The Magazine

On Their Honor

The thriving of the medieval cult of chivalry.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The word “chivalry,” associated with the Middle Ages and its knightly ethos of courtesy and dragon-slaying, has a bad rap nowadays. “Chivalrous” refers to the patsy in shining armor who opens doors for women, picks up the tab on dates, and is willing to be there with sensitive sympathy (along with hopes of future romance) when the cad whom his ladylove really loves dumps her. For his pains, the chivalrous man will be punished with the wrath of feminists (“I can open my own door!”), the faint contempt of the woman he is orbiting (“Let’s just be friends”), and the jeers of his more alpha, and thus more cynical, contemporaries, who will deride him for being a “white knight” who puts women on a “pedestal” they don’t deserve.

‘The Black Prince invested as a Knight of the Garter’  by Charles West Cope

‘The Black Prince invested as a Knight of the Garter’ by Charles West Cope, 1844

getty images

It is interesting to know, then, that most professional medieval historians, the academics who make their living studying the later Middle Ages, during which the idea of chivalry arose, have by and large displayed the same dismissiveness about chivalric ideals as, say, the man-o-sphere blogger Roissy. In the view of many medieval historians, chivalry was so much fancy window-dressing in a culture whose main concerns were jostling for land, power, and wealth. Chivalry was said to be a women’s thing; poets entertained the ladies with romances about Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere while their hardheaded husbands conducted the nastier real business of enlarging their holdings and prestige, oppressing the serfs, and so forth. Alternatively, some historians have argued that the entire idea of medieval “chivalry” was an invention of 19th-century Romantics (think Tennyson’s Idylls of the King), who had no historical foundation in the Middle Ages.

Nigel Saul, a professor of medieval history at the University of London, tries to put paid to these common assumptions. He argues that chivalry was a thoroughly masculine creation aimed directly at reshaping that most masculine of human activities: warfare. Its focus wasn’t on rescuing damsels in distress, but on fostering an ethos of knighthood that upheld loyalty to one’s comrades and superiors and respect for one’s enemies, who were also knights, in combat. Furthermore, Saul argues, the warfare-linked idea of chivalry pervaded aristocratic culture (in England, at least) to the point that the fortress-like crenellations of medieval castles became a standard architectural feature of gentry homes during the 13th and 14th centuries. 

Chivalry was not a movement or institution cut off from the mainstream of society; on the contrary, it formed part of the wider ethos and value system of society. It was central to the identity of the English medieval elite.

Chivalry arrived in England with the Norman Conquest, which brought mounted horsemen armed with swords and lances to the British Isles as a fighting force for the first time. Before then, in Anglo-Saxon times and among the Vikings who established footholds throughout Great Britain, warriors fought almost entirely on foot, and their weapon of choice was the axe. Horses were prized symbols of status and useful for transport and rapid movement of troops, but Anglo-Saxons dismounted to fight. They also hacked each other to death in battle, and the victors plundered the bodies of the dead for booty. Surviving losers taken prisoner could expect to be killed or mutilated. 

The Normans changed all this with the introduction of cavalry warfare, in which the mounted knight—nearly always a member of the aristocracy, because few besides aristocrats could afford the expense of maintaining and armoring horses—was a central figure. Horses were more effective in offensive warfare, and, as the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry illustrates, the Norman Conquest strategically was a matter of a hard-hitting horseback breakthrough of the defensive shield-wall of Anglo-Saxon foot warriors strung along the cliffs of England’s southern coast.

Partly because Continentals were shocked at the apparent barbarity of all-or-nothing Anglo-Saxon and Viking warmongering, and partly because the Roman Catholic church had been trying for decades to tame feudal nobles’ incessant infighting by advancing the concept of the “just war,” the Normans instituted a new battlefield ethos in which captured knights, as the social and moral equals of their captors, were to be held for ransom instead of being killed outright. The new rule, which took hold as the 12th century unfolded, bespoke a respect for the knight’s status that transcended his particular feudal or national loyalties. It demanded a reciprocal courtesy that was similarly transcendent.