When a gentleman acts courteously towards ladies, he may often receive the welcome comment that “The age of chivalry is not dead after all!” Of course the age of chivalry was about much more than behaving as a gentleman towards ladies, but it was certainly an integral part of it. Etymologically the word comes from the French for horse and was the code of honourable and Christian behaviour for the Knights of Western Europe.
Back to Troy
G K Chesterton saw the roots of chivalry as going back to pagan times and being embodied by the character of Hector, whose epithet in Homer’s Iliad is “the tamer of horses”. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:
“Hector grows greater as the ages pass; and it is his name that is the name of the Knight of the Round Table and his sword that legend puts into the hand of Roland, laying about him with the weapon of the defeated Hector in the last ruin and splendour of his own defeat. The name anticipates all the defeats through which our race and religion were to pass; that survival of a hundred defeats that is its triumph.”
Hector does seem in many ways to prefigure the Christian Knight – he is a type, albeit from a pagan world. Hector of course was loyal and loving to his wife, but is primarily remembered for giving his life for his brother’s sins inasmuch as he died for his City to protect it from Greek vengeance against Paris. Chesterton went on:
“And as with the city [Troy] so with the hero [Hector]; traced in the archaic lines in that primeval twilight is found the first figure of the Knight. There is the prophetic coincidence in his title; we have spoken of the word chivalry and how it seems to mingle the horseman with the horse. It is almost anticipated ages before in the thunder of the Homeric hexameter, and that long leaping word with which the Iliad ends. It is that very unity for which we can find no name but the holy centaur of chivalry.”
The Origins of the Knight
Mediaeval knights emerged from the chaos of the end of the Carolingian Empire, when Christians fought Christians. The Church and the Knights themselves felt that there was something profoundly anti-Christian about brethren of the faith killing one another. The chivalric code therefore grew up to control these mounted warriors and initially dealt with how they should deal with their defeated opponents. Ransoming your defeated opponent replaced the pagan approach of killing prisoners. So the Church attempted to restrain Christians in war. Later with the crusades in response to calls for help from the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II tried to employ Saint Augustine’s much earlier concept of the Just War, which became part of chivalry in the fight to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslim invaders. Further crusades such as those to drive the Muslims from Catholic Spain led to the just war becoming a positive duty for the Knight.
Courtly Love and Hunting with Hounds
Later the code of courtly love became part of chivalry. The knight began to serve the lady and the Christian idea of defending and venerating the weaker sex, particularly linked to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, became integral to chivalry. This is where our idea of behaving as a gentleman towards ladies can be traced. It is a uniquely Christian cultural approach, where the woman is honoured rather than oppressed. The lady goes first through the door, not walking behind her man.
One aspect of modern culture where chivalry survives is in hunting with its codes of behaviour. Hunting was another integral part of being a knight. The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a key example of this, where the moral of marital fidelity is combined with long pieces on hunting with hounds.
The Modern Attacks on the Chivalric Code
Today in the modern world there are many forces arrayed against chivalry. Feminism attacks the gentleness of the gentleman towards the lady as a form of oppression. Islamist extremists burn poppies when the modern day soldier returns from defending Afghans from the oppression of the Taliban (our armed forces are surely the strongest example of the chivalric code today). And the anti-hunting movement seems to be motivated not by concern for animal welfare (hunting clearly being the most humane way to control the fox) but through an atavistic loathing of the symbol of the mounted hunter, which can be traced back to the Knights of Christendom.
Of course, even when chivalry was the dominant code there was hypocrisy and a failure to live up to the ideal. Abuses took place and prisoners were slaughtered. Because of this, the opponents of all that chivalry represents attack the concept itself, rather than concede flawed humanity will always fail to live up to the ideal. Does this really mean the knights should have abandoned their code not to kill prisoners because sometimes it was violated? It is beyond the blogger why the fact individuals fail to live up to a good code should mean the code is wrong. This seems to be flawed logic. Let us keep the ideals of chivalry and the gentleman, because those ideals can only be a force for good, raising us up from our flawed nature, however infrequently and fleetingly.
The Moral of Camelot
One is reminded of the story of Camelot. Of course Camelot failed in the end and part of that failing was Sir Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s adultery. And yet Malory is clear that the true fault lies with Mordred who exposes Lancelot and thereby brings the whole kingdom down. Yes Lancelot failed as a human, yet he was still the “noblest knight”. The real sin was Mordred’s, as revealed at the end of the tale.
Is this not a metaphor for all those who would pull down our inherited moral codes because they detect individual failure. The exposure of hypocrisy is enough justification to pull down the whole edifice we have inherited from our ancestors.
Living in Ugly Modernity
Returning to Hector, for those of us who believe in that moral code of the knight that evolved into the idea of the gentleman, are we not living in a strange world today? All that is good and symbolic of that code is disparaged and attacked. So that like Hector’s widow, Andromache, we find ourselves in a foreign and strange country. To quote Charles Baudelaire as he bemoaned the loss of traditional Paris:
“Andromache I think of you – this meagre stream,
This melancholy mirror where had once shone forth
The giant majesty of all you widowhood,
This fraudulent Simois, fed by bitter tears,
Has quickened suddenly my fertile memory
As I walked through the modern Carrousel.
The old Paris is gone (the form a city takes
More quickly shifts, alas, than does the mortal heart).”