The Rise and Fall of Chivalry

In order to understand the New Chivalry we must ask, “What was the old chivalry?”
The word comes from the French “chevalerie” which means “horse soldiers.” The relationship to our modern day “cavalry” is obvious. The code of chivalry was a loosely defined code of conduct governing the lives of the horse soldiers, the armored knights, of the early middle ages through the Renaissance. While this code was different, often radically so, in different times and places, its origins as a code of conduct for warriors ensured that a few principles were nearly universal. Nearly all forms of chivalry included:
  • Martial virtues such as courage, strength and military prowess
  • Religious virtues such as loyalty and service to God in the Church, to the knight’s lord, and to the weak and defenseless, especially women
  • Social virtues such as courtly manners and some form of artistic or scholarly pursuit

I have listed these in the order in which they likely developed. First, you would see the martial virtues, since the primary use of a band of mounted warriors is war. If they run away in battle what earthly good are they? So the encouragement of warlike virtues would be the first development, as old as warrior societies all over the world.

The second problem with a warrior society is that if not held in check they tend to run amok. Having encouraged warlike virtues of strength, courage and (let’s face it) a taste for violence, you now have the need to make sure that those abilities are not turned on you, especially if you are an ostensibly peaceful class, like the Church, or a much weaker class, such as women. This is why in the mid-to-late middle ages we begin to see the rise of a moral code of service towards women, the poor and the Church.

Finally, as the battlefields of Europe changed and the role of the individual armored warrior became less important than the massed, faceless, anonymous professional (e.g. the English longbowman), knights and the chivalric class began to take on a new social role. Towards the end of the middle ages and through the Renaissance, learning and scholarly pursuits became part of the “noblesse oblige” and were gradually attached to the picture of the complete warrior gentleman.

With the decline of the primacy of the armored knight on the battlefield, the social roles of the knightly class changed drastically, and the shape of chivalry changed right along with it. Since warfare was no longer their primary occupation, the martial aspects of chivalry declined in importance. The idea of martial prowess remained in a vestigial state, in the form of sports such as fencing, boxing or riding. Later these sports were displaced with more modern sports such as cricket, rugby and football. An idea of the importance of fighting skill and physical fitness to the formation of the complete gentleman also informed the physical culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the popularity of systems of self defense.

A second major social change from the Medieval period was the total fracturing of the European religious identity that came about as a result of the Protestant reformation. No longer even nominally unified under a single religion, Christendom disintegrated, and as national boundaries were redrawn and solidified, nationalism gradually rose. The armored knight was, at least in theory, loyal primarily to the Church and to his local Lord. Now a religious allegiance that transcended national borders began to be seen as a threat. Religion and State slowly began to take on separate identities, and claimed for themselves separate allegiances. In this cultural milieu, loyalty to religion declined in importance as a mark of the true gentleman. Instead, a strong social code of conduct involving concepts of fair play, honesty and justice, and a complex set of social manners, began to arise as the primary moral component of chivalry. Church attendance was still regarded as socially mandatory, but the ideal of the warrior/monk lost its preeminence. Specifically, holiness, was no longer considered a gentleman’s business. Chivalry had been secularized.

Education, increasingly humanistic and rationalistic, soon became the distinguishing mark of the gentleman. This education was geared toward producing a broad, liberal mind, and was often exhaustive by today’s standards, so much so that the 19th century equivalent of an 8th grade education easily produced students with literacy superior to most college graduates today. In “The Idea of a University,” John Henry Cardinal Newman discusses at length the role of a liberal education in the formation of a gentleman’s mind. He also clearly distinguishes this education, desirable as it may be, as a secular rather than as a religious virtue. Being a gentleman is not the same as being a saint, and being a saint is more important.

With the twentieth century the concept of chivalry became all but lost. It is commonly claimed that feminism dealt chivalry its death blow, but it would be closer to the truth to say that the “chivalry” that feminism killed was already so dilute as to be hardly worth killing. The real death of chivalry came about as education shifted away from the liberal arts and towards vocation specific training. The building of a liberal mind was no longer seen as a goal of primary importance. Instead, an education is now looked at as a meal ticket. If it does not “get me a job in the real world” it is a waste of time and money.

Warfare is now exclusively the realm of trained professionals who do it for a living, or of massed draftees or volunteers whose only job is to follow orders. Religion and daily life have been almost completely separated in daily life. Education is now ordered around consuming and producing products to keep the economy going. Emily Post is the only person alive who seems to know what the etiquette of today consists of, so the only thing left of chivalry in popular thought is a vague, poorly defined set of manners. These are mostly drawn from Hollywood and romance novels, and have exclusively to do with men treating women with courtesy.

Since the moral and philosophic underpinnings of these courteous behaviors were lost, they easily fell prey to the rise of feminism, with its insistence on an exact, mathematical equality between the genders and its consequent denial of all gender differences. This may be considered the death blow of chivalry, but at this point that harmless vestige of a once vibrant and powerful way of life seems hardly worth destroying or saving.