AKA SCA Count Sir Garick von Kopke
A Modern Essay on Chivalric Virtue
Reprinted by Permission
One of the reasons that I continue to pursue the “chivalric arts” is for the pleasure of watching young squires and men-at-arms grow into their own. There is something priceless in being present as a combatant matures, moving from headstrong ‘fighter’ to competent swordsman to gentleman to master and knight.
To this end, one of the finest posts in an SCA court is the advisor to the Queen’s Guard. Many years ago, I was granted this most precious duty, and received in return a very great reward. The guard consisted at that time of a particularly gifted set of young combatants, all eager to prove themselves in both body and spirit.
With bold hearts I put together a “reader” consisting of works I felt would enhance their understanding of knighthood and help them to prepare for the road ahead. Surprisingly, these documents, ranging from the 13th – 15th centuries, remain as useful and powerful as they were when they were written, so long as the language is modernized.
John Chamberlain, AKA SCA Sir Garick von Kopke, now a Count, was one of this group. Sir Garick has, since I have known him, striven with all his heart towards an ideal that none of us can reach, working through adversity as another knightly challenge. These words were written for the FACETS OF KNIGHTHOOD book produced by Peter Martin, a compendium of essays by many respected chivalric re-enactors. To Garick’s words below there is little I would add, and so without delay I present his ideas on chivalric virtue for your consideration.
“Knigts ougt to take coursers to juste & to go to tornoyes / to holde open table / to hu(n)te at hertes / at bores & other wyld bestes / For in doynge these thynges the knygtes exercyse them to armes / for to mayntene thordre of knigthode Thene to mesprise & to leue (th)e custom of (th)t which (th)e knygt is most apparailled to vse his office is but despising of thordre / & thus as al these thynges afore said appertyne to a knygt as touching his body / in lyke wise justice / wysedom / charite (/) loyalte / verite / humylite / strength / hope swiftness & al other vertues se(m)blable appertyne to a knygt as touchyng his soule / & therfor the knygt that vseth the thynges (th)t apperteyne to thordre of chyualry as touchyng his body / & hath none of these vertues that apperteyne to chyualry touchyng his soule is not the frende of thordre of knygthode.”
So says Raymon Lull in his 13th century work Libre del Orde de Cauayleria, The Book of the Order of Chivalry1. This quote comes after considerable discussion of the virtues of Courage and Faith. A quick read through of Le Ordene de Chevalrie, The Ordination of Knighthood, a 12th or 13th century anonymous French poem, shows us that a knight is expected to display (Christian) faith, courtesy, honesty, simpleness rather than pride, purity, “right”, and loyalty.
From these two sources, for the most part, I take my list of the “Knightly Virtues,” combining those I feel overlap. Thus I say that the Knightly Virtues be these: Prowess, Courage, Honesty, Loyalty, Generosity, Faith, Courtesy, and Franchise. I say further that no man2 should be made Knight who has not developed these virtues. Let us then discuss each of these virtues in turn.
Prowess is an oft taken for granted or forgotten virtue when discussing the philosophy of Chivalry, but it must remain pre-eminent. Chivalry is military in nature and Knighthood is, above all, a military order. When Chivalry lost its intimate connection with the mounted warrior and his code, it lost its force and hold, as well as much of its meaning. As Lull says, the exercise of arms is necessary to maintain the Order of Knighthood.
Prowess at arms is one thing that your character cannot bring you, nor can you will it to be. Your character and will, however, can bring you to the persistence needed to learn the skills of arms.
In the medieval view, courage was one of the most important knightly virtues, due perhaps to the difficulty of being courageous in the face of death. Lull speaks long on Courage, telling us that courage is greater than “the body” (Prowess) because courage is an attribute of the soul, which is nobler than the body. He also tells us that “no man may more honore and loue Chyualrye / And no more hym may not be do(ne) / than that deyeth for loue & for to honore the ordre of chyualrye.”
Courage is a virtue cheaply bought in some contexts in the SCA, for it is easy to face death when it means only a short cessation of playing. It takes little true courage to charge into a wall of pikes. True courage in the SCA is not in facing death, but in facing losing.
When the prize is in your sight, especially if it be that greatest prize of crowning your Lady, but even the simple prize of glory from winning a fight, it takes great courage to accept not getting it, especially if the call is close.
True courage in the SCA, then, is never letting your desire allow you to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, rather than your opponent, to never not grant a point of honor you usually would because you want this fight so much, and to accept an honorable, if disappointing, defeat rather than take a glorious, but tainted victory.
“Fals swerynge and vntrewe othe / be not in them that mayntene thordre of chyulary”3
Honesty and Honor are and always have been tied together with bonds that cannot be broken. Indeed Honesty and Honor are from the same root word (Latin, Honus) and a man who would have Honor must have Honesty.
In the SCA a man’s word is his bond. This is as it should be. All people should guard against swearing lightly, as what is sworn must be done. So also should one be honest in witness. Be always careful not to let your feelings about something become fact in your speech. Most importantly, a Knight should always be Honest with himself and not let excuses or wishes
color one’s beliefs.
“The wycked knyght that aydeth not his erthely lord and naturel countrey…is a knyght withoute offyce“4
Loyalty also is tied in with Honesty, as loyalty is often in cleaving to an Oath, yet Loyalty deserves its own section, for Loyalty to a friend, Lady, or Principle is often as important as Loyalty to your Liege.
Of course, all Knights in the SCA owe fealty to the Crown. This oath and the mutual responsibilities it engenders constitute a huge, important and very complex issue that is worthy of an article of its own. I will not discuss it in this article except to remind all that fealty is an awesome responsibility and one that once entered into must be well maintained.
Loyalty can also mean defending or helping someone to whom you are not sworn, but to whom you owe your help. Often one may need to make personal sacrifices to support a person or ideal to which he is Loyal. A Knight must not shirk his responsibilities, even if they are self imposed. Lastly, do not forget your “naturel countrey.” A Knight should always work for the good of the Kingdom.
Certainly a Knight should “holde open table” and show largess toward heralds, minstrels and workers. These acts add to the Grace and Honor of the Office and make the game more fun, both for those being rewarded and for those who observe the recognition.
The more difficult and more vital part of the virtue of generosity in the SCA, however, is not in being generous with goods or with praise, but being generous in giving the benefit of the doubt to your opponent. A Knight should never defame the honor of his opponent by accusing him of improper blow calling. You should not call the blows that land upon him, as that is his job. If you feel that your opponent’s calibration is questionable, give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your blow was not good; perhaps your sword has turned to mush; perhaps your opponent is in new armor; perhaps he simply missed the blow as he was over-excited; etc. Do not assume that he is cheating! If the situation is uncomfortable enough that you feel a need to talk about it, talk to your opponent, not to others. Speak to him gently as the mere calling of blow calibration into question can be devastating to an honorable opponent. Do not accuse! If you must speak on the issue, ask gently and keep an open mind.
Similarly, be generous in your own calibration. Do not give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you feel a need to ask a marshal or your opponent if a blow was good then the blow was obviously at least close. It is more knightly to interpret the blow generously to your opponent and take it than to search for a reason not to.
Faith was a cornerstone of Knighthood in the Middle Ages. Lull tells us that “The offyce of a knyght is to mayntene and defende the holy feyth catholyque.” Of course to them Faith meant Christian faith and in the SCA we don’t actively re-create religion, but I still feel that faith has a place in the SCA. The Faith that a Knight of the Society must foster and defend is not the belief in the Church, but belief in the importance and validity of these virtues.
A knight should not be a cynic, or believe that his fellows and opponents are anything less than noble. A Knight should believe in the inherent nobility of all, from the newest newbie to the winner of the Crown Tourney for which you struggled so hard. Foster and maintain these virtues, defend them if they are under attack and you will be acting with Knightly Honor.
Courtesy is, of course, a cornerstone of the SCA. Courtesy and honesty are things we expect everyone to display, be they of Knightly cast or not. These are the things, I feel, that are the basis of good treatment of others. L’Ordene de Chevalrie mentions the Knightly virtue of courtesy in connection with honesty and an attribute more commonly associated with courtesy, kindness, while discussing the symbolism of the bath in the Knighting ceremony. In this passage the poem’s unknown author tells us the candidate for Knighthood should emerge from the bath “fulfilled of courtesy; in honesty and in good will and Kindness shouldst thou bathe thee still.”
There are two great threats to courtesy. Those are thoughtlessness and reaction to discourtesy, real or perceived. Guard well against speech without thought, for it is far too easy to give offense with a tossed off word. This is not a difficult problem to overcome, it takes only a little thought. The true test of courtesy comes in attempting courtesy in the face of discourtesy. Remember that someone else’s poor behaviour is no reason for you to respond in kind. To do so would only reduce your virtue.Try to see instances of discourtesy, rather than as an attack to be angered by, as an opportunity to test and show your virtue. He who successfully shows the grace under pressure of courtesy in the face of discourtesy is truly noble.
Franchise is an elusive virtue, as difficult to define as Chivalry itself. The word comes to us from the Old French in which it meant “freedom” (from Frank, as in a member of the tribe which says something about what it took to be free in the dark ages). By derivation as the social system progressed it came to mean not just freedom, but nobility. In period, for the most part, by nobility they meant noble birth. While Lull tells us of the importance of Knights being of noble birth, he also tells us that “thordre of Chyualry is more counable and moche more syttynge to a gentyl herte replenysshed wyth al vertues than in a man vyle and of euyl life.”
Noble birth, of course, is not an issue in the Society, as all who wish it are nobly born. What is very much an issue, however, is “noblesse of herte.” This then is Franchise, sometimes referred to as “consistent nobility.” The first part of Franchise is simply having all of the other Chivalric Virtues and having them consistently. While this is by no means easy, it is not a separate attribute, but simply a constancy of all of them.
There is a part of Franchise that is separate from the other virtues, however, and that is what I call “Noble Bearing.” There is a marked, if intangible, difference between the titled and the “enfranchised.” It is a carriage (but not a swagger), a sense of noblesse oblige, a certain
confidence, perhaps. It can easily be overdone into arrogance or seem patronizing. Consequently, it should never be put on as an act, or it will either look like an act or like arrogance. This is not an attribute that can be taught, or even learned. It can only be grown into, though reaching for the other virtues and profiting by the example of those you respect can help.
This concludes my list of Chivalric Virtues and leads me into the warning that I would give all Knights and all those who are upon a Chivalric Path. Our greatest danger is Vainglory. It lurks behind virtues and glory. Beware excessive Pride, for it is a failing we are all open to.
Thus I charge you to always hold your pride in check with humility, to always seek honor over glory, and to always do honor unto your Inspiration. I have quoted Lull extensively throughout this article, and I will leave you with one further quote.
1 Caxton edition, c. 1494 For ease in reading switch most u’s and v’s, and read “/” as a comma. Parentheses indicate sound equivalent on non-modern English characters.
2Or woman, of course. Genders are given as most common cases to avoid stilted writing, not to be sexist.
3 Lull, p 43
4 ibid, pp 33-34