Geoffroi de Charny (1300-1356) was a French knight who wrote at least three books on chivalry. Coming from an illustrious family of French knights, he served King Jean II and provided the theoretical foundation the Order of the Star, meant to improve the combat reputation of French knights after the disaster of Crecy in 1346. Living up to the standards of the order he inspired, Charny carried the royal standard, the Oriflamme, into battle and was known for preferring death to flight. He was captured twice by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. He died in combat while holding the royal standard at the battle of Poitiers, hailed as a “true and perfect knight” by his contemporaries.
Appropriately, Charny was not merely a theoretician of the chivalrous way of life, but was also a practiced hand at it. His most famous written work, The Book of Chivalry, describes the knightly way of life, and its requisite virtues. Although valued by medieval historians for giving peering into the medieval “mindset,” The Book of Chivalry seems to confirm Charny as an outlier. His demand for stern virtue, his frequent comparison of the knightly way of life with the monastic, and his repeated condemnation of the soft, greedy, and sexually loose aristocracy of his own and the younger generation suggests that he saw himself as a reformer rather than a mere conservative.
Unlike previous manuals of arms and warfare, such as Vegetius or Christine de Pizan, or those that would follow soon after like Machiavelli’s Art of Warfare, Charny does not spend much time discussing the theory of operations or strategy. For Charny, understanding war comes with understanding the knight’s way of life. Charny explains the chivalric ethos, the virtues and the education of the knight and how one can acquire the military prudence needed to be successful in warfare, rather than battlefield methods. Thus, one of the main preoccupations of Charny is the concept of the “worthy knight,” the knight that could truly be identified as an exemplar of the knighthood. In doing so, Charny finds it necessary to touch on all aspects of a knight’s life. How a knight should pray, think of marriage, love a woman, all serve as ways of clarifying the role of the knight for political life.
Nonetheless, in clarifying the knight’s way of life Charny does pay special attention to prowess in battle. The knight is a member of a social order meant primarily for combat, so strength and prowess in battle are central to evaluating the goodness of a knight. In order to properly asses the worthiness of a knight, one must consider the dangers he undergoes and the pain he suffers in the pursuit of accomplishments. It is for this reason that Charny opens his book somewhat abruptly with a consideration of jousts, tournaments, and warfare, and within warfare the various kinds of warfare and the kinds of men who search warfare out. Charny’s opines that jousts and tournaments are good, but “he who does more is of greater worth.” We know who does more by what he suffered in accomplishing it, as well as the worthiness of the deed itself. Thus, a callow knight who performs well in battle, but for selfish reasons, is worth honoring but not so much as the knight who does the same while having in mind the noble purpose of the common good. For Charny, then, because the order of knighthood exists primarily for excellence in warfare, warfare is the necessary prerequisite by which a knight be sure of his own excellence. Knights who live in a time of peace can never be sure of their own virtue.
Fortunately, there are as many opportunities for warfare as there are rulers. Charny notes that fighting for rulers must be a worthy cause—kings and noblemen are the descendants of those chosen for their virtues and skill in ruling, so knights can confidently perform glorious deeds in their services. But Charny’s trust in rulers proves short-lived. He emphasizes the importance of virtue for the good ruler, arguing that they were elected for their superior qualities. Indeed, Charny suggests that there is a kind of social contract between the rulers and the ruled, and that the ruled, or at least Charny and those like him, are more than capable of judging the worthiness of a ruler correctly. Thus Charny’s trust in the ability of a good knight to find a lord worth for is complicated by the possibility that rulers can be bad – and given Charny’s long list of vices that no ruler should have, one wonders if he thought that most rulers of Christendom were closer to tyrants rather than kings. It would be strange for him to consider all these vices if no one possessed them.
Because assurance of his virtue depends on the knight’s performance in battle, and a worthy performance is in a war waged by a good ruler, the knight must prove his virtue through fighting for a good ruler. To find such a ruler depends on possessing the faculty of judging rulers correctly, so Charny turns his attention to education. For Charny, great lords must avoid giving scandal at all cost, since it is the example of the powerful and famous knights that will most of all affect the education of younger and weaker knights. He then turns to the proper mode of living for a knight. He must be moderate, in order to ensure his ability to fight whenever necessary and to experience no extra hardship while campaigning. Gambling is a dangerous pastime in that it can produce the vice of greed. Charny believes that because a knight must be prepared for death at any moment, no undue attachment to external goods should be cultivated. One should not flaunt romantic relationships, one should cultivate the arts of playfulness, conversation, singing, and dancing in order to use one’s time well with others who are worthwhile friends. Indeed, the center of Charny’s book is on the importance of friendship and the social virtues necessary to develop it. It seems that one cannot develop the knowledge of judging which wars are worth fighting in of one does not a have a developed and sophisticated life with friends.
Charny then goes into the knighting ceremony itself, pointing out that the panoply and pomp reveals truths about knighthood. After confession the candidate takes a bath and takes a short rest in clean sheets, to symbolize his purity and clean conscience. He is dressed in red to symbolize death, black to symbolize the earth he will return to, and a white belt to show his chastity. He receives gilded spurs to show his unconcern for money, and a double-edged sword that symbolizes justice and truth—the knight is not bound by one ruler or another so much as bound by virtue. The sword most of all shows the seriousness of Charny’s purpose. The knight is meant to serve virtue and the good, which may be at odds with patriotic attachment to one’s own land, or personal loyalty to one’s own king. In this way, Charny suggests that the knightly order is actually meant to keep kings in check, and in doing so serve as rival rulers. Because the king is judged by the knight, the king is, to an extent, beholden to the knight.
As a check against royal power, Charny invites comparison between the knight and the Church. If there was any serious challenge to the moral claim of knighthood as the supreme social order in the Christian world, it would seem to be the priest. Charny indicates that the priesthood is the truly supreme social order; the office of the priesthood is far nobler than any earthly office given its divine nature. But Charny notes that being a knight is not a barrier to salvation—it is in fact possible to participate in the earthly life and achieve the Beatific Vision. Charny then goes on to claim that the good knight is in a sense the supreme human being, because he marries the harshness of the knightly life and with the temptation of worldly success. The knight has many opportunities to be bad as well as good, and thus the good knight must be more virtuous than the average religious man. At the same time, given the danger of knighthood, the good knight must be prepared at all times for death meeting his Creator. The hardness and thankless nature of being a knight and the high likelihood of being killed (as indeed happened to Charny) means that knighthood can make a claim to be the supreme social order in Christendom. As if to guard against the possible impiety in making such a claim, Charny concludes his work with a discussion of the central place of prayer in the knightly life and a request for prayers for his soul from the reader.
Although he often refers to the need for a knight to develop his intelligence and become wise in the ways of being a knight, Charny rarely refers to anything that would even remotely resemble a science of strategy or tactics. This of course does not mean that he was unaware of importance of developing prudence. It is quite clear that Charny thought that schemes and stratagems were an essential part of warfare, and the history of his own life shows him engaging in diplomatic conduct that would seem less than honorable. This indicates that Charny does not think that learning how to accomplish one’s goals is a particularly difficult, nor important aspect to being a knight. What is important is the lifelong education, and the embracing of near Spartan asceticism in order to become successful at knightly deeds. Charny points out that a truly worthwhile warrior learns the arts of combat from the time of being a child, and puts his warrior life ahead of all other pursuits, even romantic love. Thus, for Charny, the knowledge of strategy is not something to discovered abstractly; rather it is a part of a lived pattern of life that simply becomes second-nature to the man devoted to chivalry. This indicates that what is more important than learning traps and methods is the learning of virtue, especially moderation and bravery, which makes the understanding of traps and methods all the easier.
Does Charny speak at all to our modern way of war? Although we might expect Charny to speak as a critic rather than a source of inspiration, we may be surprised at how much our way of war is still indebted to the chivalrous virtues identified by Charny. Commitments to justice in the conduct of war, that has less to do with abstract ethical norms than with a sense of honor and self-worth, still imbue the Western way of fighting. The virtue of moderation, although perhaps not always lived out perfectly, is still a foundation upon which the other aspects of successful combat depend. And of course, a sense that manliness or courage, still primarily identified with experiencing the danger of combat and facing the possibility of violent death, is the keystone to being a Western soldier resounds with many. But as Charny was critical of those who were around him, we would wonder what we might tell us about our own way of life. Charny was unimpressed with fashionable young men who displayed their bodies and were more concerned with their beauty than their virtue, and saw them as a threat to the whole knightly way of life. He saw greed and bourgeois qualities becoming commonplace, as well conflation of sexes, especially with men feminizing themselves. Thus, as it would clearly be too much to say that Charny saw his own time as the height of Christian valor, he might tell us that the threats to the military strength of a political community are persistent. Immoderation, injustice, and effeminate softness have the effect of producing very poor military men, but also men who cannot explain or understand the social order in which they live. Indeed, the chief danger of vicious living is not so much the effect it has on the individual, but he way in which it renders unintelligible the purpose of social institutions meant to perpetuate virtue and not vice; when vice becomes the norm, the social institutions themselves are in need of justification. Thus Charny finds himself explaining the social institutions of knighthood and Christendom that were clearly in need of moral support. The very act of Charny’s writing makes for the direst warning to modern Western readers: a firm defense of a way of life depends on understanding the goodness of a way of life, and understanding the goodness of a way of life depends on being good. No strategy can overcome lack of conviction in one’s way of living.
Geoffroi de Charny, The Book of Chivaliry trans. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996)
C.T. Allmand, ed., War, Literature, and Politics in the Later Middle Ages (Liverpool, 1976)
Richard Kaepur, War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1988)