The term may sound familiar, but … gosh, it has been a long time since that social studies class in high school or the college English literature course. It has something to do with suits of armor and opening the door for a lady, right?
Don’t be embarrassed, “chivalry” is a word not often heard today, and a lot of people really don’t know what it means. Let’s define the term before we go any further so nobody feels like the class dunce. Here’s what Webster’s Dictionary has to offer:
- Gallantry, courtesy and honor.
- The noble qualities a knight was supposed to have, such as courage and a readiness to help the weak.
- The demonstration of any of these qualities.
That is a precise definition to be sure, but it does leave some unanswered questions. Let’s consider a different approach.
From the Ten Commandments of the Bible, to The Eightfold Path of Zen, to All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, people throughout history have searched for a way to define and quantify admirable behavior. The code of chivalry is, at its heart, simply a handbook for good conduct. But chivalry was not a mandate from the powerful to the downtrodden, nor a directive from the chosen unto the masses. It was a set of limitations which the strong and mighty placed upon themselves with the realization that setting a good example sends a message which is far more powerful than any words on paper.
Today, we’re not too different from those knights in the Middle Ages — we have a great deal of wealth and resources and freedom at our disposal, and we can use (or misuse) them in nearly any way we like.
Perhaps that’s why people are finding the concept of chivalry so relevant to modern life. Perhaps, like those knights in shining armor hundreds of years ago, we want to experience the satisfaction of knowing that we have championed the right causes and embraced the right principles, not because we were told to do so, but simply because we have chosen to follow that path.
In short, that’s what chivalry is — a choice. The choice to do the right things, for the right reasons, at the right times. And that’s a definition that even your social studies teacher probably would have approved of.
- Conversation With: Dr. Tobias Capwell (Arms and Armor Curator, Wallace Collection) - September 29, 2014
- Three Chivalry Lectures – October 14-16 - September 2, 2014
- Conversation With: Dr. Elizabeth Morrison (J. Paul Getty Museum “Chivalry in the Middle Ages”) - July 7, 2014