Chivalry in medieval France

The code of chivalry and chivalric literature in medieval France

Chilvalry was big in the high Middle Ages of the 9th century, and no one did chivalry better than the French.

There were long lists of rules knights or aspiring ones had to follow, from rules of battle to rules of love. Much of this chivalric code of conduct mutated into the gentlemen's ettiquette of the 18th and 19th centuries (we'll see in a few minutes how etiquette can be a powerful tool indeed in the hands of King Louis VIX), and is still the basis for the conventions of politeness we observe today.

Now I said chivlaric literature was basically the modern romance novel, but with one major difference. Sex. In Chivalry there were three types of love: 

  • Marriage—which you engaged in for convenince and business purposes—though it was hoped you and the missus got along well.
  • Chivalric love—the highest form of love, in which you did everything in the name of and for the honor of your lady fair, carried a token or favor of her's (usually an handkerchief) into battle, stayed chaste for your lady (yeah, right), never married for money (yeah, right), and never, ever touched her except to kiss her hand (yeah, right). This was because "your lady" was often as not a noblewoman and married to a nobleman. At the end of a medieval chivalry adventure, the hero did not, usually, get the girl (the major exception would be Sir Lancelot du Lac—tellingly, the only Frenchman with a seat on King Arthur's Round Table—who was Queen Guinevere's champion and fought in her name...and one day carried off the queen herself to his castle in France, which pissed the ageing King Arthur no end and he set off with his other Round Tablians to hunt the lovers down [actually, this scenario of the handsome young champion running off with the elderly hero-king's young wife has been woven into the myths of every great Celtic hero, from the 8th century BC Ulsterian Cuchullain to the 4th century BC Irishman Fionn MacCumhail to this 1st century AD Arthur]). As chivlary wore on and got more complex, though, it bgean to apply to even regular male-female relationships—in other words, noblemen were expected to be chivalrous toward their own finacees and to women in general, not just to their Lord's lady (in early medieval times, the lady you served above all others was the Virgin Mary).
  • Sex—this was never discussed and (officially) never desired (though in the age of the Black Death, perhaps avoiding intimate contact was a good thing to encourage).

The Chanson de Roland wasn't the only famous piece of chivalric literature.

Another was Morte d'Artur, the Breton version of the story of the mythical King Athur. In fact, it was the medeival descendants of the French Celts in Brittany who added Sir Lancelot du Lac to the tale—though his tragic character appears in earlier Cletic Myths as Dairmot, the young handsome knight who falls hopelessly in love with and runs off with the young wife of the now elderly king-hero—whether his name is Chuchullain, Fionn MacCumhall, or Arthur—who pursues them and kills him in a fit of vengeful rage.

At any rate, the death of the age chivalric literature was delivered by a lanky Spanish nobelman from La Mancha whose heart was in the right place but whose brain was on the fritz. His name: Don Quixote.

When Cervantes published his tale of an addled would-be knight titling at windmills in the Spanish countryside in 1605, his story was spoofing of all those (by then) vapid tales of chivalry.

Cervantes broke convention by presenting the adventure not as a formulaic plot of suspended disbelief, but as a realistic, plot– and character-driven observation of one man's deranged life and exploits. By playing off the conventions of chilvaric literature, Cervantes had created a new genre of literature: the novel.