Reading medieval romances is, for me, something like watching Western movies might be for those men of certain different tastes but the same proclivities as have persisted in the male members of the human species perennially. They are a window into a time when “men were men,” so to speak. Whether such an idealized time really existed is immaterial to the continued relevance of the idea as a powerful image and inspiration in the masculine consciousness. This particular work is a prime example.
El Cid is truly a man’s man. His long, flowing beard is a sight beheld with awe by those around him. His prowess in battle is legendary. His virtue is of the rigid principled sort that both justice and mercy, each in their own way, rely upon for existence. Even his piety, a virtue too often associated today with weakness and womanliness, is of the manly sort, with its fervent prayers and all-night vigils. And his love for his fellow-Christians, for his kingdom, his nation, and his family is unsurpassed and unquestioned. His perfection in chivalry is also exhibited by his presentation in the poem as a Christ figure, as one who embodies the virtues of Christ and whose life, in a mysterious manner, mirrors that of his Lord in many of its features.
The medieval tales of great knights are required reading for all men — and for women, too, who appreciate authentic masculinity. I recommend this book to all such readers.
Pages and squires were expected to read many books about the lives of the great knights and other warriors who had come before them. They were encouraged to imitate the examples of these great men. One of the most popular of these books was Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, which means “Charles the Great,” was a Frankish king who was crowed as the first Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800. Charlemagne was admired even in his own lifetime for his great learning, great virtue, and skill as a military leader. In the selection below, Einhard discusses Charlemagne’s looks and the things Charlemagne enjoyed doing.
Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot. Even in those years he consulted rather his own inclinations than the advice of physicians, who were almost hateful to him, because they wanted him to give up roasts, to which he was accustomed, and to eat boiled meat instead. In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aixla-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years until his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him.
Charles was temperate in eating, and particularly so in drinking, for he abominated drunkenness in anybody, much more in himself and those of his household; but he could not easily abstain from food, and often complained that fasts injured his health. He very rarely gave entertainments, only on great feast-days, and then to large numbers of people. His meals ordinarily consisted of four courses, not counting the roast, which his huntsmen used to bring in on the spit; he was more fond of this than of any other dish. While at table, he listened to reading or music. The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of olden time: he was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, and especially of the one entitled “The City of God.”
He was so moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. In summer after the midday meal, he would eat some fruit, drain a single cup, put off his clothes and shoes, just as he did for the night, and rest for two or three hours. He was in the habit of awaking and rising from bed four or five times during the night. While he was dressing and putting on his shoes, he not only gave audience to his friends, but if the Count of the Palace told him of any suit in which his judgment was necessary, he had the parties brought before him forthwith, took cognizance of the case, and gave his decision, just as if he were sitting on the Judgment-seat. This was not the only business that he transacted at this time, but he performed any duty of the day whatever, whether he had to attend to the matter himself, or to give commands concerning it to his officers.
Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence. He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.
He cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion, which had been instilled into him from infancy. Hence it was that he built the beautiful basilica at Aix-la-Chapelle, which he adorned with gold and silver and lamps, and with rails and doors of solid brass. He had the columns and marbles for this structure brought from Rome and Ravenna, for he could not find such as were suitable elsewhere. He was a constant worshipper at this church as long as his health permitted, going morning and evening, even after nightfall, besides attending mass; and he took care that all the services there conducted should be administered with the utmost possible propriety, very often warning the sextons not to let any improper or unclean thing be brought into the building or remain in it. He provided it with a great number of sacred vessels of gold and silver and with such a quantity of clerical robes that not even the doorkeepers who fill the humblest office in the church were obliged to wear their everyday clothes when in the exercise of their duties. He was at great pains to improve the church reading and psalmody, for he was well skilled in both although he neither read in public nor sang, except in a low tone and with others.
He was very forward in succoring the poor, and in that gratuitous generosity which the Greeks call alms, so much so that he not only made a point of giving in his own country and his own kingdom, but when he discovered that there were Christians living in poverty in Syria, Egypt, and Africa, at Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage, he had compassion on their wants, and used to send money over the seas to them. The reason that he zealously strove to make friends with the kings beyond seas was that he might get help and relief to the Christians living under their rule.
He cherished the Church of St. Peter the Apostle at Rome above all other holy and sacred places, and heaped its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent great and countless gifts to the popes; and throughout his whole reign the wish that he had nearest at heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect the Church of St. Peter, and to beautify and enrich it out of his own store above all other churches. Although he held it in such veneration, he only repaired to Rome to pay his vows and make his supplications four times during the whole forty-seven years that he reigned.
Medieval people used to say that there are three “orders,” or groups of people, in Christian society. There are, they said, “those who pray, those who work, and those who fight.” Most people, of course, were among “those who work.” The common people were all of the people who farmed, who built buildings, who made art, and did all of the other things necessary for any society to continue. The monks were “those who pray.” It was expected that they would help the rest of society by praying to God to protect them. “Those who fight” were called knights. It was the duty of knights to protect Christian kingdoms and villages from those who wanted to harm them.
Boys were chosen at a very young age to be knights, usually when they were babies. If a father wanted his son to become a knight someday, he would tell the child stories about other knights from a very young age and encourage his son to imitate the heroes of those stories. He would also teach the boy about good manners and courtesy as knights were expected to be very well-behaved. Most of the boy’s toys would be wooden swords and shields and other toy versions of things he would use as a knight.
Once the boy turned seven years old, his training as a knight began. He would be sent to a knight’s castle to be a page. As a page, the boy was expected to spend all of his time either learning or serving the other people in the castle. He was especially expected to serve the women of the castle. A page, for example, might be ordered to walk behind the lady of the castle, carrying the train of her dress, the part of the dress that would otherwise drag on the floor. A page might spent months doing this job in order to learn to treat women with respect. As a page, the boy would also study the great accomplishments of other knights and attend tournaments where knights displayed their skills by playing war games in front of crowds.
If the boy had done a good job as a page, he could be made a squire at the age of 14. As a squire, the boy dedicated more of his time to learning music, dancing, and other arts. He was also expected to perfect his etiquette by interacting with others in a courteous manner at all times. Squires also acted as assistants to knights. They carried the knights equipment around, helped the knights put their armor on, travelled with the knights, and even went into battle with them. In this way, the squire learned all about the how knights fought and the weapons they used to fight.
If the boy had done well as a squire, he would finally become a knight at about 21 years old. A great ceremony was held when a man became a knight. His armor would be placed on the altar of a church and he would stay awake all night in the church to guard it. In the morning, a worship service would be held in the church. After many prayers and blessings for the knight, he would at least kneel in front of a lord, a noble person who owned land, and would be knighted. The lord would swear to support the knight by paying for his equipment and a castle for him. The knight, in turn, pledged to serve the lord by protecting the lord’s lands from enemy invasions.
Once a man became a knight, he was expected to follow a strict code of honor called chivalry. The code of chivalry ordered that knights always observe the virtues. Knights were expected to be compassionate, temperate, diligent, and respectful. They were always to help those who were weaker than themselves and to obey those who had authority over them. The knights, “those who fight,” were expected by all people to keep Europe safe.
1. What are the steps to becoming a knight?
2. What is chivalry?
The Song of Roland is an often overlooked masterpiece of medieval literature. This short epic is an introduction to the virtues and ideas of chivalry. Here, the good old king Charlemagne leads the good forces of Christian France against the evil Paynim. The greatest warrior of Christendom, Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, is slain in the battle, but the Christians achieve victory nonetheless. Charlemagne himself kills the Paynim king in single combat. He then orders of the Paynim baptized and takes the queen herself to his palace to be catechized and baptized.
The relationship between Charlemagne and Roland is an obvious allegory of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Christian Trinity. Charlemagne is the Father, the Ancient of Days, two centuries old and possessing a long white beard. Roland is the Son who enters into the world to defeat the forces of evil through his death and resurrection. Roland is betrayed by a friend, dies and rises while on a hill with a tree and four silent witnesses. Charlemagne the Father then becomes Charlemagne the Spirit, completing the Trinity, as he leads the Christian army in the apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil and takes up the task of spreading the Gospel — both the Gospel of Christianity and the “gospel” of Roland in telling the tale of his deeds.
The Paynims are the equal and opposite of the Christians with their unholy trinity, their idolatrous statues, and their priests lacking proper ordination. Although historically the enemy were Muslims, they have become instead anti-Christians. Whatever is opposite to Christianity is what the Paynim is.
An interesting feature in the story which caught my eye is the habit of pairing. Each of the 12 great warriors of the Christians is paired with another of their group. There is a Paynim warrior who looks like a Christian and a Christian who betrays his fellow men to the Paynim. There are two deaths of Roland, one temporary and the other permanent. The betrayer Ganelon is killed through the use of water and the Queen of Spain enters new life through the waters of baptism. There are, the poet shows us, two ways: the way of life and the way of death.
This translation is by the erudite Dorothy Sayers, perhaps best known for her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” now very popular among advocates of classical education. Of particular interest here is the use to which she puts her theory of literature, most fully explicated in The Mind of the Maker, in translating this work. Her introduction serves as an excellent crash course in chivalry in addition to laying a framework for interpretation of The Song of Roland.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in literature, particularly in Christian/Western literature, the Middle Ages, and/or the epic. I believe, however, that any reader will enjoy this work for its wonderful storytelling and thought-provoking themes.
To be honest, I can hardly say that Beowulf ranks among my favorite books. As far as epics go, there is much better to be found in the Classical epics (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid) and the Christian epics (Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost). As far as medieval literature goes, there is much better to be found in, for example, The Canterbury Tales or, again, The Divine Comedy. When compared in either of these categories, Beowulf appears flaccid, superficial, and inarticulate.
With that said, Beowulf is, nonetheless, if taken by itself and freed of its lagging place in the literary categories into which it might be placed, at least a very interesting reading on some levels. While the surface story of a Danish hero defeating monsters reads more like a Steven Seagal film (read: action-packed but unintelligent and with a plot that has more holes than Swiss cheese) than anything else, below the surface there is something fascinating happening.
The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. This is, for me, the one aspect of the book that makes it exciting to read. While there is little philosophical discourse or religious reflection here, as one might expect to find if one approaches this having read some of the great Classical and/or Christian epics, the narrator buries the religious themes in the onslaught of activity. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history and there were even hints of an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code.
Ultimately, I believe the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great (it is remarkably difficult to find much worth redeeming in pre-Christian northern European thought and religion) and his attempts are insufficient (merely linking figures from his inherited mythology to biblical figures and sprinkling the occasional symbol of baptism or crucifixion). The result, however, is equally fascinating. Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, we are presented with something of a bridge figure, a man who embodies the greatest ideals of both the pre-Christian and Christian northern European peoples, who is a great warrior seeking after fame and fortune and filled with pride, but is also charitable and compassionate and dies to save his people. If nothing else, what makes Beowulf an interesting read is that Beowulf himself is a sort of proto-knight. In him we see the emergence of the code of chivalry adhered to be the Christian warriors of the High Middle Ages. The idea remains incomplete and underdeveloped in Beowulf but anyone with a modest understanding of medieval history and a keen eye for detail can catch a glimpse here of the emergence of a new and powerful ideal.