Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE KNICKERBOCKER.

VOL. XV.

JANUARY, 1840.

No. 1.

CHIVALRY AND THE CRUSADES.

'A GENTLEMAN of excellent breeding, of admirable discourse, of great admittance; authentic in place and person, generally allowed for many war-like, court-like, and learned preparations.'

SAAKSPEARE.

WE propose, in the present paper, to present to our readers some account of the institution of Chivalry, and of the times that

produced it. The theme may to some appear trite.

Tous it is not so; and we trust, before we have done, to bring others to our mind. In turning to the records of chivalry, we feel, (and we have faith we are not alone,) as if recurring to the pleasant dreams of our youth. Nor do we envy those whose imaginations never kindled, and whose hearts never beat thick, at the recital of the pomp and pageantry, the brilliant daring and gallant exploits, of the old chivalrous times.

The knight so brave and yet so gentle ; in the battle-shock a tower of iron ; in lady's bower, swayed, like his morion's plume, by the faintest breath of beauty; the tournament, with its ring of loveliness, and its champions proving in friendly conflict their strength and skill in arms, amid the exhilarating shouts of the multitude, and beneath the glances of bright eyes,' which

Rain influence and award the prize;'

the knight's adventurous wanderings in quest of opportunity to right the wrong, to spoil the spoiler, to chastise the oppressor, and to throw over innocence and weakness the protecting shield; all this furnishes a picture well fitted to captivate the fancy of our early years. Still farther : the old chivalrous and feudal age, with its sharp contrasts, its strong lights and deep shades, its exaggerated strain of sentiment and feeling, and its unsettled, revolutionary state ; how striking a counterpart to the imaginative mind of youth! For has not youth its romantic visions; its dreams of glory to be achieved, and beauty's smile to be won; its eager wishes and resolves to crusade against cruelty and oppression, and be a right arm of defence to the innocent and weak? Imagination, and Love, and Hope, are the feudal lords of the youthful spirit, and the whole troop of thoughts and passions are their loyal retainers, prompt to dare, at their behest all deeds of high emprize. The chivalrous spirit, then, instead of having gone long since to its cemetery, yet lives and abides in every VOL. XV.

1

1

[ocr errors]

young mind, endowed with any portion of the diviner principle. It does, indeed, indicate an elementary state, where the passions are in conflict both with each other, and with the actual world without, and yet a state full of hope ; for it evinces that the soul's powers are in a healthful ferment and stir, and that its several elements, through collision among themselves, and conflict with the exterior world, are gradually expurging whatever is factitious and false, and tending toward a state of fit subordination and concurrent action. The history of chivalry, then, is not merely the history of a particular institution of a particular age) The philosopher also sees in it a type of the tumultuous yet interesting youth of the individual mind, in every age. Leaving it to our readers to verify this suggestion, we proceed at once to the task in hand.

Chivalry was the growth of the Middle or Dark Ages, that vast abyss, which was alike the grave of ancient, and the cradle of modern civilization. This tract of time, stretching from the beginning of the sixth to the close of the sixteenth century, may be well named the fabulous

age

of the modern world. Athwart its gloom, men are seen to move as trees walking,' and its incidents come like 'certain strange things to our ears.' It was a period characterized by strong individuality; by gigantic virtues and gigantic crimes; by picturesque institutions and fantastic customs; by frequent revolution and incessant change. The steady march of government, the supremacy and equal administration of law, the undisturbed procession of peaceful business and pleasures, which mark our time, were then unknown.

In these respects, indeed, the Middle Ages resemble the early age of every people, the times heralding every civilized state of society. A moment's digression, for which the light thereby cast on our subject will win our pardon, will show that the chivalry of the eleventh century of our era was not without some parallel at a vastly more early date. The magnificent day of Grecian civilization emerged from the dun twilight of the age of Orpheus and Hercules, of Minos and Rhadamanthus, and of the heroes of the Trojan war. (Tradition, dim and uncertain, yet shows plainly enough that this was an age of convulsion and anarchy, which, intolerant of the wholesome restraints of law, suffered avarice and cruelty, ambition and lust, to stalk abroad, and ravage at their will.

But as in the order of Providence, the world's desperate necessity is ever the sure precursor of a Redeemer, so now the elder chivalry was born to help and to save. In the half-fabulous Hercules, Orpheus, and Minos, we find its three elementary principles impersonated. Physical force put forth for the chastisement of cruelty and oppression; the influence of art and religion, bent to softening and refining the rugged temper of the time ; and a wise and equitable legislation, seeking to gather up into harmonious wholeness the severed and discordant principles of society. And in Agamemnon and Achilles, Ulysses and Ajax, Hector and Sarpedon, we behold the feudal chiefs of a primitive day, the Pagan prototypes of Christian knighthood, exhibiting the same daring and individual prowess, distinguished by the same sensitiveness of honor, and burning with the same thirst for adventure, and enthusiasm for military glory. If their spirit fell below that of Christian chivalry, it was because they lacked that pure womanly influence, and that inspiration from a better

religion, which went far toward dignifying even the wildest vagaries of the later knight-errantry.) The differing character of Pagan and Christian chivalry is strikingly illustrated by the diverse character of the two most conspicuous aims, toward which their several energies were bent. The ten years' crusade of the Grecian knighthood was directed to the rescue of a frail woman from the arms of her elected paramour. The crusades of the Christian knighthood sought to wrest from the infidel's contaminating grasp a city which had witnessed the most marvellous and beneficent demonstrations of God's power and providence; the humiliation, the sorrows, and the exaltation of the Prince of peace; the occultation and the glorious réappearing of the bright and morning star.'

But to return. Chivalry, as we said, was the growth of the dark ages, and first makes its appearance, as a distinct institution, in the eleventh century of our era.

It resulted not from one but many causes; and in the form it assumed, and the spirit that impelled it, may be detected the working of all the main elements of that multifarious and chaotic time. To apprehend, then, its origin and its composition, will require some consideration of the then state of Europe, and of the causes which produced that state.

The splendid conflagration of Grecian genius had settled down into its ashes, only sending up a few transient corruscations, when stirred by some casual breeze of circumstance. That mysterious spirit, which burned through an entire people, and reared for itself imperishable trophies in every field of science, arts, and arms, was waxing faint and low. The Pindaric lyre, struck by no lineal hand, was mute. The reed of Herodotus was shivered. The stage was no longer trod by the · Soplioclean buskin.' The grove of the academy might be standing yet, but it was no more resonant with the murmur of the • Athenian Bee.' Demosthenes had lived, Demosthenes had died; and of such there is but one. That concentrated and enthusiastic devotion to country, which was adequate to creating an Aristides and Leonidas, a Phocion and Epaminondas, and which, kindling through the popular mass, enabled a scanty troop to withstand and scatterthe power of a vast empire, was now all but extinct in the Grecian bosom. And so, when the formidable Macedonian appeared, Greece shrank before his spear, and bowed beneath his sceptre.

But meanwhile, a new power had arisen in the world, and was absorbing, successively, all other powers into itself. Three hundred years anterior to the subversion of Greek independence by Alexander, a small troop of outlaws had built a castle on a hill beside the Tiber. Here, opening an asylum for adventurers and fugitives from justice, they grew numerous, built a city, procured wives by violence, and so laid the foundations of the Roman State. An intense and boundless ambition; a bravery and perseverance, which shrank from no peril, and halted at no obstacle ; an uncompromising, single-eyed devotion to the cause of country; these, the distinctive principles of Rome, communicated to this infant people a perpetually onward movement, which nothing could either stay or turn aside. Country after country passed beneath the wings of the Roman eagle, till, a century and a half before Christ, its shadow rested on Greece also.

But not even thus was the land of Pericles wholly skorn of its in

[ocr errors]

fluence. The spirit of Grecian thought passed into and interpene-
trated the Roman mind. Grace and refinement were taught to dwell
in company with the rugged virtues of a military people, and the
queen of arms soon learned to contend for other prizes than those of
battle, and to covet the olive not less than the laurel crown. Glorious
alike in arts and arms, Rome stood at last on the loftiest pinnacle of
national greatness, the unchallenged Mistress of the World.
But the hour that comes to all

, was drawing on to her also. The race of the Cincinnatuses and Catos, of the Scipios and Marcelluses, that temperate, self-denying, sternly-virtuous, patriotic race, whose energies were the spring of the Roman greatness, had passed away. The luxury flowing in with the tribute of a conquered world, had loosed the rigid joints, and relaxed the iron nerves. The people, who for long succeeding generations had sworn a deadly oath against kingly rule, now cringed at an imperial footstool, and a Nero and Caligula, a Commodus and Caracalla, had perpetrated enormities such as heaven suffers not to go by unnoted. Through the corruption universally pervading society, it would seem humanity must have died out, but for the special intervention of Providence. Such special intervention was at hand.

Amid the tangled swamps and dim forests of Germany; over the vast wilds of Scythia and Sarmatia ; along the mountain sides and the wide plateaux of Central Asia ; in the chill and snowy regions of Scandinavia, covering, like its own Hecla, a heart of fire with an exterior of ice, were gathering the materials of the successive tempests destined to submerge a power, which, battening on the acquisitions of ancestral

prowess, and lolling among the memorials of ancient renown, forgot its own perilous position, and shut its eyes on the open book of the future. Franks, Goths, and Vandals, Kuns, Normans, and Lombards, such are the names of the principal barbarian tribes, whose office it was, under Providence, at once to chastise the vices of a degenerate people, and to replenish the veins of a decrepid civilization with the healthful life-current of a vigorous though savage youth. Their aggressions, commencing as early as the middle of the third century, continued, with little cessation, till the closing part of the eighth, when the chief part of Europe fell beneath the sway of Charlemagne, the Frank.

And so the magnificent structure, reared by the labor of a thousand years, was now lying in ruins. That form of human nature and of human society, which bore the name of Roman, was no more. Out of the ingredients of its composition, scattered and reabsorbed into the general mass of things, it remained for successive generations to construct the edifice of modern civilization.

The tendency of these scattered elements of society, in passing through the process of re-combination, was toward that system of civil relations, which, matured, was called the Feudal System. This, from its so close connexion with chivalry, demands a brief consideration. The roots of the feudal system must, questionless, be sought in the customs of the barbarous tribes that overran the Roman empire. Each of these acknowledged one principal chief. One-third part of the countries conquered was left to the original owners, while the remaining two-thirds were appropriated by the conquerors to

« PreviousContinue »