Sir Thomas Malory always seemed to give his readers more of a glimpse of his own age than of the age he was purportedly writing about. His tales were ostensibly about the daring-do exploits of King Arthur and his knights--but his times invariably showed through. And for good reason--he lived during the days when the Hundred Years War had finally shuddered to a conclusion and the Wars of the Roses had suddenly erupted. Like his mentor Geoffrey Chaucer, he was caught in the midst of this horrendous power struggle between the two great houses of the English royal line. And like Chaucer he served the Lancastrian line against the Yorkists. It was a time of anarchy, confusion, and widespread destruction.
Malory looked back longingly on the fading glory of chivalric feudalism. Beginning on this day in 1466, when he was imprisoned during one of the lawless scuffles that marked the Wars of the Roses, he determined to recall that time and those values in some permanent form. Le Mort d'Arthur was the result.
Not surprisingly, the ancient code of chivalry plays a prominent role in every aspect of the book--from character development to plot lines to conflict resolution. The code--formalized in the eleventh century by Bernard of Clairveuax--comprise twelve distinctive elements:
According to Bernard, a true Christian knight demonstrated chivalry first in integritas. He was to be trustworthy to all in his covenantal community. Second, a true Christian knight demonstrated chivalry in fidelitas. He was to be steadfastly loyal to all those with whom he was in relationship. Third, he demonstrated Christian chivalry in succurrere. He was to be helpful to any and all who might be in need. Fourth, he demonstrated benevolus. He was to be gracious and mannerly to everyone he met along the way. Fifth, he demonstrated urbanus. He was to be courteous upon every occasion. Sixth, he demonstrated benignus. He was to be selflessly kind. Seventh, he demonstrated referre. He was to obey all those that God had place in authority over him. Eighth, he deomonstrated hilaris. He was to be joyous and cheerful in the face of even the worst adversities. Ninth, he demonstrated frugalis. He was to be marked by an evident thrifty stewardship. Tenth, he demonstrated fortitudo. He was to be brave despite all the dangers that might cross his path. Eleventh, he demonstrated abulere. He was to be scrupulously clean in all his personal habits and hygiene. And finally, he demonstrated sanctus. He was to be piously reverent. Interestingly, the twentieth century British war hero, Robert Stephenson Baden-Powell, utilized Bernard’s code as the basis for the virtues to be inculcated in his Boy Scouts. But centuries before Lord Baden-Powell tapped the principles and elements of chivalry for his fledgling movement, Thomas Malory was building his tales of Arthurian romance around them.
There is perhaps no better guide to understanding the purpose and intent of Malory--and the times that he baptized upon the Arthurian legends--than this remarkable ethical code.