The following excerpt is from the 1825 classic The History of Chivalry Or Knighthood and Its Times, by Charles Mills. Like many historical articles it shows that chivalry came to be about much more than military conduct, becoming conflated as it were with deferent and servile behaviour toward women – as it does to this day. The following describes the process whereby young boys were inducted into the cult of chivalry.
The education of a knight generally commenced at the age of seven or eight years, for no true lover of chivalry wished his children to pass their time in idleness and indulgence.
At a baronial feast, a lady in the full glow of maternal pride pointed to her offspring, and demanded of her husband whether he did not bless Heaven for having given him four such fine and promising boys. “Dame,” replied her lord, thinking her observation ill timed and foolish, ” so help me God and Saint Martin, nothing gives me greater sorrow and shame than to see four great sluggards, who do nothing but eat, and drink, and waste their time in idleness and folly.” Like other children of gentlebirth, therefore, the boys of this noble Duke Guerin of Montglaive, in spite of their mother’s wishes, commenced their chivalric exercises.
In some places there were schools appointed by the nobles of the country, but most frequently their own castles served. Every feudal lord had his court, to which he drew the sons and daughters of the poorer gentry of his domains ; and his castle was also frequented by the children of men of equal rank with himself, for (such was the modesty and courtesy of chivalry) each knight had generally some brother in arms, whom he thought better fitted than himself to grace his children with noble accomplishments.
The duties of the boy for the first seven years of his service were chiefly personal. If sometimes the harsh principles of feudal subordination gave rise to such service, it oftener proceeded from the friendly relations of life; and as in the latter case it was voluntary, there was no loss of honourable consideration in performing it. The dignity of obedience, that principle which blends the various shades of social life, and which had its origin in the patriarchal manners of early Europe, was now fostered in the castles of the feudal nobility.
The light-footed youth attended the lord and his lady in the hall, and followed them in all their exercises of war and pleasure ; and it was considered unknightly for a cavalier to wound a page in battle. He also acquired the rudiments of those incongruous subjects, religion, love, and war, so strangely blended in chivalry ; and generally the intellectual and moral education of the boy was given by the ladies of the court.
“Generally the intellectual and moral education of the boy was given by the ladies of the court.”
From the lips of the ladies the gentle page learned both his catechism and the art of love, and as the religion of the day was full of symbols, and addressed to the senses, so the other feature of his devotion was not to be nourished by abstract contemplation alone. He was directed to regard some one lady of the court as the type of his heart’s future mistress ; she was the centre of all his hopes and wishes ; to her he was obedient, faithful, and courteous.
While the young Jean de Saintre was a page of honour at the court of the French king, the Dame des Belles Cousines enquired of him the name of the mistress of his heart’s affections. The simple youth replied, that he loved his lady mother, and next to her, his sister Jacqueline was dear to him. “Young man,” rejoined the lady, “I am not speaking of the affection due to your mother and sister ; but I wish to know the name of the lady to whom you are attached par amours.” The poor boy was still more confused, and he could only reply, that he loved no one par amours.
The Dame des Belles Cousines charged him with being a traitor to the laws of chivalry, and declared that his craven spirit was evinced by such an avowal. “Whence,” she enquired, “sprang the valiancy and knightly feats of Launcelot, Gawain, Tristram, Giron the courteous, and other ornaments of the round fable of Ponthus, and of those knights and squires of this country whom I could enumerate : whence the grandeur of many whom I have. known to arise to renown, except from the noble desire of maintaining themselves in the grace and esteem of the ladies ; without which spirit-stirring sentiment they must have ever remained in the shades of obscurity? And do you, coward valet, presume to declare that you possess no sovereign lady, and desire to have none ?”
Jean underwent a long scene of persecution on account of his confession of the want of proper chivalric sentiment, but he was at length restored to favour by the intercession of the ladies of the court. He then named as his mistress Matheline de Coucy, a child only ten years old. “Matheline is indeed a pretty girl,” replied the Dame des Belles Cousines, “but what profit, what honour, what comfort, what aid, what council for advancing you in chivalrous fame can you derive from such a choice? You should elect a lady of noble blood, who has the ability to advise, and the power to assist you ; and you should serve her so truly, and love her so loyally, as to compel her to acknowledge the honourable affection which you entertain for her. For, be assured, that there is no lady, however cruel and haughty she may be, but through long service, will be induced to acknowledge and reward loyal affection with some portion of mercy.
By such a course you will gain the praise of worthy knighthood, and till then I would not give an apple for you or your achievements but he who loyally serves his lady will not only be blessed to the height of man’s felicity in this life, but will never fall into those sins which will prevent his happiness hereafter. Pride will be entirely effaced until the heart of him who endeavours by humility and courtesy to win the grace of a lady. The true faith of a lover will defend him from the other deadly sins of anger, envy, sloth, and gluttony ; and his devotion to his mistress renders the thought impossible of his conduct ever being stained with the vice of incontinence.”
Source: Charles Mills, The History of Chivalry Or Knighthood and Its Times (1825)