Honorable men, as they were called in the golden age of chivalry, were rich enough to outfit a squadron of knights and brutal enough to lead them into battle, often culminating in the killing and plundering of civilian populations. The code of chivalry defined honor in ways that are familiar to people today — as honesty, loyalty, courage — and in ways that are not. It was honorable, for example, to show mercy to a defeated enemy, but only if the enemy was a social equal.
There was no dishonor in slaughtering commoners.
Maurice H. Keen, a historian who presented that unvarnished view of the medieval nobility in his book “Chivalry,” was one of a small group of scholars in the 1980s who re-examined the record of the chivalric knights, long portrayed in romantic literature as do-gooders, and who found it — with all due respect to Thomas Malory and Walter Scott — incomplete.
Mr. Keen, whose books on medieval history have been taught at the Naval Academy as well as at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., died in Oxford, England, after several years of declining health. He was 78. His death was announced by Balliol College, where he was named an emeritus fellow in 2000 after four decades as a teacher and administrator.
Mr. Keen wrote or edited almost a dozen books on the Middle Ages. But “Chivalry,” published in 1984, was his most influential because it so sharply redefined medieval court life, challenging a view that had been dominant for hundreds of years.