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Chivalric writers constantly celebrated the importance of keeping one’s word. Ramon Llull said that true knights would not swear false oaths. In Le livre de corps de policie, Christine de Pizan identified being truthful and keeping one’s oath as one of the most important qualities in a knight, and denounced the ignoble vices of dishonesty and the inability to keep a promise. In chivalric romances, the importance of not breaking an oath was a constant theme, and fuelled the dramatic tension when promises and vows to ladies came into direct tension with the requirements of loyal service, as seen in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan’s relationship with Isolde, wife of King Mark. Indeed, the oath taken by the knights of the Round Table in the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romances was so central that loyalty usually meant obedience to this specific vow.


Breaking one’s word and the inability to keep a promise were usually associated with youthful or even feminine inconstancy, changeability and weakness. In his book on tournaments, René d’Anjou reported that those guilty of lying and breaking their promises, especially in a matter of honour, were to be removed from their horses, physically assaulted and then publicly shamed by being set on their saddles on top of the list barrier. Breaking an oath was commonly regarded as treason, whether it had been made to a sovereign or not, because it was a betrayal of knighthood itself.  —Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood in France During the Hundred Years War

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1 reply to this post
  1. Promise keeping also exists outside those tales of knighthood in the Middle Ages. I’m currently listening via audiobook to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s second Tarzan book, The Return of Tarzan (1913). Much of the plot is driven by the tension created by Tarzan’s chivalric desire for promise keeping.

    The problem is set up at the end of the first in the series, Tarzan of the Apes (1912), when Jane, although desperately in love with Tarzan whom she thinks is dead, agrees to marry another man. When Tarzan shows up alive, both Tarzan and she are then trapped at the close of that book and in the next by that promise.

    That promise that must be kept certainly creates dramatic tension. But as a modern, I find their clinging to it despite all the harm that will result (an unhappy marriage) more than a little frustrating. I find myself wanting that other man to die just to be rid of him.
    Burroughs was a brilliant and inventitve master storyteller. If you’re interested. Librivox has those of his books that are in the public domain available as audiobooks for free, including:

    Tarzan of the Apes.

    The Return of Tarzan:
    The Classic Tales podcast, with readings by a professional, is wrapping up the last of The Return of Tarzan this next week.

    The latter is the one I’ve been listening to. It’s excellent. If you listen to podcasts, it is well worth a subscription (also free):

    As is marvelous The History of English Podcast:

    I wish such excellent sources had be available when I was in college. I wasted a lot of time.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

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