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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Jose Sanchez

Medieval Knights: The Age of Chivalry

Drexel Hill, PA: Andrea Press [Casemate Publishing], 2008. 152 pp. ISBN 978-8496527-89-8. $44.95.

Jose Sanchez Toledo’s Medieval Knights: The Age of Chivalry is an ambitious attempt to examine the lives, motivations, equipment, social status, and cultural milieu of medieval knights.  In only 134 pages, copiously laden with illustrations, he seeks to “take an in-depth look into the history and methodology of the Medieval knight, and provide the reader with a detailed study of this romantic age.”  Therein lies the primary danger for this text.  While Mr. Sanchez has an enthusiasm and love for the topic that shines clearly through the pages, the book as a whole is too ambitious, insufficiently analytical, and does not satisfy the scholarly reader.

Mr. Sanchez divides his book into a number of thematic chapters, all following a roughly chronological schema that introduces us to the topic through late Roman comitatenses armies, carries us through some difficult terrain as “Feudalism”, and finally deposits us next to Renaissance cannons and pikemen to be witnesses to the “death” of chivalry at the hands of evolving technology. 

The chapters are themselves of mixed quality.  Mr. Sanchez, who is himself an historical re-enactor, is clearly most comfortable discussing the nuts and bolts (occasionally literally) of the world of knights.  His chapters on weapons, armor, and war-horses are among the most valuable.  While they do not offer much by way of original research or analysis, they present the subject matter clearly and concisely.  These chapters are also bolstered by valuable artists’ renditions of the evolution of medieval equipment.  This gives the introductory reader easy access to general changes in medieval weapons and armor, though the heavy reliance on photographs of historical re-enactors to demonstrate historical events is worrying.

It is in the chapters devoted to society, culture, and settings that the limitations of the book become apparent.  I do not intend to criticize every chapter in the book, but I do want to highlight some of the more problematic aspects of a few selected chapters.  His chapters on Feudalism, Epic and Romantic poetry, the social origins of knighthood, and the historical settings of the period are most demonstrative of the analytical and narrative problems with the book. 

His chapter detailing the role played by “Feudalism” is a good example of the problems inherent throughout the book.  Mr. Sanchez does not seem to appreciate the problems and limitations inherent with the term “Feudalism”, tensions that have been debated within the scholarly community for over thirty years.  Instead he creates the impression that medieval society was run by a systematic and well-organized social construct of lords and vassals.  He does not raise issues of noble independence, nor concerns about the applicability of “Feudalism” to all parts of Europe at all times.  He also seems to equate mounted knights as being demonstrative of Feudalism, and that without one the other could not exist.

Mr. Sanchez makes an admirable effort at introducing the importance played by Epic and Romance poetry on knightly culture, but he fails to treat them with sufficient skepticism, and instead reads them as almost entirely descriptive texts of knightly behavior, or what knightly behavior “ought” to have been.  In his words, the world of the knight was “awash with infidels, merchants and villains” and the knights had to transcend this evil world with “honourable behavior, nobility and decorum.” (19) He does not raise the issues of authorial bias or prescription, favoring instead to argue that epic poetry sought to instill “the principles of protecting the weakest groups of society from potential abuses of power and injustice derived from the misuse of force.” (18) He continues by linking the ideological culture of medieval knighthood with (unnamed) Greek philosophers and the Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  He concludes by saying that “Those who were conferred with the Order of Knighthood, with its high moral significance, must surely have taken inspiration from these sources.” (19) Finally, Mr. Sanchez uses Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval, and the Prose Lancelot (which he wrongly attributes to Chretien) as exemplars of knightly behavior.  While they certainly were written to influence knightly behavior, they were but one voice in the argument over knightly behavior, rather than definitive statements as he presents them.  

Leaving aside the normative idea of an “Order of Knighthood”, this interpretation of the literary evidence is highly positivistic and anachronistic.  In his analysis, Epics were designed to moderate knightly violence and bend them to the will of their lords.  Furthermore, the new Romances were distinguished from Epics in their focus on generosity, frankness, compassion, and courtesy, and that these clearly were focused on ladies, rather than the older blood-and-guts style of the Epic.  While there is some truth to this interpretation, it artificially eliminates the continuing role played by violence and knightly prowess in Romance. 

He then writes, “The lust for power and riches, combined with the arrogance of those who considered themselves superior, occasioned some sad pages in the history of Knighthood.” (20) While Victorian gentlemen might have nodded in approval at Mr. Sanchez’s interpretation, the vast amount of literary evidence of the exultation of violence and knightly independence present in these texts belies his analysis. 

His chapter detailing the social origins of knights advances this theme of the romantic decline of knighthood.  He bemoans the practice of arming common soldiers as knights on the battlefield, though since he incorrect in his assertion that knights were the mounted soldiers on a medieval battlefield, this complaint is largely unnecessary.  He writes, “With the passage of time, the old values were perverted and the glorious old Order of Knighthood degenerated.” (26)  This goes hand-in-hand with his assertion that for a thousand years the heavy cavalry, composed entirely of knights, was an unstoppable battlefield force.  He completely ignores the groundbreaking work of Matthew Strickland, and others, who have shown the crucial importance played by infantry in medieval battles, including knights who fought on foot. 

The various national “summaries” contained in his chapter on the “Settings” are largely unhelpful.  They vary in quality, with the Scandinavian and Italian sections faring worst, the English, French and German sections being a bit better, and the Spanish section coming out the best.  In no case, however, is there a consistent narrative at work, nor an analytical framework.  It is, instead, generally a chronological list of rulers, usually with no more than a few sentences description of their impact on military affairs.  There is no attempt to contextualize these rulers, nor to craft an argument of larger themes regarding the development of their “nations”.  The section on the Crusades and Crusader states is written entirely from a positivistic European perspective.  He begins his section on the First Crusade with the exulting, headline-style sentence, “Jerusalem is taken!” (95) All subsequent crusades are dealt with according to the over-arching meme that they were merely “support expeditions to delay the inevitable loss of the Holy Sites.” (96) This is highly anachronistic and ignores amounts of evidence regarding the social, cultural, religious, and economic motivations for “crusading”. 

Mr. Sanchez’s book suffers from a very outdated and positivist conception about what a medieval “knight” was, or perhaps more importantly, what he “ought” to have been.  He portrays the medieval knight as an inherently servile and subordinate figure, existing only to gain the favor of his king or queen.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his chapter on tournaments, in which he argues that the overarching purpose of tourneying was to gain the favor of courtly ladies.  At no point does he treat knights as independent agents, nor does he consider the importance of the views of other knights.  He almost considers this when he discusses the fact that knights loved hunting and falconry, since the falcon was a lone hunter, and was seen as the ruler of the avian kingdom.  He does not, however, follow the logic of this to craft a more compelling or accurate portrayal of medieval knights.  His narrative approach is unmoored from firm analytical groundings, and thus is superficial, highly selective, and unpersuasive. 

Ultimately, this project was too ambitious for what it ended up being.  As the bibliography demonstrates, the author relied almost entirely on very general studies of the period, and would be well served by reading works by Marcus Bull, Helen Nicholson, Richard Kaeuper, Maurice Keen, and David Crouch, among others.  Mr. Sanchez would have been better suited to writing a more focused book on the material aspects of knighthood, a topic for which he is seemingly well-qualified and for which his expertise would more than likely lead to a valuable contribution in popular history.

Craig M. Nakashian

University of Rochester <ferg@mapinternet.com>

Page Added: April 2009