What is Chivalry? (Part 1)

We often hear the phrase, “chivalry is dead.” And by this it is not always clear what is being referred to. By chivalry do they mean romantic feeling? Or perhaps knights in shining armor or ladies in waiting? Or is it castles, flying banners, and fire-breathing dragons? Probably all-of-the-above. In all such cases I suppose the phrase, “chivalry is dead,” makes sense. But what if there is more to it than than? What if chivalry down at its core involves eternal verities that can only disappear if we have utterly lost ourselves as well? Verities such as courage, honor, bravery, and charity? Are these dead also? Maybe. Heck, we’ve even been told “God is dead” too. So what do we make of it all?

It should be clear that such defeatist rhetoric is of no use to the Christian who seeks to follow Christ’s words and “find the old paths.”

Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).

So what was (is) the spirit of chivalry? And why might it still be important today?

Some clarity is offered upon the matter by Kenelm Henry Digby, the son of a Protestant Minister in Ireland. He converted to Catholicism after studying the history and literature of the Middle Ages at Cambridge in the early 19th century. His chief work is known as the Broadstone of Honour which goes into great length regarding the nature, aim, and practice of Christian chivalry throughout the history of Christendom. And Digby’s definitions of Chivalry are perhaps second to none, as we shall see.

What is Chivalry? Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic and generous actions and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.

This initial definition deserves close analysis. Far from relegating the essence of chivalry to mere sentiment or feeling, Digby locates its center as a “state of mind.” And far from being impractical, such a mindset actually “disposes men… to action…” So it is about both mind and will. No wonder the nihilists want to tell us “chivalry is dead,” since it is precisely chivalry which engages us as rational and volitional creatures.

But it is more than this. It is about “spirit,” which is always harder to explain. Chivalry intends to connect us to “all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.”  This is an astounding idea, and resonates within anyone who has felt deeply a spiritual ardor and moral power connected to chivalric literature and tradition. And this intuition is something one often cannot understand or explain away. But there is something there, both beautiful and good; it involves both aesthetics and ethics; the physical and spiritual; it is about the moral development of the virtuous Christian.

Indeed, all the gross and bawdy parodies notwithstanding (e.g. Monty Python; Disney’s Sword in the Stone; etc), the spirit of chivalry originates from a purer, more pristine, source. It wells up from a font quite transcending modern psychology. This must be why innocent children resonate and are drawn toward it, and by it, most early on. Continuing his definition, Digby states:

It will be found that this spirit [of chivalry] more generally prevails in youth than in the later periods of mens’ lives. As the heroic age is commonly the earliest age in the history of nations, so youth, the first period of human life, may be considered as the heroic or chivalrous age of each separate man. And there are few so unhappy as to have grown up without having experienced this influence and having derived the advantage of being able to enrich their imaginations and to soothe their hours of sorrow with its romantic recollections. The Anglo-Saxons distinguished the period between childhood and manhood by the term “cnihthad,” boyhood; a term which still continued to indicate the connection between youth and Chivalry when knights were styled children, as in the historic song beginning:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came.

This is an excellent expression no doubt; for every boy and youth ought to be in his mind and sentiments a knight, and essentially a son of Chivalry. Nature is fine in him.

So it is that the chivalric spirit is something that men are born with, and which should be fanned into flame, especially in their youth, rather than something to be mocked and ridiculed by the cynical with their supposedly practical wisdom. Nevertheless the spirit of chivalry is something quite resilient.

Nothing but the circumstance of a most singular and unhappy constitution or the most perverted and degrading system of education can every totally destroy the action of this general law. Therefore, as long as there shall be a succession of sweet springs in man’s intellectual world, as long as there shall be young men to grow up to maturity, and as long as all youthful life shall not be dead and its source withered for ever, so long must there continue to be the spirit of noble Chivalry.

So is chivalry dead? Clearly not! On the contrary, it appears chivalry is immortal, and its spirit remains with us regardless of the tides and tempests of historical development and technological progress. Digby concludes:

What is accidental and not necessarily connected with the inmost soul of Chivalry may indeed have its destined period, beyond which it may be obsolete and lifeless. The plumed troop and the bright banner and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance, of feudal manners may pass with the age which required them, but what essentially belongs to this great cause must endure to the end. Although all other things are uncertain, perishable, and liable to change, this is grafted upon deep and indestructible roots which no time can weaken and no force remove.

To be continued…(part 2).


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