Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Geoffroi de Charny speaks!

Not a lot of medieval knights wrote books. One of those who did was Geoffroi de Charny, who fought in the first phase of the Hundred Years War and died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.

Charny was an unusual character. For one thing, he was the first recorded owner of the Shroud of Turin. (Above you will see a picture of the church at Lirey in France that Charny originally built to house the Shroud.) For another, he wrote not one but three books touching on chivalry. One of them, a down-to-earth consideration of the rules for peaceful and warlike chivalric deeds, I partially translated in my book Jousts and Tournaments. A more important work, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny, has been edited by Richard Kaeuper and translated by Elspeth Kennedy. There is a cheaper edition with less scholarly apparatus under the title A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry.

That's a very good title, actually. Charny, who had a very active military career, was recruited by the king of France, Jean II, to write about chivalry for the king's own knightly order, the Order of the Star. When he did so, he just let it rip. It is unlikely that Charny picked up a pen and wrote the books himself. He likely dictated to a secretary. The Book of Chivalry in particular, if read aloud, gives you the sense, accurate or not, that this is what he really was like when he held forth about important subjects among "men of worth."

You can imagine this man as your commander on the battlefield very easily when you read stuff like this: one should be dismayed at the thought of undertaking great deeds, for the above-mentioned men of standing tell us truly that those who have the will to achieve great worth are already on the way to great achievement. And they speak the truth, for because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor, they do not care what sufferings they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment. Indeed, it is a fine thing to perform great deeds, for those who rise to great achievement cannot rightly grow tired or sated with it; so the more they achieve, the less they feel they have achieved; this stems from the delight they take in striving constantly to reach greater heights. And great good comes from performing these deeds, for the more that one does, the less is one proud of oneself, and it always seems that there is so much left to do.
Inspiring? I think that this has something to say even to those not very impressed by knights and chivalry, not to mention war...

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