What is Chivalry? (Part 4)

We have discussed various aspects of chivalry, working on a general definition via our reading of Kenelm Digby’s Broadstone of Honour. In part one we learned that chivalry is a “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.” In part two we saw that chivalry is “essentially opposed to all dispositions of mind… which are connected in any degree with the passion for ridicule.” And in part three we discussed how intent chivalry has always been to guard religion above all. (Also, a common thread has been chivalry’s special influence upon young children.)

Yet our understanding and definition of chivalry would be truly remiss without addressing the proper place and dignity of woman at its very heart.  Indeed, even a cursory glance upon the chivalric code of honor or any slight knowledge of its courtly ballades leaves one with the ineluctable intuition that woman is a creature both wonderful and grand; whose very existence is central to all worthy plots; and whose peculiar feminine qualities give any real meaning to the world. Indeed, it seems  in the mysterious land of chivalry that the grace given by God unto woman was meant to lead man to the inevitable conclusion that she is to be honored and prized above all other mortal goods; to be cherished and adored for her inherent worth; and, reminiscent of Christ’s relation to his mother, to be obeyed: “Yes, my lady.”

Do I overstate my case? If not, where does this tradition come from? And how does it fit with “gender roles” as we so often here about today? Well, I would say the answer is not exactly as we’re told on either sides of the political divides.

But to realize this more properly we must start at the beginning, especially noting the contrast between ancient pagan and Christian understandings of woman. Digby explains in broad outline the influence Christendom had upon the place of woman in the world.

The Christian religion secured the purity and the elevation of the female heart; and it was the consequent influence of women—that empire which they obtained by the power of virtue, meekness, and innocence, over the wild affections of our brave ancestors—which contributed greatly to effect a marvellous revolution in the moral history of the world.

At the center of this “revolution,” as he puts it, was the proper appreciation of womanhood itself—what it means to be woman. This was something that the ancient world had always felt to be deeply significant but had also failed to truly understand or accept. Thus the pagans both worshiped their goddesses of war and fertility, but this inevitably led to cultic prostitution and all forms of cultural degradation.  For, ever has the depreciation of woman and her subjection via the chauvinistic mentality gone hand in hand with (as a sort of reaction to) idolatry or the deification and worship of her feminine beauty and powers. These are two sides of the same coin; two spells, but equally destructive.

But, within Christendom the world learned the answer to the riddle about woman, her power and mystique. For, as mentioned above, it was not as though the ancient world knew nothing of this; otherwise, we would never have heard the stories of Penelope, Hellen of Troy, and of Esther of the Hebrews. Digby observes,

Hector feared the reproaches of the Trojan women more than the spears of the Greeks, and the affecting testimony which Hellen bears to his gentleness when lamenting his death is proof that in his delicate regard for women he resembled a most perfect knight.

But these pagan examples of chivalry were always surrounded, sooner or later, by the cults of Isis, Diana, and Venus etc; in other words, history has shown that mankind has repeatedly foundered upon the error of mistaking woman for God, a tendency which has always backfired upon pagan cultures; but such is the attractive, materialistic, pantheistic, power of Gaia (mother earth) worship.

But it was in this world that Christianity presented the Virgin Mother of God as the answer to all the riddles about woman. She was the reason and the explanation for woman’s majestic power and mystic beauty. She was not God, but she bore God. This is a huge difference, to be sure; but it presents a proper balance after millennia of getting it wrong. Needless to say, this had a profound influence upon the world ever since. (Unfortunately, many feminists don’t realize how much they owe to both Mary and to Christendom for some of their most cherished principles, but that is another post.)

Needless to say, Mary set the standard for woman across the Christian world, for young virgins, mothers, and elderly dames. “Therefore,” said St. Ambrose, “let the virginity and life of Mary be as if painted in a picture before you, from which, as from a mirror, let the image of chastity and the pattern of virtue be reflected… In her eyes there is nothing haughty, in her words nothing insolent, in her actions nothing opposed to modesty.”

And so it was in this context that chivalry learned to cherish and celebrate women for their intrinsic worth, as bearers of God’s goodness and grace to this broken, and otherwise, delightless world. Digby relates:

Among the “poets in praise of women” who flourished in Germany… Henry of Mainz… composed a poem in praise of women which he dedicated to the Emperor Henry VII. In this he says: “The motives which oblige Christians to love the Blessed Virgin should bind them also to honour and love all women.”

And this principle can be recognized, according to Digby, as one of two “fundamental and essential elements” in the “sublime edifice of Christian Chivalry.” Namely, one’s honor and love toward the Theotokos (God-birther) must extend toward all women—full stop.

Digby continues:

The conduct and sentiments which women adopted from the [beginning] in respect to the Christian religion contributed to confirm men in this judgment and to secure for themselves the love and veneration of all who worshipped Christ. William of Paris points out the peculiar devotion with which women followed our Blessed Saviour. From His Birth to His Death and Resurrection they were ever pressing forward to adore and serve Him. After His Crucifixion, on the morning of the third day, when it was yet dark, the holy women were at the Sepulchre.

“All virtue lies in woman,” says a knight, “and the health of the world. No one can find a limit to the praise of women. He who can tell where the sunshine ends may proclaim also the end of their praise. Women are pure and good and fair; they impart worthiness and make men worthy. Nothing is so like the angels as their beautiful form, and even the mind of an angel dwells in woman.”

When guy Earl of Warwick returns to England in the habit of a pilgrim, after an absence of seven years in the holy land, coming to his castle he beholds the Countess sitting at the gate and distributing alms to a crowd of poor people, ordering them all to pray for the safe return of her lord from Palestine…

Massillon was so profoundly impressed with a sense of the holiness which had distinguished the early Queens of France that in praying for the young King he could imagine no words more suitable to express his desire than these: “God of my fathers! Save the son of Adelaide, of Blance, and of Clodilde.” And an old writer says of the Blessed Delphine Countess de Sabran: “To be in the good graces of Madame it was necessary to be in the good graces of God.”

So it was this profound religious devotion to both Christ and his mother that influenced the Christian devotion of the chivalric knight. For, even as Mary set an example for all Christians, so it was that Christian ladies were to set examples for Christian men. One romance records King Perceforest’s instructions to his own knights as follows:

There comes to my mind a word which a holy man once said to me. For he said in correcting me that knights and clerics ought to resemble a maiden. For a maiden ought to be simple and modest and to speak but little; courteous, should she be, chaste, and well-ordered in words, and in deeds kindly, polite and compassionate towards all good folk. Knightly gentlemen, so too in regard to you; for if a gentleman who has received the Order of Chivalry does not resemble a maiden in graces and in virtues he ought not to be called a knight, let him be as brave as he will. Knightly gentlemen, for this end have I spoken these words to you, that, if you wish to receive honour, you take care to resemble a maiden; for this belongs to a knight.”

Of course the moderns will deride any such sentiments as generally stupid; we all know “knights in shining armor” only finish last. But then again, these same moderns cast scorn upon a woman’s purity as well. Such is the way of the world.

“In women,” said Castiglione the Italian courtier,

their manners, words, gestures, and air, ought to be peculiar to their sex; for, as only solid and manly qualities become the man, so a more soft and delicate form recommends the woman. A certain female sweetness ought to shine in all her manner, that, whether she walk or stand or speak, she may appear without any mixture of the masculine.

Digby concludes, “The perfection of the female character was regarded as consisting in angelic mildness and delicate grace, incapable of a thought which bordered on cruelty.” Such was the clear and great admiration that chivalry taught their men regarding women.

But we must go further in order to properly bring the chivalric spirit into full light. For according to its wisdom women were not merely set forth as examples in purity and morals, which men might follow reluctantly; Neither did women merely provide a pragmatic and “civilizing” influence upon their more unruly and bruit-like counterparts. Of course women did all these things and more. But how they accomplished such things needs to be better understood. (Get ready for this, because it’s also politically incorrect).

According to the spiritual laws and mystic inner workings of chivalry I don’t think it is entirely wrong to say that women brought about Christian civilization by no other means than by cultivating and upholding their own nobility before men as the object (yes I said that word) of his proper desire; the sum of his aims on earth. Woman became—under Christ—man’s raison d’etre properly for the first time.

Duke Philip, in an old romance, begs a knight to tell him what made him love his wife best. “Well syr, said he,”I shall show it unto you. I love her because she is gracious and gentyle of heart, for her grace and gentyl heart hath me retayned unto her service, in so moch that I quyte all the world for her. For, as help me God, I have found in her, grace, gentylness, and sweetness.”

These women followed Mary’s example in “perfecting holiness out of reverence to God” (2 Con. 7:1). The result was nothing less than Christian Civilization. For such is the “beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96:9), the attractive principle within Christendom, and the magic of chivalry, no matter how far “behind the times” it is today. Digby relates further:

The greatest enemies of the feudal system have acknowledge that the preponderance of domestic manners was its essential characteristic. In the early education of youth, women were represented as the object of respectful love and the dispensers of happiness. The child was taught that to be an honourable and happy man he should prove himself worthy of the love of a virtuous woman. “This lesson,” says Ulrick von Lichtenstein in his book entitled Duties owed to Women, “every boy sucked in with his mother’s milk; so that it was not wonderful that love and honour should become identified in his soul. When I was a child so young that I used to ride upon a stick I was fully persuaded that I ought to honour women with all that I possessed, love, goods, courage, and life.” Till the age of seven the child was to be under the discipline of women… while the knights would teach the boy all the exercises of Chivalry, the women of the castle had such an affection for his virtue that they allowed him when much older to go about in a familiar manner among them…[but] with the decline of Chivalry this tender, and at the same time manly, education [was] changed for a mode which did not profess to secure the attainment of any such general object. [However] Religion and the rules of Chivalry conspired in those ages to convince youth that the object of its pride was to be obtained by virtue, that the image which was beheld with all the rapture of the imagination was to be approached in the discharge of duty, and that, while infidelity might present its temptations to the senses, whatever the heart held dear in time and in eternity was connected with its faith in Christ.

And is this not the teaching of the New Testament as well? Chivalry finds its root even in St Peter’s words, that men might be “won without words by the conduct of their womenfolk, when they see [their] respectful and pure conduct… the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quite spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”  And he references the Old Testament witness of the noble and saintly women of old, who hoped in God and were not afraid of anything (1 Pet. 3:1-6).

Of course God designed this relation between the sexes to be so and to work together to build civilization and the kingdom of God. And toward this end women play a central role for men. St. Peter concludes by explaining this to the men directly: “Men, live with your women in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7). All of this is the warp and woof of the chivalric spirit.

“There is a kind of superiority,” wrote Segur “which women should preserve over us, arising even from their weakness and the respect which it inspires. There is another kind which belongs to the dignity of man, which not only do women recognize, but for the abandonment of which they never pardon him.” Digby comments, “It was from the latter truth being lost sight of that arose the absurd and pernicious cases of base influence which, at a later period, were the scandal of certain courts. But Chivalry was directly opposed to this abuse of female influence.”

It was with husbands who resembled young lovers, rather than indolent, selfish persons, like the prince in Tirante the White who was afraid to follow the King’s daughter lest he should sully his robe, that women partook in their hearts of all joys and sorrows. And though the change from one climate to another had stained their limbs and the sun and drawn a cypress over their foreheads, yet their wives deemed them comely and fair. Women, sustained by the hand of Chivalry in the place appointed by their Creator, prompted men to the pursuit of virtue.

For love does always bring forth bounteous deeds,
And in each gentle heart desire of honour breeds…

When the Emperor in the romance of Tirante the White saw his daughter conversing with Diofebo, “matters are going on well,” he said, “for when women discourse upon Chivalry knights become more worthy.” This was the charm which enabled Jason of old to conquer. Without this the castles of Chivalry were but ill fortified. As king Alexander says to Sibille: “A house is very desolate which is without a woman.”

Ulrich von Lichtenstein spoke this way about himself:

They gave me a master who was rich in high virtue, the Margrave Henry of Austria, who served women with full loyalty and spake ever nobly of them as a knight should. He was mild, bold, and of hight heart, wise with the wise, and foolish with the foolish. He endured labour for the sake of honour, and his mouth never spake a bad word. To all his friends he was generous and faithful, and he loved God from his heart. This worthy master said to me, whoever would live well must give himself up to serve a woman. He taught me much of his gentle virtue, how to speak of women, how to ride on horseback, and how to compose sweet verses. He said, thereby will a young man endear himself to people when he can praise women with gentleness, and when he loves them dearer than himself.

It is said of Louis de Clermond Duc de Bourbon “that he would never remain in any place where words were uttered against a woman” and that he had the following to say to his knights: “All who belong to this Order must honour women and never speak or hear evil of them, for those who so speak are cowards. Under God, part of the honour of the world proceeds from women.” Indeed, from this chivalric point of view, even kings were not believed to be as noble as ladies, as Digby observes:

[Women] can even impart noble and generous sentiments, so that their power exceeds that of Kings, who can grant only the titles of nobility. The eyes of women were like a star to youth. When in the romance Perdiras and Lionnel sent his two pages, whom they had saved in the forest, to Queen Idore wife of Perceforest, the knights say of her: “Know that she is such a very good lady and in such sort has in herself all manner of honour and courtesy that there are no young knights or esquires who ought not to wish to be of her household by reason of the goodness and honour which those may learn who are near her. For there is no gentleman so dull and rude that he cannot find in her the way of honour and courtesy.”

The general maxim was: “Lost is all honour to him who does not render honour to woman.” [Indeed] everything in the education of boys tended to raise to the highest degree that reverence for women which had distinguished old Germany. That education softened and refined the manners of youth and made the mind generous and the person graceful, by requiring a constant and, at the same time, a willing and cheerful obedience. [Even] Tacitus says that the Germans thought there was something holy in women, and that they never despised their counsels or neglected their answers. How remarkably was this spirit shown by St. Louis when the sultan enquired what money he would give for his ransom, and he answered: “It is for the sultan to explain himself. If his proposals are reasonable I will make the Queen acquainted with the terms enjoined.” The infidels were lost in astonishment at such respect for a woman. “It is,” replied the king, “because she is my lady and my companion.”

Such sentiment was perhaps the height of folly, or of wisdom. Either way, it was central to Christendom. And it will ever be at the heart of chivalry.


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