From Sir Lancelot du Lac of the Arthurian legend, to Jaime Lannister of Game of Thrones, history and popular culture alike are awash with knights. But is the truth of medieval chivalry hidden behind the romantic notions of knighthood we see on our screens and read in our books? If we look closer, perhaps we can find its dark underbelly; perhaps beneath their polished armour lies the typical ‘lad’ culture that is currently sweeping the nation’s universities.
Knights have been associated with romance and seduction since the 12th century, and the Renaissance saw the increasing popularity of the literary chivalric romance genre. This saw knights wander the land to prove their military prowess in duels or woo noble women with their notions of courtly love. Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, embodied this literary life in reality. He travelled across north-west Europe, fighting and leaving illegitimate children in his wake; hardly the embodiment of noble chivalry.
Instead, his reluctance to settle down brings to mind the fecklessness of some of the so-called ‘lads’ of today’s society who actively seek out casual sex and avoid long-term relationships. While Curthose was kind and generous to the children he left behind, he has still been labelled a playboy for embracing this pleasure-seeking lifestyle. Indeed, his father denounced his involvement in the hedonistic culture, and the only thing that saved his reputation was a demonstration of military prowess in the Holy Land. It was of course skill on the battlefield, whether real or during tournaments, that made men such as Curthose knights in the first place.
However, compared to other reports of knightly practices, Robert Curthose looks positively saintly. For example, Sir Agravain of the Arthurian legend has long been established as a morally corrupt knight who viewed women as objects. He also reportedly considered the denial of sexual pleasure a loss to his honour. This same attitude can be seen in the way that ‘lads’ mags’ objectify women and influence the ‘lad’ culture as a whole, wherein teenage boys are congratulated on having casual sex as if it is an achievement, or a rite of passage that they must complete. This attitude can particularly be seen during university when one night stands are a common occurrence after a night out clubbing.
‘Lad’ culture has also been linked with violence and this harkens back to the medieval ideals of masculinity; it is no coincidence that those knights who were most successful in violence were also the most revered. The jousts and tournaments that knights took part in were watched by cheering crowds which, of course, included women. While living up to the ideals of manhood, jousting knights were able to impress these ladies. They could embody both the victorious warrior and the romantic hero in one fell swoop, all the while wielding a lance adorned with the favour of his chosen lady. If a knight had mistreated a woman in some way, he would be publicly shamed at the start of a tournament and beaten by other knights.
A recent investigation by the National Union of Students (NUS) concluded that sexual harassment and violence was encouraged by ‘lad’ culture. It has also frequently been claimed that ‘lad’ culture uses rape as humour through ‘lad banter’. While it was probably not termed banter in the Middle Ages, Sir Agravain at one point reportedly stated that, if given the chance with a host’s daughter, he would ‘make love to her right now’. This is apparently stated with no regard for said daughter’s wishes but rather the justification that her life and limbs would remain intact. This indifference for a woman’s wishes is perhaps why ‘lad’ culture nowadays is alarming; while it may not have reached this extreme level of violence, there are inevitably those who believe it may just be around the corner.
The image that springs to mind when thinking of a medieval knight is a handsome man clad in shining armour who is willing to risk life and limb to rescue his lady-love, his damsel in distress, from all manner of danger. Perhaps for some he even has Jaime Lannister’s face beneath his helm. When put side by side with today’s ‘lad’ culture, the two appear at first glance to be polar opposites. However, it may well be that upon closer inspection medieval knights, and therefore medieval chivalry, have a dark underbelly, and perhaps this underbelly vaguely resembles the ‘lad’ culture of today.