Ideal of the Imitatio Christi in chivalric works in Late Medieval England: a case study
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date09/07/2020
Christians have pursued the ideal of the imitatio Christi since the early days of the Christian church. There are two intertwined traditions within this ideal: the imitation of Christ’s divinity and humanity, which correspond to qualities that are conventionally regarded as “active” and “passive” in general. It is the latter tradition which emphasizes humility and humbleness that modern people are more exposed to, and their familiarity has had the effect of rather distorting modern critical responses to the late medieval discourses of religious chivalry. The attitudes towards violence are illustrative of the tensions between these two traditions that can be traced back to the Bible itself. These tensions were deeply felt by medieval authors when they wrote about chivalric virtues, particularly because using violence is at the very centre of a knightly life. My thesis surveys some of the representative voices on chivalry in late medieval England in order to get a rounded view of whether and how knights were expected to imitate Christ in that period. These texts include the model chivalric romance Le Morte d’Arthur, Langland’s Piers Plowman in which he works with romance traditions when portraying ideal knights, St. Bernard’s crusade propaganda that is illustrative of a special way in which religious and military ideals are fused, two chivalric manuals that offer both theoretical and practical advice to knights, emphasizing the use of force and the value of prowess, Pizan’s treatise examining the role of knights in an ideal medieval body politic and one of the rare female voices on the topic of chivalry in the medieval period, and finally, Caxton’s dedications to his chivalric publications, which show the knightly elements that were likely to be the most attractive to his contemporaries. My examination shows a far more complex picture than I expected. It is not surprising to see that authors working within the romance tradition are more likely to idealize and spiritualize chivalric behaviour than authors writing chivalric manuals. Their views on notions such as prowess, penance, honour, violence, and wealth, all integral parts of a knightly life, are often in stark contrast to each other. However, none of the texts I examine presents a “pure” form of chivalry or the imitatio, but both traditions are often intermingled: the pacifist knight Conscience sees Christ vanquishing forces of evil as a valiant warrior, and the highly pragmatic Charny does not forget to remind his fellow knights of their religious obligations. With the use of force often being a necessity in maintaining peace and order in real life, the authors struggle to reconcile this necessity with Christian doctrines of love and peace. Such efforts to integrate the contradictory, as we will see, frequently fail. Instead of calling the authors of the chivalric works with mostly secular tones “negligent of their religious duties,” or those of works containing notions that entirely conflict with modern morals “deviating from true Christianity,” I argue that the ideal of the imitatio should not be seen as a fixed set of ideas. Rather, an author tends to choose the elements, all of which are supported by the Bible and its subsequent interpretations, that best suit his or her purposes. It is by practices such as avoiding judging the past by our own standards that our understanding of history progresses by combining knowledge of the past with that of the present. With the historicist belief that both literary and non-literary texts reflect the past, I hope this study might shed some light on the complex and sometimes paradoxical attitudes towards chivalry and religion in late medieval England.