On the History of Chivalry

In the comments to the previous post on the subject, Douglas asked me to take on a couple of objections he had seen that he didn't know how to answer. I decided the answers were long enough that they deserved a separate post.

First objection: ...that chivalry and civility were essentially the same (or should be) and so the only distinction was the assignment of gender roles.

Chivalry is not the same as civility; in fact it is not even close. Chivalry is a code that is about the kind of man it takes to ride a horse to war. That's really the root of it, and it has nothing to do at base with 'civility' or any sense of the genteel. It has to do with quiet courage, self-discipline, and the ability to relate to others (first and foremost the horse) so that they come to know that they can trust you and rely on you absolutely.

One of the complaints against civility is that it is inauthentic or fake; Miss Manners says that the whole point of the thing is that it is fake, because you don't really want to know what other people think of you! But chivalry is not fake. It cannot be fake, because at base it is about a relationship with a horse: a prey animal that spooks easily and is naturally fearful, but must come to trust you enough to be ridden into a battle. The virtues that inspire trust -- directness, honesty, calmness, kindness -- must be genuine and to the bone.

That is the first nature of chivalry. It is common to other cultures that grew out of that kind of horsemen: the Arabs, for example, have a similar idea about what it means to be a free man worthy of being a rider. These virtues are the same, because they are the virtues of horsemen who are also warriors.

They are also the virtues of soldiers and Marines today, those who must trust each other when they ride to war, and who must be able to win the trust of foreign peoples they are asked to protect. A civil man can be kind, but need not be courageous. Chivalry is about developing the soul. This is the reason that nothing more than chivalry was needed in Aurora. It is a code of warriors. Questions of how and when to kill or die are part of its first nature. It remains terribly necessary to know how and when to do those things.

Second objection: ...a general feeling that the devotion of a man to women was somehow demeaning to the women, who were 'put on pedestals'- in their eyes, objectified.

Chivalry differs from the other similar cultures -- for example, the Arabic -- because it took on an elevated second nature during the High Middle Ages. The great chivalry of Charlemagne had the first set of virtues, but Charlemagne and his son and grandson also sponsored schools and education (as did Alfred the Great, about the same time in England). This tradition began a long evolution of what it meant to belong to the class of warriors who rode horses. These new forms melded with a special sort of praise poetry that came out of the reconquest of Islamic Spain (as well as from French knights who served the Islamic kingdoms as mercenaries, and learned the poetry at court). Poets and scholars became central to court life.

Where we find things that look like 'civility' is around the 1000s, but what we're really talking about is not 'civil' behavior but 'courtly' behavior. It's not a general set of rules for all people. It is a set of standards for being or dealing with the very best kind of people -- the most upright, the most moral, the most honorable. It was built on poetry and legends, especially legends about Arthur and Charlemagne.

I think is very healthy for society to have gender roles, because men and women are quite different. On average, such roles help us relate to each other by giving us forms we can rely upon to smooth our interactions just where misunderstandings are most likely. Nevertheless, I realize that some people object to them if they become too rigid. Let me point out, then, that chivalry is not as closed as people take it to be. Even in the High Middle Ages, these poets were challenging these questions. The feminist scholar who looks deeply at the tradition of Arthurian literature will find a great deal of interest -- indeed, I think most of the scholars writing in the field today are women, precisely because it is interesting to them. Modern America doesn't seem to have much problem making room for women to be warriors, including several good ones I had the honor of serving alongside in Iraq.

Chivalry can take such women on its terms, but it also holds open the position of special honor for women who are drawn to the beauty of the old way, and who help shape a place for the courtly: the kind of woman who makes a special place in the world, a place finer and more beautiful than is common, and who fills that place and invites us to be welcome there if only we know how.

Americans have an interesting relationship with the courtly. On the one hand we officially despise it as elitist and anti-democratic. On the other, we admire it tremendously when it is stripped of pretentious trappings. An American gentleman -- and let us remember what it means to be a gentleman -- can be found in any walk of life, but wherever he is found he is the best kind of American man. Of course he is: he is the one you can trust, the one who keeps his word, the one who does not let you down. In the South, being a gentleman is still held up as the ideal toward which any young man should strive. There is a code of conduct, which I described before as things you must do and things you must never do.

When we speak of chivalry and women, then, the same thing is at work. 'Being put on a pedestal' is not objectification, it's about being held to standards. These are high standards: honor, nobility of character, virtue, and yes, kindness. A woman who chooses not to live these standards will still receive courteous treatment, but she need not worry about being put on a pedestal. Rather, she will be treated well in honor of those ladies who are worthy of love, because we know it pains them to see women treated with disrespect.

If we do this out of respect for their wishes and even when they are not around, it is because we do it from love. A code that teaches men how to love women is good. If it also makes men into the kinds of creatures that are worthy of love themselves, it is better. But chivalry does not just make a man fit for the court: it also makes a man fit for the camp. It makes possible a kind of life filled with poetry and the striving after legend. I know of no better life.


douglas said...

Thank you, Grim. I was out of town earlier this week, and then quite busy since, and so have only gotten to this now. The distinction between the chivalrous and the civil is quite helpful to me.

When you got to the part about the female warriors, and how that is not inconsistent with chivalry, it occurred to me something I was recently reminded of with all the talk about violence of late. As Penn says in the "B.S.!" series episode on gun control, "Guns don't kill people and women don't kill people, men kill people.". By and large, violence from females is not a major issue socially, but clearly violence is, typically, a male domain. I think this fits with the need for men to be taught to hold women (and others who might be 'weak', children for instance) in highest regard, as they have the problem of a rage to control physically. Women have issues too, but they differ.

I think it's also clear that most people have the impression that chivalry is about men following a code, and women sitting around to be 'honored' by the men. They have no sense of the responsibilities of the woman in such a system.

Texan99 said...

"'Being put on a pedestal' is not objectification, it's about being held to standards. These are high standards: honor, nobility of character, virtue, and yes, kindness."

Excellent standards, but are they really the ones to which ideal ladies are traditionally held? Or at least, are they the salient ones, assuming they are in the set? Because if so, the words "honor," "nobility," and "virtue" have been given a separate and specific meaning when they are applied to women. It's always seemed to me that there's something about that pedestal that encourages a willingness to stand quietly in a circle while being young and pretty, and to demonstrate being "worth dying for" by accepting the circumscribed role.