Knighthood in Medieyal Literature edited by W. H. Jackson (D. S. Brewer £9.50)
KNIGHTHOOD is an odd institution. It descends from Lancelot and Galahad to Robin Day and Harold Wilson, neither of whom would look right jousting in a tournament. It is even odder to find that knighthood, with chivalry, is studied at universities. (Above all the University of St Andrews, where three of the six contributors to this book are employed.)
The writers in this book take medieval knighthood very seriously indeed. Their essays trace it from its brutal origins about the year 1000 on the European continent when it was a means of providing professional fighting men, to its waning as depicted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory, where modern writers so readily detect the use of irony.
Between these two dates knighthood had been spectacularly Christianised. Roland fighting the Saracens at Roncesvalles and King Arthur's Knights in quest of the Grail are only two of the most famous examples of this transformation, but it extended to all sorts of narrative in many countries, from Provence to Scotland. Its
influence on life, or at least the life of a privileged elite, was likewise immense, as the career of the Black Prince reminds us.
Of course, the ideal of perfect knighthood was too much for most knights to attain. English schoolchildren learn, or used to learn, how the Black Prince won his spurs at the battle of Crecy: French schoolchildren learn how he massacred every man, woman and child at Limoges.
Even Sir Thomas Malory of the Morte Darthur seems to have lived a life different from the chivalrous one idealised in his great work. In one of the more accessible studies in this book he is described as a rapist, churchrobber. extortioner, and wouldbe murderer. The records on which this picture is based have long puzzled historians, who have sometimes argued for two Sir Thomas Malory's living at the same time, one being a writer, the other a gangster; but the puzzle remains.
Medieval knighthood, fictional and real, still provides abundant material for argument and speculation to which we are guided (in half a dozen languages) in the references of this formidably erudite little volume. The clercs who have compressed learning European in scale into just over a hundred pages are to be congratulated on their achievement.