Support us

The Medieval Housebook and Elias’s ‘Scenes from the Life of a Knight’:

Posted on by admin

The first e-book offered by the Norbert Elias Foundation is now available to download for free online from the [old] main website:

The Medieval Housebook and Elias’s ‘Scenes from the Life of a Knight’: A case study fit for purpose?

Patrick Murphy


Norbert Elias, with the subsequent explicit or implicit support of a number of figurational sociologists, placed considerable emphasis on the contribution that his case study ‘Scenes from the Life of a Knight’ made towards underpinning his explanation of the transition from the figuration in which the traditional knightly class held sway to the one dominated by court societies. This movement is a central dimension of his broader civilizing thesis. His case study is almost entirely dependent on his interpretation of a selection of drawings taken from The Medieval Housebook. In this monograph I attempt to re-assess the extent to which the assumptions he made about the housebook stand up to scrutiny. In the process, among other things, I will become involved in an examination of the manuscript’s provenance and the debate over artistic attribution. The resultant findings lead me to conclude that Elias’s analysis was based on dubious premises. It was an exercise fuelled more by a desire to sustain his argument than an attempt to test the reality-congruence of his thesis. These findings certainly have negative implications for the degree of detachment he sometimes brought to his research and may have some implications for his broader civilizing thesis. An unintended consequence of embarking on this re-appraisal of Elias’s case study is that it led me to become embroiled in an assessment of the housebook drawings. This in turn led me to form interpretations of a number of the drawings which differ in many respects from the prevailing ones in the art world.

‘The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.’
( Jamie Criss Killosophy 2015).

I fervently hope that this monograph and my work in general fall into the former category.