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Knights, Chivalry, Sadism and Impulsiveness

Entering the 1100s, a rising economy was changing the lives of many. Most Europeans were using money at least in some transactions, while most people were still farming (and would remain so until the 20th century). But in western Europe most of those working the soil were serfs. Average life expectancy going into the 1200s has been described as something like thirty-five years. Disease and sudden death were common and servility a way of life.

The successes of heavily armored knights on horseback fed their sense of superiority. They viewed themselves as protectors and as deserving privileges. Despite everyone's dependence on those who labored at farming, the aristocrats treated the common peasant with little respect. The heroes of the aristocrats continued to be the knights in shining armor.

The rise in prosperity was accompanied by aristocrats buying smoother clothing such as quality woolens from Flanders, and for grand occasions they might wear silk from the East. Aristocrats had moved from wooden homes to houses of stone, usually with a great fireplace and tapestries for decoration. And with the money economy having come into existence, if they needed money they might seek out a moneylender.

Common people were, of course, without political power. In feudal Europe nobles or knights were asserting their will uncontolled by kings. They exacted crops and military service from the peasants living on their lands (fiefs).

The knights had been a rowdy bunch, fighting each other with gusto for territory or revenge, destroying crops and killing peasants in the process. But they were beginning to be influenced by a refinement that accompanied the rise in prosperity. At royal courts a greater interest was taken in music, poetry and manners.

Chivalry was a part of the culture, and chivalry for the knights meant not attacking another knight who had not yet prepared himself with his armor and weapons. And the knights preferred to believe that their little wars were for honor rather than for profit such as stealing horses or taking prisoners for ransom.

The Church was discouraging warfare among the knights, and it denounced fighting for booty as a sin. The knights obliged, and, in the place of reduced warfare, tournaments were created. The Church objected to the tournaments also, but this the knights largely ignored. The tournaments became the favorite entertainment of the aristocracy. Occasionally tempers were lost and a participant was killed. Winners won horses and armor and losers were ransomed and allowed to go free when the ransom was paid.

Aristocratic women attended the tournaments, and the knights performed especially for them. During the 1100s courtly love had developed. Adventurous men, some of whom were married, carried on romantically with women other than their wives. Troubadours sang of love, and aristocrats ignored Church strictures on sexuality, believing that they were, after all, sinners. In these times prostitutes from the lower classes swarmed the castles. Nobles were little ashamed of their bastards, and occasionally a noble abandoned his wife for someone new.

The Church fought back, and at the end of the century the Church demanded that a man have its approval to divorce or to remarry. Rather than divorce, some men tried annulments, and if the wife protested the Church defended her. The increase in attention to women, meanwhile, had been accompanied by the Church increasing its veneration of the Virgin Mary and Saint Mary Magdalene, and in the 1100s many nunneries were founded.

There was a lot of ugliness and sadism to escape from. Steven Pinker writes of religious values "imparted with bloody crucifixes, threats of eternal torture, and prurient depictions of mutilated saints." He goes on:

Craftsmen applied their ingenuity to sadistic machines of punishment and execution. Brigands made travel a threat to life and limb, and ransoming captives was big business. note26

He quotes historian Barbara Tuchman describing two popular sports of the time:

Players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animals' claws ... Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter of spectators as he ran squealing from the blows until beaten lifeless.

The culture of sadism extended to cutting off noses as punishment for heresy, treason, prostitution, sodomy and as an act of vengeance.

Pinker quotes historians who describe the temperament of people in medieval times as impetuous and uninhibited, including Barbara Tuchman describing "childishness noticeable in medieval behavior, with its marked inability to restrain any kind of impulse." note27

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