Historically, the late medieval code of chivalry had arisen from the idealisation of the early medieval synthesis of Germanic and Roman martial traditions — involving military bravery, individual training, and service to others — especially in Francia, among horse soldiers in Charlemagne's cavalry, the term chivalry deriving from the Old French term chevalerie "horse soldiery"
Over time its meaning has been refined to emphasise social and moral virtues more generally, and the Code of Chivalry as it stood by the Late Middle Ages was a moral system which combined a warrior ethos, Christian virtue and courtly manners, all conspiring to establish a notion of honour and nobility;
Terminology and definitions
The term chivalry in origin has the meaning "horsemanship", formed in Old French in the 11th century from chevalier "horseman; knight", from Medieval Latin caballārius. In English, the term appears from 1292 (note that cavalry is from the Italian form of the same word) The meaning of the term evolved over time, from the original concrete military meaning "status or fee associated with military follower owning a war horse" or "a group of mounted knights" to the ideal of the Christian warrior ethos propagated in the Romance genre which was becoming popular during the 12th century, and the ideal of courtly love propagated in the contemporary Minnesang and related genres. The "code of chivalry" is thus a product of the Late Middle Ages, evolving after the end of the crusades partly from an idealisation of the historical knights fighting in the Holy Land, partly from ideals of courtly love.
Léon Gautier in his La Chevalerie of 1883 bemoaned the "invasion of Breton romans" which replaced the pure military ethos of the crusades with Arthurian fiction and courtly adventures. Gautier tries to give a "popular summary" of what he proposes was the "ancient code of chivalry" of the 11th and 12th centuries, viz. the military ethos of the crusades which would evolve into the late medieval notion of chivalry. Gautier's "commandments" are:
- Believe the Church's teachings and observe all the Church's directions.
- Defend the Church.
- Respect and defend all weaknesses.
- Love your country.
- Show no mercy to the Infidel. Do not hesitate to make war with them.
- Perform all your feudal duties as long as they do not conflict with the laws of God.
- Never lie or go back on one's word.
- Be generous to everyone.
- Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice.
Origins in military ethos
The chivalric ideals are based on those of the early medieval warrior class, and martial exercise and military virtue remains an integral part of chivalry until the end of the medieval period, as the reality on the battlefield changed with the development of Early Modern warfare increasingly restricted to the tournament ground and duelling culture. The joust remained the primary example of knightly display of martial skill throughout the Renaissance (the last Elizabethan Accession Day tilt was held in 1602). The martial skills of the knight carried over to the practice of the hunt, and hunting expertise became an important aspect of courtly life in the later medieval period (c.f. terms of venery). Related to chivalry was the practice of heraldry and its elaborate rules of displaying coats of arms as it emerged in the High Middle Ages.
Christianity had a modifying influence on the classical concept of heroism and virtue, nowadays identified with the virtues of chivalry. The Peace and Truce of God in the 10th century was one such example, with limits placed on knights to protect and honour the weaker members of society and also help the church maintain peace. At the same time the church became more tolerant of war in the defense of faith, espousing theories of the just war; and liturgies were introduced which blessed a knight's sword, and a bath of chivalric purification. The first noted support for chivalric vocation, or the establishment of knightly class to ensure the sanctity and legitimacy of Christianity was written in 930 by Odo, abbot of Cluny in the Vita of St. Gerald of Aurillac, which argued that the sanctity of Christ and Christian doctrine can be demonstrated through the legitimate unsheathing of the “sword against the enemy”. In the 11th century the concept of a "knight of Christ" (miles Christi) gained currency in France, Spain and Italy. These concepts of "religious chivalry" were further elaborated in the era of the Crusades, with the Crusades themselves often being seen as a chivalrous enterprise. Their ideas of chivalry were also further influenced by Saladin, who was viewed as a chivalrous knight by medieval Christian writers. The military orders of the crusades which developed in this period came to be seen as the earliest flowering of chivalry, although it remains unclear to what extent the notable knights of this period, Saladin, Godfrey of Bouillon, William Marshal or Bertrand du Guesclin, actually did set new standards of knightly behaviour, or to what extent they merely behaved according to existing models of conduct which came in retrospect to be interpreted along the lines of the "chivalry" ideal of the Late Middle Ages.
From the 12th century onward chivalry came to be understood as a moral, religious and social code of knightly conduct. The particulars of the code varied, but codes would emphasise the virtues of courage, honour, and service. Chivalry also came to refer to an idealisation of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court.
Medieval courtly literature glorifies the valour, tactics and ideals of ancient Romans. For example the ancient hand-book of warfare written by Vegetius called De Re Militari was translated into French in the 13th century as L'art de chevalerie by Jean de Meun. Later writers also drew from Vegetius such as Honore Bonet who wrote the 14th century L'arbes des batailles, which discussed the morals and laws of war. In the 15th century Christine de Pizan combined themes from Vegetius, Bonet and Frontinus in Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie.
In the later Middle Ages, wealthy merchants strove to adopt chivalric attitudes - the sons of the bourgeoisie were educated at aristocratic courts where they were trained in the manners of the knightly class. This was a democratisation of chivalry, leading to a new genre called the courtesy book, which were guides to the behaviour of "gentlemen". Thus, the post-medieval gentlemanly code of the value of a man's honor, respect for women, and a concern for those less fortunate, is directly derived from earlier ideals of chivalry and historical forces which created it.
The medieval development of chivalry, with the concept of the honour of a lady and the ensuing knightly devotion to it, not only derived from the thinking about the Virgin Mary, but also contributed to it. The medieval veneration of the Virgin Mary was contrasted by the fact that ordinary women, especially those outside aristocratic circles, were looked down upon. Although women were at times viewed as the source of evil, it was Mary who as mediator to God was a source of refuge for man. The development of medieval Mariology and the changing attitudes towards women paralleled each other and can best be understood in a common context.
When examining medieval literature, chivalry can be classified into three basic but overlapping areas:
- Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: this contains virtues such as mercy, courage, valour, fairness, protection of the weak and the poor, and in the servant-hood of the knight to his lord. This also brings with it the idea of being willing to give one’s life for another’s; whether he would be giving his life for a poor man or his lord.
- Duties to God: this would contain being faithful to God, protecting the innocent, being faithful to the church, being the champion of good against evil, being generous and obeying God above the feudal lord.
- Duties to women: this is probably the most familiar aspect of chivalry. This would contain what is often called courtly love, the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her all other ladies. Most especially in this category is a general gentleness and graciousness to all women.
These three areas obviously overlap quite frequently in chivalry, and are often indistinguishable.
Different weight given to different areas produced different strands of chivalry:
- warrior chivalry, in which a knight's chief duty is to his lord, as exemplified by Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
- religious chivalry, in which a knight's chief duty is to protect the innocent and serve God, as exemplified by Sir Galahad or Sir Percival in the Grail legends.
- courtly love chivalry, in which a knight's chief duty is to his own lady, and after her, all ladies, as exemplified by Sir Lancelot in his love for Queen Guinevere or Sir Tristan in his love for Iseult
Late Middle Ages
Chivalry underwent a revival and elaboration of chivalric ceremonial and rules of etiquette in the fourteenth century that was examined by Johan Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919, 1924), in which he dedicates a full chapter to "The idea of chivalry". In contrasting the literary standards of chivalry with the actual warfare of the age, the historian finds the imitation of an ideal past illusory; in an aristocratic culture such as Burgundy and France at the close of the Middle Ages, "to be representative of true culture means to produce by conduct, by customs, by manners, by costume, by deportment, the illusion of a heroic being, full of dignity and honour, of wisdom, and, at all events, of courtesy. ...The dream of past perfection ennobles life and its forms, fills them with beauty and fashions them anew as forms of art".
Modern manifestations and revivals
"Chivalry! – why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection – the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant – Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.” —Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820)
The chivalric ideal persisted into the early modern and modern period. The custom of foundation of Chivalric orders by Europe's monarchs and high nobility peaked in the late medieval period, but it persisted during the Renaissance and well into the Baroque and early modern period, with e.g. the Tuscan Order of Saint Stephen (1561), the French Order of Saint Louis (1693) or the British Order of St. Patrick (1783), and numerous dynastic orders of knighthood remain active in countries that retain a tradition of monarchy.
At the same time, with the change of courtly ideas during the Baroque period, the ideals of chivalry began to be seen as dated, or "medieval". Don Quixote, published in 1605, parodied the medieval chivalric novel or romance by ridiculing the stubborn adherence to the chivalric code in the face of the (then-)modern world as anachronistic, giving rise to the term Quixotism. Conversely, Romanticism refers to the attempt to revive such "medieval" ideals or aesthetics in the late 18th and early 19th century.
The behavioural code of military officers down to the Napoleonic era, the American Civil War (especially as idealised in the "Lost Cause" movement) and to some extent even to World War I was still strongly modelled on the historical ideals, resulting in a pronounced duelling culture, which in some parts of Europe also held sway over the civilian life of the upper classes. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, however, the military threat from the "infidel" disappeared; the Wars of Religion in Europe spanned much of the early modern period and consisted of infighting between factions of various Christian denominations, this process of confessionalization ultimately giving rise to a new military ethos based in nationalism rather than "defending the faith against the infidel".
From the Early Modern period, the term gallantry (from galant, the Baroque ideal of refined elegance) rather than chivalry became used for the proper behaviour of upper class men towards upper class women. In the 19th century, there were attempts to revive chivalry for the purposes of the gentleman of that time. Kenelm Henry Digby wrote his The Broad-Stone of Honour for this purpose, offering the definition: 'Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world'.
The pronouncedly masculine virtues of chivalry came under attack on the parts of the upper-class suffragettes campaigning for gender equality in the early 20th century, and with the decline of the military ideals of duelling culture and of European aristocracies in general following the catastrophe of World War I, the ideals of chivalry became widely seen as outmoded by the mid 20th century. As a material reflection of this process, the dress sword lost its position as an indispensable part of a gentleman's wardrobe, a development described as an "archaeological terminus" by Ewart Oakeshott, as it concluded the long period during which the sword had been a visible attribute of the free man, beginning as early as three millennia ago with the Bronze Age sword.
During the 20th century, the chivalrous ideal of protecting women came to be seen as a trope of melodrama ("damsel in distress"). The term chivalry retains a certain currency in sociology, in reference to the general tendency of men, and of society in general, to lend more attention offering protection from harm to women than to men, or in noting gender gaps in life expectancy, health, etc., also expressed in media bias giving significantly more attention to female than to male victims (see also missing white woman syndrome).
- Chivalric order
- Chivalric romance
- Courtly love
- Nine Worthies
- Pas d'Armes
- Spanish chivalry
- High Court of Chivalry
- The Book of the Courtier
- Chivalry, Léon Gautier, tr. Henry Frith 1891. pp 2
- Jean Flori, La Chevalerie, J. P. Gisserot, 1998. ISBN 2877473457
- The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book, Inc. 1994. pp. 346–351. ISBN 0-7166-0094-3.. The term for "horseman" (chevalier, from Late Latin caballarius) doubling as a term for the upper social classes parallels the usage long-standing usage of Classical Antiquity, see equites, hippeus.
- Johan Huizinga remarks in his book The Waning of the Middle Ages, "the source of the chivalrous idea, is pride aspiring to beauty, and formalised pride gives rise to a conception of honour, which is the pole of noble life". Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919) 1924:58.
- T. F. Hoad, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford University Press 1993. p. 74.
- loaned via Middle French into English around 1540; HOAD 67
- Chivalry, Léon Gautier, tr. Henry Frith 1891. pp 26
- James Ross Sweeney (1983). "Chivalry", in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Volume III.[page needed]
- Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII 1993 by Plinio Correa de Oliveira ISBN 0-8191-9310-0 page 110
- "The Life of St. Gerald, by Odo". Penn State Press. 1954. p. 371.
- Chivalry, Brittanica Encyclopedia
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: K-P by Geoffrey W. Bromiley 1994 ISBN 0-8028-3783-2 page 272
- Daughters of the church 1987 by Ruth Tucker ISBN 0-310-45741-6 page 168
- Huizinga 1924, "Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime life":30.
- "The idea that men were to act and live deferentially on behalf of women and children, though an ancient principle, was already under attack by 1911 from militant suffragettes intent on leveling the political playing field by removing from the public mindset the notion that women were a “weaker sex” in need of saving." The Birkenhead Drill by Doug Phillips
- R. E. Oakeshott, European weapons and armour: From the Renaissance to the industrial revolution (1980), p. 255.
- For example, criminologist Richard Felson writes "An attack on a woman is a more serious transgression than an attack on a man because it violates a special norm protecting women from harm. This norm -- chivalry -- discourages would-be attackers and encourages third parties to protect women." Felson, Richard B. 'Violence and gender reexamined'. Law and public policy. Chapter (pp. 67-82). Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 2002
- Alexander, Michael. (2007) Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England, Yale University Press. Alexander rejects the idea that medievalism, a pervasive cultural movement in the in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was confined to the Victorian period and argues against the suspicion that it was by its nature escapist.
- Davis, Alex (2004). Chivalry and Romance in the English Renaissance. Woodcock, Matthew.
- Barber, Richard (1980). "The Reign of Chivalry".
- Bouchard, Constance Brittain (1998). Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. Cornell University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8014-8548-7
- Gautier, Léon, (1895) (1883, 3rd ed. 1895| La Chevalerie)
- Charny, Geoffroi de, died 1356 (2005). A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry (The Middle Ages Series). Translated by Eslpeth Kennedy. Edited and with a historical introduction by Richard W. Kaeuper. University of Pennsylvania Press. Celebrated treatise on knighthood by Geoffroi de Charny (1304?-56), considered by his contemporaries the quintessential knight of his age. He was killed during the Hundred Years War at the Battle of Poitiers.
- Girouard, Mark (1981). The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman. Yale University Press.
- Haines, Charles Reginald. (1889). Christianity and Islam in Spain, A.D. 756-1031. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. Project Guttnberg online book.
- Prestage, Edgar (1928). "Chivalry: A Series of Studies to Illustrate Its Historical Significance and Civilizing Influence".
- Kaeuper, Richard W. (1999). Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Kaeuper, Richard W. (2009) Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (The Middle Ages Series). University of Pennsylvania Press. Foremost scholar of chivalry argues that knights proclaimed the validity of their bloody profession by selectively appropriating religious ideals.
- Keen, Maurice (1984). Chivalry. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03150-5 / ISBN 0-300-10767-6 (2005 reprint).
- Mills, Charles (2004). "The History of Chivalry or knighthood and its Times" Volume I-II.
- Read, Charles Anderson (2007). The Cabinet Of Irish Literature; Selections From The Works Of The Chief Poets, Orators, And Prose Writers Of Ireland - Vol IV (Paperback).
- Saul, Nigel. (2011) Chivalry in Medieval England. Harvard University Press. Explores chivalry's role in English history from the Norman Conquest to Henry VII's victory at Bosworth in the War of the Roses.
- Sweeney, James Ross (1983). "Chivalry", in Dictionary of the Middle Ages Volume III.
- Laura Ashe (University of Oxford), Miri Rubin (University of London), and Matthew Strickland (University of Glasgow), interviewed by Melvin Bragg, "Chivalry", In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 (February 13, 2014). Includes bibliography for further reading. Downloadable podcast available.
- "Chivalry", Old Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914.
- "Chivalry", Encyclopædia Britannica, full-article, newest edition.
- "Chivalry during the Reign of Edward III", from Shadow Realms.
- "Medieval Chivalry".