Why Fourteenth Century Knights Had Good Reason To Be A Little Angsty

I just finished a long and complicated article on what J.P. would call ‘Boy History’. Not something I’m used to dealing with- now many of his classes have the assessment blocks broken up so that you have to write one ‘boy history’ essay (politics, warfare, technology, economics, maybe disease and medecine?) and one ‘girl history’ (religion, women, books/literature/art, daily life), but I happily sailed through three years writing my papers on the Church (although in my defence, for JP’s classes I picked the ‘boy’ end- papal polcies and ecclesiastical politics. Have I mentioned my ginormous crush on Innocent III?), literature and women. Now, however, I find myself embroiled in a long paper on the Infantry Revolution of the Fourteenth Century. Tactics and weapons and all far too late for my taste. Why, you ask? Well, good question.

The last two papers I read- David L. Boyd’s Sodomy, Misogyny and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight1 and Donald R. Howard’s Structure and Symmetry in Sir Gawain, both made mention of ‘social tensions’ which were undermining the economic and political validity of the chivalric class. I can’t remember what Howard said about it, but Boyd’s argument was that this was *displaced* in the form of transgressive sexuality (threatening male social order) and the blame placed on women.

winterlillies,medievalI don’t think that’s entirely true. I think Gawain is, in himself, a barely-hero (not an anti-hero, but still not up to heroic standards), and I have an arse-kicking grammatical analysis to prove it. He’s not a perfect hero and his personal flaws lead to his downfall. However, it is true that he’s systematically disempowered throughout the text- I think his flawed character is such as to encourage this- and it seems that this reflects some anxieties on the part of the knightly class whom he represents. What could they be, though? To this end, I ploughed my way through Technology, Society, and the Infantry Revolution of the Fourteenth Century, an article by John Stone.

What I have learnt so far is:

* That in the fourteenth century, as anyone who has seen Braveheart will remember, infantry start defeating cavalry across Europe. Apparently the first such battle was at Courtrai in 1302, when Flemish commons defeated French horsemen.
So Thing One is: if infantry start replacing cavalry as Awesome Troops of Doom, perhaps the class of mounted chevaliers start feeling out-of-control.

* That in the fourteenth century, contemporary with these changes, come social changes which result in greater political privileges for the commons. Stone takes issue with some deterministic military historians who argue that technological innovations in warfare *create* social change, and argues for a combination of factors. He points out that the Flemish commons who defeated the French were defending their rights, not establishing them. However, he notes that the English case is quite different to the Flemish. Where the Flemish urban population had been experiencing relative peace in which to grow wealthy and powerful onmedieval,Monty Python the back of their textile industry, in England, resources had been funneled consistently into the Hundred Years War. This was causing resentment (and possibly revolts? I seem to remember hearing somewhere along the line that there were some revolts around about now? Wycliffites?)
So Thing Two is the commons agitating for (and gaining) political power. Do we have a House of Commons in England by now? I’m terrible with late medieval history…

* That Europe was in a period of economic prosperity, something which had been developing since the twelfth century. Prosperity means surplus resources, which means you can set up commerce and industry, which creates a liquid, cash-based economy. New commercial opportunities also means new power bases- this is the period where guilds become powerful, and where towns start setting up as communes. I’m not sure to what degree this is happening in England- the history teacher who taught me about guilds and so forth had no respect for geographical differences. But it’s happening, and even if it’s not on a large scale at home, the English do know what goes on on the Continent.
So Thing Three is: a flourishing cash-based economy with new opportunities for commerce and power is undermining the land and produce based economy which supports the feudal system.

medieval,Monty Python,silly,FunnyAll up, the chivalric class, collectively, have good reason to be feeling insecure in the fourteenth century. Hero-tales like the Arthur legends are a sort of group reassurance activity; they glorify the chivalric ethos, and reinforce the identity and purpose of the knight in the face of contemporary changes. I think Gawain himself, as a barely-hero with no control over his impossible situation, reflects the anxieties of the time. The poem glorifies the material and social world of chivalry, but it is at the end of the day a poem about failure– about one man who failed his code; about a code which fails to equip its hero with the skills to face his new situation.


1. SUCH AN AWESOME PAPER ZOMG. Really. Queer theorists take things like medieval kink seriously. Boyd’s footnotes include a paper titled ‘Anal Rope’, which from the reference Boyd made to it, looks like it deals with the bondage jokes that none of my class believe are actually there. I don’t buy Boyd’s ‘chivalry is all based on repressed homosexuality’, though. Dude. Chivalry is based on LOTS of things, particularly on the feudal system. And the feudal system is an economic and political structure wot is necessary for things like keeping Vikings out of your territory. Time goes on, a system becomes an ideology and it picks up things like the chivalric code, which may or may not provide a way of chanelling mano-a-mano desires, but you don’t seriously think ALL homosocial activity is repressed homosexuality, do you? And I have a rant coming up about the way Boyd completely sidelines female sexuality.


11 Responses to “Why Fourteenth Century Knights Had Good Reason To Be A Little Angsty”

  1. Susan Kishner Says:

    Nice writing style. I will come back to read more posts from you.

    Susan Kishner

  2. Aven Says:

    I’m a classicist, so the 14th century is more than a millennium out of my time period, so forgive my uninformed comment — but I think the beginning of the 14th cent., at least in England, was in fact a time of several economic crises (a famine, I think, and maybe plague?). Not that this undermines your points at all, just something to add in. Also, weren’t there the Despenser wars, and all the issues with Edward II and his “favourites” (i.e. lovers) at the time? Which would presumably add something (though I have no idea what) to the issues of both loss of confidence in the chivalric code and the anxiety about the conflation of homosocial and homosexual bonds. (Not bondage, necessarily, though… 😉
    Sorry, totally clueless here, just putting in my devalued 2 cents…

  3. Nathaniel Says:

    This was causing resentment (and possibly revolts? I seem to remember hearing somewhere along the line that there were some revolts around about now? Wycliffites?)

    For one, you have the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

  4. kishnevi Says:

    Well, England started off the 14th century with Edward II, and ended it with Richard II, so it certainly had its share of revolting nobles. And the Peasants’ Revolt was under Richard II. Edward II was certainly a case of unrepressed homosexuality. Wyclif was in the 14th century, although the Lollards didn’t really revolt on their own. And the Model Parliament was in 1295, so technically at least the House of Commons was in existence, but really still just getting off the ground.
    History of the towns and urbanization is sort of cloudy in England–a lot of towns slipped under the radar of both the kings back then and the historians later on. But London was certainly important–it was the Lord Mayor who really put down the Peasants’ Revolt for Richard II.
    There was also the Black Death, of course. Beyond the fact that it killed the half the people, it made the working class people in both country and town more powerful–there was a whole series of laws afterwards to try to force them to take lower wages, etc. (Statute of Labourers is the most famous.)

  5. goblinpaladin Says:

    Aren’t the infantry which are defeating the chivalric knights mostly elite infantry? Famous regiments such as Swiss halberdiers and pikemen, English billmen, and veterans of the near-constant warfare in Italy? I might be thinking of later, but it’s hard for me to consider this evidence of general ‘people’s rights’ when it is still fairly elite, trained soldiery we are discussing here.

    A halberdman is easier to train than a knight, true, but it still requires more knowledge than ‘stand there and poke the metal dude on the horse.’

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    Nathaniel, Kishnevi, Aven: I *love you all*. THANK YOU. All these are things which we covered in terms of Peirs Ploughman and Chaucer last year, but I’d clean forgotten!

    Goblin- I think the point is not People’s Rights but Anyone But Knight’s Rights.

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