Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Chivalr... by Thomas Bulfinch
Throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds of peace high triumphs hold,
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence and judge the prize.



ON the decline of the Roman power, about five centuries after
Christ, the countries of Northern Europe were left almost destitute of
a national government. Numerous chiefs, more or less powerful, held
local sway, as far as each could enforce his dominion, and
occasionally those chiefs would unite for a common object; but, in
ordinary times, they were much more likely to be found in hostility to
one another. In such a state of things, the rights of the humbler
classes of society were at the mercy of every assailant; and it is
plain that, without some check upon the lawless power of the chiefs,
society must have relapsed into barbarism. Such checks were found,
first, in the rivalry of the chiefs themselves, whose mutual
jealousy made them restraints upon one another; secondly, in the
influence of the Church, which, by every motive, pure or selfish,
was pledged to interpose for the protection of the weak; and lastly,
in the generosity and sense of right which, however crushed under
the weight of passion and selfishness, dwell naturally in the heart of
man. From this last source sprang Chivalry, which framed an ideal of
the heroic character, combining invincible strength and valor,
justice, modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion
to weakness, and devotedness to the Church; an ideal which, if never
met with in real life, was acknowledged by all as the highest model
for emulation.
The word Chivalry is derived from the French cheval, a horse. The
word knight, which originally meant boy or servant, was particularly
applied to a young man after he was admitted to the privilege of
bearing arms. This privilege was conferred on youths of family and
fortune only, for the mass of the people were not furnished with arms.
The knight then was a mounted warrior, a man of rank, or in the
service and maintenance of some man of rank, generally possessing some
independent means of support, but often relying mainly on the
gratitude of those whom he served for the supply of his wants, and
often, no doubt, resorting to the means which power confers on its
In time of war the knight was, with his followers, in the camp of
his sovereign, or commanding in the field, or holding some castle
for him. In time of peace he was of ten in attendance at his
sovereign's court, gracing with his presence the banquets and
tournaments with which princes cheered their leisure. Or he was
traversing the country in quest of adventure, professedly bent on
redressing wrongs and enforcing rights, sometimes in fulfilment of
some vow of religion or of love. These wandering knights were called
knights-errant; they were welcome guests in the castles of the
nobility, for their presence enlivened the dulness of those secluded
abodes, and they were received with honor at the abbeys, which often
owed the best part of their revenues to the patronage of the
knights; but if no castle or abbey or hermitage were at hand, their
hardy habits made it not intolerable to them to lie down,
supperless, at the foot of some wayside cross, and pass the night.
It is evident that the justice administered by such an
instrumentality must have been of the rudest description. The force
whose legitimate purpose was to redress wrongs, might easily be
perverted to inflict them. Accordingly, we find in the romances,
which, however fabulous in facts, are true as pictures of manners,
that a knightly castle was often a terror to the surrounding
country; that its dungeons were full of oppressed knights and
ladies, waiting for some champion to appear to set them free, or to be
ransomed with money; that hosts of idle retainers were ever at hand to
enforce their lord's behests, regardless of law and justice; and
that the rights of the unarmed multitude were of no account. This
contrariety of fact and theory in regard to chivalry will account
for the opposite impressions which exist in men's minds respecting it.
While it has been the theme of the most fervid eulogium on the one
part, it has been as eagerly denounced on the other. On a cool
estimate, we cannot but see reason to congratulate ourselves that it
has given way in modern times to the reign of law, and that the
civil magistrate, if less picturesque, has taken the place of the
mailed champion.


The preparatory education of candidates for knighthood was long
and arduous. At seven years of age the noble children were usually
removed from their father's house to the court or castle of their
future patron, and placed under the care of a governor, who taught
them the first articles of religion, and respect and reverence for
their lords and superiors, and initiated them in the ceremonies of a
court, They were called pages, valets or varlets, and their office was
to carve, to wait at table, and to perform other menial services which
were not then considered humiliating. In their leisure hours they
learned to dance and play on the harp, were instructed in the
mysteries of woods and rivers, that is, in hunting, falconry, and
fishing, and in wrestling, tilting with spears, and performing other
military exercises on horseback. At fourteen the page became an
esquire, and began a course of severer and more laborious exercises.
To vault on a horse in heavy armor; to run, to scale walls, and spring
over ditches, under the same encumbrance; to wrestle, to wield the
battle-axe for a length of time, without raising the visor or taking
breath; to perform with grace all the evolutions of horsemanship,-
were necessary preliminaries to the reception of knighthood, which was
usually conferred at twenty-one years of age, when the young man's
education was supposed to be completed. In the meantime, the
esquires were no less assiduously engaged in acquiring all those
refinements of civility which formed what was in that age called
courtesy. The same castle in which they received their education was
usually thronged with young persons of the other sex, and the page was
encouraged, at a very early age, to select some lady of the court as
the mistress of his heart, to whom he was taught to refer all his
sentiments, words, and actions. The service of his mistress was the
glory and occupation of a knight, and her smiles, bestowed at once
by affection and gratitude, were held out as the recompense of his
well-directed valor. Religion united its influence with those of
loyalty and love, and the order of knighthood, endowed with all the
sanctity and religious awe that attended the priesthood, became an
object of ambition to the greatest sovereigns.
The ceremonies of initiation were peculiarly solemn. After
undergoing a severe fast, and spending whole nights in prayer, the
candidate confessed, and received the sacrament. He then clothed
himself in snow-white garments, and repaired to the church, or the
hall, where the ceremony was to take place, bearing a knightly sword
suspended from his neck, which the officiating priest took and
blessed, and then returned to him. The candidate then, with folded
arms, knelt before the presiding knight, who, after some questions
about his motives and purposes in requesting admission, administered
to him the oaths, and granted his request. Some of the knights
present, sometimes even ladies and damsels, handed to him in
succession the spurs, the coat of mail, the hauberk, the armlet and
gauntlet, and lastly he girded on the sword. He then knelt again
before the president, who, rising from his seat, gave him the
"accolade," which consisted of three strokes, with the flat of a
sword, on the shoulder or neck of the candidate, accompanied by the
words: "In the name of God, of St. Michael, and St. George, I make
thee a knight; be valiant, courteous, and loyal!" Then he received his
helmet, his shield, and spear; and thus the investiture ended.


The other classes of which society was composed were, first,
freemen, owners of small portions of land, independent, though they
sometimes voluntarily became the vassals of their more opulent
neighbors, whose power was necessary for their protection. The other
two classes, which were much the most numerous, were either serfs or
villains, both of which were slaves.
The serfs were in the lowest state of slavery. All the fruits of
their labor belonged to the master whose land they tilled, and by whom
they were fed and clothed.
The villains were less degraded. Their situation seems to have
resembled that of the Russian peasants at this day; Like the serfs,
they were attached to the soil, and were transferred with it by
purchase; but they paid only a fixed rent to the landlord, and had a
right to dispose of any surplus that might arise from their industry.
The term clerk was of very extensive import. It comprehended,
originally, such persons only as belonged to the clergy, or clerical
order, among whom, however, might be found a multitude of married
persons, artisans or others. But in process of time a much wider
rule was established; every one that could read being accounted a
clerk, or clericus, and allowed the "benefit of clergy," that is,
exemption from capital and some other forms of punishment, in case
of crime.


The splendid pageant of a tournament between knights, its gaudy
accessories and trappings, and its chivalrous regulations,
originated in France. Tournaments were repeatedly condemned by the
Church, probably on account of the quarrels they led to, and the often
fatal results. The "joust," or "just," was different from the
tournament. In these, knights fought with their lances, and their
object was to unhorse their antagonists; while the tournaments were
intended for a display of skill and address in evolutions, and with
various weapons, and greater courtesy was observed in the regulations.
By these it was forbidden to wound the horse, or to use the point of
the sword, or to strike a knight after he had raised his visor, or
unlaced his helmet. The ladies encouraged their knights in these
exercises; they bestowed prizes, and the conqueror's feats were the
theme of romance and song. The stands overlooking the ground, of
course, were varied in the shapes of towers, terraces, galleries,
and pensile gardens, magnificently decorated with tapestry, pavilions,
and banners. Every combatant proclaimed the name of the lady whose
servant d'amour he was. He was wont to look up to the stand, and
strengthen his courage by the sight of the bright eyes that were
raining their influence on him from above. The. knights also carried
favors, consisting of scarfs, veils, sleeves, bracelets, clasps,- in
short, some piece of female habiliment,- attached to their helmets,
shields, or armor. If, during the combat, any of these appendages were
dropped or lost, the fair donor would at times send her knight new
ones, especially if pleased with his exertions.


Mail armor, of which the hauberk is a species, and which derived its
name from maille, a French word for mesh, was of two kinds, plate or
scale mail, and chain mail. It was originally used for the
protection of the body only, reaching no lower than the knees. It
was shaped like a carter's frock, and bound round the waist by a
girdle. Gloves and hose of mail were afterwards added, and a hood,
which, when necessary, was drawn over the head, leaving the face alone
uncovered. To protect the skin from the impression of the iron network
of the chain mail, a quilted lining was employed, which, however,
was insufficient, and the bath was used to efface the marks of the
The hauberk was a complete covering of double chain mail. Some
hauberks opened before, like a modern coat; others were closed like
a shirt.
The chain mail of which they were composed was formed by a number of
iron links, each link having others REPLACEed into it, the whole
exhibiting a kind of network, of which (in some instances at least)
the meshes were circular, with each link separately riveted.
The hauberk was proof against the most violent blow of a sword;
but the point of a lance might pass through the meshes, or drive the
iron into the flesh. To guard against this, a thick and well-stuffed
doublet was worn underneath, under which was commonly added an iron
breastplate. Hence the expression "to pierce both plate and mail,"
so common in the earlier poets.
Mail armor continued in general use till about the year 1300, when
it was gradually supplanted by plate armor, or suits consisting of
pieces or plates of solid iron, adapted to the different parts of
the body.
Shields were generally made of wood, covered with leather, or some
similar substance. To secure them, in some sort, from being cut
through by the sword, they were surrounded with a hoop of metal.


The helmet was composed of two parts: the headpiece, which was
strengthened within by several circles of iron; and the visor,
which, as the name implies, was a sort of grating to see through, so
contrived as, by sliding in a groove, or turning on a pivot, to be
raised or lowered at pleasure. Some helmets had a further
improvement called a bever, from the Italian bevere, to drink. The
ventayle, or "air-passage," is another name for this.
To secure the helmet from the possibility of falling, or of being
struck off, it was tied by several laces to the meshes of the hauberk;
consequently, when a knight was overthrown, it was necessary to undo
these laces before he could be put to death; though this was sometimes
effected by lifting up the skirt of the hauberk, and stabbing him in
the belly. The instrument of death was a small dagger, worn on the
right side.


In ages when there were no books, when noblemen and princes
themselves could not read, history or tradition was monopolized by the
story-tellers. They inherited, generation after generation, the
wondrous tales of their predecessors, which they retailed to the
public with such additions of their own as their acquired
information supplied them with. Anachronisms became of course very
common, and errors of geography, of locality, of manners, equally
so. Spurious genealogies were invented, in which Arthur and his
knights, and Charlemagne and his paladins, were made to derive their
descent from AEneas, Hector, or some other of the Trojan heroes.
With regard to the derivation of the word Romance, we trace it to
the fact that the dialects which were formed in Western Europe, from
the admixture of Latin with the native languages, took the name of
Langue Romaine. The French language was divided into two dialects. The
river Loire was their common boundary. In the provinces to the south
of that river the affirmative, yes, was expressed by the word oc; in
the north it was called oil (oui); and hence Dante has named the
southern language langue d'oc, and the northern langue d'oil. The
latter, which was carried into England by the Normans, and is the
origin of the present French, may be called the French Romane; and the
former the Provencal, or Provencial Romane, because it was spoken by
the people of Provence and Languedoc, southern provinces of France.
These dialects were soon distinguished by very opposite
characters. A soft and enervating climate, a spirit of commerce
encouraged by an easy communication with other maritime nations, the
influx of wealth, and a more settled government, may have tended to
polish and soften the diction of the Provencials, whose poets, under
the name of Troubadours, were the masters of the Italians, and
particularly of Petrarch. Their favorite pieces were Sirventes
(satirical pieces), love-songs, and Tensons, which last were a sort of
dialogue in verse between two poets, who questioned each other on some
refined points of love's casuistry. It seems the Provencials were so
completely absorbed in these delicate questions as to neglect and
despise the composition of fabulous histories of adventure and
knighthood, which they left in a great measure to the poets of the
northern part of the kingdom, called Trouveurs.
At a time when chivalry excited universal admiration, and when all
the efforts of that chivalry were directed against the enemies of
religion, it was natural that literature should receive the same
impulse, and that history and fable should be ransacked to furnish
examples of courage and piety that might excite increased emulation.
Arthur and Charlemagne were the two heroes selected for this
purpose. Arthur's pretensions were that he was a brave, though not
always a successful warrior; he had withstood with great resolution
the arms of the infidels, that is to say, of the Saxons, and his
memory was held in the highest estimation by his countrymen, the
Britons, who carried with them into Wales, and into the kindred
country of Armorica, or Brittany, the memory of his exploits, which
their national vanity insensibly exaggerated, till the little prince
of the Silures (South Wales) was magnified into the conqueror of
England, of Gaul, and of the greater part of Europe. His genealogy was
gradually carried up to an imaginary Brutus, and to the period of
the Trojan war, and a sort of chronicle was composed in the Welsh,
or Armorican language, which, under the pompous title of the History
of the Kings of Britain, was translated into Latin by Geoffrey of
Monmouth, about the year 1150. The Welsh critics consider the material
of the work to have been an older history, written by St. Talian,
Bishop of St. Asaph, in the seventh century.
As to Charlemagne, though his real merits were sufficient to
secure his immortality, it was impossible that his holy wars against
the Saracens should not become a favorite topic for fiction.
Accordingly, the fabulous history of these wars was written,
probably towards the close of the eleventh century, by a monk, who,
thinking it would add dignity to his work to embellish it with a
contemporary name, boldly ascribed it to Turpin, who was Archbishop of
Rheims about the year 773.
These fabulous chronicles were for a while imprisoned in languages
of local only or of professional access. Both Turpin and Geoffrey
might indeed be read by ecclesiastics, the sole Latin scholars of
those times, and Geoffrey's British original would contribute to the
gratification of Welshmen; but neither could become extensively
popular till translated into some language of general and familiar
use. The Anglo-Saxon was at that time used only by a conquered and
enslaved nation; the Spanish and Italian languages were not yet
formed; the Norman French alone was spoken and understood by the
nobility in the greater part of Europe, and therefore was a proper
vehicle for the new mode of composition.
That language was fashionable in England before the Conquest, and
became, after that event, the only language used at the court of
London. As the various conquests of the Normans, and the
enthusiastic valor of that extraordinary people, had familiarized
the minds of men with the most marvellous events, their poets
eagerly seized the fabulous legends of Arthur and Charlemagne,
translated them into the language of the day, and soon produced a
variety of imitations. The adventures attributed to these monarchs,
and to their distinguished warriors, together with those of many other
traditionary or imaginary heroes, composed by degrees that
formidable body of marvellous histories which, from the dialect in
which the most ancient of them were written, were called Romances.


The earliest form in which romances appear is that of a rude kind of
verse. In this form it is supposed they were sung or recited at the
feasts of princes and knights in their baronial halls. The following
specimen of the language and style of Robert de Beauvais, who
flourished in 1257, is from Sir Walter Scott's Introduction to the
Romance of Sir Tristram:

"Ne voil pas emmi dire,
Ici diverse la matyere,
Entre ceus qui solent cunter,
E de la cunte Tristran parler."

"I will not say too much about it,
So diverse is the matter,
Among those who are in the habit of telling
And relating the story of Tristran."

This is a specimen of the language which was in use among the
nobility of England in the ages immediately after the Norman conquest.
The following is a specimen of the English that existed at the same
time among the common people. Robert de Brunne, speaking of his
Latin and French authorities, says:-

"Als thai haf wryten and sayd
Haf I alle in myn Inglis layd,
In symple speeche as I couthe,
That is lightest in manne's mouthe.
Alle for the luf of symple men,
That strange Inglis cannot ken."

The "strange Inglis" being the language of the previous specimen.
It was not till toward the end of the thirteenth century that the
prose romances began to appear. These works generally began with
disowning and discrediting the sources from which in reality they drew
their sole information. As every romance was supposed to be a real
history, the compilers of those in prose would have forfeited all
credit if they had announced themselves as mere copyists of the
minstrels. On the contrary, they usually state that, as the popular
poems upon the matter in question contain many "lesings," they had
been induced to translate the real and true history of such or such
a knight from the original Latin or Greek, or from the ancient British
or Armorican authorities, which authorities existed only in their
own assertion.
A specimen of the style of the prose romance may be found in the
following extract from one of the most celebrated and latest of
them, the Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Mallory, of the date of 1485.
From this work much of the contents of this volume has been drawn,
with as close an adherence to the original style as was thought
consistent with our plan of adapting our narrative to the taste of
modern readers.
"It is notoyrly knowen thorugh the vnyuersal world that there been
ix worthy and the best that ever were. That is to wete thre paynyms,
thre Jewes, and thre crysten men. As for the paynyms, they were tofore
the Incarnacyon of Cryst whiche were named, the fyrst Hector of Troye;
the second Alysaunder the grete, and the thyrd Julyus Cezar,
Emperour of Rome, of whome thystoryes ben well kno and had. And as for
the thre Jewes whyche also were tofore thyncarnacyon of our Lord, of
whome the fyrst was Duc Josue, whyche brought the chyldren of
Israhel into the londe of beheste; the second Dauyd, kyng of
Jherusalem, and the thyrd Judas Machabeus; of these thre the byble
reherceth al theyr noble hystoryes and actes. And sythe the sayd
Incarnacyon haue ben the noble crysten men stalled and admytted
thorugh the vnyuersal world to the nombre of the ix beste and
worthy, of whome was fyrst the noble Arthur, whose noble actes I
purpose to wryte in this present book here folowyng. The second was
Charlemayn, or Charles the grete, of whome thystorye is had in many
places both in frensshe and englysshe, and the thyrd and last was
Godefray of boloyn."


It has been well known to the literati and antiquarians of Europe,
that there exist in the great public libraries voluminous
manuscripts of romances and tales once popular, but which on the
invention of printing had already become antiquated and fallen into
neglect. They were therefore never printed, and seldom perused even by
the learned, until about half a century ago, when attention was
again directed to them, and they were found very curious monuments
of ancient manners, habits, and modes of thinking. Several have
since been edited, some by individuals, as Sir Walter Scott and the
poet Southey, others by antiquarian societies. The class of readers
which could be counted on for such publications was so small that no
inducement of profit could be found to tempt editors and publishers to
give them to the world. It was therefore only a few, and those the
most accessible, which were put in print. There was a class of
manuscripts of this kind which were known, or rather suspected, to
be both curious and valuable, but which it seemed almost hopeless ever
to see in fair printed English. These were the Welsh popular tales,
called Mabinogeon, a plural word, the singular being Mabinogi, a tale.
Manuscripts of these were contained in the Bodleian Library at Oxford,
and elsewhere, but the difficulty was to find translators and editors.
The Welsh is a spoken language among the peasantry of Wales, but is
entirely neglected among the learned, unless they are natives of the
principality. Of the few Welsh scholars none were found who took
sufficient interest in this branch of learning to give these
productions to the English public. Southey and Scott, and others
who, like them, loved the old romantic legends of their country, often
urged upon the Welsh literati the duty of reproducing the
Mabinogeon. Southey, in the preface to his edition of Morte
d'Arthur, says: "The specimens which I have seen are exceedingly
curious; nor is there a greater desideratum in British literature than
an edition of these tales, with a literal version, and such comments
as Mr. Davies of all men is best qualified to give. Certain it is that
many of the Round Table fictions originated in Wales, or in
Bretagne, and probably might still be traced there."
Again, in a letter to Sir Charles W. W. Wynn, dated 1819, he says:-
"I begin almost to despair of ever seeing more of the Mabinogeon;
and yet, if some competent Welshman could be found to edit it
carefully, with as literal a version as possible, I am sure it might
be made worth his while by a subscription, printing a small edition at
a high price, perhaps two hundred at five guineas. I myself would
gladly subscribe at that price per volume for such an edition of the
whole of your genuine remains in prose and verse. Till some such
collection is made, the 'gentlemen of Wales' ought to be prohibited
from wearing a leek; ay, and interdicted from toasting cheese also.
Your bards would have met with better usage if they had been
Sharon Turner and Sir Walter Scott also expressed a similar wish for
the publication of the Welsh manuscripts. The former took part in an
attempt to effect it, through the instrumentality of a Mr. Owen, a
Welshman, but, we judge, by what Southey says of him, imperfectly
acquainted with English. Southey's language is, "William Owen lent
me three parts of the Mabinogeon, delightfully translated into so
Welsh an idiom and syntax that such a translation is as instructive as
an original." In another letter he adds, "Let Sharon make his language
grammatical, but not alter their idiom in the slightest point."
It is possible Mr. Owen did not proceed far in an undertaking which,
so executed, could expect but little popular patronage. It was not
till an individual should appear possessed of the requisite
knowledge of the two languages, of enthusiasm sufficient for the task,
and of pecuniary resources sufficient to be independent of the
booksellers and of the reading public, that such a work could be
confidently expected. Such an individual has, since Southey's day
and Scott's, appeared in the person of Lady Charlotte Guest, an
English lady united to a gentleman of property in Wales, who, having
acquired the language of the principality, and become enthusiastically
fond of its literary treasures, has given them to the English
reader, in a dress which the printer's and the engraver's arts have
done their best to adorn. In four royal octave volumes containing
the Welsh originals, the translation, and ample illustrations from
French, German, and other contemporary and affiliated literature,
the Mabinogeon is spread before us. To the antiquarian and the student
of language and ethnology an invaluable treasure, it yet can hardly,
in such a form, win its way to popular acquaintance. We claim no other
merit than that of bringing it to the knowledge of our readers, of
abridging its details, of selecting its most attractive portions,
and of faithfully preserving throughout the style in which Lady
Guest has clothed her legends. For this service we hope that our
readers will confess we have laid them under no light obligation.

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