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Bors' Dilemma - he chooses to save a maiden rather than his brother Sir Lionel

Chivalry, or the chivalric code, is an informal and varying code of conduct developed in Europe between 1170 and 1220. It is associated with the medieval Christian institution of knighthood, with knights being members of various chivalric orders; knights' and gentlemen's behaviours were governed by chivalrous social codes. The ideals of chivalry were popularized in medieval literature, particularly the literary cycles known as the Matter of France, relating to the legendary companions of Charlemagne and his men-at-arms, the paladins, and the Matter of Britain, informed by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written in the 1130s, which popularized the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. All of these were taken as historically accurate until the beginnings of modern scholarship in the 19th century.


  • A single knight could impart, according to his judgment, the character which he received; and the warlike sovereigns of Europe derived more glory from this personal distinction, than from the lustre of their diadem. This ceremony, of which some traces may be found in Tacitus and the woods of Germany, was in its origin simple and profane; the candidate, after some previous trial, was invested with his sword and spurs; and his cheek or shoulder were touched with a slight blow, as an emblem of the last affront, which it was lawful for him to endure. But superstition mingled in every public and private action of life; in the holy wars, it sanctified the profession of arms; and the order of chivalry was assimilated in its rights and privileges to the sacred orders of priesthood.
  • As the champion of God and the ladies (I blush to unite such discordant names), he devoted himself to speak the truth; to maintain the right; to protect the distressed; to practise courtesy, a virtue less familiar to the ancients; to pursue the infidels; to despise the allurements of ease and safety; and to vindicate in every perilous adventure the honour of his character. The abuse of the same spirit provoked the illiterate knight to disdain the arts of industry and peace; to esteem himself the sole judge and avenger of his own injuries; and proudly to neglect the laws of civil society and military discipline. Yet the benefits of this institution, to refine the temper of Barbarians, and to infuse some principles, of faith, justice, and humanity, were strongly felt, and have been often observed. The asperity of national prejudice was softened; and the community of religion and arms spread a similar colour and generous emulation over the face of Christendom.
  • What are the typical virtues of Chivalry in its purified and ideal form? We have seen that Chivalry was a compound of three elements, viz. war, religion, and gallantry. Each of the three respectively emphasized and exalted three qualities as essential to the true knight. The three primary virtues of Chivalry, based on its military character, were courage, loyalty and generosity. The three secondary virtues, derived from religion, were fidelity to the Church, obedience, and chastity. The three tertiary virtues, social in their nature, were courtesy, humility, and beneficence. On the side of theory and principle, at any rate, Chivalry stressed the duties and obligations of knighthood, rather than its rights and privileges. It held up a high standard of honour, and required it to be maintained without any diminution. It insisted on a truthfulness, a trustworthiness, an adhesion to plighted word, a fidelity to engagements, from which no allurement of advantage and no plea of necessity could cause any deviation. It required a liberality which lavished largesses, even though they reduced the donor to poverty. It demanded a regular observance of the offices of religion; a full acceptance of the Catholic faith; a complete submission in things spiritual to the authority of the clergy, and, as a council of perfection for the elect, a respect for marriage vows. It instilled a courtesy (courtotsie), a code of fine manners based on heartfelt consideration and genuine regard which immensely added to the delight of the intercourse of social life.
    • F. J. C. Hearnshaw, 'Chivalry and Its Place in History', in Edgar Prestage (ed.), Chivalry: A Series of Studies to Illustrate Its Historical Significance and Civilizing Influence By Members of King's College, London (1928), p. 32
  • Above all, it inculcated an ideal of social service; service without remuneration; service, however humble its nature, free from degradation or disparagement; service of the weak by the strong; service of the poor by the wealthy; service of the lowly by the high.
    • F. J. C. Hearnshaw, 'Chivalry and Its Place in History', in Edgar Prestage (ed.), Chivalry: A Series of Studies to Illustrate Its Historical Significance and Civilizing Influence By Members of King's College, London (1928), pp. 32-33
  • The medievalists of our day are hardly favorable to chivalry. Combing the records, in which chivalry is, indeed, little mentioned, they have succeeded in presenting a picture of the Middle Ages in which economic and social points of view are so dominant that one tends at times to forget that, next to religion, chivalry was the strongest of the ideas that filled the minds and the hearts of those men of another age.
    • Johan Huizinga, 'The Political and Military Significance of Chivalric Ideas in the Late Middle Ages', Revue d'histoire diplomatique, vol. 35 (1921), pp. 126-138, quoted in Johan Huizinga, Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance: Essays, translated by James S. Holmes and Hans van Marle (1959), pp. 196-197
  • Through most of the heyday of chivalry the crusade had been regarded as the formal epitome of chivalrous activity.
  • Chivalry essentially was the secular code of honour of a martially oriented aristocracy.
  • Medieval chivalry was more an outlook than a doctrine, more a lifestyle than an explicit ethical code. It embraced both ideology and social practice. Among the qualities central to it were loyalty, generosity, dedication, courage and courtesy, qualities which were esteemed by the military class and which contemporaries believed the ideal knight should possess. Chivalry meant different things to different people; like beauty, it was found in the eye of the beholder. For the heralds, whose primary task was to recognise coats of arms, its essence lay in the display of armorial charges on a shield, in the attesting of ancestral descent through the multiplication of quarterings. For the clergy, whose concern was to direct knighthood to the Church's own ends, it was more a religious vocation, the responsibility of knights to wage war in a just cause, pre-eminently the recovery of the Holy Places from the infidel. For the legists, whose goal was to bring order to the brutal realities of war, it was a legal construct intended to curb military excess, a set of moral guidelines to distinguish proper behaviour from improper. For the writers of romances – lovers of stories but also moral instructors – it was about the attainment of virtue through ennobling feats of arms to win the favour of a lady. For others again, the knights themselves, it was about what Sir Thomas Malory in the fifteenth century called "dedys [deeds] full actuall" – fighting on horseback, jousting in tournament lists and the achievement of manliness through prowess.
    • Nigel Saul, For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066–1500 (2011), p. 3
  • We must not confound chivalry with the feudal system. The feudal system may be called the real life of the period of which we are treating, possessing its advantages and inconveniences, its virtues and its vices. Chivalry, on the contrary, is the ideal world, such as it existed in the imaginations of the Romance writers. Its essential character is devotion to woman and to honour.
  • The more closely we look into history, the more clearly shall we perceive that the system of chivalry is an invention almost entirely poetical. It is impossible to distinguish the countries in which it is said to have prevailed. It is always represented as distant from us both in time and place; and whilst the contemporary historians give us a clear, detailed, and complete account of the vices of the court and the great, of the ferocity or corruption of the nobles, and of the servility of the people, we are astonished to find the poets, after a long lapse of time, adorning the very same ages with the most splendid fictions of grace, virtue, and loyalty. The Romance writers of the twelfth century placed the age of chivalry in the time of Charlemagne. The period when those writers existed, is the time pointed out by Francis I. At the present day, we imagine we can still see chivalry flourishing in the persons of Du Guesclin and Bayard, under Charles V. and Francis I. But when we come to examine either the one period or the other, although we find in each some heroic spirits, are forced to confess that it is necessary to antedate the age of chivalry, at least three or four centuries before any period of authentic history.

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