Chivalry and the Modern Practice of the Medieval Martial Arts

Journal of Western Martial Art
October 2000

Brian R. Price

he recent interest in Medieval and Renaissance martial arts is a wonderful thing. Drawn to the tantalizing world of historical techniques as expressed through the fechtbuchen (fighting books), reenactors, martial artists, tournament society members and historical fencers have begun to communicate, creating a rich new renaissance of learning with respect to the practice of medieval fighting.

Why all the interest in fighting techniques that were rendered technologically obsolete more than five centuries ago?

The fighting itself is certainly exciting, of that there is little doubt. Interesting as it is, a bunch of guys (and gals) hacking about with swords or perhaps poleaxes is not compelling enough to explain this widespread interest in things medieval; be they historically accurate or the popularized abstraction loosely called fantasy.

The techniques, and the exciting combats that ensue, are cool. The armour and weapons are cool. The medieval stuff"even down to the pointy shoes and goofy hats"is cool. But the most important thing is what we do with these arts. In pursuing our amusements and bolstering our skills through hard practice, we exercise not only our bodies, but we have the opportunity to explore our most inner character by standing against another dedicated human being, not only in competition but also in companionship. We build strength, and this strength brings with it the responsibility to use it to benefit others. How you use the hard-won martial skills is the philosophy that gives the art its value. This philosophy binds us together with martial camaraderie; and this philosophy is most properly called chivalry.

The oriental martial arts have long understood this connection; indeed it is the reason for the practice of their arts. Even in their philosophies, it is more than just Bushi-do, the Way of the Warrior. Through the arts a man may ennoble himself, not by the use of force but through the responsibility and perception that are acquired as the art is practiced. It is the path that is important, not the destination. True masters do not swagger; mastery does not lie in the ability to defeat any number of opponents, it is attained in learning how to live. Masters are at peace and in harmony, understanding that the how and when of using force is far more important than the force itself.

The European heritage is different, but similar, primarily in that the emphasis is on the individual rather than the collective. Early medieval warriors "milites"possessed a near monopoly on the use of force, partially by virtue of social convention and partially based on the expense of military equipment. Like warriors everywhere, they prized three virtues above all others; prowess, loyalty and courage.

Marauding all over the post-Roman empire, these Romano-Germanic horsemen were at once the blessing and scourge of their age, simultaneously a bulwark against incessant invasion on one hand and volatile competitors on the other, bitterly divided and often cloaking hideous crimes with excuses dimly justified as personal honor.

Carolingian leadership first organized this body of valuable but expensive men, imposing duties to the Crown and legitimizing these demands through a renewed emphasis on law and culture. Sadly this dark age renaissance collapsed after the death of Charlemagne himself, but the feudal system he largely created remained, as did powerful literary traditions such as the chanson de gest the Song of Roland.

By the 11th century, when the first tournaments were undertaken, the feudal institutions that granted a knightly monopoly were well-entrenched and sophisticated, the world divided between those who fought, those who prayed and those who worked.

The knights themselves, increasingly formalized in their role through hereditary grants, remained a powerful, crude and troublesome lot, precisely the kind of individuals we might consider banishing from our own organizations. Their tournaments"designed to teach unit cohesion and cavalry tactics, frequently broke out into near-warfare, in the process trampling the goods and chattel of those whose work and prayer they were supposed to defend.

That these knights possessed prowess in abundance is not in question, as the chronicles attest, despite the fact that we have no fechtbuchen to illuminate the precise techniques employed. The societal leaders struggled with the same old problem how to infuse those of physical prowess with the moral and ethical tools needed in an increasingly civilized society.

Those concerned with spiritual affairs and the ultimate fate of man's immortal soul saw the problem in terms of how to harness the physical abilities of the knights for spiritual ends, which they equated with the Church as an institution, and with the Christian faith more generally. Out of their efforts came the crusades, the peace and truce of God, the Templars, Hospitalars, and Teutonic knights. Several of the cardinal virtues were largely adopted beside the martial ones, chiefly humility, truth and piety.

The secular lords and ladies of the court had their own ideas, also grounded in the Christian framework that defined medieval society. Influenced by the order of the Romano-Carolingian state on one hand and a new recognition of women on the other, their ideal of the courtly knight"courteous, generous, well-rounded and devoted to love were immortalized in masterpieces of romantic literature as the ideals where expressed through Arthurian, Classical and Carolingian heros, always harkening back to a mythical time before when all was "right" with the world.

Chivalric literature comprised of romances, chronicles and chivalric handbooks"was amply supplied by both religious and secular authors, each representing their perspective on what a knight should be. Of course the knights had their own independent ideas. Chivalry as we know it is a synthesis of the three perspectives, or perhaps an abstraction. Medieval knights could be found all over the spectrum, from idealistic to completely pragmatic; some were devoutly religious Knights of Christ, others became knights errant, and others remained stubbornly martial, interested only in the fight itself. I suspect that the mix was not different from what we possess today.

This literature, together with the arms and armour, castles, and artwork of the era helped to preserve what really is the most powerfully compelling expression of Western values, the image of the knight in shining armour.

It is the very unreachable nature of the chivalric ideals lessons of how we ought to live that relates it to the Eastern counterpart, for it is not the attainment of perfection that is important for that cannot be done"but the continual striving against both our own imperfections and against whatever obstacles we encounter that help to make us better people. The inspired man ought to do what is right because it is right, regardless of personal cost, bringing his hard-won skills to bear on the problems around him, tempering force with reason and expressing courage not just on the battlefield or within the lists, but in life.

Today the need for grounding in such compelling virtues has created a renewed interest in the arts and philosophies related to our study.

Most come to reenactment, tournament companies or medieval martial arts drawn both by the diversion of the fighting and to something else they cannot usually quite verbalize, something that creates a sense of companionship and community. This often unspoken feeling is one of the most important elements that supports our intent to practice these exceptionally rewarding and reasonably dangerous martial endeavors. Practical chivalry is the thing that enables combatants to be less quick to anger, invest less of their own ego into a fight, expressing generosity in the fight and concern for the safety of their opponent.

Courtesy is built upon a fundamental respect for others combined with an element of humility that keeps healthy pride from slipping into unglorious braggatore. In practice, a courteous"and thus respectful"tone helps create an environment in which we can stress our physical skills to the limit and not be as concerned about dangerous escalation based on a competition of egos. It keeps our own ego in check so that we can have fun and compete simultaneously, something largely absent from modern sport fencing and tournament-oriented martial arts.

The virtue of largesse (generosity) also contributes, encouraging combatants and spectators to first recognize an individual's strengths and contributions, giving them the benefit of the doubt first. This also creates a sense of responsibility that enables us to call our own blows and have a sincere concern for the safety of our opponent, perhaps far more important to our safety record than any particular rules framework.

In practice I consider all combatants I meet knights' or gentlemen' (as is appropriate to the styles they practice) until they prove otherwise, according them respect first and assuming they act honorably until evidence mounts that convinces me otherwise.

If we assume our opponent will conduct themselves in a chivalric' manner, the fight becomes easier, the celebration of both prowess and virtue I mention later.

Tournaments and Renown

We engage in various training regimens to improve our skills "our prowess" working through drills of movement, balance, attacks, parries and even equestrian skills, making ourselves increasingly confident and powerful. Our training can in itself be a celebration of virtue and of our own skills, much as working at a gym is satisfying. We can learn dedication, discipline, experience camaraderie, all valuable and rewarding improvements to our character.

Another way to simultaneously celebrate the virtues and to test ourselves lies in the competitive tournament. Properly conducted"and this is a difficult art"the tournament can become a stage upon which knightly deeds are expected, encouraged, where boorishness seems out of place.

Depending upon the rules selected, different behaviors will ultimately result. Some rules though intended otherwise encourage the sporting ideal, the modern idea of victory at all costs, with others emphasize the individual responsibility and a more complete presentation of the chivalric virtues.

I have long said that by far and away the most important thing a combatant takes from a tournament is renown, the "coin of the tourneyer." Within the lists, on the mighty chivalric stage, renown is won or lost as combatants struggle with the tension between wanting to win and accepting honorable defeat.

Renown--the honor paid by others who believe your actions to be virtuous"is the sum of opinion of those who you fight, the judges and the gallery. A given action may be accorded renown or infamy (negative renown), depending upon how those who view the action evaluate it.

Contrast this with 'personal' honor, where we might think of as integrity. Integrity means acting in accord with your own framework of values, while others 'honor' you when you act in accord with theirs.

The common virtues associated with chivalry are not simply whatever we choose them to be; they have been well-recorded and"in general"resonate with our most cherished beliefs about what is means to act with 'goodness', universal qualities taught by all major religions.

When a fight takes place between companions or any two swordsmen who share a common belief in chivalric conduct the challenge between them might be a test of prowess and a celebration of virtue as their mutual respect and skill is tangible.

The central problem with renown is that it is very hard for an individual combatant to gauge their renown effectively. By nature, their own school and those around them will tend to extend them the benefit of the doubt, though their opponents and the gallery at large may have a completely different opinion.

A fight is, at base, a series of largely unconscious decisions that shed light on the inner being by the stress imposed in the contest. Each decision is evaluated by the opponent, the judges, and the gallery. Added to this is the difficulty in evaluating one's own motives. How do we know that we are making decisions based on what we feel is right, rather than our desire to win?

One excellent barometer is your 'dance card'. If people are constantly waiting to fight you, then in their eyes you present a challenge, a fun fight that they enjoy"especially if they come back to you again and again. Watch your opponent's body language for clues that you've done something to cause them doubt (it happens to everyone), then take action. Everyone makes mistakes; the question is how you address the problems when they arise. We must take responsibility for our own actions regardless of what our opponent does, of how they act.

The challenge to our chivalric beliefs comes not in the pleasurable challenge between companions, but when we face an opponent who has 'something to prove', who have their egos too heavily invested, or who is playing a completely different game. Usually it happens gradually, a number of small choices made by the opponent that causes us to gradually lose faith in their motives, sacrificing the all-too-important element of trust. The tone of the fight can turn sour under these conditions, and at that moment there is a dangerous temptation to 'slip' a little and give the opponent a taste of their own medicine.

Resist this temptation. The safety of the fight is at stake, particularly with rebated weapons. Beyond the physical safety, it is easy to slip into the 'gray' area in retaliation. If you don't grant your opponent the trust and credibility, to relying on them over your own judgment, then you risk slipping unknowing into the morass of self-righteousness that is very, very expensive in terms of renown.

In reality, no one really remembers who won x or y tournament. They do remember, however, who fought well, who threw a tantrum, who was dangerous, who was sincere and who cared little for their opponent. This is renown, the coin of the tourneyer.

Beyond the tournament field, the experience of exposing one's self under the stress of combat which requires courage makes us more aware of the chivalric qualities we cherish. The challenge of a difficult fight forges our character, improving it with an alloy of modern and medieval virtues"durable qualities that resonate like the fine steel swords we so appreciate.

It is our duty, enjoying the fame that accompanies tournament-earned renown, to use these qualities to improve the world around us. We must assume the mantle of responsibility that comes with power, working for what we believe is right. Some of us can teach, some can give something physical (though this is hard in today's tax-burdened world), and everyone can share what they've learned with others who may themselves become swordsmen, martial artists, ambassadors of the chivalric ideals.


The tournament can be the central activity where we test our skills. I've fought competitively for nearly twenty years, and I continually find more to learn, more to experience, more joi de combat, whether it be in the joust, in the béhourd, or with rebated weapons. The chivalric element is the common denominator of all these arts, the thing that allows combatants to compete in a variety of combat systems with confidence and safety.

The digital age has offered new communications mediums that have helped draw us together, and it has given strength to movements aimed at coordinating tournament formats and rules in the medieval martial arts. While some of these rules are merely physical requirements, nearly all of them like the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) tournament we'll see tomorrow require or emphasize chivalric conduct, even if phrased differently.

AEMMA has provided an excellent start of a framework intended for use by medieval martial arts schools to test their skills against one another and to share enjoyment in the combat arts in a rightfully medieval context. Set in a 15th century format, the Burgundian 'festival of arms' is well-suited to their objective, since the fechtbuchen really came into their own with Talhoffer and Liberi during this century. It is an excellent start, and it bodes well that they emphasize the chivalric framework necessary to ensure safety and an enjoyable experience.

Beyond the medieval martial arts community, the tournament format and the rules framework are broken down into component pieces, allowing the tournament sponsor to decide whether a 12th, 13th, 14th or 15th century model is appropriate, and a rules framework that meets the needs of the expected combatants.

Much of the work on tournament formats has been done by the béhourd-based tournament societies, digging deeply into the extant records and working to find techniques to manage a feat of arms in terms of the critical chivalric 'tone', the very important pacing of combat, and the roles for the judges, sponsors, combatants and gallery. Many pas d'armes, round table, and what I call "William Marshal" feats of arms have been well-honed and are being adopted by non-béhourd groups to accomplish martial and chivalric ends.

In the reenactment world the tournament has largely been a matter of performance, which while educationally valid in terms of the gallery does not really build or stress the virtue of the combatants themselves. A few of these groups are now looking at competitive tournament formats to further enhance the authenticity of their presentation, as well as for their own benefit. The chivalric motive is also interesting to them, since they can then have a mechanism to actually exercise both their martial skills and character.

In each of these instances, the format of the tournament itself the declaration, the script, allowed forms of combats, required armour and flow of combats are usually distinct from the tournament rules.

The Company of Saint George has been very active in leading the development of new tournament formats, supported by the other companies that have come into being since our establishment in 1990. Jousting groups have been working on formats for their own contests, also competitive forms of combat that draw from the medieval originals. Add to this AEMMA's 'Burgundian' format, and there is a rich corpus to choose from simple challenge tournaments pas d'armes; more scripted 'round tables' that are really more martial plays (but they are extremely useful); mêlée formats à la William Marshal; jousting trees; and martial 'festivals' à la King René d'Anjou.

Each tournament format also needs a rules framework; today this is in massive flux, a variety of proposals being used throughout the world, largely divided into béhourd and rebated weapons formats. We've been working closely with the new International Medieval Alliance to help create a tournament rules infrastructure that supports both competitive bâton-wielding combatants and the parallel experience of the rebated weapons community. Both forms have strengths (we generally recommend our St. George combatants work in both to realize the benefits of each), and both have shortcomings, but that's not the focus of this discussion.

This internationalization of interest will help raise the chivalric model to a new level of both influence and importance. Since more people will see the ideals in practice, they can have a greater effect. The importance will increase simply because the chivalric mindset is as we have seen crucial to safety within the lists and to relations between the schools.

Beyond the tournament, we have a responsibility to take what we know out into the world, to make the case that there is still a place for doing what is right simply because it is right, regardless of personal cost. The chivalric virtues so clear in their idyllic purity are in great demand and in fact are crucial as our communities are stressed under the load of population. We should be exemplars, teachers, not just sword-wielding wackos.

I've often said that real chivalry involves a sincere adoption of the virtues, not a veneer of sportsmanship. It requires a depth of sincerity that helps to shape the character and enables the person to contribute while also being competitive and successful. Chivalry is a distillation of universal values to which most human beings subscribe; Prowess (strength), courage, loyalty, humility, largesse (generosity), faith, honesty, and fidelity. Additionally, a 'knightly' combatant has duties to defend those who are themselves defenseless, be it physical, social or political defense. Doing all this, a person should eshew vanity and vainglory, building a certain amount of pride of accomplishment and skill that strengthens prowess, embodying an example that people want to emulate"and not just within the lists.

I would challenge everyone here to select a particular virtue and discuss it at length with those around you. Further, when you take to the lists or to the piste, strive to extend generosity to your opponents regardless of their background giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their finer qualities. Remember that in this day of cross-over and internationalization, we in this community share more than we differ, and that we as a group possess a powerful platform to inspire others. Take the opportunity, help improve things rather than just whining about them. Be safe; take the responsibility for the safety of your opponent. Most importantly, be the exemplar that others want to follow.

Journal of Western Martial Art

About the author: has been an armourer and has practiced medieval martial arts for nearly 20 years, earning recognition in both the reenactment and educational communities for his scholarship, fighting prowess and dedication to the chivalric ideals. Mr. Price was a founder of the American Company of Saint George, a tournament society reenacting medieval feats of arms of the 14th and 15th centuries, and is the editor of Chronique: The Journal of Chivalry.