Term Paper on King Arthur

This essay has a total of 3814 words and 15 pages.

King Arthur

The legends of King Arthur of Britain and his Knights of the Round Table, among the most
popular and beloved of all time, originated in the Middle Ages. As they do today,
medieval people listened to the accounts of Arthur with fascination and awe. It is
certain that popular folktales were told about a hero named Arthur throughout the Celtic
parts of the British Isles and France, especially in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany (Lunt
76). Other stories of chivalry that did not include Arthur existed in this time period as
well. Although these stories were not recorded at first, they were known as far away as
Italy, where mosaics and carvings depict Arthurian characters. The tales are often
mentioned by early writers including William of Malmesbury, who distrusted them as "lying
fables" (Bishop 32). Today literary critics believe that such folktales are sometimes
based on real characters, but the stories about them change greatly as they are passed
from one generation to the next. This art of storytelling became an oral tradition among
these people and their ancestors, so the question of King Arthur's actual existence still
remains a mystery (Bishop 34). Nevertheless, the medieval world viewed much of the
Arthurian legend as a part of history, and writers of the time built into the legend many
of their highest ideals-deeds of chivalry, courtly love, and the contribution of the
Arthurian legends and romances to literature.

Chivalry was a code of honor that developed for armed knights on horseback, the most
powerful fighters in medieval warfare. The word is related to cavalry and to the French
word chevalier, which means horseman, and gained its meaning during the Middle Ages (Evans
205). To the knight's basic role as a warrior, chivalry added ideas about social rank,
manners, Christian virtues, courage, and honor. Knights began to pursue high standards of
chivalrous behavior in their own lives. Religious groups of knights called chivalric
orders were formed to fight during the crusades. Later, national monarchs began to honor
notable subjects by granting them knighthood in reward for valor and loyalty (Bishop 104,
105). Throughout the Middle Ages, knights were closely associated with warfare and power
(Jordan 55). Power meant wealth; wealth enabled people to own horsed and heavy armor; and
these provided the ability to gain greater power and wealth. Knights trained themselves
to fight in full armor and to excel in battle. They could cause brutal damage to opposing
forces. In the later Middle Ages, when not on the battlefield, knights practiced their
skills in hunts and tournaments. These tournaments provided an opportunity to practice
and display military skill, an important contribution to the art of chivalry (Grant 24,

As the concept of chivalry continued to develop, a moral, religious, and social code
arose- one based on values of fidelity, piety, and service to God. Knights who adopted
these Christian values were known as knights of Christ (Mathew 126,127). The church
created purification rights for knights and ceremonies to bless their swords. The concept
of religious chivalry was most significant during the crusades. Crusading provided an
outlet for both military valor and devotion to a religious cause. Large numbers of
knights now went into battle to defend the church, leading to the development of chivalric
codes and orders (Uden 73,74,75).

During the 1000s and 1100s, several groups of crusading knights founded military orders to
protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. These new founded orders embraced the ideals
of Christian chivalry. Members also took vows of poverty and obedience, like Christian
monks of the time (Mathew 41).

The first chivalric order was the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the
Knights Hospitalers. The order was founded in 1070 by a group of Italian knights to
protect a pilgrims' hospital in Jerusalem (Jordan 94). When the Muslims drove the
crusaders from the Holy Land in 1921, the order moved to island fortresses in the
Mediterranean Sea. There they fought Turkish pirates, becoming known as Knights of Rhodes
and Knights of Malta (Jordan 95).

The second great chivalric order was the Knights Templars. The Templars were mostly
French. The order was founded in 1119 to defend the Holy Sepulcher (Christ's tomb) in
Jerusalem, protect pilgrims, and fight the Muslims (Jordan 99). The order grew rapidly
and became extremely rich and powerful. In 1307, the Templars moved to France, where
their wealth and power aroused envy among the people of the country (Jordan 101). When
King Phillip IV ordered the Templars to be arrested, their estates were confiscated, and
many were put to death. A few years afterward, the Pope abolished the order (Evans78).

The third great chivalric order was know as the Teutonic Knights (Jordan 105). This group
of German Knights, also originally formed to protect a pilgrims' hospital in Jerusalem,
became a major power in northeast Europe, helping to convert pagan tribes in the Baltic
countries to Christianity (Jordan 105). Besides these three major orders, there were many
other chivalric orders that existed worldwide, with their main purpose to serve as
defenders of Christianity (Evans 82). Yet somehow, the concept of religious chivalry
slowly started to sway from its intended purpose, and into one of fantasy and romance.
This change focused on another important theme of the time-courtly love. Courtesy and
courtly love are expressions of a larger, looser entity of chivalry. This regulated the
behavior of a gentleman according to fixed moral principles.

The idea of courtly love comprised the code of courtesy and the ideals of knightly conduct
derived from feudalism and the ethical teachings of the church (Dijkstra 53). It
originated apparently from Islamic Spain, where women had a good deal of freedom and were
often poets in their own right (Dijkstra 54). It was there that a mystical doctrine of
love as a holy passion, pure and uplifting, developed. Arabic literature is full of
parted and thwarted lovers, completely faithful and devoted. Its poetry is mostly love
poetry, foreshadowing the themes and styles of French troubadours (Evans 112).

Courtly love compensated the medieval lady for the brutalities of marriage, and recognized
her existence as an individual (Evans 113). The lover, who by definition was not her
husband, addressed her with the same vocabulary of adoration he used for the Saints. For
his lady's sake, he sought to progress in merit, and to purify his spirit. For her he was
mighty in battle and in her presence, gay, witty, well dressed, and well washed. He
composed and sang love songs for her, and was always scrupulous to defend her honor
(Dijkstra 60). Through honoring her, he respected all ladies and proclaimed their fame.
He was his lady's vassal and to her he rendered his homage. Though romantic, the concept
of courtly love was a strict violation of the teachings of the church (Evans 113).

How far courtly love led to actual adultery is an insoluble problem. Plenty of
troubadours celebrated their amorous victories, but these troubadours are very unreliable
witnesses (Evans 120). At any rate, adultery in the swarming communal life of the castle
was difficult, if not impossible. These sinful matings must have occurred mostly outdoors
and must have greatly depended on the weather. In its entirety, it seems courtly love was
mostly a game, an intellectual diversion with little effect on moral behavior (Lunt 67).

Courtly love framed the virtues and ideals of a man of status. It's perfect
representative was humble, a loyal warrior for religion, a defender of ladies' honor, and
a true gentleman in every aspect idealized at the time. The proper medieval gentleman had
many virtues. He was generally loyal to his feudal obligations and conscientious in the
administration of justice. He was generous, sincerely religious, respectful of church
authority, and faithful to his duties (Bishop 86). An enormous outpouring of literature,
nurturing that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table supported this ideal.

The deeds of chivalry and mystical acts of courtly love inevitably contributed to
Arthurian literature and romances. The epic began as oral or folk literature. It is a
natural product of most primitive societies, a tale of heroes sung by a bard (Mathew 44).
Long-forgotten poets worked it into fixed artistic shape, into a rhythmical pattern
congenial to the language and music of a particular people. Eventually, these songs and
tales were written down, to become a model for later, more sophisticated writers (Mathew

The epics expressed the noble attitudes and values of the early Middle Ages. They
celebrate pride, honor, and victory, and had little to say of love (Mathew 47). Of
course, new generations appeared, which were more cultured and sophisticated than their
predecessors. They found the endless spearings, beheadings, and body bisections a bore.
They asked for something more subtle: recognition of human problems, stories of love. The
romance of chivalry, the roman courtois, or simply, the novel met their demands( Lunt 89).

The romances of chivalry were tales of love and adventure, in verse or prose. Directed
toward an audience of nobles and upperclassmen, they glorified the aristocratic way of
life (Lunt 127). They contained long descriptions of luxury, furniture, and accessories
not possessed by the middle or lower class. They exalted women, who were the poets'
patrons and their most responsive public (Bishop 96). They also exalted the institution
of courtesy, a code of morals and ideals for gentlemen and ladies. Most of all, they
exalted love, "the origin and foundation of all that is good."

The romances of chivalry began in northern France in the twelfth century and spread to the
entire Western world. They took as their background themes, stories of old Rome and
Charlemagne's court, and especially the Celtic tales that filtered in through Brittany and
England (Evans 56). These tales dealt with the Knights of the Round Table at the court of
King Arthur, who was, in fact, a British Christian chief of the fifth century. Religion
and mysticism haunted the legend of King Arthur, especially in the various romances of his
quest for the Holy Grail (Dijkstra 77). These present the ancient theme of the quest,
which paralleled the actual experiences of the crusaders. The primitive Celtic
literature had the character that persists in Yeats and other modern Irish writers: love
of the fantastic and marvelous; blurring of the natural and supernatural; acceptance of
magic, wonder, fairies, witches, and talking beasts, trees, and fountains as commonplaces
(Jordan 69). The idea of love as a tragic destiny, and wild soaring poetic description,
transformed the lives of simple men (Jordan 71). This was all a realm of the imagination
conceived my great authors during the Middle Ages and was translated into medieval garb
(Evans 74). Perhaps very few people realize what a very great realm of the imagination
the legends of King Arthur are, and how vast a literature it has become. During the
Middle Ages, this was the great theme of creative writing in poetry and prose (Evans 137).
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