Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War
By Allen J. Frantzen
(University Of Chicago Press, Hardcover, 9780226260853, 350pp.)
Publication Date: December 2003
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In the popular imagination, World War I stands for the horror of all wars. The unprecedented scale of the war and the mechanized weaponry it introduced to battle brought an abrupt end to the romantic idea that soldiers were somehow knights in shining armor who always vanquished their foes and saved the day. Yet the concept of chivalry still played a crucial role in how soldiers saw themselves in the conflict.
Here for the first time, Allen J. Frantzen traces these chivalric ideals from the Great War back to their origins in the Middle Ages and shows how they resulted in highly influential models of behavior for men in combat. Drawing on a wide selection of literature and images from the medieval period, along with photographs, memorials, postcards, war posters, and film from both sides of the front, Frantzen shows how such media shaped a chivalric ideal of male sacrifice based on the Passion of Jesus Christ. He demonstrates, for instance, how the wounded body of Christ became the inspiration for heroic male suffering in battle. For some men, the Crucifixion inspired a culture of revenge, one in which Christ's bleeding wounds were venerated as badges of valor and honor. For others, Christ's sacrifice inspired action more in line with his teachings—a daring stay of hands or reason not to visit death upon one's enemies.
Lavishly illustrated and eloquently written, Bloody Good will be must reading for anyone interested in World War I and the influence of Christian ideas on modern life.
Allen J. Frantzen is a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from "Beowulf" to "Angels in America."
“In his ambitious and far-ranging study, Bloody Good, Allen Frantzen seeks to explore the ‘enduring power of chivalry to symbolize both prowess and principle in warfare’ by examining the links between its origins in the Middle Ages and its continued expressions during the First World War. . . . Frantzen concludes that the myth of self-sacrifice was expropriated to serve the interests of the state to be sure, but that chivalric behavior—based on Christian concepts of love and self-sacrifice for others—also constituted an essential aspect of the mentality of most combatants. . . . This study is unique in its scope and offers many valuable insights. As such, it makes an important contribution to our understanding of the enduring myths and symbols of Western Culture and how they are reified and continually resurrected to fit new concepts. In this regard, Bloody Good represents a significant achievement.”
“Through a careful reading of materials that include art, letters, postcards, recruitment posters and battlefield memorials, Frantzen shows that chivalry—that centuries-old medieval code of heroic sacrifice embedded in the European tradition—was not dispatched by the Great War’s modernist voices, but has remained the dominant interpretive framework for understanding wartime experience and behavior. Though machine guns, tanks, and poison gas did away with medieval ways of fighting, they did not dislodge medieval ways of thinking.”
“A bold and ambitious book that ranges across centuries and cultures—sometimes in a way that will offend specialists in a particular area—but always in a stimulating and vital fashion. It is definitely worth a read.”
“Frantzen reached down to feel the vibrations of one of the bass strings of European civilization, where Christianity, manhood, violence, and vengeance meet. His exploration of that tone is both deep and revealing.”