The concept of chivalry (along with tales of the knights in shining armor) has been seen for many years as slightly out of date, if not downright absurd. In fact, “chivalry” has become almost synonymous with “outdated social customs” — chivalrous behavior is considered genteel, stodgy and antique. In today’s world, where we all want to be in control of our own destiny, we imagine that the “restrictive social expectations” of chivalry and courtly love that we’ve read about in fairy tales are nothing but impediments to happiness and self-actualization. There are even some commentators who think chivalry perpetuates that myth that women are weak, helpless and subservient.
Ironically, nothing could be further from the truth.
One fellow who points this out very eloquently is Joseph Campbell, whose life-long research revealed the complex and universal archetypes behind the “primitive” myths of nearly every culture and religion on the globe. (Campbell’s theories achieved popular attention when they were utilized by a young filmmaker named George Lucas in creating the characters and writing the storyline for his movie Star Wars.)
In the book The Power of Myth, Campbell (in an interview with journalist Bill Moyers) talks about the legends of chivalry from both a cultural and a mythological standpoint. Campbell worked as a scholar, teacher and writer from 1934 to his death in 1987, revealing that fairy tales, legends and folklore can unlock some of the deepest and most ancient mysteries of the human mind. His thoughts on medieval tales of chivalric romance and knightly adventure are nothing short of astonishing.
Campbell recognized that chivalry wasn’t stodgy or absurd. As he points out, prior to the Middle Ages, women (and men too) were largely puppets of familial necessity — they had little influence over their own destiny when it came to establishing romantic relationships or choosing life-partners. But in a world where marriage was primarily a means of establishing geographic or economic bonds between two clans, chivalry helped to tear down the centuries-old social customs that made wives little more than property and husbands political pawns.
In fact, Campbell explains that the troubadours (i.e., professional storytellers) of the Middle Ages weren’t just telling mindless tales of romance and dalliance, they were spreading a radical, almost subversive concept: That men and women could pursue their own destinies, fall in love and relate to one another as equals under a groundbreaking concept known as “courtly love.”
Here’s how Campbell explains chivalry’s revolutionary influence on 12th century culture:
Before that, love was simply Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire. This is not the experience of falling in love the way the troubadours understood it. Eros is much more impersonal than falling in love. You see, people didn’t know about Amor. Amor is something personal that the troubadours recognized.
The troubadours recognized Amor as the highest spiritual experience. With Amor we have a purely personal ideal. The kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, is a person-to-person experience. That’s completely contrary to everything the Church stood for (in medieval Europe).
You know, the usual marriage in traditional cultures was arranged for by the families. It wasn’t a person-to-person decision at all. In the Middle Ages, that was the kind of (impersonal) marriage that was sanctified by the Church. And so the troubadour idea of real person-to-person Amor was very dangerous.”
When so many people today think of “chivalry” as a concept associated with antiquated social customs, it’s interesting to realize that the Code of Chivalry was originally a radical concept that shook the very foundations of European society and, in some ways, helped pave the way for the enlightened, humanistic attitudes of the Renaissance. Although the concept of courtly love that’s contained in the true medieval tradition of chivalry may seem tame, or even dowdy by 21st century standards, Campbell reminds us that the Code of Chivalry helped break down the repressive gender roles that existed at the time. As Bill Moyers surmised: