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Gero Schreier

Dissertation Project: Heroism in Noble Testimonials from the Late Middle Ages

Between the end of the 14th century and the early 16th century knightly heroes appeared with increasing occurrence in historical records, be they celebrated tournament combatants, military commanders, battle dead or protagonists in “knightly biographies” (E. Gaucher). These figures are not simply ideal knights, for their careers (in other words their portrayal in primary sources) often exhibit contradictions, ambivalences and breaks which reflect the historical transformations taking place in the late Middle Ages and at times are inconsistent with the noble ideals such as those in the courtly novels from the High Middle Ages.

The Late Middle Ages is regarded as a time of intensive change which impacted all greater areas of life. Such phenomena as the consolidation of princely power; changes in politics, diplomacy and the military; the realigning of the economic and income situation; and new social and political actors made it necessary for the nobility throughout Europe to adapt. This was especially true for the lower nobility. For them, these shifts could even mean the endangerment of their social status. In this situation the chivalric culture provided a reference point for a renewed understanding and assurance of the nobility’s place in society. These models could legitimate the nobility in the face of competing social groups but they also provided the basis for affirmative representations of the noble way of life and of the noble identity in a time of instability and change.

This project investigates the increased appearance of knightly heroes in the Late Middle Ages in light of this context. It sees the concept of the heroic at the core of the canon of chivalric values. Acting heroically in a chivalric context essentially meant distinguishing oneself in agonal practices and outmatching opponents through knightly deeds. Along these lines the nobility grandiosely portrayed itself and created a collective culture and tradition by agreeing on and emulating heroic role models and deeds. In this sense, knightly heroism is a paradigmatic form of chivalric culture. Thereby, the role of this culture in the nobility’s attempt to make sense of its own status in a time of extensive change can be determined.

To widen the horizon of the study, spatial as well as temporal points of transition are included in the study. The time period being studied spans from the late 14th century to the beginning of the Early Modern period in the 16th century while in the spatial regard two bordering areas are central for the project: the Franco-Burgundian, as the ‘core region’ of knightly culture, and the German Empire in which reception of western standards combined with the unique traditions there.

The central basis of primary sources is formed by historiographical and literary sources (biographies, personal accounts, chronicles, etc.). These are investigated as to their modeling of certain knightly heroes. Additionally, the resonance of these constructs and their usage by different groups in different contexts are examined. Chivalric practices, such as tournaments, combat, sepulchral culture, etc., are investigated as settings of performative construction and emulation of knightly heroes.

In this perspective, constructions of knightly heroism appear as crystallization points in the discourse on noble self-assurance while hero veneration and emulation are viewed as a central moment of noble group culture in the late Middle Ages.