Chivalry Defined and Refined

Excerpted with permission from: Kasparek, Rick (2014) Knight of the Grail Code: The Call to Christian Chivalry in a World of Growing Darkness, Bloomington: WestBow Press

Knightly character is art, not nature—something that needs
to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.
—C. S. Lewis

Chivalry's most profound influence lay in just this, in setting
the seal of approbation on norms of conduct, recognized as noble when
reproduced in individual act and style.
—Maurice Keen, Chivalry

Medieval Knight

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines chivalry as the system of values (such as loyalty and honor) that knights in the Middle Ages were expected to follow or as an honorable and polite way of behaving especially toward women, but that definition is far from complete. When Maurice Keene wrote about the term chivalry, he aptly stated that it remains a word elusive of definition, tonal rather than precise in its implications1. Chivalry is defined differently depending on whether we are considering the historical aspects or the ideal. Our attempt to understand chivalry is clouded by the haze of history, the fog of war, the confusing tumult of the Crusades, and the mist of the romance literature. As Constance Brittain Bouchard states, it is easier to use the term chivalry to represent all ideals for knightly behavior, even while noting the multiple origins of what we now imagine [emphasis added] to be a single concept2.

The truth is, there is no single standard (or code) which people of the time [twelfth century] always meant when they referred to chivalrous (or courteous) behavior, and modern scholars need not, therefore seek a comprehensive definition3. One could say that there were three fairly distinct dimensions of chivalry—the historical, the religious, and the romantic—and that all of these contained a set of ethical values that were important for the time, place, and circumstance.

As Keene summarized,

Chivalry essentially was the secular code of honour of a martially oriented society. Its deepest roots stretched back to an origin in the social code of honour of a warrior group of the early Middle Ages; it owed its strong Christian tone to the fact that those groups had operated within the setting of a Christian society, in which the Christian cult [sic] was the chief focus alike of social and religious life. It flourished, in the period between the mid-twelfth and the sixteenth century, as the ethos of the dominant secular estate of Christian Europe, and its characteristic trappings were fashioned by the social, political, and cultural conditions of those times4.

Unfortunately, due to the violent aspects of chivalry, it is often associated with looting, destruction, and bloodshed as some authors proclaim that chivalry promoted rather than moderated violence. Medieval warfare, as John Gillingham5 and others have demonstrated, was characterized by pillaging and ravaging, and was mainly directed against civilian populations. Strickland6 has shown, however, that ideas of chivalry were taken very seriously on the occasions when knights fought other knights. Then certain rules were expected to be followed. Chivalry dictated, for example, that housing and food be given to defeated knights7. And Nigel Saul concludes that chivalry ritualized war and created a repertory of symbols, actions and devices which could simultaneously glamorize war, mitigate the worst of its horrors and embolden those who took part in it9.

Professor Richard Abels10 is the chair of the History Department of the US Naval Academy. He points out that the Christian contribution to chivalry involved the redefinition of warfare and knighthood. The Peace and Truce of God movement of the tenth and eleventh centuries attempted to define peace as the natural condition of the Christian community. War was to be limited both in scope and duration (selective pacifism). The other side of the coin was Crusade, the sanctification of war against [those who were thought to be] the enemies of God (Holy War/Crusade)11.

From the warrior codes of old, we find a more religious view of chivalry being assumed. John of Salisbury viewed chivalry as a profession instituted by God12. Digby also wrote of the religious source of chivalry, In all ages of the world religion had been the source of chivalry. It was in a sense of religion, however weak or unenlightened, that the generous and heroic part of mankind among the Heathens derived support and encouragement; generosity and heroism being essentially religious13.

Chivalry definitely had violent overtones during the Crusades. Fay Voshell, a national columnist, writes in a recent article: Papal support for armed intervention in the Middle East began in 1065. At that time, there was a war between Christians and Muslims involving the city of Jerusalem. Long regarded as having a holy significance to Christians and Muslims alike, Jerusalem, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre commemorating the place of Christ's crucifixion, was a focal point for Christian pilgrims, who traveled to Jerusalem by the thousands. In 1065, the Holy City was taken over by the Turks. Over 3,000 Christians were massacred. Christians went to war to release the Holy Land from the Saracens; and in time, the war turned into a conflagration including Spain, Eastern Europe, and territory in the Mediterranean13.

There are both good and bad elements associated with chivalry, both in its motives and in its realization.

In his treatise, De Laude Novae Militiae, Bernard of Clairvaux distinguished between the Templars and the entire secular knighthood. The first deserved the epithet militia, while the others received the pejorative classification malitia. His praise of the "new knighthood" emphasized that its members were the sole knights to behave according to the principles of Vita perfecta, both of the chivalric ideals and of the monastic orders. Moreover, their dedication to a perpetual war against the Muslims and to the defense of the Holy Land was considered by the abbot of Clairvaux to be both the real expression of chivalric ideals, and an achievement of the Gregorian ideas of milites Christi. Against this sense of the term militia, the lay knights not only did not deserve to be milites, but, because of their behavior, clothes and hairstyles, which expressed the sins of vanity and luxury, represented malitia, or malice15.

Long after the Crusades, the romantic view of a code of chivalry included a set of qualities generally acknowledged as enhancing the honor of a knight. Those qualities were: prowess, loyalty, courage, courtesy, self-restraint, a concern for honor, and piety.

Chivalric qualities, however, could and did come into conflict and in those cases which of them ought to take precedence was a matter of discussion and debate. Essentially, each medieval author of a romance, chanson de geste, or handbook of chivalry had his or her own conception of what 'perfect chivalry' entailed. The success of the author depended on how well he or she could convince the target audience, a noble court, of the rightness of that conception. Again, rather than think of 'chivalry' as an established "code," it is best to understand it as an evolving and disputed ethos that lacked a single agreed upon meaning16.

We need to understand that like any code of conduct, especially when talking of an evolving code, we see extremes brought by human passion, instinct, and fallibility. We see that at times chivalry was used for specific ends during its evolution. We see the muddling of chivalry, religion, and violence during the Crusades, all colored by the backdrop of religious conflict, political power shifts, conflicting agendas, and the fallibility of man. What we need to realize is that with our understanding of our inherent moral code, chivalry was an evolving ideal that attempted to capture the good—even though in practice during these various incarnations, it was far from perfect. Keene observed, 'Its most important legacy was its conception of honor,' he wrote, one that incorporated traits still considered the gold standard of human behavior: loyalty to friends, courage in combat, personal honesty, athletic skills, protection of the weak, courtesy toward all and, he continues, 'the constant quest to improve on achievement17.'"

The term chivalry has several dimensions. Chivalry is sometimes used to describe the general code of conduct of knights. Chivalry is also discussed in regard to its ultimate goal or purpose (sometimes good—sometimes not). But the larger discussion should be about the actual ideals that chivalry through its long life, attempted to capture. I like to think of chivalry in this way: The virtues described by chivalry are the target, the acts of chivalry are the attempt to hit the target, the history of chivalry is the record of how close we came to hitting that target, and the purpose of chivalry is diverse and depends on the motives of those who partake in the acts. Throughout history we have searched for a way to define and quantify admirable behavior. The code of chivalry is, at its heart, simply a handbook for good conduct. But chivalry was not a mandate from the powerful to the downtrodden, nor a directive from the chosen unto the masses. It was a set of limitations which the strong and mighty placed upon themselves with the realization that setting a good example sends a message which is far more powerful than any words on paper18.

The term chivalry as used by the Kingdom Knights is refers to our code of proper or moral behavior—and proper or moral behavior is a body of standards defining good versus bad behavior, derived from transcendent moral law—written on our hearts by our Creator. It describes choosing (a) care over harm; (b) fairness over cheating; (c) loyalty over betrayal; (d) authority over subversion; (e) sanctity over degradation; and (f) liberty over oppression. True Christian chivalry is about adherence to the ideals inscribed on our hearts, the ultimate goal being a life of unselfish service to God and neighbor.

1 Keen, Maurice Hugh. Chivalry. New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene 2005. Pg. 2.
2 Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France. Ithaca: Cornell UP 1998. Pg. 103.
3 Ibid.
4 Maurice Hugh Keen, Chivalry, op. cit. p.252–253.
5 John Gillingham is emeritus professor of Medieval History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. On 19 July 2007, he was elected into the Fellowship of the British Academy.
6 Matthew Strickland is professor of history at the University of Glasgow School of Humanities and author of several books on the subject of chivalry. His research interests are: chivalric society and the conduct of war in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries; castles, fortifications and medieval warfare; political culture, kingship and rebellion in the Anglo-Norman and Angevin realms. His principal area of research is chivalric culture and conduct in warfare, particularly in Britain and North France from the eleventh to the later thirteenth century.
7 Abels, Dr. Richard. "Medieval Chivalry." U. S. Naval Academy. U. S. Navy. Accessed July 24, 2014.
8 Nigel Saul is professor of Medieval History in the University of London. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. His publications include Richard II, A Companion to Medieval England; Death, Art and Memory in Medieval England and, most recently, The Three Richards.
9 Saul, Nigel. For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066–1500. Pimlico 2012.
10 Professor Richard Abels, PhD, is chair of the History Deptartment at The United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2008–2014). His 126 interest and research has focused on military and political institutions of Anglo-Saxon England.
11 Abels, Dr. Richard. "Medieval Chivalry." op. cit.
12 "John of Salisbury, Policraticus, Books 4, 5, 6." The Constitution Society, n.d. Web. 04 Sept. 2014. For the profession is as praiseworthy as it is necessary and no one can abuse it while preserving his reverence for God who instituted it.
13 Digby, Kenelm Henry. The Broad Stone of Honour: Or, True Sense and Practice of Chivalry. London: Quaritch 1877. California Digital Library (Archived).
14 Voshell, Fay. "The Fifth Crusade?" American Thinker. Thomas Lifson, 14 Aug. 2014. (Accessed August 15, 2014). Fay Voshell is a national columnist whose articles have appeared in many online publications, including National Review,,, and American She holds a MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, from which she received the Charles Hodge Prize for excellence in systematic theology. Many of her articles feature the interface of religion and politics.
15 Grabois, Areyh. "Militia and Malitia: The Bernardine Vision of Chivalry." De Re Militari. The Society for Medieval Military History, 5 May 2014. Accessed August 15, 2014. Aryeh Grabois, PhD, is a professor at the Department of History at the University of Haifa in Israel.
16 Dr. Richard Abels, "Medieval Chivalry." op. cit.
17 Vitello, Paul. "Maurice H. Keen Dies at 78; Redefined Chivalry." The New York Times. 25 Sept. 2012. Accessed August 19, 2014.
18 Farrell, Scott. "What Is Chivalry?" Chivalry Today. Chivalry Today, 22 June 2002. Accessed July 7, 2014.