“Ther nys a bettre knight”: Hector as a Medieval Knightly Ideal
By William H. Weiss
In his famous work recounting the Hundred Years’ War, Chronicles, Jean Froissart writes of two interesting episodes that any reader could easily overlook. The first appears in Book III where he details the Battle of Otterburn. He mentions how, during the bloodshed, Earl James Douglas “saw that his men were falling back” so in response he charges into the fray “to recover the lost ground and show his warlike qualities.” Froissart then describes how “he went so furiously forward, as though he was a Trojan Hector expecting to win the battle single-handed…” Earl Douglas, however, received three separate wounds from lances all at once, leaving him badly injured on the battlefield. Later in Book IV, Froissart describes a model castle that had been built in the middle of the royal great hall in Paris. According to the chronicler, this model citadel represented Troy and it was even adorned with pennons bearing the arms of “King Priam, the knightly Hector his son and his other children…”
These two references to Hector in Chronicles represent a practice common in late medieval art and literature. Allusions to and depictions of Hector were widespread during that period perhaps in part due to Hector’s inclusion as the first of the Nine Worthies in Jacques de Longuyon’s 1312 work Les Voeux du paon. Regardless of which work may have begun this late medieval love of Hector (and the Troy legend as a whole), the fact remains clear that his popularity as a knightly as well as princely hero permeated the literature and art of western Europe. Homer, however, was not the ultimate source whom medieval authors referenced when writing these retellings. They instead consulted two other authorities concerning Troy: Dares the Phrygian and Dictys of Crete, with a particular emphasis on Dares’ account. This distinct attention holds special significance considering that Dares allegedly fought with the Trojans during the war and as such there exists a certain degree of pro-Trojan bias in this source.
Since many medieval authors stress the importance of Dares’ narration, it would appear obvious why so many late medieval retellings have a decidedly pro-Trojan bias and why their authors choose to depict Hector as the prime example of knightly virtue. Yet, the style, tone, and length of the medieval versions complicate this simple assumption. They exude a level of bias that goes beyond Dares’ pro-Trojan sentiment. For instance, in Troy Book, John Lydgate goes so far as to criticize Homer for lauding Achilles, calling his praise “sleighty & so ful of fraude.” This potent rebuke of the author of the Iliad does not exist in the version given by Dares, thus his account of the Troy legend alone cannot adequately explain the partisanship of late medieval authors, particularly their admiration of Hector.
A deeper analysis of the late medieval retellings combined with an understanding of the virtues and traits that shaped ideal knighthood in the late Middle Ages provides a more satisfactory answer as to why Hector, as opposed to other Homeric characters, became such a prime model for the ideal knight. It did not occur simply on account of the bias of Dares but rather due to a predisposition of medieval authors to champion Hector. This predisposition itself was influenced by the the various knightly and chivalric virtues that Hector already roughly fit. While he did not completely embody every ideal quality of knighthood, his deeds and behavior provided medieval writers with enough of a virtuous figure to mold into an ideal knightly hero, one noble enough to be first of the Nine Worthies.
In order to show the medieval treatment toward Hector, this paper examines three important sources, all of which originated from England between the late 14th and early 15th centuries. They include Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer, Troy Book by John Lydgate, and the Laud Troy Book by an anonymous author. These three works will serve as the bulk of source material examined in order to understand the medieval evaluation of Hector. This paper will also explore other relevant medieval sources on such topics as knighthood and chivalry in order to comprehend the mindset of and values governing medieval writers and how this influenced their treatment of Hector. The first part of this paper is dedicated to recognizing the medieval mindset in regard to knightly virtue and the influence it had on medieval literary depictions of Hector. It will prove how authors in the late Middle Ages crafted uniquely original versions of Hector and the Troy legend by “medievalizing” the character and setting in order to reflect the values and beliefs of the time.
The lack of scholarly research that directly addresses the issue of why Hector became the champion of knighthood in late medieval literature stresses the necessity and importance of this investigation. Assuming that Dares’ bias was the primary or even sole source of medieval love for the first son of Priam provides neither a sufficient nor fair answer to the question. It underestimates the literary ability of ,medieval authors to forge a uniquely remodeled character, one heavily influenced by the virtues of their time. This paper strives to show this ability as well as provide better insight into the thought processes and beliefs of writers in the Middle Ages. Ultimately, it will prove why, in the eyes of medieval scribes, “ther nys a bettre knight” than Hector.
Hector and Ideal Knighthood
The concept of “ideal knighthood” poses a number of challenges that must be addressed. Chiefly amongst them is the problem of defining such a nebulous concept. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to look towards the notion of chivalry. That term originated from the French word chevalier, which denoted an aristocrat, typically of noble lineage, who had the ability to take on the role of a heavy cavalryman if needed. By the late Middle Ages, medieval authors and scholars wrote extensively about the concept and typically associated chivalry with the knightly ideals of courtesy, loyalty, hardiness (or prowess), generosity, and franchise (that which visibly denoted a combination of good birth and virtue). For the purpose of simplicity, this paper will group these knightly virtues into two categories: the first being the ideals that govern martial honor (how a knight should behave during war) and the second being the ideals that make up courtly honor (how a knight should behave off the battlefield).
Amongst the virtues that encompassed martial honor, physical prowess was, in the minds of some medieval author writing on chivalry, one of the greatest things a knight could possess. According to the famous late medieval writer and knight Geffroi de Charny, warfare proved a knight’s prowess the best due to the strenuous physical burden, suffering, and threat of death that it imposed on the warrior. The medieval authors retelling the Troy legend certainly understood this fact and made it very clear throughout their works that Hector embodied this merit of physical strength. For instance, John Lydgate expresses that Hector was an “example and merour” in regards to manhood and “prowesse.” The use of the word “merour” (mirror) holds a particular importance as it denotes the purpose that the Trojan hero has in the Troy Book, and broadly speaking, in most Middle English retellings of the Troy legend. Lydgate intended that his audience, specifically knights or other nobles,, use Hector as a means to reflect their own manly virtue and hardiness.
The Laud Troy Book also hyperbolically extolls the doughtiness and commanding presence Hector had on the battlefield. Medieval scholar Władysław Witalisz goes so far as to designate the Laud as a “Hector romance” that constantly reminds the audience of Hector’s strength and ability in the traditional manner of a medieval chivalric romance. In one such example, while introducing Hector at the beginning of the Laud, the anonymous author writes:
And there was the beste bodi in dede
That euer yit wered wede,
Sithen the world was made so ferre,
That was Ector, in eche a were,
Ne that neuere sclow so many bodies
Fyghting In feld with his enemyes
Off worthi men that doughty were,
As duke Ector of troye there.
Not only does the poet claim that Hector was the greatest and doughtiest soldier fighting in the war but also the most excellent since the world was created. The author measures Hector’s prowess by the number of men that he had slain, an amount greater than anyone else. These come as quite bold claims to the reader and seem considerably exaggerated compared to Dares’ account. Even though Dares at one point states that a wounded Hector cut down a large number of the enemy as well as a plethora of Greek leaders, the description lacks the degree of hyperbole found in the Laud (e.g. being the greatest warrior since the world was created or the explicit reference to Hector killing more men than any other fighter).
While medieval authors explicitly told their audience that Hector possessed great “douȝtinesse,” they also attested to it by describing his heroic deeds in battle. Lydgate recounts the fateful encounter between Patroclus, close friend and ally of Achilles, and Hector, the slayer of Patroclus, as being entirely in favor of the latter. The blows Patroclus deals to Hector successfully pierce through his shield and armor but ultimately do no significant harm to him. In stark contrast to this, Hector counterattacks Patroclus so furiously with his sword that he splits him in half (“he partid hym on tweyne”). This grisly imagining of the death of Patroclus differs significantly from the simple “Hector slew Patroclus” line found in the version by Dares. It shows a level of creative liberty taken by Lydgate that emphasizes the raw physical prowess of Hector. The imagery of Patroclus being cut in two also appears reminiscent to imagery found in the 12th century chanson de geste The Song of Roland, wherein the titular hero slices into a Saracen so deeply with his mythical sword, Durendal, that Roland cuts him in half and severs the spine of the horse upon which he rode, killing them both in one movement. This stylistic choice shows how the author adapted Hector into a medieval knightly hero by having him perform deeds similar to other medieval literary champions.
To medieval audiences, Hector represented more than just the pinnacle of knightly prowess. His behavior in relation to his father Priam also embodied the chivalrous virtue of loyalty. Even during the early Middle Ages, sociopolitical convention stressed the importance of vassals staying loyal to their lords. The Capitulary of Mersen (847 CE) stated that men loyal to their lord should go to war with him when called upon “so that the whole people of that kingdom should go together to repel [an invasion].” By the Late Middle Ages, authors on chivalry continued this sentiment towards loyalty. According to them, if a knight lacked prowess, then he likely did not display the second most important chivalrous trait of loyalty. The relationship between Hector and his father Priam presents a distinctly unique interaction between not only a father and son but also a lord and his vassal. The Laud Troy Book has Hector refer to Priam as “My lord, my fader” while telling him how he shall leave a thousands knights to defend Troy. The emphasis of a special lord-vassal relationship and Hector’s duty to defend his lord appears to a greater extent in late medieval literature than in the Dares’ account. It displays an attempt by medieval authors to fit Hector into a definitively knightly heroic role.
Middle English authors also make it very clear that Hector acts as the loyal defender of Troy. This connection between the city and Hector as its primary defender exists so strongly that the death of Hector is often attributed with the fall of Troy. The Laud even states:
This day thow leses thi seygnorie
For gode Ector this day schal dye
That the defended and thi kyndrede
Thi landes & thi manhede
Whan he died, ye died alle.
The Troy Book also notes the inseparable bond of fate that ties Hector to Troy. The Greeks come to realize this connection and decide that the only way to defeat Troy is to kill Hector, the “chef diffence and protectioun” of the city. Dares’ account of the war does in fact mention that the Trojans saw Hector as the chief defender of the city and his death pushes Priam to sue for peace with the Greeks. However, this relationship between Hector and Troy had a specially unique meaning to medieval audiences. For instance, Geffroi de Charny explicitly wrote that those soldiers who defend their honor and inheritance or the honor and inheritance of their lord deserve praise. The importance of inheritance in medieval society, as seen in Charny’s work on chivalry, certainly made Hector a much more sympathetic character to a medieval reader because he essentially defends both his inheritance and the inheritance of his lord, who is also his father. Hector personified the ideal loyal knight who would always come to the defense of his lord.
n addition to prowess and loyalty, medieval society valued the chivalrous virtue of mercy, typically seen as the martial extension of generosity. An example of this virtue appears at the end of a 13th century poem called Ordene de chevalerie, wherein a crusading knight, Hugh, is captured by the muslim leader Saladin. While a prisoner, Hugh teaches Saladin the ways of christian chivalry and at the end of the story, as an act of generosity, Saladin frees Hugh without him having to pay a ransom. The idea of sparing one’s enemies from death or showing them a degree of mercy balanced out the other knightly virtue of prowess, which called for unhesitant bravery in battle and the destruction of one’s enemies. Dares describes Hector as “merciful to [his] citizens” but otherwise does not mention any mercy granted to his foes in battle. The late medieval tradition differs greatly yet again. The Laud recounts an episode shortly before the death of Hector where a Greek noble begs Hector to spare his life when he can no longer defend himself. Hector assents to his request for mercy and thus puts his guard down, which ultimately allows Achilles to slay him. The mercy granted by Hector aligns with the chivalrous behavior of sparing a defeated enemy if they ask for clemency. Christine de Pizan expressly states this in her early 15th century work The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry:
[…] even though civil law says that one who is captured in battle
is serf or slave of the one who takes him, he should not be killed.
the decree affirms this by saying that as soon as a man is in
prison, mercy is due him.
The inclusion of this episode displaying the mercy of Hector, notably absent from the version by Dares, provides insight into the importance certain ideals had to medieval authors and audiences. Its deliberate addition to the story also yields yet another example of a medieval departure from the Dares tradition and an adaptation that better suited the beliefs of the time.
The martial virtues of chivalry indeed held crucial sway over the behavior of many knights, or at least provided necessary guidelines, but they only encompassed one, albeit large, aspect of a knight’s life. Medieval authors wrote extensively of how a knight ought to act off the battlefield. One such virtue, generosity, applied not only to generosity or mercy granted to enemies but also to the poor, fatherless, and widows. Chivalry dictated that knights protect these weak or undefended social groups. In this vein, Dares does claim that Hector was “merciful to the citizens” of Troy as well as “deserving of love.” The medieval tradition, however, takes this a step further and provides vivid examples of the generosity and mercy of Hector. In a scene from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a mob of angry Trojans come after Criseyde due to her father Calchas’ betrayal and defection to the Greek side. Out of desperation and fear, she goes to Hector pleading for his mercy and protection. Due to Hector being “pitous of nature,” he agrees to defend her and her honor. One scholar notes that Hector effectively chooses to become her guarantor and surrogate father. This has particular relevance as one of the social groups that chivalry demands a knight must protect are those who lack fathers. Even though the father of Criseyde had not died and merely left Troy, his absence essentially makes Criseyde fatherless and therefore Hector acts in accordance with knightly duty by taking on the role of father.
An important note upon which Chaucer also touches during this scene relates to the social status of Criseyde. Due to the intervention and oath of protection granted by Hector, Criseyde manages to maintain her social standing (“kepte hir estat”) while staying in Troy. Chaucer makes a point to mention the security of her honor and social status with good reason. The honor and social status of a noble were inextricably bound to his or her lineage. This strict emphasis on lineage became increasingly stronger from the 13th century onward. By the close of the 13th century, the emphasis on knighthood itself shifted to an emphasis on the “hereditary capacity to receive knighthood,” in essence meaning that one had to come from noble stock in order to be granted knighthood. The chivalric virtue of franchise best represents this notion of originating from a noble family in order to be qualified to have knighthood.
This important connection between lineage and nobility, and by extension chivalry, appears as an important theme in the late medieval retellings of the Troy legend, especially in regard to Hector. In the Laud Troy Book, the term “noble leder” describes Hector as he goes to aid retreating Trojans. The Laud also uses “duke” to define the social status of Hector, an anachronistic but distinctly medieval title. Lydgate frequently refers to Hector as “worthi” and explicitly states that he came from the “stok of cheualrie.” The medieval authors of these works continuously tell the reader of Hector’s worthiness and noble heritage through the frequent use of such adjectives.
While these frequently applied descriptors certainly drive home the point of the importance of Hector’s nobility, perhaps the best piece of evidence in support of this comes from a scene in the Laud where Hector defends his noble status after a Greek king insults him by calling him a “cherl velayn” (peasant villain). Hector reproaches the king, Episcropus, by saying:
[…] ‘I was neuere thral,
I am fre, and my kynde al;
In al my kyn is no throle
But kyng and duk, knyȝt & erle;
My ffader is a gentil kyng,
Suche is non In thyn ospreyng!
It semes wel thanne, that I am fre,
I may be skyl no cherl be!
Hector rebukes his insulter by declaring that no member of his family is a thrall nor has any member ever been. He reaffirms how his family only consists of kings, dukes, knights and earls, making sure to point out how his father Priam is “a gentil kyng.” Hector even goes so far as to throw an insult back at the Greek by saying “Suche is non In thyn ospreyng,” essentially telling him that none of his descendants can claim the same level of nobility held by Hector and his family. This scene does not occur at all within the Dares’ account and appears to be an original creation of the Laud’s poet. Its inclusion displays the importance nobility had to late medieval society, especially to the aristocratic audience that likely read the Laud as well as other medieval versions of the Troy legend. Yet again, Hector possesses another aspect of knightly virtue that defines his status not only as a noble but as an ideal knight.
The Laud Troy Book claims that God made no knight greater than Hector “In christendome ne in paynie” (neither in Christian nor Pagan lands). The poet of the Laud as well as Lydgate and Chaucer all held up Hector as the greatest example of knighthood and chivalry. After a comparison of Hector to the medieval ideals that governed knighthood, it becomes quite evident why they believed this. The deeds and behavior of Hector, even in Dares’ narrative, align closely to the tenets of chivalry. Hector performs great deeds of prowess and conducts himself in a manner that remains loyal to his lord and father as well as his city. He does not lust for blood as he shows he is quite willing to spare an enemy asking for mercy. Hector also extends this merciful protection outside of combat to fatherless women such as Criseyde. His noble background cannot be questioned and, when insulted, he defends his lineage vigorously. The Troy legend according to Dares provided late medieval authors with a character framework within which they could fashion their own versions of Hector. Dares did not solely fashion the Hector one sees in these narratives. Through original storytelling influenced by contemporary beliefs surrounding knighthood, medieval poets created a unique version of Hector that fit the mold of the ideal medieval knight.
When Froissart recounts the moment when Earl Douglas charges into battle “as though he was a Trojan Hector expecting to win the battle single-handed…” but ultimately fails and is wounded, he reveals just how central Hector was in representing the ideals of late medieval knighthood. Earl Douglas strives to demonstrate his chivalric prowess in battle, comparable to that of Hector, but falls short of doing so. Hector in the late medieval versions of the Troy legend embodied the virtues and ideals of knighthood that so many nobles and knights of the time endeavored to achieve. Medieval authors brought with them contemporary ideas and beliefs concerning knighthood when approaching the Troy legend, therefore predisposing themselves to want to fit Hector into a medieval conception of what knighthood represented. Through original additions, exclusions, and changes to the story told by Dares, medieval poets crafted a distinctly unique version of the Troy legend as well as Hector.
They took the simple descriptions of martial ability, honor, and goodness found in Dares and attributed their own medieval ideas of what these terms meant. This saw a transformation into a knightly “sir” or “duke” Ector that exhibited prowess in battle, loyalty to his lord, mercy to defeated enemies, protection of fatherless women, and noble lineage. Hector remains alone in his popularity as a model of knighthood and chivalry, not through the bias of Dares but through the original creative effort of late medieval authors, inspired by their medieval understand of knightly virtue. While Dares may have pushed the boat of the Troy legend and Hector onto the water, it was the authors of the late Middle Ages who rowed it in the direction they chose.
Historians and medievalists ought to pay more attention to questions surrounding how medieval virtues and beliefs affected their interpretation of the past and its figures. The literature surround medieval interpretations and understanding of Hector and Troy certainly goes deep and is well researched but further work can always be done to improve the knowledge of this area of history. It provides the historical understanding of the Middle Ages with a deeper analysis of the mindset of those scribes and scholars living during that period. An area this paper chose to forego included the relationship between medieval Christianity and Hector. A couple scholars have noted the “christianizing” of Hector in comparison to a “devil” Achilles. Medieval historians should consider further pursuing this relationship in order to understand another aspect of the “medievalization” of Hector. Perhaps this future research could open a further door into why “ther nys a bettre knight” than Hector of Troy.
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