For the last 400 years, people have been making broad claims that Chivalry is dead, that the state of manly/knightly/courtly honor is in disrepair, and that chivalry corresponds directly with honor. At the baseline, Chivalry is derived from the French word Chevalier, which translates to “a man on horseback”. When it first began being used, Chivalry referred directly to mounted combatants, i.e. Knights (Because training and equipment to use a warhorse was inordinately expensive history shows that only nobility and the gentry really found themselves fighting on top of the beasts.) Chivalry rapidly took on a meaning as the “code of knighthood”, gathering from three realms in particular: Martial expertise, Christian faith, and Courtly grace.
Chivalry followed a long list of traits and practices:
1. The knight must be able bodied and fit (Nobody wants a fat asthmatic knight in a fight)
2. He must be of good lineage (Nobility or bust)
3. He must have wealth to support his rank (if you can’t pay for party clothes, you aren’t in the party)
4. He has to be wise (basically just enough that his lord or his servant could come up to him and ask, “is this a good idea?”)
5. Generosity was required (another part of having the wealth. If you can’t lavishly host anybody who shows up at your place, you aren’t honorable.)
6. He must be loyal (nothing worse than a vassal who comes unglued from his oath)
7. Knights should be Courageous (First to charge, first to fall, but also the bravest)
8. A knight should be honorable (See all traits above)
This entire time, a knight must remain true to his “ethical duties”:
1. to defend the Christian Faith (if you weren’t Christian, you literally were outside Christianity, why the Crusades were considered honorable, also why it wasn’t wrong for a knight to beat on a Jewish person. They were considered infidels and outside the true meaning of being generous, kind and honorable)
2. to defend his lord (Second job: protect the guy who pays you)
3. to protect the weak (Women, children, largely the reason why knights would avoid combat with women. They considered them objects to protect, not to injure)
4. to exercise by hunting and jousting (the medieval version of “gym, tan, laundry”)
5. to judge/supervise people (the servants of your house were your deal, if they got crazy, it reflected poorly upon you)
6. to catch criminals (knights were the police of the era. Makes sense that this would be a duty)
Basically, the code of Chivalry was the European equivalent to the Bushido code in Japan. It was a way to separate the good actions of a peasant from the good actions of a nobleman. When society was defined in the 1200s, it was broken into three classes: Those who pray for us (priests), those who fight for us (Knights and nobles), and those who work for us (the grunts). Peasants fought for their lord. No combat was solely fought by knights, they were the military leaders who directed a small group of their servants. When the worth of a knight’s class was defined by “being those who fight”, there has to be some trait or code that makes the nobility worth more than the group of dirty riffraff that fight with the knights. The chivalric codes were the way the early nobility was able to differentiate noble blood from common blood. It put to paper the idea that there was more worth to the life and soul of a nobleman than of a peasant.
In the modern era however, we see chivalry differently. In the giant list of traits and duties, it covers the martial aspect of knighthood and the faith part, but the best of knights also had the courtly aspect as well. For whatever reason, the common meaning of “chivalry” now refers only to the courtly part. What courtly chivalry amounted to was: to please the ladies of the court in a non-adulterous and often non-sexual way. When a lady had an elderly husband, a young knight would ask her favor and fly her colors at tournaments. Knights would give attention to the ladies of the court at gatherings simply to give them attention. A knight’s courtliness was not defined by his actions towards a single lady, but his actions to all women (nobility only, let’s not get that wire crossed). Strangely enough, the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde are stories about knights who betray their lord, sleep with his wife or otherwise take her away from him. Lancelot and Tristan are, by definition, the arch-nemesis of Chivalry and yet we see them as some sort of romantic “tale of chivalry and lost love”.
As a final word about chivalry: People today have some odd expectation that chivalry is a trait that all men should have. In reality, only a teeny tiny part of the real population ever actually practiced it. The nobility during the middle ages was a very spartan class. At most, you would expect to see maybe 2% of the population who were actually knights. So when people see men not holding open doors or not calling after a date, it doesn’t mean chivalry is dead. Chivalry is not dead, it’s just very very specialized and exceptionally rare, exactly like it has been for all time.
Now see, this is exactly the kind of thing I have a beef with: