Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
– Leo Tolstoy
Chivalry, in many ways, is a loaded term. When discussed nowadays, there are many questions that arise over the course of the conversation: Is chivalry dead or does it have a place in our modern society? What is chivalry, and what is the chivalric code? How can this code be implemented in our society? How can men who, in their efforts to become better men from an ethical and moral standpoint, adopt its moral principles?
One can do a quick Google search and find answers to these questions, since they have been the subject of several articles and blogs on medieval history and masculinity. Yet, one issue that persists in today’s society is that there is a visceral repulsion, a rejection to chivalry. Some individuals view chivalry and its code as outdated and unrealistic to abide by in the real world. Furthermore, some of the research concerning how to define chivalry and its code is that some articles and blogs tend to oversimplify chivalry and its code to one specific definition when, in reality, there is no one definitive definition of chivalry or the chivalric code. Even though the concept of chivalry and its moral code are not tied down to one specific definition, that does not mean it should not be further investigated, much less talked about or practiced by men who seek to improve themselves ethically; rather, as this essay will demonstrate, chivalry is vital to being a man, for through its multifaceted moral system, it teaches men how to be men of good character.
In order to understand the complexity of chivalry, one must realize that, from its very inception, its own code is not limited to one specific set of rules. This truth concerning the nuanced nature of the code is evident if one were to examine the origins of chivalry and its various codes. Chivalry itself was conceptualized in France during the eleventh century, and it grew in popularity from the twelfth century until the end of the Middle Ages. As chivalry and the chivalric code spread across medieval Europe, there were different versions of the chivalric code. Not only were there other variations of the code, but there were also multiple forms of chivalry; knights in the medieval world were expected to follow three forms: knightly, social, and religious.
The knightly and religious forms of chivalry in particular were always at odds, according to some medieval historians. One particular historian that these forms of chivalry could function properly under certain conditions (e.g., knights who went crusading or fought battles in the name of God could practice the sacrament of confession, thereby fulfilling their knightly and religious duties). Some examples of the varying chivalric codes include the vows of knighthood found in The Song of Roland:
Fear God and His Church; serve the liege Lord in valor and faith; protect the weak and defenseless; live by honor and for glory; respect the honor of women.
Additionally, Leon Gautier’s (1883) La Chevalerie provides an abbreviation of the code of French chivalry:
1. Believe the Church’s teachings and observe all the Church’s directions
2. Defend the Church
3. Respect and defend the weak
4. Love your country
5. Do not fear your enemy
6. Show no mercy and do not hesitate to make war with the infidel
7. Perform all your feudal duties as long as they do not conflict with the laws of God
8. Never lie or go back on one’s word
9. Be generous
10. Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice.
The Duke of Burgundy (14th century) also provided a version of the chivalric code for knights to emulate. He wanted knights to practice twelve virtues in order to be considered honorable, chivalrous knights:
Faith, charity, justice, sagacity, prudence, temperance, resolution truth liberality, diligence, hope, [and] valor.
There is no one specific code of chivalry per se. However, all three of these chivalric codes illustrate the knight’s social, knightly, and religious responsibilities in the medieval world. All in all, chivalry and the chivalric code were understood to have different sets of rules and expectations, but there were some principles that were universally practiced (e.g.. faith, courage, and justice).
Now that the origins of chivalry and its code have been explained, a defense of its purpose in today’s society is in order. As previously mentioned, critics of chivalry do not view it as practical in today’s society. Rather than looking at chivalry and its code from a societal view that could benefit individuals, one should look at the two as a set of virtues that, when applied to individuals, can benefit society. In other words, if a man was to adopt the three components of chivalry – social, knightly, and religious – and practice a chivalric code, then he would be in the process of bettering himself.
Men already have a multitude of responsibilities in their lives. Some social responsibilities include treating those who you know and those who are strangers to you with courtesy and kindness. It is showing respect and honor to all one meets, from one’s significant other, to an acquaintance Knightly chivalry is a man’s ability to courageously honor and defend the people and things he values. For instance, a man who hears his wife being critiqued, even if it is by other family members, will stand up for his spouse in order to defend her honor. He would do the same for his friends and other family. Religious chivalry is being active in one’s spiritual development and abiding by whatever religious or philosophical teachings one subscribes to. Even in the Middle Ages, chivalry did not only apply to Christians, but it also can be applied to other philosophies, including Neoplatonism and Stoicism, since these philosophies were relevant in medieval Europe. In fact, in regards to Stoicism, Seneca’s four virtues, justice, temperance, prudence, and strength, are referenced in medieval Europe found in the Duke of Burgundy’s code of chivalry. The chivalric code can be applied to any ethical system, thereby helping men today further strengthen their morals.
When chivalry enters a discussion, some people – if not most people – believe it is an outdated, esoteric concept that only existed during the Middle Ages and its code can only be strictly and perfectly followed by the knights from fictitious Arthurian tales. However, in reality, chivalry, along its broad code, should not be dismissed for such reasons. On the contrary, any man who seeks to improve himself will find that chivalry and the chivalric code not only adheres to Christians, but it also can appeal to men of philosophy, such as Stoicism. If individuals – men in particular – come to accept chivalry as a concept with a broad code, something they can practice in their everyday lives, then they will realize the vitality of it, for it brings about endless possibilities for them to become good at being men, which will then allow them to become good men, men of virtue.