A Return to Chivalry – Part 2

Scott Farrell Comments:

In the second part of his article, Dr. Moore shares some intriguing thoughts on helping young people embrace the principles of chivalry and respect. He also draws a fascinating parallel between the tribal society of the Dark Ages and modern youth culture.

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Show us Your Chivalry!

Once the discussion of whether chivalry still exists and in what forms it has been exhausted, the teacher should address the other side of the question particularly to the ladies. To what extent has positively unchivalrous behavior become the norm for young men? Personal anecdotes will abound. This might be the one chance women have to register their dissatisfaction with inveterate cursing, for example. They will never do so in company. When women are told that they could create a chivalrous environment by insisting that men stop cursing, if necessary by leaving their company, they show reluctance. Naturally pleasing, they do not want to spoil the conversation by correcting someone nor to be called a bad name on their leaving. The more restrained setting of the classroom, where comments are not directed at anyone personally, is the ideal forum for just complaints.

Hopefully the young men will respond to this discussion by cleaning up their language. The young women should nevertheless be encouraged to make their objection to cursing more generally known. I use the example of my grandfather who deplored the modern man’s practice of wearing a hat at the table but held women responsible: “In my day a lady would not sit with a man who wore his hat.” Previous ages realized that women are the natural arbiters of manners, and our age must profit from their insights.

More than just cursing, women will have experienced more threatening forms of indecency. They do not like being whistled at, yelled at, or being made the subject of sexual innuendo. One thing every female runner will complain of is being yelled at by a carload of young men.

Some of the young men in the classroom might have done some of the yelling. “So what’s the big deal?” they might ask. “It’s just a way of telling a girl that she’s hot.”

“That’s why she’s running in the first place, isn’t it, to be noticed?”

“Sometimes girls yell at guys, too.”

Here the young women should be asked why being yelled at bothers them. What they will say is that a woman never knows when yelling might turn into something else, especially when running in a big city, or at night, or even on rural roads. Some of them might even remember an infamous rape case. Young men never have to worry about a group of girls surrounding them.

The point needs to be made that from the perspective of a woman, a verbal assault, besides being very often degrading in itself (“show us your X”!) is always potentially translated into a physical assault. A woman knows that a carload of 16-year-olds, whatever their intentions, could stop and overpower her without anyone coming to her rescue. A young man has no equivalent worry. Thus, there is a difference between the sexes, and that difference requires a gender-specific rather than a gender-neutral code of manners.

Once students become aware that the vulgarization of the relations between the sexes is taking place before their very eyes, they are ready to discuss the importance of chivalry in the history of Western civilization. Before exploring how chivalry worked in its heyday, students should know why this code of manners was developed in the first place.

Chivalry took root, slowly, as the response to one of the gravest crises in the history of the West: the total collapse of civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. and again after the collapse of the more precarious Carolingian Empire in the 9th century. True Hobbesians should spend some time with the early Middle Ages, for truly there has never been a period when life was as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” There was no government. There was no police force. Property and persons were utterly at the mercy of very bad men.

These men might be called “young,” partly because of their age and partly because of their youthful energy and disrespect for any older, established order. Young men on horseback roamed the countryside in huge packs and pillaged whatever semblance of civilization they found: families, churches, farms, markets. Like all young men, they came around to the idea of finding young women. Having no respect for decency, their method was simple. They just took any women they might come across. They took widows, wives, daughters and nuns, from any place they might find them. Young men had no notion of courtship. Their desire for the opposite sex expressed itself in venereal hooliganism.

In short, the behavior of young men during the Dark Ages did not differ considerably from that found in the inner-city gangs of today.

The solution to this crisis came through a gradual change in the motives and manners of the armed horsemen. Established men, the Church and young ladies themselves combined forces to tame the unruly passions of these violent predators. They did so by effecting a direct exchange of male freedom for duty. To become true knights, young men had to submit themselves to an elaborate set of regulations known as chivalry that brought them into the social order and established them in marriage to young, beautiful heiresses.

To enter the ranks of knighthood, young men had to submit themselves to a thorough regime of ethical training that prepared them for a life of service. The element of danger and enterprise remained in their lives since they had to protect their land and their ladies. The idea of male honor came into being. It became dishonorable for a strong man to intimidate or injure someone physically weaker than himself.

The ritual par excellence for the display of chivalry became the tournament. No other event allowed the young knight to shine in combat before the eyes of anxious maidens and discerning parents so much as this great pageant of courage and courtesy. The tournament was not simply a game or a sport. The virtues and martial skills developed in the lists prepared young men for encounters against enemies at home and abroad in these lawless times. The deference paid to ladies guaranteed that manly strength would never be employed against the fair sex but rather in its defense.

© 2004 Dr. Terrence Moore

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About the author: Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado. “A Return to Chivalry?” originally appeared on The Ashbrook Center website, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

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