Joseph Campbell on Chivalry: Part 2

The Powerful Role of Women in Chivalry

The Accolade, by Edmund Blair LeightonSo, if the Code of Chivalry was such a radical departure from the traditional gender roles of the Middle Ages, why does the mention of “chivalry” cause men and women who believe in “gender equality” to grind their teeth? Why are the genteel attitudes of chivalry seen by so many people as demeaning towards women?

Partly, it’s due to the misconceptions we have about the Code of Chivalry. In the days of knights in shining armor — the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries — women weren’t put on pedestals to be admired from afar. (That concept comes from the pens of 19th century novelists.) Instead, women of medieval society were expected to play an active, intellectual role in the culture of chivalry that transformed the violent warriors of the Gothic tribes into the noble gentlemen of the High Middle Ages. Campbell explains that rather than making women “helpless,” the Code of Chivalry gave them great power and influence:

“Love is the meaning of life — it is the high point of life … The five main virtues of the medieval knight might be brought in here. One is temperance, another is courage, another is love, another is loyalty, and another is courtesy. Courtesy is respect for decorum of the society in which you are living.

And the medieval idea, in spite of the fact that these people were in protest against the ecclesiastical authorities, was respect for the society in which they were participating. Everything was done according to rules. When two knights fought, they did not violate the rules of combat although they were engaged in mortal combat. This courtesy has to be held in mind.

Well, that was the beginning of the courtly love relationship. There were game rules there, and they played it according to the rules … Anything you do involves a system of rules that state how a thing is to be done and done well. It has been said that art is the making of things well. And the conduct of a love affair — well, you could be a clumsy lout in this, but how much nicer to have the knowledge of certain rules that enable the expression to become more eloquent and gratifying.

(Chivalry and romantic love) were the same thing. It was a very strange period because it was terribly brutal. There was no central law. Everyone was on his own, and, of course, there were great violations of everything. But within this brutality, there was a civilizing force, which the women really represented because they were the ones who established the rules for this game. And the men had to play it according to the requirements of the women.

Because, if you want to make love to a woman, she’s already got the drop on you. The technical term for the woman’s granting of herself was merci. The woman grants her merci. Now, that might consist in her permission to kiss her on the back of the neck once every Whitsuntide, you know, something like that — or it might be a full giving in love. That would depend upon her estimation of the character of the candidate.

There was an essential requirement — that one must have a gentle heart, that is, a heart capable of love, not simply of lust. The woman would be testing to find whether the candidate for her love had a gentle heart, whether he was capable of love … The tests that were given then involved, for example, sending a chap out to guard a bridge. But also the tests included going into battle. A woman who was too ruthless in asking her lover to risk real death before she would acquiesce in anything was considered sauvage or “savage.” There was a very nice psychological estimation game going on here.”


In his writing, Joseph Campbell reminds us that chivalry was not child’s play, nor was it a means of forcing women into helpless subservience. The Code of Chivalry was nothing less than the slow but unquenchable fire that forged order out of chaos, burning away the dross of violence, ignorance and self-interest, and creating an alloy of strength, wisdom and compassion.

In the world of the 21st century, the Code of Chivalry is once again a radical, revolutionary concept in interpersonal relationships. Chivalry Today reminds us that the strongest relationships must be built on a foundation of strength, respect and courtesy.

Campbell’s words are also a reminder that the complex attributes of chivalry defy any simplistic definition based on gender stereotypes. Chivalry is strength with compassion, integrity with boldness, action with contemplation — and that is what makes the Code of Chivalry such a timeless and enduring part of our culture, from the days of knights in armor, to the heroes and role models (male and female alike) who are the knights in shining armor of the modern world.

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