Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


[The last of three essays on the subject. The two earlier seemed less worthy of preservation.--ED.]

ALTHOUGH I was fully prepared to encounter any amount of opposition to my justification of Claver-house, still I must confess to a little astonishment at the dead set which has been made against the essay in praise of Chivalry, and although I do not intend to say a word more on the subject of Viscount Dundee, I will venture to intrude upon the very valuable time of the Essay Meeting with a few observations on the two papers which have set themselves so unmercifully to pull that essay to pieces.

In one of these essays the author makes a distinction which I do not understand, namely, that one of the greatest evils of Chivalry was the making its votaries esteem honour before duty. I firmly believe that it is in keeping our honour spotless that we best perform our duty, both to ourselves and others--of course I mean honour in its purest and highest sense. Our chief business in this world is with ourselves: "Keep yourselves unspotted from the world." This I know is not at this time a fashionable doctrine--so long as they accomplish good, people seem not to care what means they take to gain their ends. Louis Kossuth is an instance of this. They say that when they hunt the ermines, they strew a quantity of dirt round its dwelling-place, and then drive the ermine towards it, when the creature suffers itself to be taken, rather than defile the spotless purity of its whiteness, which it values more than life. An exquisitely beautiful lesson for us, if we would learn by it. That is a splendid passage in Chateaubriand's autobiography in which, speaking of the emigrants, he says: "At the present day the outcry against the emigrants is, they were tigers, who lacerated the bosom of their mother; at the period of which I speak, people were guided by old notions, and honour was reckoned for something, as well as country" With regard to the other part of the accusation, that Chivalry set the authority of a temporal head above that of God, I simply say that I do not believe it. If it were so, how came it that men gave up all that they had--friends, possessions, lands--to throng in thousands to the Crusades, and this, not at the command of any temporal head or chief, but at the preaching of God's supposed Vicar and Vicegerent? And was not their war-cry always, "It is the will of God! it is the will of God!" It is very easy to say that it was interested motives, or a vile superstition, that prompted them to that; but why should we always ascribe the worst motives we can select for the actions of our fellow-men? Now suppose that at some future time people may say that the advocates of peace at the present day were so only because they thought two millions infinitely better deposited in their own pockets than expended in a ruinous war. There are innumerable things of this kind people may say, and what should we think of it? All I want to do is to pay the same respect to the motives of our fathers that we would have posterity pay to ours--a golden rule, which always has been golden, and always will be, even in this our iron age.

And here I may as well observe that I did not (in a former essay) say that the Feudal System or Chivalry extinguished serfdom in England, but that facts did not seem to justify the accounts we hear of the great cruelties practised by the Normans; I think there is some difference between this and what I have been accused of saying. I might have said that I believe the Feudal System, as introduced by the Normans, was less opposed to a spirit of freedom among the lower orders than the government of the Saxons, and I believe I should be borne out by the facts in this assertion. With regard to the state of learning among the Saxons, they might, and undoubtedly did, do all the great works described, and yet, at the time of the Conquest, have sunk into the state William of Malmesbury declares they had, and I hope my fair antagonist will pardon me if I say that I see no sufficient reason for doubting his word, though of course the authors of the present time must be infinitely better acquainted with the events of the Dark Ages than the poor benighted people who lived in them. And here I must again allude to what I find myself continually repeating, that the Normans who landed on the coast of Neustria were not the Normans who conquered England--they were a totally changed people. When they landed, they were mere barbarians; they retained their courage, their personal beauty, and their sagacity--by some called cunning; almost everything else of their former nature was changed; they became refined, courteous, and accomplished. William of Poitiers says Normandy was full of monasteries and schools. With regard to their drunkenness, there is not, I believe, the slightest proof that it was one of their vices--must I again recall the evening before Hastings fight? I think an admirer of the combined descendants of Danes and Saxons should not be very hard upon the ancestors of the Normans for being either barbarians or pirates. Is Vortigern's fate forgotten? Is the conquest of the ancient Britons obliterated from the memory of those who profess to view all the portions of history with like impartiality, and who accuse me of the contrary? The Saxons would not have more right to the possession of England than the Normans--indeed the latter broke no pledge; the Saxons came over as friends, and then seeing the weakness and incapacity of their hosts they broke all their promises, and turned against them, drove them from their beautiful country, massacred them, and obliged the small remnant to take refuge in the inaccessible mountains of Wales and Cornwall.

Pardon me, I think others might apply to themselves the lesson they read me with so much talent and earnestness. But perhaps the most singular part of all is the onset which has been made upon me, because my heroes were not perfect. Who ever said they were? I am sure I did not. But I maintain that all the names mentioned were ornaments to the institution of Chivalry. Henry the Second is objected to because he was a hard father. I confess to ignorance of that; I always thought he was only a great deal too kind to his children, though I am sure no sons ever deserved harsher treatment than his did. With regard to Philip Augustus, I have no wish to justify his treachery, but I say that a greater man never lived; and that, however we may try to believe the contrary, Coeur de Lion was nothing but a passionate bully, as his conduct in innumerable instances proved; and with regard to the Albigenses of his time, if we are to believe many accounts of them, they were not worthy of that sympathy which has been so generally bestowed upon them.

And now I come to another extraordinary statement, that St. Louis and Joinville were what they were in spite of Chivalry. How was this possible when the virtues they possessed were exactly those inculcated by Chivalry? If a pupil follows exactly the lessons and injunctions of his tutor, you do not say it was something else, we cannot tell what, that made him what he was--it was in spite of his tutor, and not because of him--we should not say this; then why say so now? It is too bad to take two of my highest ornaments away and give them to nobody knows who.

With regard to Henry the Fifth, I do not wish in the least to justify his wars against France: they were partly the errors of the time, partly the errors of his own temperament, and partly the legacy left him by his ancestors. But Henry the Fifth performed a nobler conquest than all these, and it is for this that I put him in my list--he conquered himself. His reformation on coming to the throne is well known; the affair with Judge Cranworth is often spoken of as redounding in credit to the latter, but was it not as much so to the former? The Judge was trying one of the Prince's companions, and condemned him; in a moment of ungovernable passion the Prince struck the Judge in the face. Cranworth instantly committed him for an assault. And he, what did he do? He, a prince of the blood-royal of England, heir-apparent to the throne of England, France, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales,--a prince of a fiery and impetuous disposition, of a proud and haughty race,--committed to the rude hands of common constables? He bowed his head silently, and admitted that it was just. Here was a more glorious victory than all his conquests--a bloodless victory, which will be remembered in after ages, when Alexander's conquest of the world will be forgotten. And when he came to the throne, instead of bearing the Judge any ill-will, he sent for him, told him he knew from experience how well he performed his duty, and appointed him to one of his highest offices of the State.

With regard to the Black Prince, I am content with the praise bestowed upon him--I have no wish to make my heroes perfect; and, lest I should exhaust the patience of my readers, I must say as much with regard to the Captal de Buch, of whom my opponent owns that he was without reproach; yet it seems he committed one terrible action, that of saving the ladies of France--nay, even France itself--from horrors of which we have no idea. If this was his worst deed, what must his best have been?

One of my opponents says that the Troubadour poetry is unreadable. I think this is a too sweeping condemnation. If by the Troubadour poetry is meant only that written by those strictly called Troubadours, I am scarcely competent to judge, as, with the exception of extracts from the Romaunt de la Rose, the Romance de Coucy, and a few smaller poems, I am not conversant with their writings; but as far as I can tell, they are not what would be called unreadable, though certainly not coinciding exactly with our modern ideas. And it is worthy of remark, that in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, all those related by persons in high rank,--those who came immediately under the influence of Chivalry, such as the Knight, the Squire, the Clerk, etc.,--are extremely beautiful and pure, while those of the others are certainly the reverse. Boccaccio too, when he was dying, was so struck by the improper tendency of his book, that he begged a friend not to let it be read by the females of his household--a clear proof that he was behind his age. The Romance of the Morte d° Arthur, though not exactly a Troubadour's poem, is decidedly readable, as also are several others of the same kind. It is also said that the love of the Middle Ages is entirely licentious. This I do not think. Was Petrarch's love for Laura when he wrote--

She wakes within the thought of purest love
Which from the creature rises to its God,
Unsullied by the heat of mortal flame.
Through her the springs of inspiration move,
Opening so bright a path from earth's dull clod,
That Heav'n's blest joys, e'en now my soul doth claim.

Can anything be more pure than Dante's love? And all through history are there not beautiful instances of the purest and most devoted love--that of Bertha for the Emperor Henry; Philip Augustus for his Agnes; Queen Eleanor for Edward the First; Queen Philippa for the Third Edward, who with her last breath prayed him "that it may please you to take none other sepulture whensoever it shall please God to call you out of this transitory lyfe, but besyde me in Westminster"; Heloise's love for Abelard, and many more. Louis IX., a prisoner in Egypt, replies to the Saracens that he will do nothing without Queen Margaret, "who is his Lady." The Orientals could not comprehend such deference, and it is because they did not comprehend it that they have remained so far behind the nations of Europe in nobleness of sentiment, purity of morals, and elegance of manners.

"Chivalry," says Michaud, "so beautifully called 'the fountain of that courtesy which comes from God,' is still more admirable when considered under the all-powerful influence of religious ideas. Christian charity claimed all the affections of the Knight, and demanded of him a perpetual devotion for the defence of pilgrims and the care of the sick. It was thus that were established the Orders of St. John, of the Temple, of the Teutonic Knights, and several others, all instituted to combat the Saracens and solace human miseries. The infidels admired their virtues as much as they dreaded their bravery. Nothing is more touching than the spectacle of those noble warriors, who were seen by turns in the field of battle and in the asylum of pain, sometimes the terror of the enemy, and as frequently the consolers of all who suffered. That which the Paladins of the West did for beauty, the Knights of Palestine did for poverty and misfortune. The former devoted their lives to the ladies of their thoughts, the latter to the poor and infirm." The philanthropists of the present day should sympathise with this.

There is one thing in which I most fully agree with my antagonist--the character of Gustavus Adolphus: she cannot praise him too highly for me. But she says Chivalry was extinct in his time. The form might be, but I should be very sorry to suppose that the spirit of Chivalry is not existing now. Of Max Piccolomini I know very little, not having the advantage of an acquaintance with German literature. But as I fear I have been very obstinate about my heroes, I will take him on credit.

And now I will conclude this atrociously long effusion, begging pardon of this meeting for occupying so much of its time, and of my two fair opponents for so impolitely and unceremoniously contradicting their assertions.

Project Canterbury