Chivalry and barbarism

I’ve been reading up on the origins of chivalry and specifically on chivalric conventions in warfare. There’s now a fairly convincing argument by John Gillingham and Matthew Strickland that chivalry in the sense of ‘merciful treatment of defeated high-status enemies’ first appears in eleventh-century France and is then exported with the Norman Conquest to England. But I was suddenly struck by a different thought, when reading a section from Matthew Strickland’s article “Killing or clemency? Ransom, chivalry and changing attitudes to defeated opponents in Britain and Northern France, 7-12th centuries.” In Krieg im Mittelalter, edited by Hans-Henning Kortüm, 93-122. (Berlin: Akademie, 2001).

Strickland comments on the differing military tactics of the Anglo-Norman and the Welsh, Irish and native Scots:

the Normans quickly came to view their new neighbours as poorly armed savages, barbarians with an alien language and culture, against whom there could be no honourable combat between equals…Thus while significant chivalric constraints operated in warfare among the Anglo-Normans themselves, they might often behave towards their Celtic opponents with utter ruthlessness, which might include the mutilation, execution, or even enslaving of prisoners.

I had a sudden flash-forward: this is the argument that the anti-Geneva Convention and pro-torture brigade are making. The enemy don’t respect the conventions, therefore we should be just as brutal as them (or possibly even more brutal, since we have more advanced weaponry). I’ve never followed the logic of such people. If they deserve to be treated (horribly) as they treat us, therefore we also then deserve to be treated (horribly) as we have treated them. If pre-emptive attacks are OK for the USA, they’re OK for Iran. Torture isn’t OK just because it’s authorised by a democratically elected leader, not a dictator.

But it also got me thinking about a wider question. What is the relationship between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’? As a medievalist, I get annoyed when the Middle Ages (and the early Middle Ages in particular) are defined as uncivilised and barbaric. It seems to me to be wrongly conflating two different ideas. Civilisation can be defined in many ways, which I’ll come to in a moment, but I’ll define ‘barbarism’ here as a tendency towards violence and cruelty. So the question becomes: does ‘civilisation’ reduce ‘barbarism’, as is so often presumed?

One obvious way of defining civilisation is in terms of technological advances. The idea that this makes humankind less barbarous has been pretty much exploded (and also machine-gunned, gassed and napalmed). I always remember too what a guide on a guided tour of London told me: you could travel to some of the last public hangings in London on the Underground. Civilisation has to mean something different to be contrasted with barbarism.

Another view (which I associate particularly with Norbert Elias, but is probably earlier) is that civilisation in the sense of more refined manners reduces barbarism. The idea here is that manners means more conscientious control of oneself and hence a reduction in violent impulses. (Education more generally is also said to have the same effect). As a theoretical argument this may seem valid: as an empirical argument it does not hold up. By any measure the Nazis were both better educated and had more refined social codes than the Carolingian elite. They were not, however, less barbarous. Similarly, the practices of inquisition took off in the later Middle Ages (not the early Middle Ages), witch burning was an early modern practice more than a medieval one and slavery flourished in the early modern period and throughout the Enlightenment.

Again, the idea that democracy necessarily eliminates barbarism doesn’t seem to hold up to empirical evidence. Classical Athens (by far the most democratic city of the time) was responsible for genocidal acts, while the most deadly use of weapons of mass destruction ever was by the US in 1945, one of the most democratic states. Similarly, a democratic UK still carried out some nasty atrocities in its empire, such as the Amritsar Massacre and the suppression of the Mau Mau. Even a belief in the existence of universal human rights doesn’t necessarily prevent violence, as the French Revolutionary terror demonstrates (and the seeming acquiescence of a large percentage of the current US population with their government’s use of torture).

It seems to me that in any of these senses ‘civilisation’ doesn’t necessarily exclude committing barbaric violence: yet I still think that education, democracy, an awareness of human rights and even possibly refined manners and technological developments are necessary steps towards a less violent world. They are not, however, sufficient on their own. What seems to be vital for attempts to eliminate brutality (which is an admirable goal, even if never attainable) is an added dimension: that ‘civilised’ treatment must be applied to everyone, without exception.

That is the problem with many of the ‘civilising’ advances that have been made. Most codes of polite behaviour, from chivalry to the English idea of gentlemanly conduct have explicitly excluded such behaviour towards certain inferior groups: you don’t have to be chivalrous to peasants, treat ‘fallen women’ or slaves with respect etc. Democracy is OK for the core of an empire, but not its dependencies (who might otherwise democratically decide they don’t want to be part of the empire). Likewise, as soon as you decide that certain groups don’t ‘deserve’ human rights, you can justify almost any cruelty.

Going back to the original articles, the Celtic nations were influenced by English styles of warfare and they did in time develop codes of ‘chivalry’ and restraint in warfare. A modern Highland/Scottish regiment (like the rest of the British army) would be unlikely to massacre women and children, as they were still being encouraged to do in the sixteenth century. But the question remains: would they have become ‘civilised’ more quickly if they hadn’t been treated as barbarians themselves? Is ‘Western’ adherence to the principles of the Geneva Convention and of human rights more generally really best spread to other countries by the abandonment of such principles at the first opportunity?


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