(Central European University Press, 2017) 468 pp. $70
In the past two decades, scholars of chivalry have placed the study of imaginative literature (e.g., romances, chanson de geste, and epics) at the heart of their efforts to better understand the mindset of medieval knights. The line between prescriptive and descriptive literature, however, is often difficult to discern since centuries separate us from the authors of these sources. This gray area has caused modern interpretations to vary widely, fueling debates about chivalry among historians. Scholars such as Richard Kaeuper and Craig Taylor, for instance, have demonstrated the pervasiveness of chivalric violence in medieval society; David Crouch and Jesús Rodríguez-Velasco, among others, have used similar sets of sources yet follow in the intellectual footsteps of Georges Duby and Jean Flori by arguing that medieval knights constituted a civilizing force in elite European society. Martin Aurell continues the discussion and positions himself alongside the latter group with his 2011 La chevalier lettré which has recently been translated into English and published by Central European University Press as The Lettered Knight. He argues in this book that high literacy rates among medieval knights exposed them to the social reforming efforts of medieval clerics and thus ended the violence endemic to early chivalric culture. Regardless of whether his sources are prescriptive or descriptive, though, Aurell provides both important insight into elite education as well as further vindication for the need to study literature since it was written for, and in some cases by, knights themselves.
Aurell establishes the process of education for elite males in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in part one. While not the first to trace this process, his work offers a scope beyond Michael Clanchy’s England in From Memory to Written Record.  He begins, in chapter one, by exploring how mothers, private tutors, and schools, in that order, equipped boys with the ability to read and write in both Latin and the vernacular. (This chapter is particularly useful for scholars of the Italian Peninsula due to an extended discourse on schools in Northern and Southern Italy). Some younger sons intended for a life in the cloister, Aurell writes, received an advanced education before leaving to take up a life of arms. These knights, few in number but grasping a strong command of Latin, proved useful to various princedoms on account of their diplomatic aptitude. They composed literature, too, and so Aurell explores Latin works penned by Anglo-Norman and Italian knights in chapter two. Aurell, like medieval clerics (a generalization preferred by the author), assumes that most knights were semi-literate, spending more time training for combat than studying. The point remains, however, that these “semi-literate” courtiers, armed with a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, helped grease the cogs of emerging royal bureaucracies and, more importantly for the purposes of this book, could read clerical texts (defined here as romance penned by clerics as well as clerical social commentary).
In part two, Aurell examines the creation and dissemination of the imaginative chivalric literature so crucial to much of the current scholarship on knighthood. Emphasizing that performance mattered as much as the written text for these tales, in chapter three Aurell masterfully analyzes the physical spaces within castles in which the listening experience unfolded. That various rooms in the castle could be, and indeed often were, manipulated for the purpose of listening to literature and enhancing the listening experience. In chapter four, Aurell turns his attention from audience to creator, carefully studying vernacular works composed by Northern French and German knights. Aurell asserts that songs were the most often composed and the most readily debated of genres due to their brevity in comparison to romances and epics. Also rising in popularity during this period was the “knight memoir genre” made popular by the crusades and including Geoffroi de Villehardouin’s Conquest of Constantinople, Philip of Novara’s Assises of Jerusalem, and Jean de Joinville’s Life of Saint Louis. Aurell looks beyond all military themes in these memoirs to showcase the knight as author as well as glimpse knightly piety (the focus of chapter nine). In chapter five, he addresses the education and presence of learned women in elite medieval society. Like their brothers, girls received the earliest portions of their education in the home, a foundation later supplemented by the efforts of schoolmasters or nuns. Evidence from contemporary literature, psalters, and letters leads Aurell to suggest that this education steered women to desire a wider religious understanding and knowledge which they in turn used to challenge themes in chivalric literature (226). This survey of chivalric literature and its contexts leads Aurell to two important points: first, that knights and noble women in the Middle Ages were able to use their education as a way to distinguish themselves from those lower on the social ladder; and, second, that knights – led in example by their wives, sisters, and mothers – used their learning to advance and deepen their understanding of the Christian faith.
If Aurell relies on sources of both clerical and knightly origin in parts one and two, in part three, “Clerical Instruction and Civilizing Knightly Mores,” he focuses entirely on texts written by clerics who aimed at reforming and, indeed, civilizing the chivalric elite, reminiscent of (but not dependent on) Léon Gautier’s claims in his 1884 classic, La Chevalerie. In chapter six, Aurell provides copious examples of clerics condemning knightly violence. Clerics first denounced and later tried to redirect, and indeed codify, knightly violence through chronicles of, and sermons preaching, the crusades. If we are to entertain that they did indeed acquire the requisite control of knightly violence, Aurell writes, clerics then advanced to a process of civilizing the elite class, the focus of chapter seven. Concerned authors during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries also composed guidebooks on topics ranging from proper table manners to appropriate dress, though often in an effort to control violence. Clerics even went as far as to advise knights in their love life, such as when Daniel of Beccles suggested that husbands calm themselves by looking at the ceiling while younger knights were flirting with their wives. Due to the evidence from the writing of Daniel, then, Aurell maintains in chapter eight that clerics helped the chivalric elite develop self-control around women by convincing women that self-control was attractive and thus limiting the deeds of prowess (i.e., violence) celebrated in chivalric literature for impressing women (349).
Aurell outlines one other example in the effort to reform knights in his closing chapter, in which he explains the decline of knights joining monasteries in the thirteenth century as an evolution in knightly perceptions of and interactions with Christianity. Aurell posits that along with the increasing civility of knights came an increased devotion to the Virgin Mary, who alone of all other saints, it was believed, could intercede on their behalf and offer them salvation. Yet knights could not solicit the Virgin directly. Aurell positions himself against Richard Kaeuper’s description of knightly religious independence in his book Holy Warriors – that is, the argument that suffering in war was central to knightly piety because it offset the sins of their profession so reliant upon killing – and states that “in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most Christian warriors had to abide by the motto ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’” (381). Relying upon clerical treatises and guidebooks aimed at knights, then, Aurell argues that clerics controlled chivalric piety and, as a result, their violence.
The Lettered Knight fits into the current debate on chivalry with Aurell arguing that knights, influenced by clerics, were a civilizing force in medieval society by the fourteenth century. I hope, though, that Aurell returns to his study of imaginative chivalric literature, which he leaves off abruptly after chapter four, in future studies. Also, while the volume itself is beautifully produced by Central European University Press, chapter eight bears the running head of chapter seven and can frustrate a reader wishing to locate that section quickly. Yet these are minor quibbles and Aurell importantly reminds us that all medieval sources are worth considering in debates concerning chivalry. Despite the importance of the evidence provided by Aurell on the education of knights, however, his study has gone conspicuously unnoticed in recent Anglophone scholarship. Hopefully CEU Press’ edition, with Jean-Charles Khalifa and Jeremy Price providing an excellent and faithful rendering of the original French, will bring the book the attention it deserves as well as provide much-needed accessibility to undergraduates and non-specialists.
J. Tucker Million
University of Rochester
- Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 3rd ed. (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
- Léon Gautier, La Chevalerie (Paris: Librairies-Imprimeries Réunies, 1884).
- Richard W Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).