The Chivalry Debate: Part 1

Scott Farrell comments:

Chivalry is dead! … Or maybe it isn’t. It depends on who you talk to. For some, the actions of courtesy and manners we often associate with chivalry are considered outdated relics of an age when men dominated Western society. For others, chivalrous courtesies are a welcome antidote to the rudeness and intolerance that abounds in the world today. The divide between these two approaches to the image of chivalrous “gentlemanly manners” provides grounds for a lively debate as to whether chivalry should be allowed to fade away, or should be revived in our younger generation.

The question of chivalry’s demise (or not) intrigued high school senior Sheena Becker enough that she decided to write a research paper on the topic. Her coverage of the questions regarding the “old code” reveals that there is, in fact, a great deal of value to be found in restoring and preserving the ideals of chivalry in the modern world.

Should the “old code” be allowed to rest in peace?

BeckerHave you ever seen a man hold a door open for his lady companion? You might think this shows good manners, but to others this act of chivalry could be considered offensive. Chivalry is a term commonly attributed to knights of the Middle Ages and paralleled with legends of King Arthur and fairy tales.

In truth, chivalry is an actual written code that was indeed a standard for knights concerning knightly virtues, courtly love, and honor. Now when most people think of the practice of chivalry the aspect of courtly love stands most prominent. A man who is considered chivalrous is one who holds doors open for a lady or offers his jacket; this stereotype has earned the practice a sexist label.

But how true is this stereotype? How can modern women possibly have a place in a code created in a mostly male-ruled era? This is only one aspect of a question that has inspired many to debate; Is chivalry truly dead? If so, can it be revived or is this hope of idealism lost to the pages of history?

Is Chivalry Sexist?

The stereotype of chivalry today implies that women are the weaker sex and need special treatment. A good part of chivalrous men tend to believe that women are less competent than men and thus need consideration and extra care. It is human nature to protect and provide for, in this case, the more “delicate” sex who some view as incapable of taking care of themselves. This is the stereotypical reasoning for chivalrous acts and deeds. However, people who are against the stereotype try to explain the “true meaning” behind the practice. Scott Farrell, director of the Chivalry Today educational program, says, “Chivalry is not an act of courtesy or deference or the result of a condescending attitude; chivalry is respect and mutual admiration which such an act conveys.”

People today will often describe the chivalry of old as just “woman-worship.” Obviously this is referring the aspect of courtly love, but was courtly love in those times extreme enough to be named “woman-worship”? These opinions most likely stem from a misunderstanding of chivalry, or a misinterpretation. Robert Briffault, in his book The Troubadours says: “By modeling the forms of love on those of knightly service and homage and by giving it a special ritual and language … they brought about a change so unprecedented that its effects have been incalculable. It was a genuine act of moral creation, the most original in the Middle Ages, a kind of love entirely detached from all idea of generation and the reproduction of species. Woman became a religion.”

This quote could easily be seen as being in favor of the “woman-worship” theory. Yet, when looked at in the context of the time this can shows us how, as Farrell says, “In the 12th and 13th century this notion of chivalry and courtly love brought about an understanding that was fairly revolutionary, which was the concept that people could fall in love and choose their own mates, their own life partner, of their own volition. Previously that had been done by family arrangement… Courtly love [had] brought around this new idea that men and women could be responsible for their own destiny.”

Clearly this brings forth the truth of this quote in that chivalry was not at all “woman-worship,” but instead a radical new idea for both sexes. Controlling one’s destiny was something that before only the church could have claimed control over, making this new idea an extreme one for the era.

Do Women Have A Role in the Code of Chivalry?

In our modern world men and women share equality for the most part, this is very different from the feudal structure of the middle ages in Europe where women had much less influence. What role did women play back then, and can they participate in chivalry alongside men today?

Initially women were one of the causes for the knightly order and in turn the code of chivalry. After the Roman Empire crumbled young men roamed the countryside in search of a fight and posed a considerable threat to women. When the order of knights was established it was more advantageous for these young men to adopt the code of knightly virtues; as new knights they helped bring to an end the disorder they once caused. Once the code was in use, women were the reason for the men to conform to the code, after all, why would most men be chivalrous if not for someone’s approval or a reward? The women were the source of approval and bestowed affection as the desired award.

In her article Women and Chivalry: Damsels in Distress No Longer!, April Apperson-Farrell says, “Basically, women were the intellectual custodians of the knightly virtues, and they were responsible for maintaining and promoting the code of chivalry.” But today a woman can be an active participant rather than just a referee. New movements are happening and people are trying to bring chivalrous values back into our lives. No longer are the oaths sworn to a liege lord or king, but as a matter of pride these rules are held as a standard to better one’s self. Women are completely capable of following the codes concerning knightly virtues, honor, and loyalty to God and country; as for the courtly love, they can show the same courtesy to men in their own way. The root is respect, admiration, gratitude, and a sense of generosity, as long as the act shows these qualities, it is chivalry. To say a woman cannot be chivalrous is to fall prey to the sexist stereotypes, and convey the implication that women are weaker than men and unable to hold themselves to a higher standard as is a male.

From another view, it can be said that women already participate in the code to a certain degree. During the 1800’s “politeness became ‘feminized’ and ‘domesticated,’ … The ‘abandonment of self to please others’ was now considered ‘womanish,’ and ‘pleasing’ was no longer a principal attribute of the gentleman,” according to Michele Cohen in the article “‘Manners’ Make the Man: Politeness, Chivalry and the Construction of Masculinity: 1750-1830.” In this light, already some of the stereotypical characteristics of women actually go back to the code of chivalry. This also shows us an example of how men have fallen away from these specific values, for when the trait became labeled as womanly, men naturally shied away from it to preserve their reputation of masculinity.

© 2006 Sheena Becker

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  1. The Chivalry Debate: Part 1

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