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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: August 2016

6 - Chivalry and war

from Part III - The privileged practice of violence


In the modern world we feel confident that we know exactly what war is. Thankfully, for most this sense derives only from awareness of conflicts remote in time or space, miniaturized on the screen of some electronic device, or splashed with brutal color on the vast cinema screen within overwhelming darkness; and both cases present technological vistas of sweeping, thunderous destruction in which grimy men and women heroically or at least stoically “get the job done” so that the rest of us can sleep peacefully in our beds and the fighters can soon return to restored civilian life and the degree of peace we take as normal.

In the medieval world, however, war edged closer to representing the normal and acceptable state of things. Whereas many modern people consider war a tragic mistake, most medieval people knew that the first war took place in heaven (God and his angels throwing out Satan and his rebels). As Honoré Bonet wrote in the late fourteenth century in his Tree of Battles (summing up much previous discussion), it would not be natural for the world to be at peace, for war came from God who awards victory and could be evil only in its use rather than its basic nature. If the innocent suffer, divine will may be allowing them to do penance for their sins even before death sends them to final judgment. Moreover, medieval warfare took a greater variety of forms and investments of personnel and resources. Two lords quarreling over possession of a village and its revenues could without hearing a contradictory voice characterize their conflict as war; precursors of the Montagues and Capulets could seize arms and rush into narrow Florentine streets shouting for war; the followers of sovereigns disputing a province or a crown made war financed by increasingly effective systems of taxation. Conducting licit violence on any manageable scale represented the exercise of a right, a sign and possession of sufficiently high status to be entitled to make war. Those who possessed such authority the French termed chevetaines de guerre, but there were many such “war chiefs” occupying upper ranges of the social pyramid and more who longed to possess and exercise the coveted right to use violence to secure goals.

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