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An examination of the ideal warrior through several ages of England's history.

The figure of
Christ is portrayed in many literary works over the centuries. Christ is portrayed as a warrior in
the following three works: The Dream of the Rood, Ancrene Riwle, Part Seven, and Piers
Plowman, Passus 18. The three works correspond to the following three periods of English
history: The Anglo-Saxon, the Anglo-Norman, and the Middle Ages. Each of these periods had
their own societal values, these values are reflected in their literature.
The Anglo-Saxon period is generally considered to have been from 410 AD-1066AD. The
Anglo-Saxons were originally from what would today be Scandinavia and Germany. The last
Roman legion left England in 410 AD. The Celts who were left in England now had to defend
themselves. The efficient Roman military had breed complacency among the Celts, and the Celts
own fierce warrior tradition and skills had faded, much like a fine sword rusting after years of
neglect. The Celts warlike neighbors to the North: the Picts and the Scots, no longer held in
check by Roman Legionaries, were raiding the Celt's settlements.
Legend has it that a Celtic leader, Vortigern invited some Saxon mercenaries to come to his
land to help drive off the Picts and Scots. This was supposed to have happened in 449 AD. The
mercenaries were from a Germanic Tribe called the Jutes. The Jutes took advantage of the Celts
weakened military state, they began to take over the Celts lands. Over the next hundred years
more Germanic peoples invaded England. The two major tribes were the Angles and the Saxons.
These Germanic peoples drove the Celts into the hinterlands, Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland.
These Germanic peoples were warlike in nature. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about them
in his work Germania:

When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a
disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach
for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to
ascribe one's own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory;
his vassals fight for their chief. If their native state sinks into the sloth of prolonged peace and
repose, many of its noble youths voluntarily seek those tribes which are waging some war, both
because inaction is odious to their race, and because they win renown more readily in the midst
of peril, and cannot maintain a numerous following except by violence and war. Indeed, men
look to the liberality of their chief for their war-horse and their bloodstained and victorious lance.
Feasts and entertainments, which, though inelegant, are plentifully furnished, are their only pay.
The means of this bounty come from war and rapine. Nor are they as easily persuaded to plough
the earth and to wait for the year's produce as to challenge an enemy and earn the honour of
wounds. Nay, they actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they
might win by their blood.
These tribes were largely pagan during and following the period of their migrations. The
lowland Celts were largely Christians, following the lead of their Roman occupiers. The AngloSaxons remained pagan for over 150 years, but by the mid 600's the island was once again
predominantly Christian. Writing was largely unused by the Anglo-Saxons, until it was brought
to them by the Christian missionaries. It should come as no surprise that the majority of the
literature of this time period has religious topics or influences.
Even though the Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity, they still retained their warrior
tradition. This helps to explain the portrayal of Christ in The Dream of the Rood:

Then I saw the Lord of mankind hasten with stout heart, for he would climb upon me, I
dared not bow or break against Gods word when I saw the earths surface tremble. I might have
felled all foes, but I stood fast. Then the young Hero stripped himselfthat was God Almighty
strong and stouthearted. He climbed on the high gallows, old in the sight of many, when he
would free mankind. I trembled when the Warrior embraced me, yet I dared not bow to earth,
fall to the grounds surface, but I must stand fast.
The Cross says it must stand fast, while Christ is no lamb led to the slaughter, but boldly
accepts his fate. The Anglo-Saxons organized their military into bands. These bands were
composed of members of the tribe that had been trained as warriors from early childhood. These
men would swear allegiance to a chief or lord. The warriors that fought for a chief or lord were
called his Thanes. Thanes were expected to be loyal and courageous, following their lord into
battle and fighting alongside him. If the lord was slain, then his thanes were expected to avenge
his death or die in the attempt. The lord was expected to lead his men personally into battle, no
watching from the safety of his fortress walls for an Anglo-Saxon lord. The lord was also
expected to be generous with spoils of war as well as parceling out land to his thanes. A lord
also sometimes provided his thanes with equipment, armor, and weapons. These bands of
warriors were sometimes referred to as Frater Comitatus which in Latin means: Brothers in
Commitment. The members of the Comitatus often ate, slept, and lived together, forming bonds
that often were stronger than blood relations.
The Anglo-Saxon period came to a violent and abrupt end in the year 1066. In
September of that year, William, Duke of Normandy, landed with his army at Pevensey on
Englands Southern coast. He met the English king Harold near Hastings. The Normans won a

hard-fought battle. The Normans, who were descendants of tribes nearly identical to the Angles
and Saxons, spoke French. They had also adopted many of the French customs and manners.
The Normans employed calvary, while the Saxons were predominately foot soldiers. The irony
of this is that the Celts, who the Angles and Saxons had fought for possession of England, more
than likely employed heavy calvary as was common military practice of the late era Romans.
Had the Saxons emulated the Celts use of calvary, perhaps the Battle of Hastings might have
turned out differently. Many of the Saxon warrior class left England because they did not want
to be ruled by William. William encouraged this as it made his job of securing his realm easier.
The Normans also began to integrate the next Saxon generation into their military, while young
Norman nobles were predominantly trained as calvary, the young Saxons were trained as foot
soldiers, but were taught Norman methods of combat. William had some rebellions and
resistance movements to contend with, but eventually things settled down. The Normans
introduced the feudal government to England, and along with it came the professional warrior
class of the knight.
Knights were supposed to follow a philosophical code known as chivalry. The basic
tenets of chivalry were: prowess, courage, loyalty, defense, justice, faith, humility, largesse,
nobility, and franchise. These virtues were ideals to strive for, sadly many knights did not come
close to the ideals of chivalry. The definition of chivalry changed with the sociological and
economic pressures and shifts of the time. Another part of chivalry was the idea of courtly love.
A knight was to find a lady to woe, someone that all their exploits and deeds of valor were meant
to win her heart. From the Ancrene Rile: A lady was completely surrounded by her enemies, her
lands laid waste, and she herself quite destitute, in a castle of clay. But a powerful king had

fallen in love with her so inordinately that to win her love he sent her his messengers, one after
another, often many together; he sent her many splendid presents of jewelry, provisions to
support her, help from his noble army to hold her castle. The king then comes himself and
offers to make the lady his queen. At last, he rides out to defeat all her enemies, even though he
knows that he will be dealt a mortal wound in doing so. All of this he is glad to do for the love
of this lady. This is a fairly good example of the ideal of chivalry and courtly love in action.
The Ancrene Rile(Rules for Anchoresses), is a religious text, written to provide advice
and instruction to three sisters entering religious exclusion. The king in the passage is Christ,
unlike a real knight, after receiving a mortal wound, Christ comes back from the dead. Even
though it is a religious text, the values of chivalry and courtly love are clearly evident in its
passages. This reflects the Anglo-Normans own values and ideals. The ideal warrior to the
Anglo-Normans was a knight that lived up to the chivalric ideas. A knight needed to be skilled
in fighting, courageous in the face of death, loyal to his lord, and show hospitality. All of these
virtues are the same for a good Anglo-Saxon warrior. A knight also needed to be generous to
those less fortunate than himself and was also supposed to be merciful and just. These more
temperate elements were probably evident in good Anglo-Saxon warriors, the Anglo-Normans
had just codified them and written them down.
A knight was first and foremost a warrior, he was supposed to be skilled in the arts of
war. Besides rigorous training that often started in boyhood, knights also participated in
tournaments. Tournaments were originally battles in miniature. They were fought with the
actual weapons and armor that a knight would employ on the battlefield. While killing your
opponent was not usually the object of most early tournament bouts, it was often the result as one

or both of the contestants died from wounds sustained on the tournament field. There were
contests that were meant to be to the death, such as duels or trial by combat. Sometimes two
lords, who were having minor skirmishes or disagreements over something, instead of openly
attacking one another would opt to settle the dispute through a tournament. This was seen as
being preferable to open warfare as it removed the collateral damage to both lords holdings.
Tournaments began to take on a more of a sports competition than a war on in miniature
as time progressed. The joust became the premier event at a tournament, and many a young
noble could not wait to win his spurs so that he could participate in a joust. The participants
were still knights, still supposed to be military men, but some of them had never seen a battle.
William Langland, who lived from 1330 to 1387, the author of Piers Plowman was most
likely a clergyman of some sort. During this time period, the middle class first flourished and
began to grow. Previously, medieval society had been based on three classes: the nobility, the
clergy, and the peasantry. Now there was the middle class, non-nobles who often had more
money at their disposal than the nobles themselves.
Langland portrays Christ in Passus 18 of his work Piers Plowman as a young knight.
Christ is riding off to a joust in Jerusalem, armored in a helmet and hauberk. An actual knight
from Langlands time would be wearing chain mail, but Christ has taken over Piers mortal body
for his jousting competition. Langlands work is an allegory and a dream manuscript, allowing
for all sorts of fantastical elements to unfold. Christ is jousting with Death. Afterward, Christ
descends into Hell, and lays siege to it. Throwing open gates and releasing the souls of the
worthy to gain their heavenly reward.

Langland was not calling for open rebellion or abandonment of the three class system of
the Middle Ages. He was pointing out that many knights and nobles abused or neglected their
powers and responsibilities. Through his use of the Christ Knight, Langland was offering a
return to the ideal of knighthood that appeared to have fallen into disarray. One new idea that
was brought about by the rise of the middle class was that nobility of spirit may not be tied to a
bloodline? A mans actions spoke more of his character than his birth.
The ideal warrior from this time is still the knight. The code of chivalry was still held up
as the ideal to strive to obtain. Courtly love was alive and well. The big difference is in the idea
that worthy commoners should be allowed to train to become knights. That the realm of
knighthood should not solely belong to those of noble birth, and that there should be some way
of removing evil or incompetent nobles from their positions of power without resorting to open
Skill at arms, loyalty to a lord or cause, hospitality, and courage in the face of adversity
seem to be the four common virtues that exist in all three time periods. The ideal warrior of all
three periods had few changes. Tactics may have changed, weapons may have changed, religion
may have changed, but the core of a good warrior remained the same.