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Chivalry, or the chivalric code, is the traditional code of conduct associated with the medieval institution of knighthood. Chivalry arose from an idealized German custom.[1] It was originally conceived of as an aristocratic warrior code — the term derives from the French term chevalerie, meaning horse soldiery[2] — involving, gallantry, and individual training and service to others. Over time its meaning has been refined to emphasise more ideals such as the knightly virtues of honour, courtly love, courtesy, and less martial aspects of the tradition.

The Knight's Code of Chivalry was a moral system that stated all knights should protect others who can not protect themselves, such as widows, children, and elders. All knights needed to have the strength and skills to fight wars in the Middle Ages; they not only had to be strong but they were also extremely disciplined and were expected to use their power to protect the weak and defenseless.

Knights vowed to be loyal, generous, and "of noble bearing". Knights were required to tell the truth at all times and always respect the honour of women. Knights not only vowed to protect the weak but also vowed to guard the honor of all fellow knights. They always had to obey those who were placed in authority and were never allowed to refuse a challenge from an equal. Knights lived by honor and for glory. Knights were to fear God and maintain His Church. Knights always kept their faith and never turned their back on a foe. Knights despised pecuniary reward. They persevered to the end in any enterprise begun.[3]

Historian Johan Huizinga remarks in his book The Waning of the Middle Ages, "the source of the chivalrous idea, is pride aspiring to beauty, and formalized pride gives rise to a conception of honour, which is the pole of noble life."[4]

Terminology and definitions

Konrad von Limpurg as a knight being armed by his lady in the Codex Manesse (early 14th century)

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[5] In English, the term appears from 1292 (note that cavalry is from the Italian form of the same word)[6] 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 idealization 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: 1. Believe the Church's teachings and observe all the Church's directions. 2. Defend the Church. 3. Respect and defend all weaknesses. 4. Love your country. 6. Show no mercy to the Infidel. Do not hesitate to make war with them. 7. Perform all your feudal duties as long as they do not conflict with the laws of God. 8. Never lie or go back on one's word. 9. Be generous to everyone. 10. Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice.[7]


Origins in military ethos

"Stitching the Standard" by Edmund Blair Leighton: the lady prepares for a knight to go to war.

Regardless of the diverse written definitions of chivalry, the medieval knightly class was adept at the art of war, trained in fighting in armor, with horses, lances, swords and shields. Knights were taught to excel in the arms, to show courage, to be gallant and loyal and to swear off cowardice and baseness.[8]

Related to chivalry was the practice of heraldry and its elaborate rules of displaying coats of arms. When not fighting, chivalric knights typically resided in a castle or fortified house, while some knights lived in the courts of kings, dukes and other great lords. The skills of the knight carried over to peacetime activities such as the hunt and tournament.

Christianity had a modifying influence on the classical concept of heroism and virtue, nowadays identified with the virtues of chivalry.[9] The Peace and Truce of God in the 10th century was one such example, with limits placed on knights to protect and honor 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.”[10] In the 11th century the concept of a "knight of Christ" (miles Christi) gained currency in France, Spain and Italy.[8] 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.[8] 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,[11] 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.[8]

Medieval literature

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 emphasize the virtues of courage, honor, and service. Chivalry also came to refer to an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court.

Medieval courtly literature glorifies the valor, tactics and ideals of ancient Romans.[8] 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.[8] This was a democratization of chivalry, leading to a new genre called the courtesy book, which were guides to the behavior 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.[8]

The medieval development of chivalry, with the concept of the honor 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.[12] 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.[13]

Knights of Christ by Jan van Eyck

When examining medieval literature, chivalry can be classified into three basic but overlapping areas:

  1. Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: this contains virtues such as mercy, courage, valor, 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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".[14]

Modern remnants

The ideal of behaving "chivalrous" survived into the early modern and modern period. The behavioural code of military officers down to the Napoleonic era and to some extent even to World War I was 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" rather than "chivalry" became used for the proper behaviour of upper class males towards upper class females. This "gender" aspect of chivalrous behavior came under attack on the parts of the upper-class suffragettes campaigning for gender equality in the early 20th century.[15]

In the 19th century, there were attempts to "revive" chivalry for the purposes of the gentleman of that time. Kenelm Henry Digby write 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.'

In the gender discourse of the late 20th century, chivalry became a technical term for men's (and societies) tendency to lend more attention to protection of women than men. 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."[16]

See also

  • Bushido
  • Chinese knight-errant
  • Chivalric order
  • Chivalric romance
  • Courtly love
  • Domnei
  • Don Quixote
  • Feliciano de Silva
  • Furusiyya
  • Gender role
  • High Court of Chivalry
  • Jomsvikings
  • Nine Worthies
  • Pas d'Armes
  • Spanish chivalry
  • The Book of the Courtier
  • Warrior code
  • Women and children first
  • Feminism


  1. Chivalry, Léon Gautier, tr. Henry Frith 1891. pp 2
  2. The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book, Inc.. 1994. pp. 346–351. ISBN 0-7166-0094-3. 
  3. Davis, Alex (2004). Chilvary, and Romance in the English Renaissance. Woodcock, Matthew.. 
  4. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919) 1924:58.
  5. T. F. Hoad, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford University Press 1993. p. 74.
  6. loaned via Middle French into English around 1540; HOAD 67
  7. Chivalry, Léon Gautier, tr. Henry Frith 1891. pp 26
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 James Ross Sweeney (1983). "Chivalry", in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Volume III.[page needed]
  9. Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII 1993 by Plinio Correa de Oliveira ISBN 0-8191-9310-0 page 110
  10. "The Life of St. Gerald, by Odo".. Penn State Press. 1954. pp. 371. 
  11. Chivalry, Brittanica Encyclopedia
  12. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: K-P by Geoffrey W. Bromiley 1994 ISBN 0-8028-3783-2 page 272
  13. Daughters of the church 1987 by Ruth Tucker ISBN 0-310-45741-6 page 168
  14. Huizinga 1924, "Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime life":30.
  15. "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
  16. Felson, Richard B. Violence and gender reexamined. Law and public policy. Chapter (pp. 67-82). Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 2002


  • Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. Cornell University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8014-8548-7

Gautier, Léon, La Chevalerie (1883, 3rd ed. 1895)

  • Haines, Charles Reginald. (1889). Christianity and Islam in Spain, A.D. 756-1031
  • Keen, Maurice (1984). Chivalry. ISBN 0-300-03150-5 / ISBN 0-300-10767-6 (2005 reprint)
  • 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)
  • Sweeney, James Ross (1983). "Chivalry," in Dictionary of the Middle Ages Volume III
  • Barber, Richard (1980). "The Reign of Chivalry"
  • Mills, Charles (2004). "The History of Chivalry or knighthood and its Times" Volume I-II
  • Keen, Maurice (1984). "Chivalry"
  • Prestage, Edgar (1928). "Chivalry: A Series of Studies to Illustrate Its Historical Significance and Civilizing Influence"
  • Saul, Nigel. Chivalry in Medieval England (Harvard University Press; 2011) 400 pages; Explores chivalry's role in English history from the Norman Conquest to Henry VII's victory at Bosworth in the War of the Roses.

External links

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