Heroic Loyalty vs. Chivalric Faith in Medieval Literature

chivalry vs heroism in medieval literature

Faith to one’s lord and loyalty to one’s lord can mean the same thing in everyday speech, but like most words “faith” and “loyalty” have secondary definitions depending on the context. Today, we’ll be exploring these secondary definitions within the context of a hero, warrior or knight in the Middle Ages. To examine the differences between heroic loyalty and chivalric faith in this medieval context, we must first clarify the differences between the heroic and the chivalric in medieval literature. So let’s boogie on down to it.

Heroism vs. Chivalry in Medieval Literature

medieval hero

The Heroic Warrior: examples are Hildebrand and Hercules; they are brave, quick to anger, boastful, and would rather kill their own father than break an oath to their king.

The heroic as a literary narrative reached its height of popularity during the Migration Period. Germanic and Celtic peoples in Europe were wont to record their histories via oral storytelling. These narratives were shared from mouth to mouth, supplied entertainment and conveyed cultural histories. The Hildebrandslied, a wonderful example of this storytelling tradition, is one of the earliest Germanic heroic epics we know of. In this epic, Hildebrand, a great warrior, personifies the heroic in great detail. For a hero like Hildebrand in the Early Middle Ages, the nuances of loyalty to one’s lord are different from what they are for a chivalric knight in the High Middle Ages.

medieval knight

The Chivalric Knight: examples are Parzival and Don Quixote; they are brave, modest, pious and would rather betray their king than assault the honor of a lady.

Chivalry as we know it today didn’t exist in the Migration Period or much of the Early Middle Ages, as the romance of the aristocracy or the culture of the knight had yet to dominate secular culture. In the Early Middle Ages, secular culture was dominated by Christianity or depending on the location Christianity with heavy pagan influences.

Knights during the Migration Period, if we can call them knights, received a golden armband and military equipment under heriot for their services, and they slept with their kings in the gift-giving hall as part of his comitatus.

In the Early Middle Ages, Charlemagne would see that these warriors got fiefs and more than just a pat on the back for their stirrups. All the while the Church in the Latin West had maintained it’s powerful grip over popular culture, slowly diluting many ancient pagan traditions.

Then, the High and Late Middle Ages saw Germanic emperors who were more powerful than the pope in Rome. Moreover, the emperor’s vassals within the landscape, who by now can rightly be called knights, became more powerful than bishops, archbishops and the cardinals of the papal curia. In the High Middle Ages, bishops would even sometimes become vassals to secular lords, but this is beside the point. The important thing to note is that for the first time in a large scale European secular culture was separating from the Church and becoming unique, and this culture is what we call chivalry, and this gave birth to the Minne Damsel.

Heroic vs. Chivalric (Arya Stark vs. Sansa Stark)

The main differences between the heroic and the chivalric are similar to the differences between barbarism and civilization, again using specific definitions. Warriors from heroic epics are brutal men who are willing to sacrifice everything, even mercy toward the enemy, to reach legendary status and fame. Warriors from chivalric epics such as Parzival on the other hand are civilized men who are willing to sacrifice their own dignity to treat a woman properly according to the code of chivalry. Chivalric knights from the High Middle Ages were faithful to their mothers, faithful to their manners and faithful to their individual souls. Heroic warriors from the Migration Period were loyal to their lords, loyal to their families and often these loyalties conflicted, forcing them to wage war against their own kith and kin.

Chivalry is internal, causing a man to look within himself for the answers needed to solve external problems, while heroism is external, causing a man to look about his environment for the answers to solve internal problems. Heroic narratives mainly focus on whole armies and quests of an entire people, such at the Burgundians, while chivalric narratives mainly focus on individuals and deeply personal quests, such as the Holy Grail.

Loyalty vs. Faith

Heroic loyalty plays in the nuances of chaotic warfare and alliances with other strongmen while chivalric faithfulness plays in the nuances of orderly warfare and the tournament.

You couldn’t call a hero from the Migration Period “faithful” if he decapitated his own mother to please his lord, but you could call him loyal. Likewise, you couldn’t call a knight in the hype of the Cluniac Reforms holding a fief in chief of the king “loyal” if he slew his king to free his despoiled minne lady; however, you could call him faithful.

Complex social situations throughout the Middle Ages, just like they do today, required complex social solutions. For an 8th-century warrior in spangenhelm and hauberk, loyalty kept alliances among strongmen relatively reliable. For a 15th-century warrior in breastplate and sallet, faithfulness kept alliances among more than just strongmen relatively romantic, if you know what I mean.

chivalric knights vs heroic warriors
Defend my honor!

To think of all this further, let’s tell a small story:

Somewhere in 13th-century Europe, a knight repairs with his retinue and baggage train to the gate of an enemy castle. This castle belongs to a king who so happens to be in residence, and he can tell from his heraldry that this untimely visitor is a traitor to the crown! What do you think this king will do now that he sees this great swath of enemies before his gate? The answer lies in whether or not the king is wont to express heroic loyalty or chivalric faith in his actions. If this king had been listening to too many heroic tales of Hildebrand, he might show loyalty to his peerage by sallying forth to vanquish this bold knight. If this king had been listening to too many chivalric tales of Parzival, he might express faithfulness to his peerage by opening his gate and welcoming the knight inside for hospitality.

Of course, chivalric faithfulness and heroic loyalty are ideals, and so it might be prudent for this king to seek counsel either way. With that said, we can’t deny how ideals shape social structures and historic events. To obtain further insight into how these ideals affected medieval society, a critical reading of the Nibelungenlied is recommended. This heroic epic from the Migration Period has been revised by chivalric thinkers in the High Middle Ages to show how the chivalric conflicts with the heroic. In the Nibelungenlied, faithfulness and loyalty dance to and fro alongside chivalry and heroism as if to some fabulous minstrelsy, and a great sort of masque of politics is played. This is because heroic loyalty was still relevant during the heyday of chivalric faithfulness, just like the medieval is still relevant today.

Now never forget that the easiest way to remember the differences between heroism and chivalry is to compare Arya Stark to Sansa Stark 🙂

Further Reading

Hatto, Arthur Thomas. “On the Excellence of the ‘Hildebrandslied’: A Comparative Study in Dynamics.” The Modern Language Review 68.4 (1973): 820-838.

Müller, Jan-Dirk. Das Nibelungenlied. E. Schmidt, 2002.

Von Eschenbach, Wolfram, et al. Parzival. Walter de Gruyter, 2003.

Speak your mind freely