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The Moral Education of the Future Knight

Elaine M. Jordan

What was religious and moral education of a boy in a noble family in the Middle Ages? Was it so different from that of a child today?

For the answer to the first question I went to the masterpiece of Léon Gautier, La Chevalerie [Chivalry], in which he describes the life of a knight: his birth, Baptism, childhood, education, knighthood, espousals, and domestic and military life.

Let the reader answer the second question after reading this excerpt on the religious and moral education of a potential knight. For my part, I think we would do well to reflect on the lessons these parents taught their son on the value of purity, honesty, generosity, militancy and duty.
When a noble child was very young, his mother taught him his prayer. His formal education began at seven years of age. The religious instruction generally did not consist of a special course, since all the acts of the young knight were stamped with Christian ideals.

St. Louis teaching

St. Louis instructing his son Philip III
Moral instruction came from the lips of all those who surrounded the young baron, and he assimilated all this naturally – instructions on politeness, deportment and good manners. They can be summed up in one word: courtesy.

Both the mother and the father of the future knight were deeply involved in teaching the young baron lessons in courtesy.

“It is always best to begin with God,” his mother would say. “In the difficult hours of your life, remember that He will never desert you if you put your trust in Him. Remember the story of Aiol. His father Elie was exiled from France, disinherited, and sick, living in a miserable hovel. When the day came that Elie had to send his son to recover his territory, he could give him nothing but rusty armor, an old shield, and four pence. But he spoke these noble words, ‘Son, if you lack anything - go to your Father in Heaven.’ And the child replied, ‘If we do not have enough here, God at least has plenty!’ That is the faith you must have in your heart.”

His father would tell him, “You must have confidence in God, but also you must also have justice on your side. Be assured, my child, that if you fight for God and for right, you will conquer.”

“Above all, be humble,” his mother would continue. “If you had 100 horses in your stables and all the wealth of the world, nothing would go well for you if pride possessed your heart. In one single day, pride can cause a man to lose what it takes him seven years to gain.

“Be generous and magnanimous. Be the patron of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Practice largesse. An old proverb tells us, ‘He is not foolish who gives first.’ But it should not be self-interest that prompts you in your giving. Be mindful of the lines we heard a minstrel sing the other day: ‘Be liberal, give largely. The more you give away, the more honor you will gain, and the richer you will be.’ …

“And since your father has spoken of knights, I will add that there is another tribute you should pay good men, and that is respect. Rise up when in the presence of a good man, and when you are on the road salute everyone. Do not jest or banter with the poor, and be humble in your dealings with both the great and the small. To all, show a smiling countenance and joyful mien. These things cost so little.

“Eat well, but do not drink too much wine. As for chess, be on your guard with this game, which has cost the life of many a knight. It has happened more than once that a game has had a disastrous ending, and it was in fact a great blow from a chess board, delivered by Charlemagne's son, that killed the charming Baudouinet, nephew of Ogier the Danish. All games, of course, do not end in such catastrophe; still, too often one loses his money and even his horses. Take care.

“As a general rule, my son, avoid the company of ruffians and evil men. One sees too many of them today, and it is not meet that men of lowly birth and of low ideals should sit with barons, or that the valet should sit at the table with his master.

Roland Charlemagne

His father holds up knightly models like Roland, above, being armed by Charlemagne
“But do not think that the men of the people are all worthless - far from it!” his mother warns. “And you would be well advised to think upon their proverbs. They are both charming and full of truth. You are already eager for adventure. Remember, ‘The bird who tries to fly before it is fledged falls to the ground.’ Youth like to talk too much, but remember, ‘Wise silence is better than foolish talking.’ You love danger; think of this proverb, ‘He who goes too close to the fire to warm himself can get burned.’ Do not rush blindly into the lion's mouth.

“Do not imitate the lamb that plays with the wolf. Beware of traitors – you will find them everywhere. Do not accept fine promises from the first comer; remember ‘One bird in the hand is worth four in the bush.’ … Above all, remember that you are of good stock and, as another old proverb says, ‘The son of a cat ought to catch mice.’ Imitate your father in all things, and you will do well.”

The father then takes up the lesson: “Your mother has rightly quoted familiar sayings, but it is the prouder words that have sprung from the hearts of our poets that I would have you follow. ‘Death, rather than dishonor!’ was Roland's cry at Roncesvalles. This has been the cry of every Catholic baron, and will be yours also. You already know that "the pure heart does not - and cannot - lie." Remember what they said of Ogier: ‘He was a great man, brave and true, for he was pure of heart.’ This is the most beautiful funeral oration that any true knight could desire.

“Remember, my son, that the knight has models in Heaven. It was St. Michael who overcame those vassals of God who revolted against the Sovereign Lord. St. George, St. Dominic, St. Maurice and his companions left the gardens of Paradise to come and fight with our knights here below. It is they whom you must imitate.

“Your mother has high aspirations for you. I am more moderate, and propose only human models to you: Roland, certainly, but also Oliver, and also the rough Guillaume, who fought a valiant fight for the Christian race and died a monk at Gellone; or the youthful Vivien, who fell on the field of battle at Aliscans, and whose soul Angels came down from Heaven to transport … and all the other great heroes of the Christian world. I give you, then, Charlemagne, Oliver, Roland and Godfrey de Bouillon.

Godfrey de Bouillon

Godfrey de Bouillon and his Crusaders outside Jerusalem
“I will not hide from you that I prefer Godfrey de Bouillon. I think that he resembles Oliver as well as Roland, but with a greater degree of piety. He was as gentle as he was brave, and throughout the Crusade he always distinguished himself by a singular moderation, which, however, never permitted his courage to be questioned. ‘There goes the Duke Godfrey,’ the Crusaders would say, as he passed by, ‘who has the heart of a lion.’ You already know the reply he made to those who wanted him to wear the crown after the capture of Jerusalem: ‘God forbid that I should wear a crown of gold in the place where Our Lord Jesus Christ wore a crown of thorns.” The world has never seen a greater Crusader than he.

“You could take as your example a cousin of Girart de Roussillon, called Fouquie - the minstrels were singing to us about him only the other day. ‘Fouquie was heroic, courteous, frank, good, and a proficient speaker,’ they sang. He was a skilled hunter in the forest and marsh; he knew chess, backgammon, and dice. His purse was never closed to anyone who asked from it. Good or bad, all shared in his generosity and he was never slow to bestow largesse. He was supremely pious, for never in his life was he in a court where an act of injustice was proposed or committed without his energetic efforts to prevent it.

“He always fought for the better purpose; he loved peace and detested war. Yet, when he had his helmet laced, his shield around his neck and his sword by his side, he was proud, valiant, impetuous, superb, merciless and pitiless. When pressed by a crowd of armed men, he showed himself the firmest and bravest. He never yielded an inch, and there was not a man on earth daring enough to contend with him. He always loved brave knights and honored the poor as well as the rich. All, powerful or weak, found in him their support. Yes, my son, you may well take him for your model!”

“Yes there is your model!” the boy’s mother agreed. “Now, my dear child, do not forget that all the lessons of your mother and father can be said in a few words: Do your duty, come what may. The rest matters but little.”

Posted May 28, 2008

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