The Necessity of Chivalry

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things, C.S. Lewis notes, from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train:

But if we want to understand chivalry as an ideal distinct from other ideals — if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme il faut which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture — we cannot do better than turn to the words addressed to the greatest of all the imaginary knights in Malory’s Morte Darthur. “Thou wert the meekest man”, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot. “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”

The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.


Let us be quite clear that the ideal is a paradox.  Most of us, having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition, were taught in our youth that a bully is always a coward.  Our first week at school refuted this lie, along with its corollary that a truly brave man is always gentle.  It is a pernicious lie because it misses the real novelty and originality of the medieval demand upon human nature.  Worse still, it represents a a natural fact something which is really a human ideal, nowhere fully attained, and nowhere attained at all without arduous discipline.  It is refuted by history and experience.

Homer’s Achilles knows nothing of the demand that the brave should also be the modest and merciful.  He kills men as the cry fro quarter or takes them prisoner to kill them at leisure.  The heroes of the Sagas know nothing of it; they are as “stern to inflict” as they are “stubborn to endure”.  Attila “had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired”.  Even the Romans, when gallant enemies fell into their hands, led them through the streets for a show, and cut their throats in cellars when the show was over.

At school we found that the hero of the First XV might well be a noisy, arrogant, overbearing bully.  IN the last war we often found that the man who was “invaluable in a show” was a man for whom in peacetime we could not easily find room except in Dartmoor.  Such is heroism by nature — heroism outside the chivalrous tradition.


When the dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. The ancient history of the Near East is like that. Hardy barbarians swarm down from the highlands and obliterate a civilization. Then they become civilized themselves and go soft. Then a new wave of barbarians comes down and obliterates them. Then the cycle begins over again.


  1. ASDF says:

    David Brooks (who I hate, by the way) did a speech you can probably find on YouTube about the two main branches of western civilization.

    One was the Greek branch exemplified by Achilles. The goal of the Greek branch is glory, and glory is achieved through greatness and power. By attaining glory one cheated death to a certain extent by having one’s name live on. That was what Achilles was after in Troy, not any moral purpose.

    The second branch is the Christian branch. It is one that elevates the meekest of all men ever to have lived, Jesus Christ. A man who allowed himself to be crucified even though he had the power to smash the entire Roman Empire. It posits that you defeat death by placing trust in the power of God and following his commandments. That all other forms of power and glory in this world inevitably fade.

    These two halves are present in the Knight.

  2. etype says:

    Do you remember that old King Arthur joke where the king is going away and asks Merlin for a way to keep his wife safe? So — since you of course do remember but want to hear it again — Merlin comes back with a Merlinizer chasity belt, which King Arthur sees and decides that its holes are too big. To demonstrate how the big holes work, Merlin sticks an old magic wand in the holes and — zip — a guillotine comes down and lops it off.

    So the king goes off on his jaunt, and when he comes back he gathers his knights at the jolly round table and orders them to drop trou. Everyone’s hacked up bad, and it’s ugly — except virtuous Galahad, who’s entirely mens sano corpus sanum apparently. That the King’s delighted is too soft a word. So he asks Galahad what’s to be his reward, but Galahad’s not talking, because his tongue’s been lopped off.

    And that’s the truth of the chivalrous knight. It was only a literary technique to stimulate the ladies and baffle the young. Of course, it had it’s victims and so on, but western chivalry had nothing really to do with drawing room games and novels for the barely literate.

    The problem is the western world, especially the cultural part of it which is Anglo-American, which looks at things like the cult of chivalry, takes it literally, and imagines it just so, and doesn’t realize it was just the literary veneer. The reality was very different.

    Also, chivalry did not stem from the languedoc and this cult that the article mentions — courtly love.

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