Is chivalry dead? Wounded? Rolling about on the ground screaming? Naw. We aren't talking the holding-the-door-open-for-a-lady type of thing. When we here at Getting Medieval talk of chivalry we're talking of the old kind. But what do we mean by that?
The term loosely meant simply men-at-arms, from the French chevalier, the early term for knight (or simply horseman). So in its earliest thought, we are mostly concerned with horsemen ready for battle. Indeed, in the strictest sense, it is also the knightly ranks of an army, e.g. “the chivalry of France”, “the English king and all his chivalry,” a term that has been rolling around since the 13th century. But also, too, is the notion that these particular men are involved in a system or cult of virtues and qualities found only in a knight. Lerner and Lowe made much of it in the musical Camelot, based on T.H. White's The Once and Future King which is based on Thomas Mallory's Le Morte de Arthur. The Roundtable knights were supposed to be the very epitome of knightly valor and courtesy (although the breaking down of this ideal, or perhaps the modern notion, was summed up in the wonderful Camelot song “Fie on Goodness”, for those who remember such things.)
So these terms are used interchangeably when you read about Chivalry but certainly the idea of a “Code of Chivalry” remained well into the 16th century and a bit into the 17th, and even, I suppose, well into the Victorian era. French historian Leon Gautier (1891) mapped out his Decalogue governing the conduct of a knight:
I. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.
II. Thou shalt defend the Church.
III. Thou shalt repect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
IV. Thou shalt love the country in the which thou wast born.
V. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
VI. Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.
VII. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God. VIII. Thou shalt never lie, and shall remain faithful to thy pledged word.
IX. Thou shalt be generous, and give largess to everyone.
X. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.
Sounds a tad bit like the present administration.
“It is not without reason,” wrote St. Bernard of Clairvaux to the Knights Templars in the 11th century (hey, you knew they were bound to show up), “that the soldier of Christ carries a sword; it is for the chastisement of the wicked and for the glory of the good.”
In Chatres Cathedral is carved this knightly prayer:
“Most Holy Lord, Almighty Father...thou who hast permitted on earth the use of the sword to repress the malice of the wicked and defend justice...cause thy servant here before thee, by disposing his heart to goodness, never to use this sword or another to injure anyone unjustly; but let him use it always to defend the just and the right.” Hmm. Sounds a little more Old Testament than new but what are you gonna do?
Now what about all that opening of doors and whipping off one's cloak to cast it upon the mud puddles so that queens don't have to get their slippers dirty? This is the Code of Courtly Love which is intrinsically tied to the Code of Chivalry and extends into some of the lower classes, particularly when we have reached the 19th century and beyond.
As with most men who travel to foreign lands to wage war, once they return home, they bring with them some of the ideals and customs they appropriated on their travels. With our Iraqi veterans, we see an interest in hookahs and the camaraderie associated with the community sharing of a smoke on the old water pipe. After World War II, we saw the burgeoning of wine drinking and hence the rebirth and boom of the wine industry in the U.S., particularly in California. In the middle ages, it was Courtly Love. The Arab and Persian influence of a more spiritual courting of longed for love was a notion that these most Christian knights brought home. It was a little less barbaric and more refined than a quick slap and tickle. It lay somewhere between worship and stalking. With poetry.
Monks and priests had the Virgin Mary as the ideal and chaste love interest, both lover and mother, pagan goddess and handmaiden of God. It was only a brief step to the sacred love and chaste longing with a knight for a maiden...or even a married woman. Such loves were not to be consummated, if one was to do this right. But you can see how this could quickly break down.
Troubadours made good scratch on coming up with wonderful sighing songs on love's unattainable. It might be considered when romance was born. In a time when marriages were still arranged for political purposes, the idea of a perfect love and how to court her, was part of the fun of the dream. As Danny Kaye as the Court Jester exclaimed, “I live for a sigh, I die for a kiss....” And it was so. It was in the early years of this idea of Chivalry that Lancelot is added to the Arthurian legends, put there by Marie of Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, when Marie directed Chretien de Troyes to write Lancelot, causing the courtly love triangle that was to become so important. It awakened the idea of the tragic lovers: Tristan and Isolde, Troilus and Cressida, and true life tragic lovers Abelard and Heloise.
Then there is the legend of St. George and the dragon. Not only do we have the chivalrous knight but the maiden. Though the fair maiden he is rescuing might more aptly be the representation of the Church and the dragon Satan, it is also representative of the ideal, the virgin who needs rescuing by the faithful knight. And hence is romance born. What maiden did not dream of being swept away by a white knight in shining armor. Lots of imagery here.
Marie of Champagne also directed her chaplain Andrea Capellanus to write The Art of Courtly Love. This is a guide to the chivalric code of romantic love, raising it to the ideal of a religion-- “the fountain and origin of all good things.” Even to promoting love between the different classes. Yea, verily, if a daughter of a merchant adhered to her devotion to Church and chastity, she was worthy of a nobleman's love. And yet part of the idea presented here is that love amongst the married was a duty and not so much “freely given” as with those who were “in love.” Along with Lancelot, we have just promoted the notion that adultery was something to be admired, which would seem to go against the whole notion of faithfulness to Church. But as with the movies of the thirties and forties what we see here was the ideal. One would scarce believe, based on the movies of the thirties and forties, that people swore, or had children out of wedlock, or even slept in the same bed if married...or if not married, or were gay. With every culture there is an ideal, and for medieval people, this was it.
And yes, today we do recognize remnants of that. We see people holding doors open for one another, people who aren't even—gasp--servants! There used to be the tipping of hats to ladies, ladies first through doorways, women and children first on the lifeboats. But I don't think in this age of equality that women expect or even desire what constitutes deferential treatment. After all, I hold doors open for men, too. Although older gents still give me the “no, no, after you” tug-of-war. That's okay. Everyone still wants to be a knight. And it's the chivalrous thing to do to let them.
Little biblio here: A Dictionary of Chivalry by Grant Uden, Longmans Young Books LTD, London, 1968; Chivarly: The Path of Love, Labyrinth Book, San Francisco, 1994; The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood by Christopher Harper, Boydell, London, 1988; Chronicles by Froissart, G. Brereton, translation, London, Penguin Classics, 1968. The painting at the top is Burton's Meeting on the Turret Stairs, one of my all time favorites.