The noted Catholic thinker, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira once observed that the decay of the Middle Ages occurred in the fourteenth century with a “transformation in mentality.” He explained that “Chivalry, formerly one of the highest expressions of Christian austerity became amorous and sentimental.”
This decadence paved the way for the errors of the Renaissance, which he concluded, “frequently sought to relegate the Church, the supernatural, and the moral values of religion to a secondary plane.”
This understanding of the epoch is what makes A Knight’s Own Book on Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny, such an important read. Written in 1352, Charny’s recently-republished manuscript could be considered chivalry’s last gasp in a process that has led to the modern world’s complete loss of the notion of honor. Honor is the central tenet of chivalry and therefore a reoccurring theme of the book.
Company of the Star
The introduction of this work, which takes up nearly half of its 107 pages, was written by Dr. Richard Kaeuper. While he presents some insightful pearls about Charny and his book on chivalry, he has other perspectives which leave the reader disappointed. One example is the historical fact that Charny was the first known owner of the Shroud of Turin, the famous burial cloth of Christ. Dr. Kaeuper unnecessarily devotes a lengthy paragraph presenting arguments that the Shroud is not the actual burial cloth of our Lord, but rather a piece of cloth which dates to the fourteenth century.
However, the setting of Charny’s thesis as presented by Dr. Kaeuper is most useful. The treatise came about during the turbulent war between French and English armies known as the Hundred Years War. When King John II acceded to the French throne, he noticed the decadence of the chivalric ideal. To counteract this downward trend, the king founded a new order of chivalry called the Company of the Star.
Knights who belonged to this distinguished group wore red mantles adorned with a circular badge on the collar bearing a single white star below a crown. Their motto, Monstrant regibus astra viam (The Kings’ star shows the way), was inscribed on the circumference. This was a reference to the Three Magi Kings who followed the Star of Bethlehem to the manger of the King of Kings. Therefore, the goal for this new order was clearly a quest for a greater union with the ideal man, our Lord Jesus Christ. Geoffroi de Charny was the best person to write a treatise for the Company of the Star since he was considered a “perfect knight” by medieval standards.
Since Charny was a devout Catholic, he understood that those seeking Christian perfection could reach a high degree of honor if they simply followed the succinct counsel of Our Lord: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
Self-denial for Charny meant truly denying himself daily. For warriors of the time, this entailed honing military skills in jousts and tournaments in preparation for local and distant wars. Since each step toward armed combat brought a greater degree of honor, he constantly reminds the reader that “he who does more is of greater worth.”
That God be Feared, Loved, Served and Honored in Word and Deed
However, such feats were not limited to the battlefield. He urges those who would be part of the Company of the Star to seek spiritual and intellectual development. His counsels extended to a variety of virtues, especially purity.
While Charny certainly knew about the disastrous inroads of courtly love in destroying chivalry, he counseled young knights to exercise caution in matters pertaining to the Sixth Commandment.
Whereas the ideal medieval knight focused on Christ Crucified, the tendency during this time was rather to win the praise of the ladies at court. It is for this reason that he dubbed as “naïve” those who sought to please the ladies rather than to remain focused on a higher ideal: namely the glory of God and salvation.
Charny reminded “men of arms” that they were “bound to protect and defend the honor of all ladies against all those who would threaten [their honor] by word or deed.”
The upright conduct which Charny emphasized so much, was especially important for decadent rulers of the day whose bad example could cause scandal. He thus warned them against “shameful behavior” of visiting brothels and using bad language, especially God’s name in vain. Those of higher rank should, on the contrary, make sure that “God be feared, loved, served and honored in word and deed.”
The radical contradiction must be pointed out here between this supernatural perspective and Dr. Keuper’s inaccurate portrayal of Charny as someone who accepted “discreet love affairs.” He even went so far as to characterize this honorable knight as, “playing the familiar role of a coach” who counsels the youth to, “Steer clear of prostitutes. Love the ladies, but never boast of your conquests.” This could easily lead the reader to believe this Charny condoned abject mortal sin and clashes with this knight’s own remark that a good knight could “don his armor in as pure and devout a way,” as a priest vesting for mass. What kind of man takes such care for his own soul while counseling the youth of his time to do the opposite?
A Knight who Died as He Lived
To his credit, Dr. Kaeuper points out the beautiful fact that Charny, “obtained the right to have a portable altar to hear Mass daily before sunrise.”
This more closely matches the true image of a knight who emphasized the importance of not relying solely on his own strength when facing the struggles of life, but always to trust, “on God alone.” In this thread, the reader will find the most sublime counsel regarding what is most important in life. Charny calls upon knights to maintain themselves “in a state of grace,” and at the end of their lives, they might “die honorably.” Thus, God will grant them “a glorious end” and “bear their souls away with Him into eternal bliss.”
Charny’s death reflected the lofty principles he upheld in life. He was given the unique privilege during war to carry the Oriflamme battle standard on two occasions. This symbol of the King of France placed the bearer in greater danger since he was a more conspicuous target in the heat of battle.
During the Battle of Poitiers, Charny was mortally wounded, and the Oriflamme fell to the ground. Nonetheless, this noble knight, his life and more importantly his principles will remain standing till the end of time.
While it is understandable that Charny’s perspectives focus primarily on men of war, his counsels are equally applicable to those in all walks of life, most particularly those engaged in the spiritual and cultural battle of the present times. Therefore, A Knight’s Own Book on Chivalry could be seen as a blueprint for those who aspire to be honorable in the mode of this archetypal knight. It is a valuable manual for any twenty-first-century man.
This article is a Book Review of A Knight’s Own Book on Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny