"Strange women lying in ponds", Academic Book, Book Review, Chivalry, Constance Brittain Bouchard, Dennis was right, Education, Feudalism, France, history, Knights, Knights in culture, Literature, Medieval Europe, Medieval France, Middle Ages, Military history, Strong of Body, Strong of Body Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France, The Sword in the Stone
Perception is a tricky damn thing, and can lead you to ignore obvious facts.
For example it is a plain fact that Assassin’s Creed Unity was just unwarranted garbage, whereas Assassin’s Creed Revelations was arguably one of the finest ends of any trilogy I’ve ever read, watched or played. Ezio Auditore da Firenze is without doubt one of the most interesting and complex characters I’ve ever encountered in the wide varieties of media I consume and yet, for some reason, Assassin’s Creed Revelations is consistently ignored or else disparaged. This makes no sense to me since Revelations contains Suleiman the Magnificent, fights with actual janissaries, and the Hagia Sophia, and Unity literally, didn’t, work. In the latter game’s defense, it did at least throw in an interesting segment where you played during the final dissolution of the Templar order of knights, but one gold flake on a mountain of turds does not a masterpiece make.
This is my perception, not simply because it’s an opinion I’ve formulated after directly playing this games and forming an opinion about them, but also because I’ve encountered other people who share this opinion and that collected sentiment builds towards larger understanding of the video-game series overall.
And I recognize that none of this really seems to have much relevance to Constance Brittain Bouchard’s academic book Strong of Body, Brave, and Noble: chivalry & Society in Medieval France, but come on dear reader did you really expect me not to take a pot-shot at Assassin’s Creed Unity? I mean, Ubisoft was just asking for it. Moving on.
Hopping back into appreciating history, or, far more accurately, continuing my love of history just with more passion, direction, and book purchases, has been delightful and eye-opening at the same time. While my passion is more geared towards Ancient Greece, I’ve been reading more and more materials about Medieval Europe. This is largely because I’m auditing a graduate level history course at my alma mater, and, since starting it, my perceptions of the Medieval Period in Europe have undergone a pronounced transformation. Bouchard’s book is partially responsible.
Strong of Body Brave and Noble is a book that, while it is most definitely academic, is still pretty accessible to the common reader, or at least a semi-informed reader who has an interest in the period. Though before I say anything else it is important to recognize that Bouchard’s book is not so much a history of Medieval France, but rather a history of the history of Medieval France. I know that sounds odd, but stay with me. Bouchard’s book is about understand the conversations and pedagogy which has defined the history of the Medieval period, specifically France, and in the first pages of her introduction she lays out a pretty clear thesis:
In this study of the nobility in high Medieval France I hope to tie together many of these recent findings (including some of my own work) and to provide an introduction to medieval nobility and chivalry in a form accessible both to scholars and to students of medieval history and literature. (x).
And she continues on the next page saying:
Because this book is meant to be an introduction, I have for the most part done no more than suggest the complex historiographical debates that swirl around many of the topics I am addressing. I have made no attempt to be exhaustive in citing extensive scholarly literature. (xi).
I recognize this quote doesn’t seem to have a lot of dynamism to it, but it’s important moving forward for my reader to understand exactly what Bouchard is trying to accomplish. When talking about this book recently in class many complained that Bouchard frequently didn’t dig into much of the actual detail of the Medieval structures of society as much as they would have liked. Another student, and myself if I can have a moment of heroism, did our best to argue that that really wasn’t a weakness at all. Bouchard said in her introduction that she wasn’t trying do anything like that, and that instead she wanted to discuss the development of the nobility in France, while focusing on the larger conversation itself.
Throughout her book Bouchard touches upon aspects of Medieval society while trying to create an introduction to the period and addressing persistent problems in language. Perhaps the best example of this is the problem of the word “feudalism.”
Bouchard notes the issue at the beginning of chapter two when she says:
Recently a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into disproving certain very persistent myths about medieval social structures, which continue to appear everywhere from high school textbooks to Time magazine to scholarly monographs by those whose own areas of specialization is not medieval social history. It seems wise, in view of this persistence, to begin by saying what medieval society was not. Most important, it was not neatly divided into “three orders,” however appealing it may be to visualize a society made up of praying churchmen, fighting warriors, and working workers. (28).
This argument is further clarified a few pages over when she notes:
The word “feudalism” might at first glance appear valid, inasmuch as it comes from a genuine medieval Latin word, feud. A feud, usually translated as “fief,” was a piece of property which one aristocrat, called the vassal, held for his lifetime from another, his lord, in return for his loyal support. Fiefs were given, in return for fidelity, not for a monetary rent, and fief holding involved only the aristocracy, not the great mass of society. (35)
And, look, I know it’s probably derailing the conversation by doing this, but immediately upon finishing this quote I feel compelled to provide a link to this video which perfectly seems to manifest and deconstruct the perception of feudalism in Medieval society:
While the matter of divine providence and strange women lying in ponds is a matter for another essay, Bouchard’s previous quote is important because it’s most likely the perception that many casual readers have experienced. Part of the annoying realities of grade school education, and sometimes even college educations lets be real, is that too often educators have to follow what has come before rather than what is constantly being discussed and debated. Teachers have hard jobs, especially in the United States where they’re labeled as “losers and whiners” rather than the people who are shaping the minds of the next generation, and rather than provide them with the money and training they need to do their jobs, teachers often have to acquire a general knowledge and hop into the profession before they time out for getting a good pension.
This is just my way of saying one of the problems of the real history of Medieval Europe is that too often teachers provide their students with a psuedo-pseudo-history that has been repeated over and over despite the steadily growing libraries of scholars and historians who have come to the realization that feudalism, as a concept, is rather misguided and largely incorrect.
Bouchard points this out when she notes:
But over the last three centuries the word has been loaded with a multitude of other meanings. Scholars and the popular press alike have used the term in so many different ways—many of them mutually exclusive and even contradictory—that it is often impossible to carry out a productive discussion about the various institutions that might be described as “feudalism.” Everyone who uses the term seems to have his or her own definition. (35).
Bouchard then later says plainly that most Medieval European scholars have largely abandoned the term when writing about the period. And at this point Bouchard more or less blew my mind.
I noted to my reader in a previous essay about The Knight in History by Frances Gies, that growing up one of my favorite films was The Sword in the Stone. Whether it was Merlin defeated Mad Madam Mim by turning into a germ, Archimedes saving Wart from a giant gar in the moat, or Arthur being chased by the obviously horny red-headed squirrel the film was simply magical but it was the knights that made me fall in love wit the film. The Sword in the Stone established the foundation for a love of the Medieval period and so I began to ingest books and media which reinforced that opinion, but, with the exception of Gies’s book, I didn’t read into the actual history of the period and in fact I only took one college level course over it.
I didn’t challenge my knowledge or what I thought I knew about Medieval Europe. Instead I let myself grow comfortable into the cartoon image because that was far more fun.
There’s a great deal more in Bouchard’s book that’s worth exploring as her primary focus is the misconceptions of the Medieval period and the aristocracy. Her arguments explore the misconceptions of Feudalism, the development of Chivalry and the troublesome nature of that word as well, the role and function of Knights in Medieval society, Noble families, and finally the function and role of the church. Each of these points are written about effectively and by the end I head learned more about the period, but I wanted to focus on the trouble of Feudalism largely because it’s in this chapter and section that Bouchard feels the most passionate.
In fact to be honest by the end of the book I feel that she had lost a certain energy. It’s not that the final chapters aren’t good, anything but. It’s just that she is clearly far more invested in these early chapters where she’s clearing up the misconceptions of Medieval Europe, so it seemed best to focus my attention there. The development of a class of nobility was a developing system, and by focusing on the trappings of the Medieval period which have become cultural icons and cartoons rather than realistic structures, the real story of the Medieval period has largely been lost beneath the colorful heralds and glittery armor-clad knights in courtly love dramas.
Bouchard notes this herself when she elaborates a point made about the institution of chivalry:
An understanding of twelfth-century Chivalry is made substantially simpler when one realizes that there was no single standard (or “code”) which people of the time always meant then they referred to chivalrous (or courteous) behavior, and that modern scholars need not, therefore, seek a comprehensive definition. For a long time scholars assumed that in the twelfth century—if not indeed in the eleventh—there was a unitary knightly class, composed both of the descendants of the serving knights of the year 1000 and of the descendants of the great nobles who had ruled western Europe for centuries, and that they shared a single code of conduct called chivalry. As the concept of a unitary knightly class has been rejected, however, so has the need to discover some monolithic ideal with clear rules that all knights and nobles followed. (104).
Before I can continue my contester interrupts. Well so what? We talked about this already: there’s a lot of bullshit about the Medieval Period in Europe and a lot of people don’t know what actually happened during the period. But who cares? I go years without ever even thinking about the Medieval period in Europe, so what relevance is a book like Strong of Body Brave and Noble have for me?
The plainest answer is very likely none at all. If the reader does not give any shits about the Medieval Period in Europe then this book is almost definitely not going to interest them in any way whatsoever. That’s just honesty.
But even if the reader gives zero shits, they should at least consider the idea behind this book, and the implications it has for education and educators. While digging into the development of a Noble class of people’s in France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Bouchard is able to address the issue that often narratives about a time period take hold in people’s mind and remain there despite the evidence to the contrary.
Human beings, as I’ve noted over and over again in these essays, are ego-driven creatures who like narratives. That’s largely because narratives are easy to digest and use to assume meaning. The narratives of the American Civil War as a states rights rather than slavery issue is an easy narrative to digest because it assumes less responsibility. The narrative that the founding fathers of the United States believed in Freedom for all is an easy narrative to digest because recognizing that several of them were unapologetic slave-holders makes things complicated. The story that Columbus “discovered” the American continents is an easy narrative because trying to explain that Vikings and “North-men” had discovered the continents 500 years earlier, and that even Africans and Chinese sailors were said to have discovered the regions even before that, is far more complicated and doesn’t rhyme with “ocean-blue.” These are some of the more potent examples that are used in historical discussions, and there are plenty more I could supply but each reader probably has their own narratives that they can imagine or remember that lends weight to the issue.
The collapse of the Roman Empire and the development of new bodies of government and societal structures are complicated and nuanced narratives, and the fact of the matter is most people simply don’t have time, or else they do not perceive that they have the time. And so pretty stories about knights and princesses and chivalry and feudalism provide people and educators a quick easy story to peddle to children while they’re trying to instill basic civic virtues and real-world knowledge. The disservice is not simply to the history but also to the larger structure of education.
Easy narratives are easy to tell and digest. Bouchard’s book is relevant then because it offers the chance to show the reader that the details are far more nuanced, and therefore more interesting to learn about. History, as a discourse, works when people are willing and able to use the facts and records to challenge established ideas and write new stories that are far more accurate to the reader.
Knights of the eleventh-century may not always have been “Chivalrous” men clad in armor, composed entirely of virtue, but many of them were probably at least good men trying to find their way in this new world and order. It’s far more complicated story, but one that’s definitely worth telling nonetheless.
All quotes cited from Strong of Body Brave & Noble: Chivalry & Society in Medieval France were quoted from the paperback Cornell University Press edition.
In case the reader is interested I’ve provided below a few links related to Bouchard and her work. The first is a pdf of her professional CV, followed by links to her books. I would have provided a few reviews of the book itself, however as this book is an academic work most reviews available are going to be found behind paywalls in databases I don’t have access to. At some point I intend to write an essay and do a podcast about my personal opinion about this. The short version is that while I understand that academic periodicals do cost a great amount to operate and publish, these paywalls do a disservice to humanity at large because there are a great number of people who are interested in reading the arguments of scholars and academics to deepen their understanding of certain issues, or else because they’re independent researchers who want, and need to know what the current research about their topics are. The struggle is real people.
Nevertheless, hope you enjoy:
The above photograph doesn’t really have anything to do with Bouchard’s book, or Chivalry, or Medieval Europe. But when I typed the word “knight” into my media library there were several photos of Kiera Knightly and I thought to myself: “Sure, why not?” SO please enjoy this lovely image of a lovely and talented actress who I think is awesome.
I actually review this book on my podcast “Jammer Talks About” which can be found on Soundcloud. You can go to the “Jammer Podcasts” page at the top of the screen, or follow the link below to listen in: