How to Be A Chivalrous Knight in Shining Armor: Follow the Code!
The chivalry of a Medieval knight is indisputable, right? I mean, they had a Code of Chivalry and everything. But wait, not all knights were chivalrous, nor did they have a universally agreed upon idea of what chivalry meant. They didn’t even agree it was necessary to be chivalrous. And those codes? Well, they differed too.
The knight is probably the first character most people call to mind when they think about the Middle Ages. One definition of a Medieval knight is that he was “a man who served his sovereign or lord as a mounted soldier in armor”.
Closely associated with this functional definition of a knight is the so-called ‘code of chivalry’. In essence, this ‘code’ dictates the manner in which a knight ought to conduct himself. Despite being often referred to as a ‘code’, chivalry was not codified during the Middle Ages. Moreover, there is no unanimous agreement as to what this code of conduct consisted of.
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Konrad von Limpurg as a knight being armed by his lady in the Codex Manesse (early 14th century). ( Public Domain )
There Was No Consensus on Chivalry
The word ‘chivalry’ is derived indirectly from the Medieval Latin and Latin words caballarius and caballus, which translate to mean ‘horseman’ and ‘nag, pack-horse’ respectively. These provide a functional definition to the word ‘chivalry’; but as a code of conduct, chivalry developed over the course of the Middle Ages.
It is reckoned to have reached its pinnacle during the 12th and 13th centuries, following the Crusades, one of the products of which was the establishment of the Hospitallers and Templars, two of the best-known Medieval chivalric orders.
Grand master Pierre d’Aubusson & senior Knights Hospitaller. ( Public Domain )
As a matter of fact, there is no consensus as to what a code of chivalry consisted of, and this varied according to the authors who wrote about them.
The Importance of Virtues
One version of a code of chivalry is found in the Song of Roland , the mid-11th / early 12th century epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and regarded to be the oldest major extant works of French literature.
In the Song of Roland , as many as 17 injunctions in the code of chivalry have been identified. One of these pertains to God and the Christian faith, such as ‘To fear God and maintain His Church’. Others outline the proper relationship between a knight and his liege, such as ‘To serve the liege lord in valor and faith’, and ‘To obey those placed in authority’.
Additionally, there are many more instructions as to the way a knight ought to behave in his everyday life. These include ‘At all times to speak the truth’, ‘To protect the weak and defenseless’, and ‘To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun’.
Eight stages of ‘The Song of Roland’ in one picture. ( Public Domain )
Another example of the code of chivalry is seen in the 12 chivalric virtues defined by Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, for the Order of the Golden Fleece, which he had instituted during the 15th century. These twelve virtues are as follows: Faith, Charity, Justice, Sagacity, Prudence, Temperance, Resolution, Truth, Liberality, Diligence, Hope, and Valor. Many of these virtues are echoes of the chivalric values contained in the Song of Roland .
An allegorical knight preparing to battle the seven deadly sins with the "Scutum Fidei" diagram of the Trinity as his shield. This is part of a ca. 1255-1265 illustration to the Summa Vitiorum or "Treatise on the Vices" by William Peraldus. ( Public Domain )
An Attempt to Stop Violence
Yet another form of the code of chivalry is observed in an oath suggested by Bishop Warin of Beauvais in 1023 for King Robert II of France, called the Pious, and his knights. In this oath, the bishop highlighted certain things that a knight ought not to do, including assault on an unarmed clergyman, unreasonable theft of livestock and killing of farm animals, and burning down and destroying houses for no valid reason.
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The tone of Bishop Warin’s ‘code of chivalry’ is quite different from the two examples mentioned earlier. The use of negatives in his oath suggests perhaps that the French knights of his time were quite violent men, and that such a ‘code of chivalry’ was not exactly a set of ideals for them to emulate, but rather certain laws to restrain their violence.
‘King Robert II of France’ (1837) by Merry-Joseph Blondel. ( Public Domain )
Finally, it’s worth noting the code of chivalry is a rather subjective term that may take on various forms. In the Song of Roland , this code informs a knight what he should do, whilst the oath of Bishop Warin stresses what he should not do. Philip the Good’s code, on the other hand, is more abstract, and focuses rather on virtues, than concrete deeds that a knight should / should not be doing.
Be that as it may, the code of chivalry has fascinated people long after the Middle Ages came to an end and it continues to do so even to this day.
‘Chivalry’ (1885) by Frank Dicksee. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: ‘God Speed’ (1900) by Edmund Leighton. (Deriv.) Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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