Dear good sirs,
I read somewhere that “chivalry isn’t dead, it just went wherever being ladylike went.” I’m afraid a have a little problem with that. It’s not because there isn’t a disturbing lack of ladylikeness these days (there is), but because it misses the whole point of chivalry. Will you suffer me to rant a little?
Chivalry comes from the Old French cheval, meaning horse. It was the code of honour among knights, or those who rode horses into battle. Although the Middle Ages is often called the “Age of Chivalry”, that is misleading. It wasn’t. It was brutal.
This was a world where criminal trials were by combat, bishops fought in battle with axes, and surviving past 30 was an achievement. There weren’t so much clearly defined “wars” as there was a constant state of warring. Every summer, the lords and their knights would go on campaign – killing, raping, thieving and setting fire to things willy nilly. It was kind of their profession.
But the ideal of Chivalry is one of the greatest products of the Middle Ages, precisely because they needed it so badly. When brute strength ruled the world, chivalry instructed the brutes to direct their strength toward the good. As an ideal, however, chivalry outlived the Middle Ages. It is as relevant today as it was then. The Victorian author Charles Kingsley said that,
“Some say that the age of chivalry is past, that the spirit of romance is dead. The age of chivalry is never past, so long as there is a wrong left unredressed on earth.”
That is the real heart of chivalry. It’s not about the horses, it’s about harnessing the strength of men to serve, honour and love those who are weaker than themselves. And yes, that includes women. In case you haven’t noticed, women are generally not as physically strong as men. We tend to be shorter, squisher, and softer. 98 times out of 100, it is men abusing women, rather than the other way around. Sorry, but it’s just a fact.
Chivalry exists to acknowledge, and in a tiny, symbolic way, to redress this great wrong. Chivalry isn’t saying, “Darling, I actually believe you are physically incapable of opening a door, just as you are incapable of running your life, owning property, or thinking rationally.” It’s saying, “As a man, I am aware that some men have taken advantage of their strength to harm and oppress women, so I am making this extra little effort to use my strength to serve you, even though I am very well aware that you are in fact excellent at opening doors, and at running your life for that matter.”
This tells us something very important about chivalry. It’s not really about us, it’s about you – it’s about men. Chivalry is not actually about how weak women are, it’s about how brutish men can be. (To be clear, women can be equally awful and sinful, but we’re talking about chivalry right now, mkay?)
Which also means men, that chivalry isn’t dependent on the response you receive. And actually, you have an enormous privilege because for the first time in hundreds of years, chivalry isn’t expected of you. Real chivalry, whether in the harsh reality of stone castles or office cubicles, has always been counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. In a sense, it got weak and boring when it became the expected code of polite society.
I hope that your chivalry is met with ladylike gratitude, but if it isn’t, who cares? It was never about that anyway. It’s always just been about you and your horse. The lesson of chivalry is to control that beast, and don’t be a brute.
With all my thanks and gratitude, kind sirs,