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. Rather, 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 wasn’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 their profession.
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.”
Chivalry exists to symbolically remind men to harness your strength to serve, honour and love those who are weaker than yourselves. 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. We also do that thing were we get massively pregnant and become even more vulnerable. Sadly, more often than not, it’s men abusing women, rather than the other way around.
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 very capable at opening doors and doing all sorts of other important things.”
This tells us something very important about chivalry. It’s not really about women and how ladylike we are, it’s about you. It’s about men. Chivalry is not about how weak women are, it’s about how strong men are and how you use that strength.
That means, among other things, that chivalry isn’t dependent on the response you receive. 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 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 your acts of chivalry are met with the gratitude. They deserve to be — but if they’re not, I hope that won’t deter you one bit. If you are only chivalrous for the praise it brings, I’m afraid you’ve entirely missed the point. A real man, a gentleman, is chivalrous not because it gains him anything but because it is good and right.
In that, is true strength and real chivalry.
With all my gratitude,