Toward the end of the tenth century, Adalberon, bishop of Laon, wrote, “There is a noble class which comprises the warriors and protectors of the churches. They defend all the people, great and small, and, incidentally, protect themselves.”
This class was no group of ruffians looking for a fight, at least not after the dynamic reformation that swept through Europe from roughly 1000 to 1300. Like the sixteenth-century Reformation, this movement sought to restore the values of the early church. In regard to the warrior class, it encouraged the rise of chivalry and the glorification of the Christian knight.
Though only an elite few became knights, nearly every medieval person had contact with them. Furthermore, the values of the ruling class, composed of princes and knights, permeated society.
Bishop Adalberon also wrote this: “The city of God we believe is not only one but subdivided into three parts: some pray, others fight, and still others work.… The service of each allows the contributions of the other two. Each, in turn, lends its support to all.”
If Adalberon’s description of medieval society is too simple, everyone agreed that those “others” who “fight”—princes and knights—must protect their people against invasion and internal disorder.
Medieval people thought the house of God—church and society together—required strong governing. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian monk who led the early 1100s reform movement, wrote, “Where a multitude is gathered together without any contract of peace, without any observance of law, without discipline or a ruling head, it is called not a people but a mob, not a state but confusion.” So a ruling class was necessary to keep order.
The ruling class was obliged first to seek the welfare and salvation of the people they ruled. Bernard’s friend and younger contemporary, the scholarly John of Salisbury, wrote, “Between a tyrant and a good prince there is this single difference: the good prince obeys the law, and rules the people by its dictates, accounting himself as but their servant.… On the prince falls the burdens of the whole community. So there is rightly conferred on him … power over all his subjects, so that he may seek and bring about the welfare of all and each.”
The fate of princes and knights who did not live up to this standard was an example to all. As John of Salisbury put it, “To kill a tyrant is not only legitimate, but fair and just. For he who lives by the sword deserves to die by the sword.”
Bernard found biblical inspiration for a fighting class in David, the warrior king of Israel. Warfare was seen as sometimes necessary. The crucial concern was motivation: the warrior must fight for God rather than the world. Writing about Louis VII, who went on a crusade to the Holy Land, Bernard said, “Our king serves so that the King of heaven shall not lose his land, the land ’on which his feet have stood’” (Psalm 131:7).
Thus to battle in the service of God was a virtue. For Bernard, to kill without reason was homicidal; to kill for justice’s sake was malicidal—the killing of evil.
To fulfill the functions assigned him by society, the medieval warrior had to possess certain virtues. Foremost among these, of course, was military prowess. His role demanded not only great physical strength and skill, but also courage and steadfastness, integrity and loyalty, generosity and humility.
In the 1200s, missionary and philosopher Ramon Lull wrote a popular treatise on chivalry, which set forth some of the prerequisites for knighthood:
“We should ask the squire seeking knighthood whether he was ever guilty of falseness or treachery, both contrary to the order of chivalry. … If a squire shows false pride in what he does, he is not worthy to become a knight. … A squire who is a flatterer corrupts good intentions, and the nobility which is part of the knight’s courage is thereby destroyed. A squire who is proud and schooled in evil, full of wicked words and misdirected bravery, avaricious, a liar and untrue, slothful or a glutton, perjured or afflicted with any like vice, is not acceptable to chivalry.”
To help inculcate such virtues, the candidate was knighted in a simple ceremony dominated by Christian symbolism.
Ramon Lull advised, “Before a knight enters the order of chivalry, he must confess the sins he has committed against God. He must be determined to serve God, who is glorious. … He should receive his Savior in the Lord’s Supper. … The squire should fast on the vigil of his knighting, … should go to church and pray to God, keeping an all-night vigil of prayer, hearing the word of God and about the responsibilities of chivalry. He ought to kneel before the altar and lift up his corporeal and spiritual eyes to God and his hands to heaven. A knight should then gird him with his sword, the sign of chastity, justice, and charity. … The new knight should ride through the town and show himself to the people … thus acquiring still greater impetus to shun evil deeds.”
Noblesse oblige, the idea that noble status imposes obligations, was celebrated in tales of knightly valor, hospitality, and service, which were nightly fare in the dining halls of the ruling class.
Women and Love
Beginning in the 1100s, it was felt that young men needed more than training in warfare and statecraft, which they learned from the lord of the castle. From the lady of the castle, they needed also to receive religious and social education.
As part of his social education, the young knight learned to compose and sing poetry. The lady usually preferred lyric poetry, most often love lyrics.
Walther von der Vogelweide, a knight who lived in the years straddling 1200, wrote love lyrics emphasizing the nobility and Christian virtue of the lady. In one poem, he says,
But when a lady, chaste and fair,
Noble and clad in rich attire,
Walks through the throng with gracious air,
As sun that bids the stars retire,
Then where are all thy boastings,
O month of May?
What hast thou beautiful and gay
Compared with that supreme delight?
We leave thy loveliest flowers,
And watch that lady bright.
People in antiquity had seen marriage primarily as a convenience, in the 1100s and 1200s, romantic love between husband and wife became the norm. In a sense, romantic love was a medieval invention and in part, it arises out of knightly chivalry.
A Spiritual Calling
In the mid-1200s, King Louis IX of France (the famous Saint Louis), wrote a letter to his son Philip summarizing the spiritual standards of the medieval knight and ruler.
Louis begins by pointing to Philip’s relationship with God: “Fix your whole heart on God, and love him with your whole strength.… Shun everything which you believe is displeasing to him.… Should our Lord send you any prosperity … you ought to thank him humbly for it, and you ought to be careful that you are not the worse for it, either through pride or any other vice.… Pray to God with heart and lips alike.”
Louis then turns to the duties of rulers: “Have a heart full of loving-kindness for the poor.… Never oppress your people or burden them with taxes, except in an emergency.… Hold yourself steadfast and loyal toward your subjects.… If a poor man has a quarrel with a rich man, sustain the poor man rather than the rich until the truth is made clear, and, when the truth is made clear, do justice to both.…”
Louis concludes with the ultimate motivation: “I pray our Lord Jesus Christ, by his mercy … to guard and protect you from doing anything contrary to his will, and to give you the grace to do it always, so that he may be honored and served by you. And this may he do to me as to you, by his great bounty, so that after this mortal life we may be together with him in eternal life, and see him, love him, and praise him without end. Amen.”
Ideal and Reality
Medieval knights did not always behave in an exemplary Christian fashion. For example, the cult of romantic love often encouraged adultery, and one 1400s writer complained that knights set places on fire, robbed churches, and imprisoned priests.
But even the errant knight acknowledged how he should behave. One medieval story tells of a knight who had put away his wife and taken another woman. He demanded absolution from his pastor. He was sure his pastor would refuse; since the knight had no intention of taking back his wife, he approached the pastor with sword in hand.
The priest heard the knight’s request but could not agree to the absolution. He simply accepted his fate and said to the knight, “Strike!”
The knight was taken aback and, after some hesitation, retreated. He said, “I hate you too much to send you straight to heaven!”
For all his refusal to behave according to Christian standards, the knight at least knew what they were, and he believed in them.
John Sommerfeldt is professor of history at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. He is the author of "The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux" (Cistercian).
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.