Imagine you’re a knight living in 16th century the British Isles. Lots of ale and mead, shiny armor and sword, and a cushy noble status that provides you with great respect from all those around you. Sounds pretty good, right? Well aside from the fact that you would be drinking alcohol out of necessity for lack of clean drinking water, that status was earned through life-long training followed by long campaigns filled with periods of hunger and exhaustion. That armor is starting to look a little heavy, isn’t it? But all that aside, one of the most important things you need to understand about being a knight is what chivalry means in medieval society. And no, it’s not just jousting and helping young maidens across large puddles to avoid getting their skirts wet. Chivalry wasn’t just a thing you acted out, it was a principle you had to immerse yourself in, an ideal you had to gain through experiences, through trials, and tribulations. This idea of chivalry is what allows us to understand the genre of medieval romances.
One such romance is The Squire of Low Degree. With this piece, as with many others of the era, it might be easy for modern readers to fall into the trap of analyzing the protagonist with on our modern notions of what chivalry was in medieval England, which if we are being honest are mostly informed by Hollywood movies, bedtime stories, and the like. The idea of chivalry was necessary in a time where instability and death ran rampant. It held people to a greater standard, especially with regard to the power (both physically and societally) that these men held. In Phillip M. Taylor’s book, Munitions of the Mind, he quotes historian Johan Huizinga in saying that chivalry was “‘the strongest of all the ethical conceptions which dominated the mind and heart’ of late medieval man”(Taylor, 67). In short, chivalry was something that these knights developed over a lifetime of experiences. This is possibly why medieval romances focus so heavily on the epic-style narrative which sees the main character going through unexpected trials which shape his character and evolve him into the hero that deserves a happy ending.
While The Squire of Low Degree is shorter than many epic-style poems of the time and therefore does not have the classic romantic structure wherein the plot contains “side-quests” with multiple villains, which allow the protagonist to strengthen their moral principles, in addition to the main quest aka the goal of the knight in shining armor to slay the dragon and marry the princess if you will. However, the squire as well as the princess in the story must go through a similarly long journey in order to find their happily ever after. They must both endure time apart (seven years to be precise) and dangerous betrayals. The squire is betrayed multiple times by the steward who tries to spoil his romance with the princess by reporting it to the king and again when he physically attacks him. The princess is betrayed by her father in a sense as he makes her believe that the squire is dead for those seven years. Honestly, if I had been mourning over the wrong dead body and keeping it in my bedroom for seven years and my own father never told me, I might be shocked enough to faint, too! All in all, we see from this poem and from others of its kind, that chivalry was a party of medieval life that allowed society to function in a time of plagues and starvation.
Philip M. Taylor. “The Chivalric Code.” Munitions of the Mind, Manchester University Press, 2013, p. 67–72.