What was the relationship between masculinity and chivalry in medieval society?
The figure of the knight or chevalier dominates the image of the medieval world. Arthurian Romance and troubadour lyrics tell stories of heroes, damsels in distress and lavish courts filled with women of beauty and men of honour. Looking at chivalry in such a romanticized way results in viewing it as being a purely positive force in society that helped to create order and shape a group of potentially barbaric and violent men into cultured and valorous knights who used their swords to protect women and God alike. However when looking closer it becomes clear that such a reading is untenable. Even within chivalric literature there are contradictions and the heroes’ ideas of right and wrong are juxtaposed to reveal a complex and fluid ideology. This complexity is furthered when one starts to think about the men in the story and what makes them men. The notion of masculinity in the medieval world was surprisingly as complicated as it is today and there is danger in assuming that masculinity can be discussed as a singular concept. It is better to think of the term masculinities and view each section of society as having its own set of rules and values which helped to create how men should act. Chivalry was one of these set of ideals that helped to create one kind of masculinity within society for a particular group of men. The relationship between chivalry and the masculinity it created though was not black and white. I want to understand how chivalry helped to shape masculinity and create warriors? What this kind of masculinity looked like? And if chivalry did actually create anything that resembled the romantic ideal Knight.
I will begin by first looking at the notion of chivalry and what the term fully means, before moving on to looking at how these ideals played out in the life of a Knight. I will be using the text traditionally known as L’ Histoire de Guillume le Marechal or the History of William Marshall (2002) edited by A.J. Holden to find evidence for how chivalry was enacted and helped to shape men. William Marshall played a crucial role in the creation of the Angevin Empire and is recognised as being the epitome of the knightly ideal and the text therefore is of great value in its representation of chivalry. Although it should be noted that when discussing passages from the poem it must be recognised that the work was created to bolster William Marshall’s reputation and fame and many of the events have been altered to present the hero’s actions in the most favourable light. In line with this, the purpose of the poem was to celebrate William Marshall, not just recount his deeds, therefore the narrative is constrained by the conventions and troupes of contemporary literary fiction and this takes precedent over historical accuracy. Furthermore the work was written 40 years after the Marshall’s death which again results in one having to view its histori...