Knights behaving badly: chivalry in Guiron le Courtois

Helen Nicholson


This paper was originally presented at the University of Wales Staff-Student Colloquium in Medieval History at Gregynog, 6-8 March 2000. The theme of this conference was 'Behaviour and Misbehaviour in the Middle Ages'.


In this paper, I shall be using a work of noble literature written in the thirteenth century to examine a few theoretical noble knightly standards of behaviour, and the debates about those standards of behaviour. My contention is that these tell us something about warrior values of honour, courage and loyalty in the thirteenth century. The word historians use to refer to noble knightly standards of behaviour in the central and later middle ages is 'chivalry', which comes from the old French word for knighthood, 'chevalerie'. I actually prefer to say 'knighthood' or 'knightly values' because 'chivalry' can be rather ambiguous - as I will show.

Guiron le Courtois - Guiron the courteous - we would naturally assume that it is about courtly love. In fact it is not only about courtly love. Guiron is courteous because he always acts correctly, as people at court should act. OR DOES HE?

That is the question.

SO: Guiron le Courtois is about what is correct knightly behaviour.


What is Guiron le Courtois?

Guiron le Courtois is a thirteenth-century Arthurian prose romance in Old French. If you have never heard of Guiron le Courtois, that is not surprising. It is very little known outside the ranks of specialists in medieval Arthurian romance. This is because of

1) Its size - it is immense, comparable to the Lancelot-Graal cycle (11 volumes in the modern edition), the prose Tristan (12 volumes in the most recent edition) or Perceforest (will be at least 13 volumes by the time the modern edition is complete);

2) The number of manuscripts surviving: thirty one, plus three printed editions in the sixteenth century, plus versions in Italian;

3) The fact that there is no modern edition: scholars at present have to rely on the sixteenth century printed editions (modern facsimiles have been published with introductions by C. E. Pickford) and on the summary of the romance produced by Roger Lathuillère in Geneva, 1966. There is also a summary in the appendices to Eilert Löseth's Le Roman en Prose de Tristan (reprinted Geneva, 1974).

For the present talk, I have used the facsimile of the sixteenth century edition of c. 1501.

The number of manuscripts which survive, the translations, and the fact that it was printed, indicate that it was a well-known and well-regarded romance. Scholars date it to the late 1230s. It was apparently known to the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who refers to it in a letter of 1240. When the Lord Edward of England was on crusade, 1270-2, he gave a copy of it to Rusticien de Pise (Rusticiano of Pisa) and asked him to combine it with other Arthurian material to make a collection of Arthurian adventures. This wasn't the only Arthurian romance produced for Edward's family, as Eleanor of Castile, his wife, commissioned the verse romance Escanor from Gerard d'Amiens. But although Escanor is big (nearly 26,000 lines), Rusticien's compilation is huge.

With such illustrious readers as Frederick II and King Edward I of England and his family, Guiron is clearly a very significant romance. What people like reading doesn't tell us everything about them, but it does tell us a good deal about their interests and values.

Many of the manuscripts of Guiron which survive are very beautiful and are wonderfully illuminated, particularly with pictures of tournaments - as many tournaments occur in the course of the plot. So if you have seen a picture of a medieval tournament in a book and the caption says 'Tournament before King Arthur from a fifteenth century manuscript' the chances are that it's from a 15th century manuscript of Guiron.


The plot of Guiron

Guiron is a 'prequel' to the story of Lancelot and the Holy Grail and the story of Tristan, and the death of King Arthur. It is set in the early reign of King Arthur, with flashbacks to the reign of his father, Uther Pendragon. The main characters are King Meliadus of Lyonnais, father of Tristan, Guiron himself and his friend Danain le Rous (Rufus or the Red), and the fathers of Lancelot and of Lancelot's cousins. The first part of the book concentrates on the career of Meliadus; the second concentrates on Guiron. When the book was published in the sixteenth century it was spilt into two and published as 'Meliadus' and 'Guiron'. My talk today will concentrate on the second half.

If you have read Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, you won't have much idea what Guiron is like. Malory's work is very abbreviated; Guiron spends much longer developing character and plot. It is much more like a modern novel than Malory. Guiron is a very clever work, skilfully weaving together character and events, leaving the audience guessing (a bit of a detective story at times), with plenty of tension and using humour to enormous effect. In short, it is funny, touching, thoughtful, with interesting characters and an exciting plot. It is one of the great works of medieval literature.

Unlike modern literature, it was designed to be read aloud in short sections to a group, rather than to be read silently and alone. As a result, it sets up people and situations which demand to be debated. The author is being deliberately provocative.

In the absence of television, the cinema or the newspapers, people wanted something to make them think; they wanted something to stimulate them and to raise questions about society and ideals and morals. This is the role which romances like Guiron played in noble life. Guiron raises questions about knightly behaviour, which would have been close to the hearts of all those listening, men and women. It demands to be talked about. We are not intended to take all that happens at face value; and I am convinced that we are not intended to assume that everything the hero does is right. The matter is left deliberately ambiguous, as if the author is saying: 'So, what do YOU think?'


Who was Guiron aimed at?

Rusticien de Pise stated that his compilation was aimed at emperors, kings, princes, dukes, counts, barons, knights, viscounts and bourgeois - this is important because it is a firm indication that he envisaged non-nobles reading or hearing and enjoying Arthurian prose romance. But did he intend an all-male audience? I don't think so. Firstly, because, as some modern scholars argue, more noblewomen than noblemen could read in the vernacular so they were more likely to be reading anyway. Secondly, because some scenes in Guiron would particularly appeal to women: particularly a scene where our hero, the tall, muscular, blonde and handsome Guiron, is tied to a tree, in the snow, in his underwear. And Guiron is a nobleman and so his underwear is of the finest quality linen and won't leave much to the imagination. Yes, his girlfriend is also tied to a tree but she is fully dressed. Guiron is the sex symbol. And while there are male-male relationships going on in Guiron and I'll come on to one later, the norm for sexual relationships in Guiron is male-female. So it's reasonable to assume that the author expects the women to be licking their lips over a nearly-naked Guiron.

However, most of the moral debates in Guiron relate to men's behaviour. There is a tendency in prose romance to assume that men's behaviour is more of a problem than women's behaviour. After all, women are naturally perfect, it's just men we have to reform. Of course, not all women in romance are perfect… but most of them are. (This in itself is evidence of a large female element in the intended audience.)


Using literature as an historical source: how far is it a safe guide?

In this talk I shall be considering Guiron as a guide to some of the problems and grey areas which the noble classes in France (and also England and Italy) saw in the knightly code of conduct. I am making the perhaps bold assumption that it is a reasonably accurate guide to what the noble classes saw as problems because it was widely read and well known from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. I am working from the assumption that people do not read or listen to a book for relaxation unless they have some affinity with the values set out in that book. I realise that this is an area of debate - but, tough.


The values in Guiron

Courtly love plays an important role in Guiron, but what is courtly love? In essence it is a set of values which regulate male-female relations. If a man fancies a woman, he should ask her permission first before grabbing hold of her. He has to prove himself worthy of her love before claiming her. But at the same time once he has proved himself worthy and if there is no other obstacle she must accept him. Different writers disagree on what is an obstacle. In some stories, the fact that the woman is already married is not an obstacle: you will have heard of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and you may know the story of Tristan and Iseut (Wagner made it into an opera in the nineteenth century). But some authors believed that adulterous love was definitely not acceptable. In the second half of the twelfth century, the French poet Chrétien de Troyes (Troyes is in Champagne in NE France) only approved of love affairs between a man and woman with no other attachments. In the early thirteenth century, the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach believed that love should be for life; if one of the lovers dies, the other one should never love anyone else but should remain faithful until their own death. Love itself was enough to save your soul.

In the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere and of Tristan and Iseut, Love itself is enough to justify any action. Love conquers all. But Guiron does not idealise courtly love in the same way as in the stories of Lancelot and co.. It questions it. Is courtly love really the most important thing for a knight? Or is loyalty to one's comrade more important? Guiron suggests that nothing can excuse running off with another man's wife, or another man's girlfriend. Love does not conquer all; loyalty is more important.

This is not to say that Love has no value. Love does make men better knights; but it is best to be a good knight without the help of love.

Those who die for non-adulterous love in Guiron are martyrs and saints of Love; and their bodies remain incorrupt and sweet-smelling, like the bodies of saints in their church shrines. - Even if the lovers were not Christians.

Religion is less important in Guiron than courtesy and prowess on the battlefield. The author of Guiron begins by stating that his work is about courtesy - that is, correct behaviour. And who is the most courteous knight ever?

Is it Lancelot? - No;

Is it Tristan? - No;

It is the Muslim knight Palamedes. He is the most courteous knight of all; the knight who always acted correctly.


- at least, not according to the author of Guiron.

At this point it would be possible to discuss whether the author of Guiron lived and worked in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem or Cyprus, because if the author is the person claimed in the first part of the book then there is some evidence that he did live in the East; and, if so, whether this influenced his attitude towards non-Christians and whether this is why, more than once, he makes it quite clear that although knights should be pious and fear God they do not need to be Christian to be the best knights in the world, and ladies do not need to be Christians to be perfect ladies and to be loved by or to love Christians. But that is another question and I won't go into that now. The whole problem of the authorship of Guiron is very complex.

Guiron is a very rational work; there is relatively little magic in it and everything can be explained rationally. This is par for the course for literature of this period.

Guiron has a good deal to say about fortune, or luck. It is luck that rules everything. No matter how good a knight may be, bad luck may be his downfall. It certainly is with Guiron - but was that bad luck or stupidity?

What with its very tolerant attitude towards other faiths and its belief in luck rather than divine intervention, Guiron is a very secular work.


Moral debates in Guiron

Knightly behaviour comes under attack!

(1) Knights may take any woman they fancy under their escort

This custom is an invention of the Arthurian romance: a knight is riding along and he meets another knight riding along with his girlfriend. First knight may challenge second knight to a joust, and if the first knight wins he gets the girl. This custom is pure fiction, although it probably reflects what knights would like to do - in real life women are much more difficult to get hold of! - and what plenty of ladies would be happy with - husband swapping! How to make sure that you always get the doughtiest, best knight!

However, this particular Arthurian tradition could be interpreted to mean that women should always be at the knights' convenience. Perhaps some knights did interpret it in this way, and certainly some modern scholars have interpreted it like this. But Guiron says, NO. Women should be treated with respect.

Guiron's best friend Danayn Rufus is on his way home from a big tournament. He asked for shelter for the night with two other knights. They pass the time telling stories, and the next day they travel on and continue to tell stories. Danain is telling this story. One of the other two knights listening to the story is Henor de la Selve, the knight who is knocked down in this story - but Danayn is pretending that he hasn't recognised him.

'This is the truth: after that court which was held at Kamaalot that time I told you about before, it happened that four knights who were going towards the far end of North Wales came to this pool where we are now. It was midday when they got there, and because it was very hot at that time of year all four took off their armour. To cut a long story short, as all four were resting there like that, an amazingly beautiful young lady arrived at the pool. The only people with her were a squire and a dwarf, the smallest person for his age I ever saw, and an amazingly aged old woman, around 100 years old and the most ugly creature you could imagine. Of course, I was one of the four knights who was resting there, and when I saw the lady and her company too I said to my comrades, "Look who's coming! One of the ugliest ladies in the world", and the others said that it was true. The lady dismounted among us, and all her company with her, and they drank from the pool - but before they began to drink, we greeted them quite politely. One of our companions, who was carrying arms of green and white, stared long and hard at the beautiful young lady, and wanted her for himself, but we told him that he couldn't have her now, and for good reason: he couldn't take the young lady because she was not being escorted by a knight. He replied that he had to have her, whether dishonourably or honourably, and without waiting another moment he stepped forward and said to the young lady: "Young lady, pay attention! You must remain under my guard. I wish to be your knight, and in return you will be my lady."

'She replied at once: "You should know, sir knight, that I cannot be your lady, and I must tell you that the knight who loves me is certainly a much better knight than you are. So I advise you sincerely to keep your words to yourself."

'When the knight heard these words, he said that she would be his lady whether she liked it or not, and he took her by the hand and held her fast.

'When the old woman saw that the knight was using force on her lady, without hesitation she went straight to the knight's sword - I don't know whether she could tell his apart from the others or not - but she took it and drew it out of the scabbard, and immediately charged down on the knight - who was still holding on to the lady by the hand - and gave him such a great blow on the head with the sword that the knight had neither power nor strength to withstand the blow and fell to the ground so stunned that he didn't know whether it was day or night.

'When the old lady saw him lying on the ground, she spoke words as noble and marvellous as if she had been a bold and doughty knight. "Evil and failed knight," she said, "if it would not be dishonourable for me to kill such a bad knight as you, God help me, I would put you to death now; but I refrain, for the sake of my own honour and honour and love of these doughty men who are with you." When she had said these words, she put the sword back into the scabbard in the place where she had got it. Then she said to the young lady, "Let's be on our way, please, lady." And the young lady mounted at once, and the dwarf and the squire, and the ugly old woman after them.

'When I saw that they were leaving us like that, so quickly, I jumped up and went straight to the old lady and said to her: "Oh, lady, I beg you for the sake of generosity and courtesy, tell me who this young lady is whom you are escorting."

"Sir knight," she replied, "all I may tell you at this moment is that she is the beloved of the best knight in the world."

"In God's name," I said again, "I still don't know who this good knight is, the one you say is her beloved, unless you tell me who he is."

"In God's name," the lady said, "if you don't recognise him, you shouldn't blame anything except your own uselessness. And I can certainly tell from what you've just said that you aren't a knight of great deeds or of great renown."

'Having said this, the lady departed, not deigning to say anything else at that point. After a while, our comrade who had been knocked down on the ground got up and ran for his weapons. When he was armed and mounted, he asked his squires, "Which way did that treacherous lady go, the one who shamed me like that?" They showed him the way she had gone. When I saw that our comrade was going off like that after the lady, armed with all his weapons and armour, I was doubtful and afraid that he would kill the lady in his anger and fury, and I at once mounted my warhorse, armed with my sword, shield and lance - I took these weapons because I was afraid I might meet someone who wanted to hurt me. When I had ridden a little way I found our knight on foot in the middle of the road, and I asked him who had unhorsed him. He told me that a jealous knight had unhorsed him, but that same day I found out for certain that it was the lady's dwarf who had unhorsed him and thrown him to the ground.'

Gyron le Courtoys, c. 1501, with an introductory note by C. E. Pickford (London, 1977), fol. 62a-d

This knight was behaving in accordance with his own interpretation of knightly values of his own society - albeit a fictional society. The old lady showed him that his interpretation was incorrect. He should treat women with respect.

(2) Guiron does not make love to Danain the Red's wife Blondie, Lady of Malahaut.

Meanwhile, while Danain is trying to get home from that tournament, his wife has been ambushed by a doughty knight named Lac. Guiron manages to rescue her, and escorts her on her road. Now, the lady of Malahaut and Guiron have fancied each other for ages, but Guiron has kept out of her way because he doesn't want to disgrace his best friend Danain.

However, as they ride along together they keep glancing at each other… and then they leave the road and ride to a quiet spot, by a pool… and she dismounts and Guiron dismounts and takes off his sword belt and his chainmail and sits down beside her and takes her in his arms…

And then his sword, which he left propped up on a rock, falls into the pool. He leaps up and pulls it out, and draws it from the scabbard to dry it. And there is the inscription: "Loyalty surpasses all and baseness debases all and deceives all in whom it dwells."

At which Guiron is so ashamed of himself that he falls on his own sword.

When Danain finally finds his wife and best friend, he at once assumes that they have betrayed him; but there is Guiron, lying in a pool of his own blood, apparently breathing his last, and there is the lady of Malahaut screaming: "He stabbed himself! He just stabbed himself!"

When Danain realises what has happened, and that Guiron and his wife have not betrayed him, he is amazed at Guiron's honesty and loyalty to his friend.

So loyalty to a friend should come before love.

But what about the lady of Malahaut? She loses Guiron, and in the sequel to this story she loses Danain too. In the end she has to settle for Lac.

3) Danain does kidnap Guiron's girlfriend.

When the boot was on the other foot, Danain failed the loyalty test.

Guiron was very unwell for a long time. So when a young lady (another Blondie) sent a message to him asking him to come and see her, Guiron sent Danain, his best friend. Danain fell in love with Blondie on sight.

So - what did he do? Fall on his own sword? Swallow hard, and escort her to Guiron's castle?

Not a bit of it! He kidnapped her.

Guiron gets worried when Danain doesn't come back, and when he is well he sets off to find them. Following a series of vague sightings and clues, he eventually catches up with them on the mysterious island of Sorelois - apparently Anglesey. Here he fights and defeats Danain. He wants to kill him, but spares him for the sake of knighthood - Danain is too good a knight to kill - although he states that their friendship is now over.

And is Danain sorry? No! His excuse is that he was in love with Blondie. If Guiron wanted her, he should have gone to her himself, not sent his friend.

For Danain, then, love is more important than loyalty. Danain follows the courtly love ethic of Lancelot and Tristan. Guiron, however, is a better knight than they will be and than Danain because he puts loyalty, and the concept of knighthood as a community of warriors, before his own self-gratification.

What about Blondie? She wanted Guiron, and she got Guiron at last, so she is happy. But their relationship does not go smoothly. For Guiron, as a wandering knight, has to wander; he has to seek out new adventures and boldly go where no knight has gone before. And Blondie wants to stay in one place. She can't travel on a daily basis, she isn't strong enough, and she soon becomes ill.

4) Listening to women's advice would be a good idea.

The fact that Blondie isn't physically strong would incline the audience to think that she isn't worth listening to; she's pretty, but that's it. Not a bit of it! Twice Guiron ignores her advice at his peril.

The first time is when he accepts a night's lodging at the house of Hellin le Roux, whom he had earlier freed from being tied to a tree and left to freeze in the snow. Blondie advises against accepting lodging; she does not trust Hellin, but Guiron is confident that the customs of hospitality will keep them safe. The more Blondie says, 'I'm sure something dreadful is going to happen', the more Guiron tells her she's worrying unnecessarily.

Something terrible does happen. In the middle of the night Hellin marches into their room with his men, and drags them out into the snowy forest and ties them to trees to freeze to death. Blondie is allowed to dress first, but Guiron isn't.

The moral of this story is… your girlfriend isn't stupid.

Danain then turns up and threatens to kill Guiron. Blondie begs to die in his place, Danain starts to cry, frees them both and begs Guiron for his forgiveness. Guiron eventually agrees to forgive Danain, but at the first crossroads their paths part, and they are never to meet again.

The second time Guiron ignores Blondie's advice is again over a matter of a night's lodging. Guiron fights a joust with a knight and defeats him, but spares his life and accepts a night's lodging from him. According to Guiron's view of the world, this is quite a reasonable thing to do. He believes that knights should not retreat or draw back, even in extreme danger; and knights should be able to trust other knights, because they all belong to the community of knighthood. But Blondie, whose view of the world is not coloured by a vision of how perfect knights behave, points out that it is likely to be risky. And, as Blondie feared, the knight locks them up in a tower room and holds them prisoner. Blondie, who is expecting a baby, gives birth in the tower room and dies in childbirth - the evil host has the baby brought up (so of course he turns out to be a bad 'un). And Guiron loses his heart's love, and is a prisoner for many years.

Once again, Guiron acted according to knightly standards of behaviour - but, as Blondie pointed out in vain, he actually acted like a fool.



So, ladies and gentlemen, what do you think? Did Henor de la Selve do right in trying to claim the lady he fancied? Or was he acting seriously out of order? Did Guiron do right in trying to kill himself for fancying his best friend's wife? Or should he have just gone ahead and done it and enjoyed himself? Is Danain right - a man who wants a woman's love shouldn't send his best friend instead? And is a man a fool if he listens to his girlfriend's advice - or a fool if he doesn't?

I would say that the message of Guiron le Courtois is clear. Knightly values of correct behaviour are all very well, but you need to use your brain as well. Henor did act out of order; the woman has a right to be consulted. Guiron shouldn't have got himself into the situation where he felt he had to fall on his sword - but, likewise, he shouldn't have expected Danain to have been as honourable as he was himself. Guiron's problem is that he always expects people to be as honourable as he is, and they very seldom are: Guiron puts his honour and the honour of knighthood as a whole before everything else, even his own interests; and other people don't. Worst, although Guiron loved Blondie, he didn't trust her to give him good advice; yet she loved him best and her advice was the best of all. Guiron was behaving badly towards her, but it was Blondie herself who paid the ultimate price for his bad behaviour.

Yet, Guiron acted correctly according to chivalric standards. And Danain, in stealing Blondie from Guiron, was also acting correctly according to his own standards in making love his guide. And Henor, according to the values of his own society, thought that he was acting correctly in claiming a lady-love for himself. So the author of Guiron asks: we have these standards of behaviour, but shouldn't we think about them a little? Do our ideas of correct behaviour actually work in practice?

Did his audience pick up these ambiguities and problems, or did they simply brush them aside and enjoy the story? I fear that the indications are that they generally brushed them aside. Or else they interpreted them to mean that you ought to act like Guiron whatever the circumstances: as the French knights insisted in charging into the English lines at Crécy (1346) and at Poitiers (1356) even when it was clear that they were going to certain death; honour would not allow them to do anything else. Again, some of you have studied The Song of Roland: Oliver advises caution and moderation, but Roland insists on going to certain death because he believes it would be dishonourable to do anything else. Yet the story of Guiron indicates that at least some people were prepared to question what was correct behaviour and what was actually misbehaviour.