Way of the Knight


Under Discussion: Geoffroi de Charny's Book of Chivalry

A Western Hagakure

The Hagakureis a collection of commentaries on the Way of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, recorded between 1709 and 1716. Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a samurai during a period of peace who was not permitted to commit seppuku following the death of his retainer, Nabeshima Mitsushige. He retired to the mountains and lived as a hermit, frustrated by what he saw as a collapse of Traditional samurai culture into decadence and weakness. The Hagakure is often contradictory and curmudgeonly, and it is characterized by dark humor and what Yukio Mishima, who wrote his own commentary on the book, referred to as a "manly nihilism." Whereas Musashi's Book of Five Rings focuses more on swordsmanship and strategy, the Hagakure is more directly about a Way of living and dying.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a trained samurai, but he never saw combat. Geoffroi de Charny did.

Charny died heroically in battle, still clutching the oriflamme, a sacred banner charged to him in 1355 by Jean II, King of France. The bearer of the oriflamme was to be "the most worthy and adept warrior," a knight "noble in intention and deed, unwavering, virtuous, loyal, adept, and chivalrous." Charny had proved himself thus again and again in battle. When Jean II feared that French knights were becoming decadent, weak and cowardly, he formed the Order of the Star, a group of virtuous knights meant to reform French knighthood. Charny was an exemplary member, and it is likely that he produced The Book of Chivalry at Jean II's request.

The Book of Chivalry is not a manual on tactics or technique, it is a treatise on how to live -- and die -- like a knight. It describes "The Way of the Knight." And, importantly, it was written --likely dictated aloud to a scribe as the Hagakure was -- by an actual knight. Charny was not a monk or a poet or a politician or a novelist or a Victorian or a modern historian. He was a battle tested knight held in high regard as an exemplar of chivalry by his king and his peers. Chivalry was his Way.

Putting the Ladies in Perspective

The word chivalry is most often used today to denote some sort of Victorian gentlemanliness, especially deference toward women. While Charny notes that men can triumph when they put their hearts into winning the love of a lady, he also says that such men are "so naïve that they are unaware of the great honor they could win through deeds of arms." He acknowledges the draw of women and their ability to motivate men, and advises both men and women to love loyally, but sees obsession with romance as a distraction from winning honor and places romance in perspective. The word chivalry comes from the French chevalier, meaning horseman, and it is the French equivalent to the word English word "knight." The knight was a warrior, analogous to the samurai. His primary function was to kill men in honorable combat for his lord, his King, his God, and occasionally just on general principle. The Knight did not exist merely to impress and fawn over the ladies. Chivalry was the Way of the knight, his code of conduct, his standard of honor. And it was with fostering knights of exemplary worth, courage and honor that Geoffroi de Charny was primarily concerned.

Qui Plus Fait, Mieux Vault

Charny believed that workers and priests and others could be good and worthy men in their own way. Following this line of thought, he also believed that there were "no small feats of arms." Competing in jousts and tourneys was worthy and honorable, as were other pursuits that tested men or placed them in harm's way. But as a knight, Charny placed good men who sought out honorable combat at the pinnacle of his chivalric hierarchy of worth. His refrain throughout is "qui plus fait, mieux vault," or "those who do more are worth more."

"Those who do more are worth more" is a motivational quotation that could apply to a variety of manly pursuits. But with it, Charny also admirably accords some worth to men who push themselves while reserving more worth for men who push themselves even harder or who face even greater trials. This can be applied to modern life easily, and puts many things in perspective. Combat is the reigning metaphor for most sports and all of the martial arts, and these things can be viewed as honorable and worthy pursuits, while men who charge into battle and face death are accorded greater honor and worth.

On Fighting for Our Lord... (Or Crom)

Charny was undoubtedly a Christian knight. Indeed, he briefly participated in a crusade and is listed as the first known owner of The Shroud of Turin. The Christian God figures heavily in his worldview, and in Chivalry he compares knighthood to priesthood, discusses the monastic orders and explains how men-at-arms can be pleasing to God. For Christian men, especially fighting Christian men, this aspect will no doubt make Charny's work all the more appealing and inspirational.

However, for those who are not Christians, Charny's faith does not overwhelm his other ideas. As with many fighting Christian men -- who ask for God's favor in smoting and slaying and applying rear naked chokes -- it is often easy enough to mentally replace the word God with "Crom." Charny's God is pleased by valor, prowess and righteous violence.

A Way of Life and Death

Like the Hagakure, Charny's Chivalry acknowledges death as an inevitable part of life and offers a way of life that prepares the aspirant for an honorable death.

men of worth say that a man is happy to die when he finds life pleasing, for God is gracious toward those who find their life of such quality that death is honorable; for the said men of worth teach you that it is better that death is honorable; for said men of worth teach you that it is better to die than to live basely.

The worthy knight spends his energy and resources liberally in the pursuit of honor. The worthy knight is not a glutton, and he should not be overly concerned with plunder. Men of worth keep themselves tough and avoid excessive comforts and luxuries, because they gain great pleasure in winning honor and living honorably, and the paths to honor involve stress and discomfort and risk. The man who clings too dearly to life becomes melodramatic, miserly and cowardly.

Worthy men should avoid unnecessary quarrels, as some are foolish, some are dangerous, and many are vile or unbecoming. Men of worth:

...should be humble among their friends, proud and bold against their foes, tender and merciful toward those who need assistance, cruel avengers against their enemies, pleasant and amiable with all others...

...Love and serve your friends, hate and harm your enemies, relax with your friends, exert yourself with all your strength against your foes. You should plan your enterprises cautiously and you should carry them out boldly. Therefore the said men of worth tell you that no one should fall into despair from cowardice nor be too confident from great daring, for falling into too great despair can make a man lose his position and his honor, and trusting too much in his daring can make a man lose his life foolishy; but when one is engaged on an armed enterprise, one should dread cowardice more than death. Take care not to be so greedy as to take what belongs to others without good cause. And be sure that, as you value yourself, you do not let anything of yours be taken from you.

Charny lived by his own code, which was a mix of cultural and reflexive honor. To him, a man's word was his bond, and when he was betrayed in one instance he quartered his enemy's body and displayed it at the town gates. He did not seize the man's property, however, because he wanted it known that he was not making an act of war or conquest -- just settling a personal score.

In Chivalry, Charny also weighs in on a number of other topics, from who should rule to what young ladies and men should wear. For instance, according to Charnyonly women should wear flashy jewels or clothing, because these things are ultimately a substitute for the greater honors that men can achieve through honorable deeds. He praises simplicity of heart in men, while remaining suspicious of "those who present themselves outwardly as generous and devout" and "those who are too ingenious and over subtle."

Upon reading Charny's work, a modern man cannot simply stand up, gather his gear and ride off on a quest to win honor in combat against other knights. At least not exactly. We live in a different world now. There is a dearth of men who live honorable lives -- a dearth of men who would even want to. But when Charny wrote his Book of Chivalry, he clearly saw dishonor and chaos around him as well.

The Book of Chivalry offers a Western alternative to contemporary Westerners who tend to seek out exotic, non-Western philosophies for inspiration and guidance -- an opportunity to look inward instead of outward for answers. It's a straightforward, concise source that outlines a path of honor, handed down from a brave and good man who walked his talk.

You could learn a lot about masculine honor and worth from a 14th Century knight.