The other is a historical overview, beginning, perhaps, with an etymology of the word "chivalry". The starting point of these arguments tends to be Raymond Llull or one of the other 13th or 14th century writers, or perhaps Le Morte d'Arthur, or whatever. Again, I feel this lacks context. To answer "what is chivalry", you have to start more than a bit further back.
So this, I propose, is the outline. The role of the warrior in society, pre-chivalric concepts, roots of chivalry, development after the fall from supremacy of aristocratic shock cavalry, and then and only then, the components thereof and modern objections to chivalry. There is little new here, and if I stop to acknowledge every single source for what I'm about to write, the essay would comprise mostly footnotes. Further, it is necessarily imprecise. There are exceptions to nearly every single statement I make. I generalize in order to make a point.
That any society requires a warrior class is more or less self-evident. Except for a handful of periods of technological development, the expense of military equipment and the requirement to devote a great deal of time to developing the skill necessary to use that equipment tended to argue in favor of professional warriors or at least a class that primarily thought of themselves as warriors first and perhaps farmers or land-owners second.
Another general requirement historically has been a code of conduct for these warriors. Viewed purely pragmatically, unrestrained warriors kill productive taxpayers and this is not good for any society. Viewed psychologically, the requirement for warriors to be effective in combat and then reintegrate back into society without going bugnuts requires a moral framework for their violent actions which places them in the context of the greater society's views. So -- any society which is not utterly isolated or extremely short-lived has warriors and a code of ethics for these warriors.
Many early societies managed their military class with a combination of divine sanction and the will of a semi-divine king. Other relied on personal loyalty to a leader, or coercion by other elements of a divided society. Each of these has weaknesses, but worked well enough.
Essentially, the approach that works best lies in a societal understanding of 'honor'. Defining 'honor' is a complex exercise, but let us say that in general, it is a societal understanding of the trustworthiness of a person based upon the consistency of their actions. The Greeks had an understanding of 'honor' that would be expressed as 'arete', best translated 'excellence'. Reverence for the gods, physical excellence, mastery of public speaking, courage in battle, all these concepts, and more importantly a balance among them, were elements of arete. I will return to this concept later.
What was interesting about the Roman view of honor was the central place held in it by legal institutions and the law. To be a Roman, to express virtus and honoris, was a complex thing, but centered around respect for the paterfamilias, or family head, for the res publica, the "public thing," and the laws created by the Senate and Assembly. This carries over into the behavior of generals and common Soldiers alike.
The scramentum sworn by the Republican legions was simple:
"to follow the consuls to whatever wars they may be called, and neither desert the colours nor do anything else contrary to law."
And to do anything less was punishable. The original legions of the early Republic were filled by an early form of conscription. Every able-bodied land-owning free man of Rome was a potential Soldier, required to maintain arms even if not under arms at a given moment. Fighting in defense of family and property, they stood against every opponent and if not always victorious, at least they didn't quit. Unfortunately, conscript armies are useless and unenthusiastic about distant wars for Empire, so under the seven-times Consul Gaius Marius, landless men and foreigners were permitted to be enrolled, and many of these became long-service professionals.
These new Legions were still free men, but now fighting for land and pay, and in the case of foreigners and men from recently conquered provinces, for the legal privileges that accrued to their families for enrollment as a citizen. Unfortunately, the Senate repeatedly attempted to avoid paying the retirement benefits--primarily expressed as a land distribution. Instead of giving it to otherwise penniless veterans, they preferred to give land to their supporters and followers. They forgot that at the end of the day, legal maneuvering only matters if the men with swords respect it. By the time of G. Julius Caesar, Legions were bound primarily by personal loyalty to their generals because the Senate had repeatedly betrayed the promises made to the Legions.
Chivalry never entered into the conduct of Roman wars any more than it did the wars of the Athenians. Slaughter, frightfulness for the sake of frightfulness, massacre, and enslavement were tactics of choice because they were effective. When fighting their fellow Romans in the civil wars that racked the Republic during the death-throes thereof, the only example of restraint was the prisoners were usually enlisted into the armies of the victor, as their only loyalty at this point was to the payroll. This is as obviously unhealthy and insupportable as possible.
What the Empire brought to the situation was a new source of honor. The Empire, and more specifically the Emperor, were considered to be as sources of both material honors and honor itself. Loyalty to the Emperor replaced loyalty to the "People and Senate". This meshed well with the influx of Germanic tribesmen who crossed the Rhine in small groups in order to take advantage of this source of honors.
And now a word on these German tribesmen whose concepts of honor were shortly to become terribly important to the development of our nascent chivalric concept.
When clever people talk about the opposition between a 'culture of honor' and a 'culture of law' they could be speaking directly to the difference between German and Roman culture. Roman culture refined their concept of honor to include a subordination of personal interest to the process of law--and by law, they meant the legislative acts of the Senate or the Emperor, depending on whether we speak of the Republic or the Empire. German culture had little legislative law, but a series of customs and traditions which served the purpose--and which did not supersede individual honor considerations.
What the Germans DID have was a concept of honor which was quite effective in producing warriors, if not at subordinating their personal honor to a group honor necessary to produce disciplined Soldiers. The basic elements of Germanic honor were courage, ferocity in battle, and loyalty to the chief. The chief was obligated to provide for his warriors in acknowledgment of their honor and worth, but most in material goods. Food, drink, gold, and silver were the payments to a warband. The Viking sagas show this in many ways, not least of which is the kenning 'ring-giver' as a commonplace for a chief or king. Also notable is the explicit statement that the gifts of mead and meat from the chief entitled him to the loyalty of the warband.
What is interesting is that neither Germanic honor culture nor Roman legal culture as applied to the Emperor was completely sufficient for the satisfaction of the Soldier. The first element to fill the spiritual gap was the cult of the Emperor and the cult of the genius of the Legion. The aquilla, the sacred Eagle of the Legion was originally simply a reinforcement of the state cult of Jupiter, as the bird was sacred to him as a Sky-god. Eventually it sort of transmigrated into a cult of its own, where the aquilla was considered the sacred center of the Legion. Alongside the veneration of the Emperor, this provided a spiritual focus for the loyalty of the Legions.
Eastern mystery religions began appearing in the first century AD among the Legions. The first to become widespread was the cult of Mithras. Whatever the nature of the cult among the Indo-Iranian peoples of his homeland, he was somewhat Hellenized and portrayed as a soldier god, slayer of demons and invincible in battle. His cult promised strength and victory, and an afterlife for his followers. The rituals of the cult were secret, but it included numerous officers and some rank and file Soldiers.
Eventually, however, the limited appeal of the cult of Mithras doomed it to failure alongside the various other pagan cults, and by the early 4th century AD the Empire was largely Christian. Christianity always had a complex and somewhat conflicted relationship with the Empire and by extension, the Army. Some writers advocated pacifism, or proclaimed military service incompatible with faith.
This is not the place to lay out completely Christianity's occasionally contradictory stances on warfare. What is important is the synthesis that was reached by the late 4th century, by which time the Empire was solidly Christian and the majority of the Germanic tribes moving in contained large elements that had been converted, many of them not to Chalcedonian Christianity but to the Arian form thereof.
Essentially, Christianity transformed from a despised minority which engaged in passive resistance to state-sponsored pagan cults (occasionally not-so-passive, see St. Theodore the Recruit's statement on the cult of Cybele) to the state religion. Much as with a political party that goes from opposition to ruling party, that presents new issues and challenges which cannot be addressed solely from the standpoint of the desert ascetic or monastic pacifist, and Christianity had to answer the challenge of the Soldier.
Part of the answer came in veneration of military saints, and the elevation of the position of the Emperor to one not divine in and of himself, but anointed by God to shepherd the faithful and care for their temporal cares, almost counterpart of the Church which addressed the spiritual cares.
While Christianity was achieving this position and formulating this synthesis, the whole system was in the process of collapsing. Between the death of the Emperor Constantine Isoapostolis and the return of the Western regalia to Constantinople by the Odoacer, a mix of Germanic and steppe nomads came screaming across the Rhine and thorough the Balkans and tore up the western half of the Roman Empire. This is not the time or place for a complete history of the collapse of the western Empire, the survival of the eastern, nor the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms of the Franks, Visigoths, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Burgundii, et al.
However, the points that must be emphasized are these. First, the invasions were unmitigated disasters in terms of economic development, demographic decline, societal organization, and urbanization patterns. In short, the barbarians killed people, disrupted trade, burned cities, and destroyed a complex system of government. The second is that the Church was the only element of society organized above the local level that survived. Land owners, city leaders, and other elements of the Roman "powerful" did the best they could, but they had little impact beyond their immediate surroundings. The third element to emphasize is the overwhelming superiority of Roman culture, not least in terms of prestige.
Now, there is a lot written about what exactly happened over the next couple centuries, all of it speculative. It happened in different ways in different places, but here's the general overview.
The Germans discovered that once they overthrew the government, they inherited that government's problems. Collection of taxes, enforcement of laws, etc. The problems of defense of a piece of territory are very different from the problems of raiding into a territory. So these raiding tribes led by chiefs and war leaders relying on prestige and proven success in battle became kingdoms led by kings--hereditary kings who needed a source of legitimacy. The solution tied into the previous points about the surviving Roman 'powerful', the Church, and the superiority of Roman culture.
The Germans had to adopt and adapt those elements to create societies stable enough to survive. They had to co-opt the Roman aristocracy and their ways. They used the trappings and ceremonials associated with 'Romanitas', and most importantly, they relied on Church sanction to provide legitimacy.
Along the way, the Franks revived the idea of European unity under an Emperor annointed by God--but that unity was imposed at sword-point and within a few generations collapsed, reverting to a state of anarchy in France and Germany where few organized political units above the local existed. The Carolingians are primarily important to the history of chivalry for the legends produced about them, some of which have as much relation to reality as do the Arthurian legends.
At the same time, there was a military revolution underway, which ran from the early 9th century to the mid-11th. The rise to military supremacy of heavy shock cavalry is the single most important fact that created a need for something like "chivalry" to come into existence.
A heavy shock cavalryman, let us call him a "knight" since that is the label under which he survives in the modern imagination, is a complex weapon system. He must be equipped with heavy armor to survive arrow fire and to survive in close combat with his equals. His horse must be of a breed capable of carrying, with speed and dexterity, the weight of an armored man. Then the horse requires training to respond quickly and efficiently, and not to be frightened by things that horses have thousands of years of instinct to flee. The man also requires years of training to become proficient at handling various weapons while on the back of over half a ton of not terribly bright animal in a chaotic environment where people are trying their best to kill him. An ethos for a man like this must provide an impetus for him to strive to hone that skill, because without it, he's just a very expensive fool who will soon kill himself by falling off a horse.
What you should see when you see a picture of a knight is a weapon system which takes a small fortune to equip and years to hone to the point where it is a a net gain in battle. Economically speaking, you aren't going to ever see many of them, but the central fact of Western European warfare for centuries was that only highly skilled, highly-disciplined infantry could stand in front of them without crumbling. Another requirement for this ethos is some sort of mechanism to control his violent impulses because quite frankly, without it, nothing much but a group of his peers can stop him.
For centuries, there was little written upon such philosophical topics as a warrior's credo. But by the time of composition of the great chansons and the Arthurian tales, we have a nearly full-formed concept of knighthood. So what does that knight believe?
He has the Germanic regard for loyalty to a leader, but this is generally transferred not merely to his immediate warleader, but up the chain to the king, who has assumed the Roman Emperor's role as the font of honors and indeed of honor. From the crude role of one who hands out silver armbands and gold rings to warrior sitting around his mead-hall, the king has assumed the legal legitimacy of the Emperor and hands out offices, titles, lands, and accolades.
He is also a Christian, and believes that God has blessed the warrior who acts in accord with the precepts of this ethos. What is new about Christianity is that the Church now extends over the territory of a number of political entities, and provides an overarching framework in which to understand their relations. Previously, and for centuries more in the East, "Christian" and "Roman" were synonymous, and to be one implied the other. But in the West, this is replaced by the notion of "Christendom," the domain of Christianity wherein, though the various kings and nobles may squabble and war among themselves, there was a view that they were all members of a transnational community. This concept was most pronounced among the clergy and the new warrior class who defined their governing ideology in terms of Christianity.
Another new element in this chivalry regards the role of women. Women played little role in the warrior ethic of societies past, but somehow made it into the ideals of chivalry. In the Illiad, Helen is primarily a prize which provides an excuse for the Trojans and Greeks to display heroic prowess. In Tristan and Isolde, the men essentially almost reduced to foils for the women. Guinevere is as much a driving force of the Arthurian legend cycle as is Arthur.
Now, at this point, I should point out that when dealing with an abstract ideal like "chivalry," no two authors agreed entirely. There were differences of emphasis, and the various archetypes of knighthood presented in Arthurian and Carolingian legend cycles emphasized various aspects in themselves. Gawain, Galahad, and Lancelot were different presentations of this ideal of knighthood, but all recognizably part of that ideal.
The various treatises on chivalry written by authors both knightly and clerical had only a relatively stronger grip on reality than did the poetic cycles. Some knights gave only a passing mention of Christianity. Some clerics wanted to make knights into armed monks. Neither of those groups of authors put as much weight on the romantic side of things as did the troubadors. But the core values of chivalry were essentially unchanged, only the emphasis.
At the end of the period wherein the knight was a dominant element of the military landscape, there is a resurgence in interest in topics of chivalry. As with all social movements staring obsolescence in the face, it was idealized and romanticized, even as warfare came to be dominated by common men wielding pikes and firearms. The old aristocracy became military officers, landowners, and officeholders, and the institution of knighthood became just another prize to be dangled in front of courageous seamen, clever inventors, successful merchants, and faithful bureaucrats. All sorts of fatuous nonsense was written at this time, a practice which continued strong though the Victorian period and to an extent today. What was interesting was that the appeal of these Chivalric ideals continued undimmed even as the daily reality of the aristocratic class and the upcoming middle class diverged further and further from the issues and pressures that originated the concept.
A potential death-knell for the ideas of chivalry came in the Enlightenment in the form of the idea, most famously expressed in the founding document of the United States, that all men were created equal. Chivalry is absolutely aristocratic. The loyalty required was expressed vertically up, horizontally, and vertically down. This requires a hierarchical society. Where you find chivalry surviving in an environment where all men are legally equal, you find a new idea, one that is true to the earliest forms of chivalry. Quite simply, it proclaims that instead of the hereditary aristocracy of birth, there is a natural aristocracy, one that is a meritocracy. This idea proclaims that in order to be a gentleman, all one has to do is to be a gentleman. Now, this has some roots in the origins of chivalry, wherein what one had to do to be a knight was to be a heavily armored shock cavalryman with the appropriate equipage, sufficient mounts and remounts, and a reputation for trustworthiness. In short, honor.
Now ends the historical maundering, and comes discussion of modern chivalry. I hereby change authorial voice and become, not the pedantic narrator of historical happenings, but the impassioned advocate of a modern chivalry--and a quite specific one at that.
Defining chivalry is not terribly easy. At it's core, chivalry is a code of ethics for a warrior. The chivalrous man need not be a professional of violence like your humble author, but must have the capability to engage in violence to protect his rights, the rights of those to whom his owes loyalty, and those who cannot defend their own rights for what ever reason.
There are a wide variety of lists floating around which purport to list "the chivalric virtues," between four and two dozen in number. This is a historical phenomenon. The four cardinal virtues, eight Beatitudes, the seven virtues which oppose the seven deadly sins, the other seven "Heavenly Virtues" from Psychomachia, the "seven plus one" which adds Justice to the list from Psychomachia, Leon Gautier's nine chivalric commandments, the Duke of Burgundy's 12 virtues for the Order of the Golden Fleece, the seventeen point code ascribed to Charlemagne, etc.
Part of the problem with the purely theological lists (Beatitudes, Seven Virtues, Seven Heavenly Virtues) is that they are not chivalric per se. They simply are Christian. Chivalry is rooted in Christianity, but it is specifically a warrior code. If what makes a moral man, a good carpenter or a good farmer, is adherence to the Seven Virtues, then so be it. A good knight should adhere to them as well, because they are the foundation of moral behavior. But where in the seven virtues of faith, hope, love, prudence, temperance, courage, and justice is the command to know which end of the sword to hold? Loyalty to one's leader unto the death? Defense of the weak? For that matter, where is the courtesy owed to a lady, from the courtly love tradition?
I propose to split the concept of chivalry into three mutually supportive categories which provide different lenses through which to look at defining chivalry. The warrior tradition, the pious tradition, and the courtly tradition all play into defining what is "chivalry". Each knight weights the various traditions differently, but all are knights. I'm not going to define in laborious detail the majority of these terms because, well, we all know what courage and the like are.
Viewed through the lens of a knight who is a warrior first, chivalry hearkens back to its roots as a Germanic code. His loyalty is to his liege, to his king, to his fellow warriors, and to those he is sworn to protect. Prowess and courage are the two virtues which make him effective on the battlefield. Honesty for him comes in giving frank advice to his leader, as well as eschewing those ruses of war judged illicit. He is generous with a defeated enemy as well as to his supporters and merciful to those most affected by combat--the civilians impacted by his army's march. Justice comes into play in his role as a leader, for no one can lead effectively who is suspected of favoritism or who fails to walk the tightrope between too harsh and too lenient. Finally, franchise to him means consistently display the noble bearing and other virtues expected of a leader of men.
The pious tradition approaches chivalry as does a monk his ascetic rule. His faith is the defining characteristic of this view of chivalry. He exercises those virtues common all men, but with more expected of him due to his position. The traditional virtues of faith, hope, love, temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence are valued simply because they are the right thing to do. This view defines loyalty slightly differently from the warrior, extending it not only to his lord, but to all those of his coreligionists--or even all people who are not actively transgressing against the law, temporal or divine. Most especially does this version of chivalry emphasize those unable to defend themselves regardless of whether they are those whom the knight has sworn to defend in particular. The prime chivalric weakness is pride, or vainglory, and this view actively encourages development of humility to guard against it.
The courtly tradition emphasizes the gentility of chivalry and behavior towards women. Courtesy is the largest element of this view. Patience plays into it as well, for relationships develop at their own pace. Prudence, temperance, and dare I say it, chastity are what keeps licit (though furtive) courtly relationships from developing into illicit adultery or sexual assault. Finally, prowess, courage, largesse, and the noble bearing of franchise all are directed towards being the sort of man worthy of the affection of a lady rather than ends in and of themselves.
I argue that no man can call his creed 'chivalry' unless it takes in account these three aspects, these three lenses and makes sense viewed through all three. Of course, each man weights the various virtues differently in his heart. Some may feel that these various virtues may be condensed, or repeat themselves with different terms. Others may have simply have different ways of expressing themselves on this subject. But for the term 'chivalry' to have meaning apart from simple 'morality' or 'courtesy' or other words, all these elements must be present.
The only virtue I will address in detail is franchise, because it is commonly misunderstood and the common dictionary definition helps us but little. A definition of "enfranchisement" as "freedom from political subjugation or servitude" pushes us in the right direction. The OED is quoted in another places as listing "Freedom, immunity, privilege and as an attribute of character or action; Nobility of mind; liberality, generosity, magnanimity or Freedom or license of speech or manners." among its definitions.
Freedom, and nobility of mind. The word is derived from Frankish roots, and could be parsed then as "the frank-rights" or those rights expected to be exercised by a free man of the tribe. The meaning obviously evolved over the years and became associated not merely with freedom, but with nobility. Some writers engage in what I consider to be a cop-out definition, which is to list a series of virtues and then say, "franchise is exercising all of these virtues consistently." No, that's chivalry. You cannot define chivalry as exercising the chivalric virtues, including franchise, and then define franchise as exercising the chivalric virtues. It's circular.
Nobility of heart, to me, includes several aspects. First, almost a prerequisite for the later aspects, is to internalize chivalry. Chivalry should be something you are, not merely something you do. This brings forth what could be called nobility in bearing. Part of this is refusal to be degraded from one's estate. Historically, this was understood in terms of a knight not engaging in manual labor or other things 'beneath his estate'. In American culture, manual labor, especially skilled manual labor, is not seen as particularly degrading but other things are. Part of it is in how you carry yourself. It's difficult to explain, but we all know it when we see it. Confidence and nobility, without overdoing it and crossing into strutting swagger. Forthright frankness without arrogance. It is terribly easy for this attitude to slide right over into vainglory and pride, and I should repeat that this is not the same thing either. Franchise is not something you can assume or learn, but something grown into.
There seem to be a few prevalent modern reactions to the notion of chivalry. One is to proclaim it "undemocratic", a tool historically used by the upper class to repress their economic and social inferiors. This view does not have to take a Marxian bent, and may be held by people sincerely devoted to equality. It is "outdated", "reactionary", and not politically correct. One school of critics berates it for an outmoded view of women, another for its unashamed cult of violence. To all these, I concede the point. Indeed, I go further. Chivalry is, by its nature, firmly rooted in the past. While acknowledging the realities of present, an adherent to chivalry answers that human nature does not change, so new challenges are really old ones in new clothing. Chivalry is still the answer for many of these challenges. Further, as chivalry enshrines the notions of justice and obedience to king and law, it is rooted in the same impulses which inspire seekers of "equality". Chivalry challenges the notion of equality because it implies that some are chosen for a higher purpose--but a chivalry which admits the aristocrat of deeds rather than the aristocrat of birth is egalitarian in its call. It is humanity which is not equal to the challenge.
Worse for chivalry, or any other form of virtue, is the modern form of false egalitarianism wherein the fool is equal to the wise man, the incompetent equal to the master of his craft, the coward to the brave, the unjust to the just, the thief to the honest man, the lazy to the industrious. This is neither chivalrous, nor just, nor is it an attitude conducive to the discouragement of vice nor the promotion of virtuous conduct. A society which acts in this manner will soon find its brightest lights dimmed--and eventually all the lights will go out. Unfortunately, this does seem to be the guiding ideology of large parts of American society, most perniciously the educational system. It is the guiding creed of these institutions that the bully and the bullied pupil who sticks up for himself are on a level, and are both punished for "fighting".
Another response is to embrace "chivalry" but then to redefine the word so that it means something else entirely. One person will say that chivalry consists of doing this one thing, or that another "isn't as important". Another will introduce modern tap-dancing like "each person defines it for themselves".
To water down chivalry, to remove any of the three strains that comprise the chivalric tradition is leave yourself with a code of conduct which may be "based on" or "inspired by" chivalry. It may even be a highly moral code of conduct in keeping with the highest ideals of Christian piety--but if it can be practiced by a pig-farming serf or a monk in his cell, it is not chivalry.
Another crippling error in the modern understanding of chivalry is an extreme reluctance to judge. Chivalry requires justice. Justice, as a virtue, requires judgment, determination of what is just and what is unjust. The modern American desire not to condemn or criticize even that which is blatantly evil is an enemy of chivalry.
Another final modern enemy of chivalry is the credo of the American Whiner, "I'm doing the best I can". Closely allied is the "I'm good enough" meme.
To answer that I return to the very beginning of the essay and answer with the Greek notion of arete--excellence. Both these fallacies presumes that a man knows his own limits and can never exceed some mystical boundary upon his prowess. By striving for arete, a man may exceed what he thought was 'the best he could do'. And it is never satisfied because perfect excellence is an ideal, hence unobtainable in this life, and so provides a guidepost for striving until death. The man who stops striving, growing, learning, and furthering his pursuit of arete is dead and his soul has left him, regardless of whether or not he happens to still be walking around on his feet.
Finally, one could note that many modern Americans are not Christian and so some of the discussion of the religious roots above does not apply. I answer that it matters not. A non-Christian can be chivalrous--but chivalry cannot be divorced from its roots. Christian ideals can be practiced and held as personal ideals without necessarily adopting a Trinitarian theology. In some cases, chivalry almost provides a sufficient replacement for religion--and that's not unlike the actual historical practice either. But the ideals of chivalry don't change with the wind.
Chivalry is a difficult ideal, and no man living or dead has achieved perfection in its path. But nobility and glory are in the path, not the destination. I leave this with one final thought from the author of a 14th century treatise on the subject.
"He who does more is most worthy" -- Sir Geoffroi de Charnay