Academic journal article Arthuriana

Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal and the Knight in Need

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal and the Knight in Need

Article excerpt

The knight in medieval England rarely worked alone. Whether he served under a magnate or at the head of a regiment, a knight was almost always a part of a much larger company of men. This is especially true of English knights of the later Middle Ages, whose social roles on and off the battlefield proliferated as time went on. Since at least the thirteenth century, responsibilities in town government kept knights occupied. As literacy spread among the members of England's landed class, so too did knowledge of legal and administrative matters, which allowed knights to serve their king as counselors and functionaries at court; by the middle of the fourteenth century, knights had begun to occupy government posts previously reserved for clerics.1 At home, knights also managed large households and directed many servants who helped maintain the impressive estates of the nobility. With the support of their stewards, many knights cultivated reputations for largess and even drew censure from Thomas Walsingham, who claimed that these nobles were forsaking their swords while training their tongues.2 But, although they took on responsibilities of management removed from battle, medieval knights were, and still are, largely defined through their most visible and spectacular role as bellatores-the armored, mounted warriors who fought for the king. Historians of chivalry have shown that knighthood was indelibly linked with armed combat through at least the end of the fourteenth century.3 And just as the knight's duties at court and at home required that he work as part of a governing body, so too was the knight on the battlefield one man among a company of men. The expansion of the knight's weaponry and armor in the later Middle Ages led to a parallel expansion in the knight's retinue, on whom he depended for support in battle. Even while a knight fought an opponent in single combat on the tournament grounds, a company of squires and attendants helped their employer to victory by looking after his horses, armor, and weapons.4

The cooperation between knights, squires, and magnates appears in medieval chivalric manuals as a sign of proper noble behavior. Didactic texts by Ramon Llull in the thirteenth century and Geoffroi de Charny in the fourteenth emphasize knights' responsibility to uphold their own honor even while they also insist that the knights' duties often require working together with other members of the higher and lower nobility.5 These writers approach their pedagogical projects from different angles-Llull focuses heavily on symbolism and interpretation, Charny on more pragmatic concerns- but their texts concur when the writers tell their audiences how to avoid dishonorable behavior in ways that promote reciprocal support. Moreover, cooperation between nobles appears prominently in modern studies of chivalry and nobility.6 In light of the knight's cooperation with other nobles in late medieval England at war, in the household, and on the tournament grounds, it is surprising that a hero's companions should appear so seldom in discussions of the idealized chivalric romances of the time. Members of the English aristocracy had many opportunities to see large companies ride against each other in tournaments during the reign of Richard II, whose love of pageantry and extravagance led him to drain England's coffers in order to fund increasingly elaborate public displays of nobility.7 Nonetheless, Maldwyn Mills insists that chivalric romances center on 'the prowess and fortunes of individual knights, even when they also relate the activities of a large company of such knights at court.'8 Although knights under Richard II fought in immense groups, the romances of the late fourteenth century appear to focus instead on single combat and individual success.

Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal, probably written in the late fourteenth century, portrays ideal chivalry on one hand through the titular hero's skill in arms, but on the other hand it also represents ideal nobility through generosity and service in a community. …

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