Manuals of chivalry were not guides for the conduct of battle; that work was left to such authorities as Vegetius, the popular Roman author whose treatise on warfare John Lydgate and many other medieval authors cited. Instead, they outline the ideal of knightly conduct, usually according to some numerical plan that exposes the academic roots of the genre. I propose that sacrifice supplies the theology that links these manuals to the Christian tradition. Three features of their content are important to note here. First is sacrificial thinking that portrays the knight's use of force as revenge for Christ's death. Second is the knight's freely willed, voluntary decision to suffer in the sacrificial work he undertakes—for his lord, for Christ, or for his regiment, as well as for his own glory. Third is the knight's role as teacher and student. Knighthood required discipline, which in turn required pedagogy; the manual of chivalry both constituted and perpetuated the discursive modes that discipline and instruction demanded. Knights talked about knighthood and about the doings of knights. This lore, which included public evaluation of the knight's conduct, formed and endlessly reformed the chivalric tradition.
The second and third features are derived from a monastic model. As the manuals trace the heroic male's path up the ladder of perfection, they silently reinforce the idea that the 'order' of chivalry is parallel to a religious order, promoting a connection between the knight and Christ even as they celebrate the knight's un-Christlike prowess. The template for the knight's ascent was monastic. One group of knights, Knights Templar, was especially closely associated with monastic discipline. Nearly half the clauses of the rule created for Templars by the Council of Troyes in 1129 were based on the Rule of Benedict of Nursia. Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in creating this order, and in the words of Piers Paul Read, he and other officials at the council 'seemed more anxious to make monks out of knights than knights out of monks.' Bernard wrote the following encouragement to the first Templars:
Go forth confidently then, you knights, and repel the foes of the cross of Christ with a stalwart heart. Know that neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, and in every peril repeat, 'Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.' What a glory to return in victory from such a battle! How blessed to die there as a martyr! Rejoice, brave athlete, if you live and conquer in the Lord; but glory and exult even more if you die and join your Lord. Life indeed is a fruitful thing and victory is glorious, but a holy death is more important than either. If they are blessed who die in the Lord, how much more are they who die for the Lord!The Templars were not typical knights, however, for their attempt at monastic discipline really did make of them an order at some points as monastic as chivalric. But Bernard's ecstatic words apply to all Crusaders and to all knights who saw their business as holy war.
Surprisingly, manuals of chivalry are not texts about the Crusades. They sometimes allude to wars in the Holy Land, but they did not make Jerusalem into a stage for the ideals of knighthood. For that theater the manuals turned instead to the knight's life in his own land, among his own people, and to enemies of the faith close to home. Although we think of the knight as a man of war, manuals of chivalry stress instead his duties as a peacekeeper among his own people and as an officer of justice. Sidney Painter long ago observed the importance of distinguishing the 'knight-errant,' who was 'imbued with chivalric ideals' and who fought for renown, from other knights. But there is no need to suppose that these two categories were mutually exclusive. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales show more than once that knights left home to seek glory and, having won it, returned.
The manuals pay far less attention to relations with women than modern discussions of chivalry suggest, and were not alone in putting distance between women and chivalric valor. In The History of William Marshall, the great early thirteenth-century work, women occupy the margins and 'love,' when it is mentioned at all, refers to ties between men. John Gower, a late fourteenth-century English poet, decried the effects of a woman's love on a knight's virtue. But his denunciations, by their very length and intensity, exaggerate the importance that manuals of chivalry place on love and lust. C. S. Lewis, still a reliable guide to medieval mores, was right in pointing out that in chivalric literature 'the deepest of worldly emotions' was not romantic love but rather 'the love of man for man, the mutual love of warriors who die together fighting against the odds, and the affection between vassal and lord.'
The manuals are more concerned with the tendency of knights to fight with each other and to exploit the people whom they were supposed to protect. The knight's role is seen as sacrificial: he exacts vengeance on those who offend the faith, whether Christ's enemies or his own. The justification of knightly violence is the manual's constant theme, and as counterpoint the texts stress the need to restrain the force which knights were uniquely capable of unleashing on friend and foe alike.