Miniature, above, of Arthur and Guinevere presiding at a feast and, to the left, Arthur in conversation with his barons while, behind him, Guinevere and Lancelot share a private word; in the margin below, two knights are locked in a duel and a group of monkeys attends school; from the Prose Lancelot, France, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 D. iv, f. 1r; the large miniature was added in England (Pleshey castle), c. 1360-c. 1380.
'Chivalry', derived from the French cheval ('horse') and chevalier
('horseman' or 'knight'), means literally 'knightliness', a quality that, in
the Middle Ages, could be variously defined in different regions and at
different times: nobility of soul, adherence to a certain code of conduct, or
even straightforward military strength.
Nowadays, 'chivalry' is usually used to describe a specific kind of
interaction between the sexes, a transferral from a particular type of medieval
knightliness, the stylized code we now refer to as 'courtly love'. The medieval term was fin' amors, 'refined love', and it was primarily a literary
construct, dictating the interactions between men and women in one of the
Middle Ages' most enduring genres, the romance.
Detail of a miniature of King Uther Pendragon (left) conversing with Merlin, while, in the background, Igraine looks on from her castle; from Peter Langtoft, Chronicle of England, England, c. 1307-c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A. ii, f. 3v.
romance is most familiar from stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, where
questing knights rescued damsels from towers, competing for their favour. In the earliest Arthurian tales, however, the
tone is more history than high romance, and the relationship between men and
women far from 'refined'. Arthur himself
was conceived when King Uther Pendragon fell in love with the beautiful – and
married – Duchess Igraine at a party.
Far from doing her courtly service and winning her love, however, Uther
besieged her husband's castle and killed him in battle, then seduced the
unwitting widow (as yet unaware of her husband's death) by having Merlin cast a
spell disguising Uther as the late duke.
A rough and ready strategy – no word on whether, after they were married,
Uther held open any doors for her.
Detail of a miniature of lovers, including a friar and a monk as well as laymen, pierced through the heart by the arrows of love; from Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-c. 1340, Royal MS 19. B. xiii, f. 4r.
tone of the Arthurian subject-matter was transformed by the introduction and
development of a set of literary conventions, the classic fin' amors. Troubadours did
poetic service to their beloveds, dedicating love songs to aristocratic
patronesses, just as a knight offered homage and military service to his feudal
lord. Beauty of face and form was, at
the time, considered a reflection of inner
beauty, and nobility of soul was thought the natural birthright of those of
noble rank. The beauty of a woman struck
the lover like an arrow, sometimes described as piercing the heart by way of
the eyes: love at first sight. Once wounded, the heart of the lover would
burn with desire, longing to be quenched by the mercy of the beloved's
Miniatures of (in the initial) a poet-lover presenting verses to his lady and (in the right margin) a lover's heart, burning on a fire and being quenched with rain; from a collection of 49 love sonnets, Italy (probably Milan), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, King's MS 322, f. 1r.
Love could also be elevating, inspiring a lover to the
achievement of great feats of martial strength and skill. When a knight excelled in a tournament, it
was evident that the worth – and thus beauty – of his inspiration must be great
indeed, and the beauty of a lady could be judged by her champion's success. Guinevere must have been very beautiful
indeed – in one gently parodic story, Lancelot fought an opponent while facing
backward, the better to keep in view Guinevere, who watched the battle from a
tower behind him. In the end he won by manoeuvring
his enemy between himself and the queen so he could see both of them at once – his own strength a testament to the
strength of his love.
A tournament between knights (including Tristan, labelled with a 'Ti'), watched from a gallery by an audience of interested ladies; from the Prose Roman de Tristan, Italy (Genoa), last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4389, f. 29r.