Is Chivalry Dead? It depends on what you mean by chivalry.
When most people say chivalry, they are thinking of the behaviors of an upper class Englishman during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Probably the best example of this is the behavior of the gentlemen on the Titanic who ensured that the lifeboats were loaded with “women and children first,” and who waited for their inevitable death dressed in their best dinner jacket.
Most of the values of Victorian chivalry are still alive today. Who can argue with being honest, honorable, patriotic, and being willing to fulfill your duty? We could use more men who emulate these qualities.
The part of Victorian chivalry that people question is the behavior of men towards women.
The gentleman was expected to protect the honor and safety of women. This included defending women against physical attacks against their person as well doing things such as opening doors, and allowing women to go first.
I think these values are still alive today as well, but with some caveats. Men are still obliged to defend weaker people from a physical attack by a stronger assailant. What man worth his salt would not defend a woman who was being threatened by a rapist, or an elderly man from a mugger?
But the manners of Victorian chivalry do need updating. I still hold the door open for women, but only if they are walking close by. I don’t go out of my way to do so. I am also egalitarian in that I will hold the door open for a man as well. I don’t give up my seat on the train for able-bodied young women, but I do for elderly people and pregnant women.
Victorian chivalry was not perfect but it was a legitimate development of true chivalry. In our day, new forms of “chivalry” have sprung up. They are complete misunderstandings of what true chivalry really is.
White Knight or beta male as knight
The white knight is really just a beta male who finds it hard to attract women. To compensate, he tries to do over the top gestures. He will send flowers or read poetry. He will volunteer to drive a woman around or shovel the snow around her parking spot. On the internet, the white knight will write nice comments on women’s Instagram pictures.
The white knight is doing all these things in the hopes that one of these ladies will consent to dating him. He always gets rejected and he wonders why because he thinks he is “nicer” than the men who are getting the girls.
The white knight might see himself as a true knight, but he is just a caricature. Fortunately, he can take steps to become more alpha and leave his losing strategies behind.
White knights have absolutely nothing to do with true chivalry. They just give it a bad name.
Christian man as knight
This is a common theme among Protestant Evangelicals. The basic idea is that chivalry can be boiled down to men who devoutly live out biblical principles. While this captures the spirituality aspect of chivalry, it completely misses the boat on everything else. A knight was not just a devout Christian.
Society for Creative Anachronism member as knight
The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) has an extremely developed system for “knights.” An SCA knight will buy armor and participate in tournaments involving sword fighting with rattan sticks and other weapons that have been made safe.
To become a knight, a man in the SCA has to defeat the other knights of his region.
The SCA has gotten one portion of chivalry right—the necessity that a knight have martial prowess. A knight has to be able to kick ass.
But the members of the SCA that I have met are generally the opposite of spiritual. I have yet to meet a Christian member of the SCA. How can an organization that takes its inspiration from the Middle Ages miss the Catholic faith, which was the unifying principle of the Middle Ages?
Liberal wimp as knight
There is a book out there called Chivalry Now that presents a modern take on chivalry. It has some good points. It emphasizes the need for a modern knight to be honest and to avoid gossip and slander.
It also has some bad points. Chivalry Now seems to indicate that a modern knight will support progressive political causes, including feminism. The ideal “knight” of this book is a Ted Kennedy type character except that he doesn’t lie or womanize.
Chivalry Now is sort of a call for a men’s movement similar to feminism, but without feminism’s teeth. In other words, it posits a weak feminism for men.
The chivalry of this book is also egalitarian. It is intended for any man who wants to pick it up and practice it as part of this weak men’s movement. But ancient chivalry was not egalitarian. It was reserved to the few strong enough practice it.
Again, the martial aspect of chivalry is deemphasized in this book even though the author is a martial artist.
What is true chivalry?
Originally, chivalry was a code of conduct for warriors.
Warrior: The first knights were primarily warriors. They worked out to stay in peak physical condition because being out of shape could mean death in a battle. Any modern take on chivalry needs to include the aspect of martial prowess.
Courtier: Knights were not just effective fighters. Knights were raised at court—the political power centers of the Middle Ages. While they were not scholars, the ideal knight was also a courtier. In short, he was cultured and urbane.
Lover: Knights were also lovers, but they lived in a milieu completely different from our own. In that time, relations between highborn men and women were guided by the concept of courtly love. Courtly love does not apply to our current culture. It was a ghastly institution that emerged as a result of the peculiar circumstances of the time.
The fact remains though: knights were good with women. That doesn’t mean that the knight was the ancient equivalent of a modern pick up artist—far from it.
Men of Honor: Knights lived according to a strict moral code. They were sworn to defend the weak. They kept their word. If a knight made a vow, he kept it even if the vow was a rash one. They valued their honor.
Believer: Knights had faith. There is no escaping this fact. Chivalry originated in Catholic Europe. Some had more faith, some had less, but to a man, they all believed.
A New Knighthood
What would a modern knight look like? He would have all the qualities of the ancient knight, but they would be updated to fit the times. He would be a skilled fighter. A man of honor. He would be popular with women and a pillar in his community. He would be successful in business or politics. He would be spiritual.
A good approximation of the modern knight already exists in the form of the Bruce Wayne character from the Batman franchise. The only element Bruce Wayne seems to lack is a deep faith.
Of course, not all of us can be billionaires but men who feel called to chivalry, and I believe it is a calling, have a good model in Bruce Wayne.
Excellent article as always. Yeah, the modern day ‘white knight’ basically translates in today’s language into ‘pussy’. If you read the Arthurian legends, or heck even LOTR and focus on Aragorn and Eomer, their characters were exactly as you describe, very well rounded, focused more on serving their king and country than anything else and staying on top of everything, whether that be physicality, intrigue, etc.
Michael Sebastian says
Thomas Malory wrote that he intended Morte d’Arthur to be a book that we can learn what to do and what to avoid. Upon reading it, the things that strike me are the emphasis on keeping one’s word and courage in fighting when the situation called for it. I find these values missing in our culture.
I love it when someone brings up chivalry and knighthood which is why I chose the pseudonym. For what it’s worth, my 2 cents:
Knights of old are much like “knights” of today: elite military agents such as the Specznaz or the Navy Seals. Well trained, disciplined and expected to follow the order of their commanders to the letter. “Honor” was defined by what the culture demanded and most of the time, it was simply loyalty. Even today, apart from the west, most “knights” are not considered defenders of the weak but rather simply loyal, effective agents of the state.
Christian values were infused onto western Knights during the middle ages as the church demanded they stop looting and raping the citizenry after their military objectives were achieved or during their “down time.” This protection didn’t mean going down with a ship while 80 year old women got on lifeboats or throwing their jackets onto rain puddles to impress women. It was, again, similar to what we expect from the police today. If you watch COPS, professional lawmen protect all citizens, including women, but don’t pander to them. Since peasants were often men, protection applied for them also but as the peasant class shrunk, women and children remained since they were, and still are, helpless.
And indeed, that’s something to reflect upon in that feminism hasn’t made women equal but rather demanded the western patriarchy impose an artificial, faux equality upon society that regards women as entitled victims. I liken it to the damsel in distress demanding a white knight to rescue her from the dragon while complaining that he doesn’t deserve any thanks for his effort since he’s no better than the dragon. Here’s a funny skit from family guy that illustrates that concept:
Chivalry’s pandering to women has twisted the original notion of protecting the weak. I even see some white knights gloat that they like to attack weaker men (working class men that women disdain) to impress and beg for sexual favors from women. The slimiest dishonor. It appears to have happened because of a natural, economic issue that is inescapable and many are still in denial about:
(Most) women can’t handle equality.
I was at the shooting range and I saw a 6 year old using a small rifle for target practice. She’s a good shot. My wife was horrified. “No small child should be considered morally capable of handling such a weapon” She has a point. It’s also my primary argument against women’s equality.
Women are naturally helpless (hence feminism’s demands for quotas, the welfare state, and an aggressive police state) in addition to being materialistic, irresponsible, and selfish. Michael asks what man worth his salt would refuse to defend an old man being attacked or a woman being raped. Heck, most moral women would certainly rise to the occasion. What’s shocking is when women go to divorce court to destroy the father of their children, and even their children’s lives, out of short-sighted greed. What kind of monster uses a child as a financial pawn? What person earns a good salary as a career woman and then dehumanizes men she dates in an attempt to squeeze out their money? How many men do we know who’d behave like that towards the people they love? Even most weak men consider such conduct vile (except for white knights.) But in this age when women have had a choice and been given all the tools to “slay the dragon”, so to speak, and live by a more honorable code, they’ve failed miserably and that’s why Return of Kings exists. If women were handling equality well, we wouldn’t be having these discussions.
Women are advised, including by Michael and RoK to cherish their sexual assets and use them with discretion. So should men and our protection. A woman wouldn’t just sleep with a bunch of men to make the men feel better so why should men drown in the ocean so that a lifeboat full of strange women swim to shore to complain about how oppressed they are? Knights of old, and most even today, defend their interests and those they are loyal to. The rest, come second. It’s the number one hard reality we face as men and it’s the reality that chivalry has tried to mock as selfish and dishonorable when in reality, it’s the most honorable trait of all. Until we defend our own interests, we can’t help anyone else and shouldn’t.
Anyway, very nice thoughtful article and I like your posts. I’ll be following.
Michael Sebastian says
Thanks for the well-thought out post. Likening knights to the Seals, Rangers, or the Spetsnaz is a good analogy. The Arthurian legends were one of the things that tainted chivalry. Although the original legends probably had their origin in pre-Christian myth, much of the stuff that came down to us was written down by command of Eleanor of Aquitaine. You can see this in the emphasis on courtly love and adultery—things which were big in Eleanor’s court. Malory’s stuff was a bit better but he was still working with the French sources.
Also, some of the chivalry towards women assumes that they are worthy of it in the first place. In other words, it was a two way street—something we can no longer presuppose. Even so, putting women on a pedestal is an unbalanced way of looking at them.
I still think there are a lot of good things in chivalry that can inspire modern men, but we have to throw out the false accretions.
Hey, love this. Feminists hate chivalry because it makes feminine vulnerability and male heroism salient. But this is what’s great about it.
I think there is something to the idea that women no longer “deserve” chivalry to the extent that they once did. It takes on sort of a tone of fem-dom if the woman refuses the surface on the grounds of her vulnerability but rather her entitlement. I can see why men would push back against this, it’s degrading.
Still, even if many modern women don’t deserve it, there is still the aspect of it calling to mind what is superior and strong about men.
Jan Sobieski says
A chivalric act on a university campus, e.g. holding a door open for a young lady with extraordinarily coloured hair, is a wonderfully subtle act of rebellion.