The Knight's Code
"A knight is sworn to valor. His heart knows only virtue. His blade defends the helpless. His might upholds the weak. His word speaks only truth. His wrath undoes the wicked." - Bowen, reciting the Old Code from the film Dragonheart.
What the film calls "the Old Code" is really an interpretation of chivalry. Many nobles and warriors across Europe strove to practice chivalry, which was more a way of life than just a code of conduct. This resulted in warriors and generals who embodied the concepts of courage, honor, and nobility. Or so some of the tales claim. Chivalry is a subject often debated by historians, and for good reason; fact and fiction are decidedly different when it comes to this popular element of medieval history. Before we get to knights and the practice of chivalry, we begin with where it came from and what it means.
The Origin of Chivalry
The word "chivalry" has its origins in 11th century Old French, coming from the word "chevalier." This term referred to a warrior of wealthy means and sometimes noble standing who had undergone specific rituals and was capable of arming himself for battle with a war horse and cavalry weapons. Literally translated, "chivalry" means "horsemanship," giving the word a strong link to the knights who once considered it to be of the utmost importance.
The origins of chivalry as a practice are a bit harder to place, as a general lack of agreement among historians and scholars fail to pinpoint the where and the why of this prolific knightly code. The general consensus, however, is that chivalry first began to develop in northern France during the 12th century, although concepts similar to chivalry had been in practice throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. It began as a blending of martial skill, religious devotion, and good conduct, and from there gained in appeal as it was gradually adopted as the code that all knights were expected to follow.
Chivalry was both specific, yet not. You could read ten stories about knights, and all ten might adhere to slightly differing codes. You could likewise read about ten historically accurate codes of chivalry and find striking differences between them. Yet chivalry was generally always bound by a trio of concepts that, at their core, embodied the very basics of what a knight was supposed to be.
These three concepts were a knight's duty to country, to faith, and to women. Duty to country comprised a knight's loyalty to his lord or ruler. Also called a warrior's chivalry, this duty was most associated with valor, courage, readiness in battle, and defending the weak. Duty to faith encompassed all religious elements of a knight's life. It refers to the knight's devotion to God, generally above all else. This aspect of chivalry often entailed championing the faith against non-believers. It also touched upon the notion of protecting the innocent, an aspect that has since seen knights labeled as crusaders for good and warriors for justice.
The last duty was to women and is better known as courtly love. One of the most well-known aspects of chivalry, this duty bound a knight in service to women, most specifically his lady. A knight's lady was generally a respected woman of court. She could be the daughter of a powerful lord or even another man's wife. Courtly love was generally expected to be distant and pure; in theory knights rarely had much interaction with their chosen lady outside of the noble court and tournaments. This aspect of chivalry could lead to trouble. Lords did not always look kindly on knights claiming their wives or daughters as their chosen "ladies." It was also not a positive role for a woman; the lady of a knight was expected to behave in a certain way, making it something of a gilded cage.
A Chivalrous Life
Chivalry was something that many aspired to in the medieval era. Stories of valiant heroes, like Charlemagne and his paladins or Arthur and his round table, gave knights plenty of examples on how to behave. For that reason, knights held a position of honor and were often well respected by many in the Early and High Middle Ages. Yet for every story of chivalrous and noble heroes, there were also true-life examples of knights who attempted chivalry but fell short in one fashion or another.
A prime example is Edward of Woodstock, prince of England. He was the first Knight of the Garter, one of the highest orders of chivalry achievable in England, yet in battle his behavior was less than chivalrous; instead he embraced a pragmatic approach to war. Most notable were his tactics in the Hundred Years War where he burned the lands of peasants to deprive France of resources. This was the dichotomy of chivalry. Courtesy and valor were highly regarded, and it was expected that a knight would attempt to treat his opponents honorably. Rulers expected their knights to win battles though, and this meant that knights could often only show honor and courtesy in victory, not during the heat of battle.
Knights outside of battle were exceedingly diverse as well. Chivalry was often left to personal interpretation and so many knights were able to decide for themselves how they would behave. Some chose to embrace their duty to faith, living austere lives in dedication to crown and God. Others embraced their duty to country, becoming stalwart leaders who aided their monarchs as commanders and advisors. Some knights held themselves above the common folk, believing that chivalry and personal status elevated them above the concerns of the peasantry. Others embraced chivalry as a calling to assist those less fortunate than themselves.
The Decline of Chivalry
The Late Middle Ages saw a change in chivalry. The focus shifted from battlefield prowess and valor to etiquette and courtly behavior. As the ideals of the knight slowly faded, nobles began to imitate heroism, courtesy, and honor, transforming chivalry from a way of life into a mere façade practiced in the noble courts. Another factor that led to the decline of chivalry were the changes in war. As battles became more about victory and less about glory and valor, armies moved towards masses of infantry. Knights became less important to the military, and chivalry, already a mere pastime of the courts, became a fad that simply went out of style.
Yet remnants of chivalry persisted. The concepts of courtesy, personal honor, and respect for women remain a core concept of gentlemanly behavior even to this day, and stories of gallant and valorous knights are our reminder that chivalry started with some of the best intentions: with medieval warriors and nobles striving to become honorable heroes.