A number of years ago, while living in Columbus, Ohio it was my habit to ride a city bus to and from The Ohio State University campus each day. My normal route took me through an area of frequent crime. Some of the passengers that boarded the bus there often looked menacing. Some of them looked downright scary.
On one occasion a couple of these characters seated themselves right behind me and for several minutes carried on the most colorful conversation imaginable. They seemed incapable of uttering a sentence without an expletive. Usually there was more than one - piled on top of each other in adjectival abandon. Often they were very graphically offensive. I was quite upset by it but didn’t, at first, dare to say anything.
In the seat in front of me was an elderly lady. I had not paid much attention to her at first but as I became more and more uncomfortable with the vulgarities behind me, I noticed that she was uncomfortable too. It was then that I realized I needed to do something. For some reason unknown to me then, I felt a responsibility to protect her.
I then ran through in my mind a couple of ways I might confront the offenders. In the end I just turned around and asked them in a friendly way if they wouldn’t mind toning their language down a bit. To my surprise they apologized and then got off the bus a couple of stops later. When my stop arrived and I got up to leave, the woman thanked me for what I had done. I remember stepping down from the bus onto the street feeling like I had done something significant - something morally empowering. Later I would come to realize that I was feeling chivalrous.
Chivalry is a medieval word. It brings to mind a warrior spirit and a protective instinct for those that are weak - particularly women and children. It reminds us of a time when chivalrous men protected ladies and fought in defense of Christ. These days it seems to be quite out of favor. This may seem odd at first. After all, who doesn’t know of a teenage girl that dreams of being a princess, live in a castle, and be courted by a brave and handsome knight? One can even argue that the simple act of opening a door for a woman is a small nod to the spirit of chivalry. And most women still appreciate the gesture. At church the other day a gentleman offered his seat to a young mother carrying her child. She graciously accepted it, and I was glad that some women still allow men to watch out for them. How then can chivalry – even a modern version of it – be out of favor?
The problem is that our society is becoming more and more reluctant to acknowledge that men might be stronger than women. We’re even uncomfortable acknowledging that women might have greater endurance than men. Unless a situation is “gender-neutral” we get a little nervous - at least in mixed company.
The case for a manly defense of Christian morality is even more unacceptable in public. The separation of church and state - a policy that we established to guarantee religious liberty in a Christian nation - has become a bludgeon that is used to enforce public agnosticism. A boy that presumes to be motivated by his faith to care for the “weaker sex” is unacceptable on two counts. He is much too public about his religion, and he seems all too condescending to women.
Another concern with Christian morality in its chivalrous form is that it is thought to lead ultimately to imperialism with its suppression of minorities. Some authors have even gone so far as to suggest that terrorism has its roots in chivalry. One can begin to see that bringing chivalry back into such a world would involve a good deal of resistance.
The word “chivalry” itself traces back through Middle English to the French “chevalier” and ultimately to the Latin word for horseman. In its English form, chivalry has a long association with knights and there is an immense romantic literature about them. One aspect of the medieval knight that is usually forgotten, though, is that the knight was originally part of a lower class of society. Often knights were servants. In English (and German) the term for horseman also carried with it a sense of a young lad on the verge of manhood (Braudy, page 66). This was because becoming a horseman implied a great deal of responsibility. A horse is a powerful animal and, unless it is well trained, is not something that a boy can handle by himself. A man on a horse, on the other hand, regardless of his status in society, is capable of going into battle. In fact, such a man becomes a powerful part of a battle.
As a chivalric symbol, the man on a horse represented power and the epitome of manhood. No doubt there were examples of this power being used for evil purposes. But these examples never became the norm in medieval society. Instead the power of the horseman / knight was encouraged to the degree that it assumed to role of defending virtue. In fact the combination, of this strength coupled with principle, is what virtue actually meant. The words “virtue” and “virile” come from the same root meaning manliness. The phrase “virtuous manliness” would have been considered redundant many generations ago. This is certainly no longer the case. Manliness today can mean a lot of things other than virtue. To understand why and how this change took place, though, requires a better understanding of what we mean by the word chivalry itself.
Many people think of a gentleman when they think of a modern example of chivalry. This is because of a history linking the two words that goes back to the time of Sir Walter Scott, and the revival of chivalry in 18th and 19th Century England. The trouble with linking these two words today, however, is that the meaning of “gentleman” is no longer the same as it used to be. To us a gentleman is a polite and considerate man with high standards. Perhaps he is of noble birth; or, conversely, he could be just any male person referred to in polite society. A couple of centuries ago a gentleman was much more than this.
One of the 19th Century’s most influential writers on chivalry was Kenelm Digby, author of The Broad Stone of Honour. Digby understood a gentleman to be a man with the qualities of chivalry which, to him, included: belief in God, generosity, high honor, independence, truthfulness, loyalty, hardihood, contempt for luxury, courtesy, modesty, humanity, and respect for women (see Girouard pp. 61-62).
Digby’s view of a gentleman was a bit grander than many of his time (or ours) felt comfortable with. He also had a penchant for hyperbole and, because of this, was often referred to as “silly”. Nonetheless, many serious writers were sympathetic to his ideals. Macaulay, Wordsworth, Ruskin and others all admitted that they liked reading his book.
What made The Broad Stone of Honour so popular was its placement of character above mere reason. This was a significant issue in the 19th Century, which saw the rise of Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism. Bentham abhorred emotional appeals and looked with suspicion on people with idealistic motivations. In many ways, the differences between traditional faiths and the so-called methodological atheism of our time are similar to these differences of the 19th Century. For the Utilitarian, the highest end to which a good society could aspire was the greatest contentment for the greatest number of people. If this meant sacrificing traditional values, then so be it. An evolving world needed to be ready to change, even its basic principles, if circumstances required it.
A good number of Englishmen, however, were not so sure. Many felt that truth, beauty and honor were worth defending. To them Digby’s call to chivalry was profoundly resonating. What also made it immediately useful was the direction it gave to young men. His very definition of chivalry addressed its relevance to boys directly:
“Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic and generous actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world. It will be found that … this spirit generally prevails in youth than in the later periods of men’s lives; and, as the heroic is always the earliest age in the history of nations, so youth, the first period of human life, may be considered as the heroic or chivalrous age of each separate man …As long as there has been or shall be, young men to grow up to maturity, and until all youthful life shall be dead, and it’s source withered for ever, so long must there have been, and must there continue to be, the spirit of noble chivalry.”
This version of chivalry carried with it a contagious zeal that inspired a nation of young men with noble dreams. And, in fact, Digby‘s influence did not end with his generation. It has extended clear through the 20th Century into our own time in the organizations of the Boy Scouts. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting most likely read from Digby in his youth, “and certainly went to it for ideas when he was forming the Boy Scouts” (Girouard, page 64). In early scout handbooks, there were sections comparing knightly errantry to daily good deeds. Pictures of knights were also included to inspire boys to virtuous acts of service.
Today this image of a strong Christian man going to war sends mixed symbols. Sadly, religion itself has become a synonym to many people of intolerance - even the cause of all the evils of war. The most influential atheists of our time use this argument as one of their chief exhibits in “proving” that God does not exist.
Where then does chivalry have anything helpful to say in such a world? The answer should be: everywhere. At the very core of chivalry is the insistence that there are some things that need to be defended. A society that ignores this - or worse, a society that tries to hide this - will soon find itself precariously vulnerable to enemies without.
Men are programmed to be defenders. Boys that are becoming men are too. This willingness to fight if provoked is not just a cultural artifact of a troubled society as some people think. It is hardwired into a man’s psyche. And there is real danger if we think we can remove it when it becomes a social problem - as it often does when we no longer know what we should be fighting for.
Chivalry should be our response to an ever more violent and virtue-less world. I don’t mean by this that we take up arms and suddenly become belligerent. (I believe that at its core, chivalry is defensive and not offensive.) Neither do I mean that we ignore the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek. True chivalry, after all, is able to take abuse. I do mean that we as a society should begin to recognize and encourage the man who will stand up for what is right - staking his honor on it. I also mean that we should encourage boys to defend young women at all costs against anyone that would threaten their virtue. This requires, of course, that we raise boys with moral courage. It requires that they learn about their birthright - which is to become men of honor.
We can easily make too much out of chivalry. One doesn’t have to dig too far to find examples of its abuse or of those that have wandered from its ideal. Those who are against any kind of manliness at all tend to focus on these deviations. Certainly we don’t need belligerent Christians or more honor-saturated gangs. But boys still need to have dreams. Should they be content to wile away their youth wishing to be nothing more than computer game champions or paint ball warriors? Are there no virtuous ideals left to fight for?
Where is the church or school sensible and willing enough to admit a curriculum honoring the dreams of chivalry – at least those dreams that inspire a boy to become a virtuous man? Where are the stories of the modern knight-errant: of a young hero befriending an unpopular girl, of the man refusing to act dishonestly, of a burly teenager giving his coat to a child? It’s time we started giving these stories a bit more attention.
We have been trying for too long to fix a criminally violent world by destroying manliness. What we should have been doing all along – and what we desperately need to do now – is to prepare virtuous and manly men to fix the problem. We need to raise boys that have valiant dreams.
Braudy, Leo. 2003. From Chivalry to Terrorism. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Digby, Kenelm Henry. 1846. The Broad Stone of Honour: or the True Sense and Practice of Chivalry. Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints.
Girouard, Mark. 1982. The Return to Camelot, Chivalry and the English Gentleman. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.