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.