Is chivalry dead? What is chivalry, holding doors for women? Taking out the trash for your landlady? And who started this chivalry thing?
Chivalry = Cavalry
Chivalry began with cavalry, men-at-arms who fight on horseback. In fact the word Chevalerie means horseman or knight in 11th Century Old French. I’d like to find the source of the chivalry ethos so I’m looking for a first hand account written by someone who fought in battle on a horse and wrote a code of conduct for similar men-at-arms, someone who killed men who were trying to kill him, not someone LARPing (Live Action Role Playing).
Charny: a real knight
Geoffroi de Charny (1306-1356) was a knight of France who was reknown for his bravery and died in battle at the Battle of Portiers while carrying the oriflamme, the banner of the King of France. Interesting fellow: he was even the first documented owner of the Shroud of Turin. And helpfully he wrote a book on how to be a knight: the Book of Chivalry. Let’s take a look inside.
How to be a chivalrous knight
“They can do so by being men of worth, wise, loyal, without arrogance, joyful, generous, courteous, expert, bold, and active, and of good conduct toward all others, without indulging in self praise or speaking ill of others.”
Defend the honor of ladies
“Hence all good men-at-arms are rightly bound to protect and defend the honor of all ladies1 against all those who would threaten it by word or deed.”
Don’t converse with your enemies
“[Knights] should be humble among their friends, proud and bold against their foes, tender and merciful toward those who need assistance, cruel avengers against their enemies, pleasant and amiable with all others, for the men of worth tell you that you should not converse at any length nor hold speech with your enemies, for you should bear in mind that they do not speak to you for your own good but to draw out of you what they can use to do you the greatest harm. You should be generous in giving where the gift will be best used and as careful as you can that you let your enemies have nothing that is yours.”
“Love and serve your friends, hate and harm your enemies, relax with your friends, exert yourself with all your strength against your foes. You should plan your enterprises cautiously and you should carry them out boldly.”
Make war against the enemies of Christ
“Moreover, the man who makes war against the enemies of religion in order to support and maintain Christianity and the worship of Our Lord is engaged in a war which is righteous, holy, certain, and sure, for his earthly body will be honored in a saintly fashion and his soul will, in a short space of time, be borne in holiness and without pain into paradise. This kind of war is good, for one can lose in it neither one’s reputation in this world nor one’s soul.”
Defend the weak
“No one can and should excuse himself from bearing arms in a just cause, whether for his lord or for his lineage or for himself or for the Holy Church or to defend and uphold the faith or out of pity for men or women who cannot defend their own rights. In such cases they should commit themselves eagerly, boldly, and gladly to such deeds of arms and adventures, fearing nothing.”
Dress neatly, elegantly
“But there is no reason why it should not and cannot be fitting for young men in all circumstances, whether at home or on the field, to be dressed decently, neatly, elegantly, with due restraint and with attractive things of low cost and often replaced.”
Are knights LARPing?
Charny’s book is the earliest primary source2 written by a knight who fought in combat. Did he get his ideas about chivalry from someone else further upstream? The oldest reference to chivalry is “Ordene de chevalerie” but it’s not exactly a how-to book, it’s a poem and we don’t know who wrote it. Could have been the village blacksmith or ploughman for all we know.
The Arthurian legends were a popular meme3 back in Charny’s time and his book even mentions Queen Guinevere. In fact the book that popularized King Arthur, “History Regum Britanniae” written in the 1130s by Geoffrey of Monmouth was considered historically accurate until the nineteenth century.
To change your life you must LARP
One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where (1) your desired behavior is the normal behavior and (2) you already have something in common with the group.James Clear, Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results
James Clear’s book Atomic Habits says to change your life, don’t focus on replacing bad habits with good habits. Instead give yourself a new identity:
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
Charny, along with many knights of that era, got their inspiration from the Arthurian legends. They used myth to create a pole star for their actions, the same way some kids pretend to be Jedi. There’s nothing wrong with LARPing: it’s an effective tool. Everyone LARPs, pros LARP at a higher level.
We’re all beginners under the skin. Scratch an expert and you’ll often find someone who’s muddling through—just at a higher level.Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think
Clear, James. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, Penguin Random House, 2018.
Kennedy, Elspeth, translator. A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry. By Geoffroi de Charny, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
As he explains earlier in the book he means “ladies of noble birth”, not some foul-mouthed, foul-tempered tavern wench. ↩
Primary sources are first-hand accounts: original works such as diaries, interviews, surveys, and original research. Secondary sources interpret, summarize, or critique primary sources: encyclopedias, textbooks, essays, and reviews. ↩
A meme is an idea or behavior that can spread from one person to another like a virus. Can mutate when exposed to environmental pressures. ↩