The Lettered Knight: Knowledge and Aristocratic Behaviour in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

The Lettered Knight: Knowledge and Aristocratic Behaviour in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

The Lettered Knight: Knowledge and Aristocratic Behaviour in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

The Lettered Knight: Knowledge and Aristocratic Behaviour in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Synopsis

An encounter between a warring knight and the world of learning could seem a paradox. It is nonetheless related with the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, an essential intellectual movement for western history. Knights not only fought in battles, but also moved in sophisticated courts. Knights were interested in Latin classics, and reading and writing poetry. Supportive of “jongleurs” and minstrels, they enjoyed literary conversations with clerics who would attempt to reform their behaviour, which was often brutal. These lettered warriors, while improving their culture, learned to repress their own violence and were initiated to courtesy: selective language, measured gestures, elegance in dress, and manners at the table. Their association with women, who were often learned, became more gallant. A revolution of thought occurred among lay elites who, in contact with clergy, began to use their weapons for common welfare. This new conduct was a tangible sign of Medievalist society’s leap forward towards modernity. This monograph contains a great deal of detailed information about the attitudes towards learning and written culture among members of the nobility in different parts of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Excerpt

In 1279, John de Warenne (d. 1304), earl of Surrey, was summoned by the judges of Edward I. in accordance with the terms of the royal ordinance Quo warranto (‘By which legal document?’), sent to all of the lordly aristocracy, he had to bring to them the titles of property to his estate. If he was unable to obtain these documents, he would be expropriated. When the court charged him to provide written proof, he held out an old rusty sword and cried:

My Lords, here is my charter! For my ancestors arrived here with William the Bastard
and they conquered their lands by this sword, and it is by this same sword that I will
defend them against anyone who would occupy them. the king did not conquer this
land alone but with the assistance of our ancestors.

This belated addition to the manuscripts of the Augustine canon regular Walter of Guisborough’s Chronical (d. c. 1305), provides a legendary if not fictitious anecdote (p. 216). It is as distorted as the Warenne genealogical memory, proud of their bellicose origins and of their estate taken by right of conquest. It conveys the typical aristocratic disdain for royal officers whose taxes and justice reduced the privileges of the nobility. It also provides evidence of the earl’s scornful attitude towards written proof, which he considers insignificant compared to the sword of his founding ancestor and his renowned lineage.

Does the earl of Surrey exemplify the general attitude of the nobility towards writing? Like him, did warriors hold legal officers and the people who educated them in contempt? Do they systematically show the same philistine attitude? It is true that the barely latent rivalry between knights and clerics sometimes appears in the texts. Their lifestyle and centres of interest are too different. the values by which they intend to guide society diverge in several instances. and yet there is a certain synergy between their respective existences. Born into the same families and social background, the warriors and clerics grew up together and they continued to mix, despite the apparent discordance between their respective statuses.

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