In this modern age many women and men mourn the death of chivalry, many blaming feminism for its demise. On the other side of the coin many feminists celebrate the “death” of chivalry, seeing it as the advent of an age where women and men can be one step closer to equality, at least in terms of dating. This is certainly how I felt, until I became interested in the concept of chivalry and did a little research of my own. The days of men being obligated to open doors for women, pay for every date, and so on certainly should be on their way out… but what many of us fail to realize is this isn’t chivalry.
While there is no one definition of chivalry I have found some fairly authoritative summaries, via a University of Maryland professor’s research, that has lead me to believe that chivalry, true chivalry, may (a) not be completely dead as a social practice and (b) may actually hold a great deal of merit. Chivalry isn’t dead, not even close, its alive and well, and its growing to fit the times.
First off, chivalry is not what most people think it is. The following are the “Ten Commandments of the Code of Chivalry” which come from Chivalry, by Leon Gautier:
1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.
2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
3. Thou shalt repect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
4. Thou shalt love the country in the which thou wast born.
5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
6. Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.
7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
8. Thou shalt never lie, and shall remain faithful to thy pledged word.
9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largess to everyone.
10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.
Now, of course, the benefit of following this code is just as questionable as the idea we actually follow these ten rules as a general culture in this century… luckily these rules, generally, are not what people mean when they refer to chivalry. Semantics aside, the ‘art courtly love’ is what we’re actually referring to when we think of door-opening, check-paying chivalry in all of its patriarchal glory. This courtly love/chivalry may not exist in the form that it did when knights still dueled and fought for their king… but that’s not to say the positive aspects of “chivalrous love” are gone! In fact, I would argue that many feminists (and other people) naturally follow a sort of adapted form of “chivalry” every day…
From The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus:
- Thou shalt avoid avarice like the deadly pestilence and shalt embrace its opposite.
- Thou shalt keep thyself chaste for the sake of her whom thou lovest.
- Thou shalt not knowingly strive to break up a correct love affair that someone else is engaged in.
- Thou shalt not chose for thy love anyone whom a natural sense of shame forbids thee to marry.
- Be mindful completely to avoid falsehood.
- Thou shalt not have many who know of thy love affair.
- Being obedient in all things to the commands of ladies, thou shalt ever strive to ally thyself to the service of Love.
- In giving and receiving love’s solaces let modesty be ever present.
- Thou shalt speak no evil.
- Thou shalt not be a revealer of love affairs.
- Thou shalt be in all things polite and courteous.
- In practising the solaces of love thou shalt not exceed the desires of thy lover.
Now, I will admit that some of these values are no longer pertinent in today’s society. For instance…
(Rule 2) Feminism advocates for a person’s freedom to develop their own values when it comes to sex. The feminism I know does try to do away with the idea of “chastity” or “purity” because it is one that is damaging to women (and men, to a lesser degree), but I believe the spirit of this rule, that one should abide by their own personal morality regarding sex and respect their bodies and their needs before seeking love, is one that remains strong within the feminist movement.
(Rule 4) This one bothers me, because I don’t understand where this natural sense of “shame” is supposed to come from but, if we take this at face value I believe it is important to be proud of the one that you’re with and the relationship you have, regardless of what that relationship is like.
(Rule 6) Discretion is good and certainly it is not nice to go around bragging about a love affair (one night stand, hookup, whatever…) but I believe in this day and age we have moved to a place where one can be open about their sexuality, and their hookups, while still being respectful. For instance, I am fairly candid about my own sexuality, relationships, and actions because I believe it is important to challenge society’s notions of purity and expectations for women through my own, personal experience as well as advocacy ( the personal is political!)
(Rule 10) This one confuses me – I think revealing anyone else’s business is wrong (gossip!) but in certainsituations (like an actual love affair that involves someone being cheated on) it can be the right thing to do.
Most of these rules, on the other hand, make sense and are more-or-less feminist values. For instance…
(Rule 1) Avarice (greed) is something that feminism advocates against for sure. Learning to be truly generous by giving up my privledge as much as possible, is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my involvement with the feminist movement. As a white, heterosexually inclined female I am afforded a great deal of privledge in my daily life; feminism advises us to be aware of our privilege (whatever it may be: skin color, ableism, gender expression, romantic preferences, sexual preferences, wealth, etc.) and to try our best to give that privilege up by raising those who are kept down to give us that privilege up to the same level we are on. This is perhaps one of the hardest concepts to actually bring into action, but the daily struggle with privledge is a noble and generous thing… and is certainly a life choice that leads one away from avarice.
(Rule 3) This one goes, really, without saying. Its a fairly accepted social value not to mess with someone else’s relationship. I honestly even like use of the term “correct” here because, the truth is I have tried to get a friend out of a relationship that was “incorrect” in the sense that her partner was abusive. There is, however, an important caveat to this: it is always important to remember that your idea of a “correct” relationship may not be someone elses idea, it is important to let peope make their own decisions so long as those decisions are not harming anyone in an objective way.
(Rule 5) Most people agree lying is bad (though that d0esn’t stop many from doing it.)
(Rule 7) Here’s where it gets a little sticky. I believe we can, at this point, ignore the first part (I mean, honestly, were men ever truly 100% obedient to the commands of ladies? I think not – most people recognize the need to be obiedient to their own wishes above all, I doubt knights were much different) but the spirit of this rule – ally thyself to the service of Love – is a beautiful and noble one. To ally thyself to the service of love is to promote loving onesself and others in your every action and word – and what could be better than a world full of people working to activley defend and create love?
(Rule 8 ) Modesty, to a degree, is also a wonderful trait to have. Be proud of your accomplisments, of course, but be modest enough to acknowledge the accomplisments and wisdom of others too.
(Rule 9) Again, never speaking evil is a noble (if rarely achieved) goal.
(Rule 11) Nothing wrong with being polite.
(Rule 12) Amen. If all people lived by this creed we wouldn’t have issues with sexual assault – its hearteneing, in a way, to know that the concept of consent was (at least in concept) a part of even midevial value systems.
What true chivalry seems to boil down to, at least to me, is empowerment. Knights were taught to respect others and their wishes, to be generous, honest, and kind; while this belief system isn’t perfect, it certainly mirrors the value system I see many feminists (and other wonderful people) practicing in this century. Chivalry isn’t dead; the kind of chivalry that people see as dead was never real chivalry, which cannot be boiled down to simply treating women as if they need to be waited on… real chivalry has been alive and well all along hiding under the common decency that should be expected of everyone, male or female.