Reader’s Recommendation: Chivalry, by Maurice Keen
There is nothing quite like reading the pleasure of a concise classic. As one feels appreciating the size of The Book of Five Rings or Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, it’s brilliant to read a work that’s so intelligently written, it has respect for the content and your time. Chivalry is absolutely packed, with source material, period appropriate historic artwork, and a straightforward structure for what is after all an eminently practical concept of conduct.
Chivalry endures as a prevailing concept due to application and romantic idealism, and this book appeals to the history audience looking for context and detail. An issue -if you want to call it that- with many texts of knights is either at the end of the day dryly reciting events speeding through the Middle Ages, forts and armour; or include many modern commentaries criticising the notion of chivalry, or blindly focusing on it being romantically obsessed, or simply a means for martial superiority. Maurice Keen’s approach to the subject is precisely what a reader is looking for, learning about the rise of critical factors such as the tournament, the mythology which inspired imitation of concepts like noblesse oblige, and nearer the end how this translated into specific vows and application in wartime.
I have read a fascinating discourse on the evolution of chivalry, and when studying such a thorny word, much like ‘honour’, a revelation for me is much of our difficulty with modern conceptualisation and understanding stems from the altering form of chivalric honour across multiple time periods and separate continents. The automatic assumption that chivalry translates primarily as courtesy to ladies if anything is part of Victorian chivalry, American chivalry, and what we understand as etiquette semantically overrode the notion of chivalric conduct which causes most of the confusion today. But if you want a straightforward, what they were talking about in Camelot or Charlemagne’s court, this is the novel covering the classic root of the term.
Keen expands coverage of the chivalric era evenly across critical aspects of the chivalrous knight and how he made his living or was called to do, so there is time given to the connection of church and crusade, and attention to the knighting ceremony which personally I’ve found quite hard to find solid reading material on.
This book has the quality of what I call academic humility, as can very clearly be read in Keen’s Acknowledgements. Far from being a stolid or authoritative text by a distant or prideful person, one gets the impression your eccentric and down to earth teacher wrote a book, and I’ve always found the best things are written with love and diligence that inspires both readers and writers.
The paperback was a good decision I think. Compact, richly coloured cover, and inside it possesses that small font in academic texts I’ve always liked; the sort of thing you see in books of a play like The Complete Plays of Marlowe. The illustrations within placed evenly throughout the book are predominantly medieval art of the time, jousting imagery like that of the front cover, but also stonework photographs of certain tombs and statues. The notes and index sections at the end are meticulous and lengthy for the interested party, and further cement Keen’s very careful writing process.
From beginning to end the clarity of the book is by far its most engaging point, for example the primary sources of clergy and knightly chivalric manuals fairly and with humour pointed out to contain an “axe to grind”, accounting for the chain of being and essence of idealism or societal critique which pervaded the day, something recognisable in our own age rife with new treatises and discourses on traditionalism and postmodernism.
In piecing together a book about a way of life, Keen weaves between historical hindsight, art, quotation, vital events and ritual observances to bring the ebb and flow of the chivalric life in these particular places. Authors, bards, historians and those heroes considered to have lived in that coveted and precious definition of the chevalier are all covered very well, in a well placed text seeking to purely provide the heart of the matter with as much referencing and direct sourcing as possible. “The world of reality” is what makes this book so appealing, the term Keen uses to refer to the Ordene de Chivalerie, and precisely what makes this book so enjoyable as a distillation of centuries of knowledge.
I have alluded to information about chivalry and honour which I’ve put in the references; not relevant to the book itself as required reading, but if you are interested in further reading: from an American perspective the ‘Manly Honor’ series is a fascinating journey from multiple eras and often discusses both prowess essential to the warrior figure, and the ‘noble’ calling intrinsic to chivalrous figures, and I’ve also included the link to a video exploring the concept of the knighting ceremony, for me at least this provided a lot of information and references where I’d struggled to find paper copies of classic chivalric texts of the time period.
– Keen, M. Chivalry. Yale University Press, London. 2005
– Marlowe, C. The Complete Plays. Penguin Books, London. 2003.
– McKay, B. ‘Manly Honor: Part 1 – What is Honor?’ Available at: https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/manly-honor-part-i-what-is-honor/ [Accessed 2/11/22]
– Shadiversity: ‘Medieval Misconceptions: THE KNIGHTING CEREMONY’. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4UMFdWrtVk [Accessed 2/11/22]