Chivalry-OaE-art - 2/13/14
"Chivalry: It's Origins and Evolution" by Sir Valtorr of Oslo, Knight of AnTir.
"Chivalry is like beer. Each country has it's own traditional styles, and each style has it's own unique recipe and flavor. - Sir Valtor"
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
"Chivalry is like beer. Each country has it's own traditional styles, and each style has it's own unique recipe and flavor. - Sir Valtor"
Chivalry: It's Origins and Evolution
by Sir Valtorr of Oslo, Knight of AnTir
AKA: Jay Palmer, Author of The VIKINGS! Trilogy
Chivalry is a term originated from the French, meaning "horseman", yet it is far more. It's meaning encompasses the history of every warrior-code, traces of which can be found on every inhabited continent on Earth. Although it was known by different names, and it's local customs varied with the climate and political structure of each nation, the basics of noble status, combat training, ceremonial appointment, and standards of Honor, Duty, and Loyalty exist in all the warrior codes of the European Knight, the Asian Samurai, the Zulu Warrior, the Roman Legionnaire, the Scandinavian Berserker, the Russian-bred Mongol Warrior, the Canadian Skraeling (native Eskimo tribes), the North American Brave, and the Aztec Eagle Warrior. No matter who you are, or where your family came from, whether your ancestors walked on deserts or glaciers, in jungles or even the tiny islands of the South Seas, you are descended from ancestors who held one common warrior-class with one basic code that, in all of my European-American ancestry, was called chivalry. It is this history I know best, and upon which this article is based, yet it important to know that this subject is not limited to Central Europe and the Byzantium Empire, but applies to every civilization ever known on Earth. To understand any nation's history, you must understand chivalry.
Chivalry is like beer. Each country has it's own traditional styles, and each style has it's own unique recipe and flavor. To understand chivalry, one must accept that it is not a task of learning a single definition, but an ever-increasing challenge of balancing an understanding of many different historical times and places, a comprehension of ancient peoples and politics, their beliefs and attitudes, and an in-depth analysis of the many perceptions of chivalry and the myriad, often conflicting differences between them.
I cannot tell you exactly what chivalry is. No one can. Chivalry is an ideal, the vision of which is dependant on the viewer. What I hope to accomplish here is to outline the reasons why chivalry evolved at all, evolved as it did, and hopefully, a perspective on chivalry today. Yet this will only be my personal perspective that, while it has been founded on almost three decades of research, it is certainly not the only perspective.
Chivalry is too widespread for anyone to pinpoint a single, definitive starting-place for it, except for the one all civilizations share. Chivalry began as a warrior's code, which was little more than just a basic requirement for civilization. In every tribe of apes, flock of birds, or herd of deer, the larger, stronger members protect the weaker. As mankind escaped the ties of pure instinct for the path of rational thought in a still savage and hostile world, a beginning civilization without warriors could not have survived very long. Yet it was never an easy or welcomed balance. The duty of the warrior was to risk his life for the security of the village. The duty of the village was to share with the warriors it's provisions, which were often if not always scarce. To each, supporting the other must have seemed an exhausting burden, yet whenever either side refused this bargain, their civilization failed, and was either consumed by another civilization, or it simply vanished, leaving only scarce traces of it's existence scattered amid it's ruins. Yet this bargain was too basic to be called chivalry; Chivalry cannot have existed that long ago.
This agreement, from the early villages perspective, was essential for it's survival. Yet the warrior's survival was not dependant upon this bargain. The warrior could make his own way in the world, simply taking what he needed from those who were not warriors. Obviously, it would have been the safer and easier choice, and had been the way of things since mankind's earliest days. Yet the warrior had reasons not to break the agreement. Since other civilizations had gathered together many warriors, and man is one of the few species which preys upon itself, each warrior had to join with others in order to compete, and soon their numbers were not self-sustaining.
As fathers taught sons, eventually each tribal warrior followed the agreement because he was forced to by the rest of the warriors. This practice would have been enforced by their tribal leader. Yet it would be foolish to assume this practice stood unchallenged. It was at this point that the tribal leaders either had to waste their energies dealing with all these challenges, or come up with a reason why the agreement had to be followed. This reason was "Duty", which was a new concept to early man, yet quickly became accepted because of the severe punishment, which any disobedient warriors suffered. Thus the ideal of duty stood unchallenged for thousands of years. Yet civilization kept changing, growing, and spreading out across the Earth, and eventually the ideal of duty had to change with it.
In the Western world, the first real challenge to this came from the church. No one knows who first said:
"Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword".
Some may say it was divine in origin, yet it was also sensible for the leaders of civilization to lessen the violence of the times for the sake of greater control over their populace, the hope of increasing their personal wealth, and for a chance to keep some of the wealth that they earned. Yet this made the need for warriors even greater, despite their growing cost. The ancient tribal warrior had evolved into a city's militia, and then into a nation's army. The need to quell violence for the sake of civilization was in direct conflict with the need of each civilization to defend itself from impoverished tribes and failing nations seeking plunder to replenish their wealth. Yet chivalry still did not exist, for the choice to defend oneself is no choice at all.
The people of Athens are historically considered the first to make an ideal of the concept of freedom, yet it may have been an idea stolen from Persia. In 499 B.C. numerous coastal cities in Asia Minor simultaneously revolted against their rulers, and amid the civil war that followed, pleas for help were sent to Athens. The Athenians responded, although if their reasons were for the ideal of freedom or the hope of plunder, history doesn't say. Yet, with the Athenians assistance, the revolt was successful and all the coastal rulers of Asia Minor were overthrown. Afterwards, these coastal cities were taken back by the rulers of Asia Minor, and two attempts at revenge were made against Athens, but both failed. Fearing larger reprisals, in 478 B.C. Athens made an alliance with Sparta called the Confederation of Delos, which provided for warships to defend against Persia. This secured the border between Persia and the West, a division which would remain unchallenged for centuries.
The cost to Sparta was very great, as it drew off a great percentage of it's wealth. Yet Sparta knew it could not defend itself against the vast navy of Persia without aid, therefore it complied with the Confederation of Delos. Yet now Athens had a great warfleet, built for defense in 448 B.C., and nothing to do with it. Persia, hearing of the new fleet and already weakened by it's two failed campaigns, did not dare attack Athens again. So the Spartans complained that the Confederation of Delos had served it's purpose and was no longer needed. Yet Athens enjoyed the wealth of Sparta and instead used the ships to conquer new lands for itself, including all of Greece. It formed alliances with other great cities, and soon had control of the largest navy ever. It's excuse of maintenance for it's fleet was used to siphon off the wealth of it's allies, not enough to impoverish them, but enough to prevent them from affording fleets of their own, which kept them militarily dependant upon the good will of Athens. This collection of allies formed the Great Athenian Empire.
Yet, all empires have enemies. The Corinthians, who were the trade-rivals of Athens, suffered greatly during this time. Therefore, in 411 B.C. they went to Sparta and urged them into a secret alliance with their age-old enemies in Persia. The Great Athenian Empire was suddenly attacked both from within and from outside of it's borders, and Athens was sacked and burned in 404 B.C.. Many were happy for this, many were not, yet during the coming rise of the Roman Empire, the question remained long in the minds of scholars: "Were the Athenians justified in their imperialism?"
Remember, at this time in history each city was managed totally differently. There was no standard way of doing things; the absolute ruler had to be obeyed. So the question of what the ideal civilization would be was the pertinent question of the times.
This returned scholars to the conflict between the principles of the church and the need for war that all nations forced upon each other. Debates continued throughout the West. The long reign of the Roman Empire was due in part to their total intolerance to non-Roman thinking, which was the first attempt by a Western nation to control learning, which was very effective, in part due to the high regard in which ancient scholars were held, and in part to the Roman's reverence to pagan gods of war, which conflicted with and persecuted the church. Unknowingly, by their cruel persecutions, the Romans were giving the Christians a strength and solidarity comparable only to the enslavement of the Jews by the Egyptians, and like the Jews, the Christians were destined to survive it strengthened by their ordeal.
The very first seed, many people claim, happened during the height of Rome's power, by a scholar and diplomat named Tacitus. Around 99 A.D., in his work "The Germania", a Roman document about the northern barbarians who were becoming an increasing threat to Rome, Tacitus wrote of the high status which they held their warriors in, how it was almost a regal appointment:
"The whole tribe was assembled for a solemn ceremony in the shade of an old forest. A young man advances and the chief of the tribe gravely places in the youth's hands a framea and a buckler."
Tacitus further describes the ceremony as:
"It is the first honor of their youth. Until then the young man was only one in a family; he becomes by this rite a member of the Republic."
Of course, Tacitus was alluding to the Roman Republic. The German youth's first spear is even compared to the Roman youth's first toga. The rest of the Germaina is a complete record of life among the Germanic tribes, including their habitats, borders, people, crafts, war-songs, metallurgy, war-tactics, councils, laws, customs, popular sports, love of drinking and gambling, and the war-training periods they put their youths through. Clearly, this was a blueprint for the coming of Chivalry.
Many people consider this report to be the beginning of knighthood, and perhaps it was. Certainly to the church it was a new beginning, as they later reported that:
"Chivalry is a German custom idealized by the church."
Yet it was in fact a culmination of revolutionary new theories trying to resolve the church's principles against the need for war and numerous political and technological advances that truly created the first concept of chivalry.
Chivalry was greatly slowed by the strength of Rome, yet in Rome's weakness, it blossomed forth. One of the major political seeds of chivalry happened in 378 A.D., when an entire legion of Roman foot soldiers were outmaneuvered, driven to total confusion, and massacred at Adrianople by an army of Goths attacking with javelins from the rear on horseback. This was part of the major weakening of Rome. It was also the first recorded major victory accorded to armed horsemen. This was matched to another major victory accorded to mounted archers which happened in Parthia, in the new and growing Byzantuim Empire. News of these very similar events were vastly important to the rebellious, non-Roman war-leaders of the day. Each was facing the greatest and wealthiest empire the world had ever seen, which was suddenly displaying signs of weakness, and every nation, subjugated or not, wanted a piece of the pie, if Rome was indeed about to fall. So new, mounted troops began to appear in almost every military camp.
As Rome came under new attacks, weakening it even further, it also found a need to have its troops at many different places. Rome's enemies used their new mobility to great advantage. They found a new target that hamstrung Rome even farther: The largely undefended Roman villa.
During the early Roman era, the economy had become based on easily defended centers that came to be called villas. They were large estates employing hundreds of workers, mostly slaves, so they were far more secure than the small family farm from the large roving bands of thieves and murderers that ranged freely at the time. Rome even set specific standards for each villa that they were required to maintain, such as a blacksmith, a candle maker, a potter, an armorer, a weaver, a butcher, a kitchen, a stable, and all the necessities which made each villa a microcosm of a full Roman city, for it was unthinkable that the ruler of such a vast estate should lack anything in the way of comfort or excess. Meanwhile, the average land-worker with no property of his own, which in the coming Dark Ages would be known as a serf, but then called a coloni (or colonus), was a person without any rights, so much that if they even meditated on running away they could be shackled and tortured and made into slaves, and anyone who sheltered a fleeing coloni would lose all their possessions and be required to pay tribute to the true owner of the slave. So the low status of the poor was also a sprouting seed of chivalry.
After the rise of the Roman Empire, the large roving bands of thieves had mostly fled or been killed, and the need for these expensive microcosms vanished, yet the tradition continued. Economically, this tradition was a sign of doom to the Romans. Rome's answer to this continuing economic dilemma came from plundering other nation's great cities and persecuting religious communities, like the Christians. Yet, when the Roman Empire grew too big to sustain itself, having long over-reached it's areas of control, it had to stop persecuting the church in order to accept the church's people into it's failing armies. This sudden reversal of the church's status gave an unexpected acceptance and even importance to the western church, and was one of the early seeds that gave chivalry it's chance to explode into reality.
With their new, mounted-troop's mobility, the enemies of Rome found carefully centralized centers of wealth largely unprotected after Rome had drained off it's best men to fill it's swelling legions. Because of their low status, most of the slaves fled when these villas were attacked, leaving their masters defenseless. Rome's economics were based on taxes raised at it's villas, and when they fell, in 476 A.D., with the death of Romulis Augustus, the last Roman Emperor, Rome finally fell. By then the Church of Christianity, which had assumed great importance as it's members swelled the failing ranks of the last of Rome's legions, had developed a faith-inspired warrior-sect whose traditions were passed on to their sons in a world without Roman law. This was the rich soil in which all the many seeds of Chivalry took root and started to grow.
Adding to these seeds of chivalry were the appearance of new technologies. Stirrups appeared in China in the 5th century, reached Iran and the Carolingan Empire by the 7th, Byzantuim and even Norway by the 9th. Horseshoes began to be used on war-horses. Javelins were replaced by lances. Plates were riveted over mail in vulnerable areas. The crossbow gave troops a greater arrow-range, increasing the need for troop mobility. Each of these things combined to set the stage for the appearance of chivalry.
Yet, chivalry's greatest thrust came not from new inventions or wars won or lost, but from the scholars of the times. With the fall of Rome, the church rose shouting from it's ashes, creating out of the confusion of the day a whole new Western world. To explain it's foundations at the times, it turned to the ancient and modern scholars to explain it's New Order, voicing loudest those whose principles were aligned with it's own.
St. Agustus, who came from the city of Carthia in North Africa, was perhaps the first scholar to attempt to combine the principles of the church with the need for war:
"He who can think of war and support war without great sorrow is truly dead to human feeling .... It is necessary to submit to war, but to wish for peace".
This was perhaps the first signal that the dawn of chivalry was at hand.
Shortly after the fall of Rome, Deacon Fulgentius Ferrandus, a scholar and astronomer, added:
"Love the commonwealth as thyself, and let thy life be as a mirror in which thy soldiers can see their duty clearly".
To St. Leo, the Pope (unknown which one) said:
"To him who dies in such a battle, God will open the gates of Heaven."
Hildebert, another great scholar of the time, said:
"In the eyes of a soldier, it is not death which is terrible, but dishonor!"
John of Salisbury, one of the greatest scholars of the Middle-Ages, who later became a bishop, said:
"The military profession, as praiseworthy as it is necessary, was instituted by God himself!"
As you can see, the church was desperately trying to attract soldiers. However, they were not alone in this respect. In China, in Russia, in North Africa, and in the Byzantine Empire, such arguments were echoed from many sources. All were dealing with the remnants of a shattered world without Roman order, the desperate need for soldiers, new technologies that were changing the basic tactics of war, and new ideas that were changing the perspectives of people all over. Thus it was that the creation of a new weapon, the armed, armored, mounted warrior, was almost simultaneously created by many different cultures. The Germania, which was by then well known and popular among all nations, was used as the script for the making of these warriors by war-leaders who wanted to make it a great honor, in order to attract the warriors into this new and unusual military branch. This was the origin of the early knight.
Yet, the creation of this branch caused new difficulties. While it was customary that soldiers swear an oath of loyalty to their war-leaders, the new soldier, the knight, proved to be more formidable than anyone had expected. In his new armor, atop a specially trained war-horse, the knight became almost unstoppable, a warrior without control. Having adopted the new ideals of the modern warrior, the knight also became a symbol of the order of fallen Rome returned. Alone he could defeat small bands of roving thieves. Alone he could enforce his will over whole villages. Few could openly stop him, and his speed insured him easy escape from any unmounted threat. Clearly, his power was too great to allow him free reign apart from his war-leader, so new customs, traditions, and requirements became added to shackle the knight to his duty. Many were attempted, but the ones that held truest were the echoes of those ideals that married the need for the warrior with the anti-violent philosophies of the church. This was the first true investing of the ideals of chivalry.
New customs and traditions and requirements did not end with the creation of the knight. Every religion and every nation tried to enforce it's own versions of knighthood upon its warriors, but when wars occurred and knights were captured, each shared their versions and ideas of knighthood with the others. Over the years, consensuses of all the knights were what finally decided what knights really were. They themselves raised up the original ideals of chivalry and accepted its obligations, mostly as a great honor for the elevated rank they now had. You see, the cost of a knight, including the making of armor and weapons, was very great, and so special training periods became customary for all knights, as did the raising of specially bred horses, also given special training, and then given their own armor because the training was so expensive. Despite the outrageous costs, the war-leaders had little choice, for a knight who fell in battle provided armor and arms to the enemy. So the war-leaders turned to their wealthiest subjects, promising their sons honors beyond imagining for becoming a part of this new military branch. Thus it was that the knights became a new social class, previously unheard of: warriors of wealth and breeding, with the power to create a whole new social order for the remains of fallen Rome.
This is how chivalry sprung into existence almost simultaneously in many places about the known world. This early form of chivalry is not to be confused with the later, romanticized version of chivalry, which is unique unto Western Europe. Yet early chivalry is anything but unique. Echoes of its customs, its belief, and its observance to loyalty, to death before dishonor, to an afterlife-reward for military service, and to protection of the community are mirrored almost identically in the morals and traditions of many warrior's codes, including the Samurai of the Orient, the Brave of the Americas, the tribal warrior of Africa, and the Eagle warrior of the Aztecs. Almost all civilizations on all corners of the Earth had a code of conduct for their warrior class, and one cannot help but wonder: did the influences of the Mediterranean warrior spread around the globe, or were the similarities of the warrior's codes a natural part of any civilization? To this, we can only conjecture.
Later chivalry in the West evolved like a living thing, twisting away from early chivalry until the first knights would have almost nothing in common with the last. The only theme common to both was the ideal of service. The ideals of the early knight were centered on honor, victory, and courage. The ideals of the later knights were centered on tradition, courtliness, and social standing. The reason for this, as some have said, was the influence of the troubadours, who preformed for the knight's mothers and wives while the knights were at war. This is very true, but also incomplete. The knights themselves are responsible for part of their own change, and the church stirred the mixture with as much control as it could muster, ever seeking to dominate the knight. None consciously made chivalry what it finally became. As before, it was a balancing of factors, and a consensus of all, that formed the basis of romantic chivalry.
The early knight was a warrior unlike the Roman legionnaire. The legionnaire was strong because of sheer numbers and tactics. The knight's strength lay in his individual skills. It was this change of emphasis that separated the old from the new, yet there was more. The Emperors of Rome, who were considered divine, outlined for their people almost every detail of living as they wanted with little regard for practicality. In the Dark Ages, few kings could afford to be so extravagant. The old expectations were, one by one, cast off in favor of profitability. Unlike the legionnaire, the knight was free to set his own standards, his own fashions, and his own purposes.
Perhaps the greatest change, and the greatest motivator of change, was the shifting of the warrior's goal. The original warrior had one great goal: community survival. The barbaric warriors had their tribe. The legionnaires had Rome. But when Rome fell, the huge, expensive empire and all its many villas split into smaller, more economically sound units called family. This was part of a general trend of the shifting of emphasis from the larger to the smaller. In Rome, the death of a family for the sake of the villa was acceptable. With the villa gone, and the elevated status of the coloni to the serf, this idea became offensive.
As the known world heaved a sigh and began to enjoy life without the eternal taxation of Rome, Europe's enemies turned their faces away from the West. Perhaps it was themselves they wished to pay attention to, or perhaps it was simply a desire to forget the forced domination of foreign emperors. Either way, left alone, Europe divided itself along its ancient divisions: race and religion. While those who could gathered as much land as each could control, and minor wars and feuds constantly broke out over illegal boundaries, these divisions remained mostly unchallenged.
The new nations, especially the Carolingian Empire, embraced knighthood, and made knights and their families exempt from all common taxes. Yet they also put new rules on knighthood, such as the following (note how many deal with the church):
Thou shalt believe all the church teaches and observe all its directions.
Thou shalt defend the church.
Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute. thyself the defender of them.
Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation and without mercy.
Thou shalt perform scrupulosuly the fuedal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
Thou shalt never lie and remain faithful to thy pledged word.
Thou shalt be generous and give largesse to everyone.
Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and Good and the foe of Injustice and Evil.
Yet, for all its success, civilization did not reach the heights it did in Rome, and bands of thieves and mercenaries led by savage warlords abounded for centuries.
During this long period of confusion, existing throughout the Carolingian Empire, chivalry became accepted as a cultural part of the warrior, whose life had always been decided by the harsh, stark reality of the battlefield. Yet, with the knights, the need for expensive standing armies became a thing of the past. Soldiers were sent home in times of peace, and soon the knights themselves were no longer required to give year-round service. This was a dawning new age for the warrior. He finally had earned a chance for leisure, and these medieval men discovered therein a new goal to idolize: Medieval women.
It is difficult for any modern person to comprehend the schism that existed in the ancient world between warriors and women. Before, prostitutes followed the army camps, and as far as the common soldier was aware, sex was something that had only two sources: Prostitutes, and any women of a defeated enemy. Townswomen were kept hidden from the warrior class, of which only the small percentage who guarded walled cities needed to have any social skills. These young, traditional-type warriors were totally incompatible with the civilized women of the West. As always, the church found a new foothold in the midst of this crisis, and planted a new seed whose buds flowered into romantic chivalry.
The knights were not blameless in this change. In accordance with their new status and freedom, their own endless boasting and the escalating tales of their daring adventures elevated from their midst a figure called the ideal knight, embellished with all the best virtues which the young knights aspired to. The knights chose their own heros, argued over whose hero was greater and why, until the ideal knight finally became a standard which none of the knights could equal.
The ideal knight found his home among the tales of the troubadours, the medieval storytellers, who layered on top of this figure the polish and civility they themselves aspired to, and while in their stories it was the knightly strengths and courage that attracted the ladies, it was always the gentler arts that finally won the damsels of story into the fictional knight's embrace.
Meanwhile, the Christian church was faced with a still-violent world, growing ever darker as the glow of Rome faded and was extinguished. Its churches became the scenes of horrible crimes, and soon all churches assumed the form and function of the medieval castle. Yet it was not enough; the church needed defenders. Therefore it seized onto this popular image of the ideal knight and purified it into a new sacrament: the warrior of Christ. He was the answer to the church's most desperate need, and throughout the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, the church spared no effort in trying to gain the sole right to dub new knights, an effort that never succeeded.
There was yet another factor, as small as it may have been, yet it was perhaps the strongest force of all: reality. All the others were trying to make the ideal knight into something no human could be, but the ideal was actually supported by the rare warrior who could see how medieval women wished to be treated, and complied. These men actually achieved the status of the ideal knight, for they accomplished the one goal which the ideal knight had left that human warriors could still accomplish; the winning of his lady's love. The examples of these knights became the path for all knighthood.
These four factors combined to create the ideal knight into the romantic knight, and each change brought on new perspectives and expectations, and chivalry was changed forever. Yet as chivalry became better focused and standardized in one area, so it began to change in another. As the knights adopted the increasing standards of chivalry and continued to place the medieval woman and her eternal love and devotion into an ever more exalted position, so did the idea of an ideal knight's lady mirror the ideal knight, until the ladies themselves had as impossible a standard to follow as the knights did.
The ideal knight's lady was as much fiction as the ideal knight had originally been. To say that she came from a wealthy family was obvious; the knights were mostly from upper-class families, and were not about to marry beneath themselves. Nor could the troubadours, whose fees were paid by the wealthy, disappoint their benefactors by having the knights prefer a lower class woman.
The average wealthy medieval woman was actually raised in absolute protectionism, comparable to comfortable imprisonment. Her life was an exercise in eternal boredom. Limits were set on her education, so she lived much of her youth in ignorance, as opposed to the knight, whose worldly experience must have seemed incomprehensibly interesting to her. Seeing this, the church used each to ensnare the other. The knight's lady became a virgin and virtuous and her love would inspire the young knight to achievements of heroic status. Meanwhile, to the lady, the knight became a gallant, victorious champion of God's faith who would protect her and give her an importance she'd never known.
In the end, chivalry adopted a coloring unique to the West, into which both men and women actually duped themselves, creating impossible ideals which their children came to accept as expectations, and both spent their whole lives shackled by guilt for not being what society had decreed they should be, with no concession for the fact that it was impossible. In fact, the knowledge that it was impossible was soon incorporated into the basis of what chivalry was, and has been unto this day.
Other problems were eating away at the foundations of Chivalry. Knightly traditions became more and more numerous as each great example of one day became an expectation of all knights the next day. The requirements for becoming a knight became more and more exclusive, even after it was obvious that many of the best candidates were being excluded. That chivalry could make a poor man as honorable as a rich man infuriated many of the wealthy and the royal alike. They influenced chivalry by declaring it to be a heritage claimable only by those of the noble estate. This crime of simple snobbery disenchanted the vast majority of medieval men with chivalry, and planted its first true seeds of disfavor among a society that no longer cared about the turmoil after the fall of ancient Rome.
Chivalry fell for the same reason it began: society produces and supports what the times demand. The causes for the downfall of chivalry are numerous and were fought against far longer than anyone could have expected, as their traditions had become so ingrained that the beliefs of the knights were attended to despite the reality of their failures. The reason for this was the weight of the chivalric codes that had piled on top of each other until it was an immovable mass that toppled itself. Society, civilization, and technology changed greatly when the Renaissance appeared, and chivalry's inflexibility, its death-grip on the past, finally made it a thing of the past. Chivalric thought embraced death before change, and finally killed itself.
Chivalry today has taken a grim beating. As it evolved into the creation of a more efficient, economical warrior, so it was then cast aside when politics and technology found new warriors to replace the armored knight. Chivalry never died completely; every modern military embellishes its standards on the traditions of its early warrior class. When the cost of the knighting ceremony grew outrageous, the knight candidate often chose the new title of Esquire, and the strict codes of the Western knights were trimmed into the customs of a noble gentleman, which have fallen out of popularity only recently. Today the world is forgetting about the triumphs of chivalry as once it was forgetting the ruin after Rome. Today could be the true end of chivalry.
Yet the ideal knight, for all his drawbacks, still stands as a symbol of all that is good and decent in the Western world. His broadsword, mostly traditional, early variations of the Norman longsword, as well as his armor, horse, and dubbing ceremony are undoubtedly kept pure and pristine in their connotations, despite centuries of change. Chivalry, likewise, has taken on a guise of an old-world relic, yet it is still revered as a better way, a higher moral achievement than currently exists.
Perhaps this is because chivalry, for all its grim birth, political necessity, social need, and fictional concocting, was a time of great moral achievement. The Middle Ages were a time when it was actually fashionable to seek to be, not merely the best that one can be, but the best of all things. It was a period in history when people actually strove to elevate themselves, to become more than they were, even in the face of impossibility, and to never cease trying to discover that which is divine in ourselves through attempting to bring ourselves closer with the unattainable. Chivalry failed, as it was doomed to do from it's very beginning. Yet, it did accomplish it's goal, if only to show to future generations that there are levels which each of us can elevate ourselves to, a path for self-improvement which ardently embraces the impossible as a part of what we can be, if we strive to adopt the ancient goals and single-mindedness of the ideals of chivalry.
Yet, I still have not defined what chivalry is. As I stated earlier, I cannot. No one can. Chivalry is an ideal, the vision of which is dependant on the viewer. Even if your question were narrowed to a specific year and geographic location, or even a specific type of person (such as a wealthy knight/landowner in York, England, in 1550), how could I tell you what that person's views of chivalry were? By definition, Chivalry comes from within. The most anyone can do is quote or speculate on what someone else's chivalry is.
The only person who can tell you what chivalry means EXACTLY is YOU, and even then you will find that expressing your exact meaning to another is very difficult, because so much of your intent and understanding rely on your personal experiences that it is almost impossible to explain how you view chivalry without also explaining how you view yourself. The very attempt employs a personal sharing approaching intimacy, for it requires one to reveal insights about oneself to another, insights that their actions will be judged by for the rest of their life.
That judgment of others is the same expectations knights of the Middle Ages lived with and actually died for. It is as difficult for us to deal with in our modern, highly-critical, often unforgiving society as it was for them in their harsh, rigidly-structured world of violence and death. This is one fact of chivalry which has remained unwaveringly constant: it is too great an obligation to be placed on the unwilling; Chivalry can only be freely accepted, for even if one's words and deeds are always chivalric, it is by the truth of the thoughts hidden in one's mind and the feelings buried in one's heart that one's chivalry must ultimately be judged.
What is the definition of chivalry? Chivalry is a choice, a choice that requires a rigid code of conduct, and a willingness of the individual to follow that code. The code will change over time, and no one is required to use the same code as another. One need not even be a warrior to embrace chivalry, but chivalry is, as I have tried to explain, a natural part of the evolution of human society, and a requirement for everyone who would ever aspire to be a knight.
Copyright 2014 by Jay Palmer, 825 205th St. SE, Bothell, WA 98012. <jaypalmer13319 at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.