Monday, December 12, 2011

Chivalry: Past and Present

When I was dubbed (from the French word 'adoubement' meaning "to call by a distinctive title, epithet, or nickname"), I wondered that did this conferment truly make a knight or just one in name only. The knights of old lived by a chivalrous code and today we strive to be gentleman living by a modern chivalric code.

Chivalry comes from the French word "chevalerie" or "chevalier" meaning horseman or knight. The term was used to describe the medieval institution of knighthood which has an aristocratic military origin of individual training and service to others.


According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, Chivalry is defined as gallant or distinguished gentlemen; the system, spirit, or customs of medieval knighthood; or the qualities of the ideal knight.

In the July 2010 edition of the Knights Templar magazine, Brian R. Price, defined chivalry as an idealization of virtue, a wedding of military excellence with courtesy, a sense of justice, piety, and honor.

History & Origin

To discuss chivalry, we necessarily must discuss the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of knights in the Dark Ages of medieval Europe.

Prior to the 5th century (specifically during the Imperial Roman Period), Rome, the Eternal City, had never been under siege, but now the city has fallen to invading Gothic warriors. The Roman Empire had been sick and falling for some time; the population dwindling due to sickness and war and a corrupt inept government were major factors.

I should clear up that when I talk of the Roman Empire I talk specifically of the Western Roman Empire and not the Eastern Roman Empire (commonly known as the Byzantine Empire). In the 3rd century AD Diocletian divided up the empire into two major regions, an Eastern and a Western, in an attempt to keep control. This truly divided the two regions and cut off the Roman Empire from the luxuries coming from the East. Civil War ensued, incursions on the borders of the Empire, and disease started weakening the Empire. Due to the shrinking population, the Roman armies started hiring barbarians as mercenaries who held no loyalty to the Empire, and by their treatment, they really didn't need to give any. The Empire became so dependent on them that their defenses were basically gone and Rome was ripe for the taking. Soon the fallen empire was constantly being invaded by Saxons, Britains, Franks, Vandals, Goths, and so forth. Rome was shattered into a thousand pieces.

Now we see a time when war was so persistent that it was rarely disturbed by moments of peace, the decay of innovation, illiteracy, no access to medicine, or any of the basic human needs of survival. The population of major urban cities shrank and you saw more rural, almost tribal, living taking hold often centered around a warlord who was trying to make a name for himself and take a piece of the old Roman pie.

This time period of doom and gloom would shape Western Civilization for millennia. There was a glue (or cement, rather) that kept many united during this dark time. This was Christianity. On Christmas Day, 496 AD, at the Basilica in Reims, Clovis a Frankish barbarian warlord renounced his pagan ways and was baptized Christian, thereby being anointed a Christian King. This move united his people under the religion of Christianity. This was a strategic move by Clovis to win the hearts and minds of his people who were primarily Roman; as the Christian religion had really taken foot since the conversion of Constantine the Great. In a world of uncertainty and chaos, Christianity promised salvation, eternal peace, and glory in the Hereafter.

Now the Roman Empire was still shattered into pieces and the warlords were feuding with each other. Alliances and politics shifted as regular as the ebbs and flows of the tides. Now from the time when Clovis first had command of armed men, at the age of 15, once he conquered a tribe or a village, he would not just kill everyone, he would invite the conquered men to take up arms for his cause. By the time of his Baptism, at the age of 30, he had amassed a good army and set himself as a Master of Gaul (France). By the time of his death in 511 AD, he had united most of the barbaric tribes in Gaul and united them under the banner of Christianity.

Starting around 530 AD, Justinian, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, seeks to reunite and raise the Roman Empire from the ashes. By 538 AD, he has most of Italy, Sicily, and much of Northern Africa conquered by Byzantine forces. The forces left depopulated cities and mass destruction in their wake. His forces may have been able to complete his goals, but Constantinople as well as Europe was about to get hit by a pandemic, the Bubonic Plague. Trade, one of their greatest, attributes would lead to the death of almost 50% of the entire population. Small appearances of disease would appear throughout the next couple of centuries to knock down small pockets of Europe. His forces held the conquered areas until his death in 565 AD.

With lands conquered, cities destroyed, a population ravaged by disease and war, the time was looking horrid and brutish; death was probably a blessing in many cases. In comparison to centuries past, this must have been a very Dark Age. Low productivity/industry, bad economics, low defenses, and very low morale just let the people of Europe ripe for more invasions and tribal wars.

Yet in all of this darkness, there was still a flicker of light. The monasteries became some of the most important institutions in Europe. They were major centers of commerce and knowledge. Life was hard and strict, but these monks kept important records of history and many books/manuscripts were copied for ages yet unborn to read and learn. Monks were both men of cloth and knowledge. They were often some of the few literate in Europe.

In the 7th century, while Christianity was spreading more and more across Europe and the Church united many during this chaotic period, the followers of another Prophet were taking up arms in conquest. Islam was spreading quicker and faster than Christianity had. Spreading from Northern Africa, the Muslim Moors had hit Spain and were now on their way to France. They saw the Franks as men so stuck in a civil war they saw them as easy pickings. Moorish General Abdul Rahman al-Rafiki crossed into France with an army of 50,000 men (mix of cavalry and infantry). There first few incursions were really massacres where chroniclers say only God knows how many were slain.

The Moorish invaders turned northward to further their conquest, but the Commander of the Frankish Army was waiting. This man was Charles Martel and he had anticipated the Moorish invasion. He was proactive and had to convince the citizenry, the farmers, to take up the sword and shield to protect their land, their lives, and their religion from these invaders. He was at a disadvantage as he was not going to be using professional soldiers, but those who were only willing to fight during the non-harvest seasons. He needed money, but he was able to convince the Church to hand over property and money to train the men into an effective corps to fight the Moors.

In October, 732, the two forces met. The Franks had dug atop a wooded hillside that gave them a strategic advantage. Both sides were at a standstill for several days when the Moorish General advanced not wanting to wait for the winter cold to hit them. Both Christian and Muslim scholars say the Frankish infantry held their ground, and while the battle ensued Charles Martel sent a group to the Moorish encampment to plunder and destroy it. Overnight the Moors withdrew back to Spain and this stunning win (known as the Battle of Tours) won Charles the nickname "the Hammer". He was heralded as the savior of Christendom.

Charles Martel's descendants would over the next several centuries transform Europe and one would become Emperor and called the Father of Europe. Christmas Day, 800 AD, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Charlemagne is crowned as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was an intelligent man and a military man, not having ever lost a military battle. Not since the fall of Rome had so much of Europe been under the command of one man. Charlemagne worked on increasing education and rising Europe from the darkness. He also sought to conquer more land and spread Christianity. He accomplished this with not only infantry, but also by experienced horsemen. He punished those pagans who would not convert or those who disobeyed the dogma of Christianity. It was brutal, but a successful campaign, and his domain grew.

To control this ever-increasing empire, he divided it up into hundreds of counties where a Count was put in charge who answered directly to Charlemagne. He kept a close eye on them and didn't shut himself away, but visited them often. In his travels, he tried to rekindle an age of learning and innovation; even he learned to read and write. He ruled for 14 years as Emperor. In this time as Emperor, when Europe seemed to be coming out of the darkness, he would face a terrible force - the men from the North.

Bands of Vikings, starting in Britain, started invading and plundering villages and cities. Many of these early victims were far enough North that they did not fear too many invaders from the sea so they were unprepared for this force of men who cared nothing for the sanctity of the church and its property. These Vikings left Scandinavia due to overpopulation and the monasteries looked like easy victims just asking to be attacked. Their boats were not only sea-worthy, but could ford up the rivers due to their shallow draft, which made their appearance unexpected. They soon expanded their attacks from just the British Isles, but to the heart of the Holy Roman Empire itself.

Even bribes couldn't hold back these men and their attacks occurred decades after the death of Charlemagne in 814 AD. In 866 AD, it wasn't' just a band, but an army of Vikings that came ashore in Britain to not just plunder, but to take the land. The great city of York fell to the Viking conquest. It wasn't until Alfred the Great that the Viking incursions were pushed back and defeated. He had studied them and realized that with their love of quick plunders that they hated attacking fortresses, so that is what he built. They [the Vikings] did not have the siege technology to attack them. Alfred the Great just let the Vikings wear them out. Over 25-years of fighting, he pushed them back, but not all of them entirely. Many of the Vikings picked up and moved elsewhere in search of victims, but some stayed and assimilated. At this same time in France, the Carolingian Empire (starting with the crowning of Charlemagne) after the death of Charlemagne, was being divided and fought over by the Lords who helped run this dynasty. The incursions of the Vikings didn't help the situation any further, which would eventually lead to the downfall of this empire where it was nothing more than hundreds of counties and lordships.

Now, through all of these past centuries of battles came the establishment of professional fighting forces. With innovations such as the stirrup for horse riding, mounted soldiers were expensive and usually attach to a Lord, men of wealth. These men were not necessarily the knights we think of today, many of them were just men who were required to pay a service to their Lord. They cared more about the coin and could easily be compared to a soldier in the Mafia. They were hired thugs and muscle often to invade another Lord's land and force them under the Lord who had hired them. The knights we think of today wouldn't come about til around and after the Crusades, nor did the synonymous belief of knights being from nobility come until the Crusades.

After the abatement of the Viking invasions, there were many soldiers who were unwilling to put down the sword. The Viking invasions had militarized Europe and there were many Lords who were willing to buy their sword to form their own army to force their will upon the peasants.

This savagery led the Church to establish rules that these knights must live by or face ex-communication. Part of this policy relied on the superstition of saintly relics. The Church would often say if the knights would not follow the rules the saints associated with the relics would come after the knights and punish them. The Church issued two proclamations on God's position on war and fighting. They were called the Peace of God and the Truce of God.

Pax Dei (Peace of God) proclaimed that certain individuals, particularly the defenseless (peasants and clergy), should not be attacked by knights. Treuga Dei (Truce of God) proclaimed that certain times should be void of fighting by knights (such as the Sabbath Day). The Truce of God seemed particular to focus on preventing Christian knights from fighting each other. These really helped the Church redirect the knights fighting energy and stem the violence of private wars in a Feudal society. This redirection would soon be pointed towards the Middle East when a call for help comes from the Byzantine Emperor and eventually what we now refer to as the Crusades.

Modern Chivalry

In medieval times, the code of chivalry focused on three areas: the military, social life, and religion. Today our codes will naturally be different as times have changed customs, some traditions, beliefs, and attitudes, but there will be some similarities as there are some traditions and beliefs that are timeless and founded upon truth and goodness.

The basic foundation of the chivalric code of old leads us to the modern chivalric code and the basics for being a gentleman. Brett and Kate McKay point out in their book that a man who has mastered the art of manliness (being a true gentleman) embodies the characteristics of: looks out for and is loyal to his friends and family, does the right thing, even when it is not convenient, is proficient in the manly arts (dress/appear, hospitality, education, etc), treats women with respect and honor, serves and gives back to his community, sacrifices for the good of others, works hard and seldom complains, exhibits both great courage and tender compassion, has a confident swagger but isn't a pompous jerk, is witty without succumbing to sarcasm, and embraces instead of shirking responsibility.

Today many think chivalry is dead because many men are not gentlemen, but rather meat-heads more focused on their looks than life and trying to imitate moronic spectacles from TV sitcoms. Too many men from the time of manliness and chivalry are not around anymore and there exist too few bastions of true chivalry. One of these is the Masonic fraternity.

From the beginnings of our lessons in Masonry, we see examples of chivalry. Many symbols can be shown to represent actions and beliefs that all good men should embrace, but I particularly want to focus on the 3 Tenets: Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. By truth is every noble virtue we know founded upon and should dictate every thought, word, and action. As the Square teaches us to square our actions, the level to treat every person as equal, and the plumb to walk uprightly before God and man, so does Brotherly Love teach us to regard the whole human species as one family, thereby rendering us responsible to aid, support, and protect to the best of our ability. Last, but not least (I know, cliché) is Relief, and as the lecture tells us, all men are required to assist the distressed, destitute, and sorrowed. This last tenet can also be seen in the lessons given in the Order of the Temple where one must vow to defend the weak and defenseless.

There are many outside the Masonic fraternity who strive to bring back the courteous actions and appearances of chivalry from past generations. One example as I stated above is the couple, Brett & Kate McKay who wrote the book "Art of Manliness", but many others talk about how chivalry isn't dead in this modern world. Brian R. Price talks about timeless virtues of: Courtesy, respect, generosity, honesty, fidelity, humility, justice, excellence (prowess), courage, loyalty, and duty.

To my fellow Sir Knights (and all true gentleman), I challenge to act as such and strive to keep chivalry alive.

My Chivalric Code 
Charity: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
Humility: A modest or low view of one's own importance; humbleness or modesty
Integrity: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptible
Valor: strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness : personal bravery or courage
Altruism: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others
Loyalty: A strong feeling of support or allegiance
Resolute: Admirably purposeful, determined, and unwavering; determined
Yielding: to be productive and never a useless drone

1. The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol V (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 250.

2. Chivalry. (2011, November 25). Retrieved December 11, 2011, from Wikipedia:

3. Chivalry. (n.d.). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

4. Price, B. R. (2010). Isn’t Chivalry Dead?! Knight Templar, 34.

5. History Channel. (2007). The Dark Ages [Documentary DVD].

6. Peace and Truce of God. (2011, December 11). Retrieved December 12, 2011, from Wikipedia:

7. Knight. (2011, December 11). Retrieved December 12, 2011, from Wikipedia:

8. McKay, B. a. (2009). The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man. Cincinnati: HOW Books.

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