The Illusion of Chivalry

John A Lynn in his excellent book “Battle” speaks of what he calls the illusion of chivalry. One the one hand is the medieval concept of chivalry and on the other is the brutal reality of war. I think our perception of this so called illusion derives from how we see the makeup  medieval armies. Dr. Lynn describes the army of Edward III as composed of “2,700 knights and squires, men of aristocratic and landed backgrounds.” Serving along with them are 12,000 commoners including 7,000 peasant longbowmen. The problem with this description is the assumption that medieval mounted warriors were composed of aristocrats, knights and squires.


Even when feudal obligation was the source of raising mounted forces  those forces were always composed of a mix of knights and commoners. When historians write that the aristocracy fought on horseback they are correct. Where they get tripped up is in assuming that all who fought on horseback were knights and squires. This is simply wrong. In the charters of cities and religious organizations was often the requirement of these charter holders to provide mounted troops. These non-noble mounted warriors were called sergeants. Thus medieval mounted forces consisted of noble and non-noble warriors. To subsume all mounted warriors under the title of aristocrat simply does not reflect the reality of high medieval warfare.


In the 14th century we begin to see a terminological shift in the naming of mounted forces. The older knight/sergeant dichotomy began to be replaced with a single term ‘man-at-arms’. Because of their erroneous concept that mounted warfare meant aristocratic warfare, historians used ‘man-at-arms’ and ‘aristocracy’ interchangeably. They assumed that that the proponents of chivalry also made up the mounted component of armies of the Hundred Year’s War. They didn’t. That is to say very few of them did.


In the thirteenth century, requirements for providing mounted contingents began to shift from feudal and personal obligation to an obligation based on property (primarily land). If one had x amount of property one had to supply a bowman. If one had a great amount than x one had to supply a man-at-arms. Under Edward II the property owner could supply an archer or man-at-arms. If he had even more property he had to provide two men-at-arms, etc. Under Edward III it was the property owner that had to be so equipped. Three studies of English counties showed that property ownership among non-nobles called franklins, and the lower esquires were about equal.. This meant that franklins and esquires who had property qualifying them to provide men-at-arms had to present themselves armed and trained as a man-at-arms. Depending on the amount of property a non-noble or franklin had to provide either a bowman or a man-at-arms. So the simple assumption that a man-at-arms meant a noble is quite wrong.


I applaud Dr. Lynn for the focus on the effects of culture on warfare. What cripples his approach is to put this information into the old wineskins of economic class. I think there is more benefit by following up Roland Mousnier’s idea of a society of orders. Nevertheless one needs to recognize that in the 14th– and 15th-centuries there developed two different militarized sub-societies. The first was peopled by the high aristocracy where military expertise was an important value. However, this expertise was showcased in tournaments not war. The second military society was composed of the lower orders of franklins and esquires. These made up the professional warriors of the Hundred Years War. It was this group that had no interest in the rules of chivalry. They were there to gain resources in any way possible.



3 Responses to The Illusion of Chivalry

  1. archaeozoo says:

    I think your comments on the two very different divisions of the military is very accurate. I believe that the two had very different ways of perceiving war, and the world generally, and that this is reflected in their behaviour.

  2. wapenshaw says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    As I wrote, it is the failure to distinguish between these two that get historians in trouble when trying to ‘reconcile’ these two activities. Of course this derives from a failure to adequately understand social divisions within the late medieval culture. Their thinking just does not extend beyond class conflict model of social division. As such, we get comments like “the English archer brought ended the reign of knighthood.” Never mind that these same archers were fighting beside this same social group they are advertised as trying to destroy.

  3. Sundaykp says:

    thanks much, brother

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