War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal

War and Chivalry in the History of William the Marshal

By John Gillingham

Thirteenth Century EnglandĀ v.2 (1988)

William Marshal at a joust unhorses Baldwin Guisnes. From the Historia Major of Matthew Paris, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library, vol 2, p. 85.

Ever since the History of William the Marshal was discovered in the late nineteenth century it has been universally recognized as a document of the very greatest importance: the earliest vernacular life of a layman in European history. In Antonia Granden’s words, ‘just as Jocelin of Brakelond gives a unique account of the life in the cloister’, so the History offers ‘a unique picture of the chivalric society’. Thanks to the work of Paul Meyer, Sidney Painter, Jessie Crosland and now Georges Duby, there can be little doubt that, leaving aside kings and clerics, William the Marshal is better known than any other figure of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Yet, despite its fame, the History remains in some ways a curiously neglected source. This is because historians have come to the History knowing that they were looking for and confident that they would find it. For Painter it was the portrait of a ‘typical feudal baron’, the knight-errant who after years on the tournament-circuit finally settled down with his heiress wife to the life of the great landowner and, ultimately, elder statesman. For Crosland it offered a literary atmosphere reminiscent of the chansons de geste, ‘when physical courage and loyalty were the two qualities most to be admired in a knight, and romantic adventure and the cult of the woman had no place. For Duby it provided welcome confirmation of his views on the patterns of inheritance and marriage, and on the role of the juvenes in the shaping of aristocratic society. In Duby’s case, indeed, there is one occasion when, on reading the History and not finding what he expected to find, he simply invented.

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