How odd that the first known owner of the Shroud of Turin should be, not some wealthy cardinal or powerful lord, but a knight.
Now, granted, Geoffroi de Charny was no ordinary knight. He was, by all accounts, the most capable soldier in the service of France during the Hundred Years’ War and the most gallant chevalier of the Middle Ages. He was wounded and captured at least twice, and (most notably) led troops against King Edward III of England at the Battle of Calais.
Renowned both for his courage and his piety, King John the Good appointed Sir Geoffroi his standard-bearer. At the investiture, the Abbott of Saint Denis led him in this oath:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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You swear and promise on the precious, sacred blood of Jesus Christ present here and on the bodies of Monseigneur Saint Denis and his fellows which are here, that you will loyally in person hold and keep the oriflamme of our lord king, who is here, to his honor and profit and that of his realm, and not abandon it for fear of death or whatever else may happen, and you will do your duty everywhere as a good and loyal knight must toward his sovereign and his proper lord.
The next year, Sir Geoffrey rode with his sovereign into the Battle of Poitiers. John wielded a battle-ax against English troops commanded by Edward III’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, known to history as the Black Prince. At the last, Sir Geoffroi was surrounded and killed by five English men-at-arms. He died gripping the Oriflamme, according to his solemn oath.
Geoffroi de Charny is best known today as the author of A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry. It’s a kind of manual for Christian warriors, and would surprise modern readers who know nothing of the Middle Ages except the caricatures fed to us by professional historians. Good knights, wrote Sir Geoffroi, ought to be “humble among their friends, proud and bold against their foes, tender and merciful towards those who need assistance, cruel avengers against their enemies,” and “pleasant and amiable with all others.”
Chivalry was more than a code of martial virtue (though it certainly was that). It was, so to speak, the “lay spirituality” of Medieval Europe.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church was the nearest thing the Western world had to a central government. Christians were left with a difficult question: how does one live the Beatitudes while also dealing with the messy questions of running a kingdom? It’s all well and good to be meek and mild, but who’s going to protect our wives from being raped by Vikings? Sure: when an evil person slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him your left cheek also. But is it really Christlike to stand by as Celtic raiders carry off your sons and sell them into slavery? And yes, God wants us to love our enemies. But what if those enemies are slaughtering pilgrims in the Holy Land?
It wasn’t enough for everyone to retreat into monasteries and wait to be martyred. Our Lord Himself told His disciples, “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one.” The code of chivalry taught kings, lords, knights, and peasants alike how to be in the world, but not of it—how to guard themselves and their countrymen against evil. It was the first (and, so far, the only) systematic effort to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to the vocation of a layman. That is why C. S. Lewis called chivalry “the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture.”
Who is the chivalrous man? He prays fervently, fights honorably, and loves discreetly. He doesn’t know much about fine foods or good wine because they make a man grow soft and sluggish. (Sir Geoffroi says “the man who for his greedy gullet fails to make a name for himself should have all his teeth pulled out, one by one, which do him so much damage.”) He never brags about his own glories, but boasts often about the achievements of his friends.
The chivalrous man is indifferent to heat and cold. He loves work as much as leisure, for the “delight he takes in striving constantly to reach ever greater heights.” He doesn’t sleep too long or too late, for “the longer you sleep the less time you will have to acquire knowledge and to learn something useful.”
The chivalrous man doesn’t gamble. He doesn’t play “ball games,” which are for women. His joy, rather, lies in “glances and desires, love, reflection and memory, gaiety of heart and liveliness of body.” And he knows that “the best pastime of all is to be in good company.”
The chivalrous man, though loyal to his king, is no elitist. “Do not despise the poor man or those lesser in rank than you,” Sir Geoffroi warns, “for there are many poor men who are of greater worth than the rich.” In the course of his campaign, every knight has met some “impoverished fighting companions who are sometimes worth as much or more than some great lords.”
The chivalrous man “should not care about amassing great wealth.” Sir Geoffroi urges him to “never regret any generosity you may show.” The true knight will not profit at the expense of the less fortunate, for “unsullied poverty is worth more than corrupt wealth.”
Above all, the chivalrous man devotes his life to the service of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Holy Mother Church. “If you love God, writes Sir Geoffroi,
God will love you. Serve Him well: He will reward you for it. Fear Him: He will make you feel secure. Honor Him: He will honor you. Ask of Him and you will receive much from Him. Pray to Him for mercy: He will pardon you. Call on Him when you are in danger: He will save you from it. Turn to Him when you are afraid, and He will protect you. Pray to Him for comfort, and He will comfort you. Believe totally in Him and He will bring you to salvation in His glorious company and His sweet paradise which will last forever without end. He who is willing to act thus will save his body and his soul, and he who does the opposite will be damned in soul and body.
How far from the caricature of the Christian knight handed down to us by the public schools! We’re led to believe that they were little more than brigands in plumed helmets despoiling peasants and butchering Arabs. And no doubt some were. Yet knights held themselves and one another to a much higher standard.
Medieval knights were not only great warriors. They were also, as Lewis would say, “men with chests.” In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Ector said of his dead comrade Lancelot,
And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.
When Sir Ector finishes his speech, Malory writes, “there was weeping and dolor out of measure” among the Round Table.
Far from being womanizing rakes, virginity was prized by their code. Having found the Holy Grail, Sir Perceval is told that, “had your body been violated by the corruption of sin, you would have forfeited your primacy among the Companions of the Quest.”
This, writes John of Salisbury, is the duty of the knight:
To defend the Church, to assail infidelity, to venerate the priesthood, to protect the poor from injuries, to pacify the province, to pour out their blood for their brothers (as the formula of the oath instructs them), and, if need be, to lay down their lives. The high praises of God are in their throat, and two-edged swords are in their hands.…
For soldiers that do these things are “saints,” and are more loyal to their prince in proportion as they more zealously keep the faith of God; and they advance the more successfully the honor of their own valor as they seek the more faithfully in all things the glory of God.
The true knight is also a true gentleman, a true Christian. Strength of body and purity of heart: the two must be pursued together, or not at all.
The most famous knight in history is not Sir Geoffroi de Charney, however, but Giovanni di Bernardone.
Born in Italy around 1182 to a family of wealthy merchants, the young Giovanni was awed by stories of French chevaliers. He dreamed of becoming a knight in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was then at war with the Papal States. Handsome, brave, and rich, he loved to play the lute, sing the songs of the troubadours, and dance with beautiful women. Giovanni dressed in the finest silk and wore the shiniest armor in Italy. Riding off to battle one day, he declared: “I know that one day I shall be a great prince.”
At the age of twenty, during a campaign against the city of Perugia, he was captured by forces loyal to the Pope. He spent a year in prison, during which time something in him changed. Upon his release, his mind was far from war and glory. One biographer says that he tarried to look at “the beauty of the fields, the pleasantness of the vineyards, on anything that is fair to see.”
He returned to his hometown of Assisi in glory, but his friends hardly recognized him. He no longer seemed to enjoy wine and women as he used to. One evening, Giovanni was asked to preside at a great feast for the city’s elites. The knight would sit at the head of the table between the prettiest girls, crowned with garlands and holding a staff of honor. After the meal was finished, he was expected to lead the youth through the city, drinking and singing and dancing. Yet he held back.
“What on earth are you thinking about?” one of his friends asked. “Why don’t you come with us? Is this a new brainwave of yours? Or have you fallen in love? Are you thinking of getting married?”
He smiled. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. Yes, I am thinking of getting married. I shall marry the noblest, richest, and most beautiful girl you can possibly imagine.”
Giovanni’s friends roared with laughter. More chivalrous boasting from a young man-at-arms.
Yet it wasn’t a boast, much less a joke. Something had indeed changed in the young knight. The lady he spoke of was Lady Poverty. Into his soul were seared the words of Our Lord to His disciples: to give up everything and follow Him. “Preach as you go,” Jesus told them, “saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food.”
Giovanni did exactly that. He called to himself twelve disciples of his own—twelve knights of his Round Table—and set out to conquer the world for his sovereign lord, Jesus Christ. He founded his own order of chivalry, known as the Friars Minor. As they marched through the world, they sang troubadour ballads Giovanni wrote himself; some of them, like the Canticle of the Creatures, were written down and preserved.
Today, we know Giovanni by his childhood nickname, Francesco, or Francis—Saint Francis of Assisi.
Saint Francis was, in every sense, the perfect knight. He scorned the comfort of his body, which he referred to as “Brother Ass.” He was generous almost to a fault, giving away much of his father’s fortune before entering the clerical state. He was totally loyal to the clergy, as a soldier to his king, and whom he always addressed as “my lord.” He embodied Sir Geoffroi’s call to “guard the honor of your lady”—in his case, Lady Poverty—“above all else.”
The first Franciscans exemplified the spirit of knightly joy. Charny said of knights that, “because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor, they do not care what sufferings they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment.” For “strength of purpose and cheerfulness of heart makes it possible to bear all these things gladly and confidently.” There’s no better description of the Poverello and his followers traipsing about the countryside in their rags, eating berries and sleeping in caves, being attacked by villagers who mistook them for lunatics—all for the sake of preaching the Gospel.
Most of all, Francis was totally fearless in his service to his Master, Jesus Christ. That is the one true mark of a good and loyal knight.
The code of chivalry continued to influence every aspect of Francis’s life. He led one of the first missions to the Muslim world during the Crusades, hoping to convert the Saracens before they were conquered by the soldiery. That, to be sure, is the correct order. Yet Francis was no pacifist: after arriving in the Holy Land, he gave military counsel to the Christian generals and blessed the Christian troops before they went to battle.
In fact, during their founder’s lifetime, the Friars Minor (or Franciscans) were thrown out of Germany. They were so effective at recruiting soldiers to fight the Saracens that the Emperor feared he wouldn’t have enough men to wage his war against the Pope. Another great Franciscan, Saint John of Capistrano, valiantly led Crusader forces during the Ottoman Wars. At the ripe age of seventy, Saint John repelled Muslim invaders during the Siege of Belgrade.
None of which I say to cast Saint Francis as a hypocrite or a warmonger. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” as Our Lord said, and Saint Francis was a peacemaker. Yet he was also a knight, a man formed by the code of chivalry. He was an idealist, but he also understood that being a Christian in this fallen world isn’t about being nice to everyone. True: it’s the duty of a knight to be “tender and merciful,” “pleasant and amiable.” But Sir Geoffroi also wrote—and all true knights, like Francis, understood—that,
to preserve and maintain the rights of the Holy church, one should not hold back from committing oneself to their defense by war and battle, if they cannot be maintained in any other way. And the man who acts thus wins in noble fashion personal honor and the salvation of his soul.
Saint Francis won his honor with his salvation. He advanced his own valor by seeking more faithfully the glory of God. And so he became a great prince, just as he predicted.
Chivalry, as we said, wasn’t only a martial code. It was a way of life. It was, as one scholar put it, the “framework for lay society” in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages, meanwhile, were nothing more or less than the application of Christianity to the whole of society. The so-called Dark Ages nearly severed the former Roman Empire from its pagan roots. Every aspect of religious, political, economic, military, and cultural life was reorganized by the Church along Christian grounds; that was their only point of reference.
The Church was unfettered from control by emperors and dictators. Slavery was abolished. Every aspect of public and private life was ordered to the salvation of souls through the Faith.
I have written here before that the West is on its way to another Dark Age. Ours is no longer a Christian society, but a pagan one. Our liberal democracies are now succumbing to the same twin errors—decadence and gnosticism—that destroyed the Roman Empire. Within a few centuries, nothing of the old order will remain. We Christians will have to rebuild civilization from its ruins. It’s only natural, then, that we should look to the Middle Ages for guidance.
Rod Dreher has been thinking along these lines for years. His book The Benedict Option urged us to look to the example of another great Medieval saint, Benedict of Norcia, for inspiration on how to build strong “intentional communities”: bastions of Christendom, safe-havens for the faithful, which can withstand the terror that will inevitably follow when our own Empire collapses. I agree with him wholeheartedly.
Yet it won’t be enough to build intentional Christian communities. We must also build intentional Christian men. Those men must be capable of building those communities and, when the time comes, defending them against the barbarian hordes—winning new souls for God all the while. To this end, I propose that we also follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi. Call it the Francis Option.
The fact of the matter is that we Christians, as much as our neo-pagan countrymen, are decadent. We’re dangerously unprepared for the coming Dark Age. Mr. Dreher touched on this point during his recent appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight. He said that, in writing his new book Live Not By Lies, which recounts the persecution of Christians by the Soviet Empire, he learned a powerful lesson:
It taught me about how much we Americans need to learn how to suffer better…. We have got to be a lot more patient with our suffering so we can endure what is to come. Because this is what the soft totalitarians are going to do: they’re going to use our addiction to comfort to control us.
Mr. Dreher is right: we don’t know how to suffer. We train a small number of men to fight in our armed forces, and only a small number of men work in hands-on industries like construction or mining. Technology and outsourcing have rendered most blue-collar work obsolete; others, like corporate farmers, are only there to direct the machines until Silicon Valley can produce a microchip to automatically steer tractors and drive trucks.
Men in the West, and especially Christian men, have a duty to prepare ourselves for the coming Dark Age. We have a duty to harden ourselves—physically, morally, and spiritually—so we can protect ourselves, our families, our communities, and our Holy Mother Church from the new totalitarians. To be soft, cowardly, or weak is now positively immoral. It doesn’t matter how much of the Summa they’ve read: such men will be of no help in this crisis.
Working out is a good start, but fitness is more than just muscle mass. Men of the Middle Ages were men, and they did manly things. They hunted and fished and wrestled. Television and video games would have disgusted them. Social media would have bored them to death. Wine-tastings would have struck them as a waste of good wine. They would have mocked men who remain single into their mid-thirties because they “hadn’t found the right girl.”
Why? Because they were men. They valued strength and honor. They loved women and wine (but not too much). They liked getting dirty and bruised and tired. They liked the feeling of cold beer flowing through aching limbs.
In our own age, this worldview was embodied by President Theodore Roosevelt. He summarized it in a speech he gave while governor of New York, saying:
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.
By the way, I’m hardly chivalrous. This is all new to me—though I’m proud to belong to a program called The Strenuous Life, which is run by the Art of Manliness blog, and which is geared towards cultivating Teddy’s virile philosophy. If you can afford the membership fee, I highly recommend it.
The point, however, is to get strong. Learn to live with less. Grow to love hardship. Take joy in every challenge. Work hard and play hard. Fast and abstain. Be uncomfortable. Take cold showers. Learn to box. Read books. Put on a tie. Get married as soon as possible and have as many children as you can.
But don’t do it for show: do it to be useful to others. Don’t lord your strength over others: help the weak to become strong. Don’t strut and swagger: be as meek as Lancelot, as pure as Perceval. And don’t boast about your gifts: thank God for them, because all our gifts come from God.
The sad fact is that so many Catholic voices today would have us do the opposite. They expect us to conform to the worst caricature of Saint Francis, the doe-eyed proto-hippie. Rather, we ought to imitate the real Saint Francis: the army veteran, the prisoner of war, the military chaplain who slept in the woods and lived off the land. He was a chevalier who devoted his life to the service of his Lord, Christ, and the honor of his Lady, Poverty. His kindness and his charity, knightly in themselves, were built on a foundation of suffering and self-discipline. He bore these things gladly through his strength of purpose and cheerfulness of heart; we ought to do the same.
G. K. Chesterton was once asked what he thought was the weakest point in our civilization. He didn’t say radical politicians or corrupt bishops. He just chuckled and said, “Well, I have always felt that it is the duty of every one of us to consider himself the weakest point.”
That is what it means to be chivalrous. It is to wage constant war against sin—particularly, our own sins. Gossip and quarrels, like “ball games,” aren’t a suitable pastime for knights. Chivalrous men don’t have opinions: they have convictions, and their convictions become actions. They build things: relationships, families, parishes, communities. They “live loyally and joyfully,” as Sir Geoffroi said, “always expecting victory, not defeat,” in a “true and certain hope that comes from God.”
Yes—for Christ’s sake—do be joyful. Is it easy being a Catholic in America today? Of course not. And we should thank God for that. Great Christian men of past ages would have relished this chance to prove their fidelity to Christ and His Church. And I’m convinced that our grandsons and great-grandsons “shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.” They’ll envy this faithful remnant: the valiant knights who lived and died with that sacred banner in their hands, who kept the holy Faith alive.
This trial is a gift, and we should thank Him for it. May we be happy warriors, fighting (as Chesterton said) not because we hate what’s in front of us, but because we love what’s behind us.
Around my neck I wear a Tau cross, the symbol of Saint Francis. It’s made of olive wood from Assisi and secured with a length of paracord. It reminds me that I, too, am a soldier in the Church Militant—a Knight of Christ called to a life of charity and sacrifice. To be a man of God, I must first be a man. A man with a chest.
Saint Francis of Assisi, ora pro nobis.