Before I begin, let me preface this by saying that it is an extremely rough sketch of a very complex topic. If there are any real historians out there reading this (for a laugh, no doubt) I welcome your criticism and correction.
One of the more popular tropes you hear around the internet is the lament among some of the women that: “Chivalry is dead!”
It is usually followed pretty quickly by a man who, under the impression that he is being both witty and original, retorts: “Yeah, and women killed it.”
This exchange shows only that neither the woman nor the man understand chivalry. If it was something that feminism could kill, it was not really something worth having in the first place. Feminism did not kill chivalry, but it has been implicated in vandalizing the corpse.
Chivalry has been one of my life long interests, not merely as an historical study, but primarily as a way of life. I have sought to incorporate it into my daily life, and to live it. As I have gotten older, my understanding of it has evolved and deepened, and it is no longer even remotely defined for me by social niceties such as holding doors, picking up the check, carrying groceries, etc. The long historical view of Chivalry destroyed that caricature a long time ago.
The concept of chivalry arose in a recognizable modern form between 1170 and 1220 AD but its roots go back much further. The word comes from the French “chevalerie,” which means “horse soldiers.” (Our modern “cavalry” is descended from the same root). Originally little more than mounted gangs of teutonic raiders, with the drawing to a close of the Dark Ages and the beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne, these gangs began to merge and coalesce into larger groups. It was from these larger groups that the concept of knighthood and chivalry arose.
Historic chivalry had three pillars:
1) The martial virtues
2) The social virtues
3) The religious virtues.
The martial virtues were the oldest of the bunch. These had been in existence in warrior cultures from time immemorial, what Jack Donovan calls “the tactical virtues.” These were strength, courage, competence, honor and loyalty. This is the bare bones moral framework you need for a group of men who have to fight on a daily basis just to survive. These were also the foundation of chivalry, and this is a very important thing to understand. Chivalry was founded on the warrior ethos of men who lived with violence as a way of life, and to whom loyalty to “us” versus “them” was the supreme civic virtue.
With the development of Medieval Society, an increasingly complex world, warfare was no longer the secondary occupation of every man, but became the primary occupation of a select few men, those who had the aptitude for it or were born into the warrior class families. Among these the martial virtues were still the foundation of their ethos, but an increasingly civilized world began to demand more of them than simply skill in separating heads from bodies.
Enter the two great civilizing influences, the women and the Church. It was these two forces that took chivalry from being essentially a gang ideal, and made it the dominant cultural ethos of Europe for hundreds of years.
Women influenced the development of chivalry by introducing the “courtly virtues.” In more broad terms we might consider this the social component of chivalry. These virtues included culture, refinement, soft speech, table manners, dancing, singing, music, and later on with the Renaissance, arts and letters. Respect for women, sometimes an almost worshipful adoration of them, also attached itself to the ideal of chivalry. The reason why women encouraged and rewarded these virtues was as a sort of self-protection. They were dealing with big rough men whose day job involved killing other big rough men and taking what they wanted. Women needed protection from the enemy men, but also protection from their own men as well. The ideal of respect for the weak, the helpless, and especially women offered at least nominal insurance against the appetites of men used to taking what they wanted by force.
The Church reinforced this adaptation and added a spiritual component, sanctioning chivalry with ceremonies of knighthood, blessings and prayers. The Church tried to inspire an ideal of monastic piety as a third component of chivalry, most clearly seen in the monastic chivalric orders, such as the Templars and the Hospitallers.
Chivalry began to decline with the advent of gunpowder. The knightly class no longer reigned supreme on the battlefield. Instead they were slowly replaced by anonymous, massed, paid professionals, and later a core cadre of professionals training and commanding an army of conscripts. With warfare no longer their sole reason for existing as a class, even in theory, the primary foundation of chivalry collapsed. The martial virtues that formed the basis of chivalry as a way of life decayed, kept alive only in sports and occasional military service. Without the vitality and urgency of constant exposure to death, chivalry lost its mojo.
Move up a couple of centuries, into the 1500 to 1800’s, and a second pillar of Chivalry was removed with the fruition of the Protestant Reformation. Christendom fractured from a loosely allied group of warring states, nominally loyal to the Holy Roman Empire and to the Church, into discrete nations, each one claiming their own land until, by the beginning of the 19th century boundaries and national identities were relatively fixed. Loyalty to a religion that transcended the nation, i.e. the Church, was seen as suspicious at best, and treasonous at worst. England ran the full gamut from Edmund Campion’s martyrdom in 1581 to the ostracism of Catholics experienced by John Henry Cardinal Newman in the 19th century.
With the Church no longer the dominant social force, sanctity was no longer held up as the ideal for the knightly class. They had a vague religiosity, they went to church on sundays, endowed orphanages and such, and maintained a perhaps mostly social code of honesty, fair play and straight dealing, but the primacy of almsgiving, penance and prayer was lost.
With the martial and religious virtues gone, only the social virtues were left to take up the slack. The late renaissance through the 19th century was the highpoint of the secular humanist liberal education. The goal of this education was to produce liberal minds, minds conversant with the classics, but also on the forefront of modern knowledge, broad, cultured, sensitive, urbane. This liberal minded gentleman probably also had some familiarity with fencing, boxing or some other vaguely martial sport. He supported his local parish, and had his own family pew in church on sunday. This was the gentleman of Newman’s day. Newman, of course, was under no illusions that such an ideal was a religious one, but as far as it went, as a purely human goal, the gentleman was a worthy ideal.
The days of the gentleman were numbered, however, with the rise of the industrial revolution and capitalism in the west. In the Middle Ages commerce was seen as disgraceful for the chivalric class, and money was valued chiefly as something to give away or live splendidly with. In the modern world, money is everything. The coup de grace came when the liberal education of the 19th century gave way to the career preparation of the 20th century as the primary educational model. The meal ticket replaced the development of the person as the end of education.
At this point, I think we can say that chivalry was dead. Not, certainly, as a personal code for a few dedicated individuals, but as a cultural force. The only remnant of the ethos of fighting men was a vague network of social niceties, mostly revolving around male-female relationships. The distinct maleness of chivalry being divorced from such gestures as holding the door and picking up the check, it was too easy for this bastardized version to be caricatured, ridiculed and dropped, but make no mistake, chivalry was gone before feminism arrived on the scene.
It is a matter for debate whether feminism could have arisen at all otherwise.
This is why any serious discussion of chivalry and its role in the life of modern men must take into account the historical origins and nature of the code. I am not interested in talk about reviving the social niceties of the 1950’s. Like all social etiquette, they were valuable and meaningful in their time, but customs change with times and it is no use lamenting them when they are past.
It was the foundation in a masculine ideal of danger, courage and risk that gave chivalry its power, and as soon as that foundation was lost, the whole structure inevitably followed. Any real discussion of a new chivalry must begin by recapturing the martial virtues of strength, courage, competence and honor. Without this foundation we are merely wasting our time.
For more about #TheNewChivalry go to www.themanwhowouldbeknight.com