Geoffroi de Charny literally wrote the book on chivalry. In fact, he wrote three. It’s not known, however, how much what he wrote reflected or influenced the behaviour and beliefs of fourteenth-century French knights.
Chivalry and knighthood underwent many changes in France during the fourteenth century, beginning with the destruction of the Templars during de Charny’s childhood at the beginning of the century. If the soldier monks couldn’t survive, what hope could there be for the ordinary knight?
As he grew up, it must have been obvious to de Charny that French knights were missing an essential element of chivalry: prowess. They were defeated by the English at Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347). They could no longer protect France even against one of the least powerful countries in Europe.
Loyalty to the king, another aspect of chivalry, had been undermined by the change of dynastic house. In 1328 the Capetians had died out, although Edward III was the nephew of the last three Capetian kings, and Philippe VI, a Valois, did not instil as much loyalty in his knights as his predecessors had done. This loss of loyalty contributed to Philippe’s inability to protect his kingdom against his counter-claimant to the French crown, Edward III. The knights in French armies were more interested in their personal glory and gain than in supporting their king.
Philippe’s son, Jean II, recognised the need for reform probably even before his father’s defeat at Crécy. This led him to create the Order of the Star in 1352, two years after he became king. As part of this reform, he asked de Charny to write about chivalry.
De Charny wrote three book: Demandes pour la joute, les tournois et la guerre, Le livre Charny, and Le livre de chevalerie. The first is a series of questions about jousts, tournaments and war. There are no answers, so it’s possibly a book intended to provoke discussion between knights or between squires and their teachers. The Livre Charny is in verse and is about the chivalrous life and the qualities required of a knight. The Livre de chevalerie is his most famous work and is an examination of what it means to be a knight and how a knight should behave.
All were probably dictated, possibly while de Charny was a prisoner in England in 1350 to 1351. They were written in French rather than Latin, so were not meant to be academic works, but accessible to knights. They’re not great works of literature, but they are interesting historically. There’s little evidence that they had much of a readership even in the fourteenth century, but they show what the man who was acknowledged as one of the most chivalrous men of his age thought about chivalry.
There was a constant tension between knights and clergy as to who had the higher calling. Medieval society was divided into three: those who prayed, those who fought and those who laboured. Publicly, everyone said that the clergy was the most important class, but there were obviously different private opinions. Being pious didn’t stop de Charny from being critical of the church, although he retracted a little by writing that people shouldn’t be critical. It’s obvious from his writing, however, that he clearly thought being a knight was a holy calling and that being a knight could be a form of martyrdom.
In his writing he emphasised how hard it was to be a knight. A knight had to train his body all the time and could not have an easy life. He also risked everything in battle. At the very least a knight could expect to be wounded or to break some bones while on campaign. De Charny also touched on the mental aspects of a knight seeing his friends wounded or killed.
When de Charny marched to battle near Poitiers in 1356, he must have thought that the future of French knighthood was bright. The king and his Order of the Star would encourage the chivalrous life and de Charny’s writings would give its members the guidance they needed. They had even sworn an oath not to run from battle. On that day they were going to fight a much smaller, exhausted English army that had been trying to avoid battle. De Charny had even been given the honour of carrying the king’s personal banner. It was going to be a good day for French chivalry.
The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy