Why We Need Chivalry

Chivalry is dead. Or so the saying goes. Insofar as this is true, it tells the story of the slide of civilization to barbarism, or at least the uncivilized world we see around us. The denigration of chivalry is actually an attack on Western civilization and the notions of justice, selfless service, respect for the weak, and the basic equality of all human beings. Fortunately, chivalry is not completely dead. There are those few brave souls who spend their lives in seemingly altruistic behavior. It also lives in the military ethic of the American armed forces, the British armed forces, and other militaries. In fact, it is the foundation of the laws and customs of war and the limitations we try to apply to the violent business of armed conflict. A renewed understanding of the truths of chivalry in our personal and public lives may be a beginning for bringing to life the values we profess.

But what is “chivalry?” The common belief is that it has to do with knighthood, nobility, and romanticism that never existed. It is associated with class superiority, misogyny, Western domination, and even “Islamophobia.” Some of this is true. Some of it is historical revisionism or even historical negation. For example, medieval chroniclers depicted Saladin, a Moslem commander of the 12th century, as an exemplar of chivalry. It is also important to understand that, from the beginning, the concept of chivalry was an ideal to aspire to, while recognizing that mere mortals will always fall short of perfection. The romances of the Middle Ages often featured characters like Lancelot and Gawain who, while aspiring to perfect chivalry, fell short of the ideal. Those who are portrayed as the models of chivalrous conduct, whether the mythical Parsifal or the legendary Saladin, were regarded as exceptional.

Chivalry as an ideal was a product of the Middle Ages. As a semblance of governance arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire in the West, kings and feudal lords needed to control violence in a useful way. The concept of chivalry grafted Christian virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and humility onto a Germanic warrior ethos contrary to all of those virtues. Blessed by the Church and in service of the sovereign, chivalry re-directed the warrior class in a way that would constrain rapaciousness, but still leave them useful for necessary military and civil security functions. In some ways, chivalric codes began a thousand-year process leading to the concept of the State’s monopoly of violence.

There was no single code of chivalry, but there were consistent themes. These included a certain amount of fairness in offence and defense, the protection of non-combatants, and mutual respect among opponents. Chivalric ideals did not only apply to the knightly class of Europe; it also applied to their opponents in Iberia and the Middle East. Both sides expected honor and fairness and each side would accuse the other – often justifiably – when one party violated those norms. Just as important as the ideal of chivalry, there were courts of chivalry, where knights were sometimes tried by a jury of their peers for violations of that code – whether the elements of that code were written or just commonly understood. This idea of holding knights accountable for formal and informal elements of a code of chivalry preview more recent concepts of the laws and customs of war and trial of soldiers by court-martial.

Responsibility to a chivalric code also applied apart from the battlefield and tournament lists. Knights were expected to be honest and fair in their commercial dealings. They were to be generous, especially to those who could not be generous in return. They vowed to protect the weak and innocent and were expected to address wrongs done to the civilian population by criminals. They were to give honor to women and defend a woman’s honor from the attacks of others. Women were to be respected as being equal to men in the eyes of God, and assumed to be superior to knights in virtue, even though women did not have the same legal rights as men. In all things, chivalry demanded that a man was only as good as his word. He was to be honest in word and deed, regardless of whether he was dealing with a prince or a peasant, a brother knight, or an opponent on the battlefield, whether Christian or Moslem. Without that sense of honor, the domestic society would not function and there could be no peace after war. Although individual conduct often deviated from chivalric ideals, those individual failings did not negate the value of chivalry as a moral compass.

The ideas underpinning chivalry were not unique to the West. Warrior codes in Islam, China, Japan, and the pre-Columbian tribes of the Americas held common themes of honor and fairness. These warrior codes provided a common base for developing the laws and customs of war as they became codified over the last century and a half. A hundred years ago, Lassa Oppenheim, in his treatise on International Law, noted that the then-recent Hague Convention clearly affirmed in international law that the means and methods of warfare were not unrestricted, and regulated the status of combatants, the protection of non-combatants, and prohibition of perfidy. The principles of chivalry and of humanity, he said, were “at work for many hundreds of years to create these restrictions, and their work is not yet at an end.” The 2015 Department of Defense Law of War manual agrees.

The principles of chivalry and humanity, cited by Oppenheim, continue their work in the codes of conduct of various professions, industries, and businesses, and associations today. The common elements of chivalric codes can be found in almost all of these contemporary codes. Today, chivalry is not the exclusive domain of some long past order of warriors. It is alive in the armed forces and the law of war, but it is not exclusive to that, either. It is no longer a particularly male virtue – after all, we also have the model of St. Joan of Arc. It is not particularly Christian, or even Western. Chivalry always represented the common aspirations of humanity. It represents a behavior of mutual respect, fairness, and honor applicable to everyone in every facet of life everywhere in the world.

I write this on April 23d, the memorial day of St. George, patron saint of military officers, the armed forces of many nations, services within those armed forces, and notably, the Boy Scouts. Although he is legendary and his reported exploits mythical, St. George represents the model of chivalry and he is considered an intercessor against pride, falsehood, and deceit. Legendary or mythical, his are virtues we should all aspire to today. If even a small number of us would make the effort to do our best, as the Scout Oath enjoins, to live the ideals of chivalry…knowing that we will always fall short, but trying anyway…then that could be the leaven to raise the world from the pride, falsehood, deceit, and other vanities that make our current world, whether in peace or at war, the place that it is.