The History of Chivalry And Armor, by Dr. F. Kottenkamp, translated by A. Löwy
In this book, which is somewhat equally divided between a text written in the 19th century by a German historian and translated for a contemporary audience and reproductions of gorgeous drawings, I expected to see a certain romantic view of knights and chivalry. I did not expect to see quite the extent of German nationalism that I saw, and found this to be very intriguing and noteworthy, but I did find this book to be far better than I expected it to be. I was hoping for a somewhat light read that would give some enjoyable discussion about the Middle Ages and the cult of chivalry to be found there, but what I found was something considerably more in depth and something considerably more relevant to our own times. And for that, the author deserves some major appreciation in delivering a book that manages to have some surprising relevance for contemporary debates over gun control, which is not something one would expect from a book on the Middle Ages written 150 years ago when the contemporary mania for gun control had not even begun. Readers fond of looking at the culture of the Middle Ages will find much to appreciate here .
This book is really divided into two halves. The first half consists of roughly 100 pages of text that is considerably more serious than many people would expect, discussing the origins of the duel and the tournament within Germanic law and also the loss of freedom that resulted from the decline of central authority during the Middle Ages. Of particular interest is the fact that the rise of corrupt elites in many European countries was related to the loss of the right of commoners to bear arms, which puts an interesting spin on the relationship between corrupt and unaccountable elites and rising pressures on personal freedoms like the right to bear arms in the United States and other Western countries today. After this sociopolitical beginning the text moves to something more expected, namely the origins of the tournament and the trial by ordeal and the military power of the heavy cavalry and its end in the age of gunpowder and pikes with a resurgent infantry. The second half of the book consists of gorgeous drawings based on what look like woodcuts that show weapons and armor and various tournament scenes. This is a book that will likely intrigue and impress anyone with a strong interest in the military history of the Middle Ages.
This is not to say that the book is above criticism, despite its considerable volume. Although the book does not succumb to the sort of romantic nonsense that one would expect, nor is it too cynical even if it is far more worldly wise than many readers would expect, particularly with its blunt views about the culture of troubadours, this book raises some unpleasant questions. For one, the author is far too quick to give Germans the credit for anything of value in terms of language and culture and technology related to chivalry. Even those linguistic and cultural achievements which contemporary thinkers would be quick to consider part of the inheritance of the Indo-European pastoralists are credited in the author’s mind to Germans. This tendency would be more amusing except for the fact that Germany’s troubled history in the 20th century indicates the widespread nature of unreasonably intense nationalism. The fact that a generally sober historian can fill a mostly excellent book with a worrisome amount of pro-German propaganda makes this book a harbinger of the doom that would fall upon Europe thanks to Germany’s immense conceit and hubris. Despite this, the book manages to have a lot to say about contemporary society and is itself a thoughtful overview of the relationship between war and society in the Middle Ages as it related to the private ownership and use of arms as well as the social phenomenon of the tournament.
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