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A review of “Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe” by Richard Kaeuper

Kaeuper, Richard W. Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, Oxford: NY, 1999. 

Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe was written in 1999 by scholar Richard Kaeuper.  What follows is a review of the book and its contributions to the thought regarding chivalry in society and chivalry’s place in violence.  While chivalry had long been a source of study for late medievalists (11th-13th centuries), our understanding has evolved a great deal from the conception of early historians—Kaeuper plays a significant role in this evolution.

Kaeuper’s book treats chivalry as an inherently violent facet of the culture.  This runs counter to the notion that the romanticized ideal was a means to civilize and restrict the violence of the era.  His concern is with the social and political dynamics, in which chivalry played an ambivalent role, now as a protagonist for order or the Church, now as an antagonist playing havoc in society.  He is searching for the complex ideals and practices of the knights themselves in the face Church or royal controls.  One thing the book does not seek to do is provide a systematic social development and evolution of the idea of chivalry—or for that matter violence and reform.  To this end, Kaeuper creates a triangular relationship of the clergie (clergy), chevalerie (knights), and royaute (royalty), which becomes the order for the opening of his book.

Chivalry and Violence is divided into four parts: Part One discusses the author’s concerns and approaches, laying out the justification for his methodology and sources.  This is a convincing approach focusing on a combination of chivalric literature, clerical admonishments or praises and legal documents to develop the social and political relationships he is seeking surrounding knightly conduct and independence in emerging societies and social orders.  Parts Two and Three focus on the clergie and royaute, the two social checks on knightly exploits and ambitions, which alternately support or repress the knightly play of chivalry.  The clergie expresses frustration with chivalry because of knightly vanity and pride, no less than loss of life and unchecked violence against fellow Christians.  At the same time, it is itself powerless to enforce its laws regarding violence.  Meanwhile the royaute, is seeking to gain the monopoly on violence within its realm, and is increasingly intolerant (especially in Capetian France) of violent behavior outside of its courts or consent.  Part IV is designed as a thematic discourse on certain issues of concern, especially to a modern reader, looking at high medieval society.  In other words, he is seeking answers to his questions about chivalry’s effect on society and its place therein.  These themes include the following: the importance and ambivalent effect of the idea of prowess (ch. 7); the central role of and behavior in war and violence for a knight’s ideals (ch.8); the social dominance of knights in society (ch. 9); issues of gender and treatment of fellow men and of women (ch.10); popular literature and its influence with reforms (chs. 11-12); chivalric self-criticism and reform (ch.13).

Kaeuper’s sources are first and foremost the popular literature of romantic chivalry.  His own analysis of this type includes an acknowledgment that popular fiction represents both a mirror and a catalyst, capable of demonstrating a knight’s desire for independence from authorities to pursue his own ideals and his own sense of piety, but nonetheless representing unattainable ideals that are perhaps limited to the written word as opposed to deeds.  His use of clerical writings include those which decry violent behavior and the trappings of chivalry as well as those biographies of exemplary knights and leaders, which spell out (sometimes seemingly in contradiction) the ideals of the Church regarding licit and illicit violence.  He also makes use of chronicles and the growing mass of legal documentation of these growing states and their court and appeal systems, which define the position of the royaute.

This approach to the sources was to try to determine the knight’s ideas of chivalry as compared to Church’s ideas of reform and the monarchies’ building monopolies on control.  His use of the romantic chivalric stories is both curious and sensible.  They are curious on the one hand because they are fictitious representations of knighthood and society; fantasies, in fact.  On the other hand, it can be demonstrated that the knights read them or listened to them (31) and furthermore their influence on non-fiction works demonstrates that the ideals were mainstream (31-32).  Kaeuper makes a case that while the literature demonstrates tendencies to social criticism and reform and that the genre itself seems to point to a goal of ordered society, it also continues the glorification of violence.  This seems to create a struggle between the knight and society: can his judgments in contributing to social order and peace be reliable.


Kaeuper writes a book that is thematically organized according to his pursuits, which is not inherently problematic, though it does produce some byproducts that may frustrate the reader.  The first of these is that the reader will find it difficult to follow the chronology of the ideas.  Something such as a timeline of his primary sources would greatly help the reader trace the greater contexts for his narrowed pursuit of social concerns.  The second difficulty is the geography of his discussions.  The majority of his popular literature is French and there is only a smaller amount of English literature in his section on the Plantagenets—arguably still French.  He does not address whether this literature is unique to Capetian France and Anglo-Norman England or if it has been found in translation in other languages and regions.  Had he defined his search as limited to that type of chivalry exemplified in Capetian France and Anglo-Norman England from the start it would be less confusing and not leave the reader wondering about the chivalric traditions from the rest of Europe.

When discussing the role of the clergy, Kaeuper brings up both the Peace and Truce of God movements and the Gregorian Reform, both of which seem to precede chivalric ideals significantly by his own reckoning.  There is less discussion of the papal role in ideas of violence that coincides with chivalry in its prime, i.e. the Crusades.  This is somewhat odd given that the evolution of crusade theology is certainly the starting point for the most advanced Church theology on licit violence and coercion at the time.  Where, for example, does it fit in the violent movements against heretics?  If he discusses 11th century Gregory VII, where is 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux—the man who condemned the vanity of the knights even as he helped establish the military orders—a perfect and prolific man for discussions on the seeming contradictions of the clergy?

This study does not account for the influence of chivalry on the clergy or ideas of licit violence other than to observe growing laxity on some of the trappings of knighthood (i.e. tournaments).  This is perhaps beyond the scope of the book, but in setting up his triangular relationship ones expects a certain movement back and forth along the lines. Any struggle between the clergie and royaute is likewise absent.

Regarding his goal of pursuing the social and political dimensions of chivalry and violence, Kaeuper is mostly successful.  He explains the world of the knight, from his ideas of salvation and violence to his expectations, both romantic and realistic, and his chafing under outside restrictions.  Kaeuper gives an excellent summary of royal and religious reactions to the knight’s behavior and ideals.  Finally, Kaeuper considers the aspects of chivalry in the knight’s society in Part IV.  He does a masterful job, here, of including the social concerns of a modern audience without coloring his research in the shades of modern values, specifically pointing out at times that there is no need to pass judgment given the different values of the age he is studying.

I stand firm, however, that he sets up an expectation of relationships that he does not entirely fulfill.  Knights and their chivalry surely had a greater impact on both clergie and royaute than he describes, eliciting something beyond merely the reactionary, especially given the fact that both the clergie and royaute were individuals coming out of the knightly class themselves—a point he does not fail to make.  The expectation is made (see p. 36, and including the rest of the section under the heading “The Framework of Institutions and Ideas”) that the reader will learn about the intellectual commerce trading between all three points of the triangle—clergie, chevalerie, and royaute—regarding violence and chivalry; instead, Kaeuper sets up an arrow of reactions from the clergie and royaute pointing to the chevalerie and its social concepts.

In his prologue, Kaeuper places his work in contrast to scholars who take the view of the romantic, seeing chivalry as a restraining hand in establishing peace and order in emergent civilizations.  Chivalry is instead, for Kaeuper, that ambivalent source which can damage the development of peaceful societies as much as it might contribute.  I, for one, find his placement in the historiography of violence and the Church as the more compelling contribution.  Despite lacking certain developments I would prefer to see made along these lines, this study is valuable given its focus on lay ideals of violence and both the responses of the Church and monarchies.  This book provides a very useful starting point in treating the perceptions of licit violence and violence in general by the laity which contribute usefully to the following discussions: crusader behavior, popular responses to the crusade, Church foundations of licit violence, crusader theology and the military orders.  Crusade studies will benefit from a greater consideration of this evolved notion of chivalry and its ripples in society.

NOTE: Kaueper recently wrote a follow-up book: Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (The Middle Ages Series). This book addresses many of the holes I noticed in the first volume, including the crusades.


Filed under Historian's Journal, Reviews