Chivalry or The Chivalric Code

From French "cheval" horse", "chevalier" "mounted on horseback":  cavalry, mounted soldier: knight.  In other words, a nobleman (land-owner, of the landed class) at war; nobility owned horses, rode and fought on horseback, peasants could not own livestock, walked, and fought as foot-soldiers.

Originally the word is just a collective noun for "knights".

Later and now refers to an ideal and highly idealized and Romantic social, moral and religious code of honor for knights.

In relation to readings from this class, consider it an attempt to push us from our earthly desires toward the Christian/Platonic Ideal. Chivalry is a medieval attempt to:

a) Balance the feudal warrior ethic with Christian values of love, mercy and humility, an attempt to reign in the all out rape and pillage mentality inherent to the warrior ethos left in the collapse of the Pax Romana.

b) Develop the type of ethical societies developed by the Greeks and espoused by Socrates and Plato -- and filtered through the Romans; an attempt to rebuild a kind of Ideal Christianized Roman empire in Europe and Britain.

I believe that Perceval's development in The Story Of The Grail represents this evolution out of feudal violence toward Christian "charity" and mercy, as the Church's power grew and the ancient feudal system proved itself as dangerous as valuable.  Of course over time the Church became as much a political as religious order, and the boundaries between the two -- feudalism and the Church -- at times entirely disappeared. But it's worth considering that a medieval world without the moderating effects of the Church would likely have been more violent and vastly more chaotic than one with the Church;  Catholicism may not have achieved the chivalric ideal, but it likely helped make Europe a safer, more ethical place to live.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that the chivalric code is fairly fictional rather than historical: it refers to the Arthurian knights idealized virtues, quests, battles with symbolic supernatural forces etc.  "Chivalry" represents that historical era as accurately as The Lone Ranger represents the 19th century West or Superman realistically represents 20th century Americans.

Chivalry, The Lone Ranger and Superman do, however, represent an idealized form of cultural and civic virtue: not what we are, but what we strive to become.

Towers and Cathedrals: Chivalry And Power In The Medieval Era

Two types of massive structures still stand throughout Europe as emblematic testaments to the two forms of forces of power dominant throughout the Middle Ages: feudal castles and their towers, and the massive Church cathedralsChivalry -- the moral code practiced by knights -- can be seen as an attempt to balance these two, competing, central forces.

Chronologically, feudalism and its inherent violence, predates the influence of Christianity.

The fall of the Romans left a massive power gap throughout the former empire.  The Romans had brought with them order and the rule of law -- brutal order and corrupt law, but order and law none-the-less -- and when the Roman Empire fell, Europe and Britain were swept with centuries of bloody chaos more akin to gangland violence than any type of real social order: marauding gangs roamed and pillaged from village to village across lands with no border, no king, nothing that anyone could call a state or nation.

The only way a village could survive was to locate itself atop the highest hill and build the tallest tower or towers it could -- and throughout Italy many of these towers still stand.
    Even the tiniest hilltowns had towers:

This reality is somewhat clearly represented in Chretien de Troyes The Story of the Grail.    In general terms we see that Perceval's brothers and father have fallen victim to violence and young Perceval and his mother live in the wilderness; then, throughout the tale, with the exception of Arthur's Northern court in Carlisle,  all the castles and courts are surrounded by wilderness, in disarray and decay, and often under attack. The clearest example is when Perceval frees Gornemant's niece's castle, starving to death under siege from Anguingeron and Clamedeu.

In popular myths, the knight finds a damsel in distress held captive in one of these towers, but this is likely backwards; if a knight was at the base of your tower he was not there to rescue you; he was there to sack your town.

These towers then should teach us a couple things about Medieval Europe:

1) That it was a bloody, chaotic time when the only way people could save their skins was to wait out each wave of inevitable violence, and that this violence was so prevalent and inevitable and widespread that each village would dedicate its limited resources to its towers.

2) That myths Other the real threat:  towers were built to protect women from knights, not vice versa.  Of course the rise of chivalry can be seen as an attempt to correct this threat from an ethical, rather than architectural, perspective (consider the similarities here with how Homeric Greek men Othered women).

Towers And The Normans

We might also consider these legends in a context similar to our discussion of Othering different cultures in The Odyssey (Stranger In A Strange Land):  the legends are being written by the invading culture, about the culture they are in invading.   In historical fact, the Normans  who wrote and read the Welsh Arthurian legends were the people invading, conquering, and often enslaving the Welsh and Britons;  so these Norman tales often tell of heroic knights freeing damsels from their tower prisons, when, in fact, those damsels were usually hiding from those invading knights.

These Norman towers still stand in Enna, Sicily (the town where Proserpina/Persephone descended to the underworld. see: Ovid), as a testimony to the invasion and occupation of 1070 (four years after the Normans invaded Britain) (note the Normans were driving Muslim Arabs from Enna, as a part of the movement that would become the Crusades):

     

The Cathedral

While castles and towers represent the violence of this era, I believe the beauty, complexity and astounding grandeur of cathedrals represent the rising power of Christianity throughout Europe. Many of the most glorious cathedrals were started roughly around 1100 but took hundreds of years and many generations to complete.  I believe these monuments should remind us that Medieval communities were:
a) Not idiots and were capable of designing complex and beautiful architectural monuments to their faith.

b) Willing to devout massive portions of their meager wealth to symbols of this faith.  This should remind us of the massive role faith played in the social order.

c) Able to balance the inequitable feudal socio-economic order with Christianity's emphasis on equality. Communities worked together in relative equality to build these structures, with feudal lords funding these public places and laboring in silence beside the peasantry and skilled artisans.

d) Trying to balance the violent feudal social order with the Church's Christian emphasis on peace, temperance, and humility, summarized in Christ's Sermon On The Mount.  This balancing act leads us to Chivalry.

Chartres, France (1020-1260)   Cologne, Germany (1248-1880)   Salisbury, England (1220-1380)

Also See: The Cult Of The Virgin: Mary