The swords, axes, armor, and horses — valiant deeds and noble battles — may be exciting and entertaining, but beneath the flashy surface lies a deeper philosophy that has ancient origins, deep meaning, and over the ages, a lot of misunderstanding.
Looking at the older stories of knights and chivalry we begin to see a pattern of a way of living emerge. Coming out of a culture of mounted warriors, a set of ethics began to be transformed after the Crusaders began to return to their homes knowing only war and battle, but fighting for their sacred religious beliefs, the need emerged for balance between violence, spiritual peace, and their leadership responsibilities at home.
One description of this way of thinking (Ramon Llull 1232-1315/6) said a very important thing to learn early is humility. A knight needed faith to adhere to their path and return to it if (when) they deviated, but humility would be necessary to admit to their failing. A leader must know what it is like to be led, to serve before being served. After that a knight should train hard so as to do great deeds, increasing his (today, we would say their) prowess. Prowess is what made a knight successful both in battle and in life. Bur even the most powerful cannot be chivalrous without regard for others. They must also know charity because they have a duty to those who they lead.
Over the centuries, the knightly virtues have been described many ways. They have even been presented as different numbers of virtues, but the basis of these remains.
Ramon Llull talks about a knight being outstanding among those around him. He talks about natural leaders being one man in a hundred, but a true knight being one in a thousand. Today, moving beyond the idea of one person being better or superior (by birth) to another that was so prevalent in Llull’s time, today we can see this as a goal of self improvement. What makes a knight stand out beyond the typical leaders is his ability to make himself the best he can be. A knight stands out not because some cultural norm says he’s got more right to the throne but because he has made himself a better person, the best person he can be.
Bringing that into the 21st century, we can say that chivalry requires one to constantly strive to do better in order to be better. This is also not a new concept. Reading Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur we see time and again the best knights of the Round Table doing things they shouldn’t. They fall victim to deceit but just as often it seems, they simply do not live up to the ideals to which they have dedicated their lives. What makes them chivalrous and worthy of being remembered, along with their successes, is the fact that when they realize their shortfalls, they universally seek to make amends. Whether they learn if their misdeeds on their own or they are pointed out to them they accept they messed up and make the necessary changes to correct their ways. This is what makes a great knight stand apart from simple a successful leader who never admits to any mistakes.
When i ask people what place, if any chivalry has today (I type this in early 2023), many will tell me “none” basing their understanding of chivalry on a combination of outdated 19th century fiction, 20th century Hollywood, and the loudly vocal and almost universally abusive man-children all too common today. You can usually spot them by their obsession with their idea of crusaders and the Knights Templar, where they focus on that flashy fantasy of noble power rather than the real people, real history, and any semblance of multifaceted improvements of themselves.
On a related point, chivalry is no longer reserved for high born, Catholic, Military men. The world now recognized that birth, religion, military status, and gender have no bearing on whether a person can lead a chivalrous life. The first of these to be rejected was military service. Then we see protestant knights, and later women receiving knightly accolades. High birth has always been a contentious topic, but it has little bearing at all today. We do not need some organization nor recognition to act in a chivalrous manner and never did. The recognition, the accolade, was meant to make leaders stand out as chivalrous, honorable people. It is not a requirement to be one.
Historical authors seem to differ about whether a noble birth or bloodline is required. Some will point out knighting of some peasant who did something amazing on battle while others believing in nobility by birth postulate that peasant was some unknown branch of a noble bloodline. Occasionally you find someone who talks about it being easier to be chivalrous if you were raised to be so, but it isn’t a strict requirement. I think that has a lot of merit today.
CS Lewis wrote, concerning children’s literature,
Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. […] Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1966)
This is extremely important. Hearing of heroic and good deeds encourages the same in people. This is why chivalry done right us so important today. We may not be perfect, but by setting the example for others we raise the bar for those around us and make the world a better place by leading not by pushing. By choosing to hold ourselves to a higher standard and also to face accountability for our own misdeeds, we show that it can be done. By expressing the knightly virtues in our actions, we send message to the world that all is not lost, that you can do better, that you can amend your life after each misstep, that you can be a better person and you can serve as an exemplar of the world you would like to see.
Returning to Llull, for a moment, he says of the origins of chivalry, (My modernization of the Caxton translation)
In times that charity, uprightness, justice, and truth were failing in the world, there arose cruelty, corruption, injury, and falseness, and there was error and disturbance in the world[…]
[W]hen despising justice came into the world and then there was such misrule and misgovernance in the world among the people with failures of justice that in order to bring back the rule of good governance in force and dreadful awe, the people must begin the search for a man among a thousand, who was most wise, most upright, and most integrous and sturdy, and with the best governance, most godlike, and full of great honesty, and most noble, most courageous, and learned in the virtues, and of all those thousand people, there was one chosen to be chieftain of the law, and to govern them, and be their leader:“Book of the Order of Chivalry” Ramon Llull, Translated to Middle English by William Caxton and thence to modern English by Brian Chabot
There is much talk of the decline of civilization and of civility in the world today. Llull suggests that choosing the most worthy to lead in such times was the origin of knighthood. Today, I would postulate that CS Lewis’ idea of using good and honorable knights as exemplar for world makes chivalry not only a positive influence, but a very important thing. Whether we realise it or not, all of us, as humans in subtle but powerful ways, emulate those we see around us. This is how cultures develop.
I believe that the idea of the modern news media focusing on the bad things people do ove the good they do has done more harm than any politician in the last 50 years. Despots kill many people, but causing people to mainly see and potentially even heroize those who do evil changes the whole world to accept acts of cruelty as common place or inevitable.
The place of chivalry today lies not in some noble Catholic military male leadership organization, but rather in good people deciding to follow the ideals of chivalry, to live by the chivalric virtues that were enumerated and evolved over time to make good people better. The place is for all of us to strive to do and be better and when possible to tell the tales of good deeds and right actions to show the world that while others warn of cruel and evil acts, it is important to teach of heroism, honor, and justice and in highlighting the humanity of the people doing good, help form a rapport with those hearing such tales so that those people will be more moved to doing good than evil acts.
I believe the place of Chivalry today is to lead by example, to BE the change we want to see in the world.