Thursday, October 31, 2013

Defining Chivalry

by Helena P. Schrader

Recent discussions on the web about whether “chivalry is dead” revolved around whether men should open doors for women and demonstrate just how little is known and understood about the concept of chivalry today. To be sure, chivalry defied definition even in the centuries where it was the dominant ethos of educated classes in Western Europe. The biographer of William Marshal, one of the most famous knights of the late 12th and early 13th century who was often held up as a perfect chivalrous knight, himself asked, “What is chivalry?” His answer:

So strong a thing, and of such hardihood, and so costly in learning, 
that a wicked man or low dare not undertake it.

In this entry, I’d like to review what we do know about chivalry and the extent to which it influenced medieval society.

Scene from Le Livre de cuer d'amour espris by Rene d'Anjou.

Chivalry evolved out of the military and literary traditions of antiquity, and emerged at the beginning of the High Middle Ages as a concept that rapidly came to dominate the ethos and identity of the nobility. Chivalry is inextricably tied to knighthood, a phenomenon distinct to Europe in the Middle Ages. There have been cavalrymen in many different ages and societies, but the cult of knighthood, including a special dubbing ceremony and a code of ethics, exists only in the Age of Chivalry.

Chivalry was always an ideal. It defined the way a knight was supposed to behave. No one in the Middle Ages seriously expected every knight to live up that ideal. Even the heroes of chivalric romances usually fell short of the ideal at least some of the time – and many only achieved their goal and glory when they overcame the baser instincts or their natural shortcomings to live, however briefly, like “perfect, gentle knights.”

This is my favorite scene from Rene d'Anjou's book -- it shows the hero,
unhorsed and thrown into a river -- being rescued by his lady. 

Chivalry was a code of behavior that young men were supposed to aspire to – not already have. The code was articulated and passed on to youths in the form of romances and poems lionizing the chivalrous deeds of fictional heroes. It was also recorded in the biographies of historical personages viewed as examples of chivalry, from William Marshal to Geoffrey de Charney and Edward, the Black Prince. Finally, there were a number of textbooks or handbooks that attempted to codify the essence of chivalry.

So what defined chivalry? First and foremost, a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. He was also supposed to be upon a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.” The troubadours, meanwhile, had introduced for the first time the notion that “a man could become more noble through love.” Thus love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature.

A knight receives a token from his lady. From the Manessische Liederhandschift,

The chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. But the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Medieval Lovers from the Manessische Liederhandschrft, University of Heidelberg.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues, albeit only within the band of society that was “noble.” By definition, the heroes of chivalry are knights, and their ladies are just that -- ladies. Stories about peasants, priests, and merchants are simply not part of the genre, any more than lusting after a serving “wench” qualifies as “love” in the chivalric tradition. But within the chivalric class, a lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his chivalric virtues, not his lands or titles.

In more practical terms, one of the handbooks on chivalry written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull lists the virtues of a knight as nobility, loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), love, courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal, on the other hand, stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness.

Geoffrey de Charney, the French hero from the Hundred Years’ War, also wrote a handbook on chivalry that is particularly valuable because he was a man with a powerful reputation as a chivalrous knight. (He was killed at the Battle of Poitiers defending the French battle standard, the oriflamme.) Charney puts the emphasis on love as a spur to great deeds and stresses that a knight must love “loyally” (with exclusive devotion to his one true love), but includes good manners, generosity, humility, fortitude, and courage among the qualities of chivalry as well. As a reflection of his career, Charney places greater value on fighting – stressing its hardships, deprivations, and risks – over frivolous tournaments.

Fifteenth century depiction of the Battle of Agincourt
(I couldn't find one of Poitiers)

William Marshal’s biographer, on the other hand, writing in the early 13th century, sees in tournaments a means of giving men a chance to demonstrate their “worth” – i.e., their courage, audacity, and skill at arms. These are the skills, combined with unwavering loyalty to his liege, that enable Marshal to rise from landless knight to regent of England. While Marshal (or at least his biographer) put the emphasis on courage, the themes of courtesy and discretion with respect to ladies, and generosity, are also present.

In Marshal's time the melee -- a great free for all -- was more common than jousting one-on-one. The above picture is from the Manessische Liederhandschrift, University of Heidelberg.
Readers interested in learning more about this fascinating concept can turn to:

Barber, Richard W., The Knight and Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1970, 1974, 1995.
Duby, George, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. New York: Random House, 1985.
Hopkins, Andrea, Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. London: Quarto Publishing, 1990.

Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction about historical events from Ancient Sparta to the Berlin Airlift. You can find out more about her books on her website:

She is currently working on the “Tales of Chivalry” series, ten novels set in the Age of Chivalry.  Visit her website: or view the video teaser by clicking Tales of Chivalry Video.


  1. Thanks for the post. I found it very interesting. I always wondered how the code of chivalry allowed rape in the aftermath of knights' conquests. In my research for the medieval romance I'm writing, I was surprised to learn that a knight's protection of a woman's virtue applied only to ladies, and did not extend to servants and others (which perhaps explains why so many women were raped when William and his knights conquered England). Of course, there were other men-at-arms with the knights but the knights, as I understand it, did not treat all women alike.

  2. My understanding of chivakry is that it was class basf & did not extend outside the knightly class. Knights' protection was to 'ladies' not to women . Treatment of men defeated in battle depended on the man's status, a knight may be treated honourably but ordinary soldiers could be treated very badly.

  3. Yes, that is consistent with all I've learned, too. Not very helpful for the rest of womankind, of course.


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