Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Code of Chivalry: Serve the Liege Lord, Obey Authority

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

Today we're going to talk about item numbers 2 and 9 from the Song of Roland: To serve the liege lord in valour and faith, and To obey those placed in authority. This should prove to be an interesting topic, as we will have to delve into the political structure of the time in order to understand it properly.

Coming second to God and His Church, the medieval knight, was bound by obligation to obey and serve of his liege lord.

There are, however, two distinct things going on here, and there's a good reason that obedience to authority is listed separately from service to the liege lord. Fundamentally, the difference is that one is an obligation voluntarily entered into, while the other is an obligation that all are bound by.

In the middle ages, the feudal system was the predominant political-economic structure throughout Europe. Europe was divided into many small city-states, each one governed by a monarch, a king or a duke. These were the highest liege lords of the city-states. From the monarch, authority would descend through to the lower levels of the nobility.

The feudal system was a system of relationships between lords and vassals. This relationship was one of mutual loyalty and respect. The vassal would make an oath of service to the lord, and the lord would make an oath of providence and protection to the vassal. Part of this oath of providence was to provide the vassal with property and food. The property wasn't "on loan" either. It belonged to the vassal, in heredity (meaning it belong to him, his family, and the generations that came after him). There were certain provisions belonging to the oath, which, if violated, would cause the land to revert back to the lord, but otherwise it was true ownership on the part of the vassal.

But as I said, these were oaths of loyalty and respect as well. The vassal was bound by loyalty to the lord, and likewise the lord was bound by loyalty to his vassal. Likewise, the vassal was bound to give honor and respect to the lord, in speech and action, and so was the lord bound to him. In other words, he could not bad-mouth the lord, and the lord could not treat the him poorly (over-charge him on goods, beat him, humiliate him, lay hands on his wife or daughters, etc).

The king granted fiefs (land) to his princes, and the princes in turn provided fiefs to the other levels of the nobility. Knights were considered part of the lower nobility, and were therefore eligible to receive a fief from a lord, and become his vassal, and knighthood could be granted to anyone for performing honorary service to the monarch or country, normally militarily. Once made a knight, and therefore a member of the nobility, one could then become a vassal to a lord, which gave one the ability to own land.

However, because it's a voluntary oath, a knight didn't necessarily have to become a vassal, but doing so had its obvious benefits. So, even though not all knights necessarily had a liege lord, service to the liege lord was still mentioned in the Chivalric Code because it was rare not to have one.

So, what did service to the liege lord entail. Mainly, it meant going to war for the liege lord, if the lord was going to war, which was common, and not just because of the Crusades. There were only two ways a lord could expand his holdings: 1) to become a vassal to more than one liege lord, and 2) to conquer land from enemies. This meant that warfare was common, and it also meant fighting between the European city-states was also common. It also helps to explain how Islam expanded so rapidly (each city-state, both within Europe and outside of Europe, really only cared about what happened within its own borders, so if a neighboring city-state was being attacked by Islamic forces, well that was their problem), and also why the Pope calling the Crusades helped stem the tide of Islamic expansion (because it unified the Christian city-states in a way that had never been done before, so that the city-states became supportive of each other, seeing a new common enemy in Islam).

However, for the Knight, because a major part of their service to the liege lord was military service, it didn't make sense to have more than one liege lord. So, the knight's service to his liege lord was nearly absolute.

Beyond military service, a vassal served his liege lord in other, more ceremonial ways. He would serve as cup-bearer at banquets, would accompany the lord to festivals and celebrations, and helped his lord prepare before riding out to the battle-field.

So, service to the liege lord was a very important part of the chivalric code. It meant being honorable to your word. It meant respecting what was given to the knight by the lord. And this required faithfulnes to one's oaths, as well as valour. Valour, not just on the battlefield, either. The more ceremonial aspects of the knight's service were very visible publicly, and this could certainly have required bravery if the knight thought looking like a servant was humiliating. However, for most knights, this was an honor, because it meant they had made their way into the nobility. They might be low nobles, but they were still nobles. I'd say service to one's liege lord required more humility the higher up one was in the ranks of the nobility.

For the knight, however, the liege lord was not the only source of authority to which he owed obedience. Though a knight would only have one liege lord, there were still other authorities he owed obedience to. However, while a knight chose to enter into a relationship with a liege lord, the other authorities above him were there by virtue of whatever society he happened to be a part of.

For example, while a knight was probably not a vassal to the king, the knight obviously still had to be obedient to the laws of the kingdom. And remember, within the aristocracy, each liege lord was also a vassal to a higher liege lord, until you got to the king. So, while a knight wouldn't have taken an oath of service to more than one liege lord, by association, there could be many levels of liege lords above him in the hierarchy.

But that was fine, because, since each liege lord-vassal relationship was predicated upon the same rules of loyalty, service and respect, this meant that there was a unity of culture down through the ranks of the hierarchy, keeping in mind also that one could choose to whom one wished to be a vassal, so you could select a lord that you already respected and agreed with.

But beyond matters of obedience to state and local laws, the knight was also obedient to Church laws. As noted in my previous blog entry, God and His Church are first and foremost in the mind and life of the knight. So, I really said that backwards. Beyond Church laws, the knight was also obedient to state and local laws. That is, the knight is first and foremostly obedient to the Church, and wherever state and local laws contradicted Church laws, the knight was disobedient to the state and local laws.

But, this was true for all levels of the aristocracy, at least prior to the renaissance and the latter days of the Holy Roman Empire. And wherever a monarch disagreed with the Church, it was kind of a big deal (consider the origin of the Anglican Church). So, because of the deep religious roots in Catholicism that the people of the middle ages had, being part of the Holy Roman Empire, state laws usually didn't contradict Church laws anyway.

The central point, though, is that the knight took obedience to proper and legitimate authority very seriously. If a knight lived today, and lived by the code of chivalry, he wouldn't so much as jaywalk, or speed, or smoke weed, much less commit greater crimes against the state. It was a strict discipline, and a high virtue, obedience.

And why? Because all authority is understood as coming from God, Himself. God endowed His Church with authority, when He was here on earth. The Church confers authority through the hierarchy of the clergy. And the state modeled itself after a similar hierarchical structure, whereby the king is endowed with authority from God, usually through a coronation ceremony involving the Church, who then passed on authority to those below him to the various branches of government and state.

So, properly dispensed authority ultimate comes from God, and so obedience to every level of government is obedience to God indirectly, and disobedience to legitimate authority is ultimately disobedience to God's own authority. This is why the Fourth Commandment sits where it does: it is the bridge between our love for God and our love for neighbor. The first three Commandments pertain strictly to our love for God, while the following seven pertain to our love for neighbor. But, to honor our father and our mother is largely about honoring those who have authority over you, authority which comes from God, through loyalty, service, obedience and respect. And since our parents are the first authority figures over us, this rule to obey those placed in authority over us means obedience to our own parents as well.

There are a number of virtues packed into these two directives of the Code of Chivalry. I'd say obedience is a big one, service also, valour, loyalty, faith, respect and trust are all in there, too.

I have to say, guys, that I'm really enjoying delving into these rules. I hope you are too, and if so, please feel free to leave a comment and share whatever insights or thoughts you might have about what I've talked about here.

Have a great day, thank you for reading, and God bless!

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