The counterpart to the “knight in shining armor” has long been the “damsel in distress” — helplessly captured by a wicked tormentor, waiting for her hero to rescue her and take her away to a lofty tower of his palace where the two can live happily ever after.
To quote my teen-aged niece, “Puh-leeze!”
This rather unfortunate and distasteful concept is based on fairy tales and fantasy movies, nothing more. In fact, women in the Middle Ages did not have the luxury of whiling away their lives in ivory towers. They were too busy administering their estates, managing their workers, writing correspondence to friends and family members, traveling on pilgrimages to foreign lands and working to help support their families.
That hardly sounds like the life of servitude and helplessness you’ve heard about, does it? Now, don’t get me wrong — men certainly were the upper crust in the culture of medieval Europe, but women had more rights, responsibilities and freedoms than many of us have been led to believe. And, just as a woman was not confined to a passive or subservient role in medieval society, neither was she confined to such a role within the code of chivalry.
The knight in shining armor was expected to ride about the land, doing good deeds, upholding the law, and championing the weak and defenseless. But, in order to make the code of chivalry work, the woman had to play an active part in it as well — her job was to acknowledge the good and virtuous works which were being done by the knight, to praise him for being brave, just and courteous, and, by doing this, to guide him along the path of true chivalry rather than letting him stray into the realms of pride, vanity or self-indulgence.
Basically, women were the intellectual custodians of the knightly virtues, and they were responsible for maintaining and promoting the code of chivalry. Helpless damsels in distress? I don’t think so.
But regardless of how women were treated in the real world of the Middle Ages, or in the fantasy world of the chivalric romances, in the 21st century, chivalry no longer involves swinging swords, climbing castle walls or slaying dragons. Chivalry today is based on the application of the “knightly virtues,” and that applies as much to women as to men.
Today, a girl can grow up to be a business executive, a lawyer, a university professor, an athlete, a doctor, an author or a politician. She can work as a salesperson, a police officer, a mail carrier, a store clerk, an actress or a librarian. Or, she can even be a devoted full-time mother and homemaker, if she so chooses, and no one will think any the less of her.
Of course, nobody with a realistic outlook would deny that there are places in the world where discrimination and inequality still exist, but by and large, women today enjoy an unprecedented level of opportunity and responsibility.
Similarly, women have an equivalent level of opportunity and responsibility as men do in the code of chivalry today. They have the opportunity to behave with the same type of courage, justice, mercy, generosity, faith, nobility and hope as their male counterparts — on the job, at home, in relationships, in family matters, in their careers and in their recreational activities. And by doing this, they have just as much opportunity to enrich themselves and inspire the people around them as does any man.
But there’s also responsibility that goes along with that. In a tribute to the level of liberty women enjoy, and the level of equality we continue to work toward, we have the responsibility to hold ourselves to the high standards of chivalry today, rather than cutting corners or benefiting from unfair advantages and thinking people will look the other way because “she’s only a woman.”
Chivalry is a worthy cause, and from its very outset in the Middle Ages, women have played an important role in it. I hope that, as the understanding of chivalry today spreads and grows, there are plenty of women out there who will choose to be knights in shining armor in the 21st century. Chivalry today isn’t just a rewarding means of personal conduct for men and women alike, it’s also a way to bid “good riddance” to the fairy-tale concept of the damsel in distress.
© 2002 April Apperson-Farrell