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A Definition of Chivalry - Then and Now
The Practice of Chivalry
Before we can define the nature of chivalry today, we need an understanding of what it actually means and what it meant historically. According to on-line dictionary resource, Merriam-Webster, the word, chivalry, comes from the word, chivalrie, used in the Middle English; chevalrerie from Anglo-French; chevalier which is also French. Although this resource also indicates the first known use of this term was in the 14th Century, the behavior of chivalry has been reflected in writings noting it was practiced before this time.
For simplication, we'll focus on the definition used during the Middle Ages and how we refer to this word today. In medieval times, the skill and activities of knights and the actions of men of valor would describe chivalry. Today, while contemporary meanings of the term seem to be a thing of the past, such a suggestion references men who are gentlemen.
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Knights valued their service to their lords.
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The History of Chivalry In Medieval Times
Keep in mind that our notion of a knight riding into a village in his shining armour and well-decorated horse to go save some princess is primarily idealistic and an effect of a fairytale. A knight basically served his lord and was protected generally by his lord for his services. Knights were expected to uphold honor and part of their vows included helping to protect those who were less fortunate, or not as strong as they were.
Chivalry evolved over different periods of history:
- The Crusades;
- Militaristic orders;
- Secular chivalry, meaning this type was not tied to any specific monastic vow or specific religion; and
- Court chivalry
The Crusades - During medieval times, not only were men decked out in their armor, their horses were also suited up. Duties and ideals were imposed upon men, or expected and those expectations changed throughout history as far as how "orders of chivalry" has been described in research by writers on the subject. Some of the information is dated back to the era of the Crusades wherein religious orders centered around the effects of the activities of men. Knighthood evolved and behavior of the knights in a Christian-like manner was expected and was chiefly pronounced during the Crusades. During the Crusades, the perfect knight was the Crusader who took a vow to serve over a certain period of time. During this period, the knight was protected by the Church. If the Church was blessing the knight's sword, it was also supportive of their battling activities.
Going as far back as the 14th Century, men belonging to groups of noblemen or knights were referred to as orders or orders of chivalry. The term, chevalier, is the French word associated with an English knight who was, for his time during the Middle Ages, a professional soldier. Going even further back beyond the 14th Century, there were several orders which continued to grow in their members and many became wealthy as landowners.
Military Orders - Military orders involved another type of monastic vow which involved fighting against infidels. An infidel was a person who didn't accept a certain religious belief, particularly Christianity. In belonging to this type of order, there was a correlation between religion and the fighter with heroic effects. Similar to the monastic orders, the knightly vows were tied into actions involving mannerisms, ideals (reflected in the romantic era in literature) and goals. The knight was a participant in the calvary and was judged by his service. His honor was displayed by his armour, his horse and his flag's attendants. The knight's flag was particular to chivalry and knighthood.
Secular Chivalry - The religious part of chivalry was lost after the Crusades movement. Knighthood became a subject of heroic efforts with a lot of battles--no longer protected by the Church.
Court Chivalry - Chivalry became a court service involving a much smaller activity and lesser of a goal. Where chivalry had once been exalted, it became a thing of the past as knighthood evolved as was the term of chivalry redefined across the centuries.
Today, knighthood still exists in the United Kingdom, but chivalry in itself has a whole other meaning in today's society compared to past centuries. It still encompasses the behavior and activities of a significant other, i.e, good manners, gentlemanly attributes. It's more about being mindful of your manners, being courteous and respectful. A common example would be when a man opens a car door for a woman to enter or exit.
If a man is impolite, he is indeed labeled as being rude. If he practices good behaviors and actions, he's labeled as a gentleman. It also involves a man in a relationship making compromises (or sacrifices) for the woman to also have what she wants or needs. Other subtle examples would be approaching an elevator and typically men will invite the women to enter it first. When a man helps a woman put her coat on, she may not expect it, but once it's performed, it's appreciated and in some instances, probably surprising. It's a kind gesture. And after going on a dinner date, it's not just a traditional reflection that the man should pay for the meal. I went on a blind date a long time ago where the man paid for what he could pay for and suggested I cover the balance. I have to say I was offended because of his unpreparedness to pay or to warn me in advance I was expected to cover the balance. Needless to say, that was the last time I say him.
Before one can say chivalry is a thing of the past, it has to be understood that many, many years ago, it carried a different meaning and it has definitely evolved over time. According to www.gentlemansguide.net,
"So what happened to men like him? Gentlemen. A gentleman is polite, intelligent, witty, talented, modest, well dressed, well groomed, and culturally aware. How did guys get so afraid of these personality traits? Personally, I think they've got so desperately caught up in trying to prove themselves that they'll scratch themselves in public, listen to gangsta rap, and get so drunk they vomit and start fights in front of girls, just so that no-one thinks they like other men."