Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry
Annotation author: Wiedmaier, Helen
Book author: Kaeuper, Richard

Richard Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks), Cambridge 2016

The nature of chivalry has often been a subject of debates. Until the cultural turn, many researchers assumed that the noble fighters such as knights acted according to a special, chivalric code connected to principles of honour and Christianity. In contrast, more recent studies postulate that there was a significant difference between the ideal chivalrous behaviour described in medieval sources and the often violent reality of a warrior’s life. This distinction is also the topic of Kaeuper’s first section of the book: which aspects of chivalric life were the authors’ creations and which aspects had a connection to the everyday life of actual people? Kaeuper points out that the ideals and ideas of chivalry were very important to people in the Middle Ages and that understanding this importance is the first step to understand chivalry itself.

Kaeuper goes on to offer a distinguished definition of the word chivalry itself and points out that it is in fact a contemporary term. The author then focuses on the values behind the cluster of general chivalric principles and practices such as piety and honour. He uses examples that are easy to follow and give a good insight into these chivalric motives and how they are reflected in the sources.

Kaeuper correctly states that chivalry was not static through the times but changed. Consequently, he points out three phases of chivalry:  the first phase started in the mid-eleventh century, the second during the thirteenth century and the last one covered the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, Kaeuper also explains that these are only preliminary models that are not set in stone. Special attention should be paid to the third phase: while many scholars postulated that chivalry declined in late medieval times, Kaeuper argues that the art of chivalric fighting can be observed even in the sixteenth century. Therefore, chivalry did not end in the High Middle Ages but changed in order to remain compatible with an equally changed society.

After that important determination and a short overview of the practice of violence, Kaeuper offers insights into the topic of knights in actual battles. War was common and fighting was very different from the way it was described in books. Chivalric ideals such as honour could even stand in the way of winning a battle. Besides their role in times of conflict, there were also connections between chivalry and institutions such as kingship or the Church. The book ends with a chapter on emotions connected to chivalry: while there are many books about knights and love, it is fascinating to read about the other emotions also depicted in the sources such as fear or thirst for vengeance. All were connected to the concept of honour, which can also be seen as a frame for the whole book.

In conclusion, the book gives a very helpful overview of the nature of chivalry in the Middle Ages, its change throughout the centuries and its connection to people, institutions, conflicts and – maybe most importantly – the image we receive today of all those elements in the sources. The book gives a broad overview but focuses mostly on England and, in case of the Hundred Years’  War, on the involved countries. Maybe it could have been an informative supplement to consider other regions in greater detail. On the other hand, there is the risk of becoming too vague. Therefore, Kaeuper’s focus is understandable and works very well in the book.