335 pages, 93 black
and white illustrations, 16 color plates.
Contents and excerpts from the Introduction below.
When Owen Wister returned from his tour of the battlefields of World War I in 1919, his friends wondered at his curiosity and endurance. "Is not one ruin just like another?" they asked. "One ruin in a Sunday paper is like another," Wister answered, but for him "mile upon mile of ruin in France" had "no monotony." Instead, the experience was "like seeing Niagara, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canon, after looking at a map of the United States."
In this book I report on my tour of a few battlefields, many cemeteries, and thousands of memorials, posters, and postcards about World War I. At a distance of nearly ninety years, these things are little more than ruins themselves. Most readers have some idea of what a cultural map of the Great War is like--trenches and blasted trees, but also women in factories, red poppies, some catchy tunes. The trenches were, in places, pine-shrouded, as we see in fig. 1, "Trenches with artificially produced woods," a German postcard from 1916. The pines behind the three men (two of them barely visible at the back) have been stripped of branches. In fig. 2, probably taken after the war, an officer makes his way through a devastated trench, the ruins of a forest in the background.
I have revisited terrain of World War I in order to go deeper, to explore some roads, byways, and tunnels beneath the trenches. That is where we find the medieval substrata chivalry and sacrifice on which the Great War rested. Chivalry and sacrifice have not made a great impression on scholarship about the war, it seems. Perhaps, after a certain interval, one knight, like one ruin or one sacrifice, comes to seem like another.
Chivalry was born in the court of King Arthur and laid to rest in the trenches of World War I. So goes the popular history of an enduring medieval icon, the knight in shining armor who rode out to defeat his foes and to rescue damsels in distress. Chivalry, we are told, both inspired mindless homage to tradition and perished with it. When young men filled with illusions of chivalry were ordered to walk into machine gun fire, an ancient brotherhood fell before the weapons of a new age. That scenario is an emblem of themes--betrayed idealism, bitterness, the futility of pitting men against machines--that characterize "the myth of the war," in Samuel Hines' language, "a myth of ruination" that set a generation adrift.
But the war's novelty is easily exaggerated. Rapid-fire weapons were manufactured during the American Civil War. Twenty-five years after the end of that war, and twenty-five years before the start of World War I, Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). In Twain's satire, technology triumphs over medieval traditions, which are made the instruments of their own undoing. At the end, the narrator, his sidekick, and "fifty-two fresh, bright, well-educated, clean-minded young British boys," are attacked by "All England," a force of thirty thousand knights in the full chivalric glory of pennants, horses, and armor. As they march forward, the Yankee and his troops ready their defense of electrified fences and gatling guns. When touched by horses or men, the fences transmit invisible, deadly current; armor meant to protect kills the knights through a process they never understand. More knights are blown to bits by land mines and the guns begin "to vomit death." There are no survivors. Twain shows that chivalry was vulnerable to mechanized weapons long before World War I; he also dispels any illusions about the glory that using such weapons might earn for the victors.
There are many important connections between chivalry and World War I, but they are not the ones I have just sketched. Points of continuity, not disjunction, are my focus. Two prolonged conflicts of the English Middle Ages were often remembered during the war: the Crusades, which stretched from the late eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, and the Hundred Years War, fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453. The Crusades were a particularly rich point of reference for art and writing associated with the war, for crusading was a mixture of holy warfare and religious observance. Christopher Tyerman calls these aspects the "two distinct faces" of crusading, and they were also two distinct faces of World War I. Combatants on both sides, the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, and after 1917 the United States) and Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria), believed that they fought a holy war and used Christ's passion and death to ennoble their efforts. Modern soldiers, like medieval knights, saw themselves as executioners taking revenge for insults to sacred beliefs and institutions; they also saw themselves as sacrificial victims.
Christ's sacrifice connects the self-understanding of medieval knights to that of Christian soldiers who fought in World War I. I connect chivalry to the war by analyzing the nineteenth century's refashioning of chivalric ideals. Chivalry supported conflicting responses to Christ's death, either a desire to take revenge against those who killed him or a willingness to forgive his persecutors. Christ urged the second response on his followers, but many of them, especially those with lawful access to means of violence, have chosen the first and have not infrequently used Christ himself to justify their decision. I call the first response sacrificial because it calls for taking of one life to avenge the loss of another and thus for perpetuating cyclical violence. I call the second response anti-sacrificial because it opposes taking of life and seeks to bring the cycle of violence to a halt. Chivalry, I argue, not only made both responses available to knights and to their modern descendants but validated a third way, self-sacrifice, that conflated prowess and piety and blurred the lines between sacrifice and anti-sacrifice.
This book locates the tension between sacrifice and anti-sacrifice, and the resolution of self-sacrifice, within the principles of chivalry. Readers have come to think of chivalry as romance--knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, dragons and dungeons, castles and keeps. Today too much writing about chivalry focuses on these elements, which are central to romances and their account of heroic masculinity as one hero's adventure's represent it, and too little explores the manuals of chivalry that grew up alongside the romances and that spelled out the theory and practice of knighthood and chivalry's emphasis on the group. In Bloody Good I show how discipline, achieved through instruction and debate, mediated the gap between prowess and piety. Knights knew that power could easily be abused and that standards of conduct, as a matter of honor, had to be monitored. As warriors analyzed their deeds, the glorious as well as the shameful, they created a code for examining and evaluating masculine conduct in competitive contexts. Chivalry is the sum of this tradition of words and deeds.