Ideals and Values for 12th Century Medieval Aristocrats

Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart, told a tale of a mighty knight. It has the air, to us, of fable. It was of fabrication as two cults of the time, courtly love and honor, dominated the story. These cults were parts of a set of medieval aristocratic ideals and values. Within this set, the cults had supportive notions of hospitality, oaths, service, and military prowess. Courtly love pushed the tale into existence when Lancelot stepped onto the cart and courtly love pushed the tale to completion with the death of Meleagant at the hands of Lancelot. Lancelot put into motion these actions. Lancelot’s love for Queen Guinevere bound him to honorable displays of his devotion to her.

Chrétien’s tale began with Meleagant’s appearance at King Arthur’s court at Camelot. He informed King Arthur that :

“…King,

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In this court of yours you can trust

To take your queen to the woods,

Where I’ll be going when I’m finished

Here, then I’ll agree

To let him have those prisoners

I’ve got in my dungeons, provided

He can defeat me in battle,

It being understood

That possession of your queen is the prize

For victory.”… (lines 69-80).

Those at court did not immediately secure the return of the Queen. She was gone. Chrétien soon related how a knight (Lancelot) jumped into a cart driven by a dwarf. Those having committed criminal or despicable acts occupied such a cart in those days. Lancelot entered the cart since the dwarf promised to later reveal the whereabouts of the Queen. Chrétian noted :

…and the knight

Followed along behind

For several steps, not climbing

Right up. But his hesitant shame

Was wrong. …(360-364).

This delay on the part of Lancelot came back to thwart his efforts when he had gotten the release of the Queen from her captor. She said :

“Indeed? Didn’t the cart

Shame you the least little bit?

You must have hesitated,

For you lingered a good two steps.

And that, you see, was my sole

Reason for ignoring your presence.”  (4491-4496).

This rigidity characterized the cult of honor as exemplified by Lancelot’s actions. If an affair of honor came about, then the knight must perform in the honorable way. Yet there were levels of honor as when Meleagant, described as a pitiless brave fool, subscribed to a higher honor of battling Lancelot at King Arthur’s court in a year’s time and agreed to forgo combat at an earlier time (3886-3895).

Chrétien saw that honor in service to love ignored common sense and reason. Reason did not include in its realm the working of the heart. Love had its way. For love’s commands, even shame endured. Deep in reflection, Lancelot had no defense against love. He did completely forget himself. An opponent challenged Lancelot three times before crossing a stream. The opponent struck Lancelot with Lancelot still in love’s command. The opponent had unfairly struck him. Lancelot wanted to avenge this disturbance of his revery (891-893). Outside revery he was in a fair enough way but his one and only heart he entrusted to some one else such that he was constrained in a special manner (1231-1248).  He found the Queen’s comb. It had strands of her hair and he was ecstatic:

Touching them a hundred thousand

Times, caressing with his eves,

His lips, his forehead, his face.

And all of it brings him happiness,

Fills him with the richest delight;

He presses it into his breast,

Slips it between his shirt

And his heart – worth more than a wagon-

Load of emeralds or diamonds, (1470-1478).

Later, in traversing the sword bridge, the blade cut so as to maim him but the suffering was sweet since love led him on and relieved his pain (3115-3122). Still later a distraught Lancelot, thinking that the Queen is dead, attempted to kill himself by hanging himself from his saddle by means of his belt (4264-4268).

Honor had its greatest demands made upon it by love but it spanned also military activity for which the knights were constantly prepared. In this preparation, a generous hospitality aided them that mostly included horses (284-289), beds (458-463), and food. For the first two, they had a choice. The mistress of a house offered Lancelot the house and the mistress of the house (938-949).

Thus prepared, their military valor was a pledge, an oath, which they must uphold. A knight could be in the grip of another knight and not fight correctly; so the second knight asked to release the first knight. Then the second knight could recover his military equipment and they could then fight in the approved manner (839-852). The more honor gained in combat, the better. Accompanying a damsel involved an unspoken oath and was a very serious business since the knight was then responsible for her.

A challenging knight could assault her with impunity if a challenging knight defeated the escorting knight (1304-1322). Mercy could be granted for the about to be vanquished but this usually entailed an oath be taken. The one who granted mercy redeemed this oath to their benefit. If one had an oath to carry out, then could not do it, there could be shame of a great dimension when another knight did the deed (4013-4019). Knights sometimes honored a pledge, for honor’s sake, even though it seemed not in the best interests of most of those involved as when Kay sought to have the Queen accompany him into the forest where a knight awaited :

The king was upset, but his word

Had been given, and he could not revoke it,

No matter how angry and sorrowful

It made him (which was easy to see).

The queen, too, was deeply

Displeased, and the whole palace

Denounced Kay’s pride and presumption

In making such a demand. (179-186).

Again, it could be a combatant who would not continue the fight if pledged by his lady to cease. Then the other knight must not force a continuance then and there by striking the one who no longer lifts a weapon. Meleagant, for example, struck Lancelot.  The Queen had requested Lancelot to stop fighting:

 The king came hurrying down

From the tower, to stop him. Straight

To the field of battle he went,

Speaking these words to his son:

“What’s this? You think it’s fine

To go on fighting, after

He’s stopped? You act like a savage!” (3824-3831).

The truth of the matter is that Lancelot only appeared to give up. In truth he was doing what his lady had requested of him. Later her captors said she was lying about bloodied sheets (4788-4798). This was a most grievous charge and so combat was called for. Holy relics came out and, on their knees, the parties involved did swear. Truth in other matters was another preoccupation of the aristocrats that Chrétien wrote about. There were standards of truth against which the knights and others could measure their conduct. To seek death in ignorance was the action of a fool.  A fool too was one who does not truly humble oneself. A fool never lost his folly. Those nobles, not fools, did not need to seek praise to enhance their deeds and self praise did not increase one’s esteem. The madness of a fool had no cure:

“Who do you think believes you?”

Said the king. “All these people

Can tell for themselves what’s true

And False. We know you’re lying.” (3841-3844).

Far from the fool was the man as lover who was always obedient and gladly did his lover’s bidding in short order. He knew much about love and included in this knowledge was that honor done for love entailed no shame. Should something greatly go amiss, he would not fear death. Death desired those who were afraid of it (4283-4284).

Before death there were dwarfs. Lancelot encountered two dwarfs in the tale. Neither one was up to any good. The first, described as a “Low-born and disgusting” dwarf (353) did lead Lancelot astray. The dwarf lied as to knowing the Queen’s whereabouts but did convince Lancelot to enter the cart. The other dwarf encountered Lancelot on Lancelot’s approach to the water bridge. The dwarf promised to take Lancelot to a special place (5081-5084). This dwarf also lied.

No one said anything about what happened to the dwarfs. Presumably, they received a suitable fate for their unbecoming behavior. Perhaps death found them soon enough without their heads. It seemed that beheading was the surefire way to ensure that the one on their way out did indeed depart. Lancelot did battle with an enemy and after having vanquished him, a woman wants the opponent’s head. Lancelot obliges :

One swing of the sword, the head

Was off, and it and the body

Fell to the ground. And the girl

Was happy….(2927-2930).

The headless one wronged her. Lancelot had already showed mercy to the opponent. Then again the opponent had pleaded for mercy. Then too the opponent had been most impertinent with Lancelot. So the upshot of this battle was the damsel was pleased and the opponent lost his head.

Another beheading occurred at the end of the tale. Meleagant reflected on how it was that Lancelot had made his way to Camelot. Meleagant had thought he had locked Lancelot in a tower from which there could be no escape. He realized that he was a victim of trickery. He was ready for something worse than great shame and humiliation (6967-6969).  In his battle with Lancelot he lost his right arm. He felt badly since he then could not strike Lancelot. Then he was smashed in the face by Lancelot. Three teeth are broken in his mouth. His state enraged him to the extent he could not speak and so did not seek mercy. Lancelot cut off his head. It was finished :

And let me assure you, no one

Who was there, watching the battle,

Felt the slightest pity.

The king and his courtiers and ladies

Were fairly jumping for joy (7099-7103).

Works Cited

Chrétien de Troyes. Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart. Trans. Burton Raffel. New Haven & London: Yale University Press ,1997.

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