Guilherme Marechal or the best knight in the world

Image: Cláudio Mubarak (Jornal de Resenhas)


Commentary on the book by historian Georges Duby.

England, May 14, 1219, around noon: a 73-year-old knight, surrounded by his family, servants, religious and still very lucid from his last orders, says goodbye to those he loves most and puts an end to an agony which lasted about three months. At that time, when “custom sustains order in the world”, beautiful deaths constitute true festivities. The old-fashioned ritual of death was not a furtive, elusive departure, but a slow, regulated, governed arrival – “a prelude, solemn passage from one condition to another, superior, change of state as public as a wedding, as majestic as for the entry of kings into their loyal cities” (p. 10).

The accompaniment of the death ritual of a famous medieval knight, occupying an entire chapter, opens the excellent book by Georges Duby, Guilherme Marechal or the Best Knight in the World. Professor at the Collège de France (Paris), Duby is an internationally recognized historian for his ability to combine his extraordinary erudition with the virtue of making the medieval period accessible to the general public.

Duby follows Guilherme Marechal's path through a parchment manuscript, a veritable deed song commissioned by Guilherme's heirs. The objective: to make the Marshal present, alive, since the dynasty that bore his name did not last long after his death. The parchment has 127 sheets with two columns of 38 lines each, making up 19.914 verses. The author of the text – which took seven years of work – was a troubadour who signed himself simply as João (Duby believes that it was João de Early, a close friend of the Marshal). Being a troubadour, João did not find information in erudite libraries, doing an independent and original work, drawing on other sources that without him would be inaccessible today, since they belong to the profane side of the culture of the 48th century. Thus, the manuscript explored by the historian becomes “the memory of chivalry in an almost pure state” (p. XNUMX). Duby also makes use of two erudite works, namely, the edition of History (three volumes), organized by Paul Meyer and published by the French Historical Society (from 1891 to 1901) and also the book by the American medievalist Sidney Painter, William marshall: Knight-Errant, Baron and Regent of England (Baltimore, 1933).

From these sources Duby intends to clarify what is still little known, that is, the culture of the knights: “I just want to try to see the world as these men saw it” (p. 55). Following the path of Guilherme Marechal (1145 (?) – 1219) he reconstructs the daily life of English and French societies in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. It is the world of knights, tournaments, constant wars, the life and death of the nobility in the Middle Ages. Virtually relegated by official historiography, William was probably the last and greatest of the errant knights. Fourth son of a not entirely noble family, where only the eldest was a legitimate heir, he was forced to participate in numerous tournaments and battles to survive, mainly those that took place in the north of France, earning a little money, fame as a good fighter and honors for their loyalty to certain royal houses.

In 1170, Henry II assigned him "to guard and instruct the young King of England", who was only 15 years old. After a few years, Marechal returned to tournaments to earn his livelihood. He returned to the court of Henry II at almost 50 years old and defended him until his death from the attacks of his son Richard Coeur de Lion, who was allied with the knights of France. In combat, Guilherme knocked Richard off his horse, but spared his life. With the death of Henry II and the accession to the throne of Richard, even against his will, the new monarch granted him as his wife the “maiden of Striguil”, a very rich heiress with more than 65 manors (she was the second richest heiress in England). The Marshal was over 50 years old and the maiden was only 17, having spawned 5 men and 5 women. A final glory would still wait for the Marshal: in October 1216, shortly before his death, João sem Terra appointed him regent of the future king of England, Richard III, then 12 years old.

George Duby produced an “almost novel”, as Guilherme Marechal distinguishes itself from traditional academic work. Written in a light style, devoid of theoretical introductions and footnotes, the book is meant to be devoured in one breath. From the study of the French professor, it becomes possible to draw attention to some findings about the time. At first, it is observed that most of the properties and assets of the noble families were inherited by the firstborn, leaving small crumbs to the other male children. Society was eminently masculine, and when the word love was pronounced, it meant “the apex of manly friendship”. Children practically had no existence, childhood being a mere “passing place” to adult life. Women were often given in marriage (accompanied by the respective dowry) to the children of friendly lords, as well as former enemies. In the latter case, with the aim of maintaining peace in a given region, where more than one lord predominated. In addition, kings could dispose of widows to hand them over, with the purpose of contracting new nuptials, to knights who had rendered relevant services to the crown. Despite society being eminently masculine, the author points out that at that time the only authentic power was that of married men. “A man is worth a thousand times more than a woman, but he is worth almost nothing if he does not have a legitimate woman in his bed, in the center of his house” (p. 181).

Reading Guilherme Marechal or the Best Knight in the World we are carried away by Duby's narrative, and we must thank heavens that the errant knight found in the person of an anonymous troubadour a biographer to match. Pity for him allowed an entire historical period to be rescued, making it possible for almost millenary phenomena to influence us today in the smallest of gestures. Incidentally, it is for no other reason that Erwin Panofsky reminds us that when someone takes off his hat to greet, he is reproducing, without knowing it, the gesture of knights in the Middle Ages, who took off their helmets to demonstrate their peaceful intentions.

*Afranio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.


Georges Duby. Guilherme Marechal or the best knight in the world (trans.: Renato Janine Ribeiro). Rio de Janeiro: Grail, 1988 (

Originally published in The State of São Paulo, Notebook 2, 27/03/1988, p. 6; Business Administration Magazine (RAE), Fundação Getúlio Vargas, vol. 28, no. 3, p. 72-73, July-September, 1988.

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