These two paperbacks, of Geoffroi de Charny’s A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry and Edward, Duke of York’s The Master of Game, make accessible two texts that are of exceptional interest for the light they shed on the ethos, style and tastes of the secular aristocracy of the later Middle Ages. Charny’s book offers an exploration and explanation of the values and proper manner of life for Christian knights and men at arms by someone who was a knight himself. The Master of Game is also a translation, but from the 15th not the 21st century. It is Edward, Duke of York’s English rendering of the most famous of the many hunting treatises of the Middle Ages, the Livre de chasse of Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix (d. 1391). Edward omitted some of Gaston’s chapters (on the ibex, for instance, and the reindeer, not very relevant quarry for medieval Englishmen), but added five of his own on specifically English hunting ways. The new paperback is a straight reprint of the Baillie-Grohmans edition of 1909, which discreetly modernised the English of the original, and carries the same series of charming black and white reproductions of illuminations from the magnificent Bibliothèque Nationale manuscript of the Livre. It also carries the enthusiastic foreword to the 1904 edition by the then president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, which has an interest for itself.
In their own day, Gaston’s book and Edward’s version of it had considerably more impact than did Charny’s Book of Chivalry. Only two manuscripts of that work survive, against 19 known manuscripts of The Master of Game and 46 of the Livre de chasse. For a modern reader, however, Charny is likely to have greater interest. The hunting manuals have, plainly, useful things to tell the historian of leisure pursuits, but their practical matter is essentially of specialist interest. Charny, in contrast, treats a subject of wide historical significance: the value system of the dominant class of a past age. The ideal of chivalry as Charny and his contemporaries knew it is a concept that the modern mind relates to only uneasily. The word has become invested with too many overtones of attitudes that we tend to be pleased with ourselves for having discarded: exaltation of the combative instinct, the snobbery of the concept of the officer and gentleman, the condescension of a protective respect for womankind as the definitively weaker sex. Charny takes us back into a world where chivalry had meaning as a whole way of life for those whose God-given role in a violent society was the protection of the weak and unarmed, the priest, the peasant, the woman and the child; and for whom that role was the source at once of the justification for their privileges and of the obligation on them to be at all times ready to put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of others.
In recent times, Geoffroi de Charny has most often been remembered as the earliest known possessor of the Turin Shroud, which was preserved in the church that he endowed on his estates at Lirey in Champagne. In his own lifetime, however, his renown was not as the keeper of a holy relic but as a noble warrior, ‘among the worthiest and most valiant’, according to Froissart. Born around 1305 into a noble Burgundian family, he is first heard of serving at the head of a small troop of men at arms in Gascony and Brittany in the early campaigns of the Hundred Years War. In 1345, during a lull in the fighting in France, he joined the abortive crusade of Humbert, Dauphin of Vienne; it has been suggested that it may have been on this expedition, somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, that he acquired the famous shroud. He had by this time already made a martial name for himself, and in 1346, after the French defeat at Crécy (a battle he was lucky to miss), he was taken into the royal council of King Philip VI. With the next king, John II, who ascended the French throne in 1350, he came to be on very close terms. He was one of the Knights of the Order of the Star, founded by John in 1352 and which that king hoped would revive French chivalry after its defeats and outshine in knightly lustre Edward III’s recently instituted Order of the Garter. Three years later, in 1355, John appointed Charny to the supremely honourable office of bearer of the Oriflamme, the holy royal standard of France. In peacetime this great banner of red silk was guarded in the Abbey of St Denis; when in wartime the king rode out in person on campaign it was blessed in a solemn ritual by the abbot as it was put into the hands of the bearer. Geoffroi de Charny was guarding it with his life when he fell at the field of Poitiers (1356), the great battle in which King John was taken prisoner by the English under the Black Prince. It was a fitting end to a career that had equipped Charny pre-eminently to be the author of a Book of Chivalry.
It seems likely that his book was composed for the Knights of the Star, with in mind the standards to be expected of aspirants to their order (another related work of his was certainly written for them, his book of Demandes, a collection of highly intriguing questions about delicate points of honour in knightly conduct, on which he hoped the knights would adjudicate). Its basic subject is prowess, the essential quality for which, as Charny repeats over and again, every chivalrous man should aim, and whose achievement, as Richard Kaeuper neatly summarises it in his introduction, involved ‘the entire cluster of warrior virtues; great strength, hardiness and skill in using weapons on horseback and on foot, as well as the courage and determination that must inform success in arms’. It is through deeds of prowess and the constant readiness to risk his life in action, Charny explains, that the knight or man at arms discharges his social duty in Christian society as a member of the aristocratic martial estate: ‘No one can or should excuse himself from bearing arms in a just cause, whether for his lord or for his lineage or for himself or for Holy Church or to uphold and defend the faith or out of pity for men or women who cannot defend their own rights.’ No one should excuse himself: the clear injunction is that the worthy man at arms (the prudhomme or man of prowess) ought to be positively on the lookout for good causes in which to draw his sword. Charny and his contemporaries assumed that there would always be plenty of them. The deeds of prowess that the man at arms performs in these good causes open his way to the twin crowning rewards of chivalry, ‘high honour in this world and the soul’s acceptance in paradise’.
This salvific context, which is integral to Charny’s conception of chivalry, comes out very clearly in his identification of endurance of the rigours of life on campaign as a Christian discipline comparable in spiritual worth with the asceticism of the devout monk or priest. It is apparent again as he explains how you can tell the prudhommes of truly supreme worth by the wisdom with which they attribute all their glory and achievement to the grace of God and the Virgin. At the same time, the physical aspects of prowess and the honour that it can win in this world are constant themes. Chivalry demands a continuous endeavour towards higher achievement, of which the degree of physical risk involved is a vital measure; and the repeated comment that ‘he who does more is of greater worth’ has to be read in terms of esteem among the fighting man’s warrior peers. Thus those who display prowess in the one-to-one combat of the jousting field deserve praise, Charny says, but higher praise must go to those who distinguish themselves in the rougher and riskier mêlée of the tournament. These in turn must give way before those who win honour in real war because war is more dangerous again, and an honourable part in it the ultimate vocation of the nobility.
There is little that was new or original in Charny’s exposition. For us now its interest lies not in the influence it exercised (which appears to have been slight) but rather in the influences it reflects, and what it tells us about the ways in which they worked on the mind of a well-born and adventurous 14th-century knight. Here perhaps the most interesting revelation is of the impact on the knightly mind of chivalrous romance and in particular the Arthurian romances. Elspeth Kennedy, in the notes to her translation, skilfully identifies the passages where this shows most patently. It comes out especially strikingly when Charny turns to the subject of gender relations, and to the significance in chivalry of ‘courtly love’. ‘To love a lady truly and honourably,’ Charny says, ‘is the right position to be in for those who desire to achieve honour.’
Love, as a force urging a knight forward to test his prowess ever more severely in order to make himself worthy of his beloved, is a recurrent theme of medieval romance narrative. Its classic expression is in the stories of the dangers to which Lancelot was ready and eager to expose himself under the inspiration of his love for Arthur’s Queen Guinevere. Charny, who was clearly well acquainted with that story, was the first to give a place to this potential of love as an inspiration to prowess in a non-fictional advice book on chivalry. His eulogy of the loyal, secret dedication of a prudhomme to a lady who is the only one to know of his love is among the most intriguing passages in his book, revealing as it does the real grip on a real knight’s outlook of what is often assumed to be no more than a literary convention. What delight it will bring to a knight’s beloved, he exclaims, ‘when she sees him enter the hall where all at the table honour, salute and celebrate him’; that will ‘make the noble lady rejoice greatly within herself at the fact that she has set her mind and heart on loving and helping to make such a good knight’.
If there is no mistaking the high seriousness of all that Charny wrote in his Book of Chivalry, Edward of York and Gaston, though they both took their hunting seriously, recognised it for what it was, sport. They were absolutely clear that it must not become obsessive; it must not distract the hunter ‘from the service of God from whom all good cometh’. Charny would have emphatically agreed with this; he recognised hunting and hawking as leisure pursuits ‘befitting men of rank’, but the puritan streak in him made him anxious about their spending too much time ‘in sports of the woods and the rivers instead of undertaking great tasks’. All three authors shared one concern expressly, the importance for the knightly and well-born to avoid idleness, the ‘cossetting’ of the body with long sleep, fine foods and the best wine (Charny), the lying abed ‘which draweth men to imagination of fleshly lust and pleasure’ (Edward translating Gaston). Given that all three were aristocrats of wide experience it is not surprising to find similarities of outlook between them, such as their sense of the importance of healthy living in the noble life and the value of developing skill in horsemanship. Inevitably, though, given his sporting subject, Edward’s writing (like Gaston’s) is more light-hearted than Charny’s. He believed and hoped that good hunters would ‘go to paradise when they die’ but his more immediate recommendation was ‘that they live in this world more joyfully than other men’.
Edward nowadays is most often remembered as the treacherous Aumerle of Shakespeare’s Richard II. In life he was probably not quite as black a traitor, though he certainly does not come very creditably out of the crises of the last years of Richard’s reign. He was the son (b. 1373) of Edmund, Duke of York, fourth son of Edward III, and in the 1390s as Earl of Rutland he was the most intimate with his cousin Richard II among the young peers gathered about the royal court. For his part in the king’s 1397 coup that ruthlessly eliminated his former aristocratic enemies he was promoted Duke of Aumerle; and for the same reason he lost the title two years later when Richard lost his throne to Henry Bolingbroke. After 1399, though for long distrusted (justifiably) by the new Lancastrian regime, he on the whole served Henry IV well. Between 1402 and 1407 he was heavily engaged in the drawn-out fighting in Wales to put down the revolt of Owen Glendower. In 1412 he was among the principal captains in the expedition that the king’s second son, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, led to France. In the next reign, in 1415, he was in France again, and at Agincourt, where he commanded the right wing, he was one of the handful of English fatal casualties. In a long career of prominence he had served the crown in many offices; under Richard II as constable of England, under Henry IV as royal lieutenant in Aquitaine and later in South Wales, as keeper of Carmarthen Castle, as constable of the Tower of London and as master of the royal hart hounds. It was in that last capacity that he put together for Henry V when he was Prince of Wales The Master of Game, so as to ensure that the heir to the throne and his huntsmen ‘should know the perfection of this art’ of hunting.
The Master of Game is a spiritedly written book (Edward was a better stylist in English than Charny was in French), though there are passages where the vocabulary of antique hunting terms makes for hard going. It is a well-arranged, practically instructive work. The beasts of the chase and their ways are the first topic examined (the hare, the hart, the buck, the roe, the boar, the wolf and the fox are the most important); the following chapters turn to the subject of hounds, their various qualities and breeds (greyhounds, spaniels, lymers, mastiffs, terriers etc), their care and kennelling, their ailments and how to treat them. After that follows the detailed exposition of the hunter’s professional operations and skills, of how he should track and identify a particular beast, boar or hart, to be the quarry of the forthcoming hunt; of how a hart should be harboured; of the different ways of proceeding in different kinds of cover; and of how he should manage his hounds in the field to best effect. The three final chapters are Edward’s own and graphically describe the conduct and ceremony of the hunt itself, the protocol of the assembly, the order of the huntsman’s handling of his hounds and his cries to them (hoo sto ho sto mon amy as he uncouples them; La Douce, la il a este when they find the scent), the horn blasts he must blow to signal to hounds and hunters where and how things are going. These chapters are rounded off with a splendid description of the curée, the ritual rewarding of the hounds at the close of the hunt with the chopped entrails of the kill, laid out on a hide before the lord and his master of game who hold up the head by the antlers (if it is a hart), and with the hunters and hunt servants gathered round, horns at the ready to all blow together the death when, on the cry of Dedow! the hounds rush in to take the meat.
The Master of Game is impressive for the knowledge it displays, based on close observation, of the habits and habitats of the beasts of the chase and of their life-cycles, their feeding, their mating, their seasonal movements. There are detailed instructions about how to track down and gauge the size, age and the head of antlers of a great hart or buck worthy of the hunt, from the slots (‘traces’) of its hooves, its ‘fumes’ (excrements), and the boughs where it has rubbed off antler velvet; and of how to do similar things for a boar. The book has many attractive descriptive and anecdotal passages, tales for instance of faithful hounds, like the greyhound of Auberie of Montdidier who hunted down his master’s murderer and revealed his guilt by running at him in the presence of the king of France and all his court. There are interesting touches on the human side too. The advice to masters of game to be sure that the fees of hunt servants are promptly paid and that they get their share of the spoils of the chase, and to see that a good dinner is served them after a long day’s hunting, reveals an understanding of man management that one would look for in vain in Charny’s Book of Chivalry.
It is a real boon to the historian to be given ready access to two such revealing texts as the Book of Chivalry and The Master of Game, by two such interesting authors as Geoffroi de Charny and Edward, Duke of York. There can be no ultimate doubt that of the two Charny’s book has more important things to reveal and promotes more significant reflection. All the same, The Master of Game remains a skilful piece of writing, and there are passages in it that will go straight home still to all those who take delight in nature and the landscape. Here for instance is its eloquent evocation of the huntsman greeting the dawn:
he sees a sweet and fair morn and clear weather and bright, and he heareth the song of small birds, the which sing with sweetness and great melody and full of love, each in its own language . . . and when the sun is arisen, he shall see fresh dew upon the small twigs and grasses and that is great joy and liking to the hunter’s heart.
For those of us who still admire and cherish the huntsman’s now threatened world, The Master of Game has a particular appeal.