Was Chivalry in Decline During the 14th and 15th Centuries

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Was chivalry in decline during the 14th and 15th centuries?

Far from disappearing, chivalry during the 14 and 15th centuries it was actually going through somewhat of a revival, some historians even go as far to say it was experiencing a “renascence” in the late middle ages albeit an imperfect one. Even though it appears in this period of medieval history that chivalry was becoming all the more popular, fashionable even, the meaning and spirit behind chivalry that were so important during the first crusades were dilapidated, therefore one can see why it can be viewed that chivalry was in decline in the 14th 15th century. This is especially apparent seeing as Chivalry became a tool to be wielded by those privileged enough to have the money and influence to use it. Furthermore despite the large amount of bravado surrounding chivalry in the later medieval period, this just underlines the fact that chivalry in the 14th and 15th centuries was a hollow shell of what it had been in the time of the crusades. Kilgour indentifies chivalry in the early medieval period as the “First heroic age" where a “fusion of military glory and religion” was achieved for the first time. In his description of the glory of chivalry in its early days Kilgour only stresses the devaluation of chivalry in its time of decline in the 14th and 15th century.

The writings of J Huizinga in which he describes the return of chivalry as ”a rather artificial revival of things long dead, a sort of deliberate and insincere renascence of ideas drained of any real value” offer a clear analysis of chivalry and its decline as an ideal with any real meaning during the 14th and 15th century. Even though to a large extent he is certainly right to view chivalry as a hollow shell of what it was, his statement is slightly implausible because by no means were there no chivalric deeds performed that would not have seemed out of place some 200 years earlier during the crusades, for example:

“A knight of the nation of Hainault named Sir Loys de Robessart. One day it happened that his enemies found him in a village with few of his people with him. There they attacked him and staged a fine skirmish. And although his enemies where great in numbers and much stronger he drove them out of the village. Thereupon a great force of his enemies renewed the attack, and although he sighted them at a distance, all the same he disdained to flee or to show any signs of fear. But with very steady, noble and virtuous courage sallied forth and in order to uphold the honour of this order of chivalry and of himself he determined to hold his ground, and there he died gloriously, for before he died when he saw he could not hold he made his men withdraw to the castle, for which act he was greatly praised both by his enemies and his own men.”

From this example it is apparent that there were cases in which chivalric actions were not completely selfless, suggesting to one that chivalry was not in decline. Never the less mindful of Maurice Keens remark that the value of chivalry signified by the heroic ideals of the earlier romances has been lost to sight in a quest for imitative decoration, it is thus easy to see that perhaps even the most selfless cases of chivalry recorded by historians like the tale of Roberssart just suit to underpin the inherent flaws in late medieval chivalry with their “quest for imitative decoration.”

There is however one issue in the early medieval period that is conceivably the defining factor in best determining if there was a decline in chivalry in the 14th and 15th century, one that is not explored by Huizinga or Kilgour. It is whether the state of chivalry in its “first heroic age” was any different in its ideals and value before it had collapsed into a “mad, exaggerated display.” One aspect that might prove this conclusion to be correct is raised by Maurice Keen who observes that some of the evidence describing...
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