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A History of English Prose Fiction by Tuckerman

In considering the period of chivalry

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were as effectually crushed by this state of general insecurity as the external well-being and material life of the people. This was a dark and stormy period for Europe, merciless, arbitrary, and violent. It was a sign of the prevailing feeling of misery and hopelessness that, when the first thousand years of our era were drawing to their close, the people in every country in Europe looked with certainty for the destruction of the world. Some squandered their wealth in riotous living, others bestowed it, for the good of their souls, on churches and convents; weeping multitudes lay day and night about the altars; some looked forward with dread, but most with secret hope, toward the burning of the earth and the falling in of heaven." Gradually some order and security succeeded this chaos. The church exerted all her strength in subduing violence, and the character of her remedies are illustrative of the evils they were intended to abate. The truce of God set apart the days between Thursday and Monday of each week as a time of peace, when private quarrels should be suspended. The peace of the king forbade the avenging of an alleged injury until forty days after its commission. The Council of Clermont ordered that every noble youth on attaining the age of twelve years should take an oath to defend the oppressed, the widows, and the orphans.[3] Much superfluous energy was exhausted in the crusades. In England the growth of the universities and the study and development of law aided
the establishment of social order, while the spread of commerce and the improvements in husbandry brought with wealth some refinement and luxury. The baronage wrested from the crown those liberties which finally became the common property of all. Trade pushed the inhabitants of the towns into prominence as an important class whose influence was thrown entirely into the scale of peace and quiet, on which its prosperity depended. No element of change was more essential, and none was greater in its civilizing effects than the development of the chivalric spirit into an institution of which the laws and customs were observed from England to Sicily. Its influence worked directly upon the disturbing classes of society. Only time and the slow march of civilization could calm the restlessness and the martial spirit of the powerful, but chivalry introduced into warfare knightly honor and generosity, and into social life a courtesy and gallantry which formed a strong ally to religion in bringing out the better sentiments of humanity. At a time when force was greater than law, when the weak and defenceless were at the mercy of the powerful, when women were never safe from the attacks of the brutal, a body of men who were sworn to redress wrongs, to succor the oppressed, and to protect women and children, could not fail to be highly beneficial and to win the reverence of mankind. To be a good knight was to be the salt of the earth. The church gave easy absolution to the champion of the weak,--the soldier of God. Women smiled upon the cavalier whose profession was her service, and whose deeds, as well as the glitter of his arms and the fascination of his martial appearance, flattered her pride and gratified her imagination.

Yet, in considering the period of chivalry, we must not yield too much to the attraction of its brilliant show, its high flown sentiments, and knightly valor. Beneath religion there ever lurked a bigoted superstition; beneath valor, cruelty; beneath love, mere brutal passion. The sympathies of the order were much confined to the higher classes, and there was little feeling for the sufferings of the common people. The reign of Edward the Third embraces the most brilliant days of chivalry. About that period is spread a mist of manly gallantry and feminine charms which conceals the darkness beneath. The Black Prince, after winning his spurs at Cressy, carried fire and sword among the peaceful and defenceless inhabitants of Garonne, gratifying a greed of gain by blood and rapine. The gallant deeds of Sir Walter de Manny, of Sir John Chandos, the fame of Edward himself, only make darker by contrast the desolation and suffering by which their glory was purchased. The poetic illusion inspired by Froissart's chronicles of knightly deeds and manners is rudely torn when we read Petrarch's description of France after the battle of Poitiers; "I could not believe that this was the same France which I had seen so rich and flourishing. Nothing presented itself to my eyes but a fearful solitude, land uncultivated, houses in ruins. Even the neighborhood of Paris showed everywhere the marks of desolation and conflagration. The streets are deserted, the roads overgrown with weeds, the whole is a vast solitude."[4]

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