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Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France.

Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. By Constance Brittain Bouchard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. xvi + 200 pp. $37.50 cloth; $14.95 paper.

Few subjects in medieval studies are more ridden with cliches and misconceptions than the world of the nobility. The fictions that have shaped perceptions--and important elements of contemporary reality--gestated among the counts, knights, and fair damsels themselves, and continued to evolve long after the last dragon was slain. Little less than novelists and screenplay writers, modern teachers and students have accepted the fictional as factual, and the ideal as the truly indicative of realistic aspirations. Specialists, however, have been toiling over the past decades to brush away the hoary and familiar (and comfortable) and to replace them with new interpretations and conclusions soundly based upon regional and local research in Britain and on the continent. For those of us who grew up with Ganshof, Bloch, or Painter (whose French Chivalry [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1951] was written in 1940 and remains the most frequently assigned book on the topic in the U.S.) there is a new world of noble culture to be discovered. Constance Brittain Bouchard has provided a welcome and well--done guide to this world as it existed in high medieval France. By no means meant for specialists, Strong of Body serves as an introduction for students, with brief and well--balanced discussions of historiographical issues for teachers and more casual readers. This is her task, and she succeeds admirably. Indeed, it will become the standard text in my own medieval courses.

Bouchard has long been a contributor to the field of noble culture, and here brings an evenhandedness to her discussions. She balances the strengths of the traditions with the strengths of the newer research without a polemical edge, allowing the student to see the elements of the historiographical dialectic at work, while still providing soundly articulated and useful conclusions. One of the overall strengths of this treatment is her insistence on dynamism and fluidity. Historical situations and all that depended on them changed over the years from the millennial shift to the later thirteenth century, and these had powerful repercussions for the nobility and their culture. This avoidance of a static picture informs every discussion and accounts powerfully for many of the inconsistencies that, as she readily admits, confront the casual observer. The contradictions that confronted the nobles themselves and that emerged from their culture and aspirations, she insists, were part and parcel of the noble's ethic, an element that could be enervating or highly creative, or sometimes both.

Bouchard begins by admitting the fluidity of the definition of "noble" itself. Quite protean in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it essentially boiled down to a matter of wealth, power, and blood. Firmer definitions, along with heraldry and other trappings, only emerged in the later twelfth century. She also deals usefully with the distinction between knights and nobles, by showing how the functionality of knighthood (merely heavily armed cavalry) slowly melded with the largely symbolic notion of nobility. Nobles adopted the knightly (and "chivalric"), while many knights entered the noble ranks. This was due in large part to the emergence around the year 1000 of noncomital castles whose castellans slowly merged the functions of the warrior with the status and prestige of the older and weaker counts, as they absorbed their local judicial and other functions. Simultaneously, the Peace of God (ca. 980) and the Truce of God (ca. 1030-40) movements developed as ecclesiastical attempts to control the resulting competition and violence among Christian warriors, and collateral damage to the undefended. More significantly, perhaps, these same decades saw the rise of feudalism, or, as Bouchard and others prefer, "fief-holding," as higher nobles attempted to control the castellans, and castellans to reward their own knights. Bouchard s discussion of the recent controversies over the very term "feudalism" (35-38) is worthy of note by anyone teaching medieval history.

As a basic classroom text, Strong of Body provides clearly articulated coverage of most of the major elements of noble culture for which an instructor might ask. Having discussed the relationship of nobility to knights, she goes on to delineate some of the connections between the nobility as a class and the French throne. She stresses the ways in which the French kings from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries created new nobles to challenge the old, and used vassalage and royal absorption of judicial powers to hoist themselves to greater levels of power and authority. Bouchard also provides solid and fundamental discussions of manorialism, serfdom, and banal lordship that very usefully balance the essential with the sophisticated.

Bouchard's own specialization is the noble family, and her chapter 3, on a range of related topics, is especially well developed and nuanced, if a bit idiosyncratic. She shares interesting research on naming practices and the education of young nobles, the latter of which was far more literary, it seems, than previously supposed. Some 20 percent of young noble males became monks or priests, so Bouchard emphasizes the relationship of noble families to local monasteries. While her inclusion of the crusades here seems odd, her extended consideration of marriage--including motivations, dowries, consanguinity issues, sacramentality, and feasting--is a fine digest of recent findings and tradition. The same is true of her critical discussion of courtly literature and chivalry in chapter 4. She traces the obvious contradictions one finds in the supposed ideals to their variegated roots in the life of the warrior, Christian ethics, Roman stoicism, and court fashion.

Church historians will find useful material throughout, but especially in her final chapter, Nobility and the Church. Reminding us that the church" was anything but a monolithic entity, Bouchard divides her analysis between the bishops and the monasteries, who shared their own tensions. From a nobleman's entry into the clerical ranks she proceeds to outline other basic tensions among nobles as clerics and between nobles and clerics. She stresses the symbiotic relationship between sword--wielders and the clergy--each in their own way milites Christi--acknowledging both the contradictions and complementarities of their various relationships. It was no coincidence that the great age of castle building was also that of monastic foundation.

By the intelligent blending of both primary sources and secondary studies, and creative admission of the inconsistencies, ironies, and fluidities that complicate any simple attempts to characterize or define the nature and culture of medieval French nobility, Bouchard has presented an honest and very practical introduction to that world.

Joseph P. Byrne Belmont University
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Author:Byrne, Joseph P.
Publication:Church History
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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