A Return to Chivalry?

“Is chivalry dead?” I ask my Western Civilization students. The responses are invariably electric. As attenuated its forms, as rare its observance may be, chivalry still retains a significant place in the modern memory. It might surprise us that a generation reared with a bare minimum of discipline should care about a rigorous system of morals and manners. In particular, we may wonder that young men and women would think much of an ethic that encouraged both sexual restraint and the service of men on behalf of women. Yet we must realize that today’s youth are hardly enamored with either the sexual revolution or the feminists’ struggles to create an androgynous world. Their deeper longings are for a world in which virtuous men both respect and protect modest women. Here is a typical response by today’s college woman to the exam question, “The system of manners known as chivalry was necessary in the Middle Ages but is irrelevant today.”

Chivalry has indeed seemed to become irrelevant today and that is a tragic loss for both men and women. Women refuse to hold men to the standards necessary to achieve the genteel honor that we have lost. Women are disrespected in today’s society, because we ask for nothing more. There is probably not a woman alive who, in some part of her heart, would not want to be carried off on horseback by a knight in shining armor, but we are not allowed to admit that anymore. We are taught to declare ourselves equal to men in all respects and in no need of superior treatment. If only women would realize that chivalry was a way of showing respect and devotion, not condescension, do we have any hope of ever regaining this lost system of virtue.

The question is how moral educators can bring young men and women to this conclusion and give them the courage to act upon it. For our deliverance from a vulgarized sexuality on the one hand and a forced androgyny on the other will begin only when young men and women begin to contemplate the creation of a new chivalry. In other words, men must begin again to act like men, women like women, and some standards of decency must govern their relations.

Students’ initial responses to the question of whether chivalry is dead will mostly concern whether men still open doors for women and whether they should. The teacher might suggest other courtesies that men used to perform which today’s adolescents have never seen or heard of, such as standing up for a lady when she walks into the room. This discussion can be of enormous value in teaching young men that the majority of women actually appreciate these vestiges of chivalry. The women, with one or two exceptions in every group, long for the days when men “acted like gentlemen.” Many young men, on the other hand, are under the impression that women resent having doors opened for them. “There are feminists out there who will tell you off,” they say. The testimony of their female peers to the contrary leaves them without excuse.

Once the discussion of whether chivalry still exists and in what forms it has been exhausted, the teacher should address the other side of the question particularly to the ladies. To what extent has positively unchivalrous behavior become the norm for young men? Personal anecdotes will abound. This might be the one chance women have to register their dissatisfaction with inveterate cursing, for example. They will never do so in company. When women are told that they could create a chivalrous environment by insisting that men stop cursing, if necessary by leaving their company, they show reluctance. Naturally pleasing, they do not want to spoil the conversation by correcting someone nor to be called a bad name on their leaving. The more restrained setting of the classroom, where comments are not directed at anyone personally, is the ideal forum for just complaints. Hopefully the young men will respond to this discussion by cleaning up their language. The young women should nevertheless be encouraged to make their objection to cursing more generally known. I use the example of my grandfather who deplored the modern man’s practice of wearing a hat at the table but held women responsible: “In my day a lady would not sit with a man who wore his hat.” Previous ages realized that women are the natural arbiters of manners, and our age must profit from their insights.

More than just cursing, women will have experienced more threatening forms of indecency. They do not like being whistled at, yelled at, or being made the subject of sexual innuendo. One thing every female runner will complain of is being yelled at by a carload of young men. Some of the young men in the classroom might have done some of the yelling. “So what’s the big deal?” they might ask. “It’s just a way of telling a girl that she’s hot.” “That’s why she’s running in the first place, isn’t it, to be noticed?” “Sometimes girls yell at guys, too.” Here the young women should be asked why being yelled at bothers them. What they will say is that a woman never knows when yelling might turn into something else, especially when running in a big city, or at night, or even on rural roads. Some of them might even remember an infamous rape case. Young men never have to worry about a group of girls surrounding them. The point needs to be made that from the perspective of a woman, a verbal assault, besides being very often degrading in itself (“show us your X”!) is always potentially translated into a physical assault. A woman knows that a carload of sixteen year-olds, whatever their intentions, could stop and overpower her without anyone coming to her rescue. A young man has no equivalent worry. Thus, there is a difference between the sexes, and that difference requires a gender-specific rather than a gender-neutral code of manners.

Once students become aware that the vulgarization of the relations between the sexes is taking place before their very eyes, they are ready to discuss the importance of chivalry in the history of Western civilization. Before exploring how chivalry worked in its heyday, students should know why this code of manners was developed in the first place. Chivalry took root, slowly, as the response to one of the gravest crises in the history of the West: the total collapse of civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century A. D. and again after the collapse of the more precarious Carolingian Empire in the Ninth Century. True Hobbesians should spend some time with the early Middle Ages, for truly there has never been a period when life was as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” There was no government. There was no police force. Property and persons were utterly at the mercy of very bad men. These men might be called “young,” partly because of their age and partly because of their youthful energy and disrespect for any older, established order. Young men on horseback roamed the countryside in huge packs and pillaged whatever semblance of civilization they found: families, churches, farms, markets. Like all young men, they came around to the idea of finding young women. Having no respect for decency, their method was simple. They just took any women they might come across. They took widows, wives, daughters, and nuns, from any place they might find them. Young men had no notion of courtship. Their desire for the opposite sex expressed itself in venereal hooliganism. In short, the behavior of young men during the Dark Ages did not differ considerably from that found in the inner-city gangs of today.

The solution to this crisis came through a gradual change in the motives and manners of the armed horsemen. Established men, the Church, and young ladies themselves combined forces to tame the unruly passions of these violent predators. They did so by effecting a direct exchange of male freedom for duty. To become true knights, young men had to submit themselves to an elaborate set of regulations known as chivalry that brought them into the social order and established them in marriage to young, beautiful heiresses. To enter the ranks of knighthood, young men had to submit themselves to a thorough regime of ethical training that prepared them for a life of service. The element of danger and enterprise remained in their lives since they had to protect their land and their ladies. The idea of male honor came into being. It became dishonorable for a strong man to intimidate or injure someone physically weaker than himself. The ritual par excellence for the display of chivalry became the tournament. No other event allowed the young knight to shine in combat before the eyes of anxious maidens and discerning parents so much as this great pageant of courage and courtesy. The tournament was not simply a game or a sport. The virtues and martial skills developed in the lists prepared young men for encounters against enemies at home and abroad in these lawless times. The deference paid to ladies guaranteed that manly strength would never be employed against the fair sex but rather in its defense.

At this point in the discussion, the teacher should drive home his point. The women are still silently sympathetic to the plight of women in the Middle Ages and perhaps realize that modern manners are reverting to early medieval conditions. The men are wishing they could become knights. The teacher should ask the men, “In the course of your education have you ever been taught what it means to be a man?” The question will floor them. Immediately they sense the need for such an ethical education and its total absence in the schools, the culture, and too often in the home. The fact of the matter is that young males today do not have the slightest idea of what it means to be men. And yet the desire of young men to be something more than irresponsible boys or even “nice persons” remains as strong as ever, despite the efforts of radical feminists, androgynists, and hyper-egalitarians. The evidence comes from a most unlikely source. Christina Hoff Sommers in The War Against Boys aptly draws our attention to a wonderful collection of essays called Between Mothers and Sons. The authors are left-leaning, pacifistic, feminist, and very much children of the sixties. Yet these mothers discover in their sons something they did not inculcate: the male nature. One such mother, Janet Burroway, describes how she nervously came to terms with her son’s adventures in the military, conservative political ideas, and fascination with weaponry. She saw the sewing lessons she gave to her son in hopes of turning out a little feminist “put to use on cartridge belts and camouflage.” In short, even many of the feminist mothers of today are finding themselves in the position of Perceval’s mother who had never let her son see a knight since “if the knights told him of their way of life he would wish to be one also.” Yet on first seeing knights pass through the forest, Perceval knew he must become one. When his mother realized “her caresses availed no longer to keep him” she supported Perceval in his decision:

Fair son, I wish to teach you a lesson which you will do well to hear, and if it pleases you to remember it, great profit can come to you. You will soon become a knight, my son, if it please God, and I approve it. If, near or far, you find a lady who needs help, or a maiden in distress, do not withhold your aid if they ask for it; for in this all honor lies. He who does not yield honor to ladies, loses his own honor. Serve ladies and maidens, and you will receive honor everywhere. If you ask a favor of any, avoid offending her and do nothing to displease her. He who wins a kiss from a maiden receives much; if she permits you to kiss her, I forbid you to take more if, for my sake, you are willing to forego it. . . . Fair son, speak with noble men and go with them; a noble man never gives bad counsel to those who frequent his company. Above everything I beseech you to enter church and minster and pray Our Lord to give you honor in this world and grant you so to act that you may come to a good end.

Perceval’s mother learned that she could not deny her son’s nature. The attempts to deny the male nature today have proven harmful both to men and women. For the history of chivalry has taught us that the young male can become gentle, provided that he is allowed to do so on his own terms, provided that gentleness does not reflect pusillanimity but allies itself with strength and honor.

Once the male students realize that what is at stake in this discussion is nothing less than their own manhood, and once the females begin to see what men could become, this distant epoch from the past will become a source of living instruction. The moral teacher must throw down the gauntlet. Currently, there is a great cultural battle being waged on every street corner, and in every school, and in every family in this country. It is the battle for common decency. On many fronts, the battle is being lost, but the tide has perhaps turned. The fact that the children of the sixties generation could even be interested in a theme like chivalry is a great sign of hope. But more than being interested, they must act upon the moral principles of their nature. Just as Churchill said that World War II would be won by the unknown soldier, so the battle for common decency will not be won by one great thinker or statesman or teacher. It will be won by millions of ordinary men and women doing their duties as ordinary men and women. The return to chivalry requires that every young man exercise his courage in becoming a gentleman and that every young woman exercise her modesty in becoming a lady.

On Principle, v9n4,August 2001

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