Chivalry and knights in shining armor are, as you might imagine, concepts which have quite a bit of history behind them. Oooh, there’s that word: “history.” Fills your mind with visions of musty libraries, incomprehensible footnotes and droning lecturers, doesn’t it? Well, hang on just a minute — before you and your browser go fleeing in terror from this website, let me assure you that you don’t have to wear a tweed jacket or speak in terms like “forsooth” to understand the origins of the code of chivalry. A few simple historical details are all that are necessary to see how chivalry was born, and why it is so relevant today.
The whole thing started about 1,500 years ago. In those days, the Roman Empire was the cultural and economic center of a sizable portion of the world. Then, for a variety of reasons (which aren’t really important to our discussion), Rome shriveled up and vanished.
Suddenly peace and prosperity were replaced with chaos, turmoil and warfare as petty overlords promoted themselves to the office of king and scrambled to stake out their turf in the post-Roman landscape. To advance their personal dreams of royal grandeur, they enlisted the aid of armored warriors who took on the Germanic title of “knight.” But these weren’t knights in shining armor — these were thugs in chain mail who were a combination of mercenary soldier and mafia hit man. For the next few centuries or so, these kings and their paid warriors squabbled over gold, land and titles, heedless of how many innocent bystanders got hurt in the process.
But amidst all of the shouting and sword-swinging, some people (including a few of the knights themselves) began to wonder if there might not be a better way to run the world. Then, some unnamed cultural pioneer proposed something called the code of chivalry — a kind of handbook for civilized behavior, which directed these armored warriors to utilize their muscle and weaponry in just and noble causes, rather than for personal gain.
Stories of King Arthur and the Round Table notwithstanding, not everyone in the medieval world was thrilled with this new concept. After all, these kings and their thugs had put a lot of work into bullying and terrorizing the people around them, and they weren’t about to voluntarily surrender the prestige and intimidation they’d gained. To them, chivalry was something for monasteries and universities; in the real world they saw no use for such lofty, idealistic restrictions.
But chivalry couldn’t be dismissed so easily. Awareness of this new philosophy gradually spread as bards and minstrels (who were sort of the medieval equivalent of the Internet) began to share tales of admirable acts of chivalry and knightly virtue all across the Western world. People high and low discovered a new level of respect for warriors who fought for justice, rather than vengeance; who were quicker with words of kindness than they were with a battleaxe; whose might was even more impressive because they had the self-confidence to employ it with a gentle hand rather than an iron gauntlet.
In short, chivalry gave the people of the Middle Ages the hope and light and inspiration they badly needed in an age of fright, darkness and despair. Was chivalry an idealistic goal? Without a doubt — but ideals are what stir the imagination and fuel the soul. And the ideals of chivalry (which, in the end, couldn’t be confined to universities and monasteries) eventually transformed a society of thuggish warriors into the culture of courage, respect and grace which we still think of today when we hear the term a knight in shining armor.
In the 21st century, just as in the Middle Ages, there is plenty of despair and darkness to be found in the world. And, just like the Middle Ages, there are people today who claim that chivalry is a thing only for children’s fairy tales and scholars’ doctoral theses — people who think that corporate profits and winning touchdowns and celebrity interviews are more meaningful than virtue, honor or courtesy.
But hope, light and inspiration live on, unstained even after hundreds of years and no small amount of abuse. Chivalry has inspired writers, artists, theologians and philosophers throughout the ages, not because it is esoteric and unattainable, but because it is dynamic and practical. Chivalry is far too powerful to be confined to the lecture hall and constrained by a tweed jacket.
Perhaps you can quote Tennyson and Malory from memory, and you understand the literary influence of the chanson de geste and the chivalric romances. Or, perhaps you associate the term middle age more with birthday cards than castles and knights, and when you think about King Arthur, the only name that comes to mind is Sean Connery. In either case, you (like so many people today) may be struggling with some of the big questions which arise along life’s path. If so, a quick look back into history is the first step in understanding the significance, value and power of the concept we know as chivalry today, and in recognizing the need we still have for knights in shining armor in the modern world.