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A History of English Prose Fiction by Tuckerman

And removing a chaplet of pearls from his own head


It

is among the Northern conquerors that we must look for the origin of the spirit of chivalry, which consisted first and chiefly in manly valor exerted to obtain the favor of woman. Of this there is no trace in any ancient civilization. Among the barbarous tribes of the North, physical strength and military prowess were the qualities most essential in a man, and woman naturally looked upon them as the merit she most loved, especially as they were needed for her own protection. But this condition is natural to all barbarous and warlike peoples, and cannot by itself account for that sentiment which we call chivalric. To the valor of the Goths were joined an extraordinary reverence and respect for their women, due, as these feelings always must be, to feminine chastity. The virtue for which the Northern women were distinguished elevated them to a position to which the females of other uncivilized nations never approached. It gave them a large influence in both public and private affairs, and made them something to be won, not bought. To obtain his wife the Northern warrior must have deserved her, he must have given proofs that he was worthy of the woman who had preserved her chastity inviolate, and for whom love must be mingled with respect.[5] It is curious to observe how exactly these sentiments, which existed at so early a period among the Gothic nations, were continued into feudal times. Take, as one instance, the exclamation of Regner Lodbrog, the famous Scandinavian chieftain,
who about the year 860 rescued a princess from a fortress in which she was unjustly confined, and received her hand as his reward: "I made to struggle in the twilight that yellow haired chief, who passed his mornings among the young maidens and loved to converse with widows. He who aspires to the love of young virgins ought always to be foremost in the din of arms!"[6] Compare to this a scene at Calais about the middle of the fourteenth century. Edward III had just accomplished an adventure of chivalry. Serving under the banner of Sir Walter de Manny as a common knight, he had overcome in single combat the redoubted Sir Eustace de Ribeaumont, who had brought the king twice on his knees during the course of the battle. Edward that evening entertained all his French prisoners as well as his own knights at supper, and at the conclusion of the feast he adjudged the prize of valor for that day's fighting to Sir Eustace de Ribeaumont, and removing a chaplet of pearls from his own head, he placed it on that of the French knight, with the significant words[7]: "Sir Eustace, I present you with this chaplet as being the best combatant this day, either within or without doors; and I beg of you to wear it this year for love of me. I know that you are lively and amorous, and love the company of ladies and damsels; therefore say wherever you go that I gave it to you." But the chivalry of the Goths was only the seed of the plant which flourished so luxuriantly under better conditions in later times. The feudal system fostered the growth of the sentiment into the institution, as a palliative to anarchy and as an ornament to life, while the Church, always eager to absorb enthusiasm and power into her own ranks, adopted the institution as the Holy Order, and adding religious devotion to the inspiration of love, directed the energies of chivalry into the work of civilization, and made the knight the champion of the weak, in addition to his character as a valiant soldier.


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