to the care of the sick and wounded Christians, giving them the best of all they possessed, and living themselves in the utmost poverty. Godfrey at once endowed the Hospital of St John with lands and money, and set up one Gerard as its first Grand Master. A new and splendid church was built for the monks, and a habit or dress was prescribed for their use, consisting of a black robe with a cross of eight points in white linen upon it—the famous Maltese Cross of later days.
Early in the twelfth century, this company of priests and holy laymen was changed by its second Grand Master into a military order, bound to carry on the same kind of charitable work in tending the sick and wounded, but specially to defend the Holy Sepulchre by force of arms. Many of this order of "Brothers" had been originally knights who had retired from the world and taken religious vows; hence it was said that the changes merely "gave back to the brethren the arms that they had quitted." These were now distinguished from the rest by a red surcoat with the white cross worn over armour.
Except for the obligation of fighting the vows were not changed, and these Knights Hospitallers owed the same allegiance to the three-fold laws of obedience, chastity, and poverty as ordinary monks. The brethren were to be the "servants of the poor"; no member could call anything his own; he might not marry; he could use arms only against the Saracen; but he was independent of any authority save that of the Pope.
This Order became immensely popular; in the thirteenth century it numbered fifteen thousand knights, many of them drawn from the noblest houses of Christendom; and it is much to its credit that, at a time when chivalry had become little more than a name, it upheld the old traditions even when it had been driven from Palestine, and forced to find a new home for itself at Rhodes. Driven from thence in the sixteenth century, the Knights of St John were settled by the Emperor Charles V. at Malta, where they remained until the days of the French Revolution.
The Order of the Knights Templars was founded early in the twelfth century by Baldwin, then King of Jerusalem, as a "perpetual sacred soldiery," whose special object was to defend the Holy Sepulchre and the passes infested by brigands which led the pilgrims to Jerusalem. Their headquarters was a building granted them by Baldwin, close to the temple on Mt. Moriah. War was their first and most important business, though they were bound by their rule to a certain amount of prayer and fasting. The latter was, however, easily relaxed, and "to drink like a Templar" became a proverb.
In every battle of the Holy War these two Orders took a prominent part; the post of honour on the right being claimed by the Templars, that on the left by the Hospitallers. Unlike most other knights, the Templars wore long beards, and from their dress of white, with a large red cross upon it, they gained the title of the Red-Cross Knights.
You will, no doubt, remember that Spenser's knight in the first book of the Faery Queene was of that order.
Their banner was half black, half white; "fair and favourable to the friends of Christ, black and terrible to His foes."
These Knights Templars, by their arrogance and independence, made for themselves many enemies, and early in the fourteenth century they were strongly opposed by Philip of France. By this time they were established in various parts of Europe, and one of their most powerful "houses" was the building known as the "Temple" in Paris, the members of which openly defied the authority of the king.
With some difficulty the consent of a weak Pope was obtained for their destruction. On a given day, when the Grand Master and most of his knights were staying in France, every Templar in the country was seized, imprisoned, and tortured until he had confessed crimes, many of which he probably had never imagined in his wildest moments. More than five hundred were burnt alive, as a preliminary to the Order being declared extinct. Whether the Templars deserved their terrible fate may well be a matter of doubt, though public opinion, in their own day, was decidedly against them. It is generally considered that Philip's treatment of an order, the members of which had again and again laid down their lives for the cause of God, ranks as one of the blackest crimes of history.
There is a legend to the effect that on each anniversary of the suppression of the Order, the heads of seven of the martyred Templars rise from their graves to meet a phantom figure clad in the red-cross mantle. The latter cries three times, "Who shall now defend the Holy Temple? Who shall free the Sepulchre of the Lord?" And the seven heads make mournful reply, "None! The Temple is destroyed."
The Temple Church, in London, was originally built for the English branch of this great Order, the members of which in England, as well as in Spain and Germany, were almost all acquitted of the charges brought against them.
But we must now return to the period prior to the foundation of these two great Orders, with which are associated most of the gallant deeds of the Holy War.