(This post originally appeared in THE HAMMERED RAVEN on 16 December 2014)
The idea that “Chivalry is dead” is common enough that it found discussion in my oldest son’s high school history class. It seems that whenever the question gets asked, “Is Chivalry dead?”the audience immediately wants to discuss feminism and why men no longer hold doors open or help with chairs.
My son tells me the young men and women in that class agreed with their teacher, Chivalry IS dead and the cause was feminism -though they called it “female empowerment” and suggested it was a good thing. Women no longer need men to open doors, carry packages. and they never really did. As women discovered the capacity for independence, men discovered a capacity to enjoy not being depended on.
The students and teacher saw no need to mention that chivalry was a code for warriors; specifically noble cavalrymen. The image of the knight in shining armor with lance and shield was once the model of chivalry, but now that image is only invoked when one wishes to mock the notion and show how outdated chivalry is.
That the role of women in our society has changed from that of the High Middle Ages was an important point to them, but it was of less interest that the role of men has changed as well.
In that class of thirty or so, only one young man, my son, had ever trained with a sword or even held one since leaving behind the things of childhood. Perhaps a couple of others have held a firearm or hunted. But had this been the Age of Chivalry, those young men would have already spent years either tilling in the fields, laboring as an apprentice, or attending upon a knight and learning the sword, the shield and the Code (even if we all know it wasn’t written down, commented on, or called “chivalry” for many, many years.)
The death of chivalry isn’t about how men see women but rather about how men see themselves.
Chivalry can only be practiced, perhaps, by those trained in the ways of war. Any gentle person can open doors for another, help with a chair or a coat. But chivalry requires one to rise above simple courtesies and be prepared, as well, to put one’s life and safety between danger and the one served. In this instance, “prepared” cannot simply mean “willing” and must include a certain level of prowess that can only be achieved by training and study and diligent pursuit of the ways of violence.
We all picture a young man holding a door open for a woman (young or old, she needs his protection and this is courtesy) but we too often fail to remember the ancient (1950 or so) rules of courtesy that declare while she passes into a room before he does, he steps out onto the street ahead of her. Where there is an echo of the possibility of danger, the man passes first or remains until last.
Men at large no longer see themselves that way. Young men are not taught that they must be protectors. Young women are not taught that they will be protected. Or that she does not need protection from men but rather from a faceless, soulless bureaucracy that names itself Society, or The State.
And so the limited imaginations that govern the world declare then that chivalry is dead.
But when we recognize that our knights are no longer exclusively male (though certainly predominantly so), it shows more clearly perhaps that chivalry is more intimately bound to notions of strength, service, protection than it is in notions of gender.
So let us consider that chivalry is not a code that determines how men treat women, but how warriors treat each other and how they treat non-combatants. Whether man or woman, boy or girl, chivalry can only reside in the heart and actions of that person who has decided that he is willing to stand on the wall and shake a spear at the darkness.
Chivalry appears dead to those whose view of it is too small. When a generation is taught that their own comfort as consumers is their prime purpose, it might be a bit much to expect basic courtesy from them. It is impossible to expect chivalry.
But in every age and every generation, we find those few who will embrace the role of protector. Only from them can we expect chivalry.