“Strong of Body, Brave and Noble”: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. – Review – book review
“Strong of Body, Brave and Noble”: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. By Constance Brittain Bouchard. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Pp. xiii, 198. $14.95.)
In this book, the author skillfully synthesizes the results of a generation of research on the French nobility in the high Middle Ages. Like many of her colleagues, Constance Bouchard rejects older assumptions about the early origins of feudalism in the Carolingian period, class-consciousness in the medieval nobility, and the existence of a uniform chivalric code. Because they imply the existence of systematic and well-defined relationships among nobles, she discards the terms “feudalism” and “feudal pyramid.” Instead, Bouchard studies how a constantly changing political, social, and economic order challenged nobles to maintain predominant status and define their attributes more precisely.
As the Carolingian state finally collapsed in the late tenth century, counts, viscounts, and castellans–leading members of the French nobility–fought ruthlessly among themselves for local hegemony. They built castles and enlisted in their service bands of knights–men of humble status who would emulate their noble lords in every way. Bouchard emphasizes an important change in the resulting composition of the nobility. Knights finally attained noble status in the thirteenth century. As a result of their growing influence, nobility became increasingly associated with knighthood, while the military virtues were added to birth, wealth, and power, the traditional marks of noble status. The economic growth of the high Middle Ages affected nobles, too, as inflation compelled them to find ways to augment their incomes. Besides managing their holdings more efficiently, nobles struggled to extend banal lordship, the income-producing powers of local government, over as large a territory as possible. Nobles who secured rights of banal lordship outstripped their rivals in wealth and power.
In a competitive social and economic environment, nobles aimed to fix their identity and define noble mores. They found one source of identity in the family, increasingly defined by male lineage in this period. But even here tensions arose, as primogeniture limited inheritance and marriage opportunities, even threatening families with extinction, if the heir failed to reproduce. Yet the complexities of noble life appear most clearly in the inability of nobles to find a single chivalric code to govern their behavior. In fact, epics and romances written for nobles deliberately explored chivalry’s contradictory basis in military valor, courtly polish, and Christian piety. Even as military and Christian ideals clashed, however, nobles remained deeply religious. Noble families provided the overwhelming majority of leading churchmen, as well as forming enduring affiliations with particular churches and monasteries.
“Strong of Body, Brave and Noble” offers both general readers and scholars a valuable discussion of the social history of the high Middle Ages. Bouchard’s clear exposition leads the reader to a sophisticated understanding of many complex topics, while her valuable annotated bibliography outlines further reading.
Mary Alberi Pace University
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