Georges Duby recounts in his book William Marshal-The Flower of Chivalry, the main facts and events in the life of the Middle Ages knight William Marshal, an important historical figure, who later became the Earl of Pembroke. Beyond the historical facts, Duby draws a comprehensive picture of the Middle Ages and of the most important practice of those times-that of chivalry or knighthood.
The book reverses the order of the historical events, as it begins with the account of the knight’s death, followed by different episodes of his life which also defy the chronological order. The author lies special emphasis on a few themes related to the Medieval life: the stress is, evidently, on the characteristics of chivalry and on its social consequences: the entire period of the Middle Ages seems to be a male-centered, virile world, in which women were unimportant, in spite of the fact that the same age is known for its troubadours and for its art of courtly love. Thus, as Duby observes, during the Middle Ages the only love that was actually acknowledged as such was that between men an men, rather than that between men and women:
“A men’s affair, of shame and honor, of love- should I say only friendship? Virile. I repeat: only men are said to love one another in a text from which the women are almost or entirely absent.”(Duby, 65)
Indeed, as Duby remarks, the Middle Ages were a masculine epoch altogether: “I speak of men. This world is masculine.”(Duby, 47) This was due especially to the ideals of power, physical strength and honor, all of which were related to chivalry. Love was present only among men, in the form of comradeship or as the devotion of the knight to his lord. Women are never active participants in the life of the Middle Ages, and the love between men and women was more of a game that hid the other type of relationship, that between men and men, which was in fact the essential one.
The relationships between men and men and those between women and men are well illustrated in the episode which recounts the supposed love affair that took place between Marshall and Margaret, the wife of king Henry the Young. At this time, William Marshal is at the court of Henry the Young, and as Duby observes, he is greatly loved by the latter, who holds him among his favorite courtiers. The rest of the story is a little unclear, as Marshal’s supposed affair with the queen is not confirmed as true: it may have been just a rumor begun by the knight’s enemies, who were extremely jealous of his relationship with Henry the Young.
Whether the betrayal was true or false is less important: the fact is that the story proves once again that women were treated only as objects in such affairs, and that the true jealousy seemed to be that between men. As Duby notes, the queen is hardly mentioned in the affair, the focus being entirely on the relationship between Henry and William Marshall. The queen is simply dispatched by the king to his brother in France and there, as Duby says, “reused”, that is, remarried to another king, specifically the king of Hungary.
As for Marshal, we find that his punishment will be the withdrawal of favors from his king, which eventually determines him to leave the court temporarily. Again significantly, he comes back with occasion of the winter competitions, where he proves his prowess and valiance once more, and manages to lead the English to victory. This again stands as proof for the fact that chivalry and the values related to manhood were the absolute values during the Middle Ages. Everything seemed to be centered around competitions and the proof of valiance and of physical power, which were actually considered the main virtues in a human being. Duby continues with another eloquent example for this: after the episode with the love-affair between him and the queen, Marshal intends to clear his name publicly, and decides to fight three other knights and to prove his innocence by defeating all of them.
Another key pattern of thinking for the Middle Ages can be glimpsed here: the judgment of God is also to be proven by battles or competitions, and this is why Marshal tries to prove his innocence by vanquishing his adversaries. The duels do not take place eventually, as the king refuses to give his permission for them, but the shame is effaced as Henry calls his knight back and they resume their manly relationship, based on love and loyalty.
However, in spite of the absolute virility of the age and the lack of consideration for women, marriage was held to be very important during the Middle Ages, and, as Duby says, “The only true power belongs to the married men.”(Duby, 160) Thus, the woman was considered necessary for any man, although this was strictly because of other reasons: that of filiation and that of heritage. Only through marriage could a man ensure that he had sons to inherit his fortune and his name.
Therefore, marriage was, most of the times, an alliance based on political or social reasons, and also a way to ensure that a man had his inheritors, instead of being a bondage of true love between men and women. As Duby notices, the way in which the knights were formed for their future roles is very relevant for the relationship between men and women: the man that was to become later a knight in arms usually left his home, where his mother and his sisters lived, at a very early age, of eight or maybe ten, and from that point on he entered a completely masculine world, full of combats and violence and feats of honor. (Duby, 80)
The future knight was at once severed from his familiar universe and from anything feminine, and plunged into the world of manhood and chivalry.
Chivalry was therefore an entire system of masculine values, all related to matters of honor and prowess and in which the women were never an active part. Women were considered to be almost a different species, with no particular place in the picture of knighthood. Nevertheless, the Middle Ages formed a very harmonious picture, in which society was based on relationships of friendship which obliged to service and faith:
“That society was […]cemented by what the clerics called ‘caritas’, and the language of the court ‘friendship’, sustained by ‘faith’, another key word, evoking a mixture of trust and fidelity.”(Duby, 161)
The main coordinates of the Middle Ages are thus the same as the main values that formed the chivalric ideal: manhood, fealty, honor, loyalty and so on. These formed a behavioral pattern, and all the actions of men were supposed to be derived from them. These principles of chivalry were considered to be kindred with those of Christianity, and therefore they became rules of proper behavior for every man.
Chivalry and its ideals of manhood are thus the key-words for the patterns of behavior and thought during the Middle Ages, when men seemed a lot less concerned with thought and learning, than they were with action and preserving the order of the world.
Although the actual ideals of the Middle Ages seem to be lost during the modern times, where the deeds of honor are no longer a purpose in themselves, there are certainly traces of the influence that these ideals had on the development of the Western culture. First of all, the Western culture is significantly dominated by masculine ideals, like that of competition and action, although at present these are used as means to achieve individual goals, and not as means to achieve universal justice, as it was then believed. Overall, the masculine ideals praised by chivalry have greatly influenced the Western culture, with its constant competitions for political or economic power, and the secondary place given to women and their social role.
Duby, Georges. William Marshal-The Flower of Chivalry. New York, Pantheon Books, 1985