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A clear, careful, but rather joyless compendium. Cries, who did a good life of Joan of Arc in 1981 and has collaborated with her husband, Joseph Gies, on various books about the Middle Ages, gets briskly down to business. She defines the knight (Western European variety) as ""a mounted, heavily armed and armored soldier, in most times and places a free man and a landholder, and, most significantly, a member of a caste with a strong sense of solidarity."" She divides the history of knighthood into three major stages: the emergence of a sometimes brutal prototype in the chaotic 9th and 10th centuries, the flowering of the institution in the 11th through 13th centuries (which saw the creation and spread of the Arthurian legends), and its decadence, as the Hundred Years War (13371453) completed the metamorphosis of the knight from landed vassal into professional soldier. Gies also notes the survival of the chivalric code as a social ideal into the Victorian period and beyond. She surveys the literature of chivalry, courtly love, the troubadors, and the huge corpus of material from the Song of Roland to Malory's Morte d'Arthur. In an effort to focus her generalizations she devotes three of nine chapters to notable individual knights: William Marshal (d. 1219); Bertrand Du Guesclin (1320?-80); and Sir John Fastolf (13787-1459), who enjoyed a vigorous posthumous life as Shakespeare's Falstaff. But, except for the notoriously ugly, bloodthirsty, and hyperactive Du Guesclin, they come alive more as illustrations of historical patterns (e.g., in Marshal's time the tourney was a sort of wild melee, with no private jousting) than as flesh-and-blood characters. Gies's concluding judgment--inevitably colored by the butchery of the Crusades--is harsh: ""Many medieval knights were Rolands"" (and that may be too laudatory), ""few were Galahads."" Solid and conscientious, but dry.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row