The virtues of fighting – The Cardinal Virtues

The art of fighting is brutal, bloody and incorporates an unhealthy mindset based on the most effective destruction of human life. But it is unquestionable an art. And as a art it is cultivated and honored as one of the high and noble arts during the history of mankind. The article article series puts a spotlight on the correlation between the virtues of mankind and the brutal slaughter of the killing art as it was presented in the late medieval manuscripts.

In the first article of the series we have a look on the basement of the virtues of fighting by looking at the cardinal and knightly virtues during the old ages.

The Cardinal Virtues

As a part of the medieval culture the knighthood with its virtues was a key issue of the propaganda (and the base for real ambitions to resemble the honorable image of the noble knight). Even if most of the modern viewpoints of knighthood is an assembly of revitalization of that propaganda in most unfriendly times and romantic idealized picturing in various media through the centuries, we can rely on the contemporary scripts that there was an expressed need to establish ethical maxims not only by religious believe but by a philosophical fundament of the Auctoritates, the old greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. From Plato’s cardinal virtues, St. Thomas of Aquin derived the cardinal virtues: Prudentia, (Prudence),
Fortitudo (Fortitude, Courage), Temperantia (Temperance, Restraint, Modesty), and Justitia (Justice).

Furthter readings: 
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Plato’s Ethics: An Overview and Virtue Ethics (both Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The four cardinal virtues were discussed as a practical method to avoid the Seven Deadly Sins (Capital Vices, Cardinal Sins). They were cultivated in the literature of the High Middle Age and the so called Knightly Virtues were derived from them:

  • diemüete, Demut: humility,
  • êre, Ehre: honor, prestige,
  • güete, Güte: gentleness,
  • hôher muot, Hoher Mut: trust in god, joyance of the soul, buoyancy
  • höveschkeit, Höflichkeit: courtesy,
  • manheit, Tapferkeit: braveness,
  • mâze, Maße: a modest live, retainment,
  • minne, Minne: love, honor and dignity in relation to the other sex.
  • milte, Großzügigkeit: generosity,
  • reht, Recht: truth and justice
  • sin, Vernunft, ratio, reason
  • staete: Beständigkeit: constancy,
  • triuwe,Treue: loyality,
  • werdekeit, Würde: dignity,
  • zuht, Zucht: discipline and good breeding,

Depending on the author of the medieval text and the Magic of the Numbers, the numbers of the virtues differ from 5, 7 and 12 (Heinrich von Mügeln, Der Meide Kranz). The most common number was 7 with 4 Cardinal and 3 religious virtues: faith (fides), love/charity (caritas), and hope (spes).

In all virtues the “Maze” is the basement, without the perfect measure all ambitions to live a honorable life will fail. Because every other virtue contains the danger of exaggeration. But if you do something with Maze, you do not too much and exactly enough to do it right. And so you have to modest with Maze too. Do not try to be to modest, do not castigate yourself, do not limit yourself, do Modesty and retainment with Maze, not too much not too little.

The cardinal and knightly virtues had great influence on the educated, and from these well educated men and very few women we can learn the aspects of the virtues at the art of fighting. We do not know if the common peasant or soldier was confronted with the ideals of the virtues. But we know that the virtues were connected to the imagination of the knighthood and this was a model to follow on. Minneallegorie, Minnerede were the expressions of theses virtues in an allegory of love, a spiritual love that may never find a fulfilling and happy end. The love allegory was very popular courtly writing from the 13th until the 15th century. In most of them  a knight is in search of something like the true love, may found it in a woman, but they are bound by fate, honor or other reasons not to fulfill there love so that is has to stay spiritual and becomes perfect and innocent, because if they would fulfill their love a lot of bad things will happen. These stories of knighthood of the authors like Chrétien de Troyes, Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Straßburg, Eberhard von Cersne, Albrecht von Scharfenberg, Tannhäuser, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Albrecht von Johansdorf, Reinmar der Alte, Heinrich von Morungen. and Heinrich von dem Türlin (to name only a few) are still in our ears in modern versions of Tristan and Isolde, Artus, Lancelot, Parzival etc. Even if the Minnesang itself changed and moved away from the spiritual to the more solid world from the 13th century, the romance stayed with the ideal of the knight and their virtues.

Next article in this series is: The virtues of fighting – The Liechtenauer manuscript GMN 3227a 

4 thoughts on “The virtues of fighting – The Cardinal Virtues

    1. Right now, there are no words of the Fencing Masters Hans Talhoffer in this article. I will have a look on the virtues in the Talhoffer manuscripts in a other article later on.

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