By Danièle Cybulskie
When people talk about the Middle Ages, they often refer to a “code of chivalry” as if it was a thick, dusty tome or a secret oath sworn by torchlight. In reality, many books were written outlining the rules for chivalry in different countries and at different times, and no two are the same. While the authors of these handbooks – often knights, themselves – disagreed on the treatment of peasants and whether or not you should slap or tap a freshly-minted knight with a sword to help him remember his vows, they did tend to emphasize a few of the same essential points. Here’s a quick and easy beginner’s guide to chivalry as it was understood by the knights who lived it and wrote about it.
Be a Fighter
While it’s a myth that medieval people were constantly at war, medieval society was militaristic, with a hierarchy that had been established in large part on the basis of defending land and community. Chivalric culture lent sophistication, glamour, and morality to the bloody business of warfare, refining the behaviour of knights, men who had been trained from childhood to kill when called upon. That they were also well-mannered, educated, and able to dance and recite poetry did not negate their primary role as fighters.
Knights were almost always born into the nobility, and authors like Ramon Llull believed that only aristocrats were worthy of the rank. While an ordinary man’s fighting skill could lead to his elevation to knighthood – especially on the battlefield – the gesture was understood to be giving him the rank that his unnaturally fine prowess and courage indicated he already deserved. No matter how refined he was, a common man was not elevated to knighthood based on his table manners and dancing ability, alone. Much as chivalry involved social graces, at its core, it was always about martial skill.
Ride a Horse
The word chivalry itself comes from the French cheval or horse. A chivalrous knight is by definition a horseman, who rides into battle on a destrier – or warhorse – as part of a cavalry charge. Ramon Llull (ever anxious to keep the chivalric club exclusive) goes so far as to say that a man cannot truly be a knight unless he has a horse, and that this horsemanship must be learned in boyhood, or else the man will never become a true knight.
Given that destriers were extremely expensive, it was the upper classes who could afford them, reinforcing the connection between chivalry, war, and nobility. The lower-class man who was elevated on the battlefield would find himself in need of a horse and the trappings of knighthood to go with his new rank, as well as all the expense that entailed. Fortunately, good fighters could win horses, riches, and renown on the tournament circuit.
As both aristocrats and fighters, knights were supported by retainers, who served them both at home and on campaign. They also had peasants, tradespeople, and clergy who lived on their land, and who they were obliged to protect and rule over fairly. Lords who went above the call of duty, treating both peers and underlings with an open hand, lavishing gifts, food, and favours upon them, were both respected and beloved.
While generosity implies kindness in a way that may seem far removed from the fierceness required in battle, it was still tightly bound to aristocratic and warrior ideals. After all, a knight who could afford to be generous was one who had accumulated wealth through good business practices as a landowner, or through successful military exploits – or (like William Marshal) both. Besides being kind, generosity was practical: it ensured good service and loyalty. A chivalrous knight was one who could be depended upon to share the spoils of war, and care for his retainers into old age.
It wasn’t just crusaders who placed their faith at the heart of their knightly actions. Medieval Europe was a place in which Christianity was woven into the very structure of society, and this included its warrior class.
If he wasn’t knighted on the battlefield (and the vast majority of knights were not), a squire would spend the night before his knighthood ceremony in fasting and prayer, as Geoffroi de Charny tells us, taking a bath to purify himself before he donned symbolic clothing to remind him of his faith and his vows. He was always to respect the church, attend mass, and live his life as a good example of Christian behaviour. Not coincidentally, the spoken and unspoken rules of chivalry were the same as those of Christianity: faith, hope, charity, generosity, steadfastness, and (believe it or not) mercy.
Show Mercy (Sometimes)
Because the nobility were the ones with the wealth – and because wars are expensive – it made more sense to ransom knights who were captured on the battlefield than to kill them. For this reason, it was considered decidedly unchivalrous to kill prisoners – unless they were peasants or too dangerous to keep around. Similarly, it was bad form to kill clergy, torment civilians, or harm children.
Conveniently, these rules were ignored whenever it suited, with the guilty parties tending to make restitution after the fact by going on pilgrimages, founding churches, or donating to monasteries. Because the ugly behaviours of warfare were considered unchivalrous – and sinful – medieval chroniclers and biographers tended to emphasize them when they want to disparage some knights, while justifying, glossing over, or leaving out the same behaviours in others. Mercy was the ideal, but it didn’t always mix well with the realities of war.
Be Kind to Ladies
In today’s usage, the word chivalry has nothing to do with horses and everything to do with the treatment of women. For medieval women (as indeed for modern women) chivalry was always a double-edged sword. A chivalrous knight was meant to be polite to ladies and defend them if they were ever in distress, hazarding his body in battle to be their champion. In return for this service, it was expected that a lady would bestow her love and favour upon the knight in question. In a society in which women already had far less power than men, this expectation of love (emotional and/or physical) as payment for service put ladies in a tough position, especially given that the knights in question were far superior in terms of physical strength, thanks to a lifetime of training. That the courtly love tradition emphasized extramarital love/service transactions while at the same time punishing adultery made things even trickier.
While some authors like Andreas Capellanus give noblemen explicit permission to abuse women, and knights like Ulrich von Liechtenstein stalked them to outrageous extremes, the biographies of knights like Boucicaut stick to revering women as supporters and muses. This handily kept women in their place as helpmeets in accordance with medieval societal values: the ideal lady was always eager to inspire her man to greater prowess. Because chivalry was never meant to put women on equal footing with men, it’s fair to say that knights were encouraged to be kind to women – as they would to children and small animals – not (unfortunately) to treat them with the same respect and dignity afforded to men.
No single, definitive medieval “code of chivalry” exists; however, people would have understood the guidelines to be based on the values of contemporary Christian society as applied to a landholding warrior class. While these are some of the common themes across medieval treatises on chivalry, each author has his own spin on the ideal traits of knighthood according to his own culture, time, place, and (often) personal experience in battle. Biographies such as The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, Jean II Le Meingre, The History of William Marshal, and (indirectly) Le Jouvencel give us an idea of how these ideals were applied in the lives of real knights – biographer biases aside – and provide a window into a culture that still influences ours today.
If you want to know more about chivalry in the Middle Ages, check out my upcoming book Chivalry and Courtesy: Medieval Manners for Modern Life.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter/X @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.
Top Image: Hermetschwil, Benediktinerinnenkloster, Cod. membr. 37, f. 41r