Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, March 23, 2009

Guest Blogger: Jeri Westerson on Medieval Knights

Please join me in welcoming History Undressed special guest, author Jeri Westerson. Welcome Jeri and thank you for blogging about such an amazing topic! I too am a sucker for armor.

I’m grateful to Eliza Knight for allowing me to guest blog here on History Undressed. Today, I’m here to talk about something near and dear to my heart: knights.

Some women are suckers for men in uniform. But I’m a sucker for a man in armor. A little harder to come by these days, but not impossible. I am so enamored of knights that when I decided to create my new medieval mystery series, I wanted my hero to be a knight. Or rather, in this case, an ex-knight. Let me explain.

Crispin Guest, the hero of my medieval noir series, beginning with VEIL OF LIES, lost his knighthood, his title, his wealth—in short, all that defined him—when he committed treason against King Richard II. At least he was spared a rather nasty execution after his mentor John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, intervened. Dark, brooding, and more than a bit sexy, Crispin reinvented himself as the Tracker, a “private sheriff”, hiring himself out for sixpence a day…plus expenses.

As a knight no more, Crispin is nevertheless compelled by his knightly vows and lives by his chivalric code, even on the rough streets in the heart of the butcher’s district known as the Shambles. This was a code gleaned longer ago than the 14th century. “Chivalry” is an 11th century term (it’s French for horseman—a chevalier is French for “knight,” a cheval is a horse) and came to mean more than a collection of horsemen. The idea of knightly virtues by which one’s personal honor is foremost, can be summed up by this Decalogue coined by 19th century French historian Leon Gautier:

I. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.

II. Thou shalt defend the Church.

III. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.

IV. Thou shalt love the country in the which thou wast born.

V. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.

VI. Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.

VII. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.

VIII. Thou shalt never lie, and shall remain faithful to thy pledged word.

IX. Thou shalt be generous, and give largess to everyone.

X. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

It is, of course, the ideal. Unless you were an infidel. Then, not so much. But it didn’t seem an accident that a sword is shaped like a cross. Holding one’s honor dear was intimately tied with one’s faith and way of life.

In Chatres Cathedral is carved this knightly prayer:

“Most Holy Lord, Almighty Father...thou who hast permitted on earth the use of the sword to repress the malice of the wicked and defend justice...cause thy servant here before thee, by disposing his heart to goodness, never to use this sword or another to injure anyone unjustly; but let him use it always to defend the just and the right.”

A man with a sword was a powerful entity. He changed the face of Europe and of the Middle East. Borders fell and rose by this parade of horsemen. An armored knight, that is, a knight in full harness, astride a powerful horse trained for battle, is a breathtaking sight. And it is little wonder that such a symbol became the fantasy ideal, not only back then in songs and poems (the Song of Roland, an epic poem about one of Charlemagne’s knights, was one of those medieval bestsellers that never went out of style), but of romance novels today. It is also little wonder a knight came to symbolize the very essence of power and masculinity. If you have never seen a joust, you are the poorer for it.

In the 13th century, William Marshall was the larger than life knight who seemed to write the book on valor and integrity. From humble beginnings, he made his way in life as one of the all-time successful knights and ended up serving four kings, including the disastrous King John of Magna Carta fame. He was a celebrated knight while he lived and when his story was written after his death by the monk Matthew Paris, it ensured him a place in chivalric history. A young boy wishing to become the ideal knight might very well read the history of William Marshall. Perhaps his life inspired Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, to commission the story “Lancelot”, creating that purest of knights and forever after tying him into the legend of King Arthur.

And like any young boy on the road to knighthood, my character Crispin surely studied William Marshall as well. Something so ingrained as personal honor is a difficult if not impossible thing to give up. When denied his birthright, he is nevertheless compelled to continue to live as best he can by this code, even on the harsh streets of London. And when he discovers himself falling for a woman far below his former rank, he finds it impossible to justify it in his mind or his heart. Will he surrender himself completely for the woman he loves, or will his noble blood burn his stubborn heart?

You can certainly find out more about Crispin on his blog in his own words. Read it at www.CrispinGuest.com. And you can read the first chapter of Veil of Lies on my website www.JeriWesterson.com.


Gwynlyn said...

Being a bit of a "knight groupie" myself, I found your blog fascinating. Thank you for sharing. Many are unaware of the contributions of William Marshall, but he is a fascinating subject all by his lonesome!

(And yes, I've seen a joust! Choreographed, yes, but exciting nonetheless.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Gwynlyn. I've seen choreographed as well as "real" jousts and they are all very exciting!


Helen Hardt said...

What wonderful information, Jeri. Thank you for sharing!


Eliza Knight said...

So glad to have you here Jeri!!! Fascinating post and your book sounds wonderful!

Lucy said...

Fascinating post! The book sounds terrific as well.

Sarah Simas said...

Great blog and wonderful info on such an alluring topic! Who doesn't love a man in uniform, even if it is harder to strip away than most. Thanks for sharing, your passion showed and was very inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Sarah, where there's a will...


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great blog! Although I don't write medieval fiction, I've always loved reading it. And I've worked at renaissance faires where every weekend Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne jousted.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Sarah!

Kirsten Steen said...

I am completely enthralled with your blog! Great info and am really looking forward to the Courtesan and Medieval Medicine posts! (You're on my list of favorites!)I'll be back regularly!

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