Chivalry (August 20)


“The age of chivalry has gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever” (Edmund Burke).

HAS THE “AGE OF CHIVALRY” GONE OR NOT? The answer may largely depend upon a person’s perspective, or at least that person’s definition of chivalry, but it is undeniably true that the emphasis has switched from the knight-like How can I serve the greater good? to the consumer-like What’s in it for me? And even at the level of plain, old mannerliness, something has been lost that we may regret losing.

Chivalry has to do with the medieval institution of knighthood. It refers to the principles and customs associated with that institution. Whether medieval knights did, in fact, idealize such qualities as bravery, courtesy, honor, and service makes little difference, practically speaking. Chivalry simply envisions a realm where these things were important — and says they ought to be important to us still.

Concepts like chivalry are, of course, touchy topics nowadays. If “chivalrous” means “characterized by consideration and courtesy, especially toward women” (American Heritage Dictionary), many modern women would resent the very idea as demeaning. But one does not have to hold a demeaning view of women to believe that at least a few of the old-fashioned courtesies ought to be preserved. The knight may no longer need to lay his cape over the mud so the lady can walk across, but most men could do with a little more “knightliness” in their behavior, not only toward women but toward other men as well. There is, I believe, a larger sense in which all of us ought to be chivalrous, whether we’re male or female, young or old. And yes, I confess to hoping there’ll always be a few women left who appreciate being treated like ladies by the gentlemen with whom they have dealings.

The gist of chivalry is the spirit that the medieval knight was (at least in our imagination) moved by: willingness to serve in the cause of right and render help to anyone who needed it. It doesn’t demean anyone to be served. And there’s no better service than the service of honor.

“Some say that the age of chivalry is past, that the spirit of romance is dead. The age of chivalry is never past, so long as there is a wrong left unredressed on earth, or a man or woman left to say, I will redress that wrong, or spend my life in the attempt” (Charles Kingsley).

Gary Henry –