Chivalry Essays

It is apparent in today’s society that the definition and application of chivalry has changed through history.  During the Middle Ages, chivalry was a code of brave and courteous conduct for knights.  According to this system of morals and manners, a knight was to remain faithful to God, loyal to his king, true to his lady-love, and helpful to their less fortunate kinsmen.  Chivalry is still alive today but to a lesser extent than in the Middle Ages.  I think chivalry will exist in the future, but only time will tell.

The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table molded chivalrous conduct.  The Knights of the Round Table possessed many aspects of chivalry, but each of them had flaws.  Sir Lancelot, for example, wasn’t entirely loyal to King Arthur because of his desire for Guenevere.  He remedied the situation by fighting for his king in the battle against Sir Modred.  While the chivalry of the Middle Ages is thought by most to have been reserved for royalty, this was not the case.  Common folk also exhibited chivalrous conduct, though in less glamorous ways.

Chivalry has greatly diminished since the Middle Ages.  Respect, courtesy, and honesty have little meaning to today’s youth.  There are exceptions to this.  Helping the elderly, family, and friends are just a few things young people can do to resurrect chivalry.  I don’t think it’s possible to be as chivalrous as the knights in the Middle Ages were because our lifestyles have changed so drastically.

As of now, the future of chivalry looks bleak.  If society doesn’t change its ways soon, the quality of life and chivalrous behavior will continue to decline.  Chivalrous conduct could return slowly if society realizes the importance of it.

I think the phrase “treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated” simplifies chivalry.  Since the beginning of the Arthurian legend, chivalry has been an important aspect of life; I hope this aspect stays with humanity many years into the future.

Filed Under: History, Middle Ages

In this essay we will discuss about Chivalry. After reading this essay you will learn about:- 1. Definition of Chivalry 2. Its Nature and Character of Chivalry 3. Origin and Development of Chivalry 4. Decay of Chivalry 5. Contributions of Chivalry.

Essay Contents:

  1. Essay on the Definition of Chivalry
  2. Essay on the Nature and Character of Chivalry
  3. Essay on the Origin and Development of Chivalry
  4. Essay on the Decay of Chivalry
  5. Essay on the Contributions of Chivalry

Essay # 1. Definition of Chivalry:

Chivalry was a “military institu­tion or order, the members of which called Knights were pledged to the protection of the church and to the defence of the weak and the oppressed.”

Chi­valry has been very aptly regarded as the flower of feudalism. “Chivalry was, in the conception of the time, an order of merit. Its members were called Knights.”

The word Chivalry originally meant simply a body of mounted troops; it being a deriva­tive of the medieval French word—’cheval’ mean­ing ho.se, hence French Chevalier, Spanish Caballers, Italian Cavaliere and the English Cavalier. But gradually the word Chivalry came to mean an institution graced with such moral adornments as truth, honour and courtesy.

It “was an important medieval institution with political, religious and juridical aspects. It was a fellowship of the nobility without fixed form or precise organisation, but with rules of conduct and professional duties attached to membership in it.”


Essay # 2. Its Nature and Character of Chivalry:

(1) Chivalry grew up into a social caste, a sort of corporate life but altogether different from merchant guilds.

(2) It was an international caste, that this bro­therhood recognized no territorial limits. Ancestral military service was one of the very important criterions for admittance into this brotherhood of mounted warriors. Distinguished prowess of ordi­nary soldiers would at times be rewarded with ad­mission into this brotherhood.

(3) “A Knight was a noble but not every noble a Knight.” A noble must have proved his quality of manhood before he could ‘be struck Knight’ in solemn ceremony. The institution was regarded as sacred and required elaborate rituals such as twenty-four hours’ fast confession and communion and the arming of the candidate by a knight or by ladies.

(4) Chivalric loyalty to the mistress of his sup­reme affection was the first article in the creed of the true Knight. This was a religious belief as Hallam points out that “he who was faithful and true to his lady was held sure of salvation” according to the theology of the Knights although not of the Chris­tians.

(5) A Chivalrous Knight must as well be “gentle, brave, courteous, truthful, pure, generous, hospit­able, faithful to his engagements and ever ready to risk life and limb in the cause of religion and in defence of his companions in arms.”

The service of Christ by purity of life and readiness of sword parti­cularly against the Turks who possessed the holy places, was the most cardinal of all principles of Chivalry. Hallam stresses valour, loyalty, courtesy and munificence as the basic virtues of Chivalrous conduct.

(6) To this strong tincture of religion which entered into the composition of Chivalry in the 12th century was added another distinguishing trait, viz. a great respect for the female sex.

(7) “Its struggle to exist in face of the old un­mitigated barbarism which had become traditional with the warrior classes meant half-victory of the civilizing forces; for Chivalry brought certain civilizing influence upon the then barbarous society by its high ‘feudal-religious’ ideals.”

But it must be noted as Myers points out that although there were instances in which the Knights lived up to the high ideals of a Knightly life, there were too many who Knights were only in profession.

“An errant Knight” an old writer described “was an errant knave.” Again “deeds that would disgrace a thief and acts of cruelty that would have disgusted a Hellenic tyrant or a Roman emperor were common things with Knights of the highest lineage” were the remarks of yet another writer.

Hallam remarks that gallantry in those days was often adulterous and the morals of Chivalry were not pure. This is evidenced by the contemporary compositions which testify to a general dissoluteness among the Knighterrants.

Nevertheless, cruelty, treachery, untruthfulness, cowardice, baseness and crime of every sort were opposed to the spirit of Chivalry and conviction on any of such grounds would lead to one’s expulsion from the brotherhood of the Knights, by the ceremony of degradation.

This entailed breaking of his sword, removal of his spurs from his heels, and cutting off of his horse’s tail. The degraded Knight would be dressed in a shroud and funeral ceremo­nies were held on him signifying that he was dead insofar as the honours of the Knights were con­cerned.


Essay # 3. Origin and Development of Chivalry:

The germ of Chivalry lay in Charles Martel’s creation of a body of vassal horsemen for combating the Saracen raids into Aquitaine. It was essentially as a measure of effective security that the Franks learnt to depend on the horses. This new military system gradually spread from south France to the rest of Europe.

Chivalry or the Knight-errantry was the military side of feudalism as such its development was military connected with the growth of feudalism. With the growth of feudalism it became the rule that all fief- holders must render military service on horseback. Gradually, fighting on horseback became the normal and effective mode of warfare and remained so for many centuries.

In course of time this feudal warrior-caste underwent a transformation. It became independent of feudalism and although the chief criterion for admit­tance into the order of the Knights remained to be the ancestral military service, yet any person if qua­lified by birth and properly initiated, might be a member of the order without being a fief-holder.

Many of the later Knights were portion less sons of the nobility. The extreme poverty of the lower nobility due to the fragmentation of the fiefs—helped the growth of Chivalry considerably. For it became the object and the chief ambition of every noble of slender property to attain Knighthood.

For “it raised him in the scale of society equaling him in dress arms, in title to the rich landholders.” Ori­ginally the majority of Knights were either in the pay of greater Counts or were feudal holders of land as we have seen above. But the Crusades gave Chivalry its full vigour as an order of personal nobility its original connection with feudal tenure was more or less forgotten in the splendour and dignity of the new form it wore.

It became, gra­dually, fashion with the noble families to apprentice their sons to a high noble who was a Knight himself and as such capable of educating and instructing the apprentices. This service was a social one.

The young apprentices were trained in courtesy and deportment, in the proper way to address his superiors, in the way to enter or leave a room in which superiors were, in polite speech and manners. Those who benefited by such training became gentlemen but many turned out to be bullies, snobs or even ruffians.

It was from the epoch of the Crusades that Chivalry came to be closely connected with religion. It is indeed strange to think how the investment of Knighthood could be regarded as a religious cere­mony, as the one most important effect of such investment was to fit the noble to butcher mankind.

But the Crusades which were Holy Wars, such sanc­tified the use of arms that Chivalry became a religious-cum-military institution. Service of God with life and limb became a very fundamental vow of the Knights. Defence of God’s law against infidels was his primary and standing duty.

His sword was always open for the defence of the religion and the church. Crusades brought in the Knighthood a stir, gave it a religious basis and raised it from mental and moral lethargy and from the brutalizing routine of war, drink and pillage.

Besides the tincture of religion which entered into Chivalry from the 12th century, there was added another equally distinguishing characteristic, viz.: a great respect for female sex. Loyalty to the mis­tress of his affection became one of the most impor­tant articles of Chivalry and it was believed that he who was faithful and true to his lady was held sure of salvation.

Defence to the “uttermost of the oppressed, the widow and the orphan and the women of noble birth should enjoy his special care.”

Chivalry also found encouragement from sovereigns, for they found faithful supporters from this order. Thus the sovereigns displayed a lavish magnificence in festivals and tournaments which may be reckoned as a second means of keeping up the tone of Chivalrous feeling.

In England and France kings held great festivals wherein the name of Knight was always a title to admittance. The most magni­ficent of such festivals was the one celebrated by Philip Duke of Burgundy in 1453.

Tournament, hunting, hawking, etc., were the favourite amusements of the Knights. Knightly tournaments were hawking, etc. attended by king and they remained to be the most favourite diversion even after the spirit of Chivalry had declined in Europe.

A similar amusement was joust. In the tournament the arena was marked off by ropes within which the Knights would display their military still A joust was, however, a trial of strength between two Knights and was attended with less ceremony.

Both honorary and substantial privileges belonged to the condition of Knighthood and had of course great respect a tendency to preserve its credit. A Knight was distinguished at large by his helmet, weighty armour, etc. He was entitled to great respect.

The privileges and respect attached to Chivalry was of great advantage to the inferior gentry, called the Vavassors, who by entering into the order of the Knights counterbalanced the originally superior influence of the feudal lords due to their wealth and properties.

The customs of Chivalry were maintained by their connection with military service. The Knights held a great prestige as brave fighters. Even when the feudal armies were being gradually superseded by regular armies, there was a great bid for the Knightly warriors.


Essay # 4. Decay of Chivalry:

“Like the Franciscan movement Chivalry carried within its bosom the seeds of its own decay, forgot its ideal became corrupt. Its code became fantastic, its demeanour arrogant. It came to exhibit the evils, not the virtues of caste.”

“In fact the institution we call Chivalry produced some singularly ugly characteristic. Many men failed the ideal and many perverted it. The perverse growth seemed for a time to strangle the true and indeed brought its downfall as a social system.”

Yet like all human institutions Chivalry fell into decay;—it was the ‘evening of Chivalry’ as Myers puts it. The causes of the decay of Chivalry were essentially those of the decay of feudalism, for the simple Chivalry reason that both these institutions were complementary.

(1) The invention of gun-powder and its mono­polistic control by the kings, the gradual growth of the system of standing army and the advantages of a well-trained infantry served as important factors for the decay of Chivalry.

The system of Knighthood still continued in France, which was its cradle, but the fatal accident of Henry II, King of France, who was killed by a lance when witnessing a Knightly tourna­ment led to the abolition of Chivalry in France.

(2) With the progress of civilization new ideas began to work upon the imagination of men. People began to seek distinction in things other than Chivalrous adventures.

(3) As time progressed, the government became more orderly and efficient and there was better security for the life and property of the weak. Thus Chivalry outlived its necessity for protecting the weak and the oppressed: “Old order changed yielding place to new.”

(4) The profession with which the Chivalrous order was lavished under Charles VI made the Knights luxurious, and vices began to grow into the order of Chivalry.

(5) The establishment of companies of ordnance, i.e. coordinated companies of military fighters by Charles VII, served as another nail in the coffin of Chivalry.

(6) Again Francis I began to extend the Knightly honours to lawyers and other men of civilian occu­pation. This introduced a non-military element into the Knightly order and as it swelled in number, the Chivalrous order lost its distinctive character.

(7) Besides, the progress of reason and literature Progress of which made ignorance discreditable even in a soldier and exposed the follies of romance to ridicule was too much for the decadent Knight-errantry to en­dure. The extravagant romance and adventures of the Knighterrant’s at a time (16th century) which was practical and commercial—for it was a time of reason—became as fantastic as ridiculous.

In the seventeenth century when Knight-errantry became absurd and contemptible to the people, Chivalry staged its departure from the world. The seventeenth century attitude towards Chivalry is to be seen in the Spanish satirist Cervantes’ book Don Quixote.


Essay # 5. Contribution of Chivalry:

Chivalry was not an unmixed blessing. Writers have been both admiring and severely critical of the legacy of Chivalry. It has been remarked by James “For the mind Chivalry did little; for the heart it did everything.” But Myers points out that even in respect of heart, its influence’ was not wholly good.

(1) “The system had many vices, the chief among which were its aristocratic, exclusive tendencies.” Dr. Arnold would call the spirit of Chivalry as the spirit of evil deservedly called spirit of anti-Christ.

(2) The Knights could not comprehend that they could be guilty to the lower classes. They looked upon the lower classes with contempt and indifference and would consider them as destitute of contempt and claims upon the people of noble birth. The common disregard people were no better than games to the Knights.

The beautiful women of gentle birth were the only ones whose wrongs they would avenge, but not that of the common woman. Hallam points out that it would be unjust to class those acts of oppression or disorder among the abuses of Knighthood which were committed in spite of its regulations in fact; these were prevented by the Knighthood from becoming more extensive.

But Hallam also points out the following three bad consequences of Chivalry:

(i) Dissoluteness which almost unavoidably resulted from the prevailing tone of gallantry. Yet with coarse immorality there could be seen most fanciful refinements

(ii) Undue thirst for military renown was its another fault,

(iii) The third reproach was the character of Knighthood, it widened the sepa­ration between different classes of society and con­firmed aristocratic spirit of high birth.

(a) “The spirit of Chivalry left behind it a more valuable successor. The character of Knight gradually subsided in that of gentleman; and the one distinguishes European society in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries as much as the other did in the preceding ages.” The Cavaliers of Charles I were the genuine successors of Ed­ward I’s Knights.

(b) Chivalry also contributed to the refining influence that lifted the sentiment of romantic respect for the gentler sex into that tender veneration which is the distinguishing characteristic of the present age and “makes it differ from all preceding phases of civilization”.

(c) Besides, “Chivalry did much to create that ideal character—an ideal distinguished by the virtues of courtesy, gentleness, humanity, and fidelity which surpassed similar ideals of the antiquity.” character Just as Christianity gave to the world an ideal man­hood, which it was to strive to realize, so did Chivalry hold up an ideal to which men were to conform their lives.

Chivalry left an influence that produced a new type of manhood—’a Knightly and Christian cha­racter.’ It helped to raise the standard of customary conduct and in this way working on a parallel line to that of the church.

(d) The most important contribution of Chivalry was the development of native languages and literatures. “Since there were so many new ideas setting within minds of men the more gifted souls naturally stimulated utterance.” Their songs came from their heart in spontaneous idioms.

The age of Chivalry was the period of triumphant ushering of the French, Italian, English and German languages and litera­tures. Instead of the corrupt Latin used by both the churches and the universities, the Knights found their own mother-tongue more responsive and plas­tic.

Thus local languages were developed consi­derably, as were local literatures. The Troubadours who chiefly confined themselves to subjects of love or gallantry and to satires were born of Chivalry. The medieval Knight-errantry also served as themes for later poets like Tennyson, Chaucer, Dante, and others.


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