Preux Chevaliers

One in a series of blogs about confluences between The Avengers and random medieval stuff.

The two pillars of medieval knighthood were courtliness (cortoisie), which included skill at the art of courtly love (fin’ amours; amour courtois, which I address here and here), and the quality described by the Old French word preux, which is often translated as “valiant” or “brave.” The phrase preux chevalier, therefore, is usually translated “valiant knight” or “brave knight.” These are accurate translations as far as they go, because a true knight was indeed courageous and valiant. But “valiant” and “courageous” only describe a small part of what it meant to be preux.

The preux chevalier had prowess (yes, those two words are etymologically related), and that is what is most conveyed by the medieval French concept of preux. To be preux was to combine skill (especially martial skill), strength, loyalty, and fearlessness, all rolled into one. Preux was both an adjective describing what a knight should be like, and also a way of being.

For this discussion, I will be drawing on the description of knightly prowess prepared by E. L. Skip Knox.


A knight was knowledgeable about armor and weapons, having skill with a variety of the latter. Most knights were trained in the use of swords and shields, lances, bows and crossbows, and maybe one or two other weapons. They needed to know not only how to use those things, but also how to tell which ones were well made and would serve them best.

Both Emma and Steed have training and skill with a variety of weapons. Emma is a crack shot with firearms, bows, and crossbows. She is also an expert fencer.

Steed is an astonishingly inventive fighter who can make a weapon out of just about anything that’s not nailed down (and some things that are), although he particularly enjoys swordplay and is more than handy with a gun, himself, but Steed’s favorite weapon is his umbrella.


In order to be able to fight successfully, medieval knights had to have tremendous physical strength. A full suit of battle armor weighed between 45 and 55 lbs (20-25 kg), and the helmet weighed up to 8 lbs or so (up to 4 kg). Fighting in full armor, either on foot or on horseback, was not something for either the weak of body or the faint of heart. Spending a day swinging a sword and holding up a shield while encased in a metal carapace required a ridiculous amount of physical strength.

Mrs. Peel regularly tosses other adult humans across the room (sometimes several adult humans in succession) and she has an impressive right hook that can easily flatten a grown man. Bending the metal bars of her birdcage requires a bit of effort, but is quite doable for Mrs. Peel.

Steed can unbend iron pokers and unleash the most fearsome haymaker this side of Mike Tyson. And sometimes Steed doesn’t know his own strength: in “Honey for the Prince” he accidentally defenestrates one of the bad guys. From the opposite side of the room.


Knightly strength had to be accompanied by agility. Medieval knights were expected to be able to turn a somersault in full armor (minus the helmet), to leap onto horseback in full armor, and to perform other gymnastic feats in … you guessed it, full armor.

Mrs. Peel doesn’t have to worry about carting around the armor, but she still has loads of gymnastical chops. Tall hedges present no obstacle to her leaping ability. Rolling and jumping out of the way of a moving car is childsplay to her.

Leaping from stone baluster to dining table presents no difficulties for Steed. And the ability to fling oneself into the Bentley with alacrity when pursued by murderous nannies wielding tommy guns is a useful skill.


A true knight was expected to show no fear, and to be willing to rush into battle even when outnumbered, in service to his liege lord.

Steed and Emma have a range of responses to their battle experiences. Sometimes they welcome the chance to fight, and have fun doing it. Other times they don’t, and sometimes they fight with desperation. But whatever their feelings towards that particular fight, they always dive in courageously, even if they’re outnumbered. And even when they really are very frightened indeed, they still retain command of themselves.

Steed faces a firing squad, and it looks like it’s really the end for him this time. He’s terrified, but keeps his cool.

preux.17

The bad guys have run a test on Mrs. Peel and found her resistance to fear is off the charts.

preux.18

They’re outnumbered, and the other guys have guns. Does this daunt Emma and Steed? Not in the least.

preux.19


John Steed and Emma Peel are paragons of knightliness with respect to preux. They’re strong, agile, skilled, and fearless. Even when they don’t welcome combat, they still jump in with both feet and fight to win. But they’re also courtly and courteous both in the modern sense of being well-mannered and in the medieval sense of behaving in a manner appropriate to a noble court specifically. Their prowess is a set of tools for them to use, not something they boast about or bully others with, even as they enjoy the exercise of skill in a tight spot or a fight. They are true knights.

POSTSCRIPT

So if Emma and Steed are preux chevaliers, where does this leave Cathy Gale and Tara King?

Cathy Gale is definitely preux, although she is much more conflicted about fighting than either Steed or Emma is.

Tara King is not preux, although she likely has the potential to be with training and maturity.


blogs in this series
Preux Chevaliers, concerning Emma, Steed, and knightliness
The Story of the Beautiful Knight, about Emma Peel as Steed’s Bel Cavalher
Amor’s Commandments in Le Roman de la Rose, wherein we see how well Steed measures up in the practice of fin’ amours
John Steed and the “Douce Ennemie”: Cathy, Emma, and Steed through the lens of a Machaut virelai, plus an analysis of the opening fencing scene in “Town of No Return”
Courtly Love in The Avengers: Steed’s relationships with his partners through the lens of amour courtois
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