University of Rochester

Dark Side of Chivalry Explored in New Book

November 9, 1999

Chivalry---like "The Force" of the popular Star Wars films---has a dark side: Medieval codes of honor suggest images of gallant knights defending the weak and innocent that conflict with the extravagant praise of the actual violence used to maintain those codes.

Richard Kaeuper, professor of history at the University of Rochester, noted the contradiction as he read and analyzed close to 20,000 pages of chivalric literature over the past decade. Medieval writers glorified and justified gruesome, bloody killing---depending on the cause and the combatant.

In his new book, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Clarendon Press, Oxford), Kaeuper examines northwestern Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries, describing a complex and evolving society that needed a system of keeping order. Alongside Kingship and the Church, chivalry in theory established that order, he notes, but it was an aristocratic code of honor that legitimized violence in certain circumstances, including defense of the touchy honor of the knights.

As examples, Kaeuper notes that the upper classes of the feudal hierarchy had the right to use violence when insulted; knights believed the only way to restore their honor was through physical violence. The Church and emerging State wanted to contain and direct violence, but urged knights to use all means possible to reclaim the Holy Lands from the Moslems during the Crusades and to smite the King's enemies. Kings were increasingly less happy with violence within their realms.

"So many people have a piece of the action; this is 'privatized violence,' " Kaeuper suggests.

Still, the Middle Ages can't be viewed simply as either the "dark ages" or as a romanticized time of courtly manners. "Medieval society is neither," says Kaeuper. "It's a developing society confronting violence in an age of tremendous growth," reflected in literature that realistically describes the circumstances of the time while stating how things should be.

Kaeuper hosted an international conference on violence in medieval society at the University in 1998. He is currently R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Fellow at the Huntington Library in California, where he is studying how knights used religion in forming their codes of conduct.