Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Guest post from Evan Ostryzniuk: The problem of knighthood in the late Middle Ages

Debut novelist Evan Ostryzniuk is stopping by today with a terrific guest essay on the changing meaning of knighthood in 14th-century Europe.  His book, Of Faith and Fidelity, the first volume in the English Free Company Series, is published on June 9th by Knox Robinson Publishing.

The problem of knighthood in the late Middle Ages: the case of Geoffrey Hotspur

The consensus among historians is that the better part of the 14th century can be considered ‘transitional’ from the high Middle Ages, which was dominated by scholasticism, rigid feudal relations and a gothic sensibility, to the Renaissance, which engendered the birth of Humanism, merchant capitalism and the recovery of Europe’s classical heritage. This raises a problem for the young Geoffrey Hotspur, the main character in my novel Of Faith and Fidelity, because almost since birth he has been training to become a knight in the very conventional sense, and if 14th century society no longer places much value in that station, then he will be lost. The challenges before the squire, then, is whether he can find a place for himself as a traditional knight, assuming that the title worth seeking once he gets a glimpse of the outside world, and how much he will have to adapt his ideal to the shifting social, economic and military landscape of late medieval Europe. However, before the cloistered orphan can make any decisions, he will have to meet head-on those manifestations of a new and emerging culture.

One of the most vivid examples of change Geoffrey faces is the professional mercenary army, which was having a growing importance on the battlefields of Europe. Mercenaries, of course, were nothing new by the 14th century, and even the most majestic kings employed them alongside their levy of knights and titled men-at-arms. What changes, though, is the number and prestige of these soldiers for hire, especially in Italy, where the traditions of knighthood were weak and the institution of kingship close to non-existent. What is even more confusing for the young men brought up on the legend of King Arthur and the rituals of a feudal court is that growing number of titled families were entering professional soldiery as a respectable means of acquiring fame and honor, not to mention cold hard cash. The division between knights and mercenaries was blurring, and this transformed the military ethos of the high middle ages, whereby the right to military service was all about privilege, class distinction and maintaining the social hierarchy. The rise of the condottiere in Italy, peasant pikeman in the Swiss cantons and landsknecht in Germany changed all that.

The most treasured possession of any knight was his sword, and his skill with cold steel in battle or at a tournament helped define his value. For Geoffrey Hotspur, his magnificent sword is at once a weapon, a cross, a source of moral strength, and a part of his identity. However, the invention of firearms in the 14th century expanded the range of weapons available and eventually, certainly by the end of the 16th century, rendered the armored knight and his sword obsolete. The first recorded recipe for gunpowder in Europe appears in the 13th century, but the first practical military application is found only in the early 14th century with the primitive cannon. Gunpowder technology steadily evolved during the next few generations until batteries of cannon became an essential arm of the late medieval army and city alike. For the likes of Geoffrey Hotspur, gunpowder technology was dirty, unchivalric, and inelegant. Cannons were confusing as well. Hurling missiles from a safe distance was an age old tactic and a fully integrated part of the medieval army, but whether as archers or crossbowmen, missile-throwers were always associated with the lower classes, and therefore condescended to by titled soldiers. Those with firearms fell into this category as well, of course, but because of the chemical nature of gunpowder, unlike bows, firearms held a mystical fascination that competed with the knight’s aura of chivalry.

Geoffrey Hotspur wants to be a knight, but by the late 14th century was it worth the effort? Knighthood evolved out the military ethos that evolved in the post-Roman, Barbarian, newly Christianized world and coalesced into an ideal that included a wide range of virtues, including generosity, piety, courtesy, valor, as well as dexterity with arms and fidelity to one’s lord. However, as the centuries wore on and the non-military orders sought to move up the social ladder, they began to reach for titles, debasing them in the process. The nature of service was expanded and redefined. When royal and ducal households were still small, the number of bureaucrats was likewise few and mostly drawn from the clerical orders. By the 14th century, the nature of medieval governance was changing so that governments had to expand. More commoners joined the higher administrations and emerged as a non-fighting titled order. In France, the distinction became known as the ‘nobility of the sword’ versus the ‘nobility of the robe’. Therefore, how could an honest knight, who demonstrated his prowess through the tip of his lance or by the blade of his sword, reconcile with a parchment-pusher who claimed to be his social equal? If sanctioned by the powers-that-be, such a debasement of knighthood created conflict and confusion, resentment and despair, which caused the traditional, conservative aspirants to knighthood to fear for its value.

The main reward for loyal and valiant knightly service in the Middle Ages was wealth in the form of arable land, from which the knight could draw the resources necessary to equip himself, feed his family and supply his retinue. Geoffrey Hotspur is a rootless squire because he has no land. He lives in a city, Avignon, but it affords him no opportunity for career advancement, although it offers enough distractions to get him into trouble. The knight’s encounter with the city was often disorienting and corrupting, as he had no place there. A knight’s fee, however, was the source of his authority, something which the city could not offer in any meaningful way. It was no accident that the great knightly tales of the Middle Ages take place in a pastoral environment, whether open fields, enclosed gardens or darkened forests. Only on the open field of battle could a knight demonstrate his prowess, or in forests fight monsters, or in perfumed garden court his ideal maiden away from prying eyes. The 14th century saw the rise of cities and the merchant class, mainly in Italy but also in select places in northern Europe. As the cities grew, so did their financial and ultimately political power, which allowed citizens to invade the rural idyll of the knight by buying up land, or interfere in power politics. Geoffrey Hotspur must carefully negotiate the temptations of the city as he tries to prove himself worthy of a knighthood.

Finally, one of the greatest challenges to knighthood in the 14th century was the Black Death, or bubonic plague. It was a monster that killed half of Europe at mid-century and would regularly rear its ugly head over the subsequent three centuries. Disease and pestilence was common in the Middle Ages, but the Black Death was particularly destructive not just in terms of the sheer number of people who died form it, but its perfidious influence undermined the authority of the Church, destabilized society, fractured the medieval consensus about the social hierarchy, and interfered with the conduct of war, all of which together supported the institution of knighthood. A good squire cannot be made a knight without battle; a knighthood lost its quasi-sanctified nature without the belief in the Church; popular challenges to the social status quo made it difficult for the knight to keep his place and lands under control; mass mortality of the titled orders caused confusion about service obligations and relations. Geoffrey has to face this fatal threat daily. As a squire, he garners little enough respect from his social betters and underlings, and so if courtesy and deference break down, he might become humiliated and must find ways to gird his confidence in that what he aspires to is right and true.


Author info: Evan Ostryzniuk was born and raised on the prairies of western Canada, where he also attended the University of Saskatchewan. After graduating with a B.A. in History and Modern Languages and an M.A. in Modern History, Evan crossed the ocean to do post-graduate work at the University of Cambridge, concluding five years of research with a doctoral thesis on the Russian Revolution. He eventually found his way to eastern Europe, where he took up positions as a magazine editor, university lecturer and analyst in the financial services sector before finally settling on writing as a career. Evan Ostryzniuk currently resides in Kyiv, Ukraine. Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne is his first novel.

Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne is the first book in the English Free Company series set in the late Middle Ages. The English Free Company is led by Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, whose driving ambition is to become a knight and serve a great lord. Of Faith and Fidelity takes place in 1394, at the height of the schism of the Western Church when the throne of St. Peter was contested by rival claimants in Rome and Avignon. Unable to settle the dispute peacefully, both sides resorted to war, and the key to winning the throne of St. Peter was control of the Patrimony, a band of territory stretching the breadth of Italy that owes fealty to whichever pope who can rule it. Before Henry V won his miraculous victory at Agincourt, before the Borgias had done their infamous deeds, there was Geoffrey Hotspur, a man as tall as Charlemagne and armed with a sword that rivals Excalibur. Thrown off the established path to knighthood, the ambitious and hot-tempered Geoffrey finds himself caught up in the war between the two popes, where he must adapt his beliefs and apply his training as a squire in order to survive.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great post. I'm looking forward to reading this book.