Few images from Medieval Europe are as familiar, or as potent, as that of the armoured knight on horseback, riding off in quest of adventure. It is an image that has inspired varied imaginative treatment down to our own times, in films like John Boorman's vulgar and energetic epic Excalibur or Bresson's stark, pessimistic Lancelot du Lac. It is rumoured that Jancso is now preparing a film, inspired by the work of Georges Duby, of the great clash of knights at Bouvines (1214), one of the few decisive set-piece battles of the Middle Ages. Such artists, like their Romantic predecessors, find in the culture of Medieval knighthood what they want or need to find. Historians can behave like this too, as the example of Huizinga indicates, and the temptation is particularly strong for anyone trying to discover what realities underlay the gorgeous trappings of chivalry. Such trappings were part of Medieval reality and contemporaries too came under the spell of the mounted knight; the Middle Ages could succumb to its own enchantments. The historian of Medieval knighthood has to recognise the tension between aspiration and achievement that inspired and disappointed contemporary commentators, as well as to approach with imaginative sympathy that least sympathetic of human activities, war, which provided the raison d'Ítre for the parfyt and gentle knight.
LRB 21 February 1985 | PDF Download