A curious thing happens in Malory’s Morte Darthur. Arthur’s world is one contemporaneous with the Roman Empire. The Celtic king even conquers Rome, and in Malory’s version, becomes crowned emperor. (Other versions deftly have Arthur called back last minute to avoid any awkward questions about why we’ve never heard of a Roman emperor named Arthur.)
At the beginning of the grail cycle, he even gives a specific date for the arrival of Galahad to the court of Camelot: “Four hundred winters and four and fifty accomplished after the Passion of Our Lord ought [the Siege Perilous] to be fulfilled.” That’s before the birth of Benedict of Nursia (480), the founder of western monasticism and what became the Benedictine order.
So then it would make sense if all those hermits we meet throughout Malory’s text were more like the desert fathers or perhaps followed the Rule of Basil. That is if we’re willing to ignore the geographical placement of Malory’s hermits in Logres instead of Cappadocia or Egypt. Or maybe, since we’re in England, those hermits should be part of the Irish tradition via Wales.
But here’s where the curious thing happens. The main monastic identity of Malory’s Morte Darthur is not the desert fathers of the period or the Irish monasticism of the region, but the Cistercians, an order designed to reform the observance of later Benedictines and founded in 1098. When Galahad rides up to a “white abbey” he’s greeted and housed by the white-robed Cistercians rather than the black-robed Benedictines over 600 years before they were founded. This is an order that Malory, writing in 1469 (a thousand years after the setting of his tale…think about that!), would be familiar with.
But the Cistercian connection doesn’t stop there. Malory’s source, the French Vulgate Cycle, often refers to the Cistercian order and Helen Cooper notes that the “Queste del Saint Graal may have been written under Cistercian influence.” The saintly knight Galahad may be an example of such influence.
But why such a close connection between monks and chivalry?
Because a heavy-hitting Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux, was a supporter of uniting monastic ideals with martial prowess.
“In Praise of the New Knighthood,” Bernard writes about the Templars as a spiritual contrast to worldly knights:
This is, I say, a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens. When someone strongly resists a foe in the flesh, relying solely on the strength of the flesh, I would hardly remark it, since this is common enough. And when war is waged by spiritual strength against vices or demons, this, too, is nothing remarkable, praiseworthy as it is, for the world is full of monks. But when the one sees a man powerfully girding himself with both swords and nobly marking his belt, who would not consider it worthy of all wonder, the more so since it has been hitherto unknown? He is truly a fearless knight and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith just as his body is protected by armor of steel. He is thus doubly armed and need fear neither demons nor men. Not that he fears death–no, he desires it. Why should he fear to live or fear to die when for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain? Gladly and faithfully he stands for Christ, but he would prefer to be dissolved and to be with Christ, by far the better thing.
Later, Bernard even seems to echo the knightly obsession with gaining worship when he writes “To be sure, precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his holy ones, whether they die in battle or in bed, but death in battle is more precious as it is the more glorious.”
But then he goes on to describe the model of a military religious order in quite monastic terms:
In the first place, discipline is in no way lacking and obedience is never despised. As Scripture testifies, the undisciplined son shall perish and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, to refuse obedience is like the crime of idolatry. Therefore they come and go at the bidding of their superior. They wear what he gives them, and do not presume to wear or to eat anything from another source. Thus they shun every excess in clothing and food and content themselves with what is necessary. They live as brothers in joyful and sober company, without wives or children. So that their evangelical perfection will lack nothing, they dwell united in one family with no personal property whatever, careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. You may say that the whole multitude has but one heart and one soul to the point that nobody follows his own will, but rather seeks to follow the commander.
This should come as no surprise, however, since monasticism has had a long history with militant language. Consider the opening to Benedict of Nursia’s Rule:
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
Bernard just flips the trajectory of the borrowing. What was once militant language for a religious order becomes religious language for a militant order.
The anachronism of Malory may not fit so well in the fifth-century world of his Camelot, but it reflects the development of chivalric and monastic thought up to his own fifteenth century.
I suppose a pizza-and-beer-loving monk who was trained by the desert fathers isn’t too anachronistic after all.