RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE IN SECULAR CHIVALRY
Copyright © 2013 Leon Roger Hunt
Secular Chivalry had its ceremonies and initiations, but before the relationship of these to the purpose of Religious-Military Chivalry can be seen there is a great deal of confused clutter to be swept away. In doing so, a transatlantic historian may well be given the first word.
"Too much importance has been attached to the ceremony of making a knight. The important act was that the candidate should kneel in obeisance before the one bestowing the honour, who then gave him a slight blow with the flat of the sword, on the shoulder or the back of the neck, bidding him rise and calling him a knight. Witnesses were present if possible. It was then necessary to see that the new knight was provided with a set of arms and armor, including a horse, so that he could function. Because the twelfth century man dearly loved a party, this simple ceremony was made the excuse for a high celebration, which was not at all necessary ...... It was largely in the thirteenth century that a mystical element was added to the procedure, emphasising the need for purity, and demanding that the candidate should bathe, keep vigil the night before in a chapel, and so on. This was a kind of play acting. I am not saying that the elements of it were not occasionally practised in the twelfth century, and I believe that in the thirteenth century there were still 'spot promotions' where knighthood was conferred without the trimmings." (1)
Obviously this account tries to be fairly radical, which is a good beginning. But it is not radical enough. The ceremony of dubbing which the author describes as necessary to knighthood, that slight blow so reminiscent of the blow given at Confirmation, is a fragment, or a rudimentary form, of the very 'play acting' from which he is trying to clear his subject.
William of Malmesbury tells (2) how Edward the Elder clothed Athelstan in a soldier's dress of scarlet, and fastened round him a jewelled girdle in which was inserted a gold-sheathed Saxon sword. When Philip the Fair had to find a formula for the knighthood which he conferred upon Nogaret and Plasians and their kind, naturally he had no desire to evoke any mystical or ecclesiastical significance. This threw him back upon the strictly military honour, although to confer that upon any man for non-military services was thus revealed as involving almost a contradiction in terms. But the emblem by which this honour was conferred is stated distinctly in the formula: they were to receive the soldier's belt ...... Similarly, in what must have been one of the most ungracious ceremonies of knighthood ever performed, in 1285 Ferdinand II of Castile had made himself a knight at Burgos, in the monastery church, using the words Manu propria accinxi me cingulo militari. It was always by the sword-belt that knightly status in its completely secular form was given. The blow on neck or shoulder was a part of something different.
There have been attempts to show the more solemn procedure, in which the candidate received this blow, as appearing in England before the Norman Conquest. On examination, these attempts always prove to owe their principal debt, directly or otherwise, to a story told by one 'Ingulf' of the knighting of Hereward by the Abbot of Peterborough in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Ingulf explains that anyone who wishes to become a true knight (miles) should confess his sins in the evening, watch all night in the church, and in the morning should make offering of his sword upon the altar. At Mass, after the Gospel, the priest blesses the sword and lays it on the neck of the candidate with his blessing. Holy Communion completes the ceremony. The duty of the knight, one perceives, is here considered as being directly to God rather than to his feudal overlord. This is interesting as an expression of fourteenth century opinion, but not of anything earlier than that. 'Ingulf' is the pseudonym of a shameless mediaeval imposter and forger, whose purpose was to demonstrate that the Norman Conquest had not brought any good thing into England.
Since nothing as picturesque as the elaborate religious form of the ceremony could have existed for long without being seized upon by the writers, we may infer that it had not long been current before we first hear of it. The idea that secular knighthood might have a religious significance seems to have been hailed as tremendous good news in the twelfth century, when the Arthurian romances ran wildfire through Europe. So the origin of the idea cannot be placed much earlier than that: after the foundation of the Military Orders, therefore. And since the Order of St. John did not become military until after the Order of the Temple had come into being, this gives a considerable place in the history of ideas to Hugh of Payns, with his concept, no matter whence gathered, of the Kingship of Christ as supreme object of a quasi-feudal allegiance.
This idea appears in a story which must be quoted at some length, for it would seem to contain the first literary gleam of the religious aspect of chivalry. Some would involve this story in the Arthurian Cycle, making its hero Owen (or Owain) a brother to Gawain. Owen, however, having made his pilgrimage, turns to monasticism as the actual fulfilment of the quest for his vocation, not as a somewhat melancholy close to a life whose vocation had been quite satisfactorily found in chivalry, in the manner of Mallory’s hermits. It is noticeable too that although Owen visits Jerusalem there is no word of the Military Orders. The story seems therefore to date from very soon after their beginning, from exactly the period which it assigns to itself: the reign of Stephen. The version given here is faithful to these early characteristics, although ‘Collected out of Ancient Historians’ in the seventeenth century. (3)
“There was a certain Soldier (4) called Owen, who had for many years served in King Stephen’s Army. This man, having obtained Licence from the King, came to the North of Ireland, his Native Country, to visit his Parents; and when he had continued there for some time, he began to reflect upon the wickedness of the Life he had led from his Infancy; upon his Plundering and Burning in the Army; and (which grieved him more) upon the many sacrileges he had been guilty of in Robbing and Spoiling Churches; together with many other Enormous hidden Sins.
“Being then interiorly moved to repentance, he went to a certain Bishop in that country, and confess’d all his Sins unto him ...... When the Bishop wou’d then enjoin him such penance as he thought reasonable, the Soldier answered: Since you say that I have offended God so grievously, I will undergo a penance more grievous than any other whatsoever. I will go into St. Patrick’s Purgatory. The Bishop, to diswade him from so bold an attempt, related unto him, how many had perished in that Place; but the Soldier, who never feared any danger, would not be diswaded. The Bishop advised him to take the Habit of the Canon Regulars, or that of the Monks, and the Soldier declared he wou’d do neither till he had first gone into the said Purgatory. Whereupon the Bishop, perceiving he was inflexible and Truely penitent, wrote by him to the Prior of the place and charged him to deal with the Soldier, as was usually done with those, who desire to enter this Purgatory. The Prior, upon perusal of the Bishop’s Letter, after that he had observed all the other Formalities required, conducted the Soldier into the Church, where he passed the accustomed time of fifteen days in fast and prayer. Then the Prior having celebrated Mass gave him the Sacrament, called together his own Brethren, and the Neighbouring Clergy, conducted him to the door of the Cave, sprinkled him with Holy-water, and made him this speech.
“Behold thou shalt now enter in here, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and shalt walk through the hollow of this Cave, till thou comest to a Field, where thou shalt find a Hall artificially wrought; into which when thou hast enter’d thou shalt find Messengers sent from God, who shall tell thee all in Order what thou art to do, and to suffer. When these are gone and thou alone in the Hall, Evil Spirits will immediately come to tempt thee; For so it happen’d to others that went in here before thee, but be thou of Manly courage, and Stedfast in the Faith of Jesus Christ.
“The Soldier, who fear’d no Colours, was no was frighten’d at what happen’d to others, having often before, Arm’d with Steel, fought against Men, now arm’d with Faith, Hope and Charity, and confiding in God’s Mercy, went on boldly to fight against Devils; so recommending himself to all their Prayers, and making the Sign of the Cross on his Forehead, courageously enter’d the Door, which the Prior Locked on the outside and Return’d in Procession with his Clergy to the Church ......”
The remainder of this chapter, and the four following, tell of Owen’s adventures; of the counsel given him by the ‘fifteen Men clad in white Garments’, of the efforts of demons to tempt or to terrify him, and of his sight of the punishment of sinners. Then he comes to the Terrestrial Paradise, whose vision itself is a sort of mysterious temptation. Then follows his return earthwards.
“ ...... and Lo the fifteen Men, who had instructed him in the beginning, met him glorifying God, who had given him so much constancy in his Torments, and, having congratulated him upon his victory, said unto him: Courage, Brother. We know thou hast overcome the Torments which thou hast so manfully born; and that thou art purged of all thy Sins. The Sun begins now to rise in thy Country: Make haste thou up to the Cave: For if the Prior, who when he hath said Mass, shall come to the Door, finds thee not there, he will lock the Door, as Despairing of thy salvation; and return to the Church. The Soldier hereupon, having first got their Blessing, hasten’d up to the Cave, and at the very Minute that the Prior open’d the Door, the Soldier appear’d ......
“Then the Soldier put on his Shoulder the mark of the Cross of Christ and went with great devotion to the Holy Land, to visit the Sepulchre of our Lord Jesus Christ at Jerusalem, and all the Holy Places round about it. Which when he had Devoutly performed he came back, and went to Stephen, King of England, to whom he had been before familiarly known, to advise with him, after what Manner he might best for the future Warfare for the King of Kings, as he had heretofore carry’d Arms for him ...... And having taken the Habit of a Monk, he lived an Holy and Religious Life all the rest of his days ......”
This legend acquired a place in tradition which, intrinsically, it does not seem to promise. Despite Owen’s renunciation of earthly arms, it became a custom in the Middle Ages that any candidate for secular knighthood who made the pilgrimage to ‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory’ was considered to have adequately won his spurs. The locality of this adventure, Lough Derg, is still frequented as a place of pilgrimage, indeed it is flourishing in the returning cult of athletic penances; but the whole procedure there has been changed. The modern, painful but somewhat incomprehensible system of ‘penitential beds’, upon whose stones high-spirited young men fling themselves after gabbling in keen competition through the required prayers, has superseded a much more recognisable mediaeval practice of keeping vigil in an unlighted cavern. There the watcher was supposed to be visited mentally by all the tempations of horror and of delight through which Owen had been said to pass bodily, until at daybreak he was released to mount again, thankfully, into the rays of the rising sun. That was the ordeal which secular chivalry acknowledged as equivalent to anything normally imposed upon its candidates; for, like its own vigil, or like the bath of chivalry whose symbolism most closely follows that of sacramental baptism, the Lough Derg procedure signified the death and burial of the candidate before he should arise into his new life of dedication.
In this context even that simplest of chivalric ceremonies, the dubbing of a knight – striking him a slight blow on the vital region of the neck and then bidding him to arise as a knight – shows itself evidently as an abbreviated variation upon the same theme. Its appropriateness need not even have been fully reasoned, since by the time it appears the use of religious symbolism in secular life has pervaded European thought. But whence had such an idea come to spread so suddenly in the West, if it were not brought in with the prolific intellectual sowing of Palestinian experience?
1 – Holmes, Urban Tigner, Daily Living in the Twelfth Century. University of Wisconsin Press, 1952.
2 – Wm. of Malmesbury, II, 6
3 – “A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and its Pilgrimage. Collected out of Ancient Historians. Written in Latin by the Reverend Mr. Thomas Messingham, formerly Superior of the Irish Seminary in Paris. (Paris, 1624.) And now made English in favour of those who are curious to know the Particulars of that Famous Place and Pilgrimage so much celebrated by Antiquity. Printed at Paris, 1718.” The story of the miles Owen begins at Chapter IV: “Of the Penitent Soldier, his going into this Purgatory, and of the Messengers sent from God unto him.”
4 – Miles in the Latin. We have preferred not to tamper with a word of this interesting translation, except by way of abridgment.