Chivalry refers to the lifestyle and moral code followed by medieval* knights. It takes its name from chevalier, the French word for knight. Chivalry included the values of honor, valor, courtesy, and purity, as well as loyalty to a lord, a cause, or a noblewoman. Its basis was a blend of military, social, and Christian ethics*. Although chivalry began as a code of conduct for medieval warriors, it adapted to the changing social conditions of the Renaissance.
The Tradition of Chivalry. In the feudal* system of the Middle Ages, knights pledged their loyalty and service to their lords. This relationship became part of the code of chivalry. Literary works also contributed to ideas about "knightly" behavior. They portrayed knights as both courageous warriors and refined men. Knights drew on books to develop standards for etiquette, style, and even the proper way to conduct a love affair. Handbooks from the 1200s laid out the rules of behavior for knights, and pageants and tournaments celebrated chivalric honor. Because knights were part of the culture of feudal courts, their behavior inspired terms such as courtly, courtship, and courtesy.
The culture of chivalry remained popular in the late Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance. Wealthy Renaissance nobles continued to promote military traditions and to show off their strength in tournaments and in war. However, unlike knights of the Middle Ages, who often acted on their own, they tended to form knightly orders and brotherhoods supported by the ruling government. By 1469 such orders had formed in almost every major court in Europe.
During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the definition of nobility came to depend on family history, rather than military might. For a would-be noble, an ancestor who had worked in a trade or done manual labor was an embarrassment. One way to straighten a crooked limb on an otherwise noble family tree was to adopt the symbols and manners of chivalry. Men who had never spent a day in battle sought the title of knight and created their own coats of arms*.
Early Chivalric Literature. The literary concept of chivalry dates back to the romances of the Middle Ages. Early romances were not love stories but tales of war. Most were French translations and adaptations of ancient Latin works. Chivalry was the code of behavior that the knights in these medieval romances followed.
The first—and greatest—of the French romances was The Song of Roland (1098), which tells the story of Roland, a brave warrior who died protecting the French army. However, the most influential chivalric romance was the story of the Welsh king Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This legend developed from the writings of the French author Chrétien de Troyes. It includes such familiar characters as Lancelot, Guinevere, Percival, and Sir Gawain.
The tales of Arthur's knights provided a pattern of action that appears in most romances. First, a knight sets out on a quest: he must save a lady, right a wrong, complete a task, slay a dragon, break a spell, or find the way to heaven. Along the way he has adventures that test his strength, and he must behave according to a code of conduct. Sometimes he is strong enough, but his luck (or Fortune) may be bad. Good knights try to do the right thing, but they often find themselves in difficult situations. The plots of chivalric romances include many common elements, such as jousts, tournaments, strange customs, giants, enchantments, and flying horses. Some critics argue that readers can interpret these elements as symbols that have moral meanings.
Chivalry in Renaissance Literature. During the 1300s and 1400s, medieval French romances were expanded, altered, and translated into English, Spanish, and Italian. Many included elements that Chrétien created. Their heroes are completely good and their villains are completely evil. These works also echo the rigid pride and codes of honor of military elites*.
Italy was home to the most popular romances during the Renaissance. There, writers combined the romance of chivalry with the epic*. Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland, 1516) is particularly notable because its narrator is both self-conscious and mocking. Orlando Furioso had enormous influence on Renaissance literature and literary criticism. The story was so popular that it touched off an explosion of romances based on its minor characters. Jerusalem Delivered (1580), by poet Torquato Tasso, is the other Italian masterpiece of the 1500s.
During the years of discovery and conquest in North America in the late 1500s, Spain saw a vast outpouring of chivalric romances. By 1575, more romances were translated from Spanish than from French. Spain's Miguel de Cervantes wrote one of the most enduring works inspired by the code of chivalry, Don Quixote (1605). It tells the story of a gentleman from La Mancha whose mind has been seriously affected by reading romances.
In England, chivalric romances were the most popular form of fiction after the introduction of printing. In 1485 William Caxton, the first English printer, printed Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), a version of the King Arthur legend. English poets of the late 1500s, such as Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, created works inspired by the romance tradition.
Influence on Renaissance Culture. The legend of King Arthur became an important source of inspiration in England. Like Arthur, the ruling Tudor family was Welsh. In the 1490s, Henry VII named his first-born son Arthur and created the title "Prince of Wales" for him. Elizabeth I used Arthur's Knights of the Round Table as a model for her Order of the Garter (a knightly order).
The chivalric legends also appeared in Renaissance art, especially in decorations. Images of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table appeared on such personal items as small boxes, combs, mirror cases, writing tablets, and decks of cards. Arthurian legends and other romance stories also inspired tapestries and frescoes* on the walls of Renaissance castles and manor houses.
The tradition of chivalry did not survive the changing political climate of Europe following the Renaissance. Materialism and self-interest soon replaced the knightly code of honor. The values of old nobility gave way to the democracies of France and America and to the Industrial Revolution.
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * ethics
branch of philosophy concerned with questions of right and wrong
- * feudal
relating to an economic and political system in which individuals gave services to a lord in return for protection and use of the land
- * coat of arms
set of symbols used to represent a noble family
Dueling for Honor
During the Renaissance, people were extremely concerned with honor. If one person questioned another's honor, they settled the matter with a duel of honor, a practice that became extremely popular in the 1500s. People followed the elaborate rules of dueling to the letter. Whether or not they actually crossed swords, wealthy men published their messages to each other to prove to "the world" that they had followed the proper code of honor. The shoot-outs of America's Old West and the violent codes of honor of urban street gangs echo the tradition of chivalric duels.
- * elite
privileged group; upper class
- * epic
long poem about the adventures of a hero
- * fresco
mural painted on a plaster wall
Term that "denotes the ideals and practices considered suitable for a noble." Deriving its origins from the long military tradition of the Germanic peoples, chivalry reached fruition during the 12th century. The typical noble of that epoch was a knight or mounted warrior, usually bound by feudal ties to his lord and vassals. As knights became increasingly self-conscious, they thought of themselves as forming a clearly defined class, the order of chivalry, with its distinctive ceremony of admission, known as dubbing, and with its appropriate rules of conduct. The true knight was expected to be courageous in battle, loyal to his lord, honest and generous toward his fellow knights and subordinates. Such ideals found their characteristic expression in the chansons de geste, but they were ideals that were not always attained in contemporary society.
Christian Influence. Although Christian influence on the origins of chivalry was slight, the Church always sought to inculcate right standards of morality among the nobility and to ameliorate the worst aspects of feudal behavior. For this reason churchmen emphasized the solemn and sacred character of the contract between lord and vassal, with their reciprocal rights and duties. Church councils (e.g., Valence, 855) condemned the judicial duel, a defective means of settling litigation—though churchmen sometimes were involved in them—and the tournament, or mock battle [Second Lateran (1139), c.14; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta (Bologna-Freiburg 1962) 176], a favorite pastime of knights when they were not engaged in serious combat.
Peace and Truce of God. From the late 10th century the Church proclaimed the peace of god as a means of checking the excesses of private warfare (Councils of Charroux, 989; Narbonne, 990; etc.). Through the Truce of God (Council of Elne, 1027) knights were asked to pledge themselves not to attack the weak and defenseless, such as widows, orphans, merchants, and unarmed clergy, and to refrain from the use of arms on holydays and during sacred seasons of the year such as Lent and Advent.
Crusades. The Church's concern for the pacification of western Europe and the improvement of morality received new meaning when in 1095 Pope urban ii summoned the nobles to liberate the Holy Land (see crusades). Let those, he said, who hitherto have lived as brigands and mercenaries become true knights by devoting themselves to a cause that is just and promises an eternal reward. In making his plea the Pope was pointing to a spiritual ideal that he considered especially suitable to those who professed to be knights. In so doing he was imparting a religious significance to the code of chivalry.
Initiation Ceremony. The spiritualization of chivalry is reflected in the liturgy devised by the Church for the ceremony of initiation into the order of knighthood. In the late 12th and 13th century the vigil of arms, the ritual bath, and the blessing of the sword were common practices, though not essential to the making of a knight. While watching his arms reposing upon the altar, the future knight was expected to meditate upon the honor that he was to receive and the obligations that it entailed. The bath symbolized his purification and was likened to a second baptism. Various liturgical manuscripts, such as the late 13th-century pontifical of William duranti the elder, contain blessings for the sword with which the initiate girded himself. The blessing reminded him that he should use his weapon for the defense of the Church and the protection of the weak. By surrounding the rite of initiation with religious symbolism and endowing it with a quasi-sacramental character, the Church fostered the idea that the knight was a man consecrated to the fulfillment of God's work on earth.
Contemporary Theories. The fullest exposition of the nature and functions of Christian knighthood is found in the writings of 12th-and 13th-century thinkers. In his Liber de vita christiana, written in the late 11th century, bonizo of sutri stressed the knight's duty to keep faith with his lord, to abstain from pillage, to protect the poor and the weak, and to champion orthodoxy against heresy and schism. To these obligations Urban II added that of defending the Christian people against the infidels.
Early in the 12th century bernard of clairvaux wrote his Liber de laude novae militiae in justification of the newly formed Order of the Temple, whose members tried to combine the ideals of monasticism and chivalry. Bernard sharply contrasted the life of the templars (the militia Christi ) with that of contemporary lay knights (the militia saecularis … non militia, sed malitia ). Condemning the latter for their "insane appetite for glory and insatiable greed for land," the abbot of Clairvaux leaves one with the impression that only the Templars could be considered true knights.
Later in the century john of salisbury in his Policraticus expressed the view that knights constituted an order instituted by God for the service of both the Church and the State. The knight should be the guardian of justice, obedient to God, Church, and prince. The contemporary Stephen of Fougères set forth similar ideas in his Livre des manières.
At the close of the 13th century, in his Libre del orde de cauayleria, Raymond lull propounded a conception of chivalry drawn from both secular and religious sources. He believed that the knight should embody the virtues most admired by soldiers as well as those exalted by the Church. Lull described in some detail the religious ceremonies that ought to attend admission to knighthood, and he explained the symbolism of knightly accoutrements.
Effects. The Church made unceasing efforts to permeate the code of chivalry with Christian principles both by conciliar legislation and by instruction. By upholding the idea that the true knight must wield his sword only in the cause of right and justice, the Church appealed to the highest sentiments of western European nobility. The crusading movement and the military orders were manifestations of this ideal. On the other hand the pages of medieval chronicles reveal that knights frequently were motivated by worldly rather than religious ends. Yet by giving a spiritual meaning to the institution of chivalry the Church tempered much of the brutality, frivolity, and artificiality of feudal and courtly society.
Bibliography: l. gautier, La Chevalerie (Paris 1884). s. painter, French Chivalry (Baltimore 1940). m. bloch, Feudal Society, tr. l. a. manyon (Chicago 1961). g. cohen, Histoire de la chevalerie en France au moyen âge (Paris 1949).
[j. f. o'callaghan]
- Amadis of Gaul personification of chivalric ideals: valor, purity, fidelity. [Span. Lit.: Benét, 27]
- Arthur, King king of England; head of the Round Table. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Bevis chivalrous medieval knight, righting wrongs in Europe. [Br. Lit.: Bevis of Hampton ]
- Book of the Courtier Castiglione’s discussion of the manners of the perfect courtier (1528). [Ital. Lit.: EB, II: 622]
- Calidore, Sir personification of courtesy and chivalrous actions. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
- Camelot capital of King Arthur’s realm, evokes the romance of knightly activity. [Br. Legend: Collier’s IV, 224]
- Cid, El Spanish military leader who becomes a national hero through chivalrous exploits. [Span. Lit.: Song of the Cid ]
- Courtenay, Miles dashing and chivalrous Irishman. [Br. Lit.: King Noanett, Walsh Modern, 108]
- Coverley, Sir Roger de ideal, early 18th-century squire. [Br. Lit.: “Spectator” in Wheeler, 85]
- D’Artagnan Dumas’s ever-popular chivalrous character. [Fr. Lit.: The Three Musketeers ]
- Dantes, Edmond chivalrous adventurer. [Fr. Lit.: Count of Monte-Cristo ]
- Edward III, King when a countess dropped her garter, he put it on to reproach the sniggering courtiers, and instituted the Order of the Garter. [Br. Legend: Benét, 383]
- Eglamour, Sir “a knight well-spoken, neat, and fine.” [Br. Lit.: Two Gentlemen of Verona ]
- Galahad, Sir gallant, chivalrous knight of the Round Table. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Gareth knight who, though Lynette scorns him as only a kitchen hand, successfully accomplishes rescuing her sister. [Br. Poetry: Tennyson Idylls of the King ]
- Gawain, Sir King Arthur’s nephew; model of knightly perfection and chivalry. [Br. Lit.: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ]
- Ivanhoe the epitome of chivalric novels. [Br. Lit.: Ivanhoe ]
- Knights Templars protected pilgrims to the Holy Land and fought the Saracens. [Medieval Hist.: NCE, 1490]
- Knights of the Round Table chivalrous knights in King Arthur’s reign. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Lancelot, Sir knight in King Arthur’s realm; model of chivalry. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Morte d’Arthur, Le monumental work of chivalric romance. [Br. Lit.: Le Morte d’Arthur ]
- Orlando gallant and steadfast hero of medieval romance. [Ital. Lit.: Orlando Furioso; Orlando Inammorato; Morgante Maggiore ]
- Quixote, Don knight-errant ready to rescue distressed damsels. [Span. Lit.: Don Quixote ]
- Raleigh, Sir Walter drops his cloak over a puddle to save Queen Elizabeth from wetting her feet. [Br. Lit.: Scott Kenilworth in Magill I, 469]
- Richard the Lion-Hearted (1159–1199) king known for his gallantry and prowess. [Br. Hist.: EB, 15: 827]
- Roland paragon of chivalry; unyielding warrior in Charlemagne legends. [Fr. Lit.: Song of Roland ]
- sweet william symbolizes chivalry. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 181]
- Valiant, Prince comic strip character epitomizes chivalry. [Comics: Horn, 565]
chiv·al·ry / ˈshivəlrē/ • n. the medieval knightly system with its religious, moral, and social code. ∎ hist. knights, noblemen, and horsemen collectively. ∎ the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, esp. courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak. ∎ courteous behavior, esp. that of a man toward women. DERIVATIVES: chi·val·ric / shəˈvalrik/ adj.