It’s a phrase we utter when we question common decency of how men treat women. But I believe it is more than that. Let’s take a look at its origins to understand why, and go back to twelfth century Europe. Chivalry was a code of conduct for noblemen during that period. We forget how romanticized this code was, as “knighthood” was bestowed only on the country’s elite. Great wealth was needed to keep a warhorse and heavy arms, for “chivalry” loosely translates to “horse soldiery.”
This code of conduct had three pillars: religion, or a measure of a knight’s piety, military, or a measure of his standing as a warrior, and social, or his “courtesy” in his interaction with other noblemen and lords.
Chivalry evolved from “noble habitus” which influenced how military elite would conduct themselves during wartime. Loyalty and forbearance were essential values that drove unity and fidelity in heated conflict. It demanded generosity for those who could not help themselves, to protect a nobleman’s resources. To follow these virtues would achieve honor, and to lose honor was a grave disgrace.
Leon Gautier, a French historian, attempted to summarize chivalry in “ten commandments.” Half focused on a knight’s dedication to church and country. The others focused on social commandments, namely…
1. Respect all weaknesses and protect them from harm
2. Stand up to your enemy
3. Do as you say at all costs
4. Be generous with what you have
5. Do good…as a “champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.”
Literature has launched chivalry into our grandiose notions held today, embodied by epic stories such as King Arthur and Don Quixote. In these stories “knightly duties” drove the protagonist’s behavior…duties to God, to his fellow man, and…to women. How men should treat women is the most popular aspect of chivalry, where a man should “serve” a lady, and treat her with tenderness and courteousness.
Chivalry teaches us to treat all people with respect, and consider their wants and desires equal to our own. And in romance, consider this is no longer a time of barbarism, and a woman can aspire to anything she desires. Gender roles exist, but a man can be dominant or submissive, just as a woman can be either. The ability to be vulnerable, to show sensitivity and to allow a person to perceive your emotions is not a counter to the chivalric code…to have the will to purposely, with confidence, show such qualities is a strength.
And in exploring these chivalric gender roles, I do my best to follow some guidelines, such as…
1. Doing anything is worth doing right. If a man wishes to spend time to get to know a woman, do not create a “non-committal” scenario by inviting her to “coffee” or “drinks.” If you think you can have affection for someone take her to dinner, and treat her to the experience and for the privilege of her company.
2. Offer to open doors, pull out chairs for her to sit, walk on the outside of the street and stand when she enters and leaves the room. Remember you are looking for a partner…respect the give and take.
3. Do not play games. Be direct and forthcoming with your desires. Especially when communicating, do not give yourself a timeline to reach out or respond. Acknowledge boundaries but if you want to speak, contact with intent.
4. Respect yourself, and use that as strength to extend respect to your partner. You are capable of mistakes, just as much as she can be. Own them and use your judgment to weigh if those mistakes compromise the respect you demand for yourself. Do not be fickle with forgiveness.
These are not steadfast “rules” but I challenge you to think of your personal “code of chivalric conduct.” Consider the respect for yourself, what you show others, and expect to receive in return. If you live by those rules, you may see that chivalry is not dead after all.