Knights continue to be iconic figures in world history because of their way of life. They adhered to a rigid code of ethics no different from the samurai’s’ Bushido code. The Medieval Code of Chivalry not only defined how a knight should carry out his duties but it also regulated his behaviour in front of a lady.
The concept of chivalry traces its roots to 10th century AD France, established by the Frankish government in an attept to reduce the violence prevalent in their society. The term was derived from the word chevalier, the French for knight, which in turn comes from the word cheval, meaning horse. Medieval society widely accepted chivalry as a set of ethical instructions for heroic knights. Although a general code of conduct, chivalry was mostly practiced among knights belonging to aristocratic circles. Initially, knights played the dual roles of servant and soldier but their role later evolved into that of an elite private army.
The Code of Chivalry emerged in the Late Middle Ages, taking on a different conceptual dimension following the crusades. Knights who fought in the Holy Land became the subject of courtly love ideals. Poets, minstrels and troubadours wrote and sung about the knights’ acts of valour in great detail.
For centuries, feudal lords fought to protect their estates, acquire new territories and expand their coffers, forcing Europe into a state of chaos and division for a long time. The seemingly endless violence triggered the creation of the Code of Chivalry in the 12th century. Adherence to the code gave the knights more dignity as it regulated their behaviour and prevented them from assuming roles that could tarnish their respectable image. Knights who fell out of favour for breaking the code were downgraded as lower-rank citizens.
The Franks were the first ones to practice chivalry. Many of the principles were found in the famous epic poem Song of Roland, which narrated the heroic deeds of Roland, a noble knight in Charlemagne’s army during the Battle of Roncevaux. In the 1100s, Chivalry spread throughout England after Normandy successfully conquered the country.
Ideas about chivalry originated from three different sources. Ordene de Chevalerie, a poem written by an anonymous author, recounts the story of Hugh of Tiberias, a noble captured by Saladin during the besieging of Acre. His life was spared after he showed the great Muslim ruler the rite of Christian knighthood.
In Geoffroi de Charny’s Livre de Chevalerie (Book of Chivalry), qualities that made a man fit for knighthood were highlighted. According to the author, the essence of a knight is prowess. Those who carried out their feudal duties calmly and without hesitation were the epitome of chivalric ethos.
The final work, Llibre del ordre de cavayleria (The Book of the Order of Chivalry), written by 13th century Catalan writer Ramon Lull, was a comprehensive documentation of the origins of knighthood and the role that chivalry played in a knight’s virtuous existence. Chivalry, as a way of life, was regulated by military, noble and religious aspects.
“The knight should respect the common good, since for the greater good was chivalry established To a knight pertains that he be a lover of the common wealth, for by the commonality of the people was chivalry founded and established; the common weal is greater and more necessary than the good and the special” (p. 96).
He said that the “God of glory chose the knights because by force of arms they vanquished miscreants who labored daily to destroy the holy church.” Knights, therefore, had the divine right to eliminate heretics and enemies of religion. He added that knights had the duty to “search for thieves, robbers and other wicked folks… [as well as] tresspassers and delinquents” and punish them.
Modern language and literature have often paid tribute to principles of chivalry. Expressions like “knight in shining armor” and “gallant as a knight” reflect a yearning for those bygone eras were men were courteous and treated their ladies with care. Knights also took center stage in several European and Asian proverbs and in the speeches of various statesmen.
“For sake of the knight the lady kisses the squire.” (French Proverb) “The horse knows its knight the best.” (Arabic Proverb) “A true knight is fuller of bravery in the midst, than in the beginning of danger.” (Sir Philip Sidney)
From a pure military ethos, the concept of chivalry took on romantic proportions at the height of Arthurian and courtly literature. Leon Gautier, author of Le Chevalerie, held the Breton invasion accountable for the erosion of the original chivalry concept. He summarized the Code of Chivary in the 11th and 12th centuries into Ten Commandments.
The Code of Chivalry required knights to esteem and practice the virtues of faith, charity, hope, justice, diligence, prudence, sagacity, truth and temperance among others.
The popular idiomatic expression “chivalry is dead” bemoans the lack of courteousness, gentleness and respect, usually towards women. Many females are of the opinion that a great portion of the modern male population no longer have the morals and virtues practised by knights in the Medieval times. Chivalry is one of the most iconic codes of conduct in the history of mankind. Despite its apparent decline, its influence still reverberates in various works of fiction and everyday human interactions.