The Death of Chivalry
The day after Valentine’s Day seems like a good time to contemplate the death of chivalry, no? So settle down with your discount chocolate and let us determine whether or not we should deposit our roses upon the grave of chivalry.
We must begin with the fact that medieval chivalry is indeed dead. Deceased. No more. Pining for the fjords.
The chivalry that arose in the middle ages was a warrior code for the chevalrie, or mounted knights. During the middle ages, because the armored knight on horseback was both the most effective and most expensive battle technology, these elite warriors came from the class with money: the nobility. Chivalry developed as a warrior code for these noble warriors, who were a powerful but small group within medieval society.
There is no single code of chivalry, as chivalry existed for several centuries in multiple distinct cultural contexts across Europe. But broadly, the ideals of chivalry encompassed strength on the battlefield (prowess), good manners and wise counsel (courtesy), and devotion to God and the Church (piety).
Beneath these three pillars, however, the purpose of chivalry was to simultaneously control and legitimize violence. It controlled violence by setting rules about how to interact with others of the same class on the battlefield (rules that did not apply to fighters from lower classes). But it also legitimized violence by requiring that the nobility prove their chivalry through violence, preferably war but tournaments or hunting if necessary.
So, to recap: chivalry was a warrior code that applied to men in the medieval nobility. While chivalry included many characteristics and ideals, the one non-negotiable constant remained violence. Chivalry seems a little less romantic put this way.
So how did chivalry become romanticized?
We can blame the Romantics of the nineteenth century. After the middle ages gave way to the early modern period, chivalry morphed into the polish of the courtier and separated from warrior elites, since mounted knights became an obsolete battle technology by the end of the middle ages. Violence remained an important marker of masculinity, displayed in wars and in duels, but chivalry as a social code all but disappeared.
However, in the nineteenth century, the Romantics began seeking alternatives to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. They turned to the middle ages and, well, romanticized them, creating the middle ages of The Idylls of the King and Ivanhoe and innumerable pre-Raphaelite paintings of knights and ladies.
As imagined by writers like Alfred Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott, chivalry is no longer focused on violence practiced by a warrior elite but on virtue and courtesy. Romance takes center stage, and the central aspect of courtesy becomes courtesy to women.1 Violence still plays a role as a vital part of masculinity, but the recreated chivalry of the nineteenth century interacts with idealized, fictional violence with clear divisions between good and evil.2
Like medieval chivalry, however, this romanticized chivalry still applies only to men. It extends beyond noble men, and might sometimes democratically confer nobility of character upon the chivalrous man, but women are still the objects of chivalry, never its possessors.
When people discuss the death of chivalry, they mean this reimagined chivalry, a chivalry that arose in literature rather than in communities. And they imagine it has been killed by a lack of good manners in today’s youth, or perhaps by joyless feminists, or hook-up culture, or whatever someone thinks makes the present worse than the past.
In other words, chivalry today is always nostalgic for an idealized past in which men were noble and women were compliant. This nostalgia erases those who could not, because of their socio-economic status, be chivalrous: people of color (too savage, for the Victorian, to be chivalrous); poor people (too unrefined to be chivalrous); or women who work (clearly not worthy objects of chivalry). The nostalgia instead elevates the desires of a certain class of men to feel noble and to demonstrate their superiority through displays of chivalry to each other and to deserving women.
Medieval chivalry served a social purpose, even if from our modern-day point of view we can see its limitations. Nineteenth-century chivalry was nostalgic from the start, serving an escapist purpose and creating a sense of social superiority.3
To be clear, I think that basic courtesy is an important element of society. I appreciate it when people hold doors or let someone else go first. I teach my children the courtesy phrases: thank you, excuse me, have a nice day. But these small daily courtesies can and should be practiced by anyone; they do not signal status but a basic respect for others.
Chivalry, by contrast, signals status and a certain self-conception, and in all of its incarnations men are the practitioners of chivalry, women its recipients. Some might argue that women benefit from chivalry, and in some limited ways that is true. But those benefits come at the cost of full participation in society and at the cost of expected passivity and constant receptiveness to chivalrous gestures, whether women want those gestures or not.
I hope I don’t need to enumerate the problems that arise when a society expects women to be passive and powerless.
Chivalry isn’t dead, but engrained in the sexism, racism and classism in American society. But maybe it is slowly dying, replaced by a more egalitarian respect between genders.
And when its death finally comes, I will be first in line to lay my roses on the grave of chivalry.
Women do matter in medieval chivalry, and many medieval romances (analogous to adventure stories) do include love. However, the chivalric treatment of women as imagined by nineteenth-century writers owes far more to the Victorian Cult of True Womanhood than to medieval culture.↩
After World War I, authors of Arthurian fiction like T.H. White more intensely scrutinize and critique the links between violence, chivalry and masculinity.↩
Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, scathingly critiques southern chivalry as the “Sir Walter [Scott] disease” and blames it, as much as slavery, for the Civil War. See relevant excerpts here: http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/yankee/cyinlife.html↩