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What is Chivalry?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Chivalry in its modern sense tends to apply to the courtesies a man might pay to a lady. These include standing until a woman sits, offering a woman a seat on a bus, or opening a door for a woman. These actions are the remains of the once great code for knightly behavior espoused during the Middle Ages.

Chivalry is derivative of the French chevalier. Cheval translates to horse, and chevalier refers to a man on horseback, and is usually translated as simply “knight.” Knights utilized horses for transportation, battle and games like jousting, separating them from the general populace. The English picked up the term cavalier as a corruption of chevalier.

Simply riding on horseback, however, is not an example of chivalry. In fact the term implies not only the knight, but also the duties of a good knight. These duties were defined as faithfulness and service to God, kindliness to fellow Christians, protection and championship of the weak, and courtly love.

Courtly love is often confused with the adulterous love in medieval stories involving Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Isolde. In fact, adultery had very little to do with the chivalry that governs courtly love. Courtly love includes gentleness and appreciation of women, championing women who required defense or rescue, and a whole code of behavior for speaking to women. Chivalry, as part of courtly love, essentially beget the idea of romantic love. Yet not all romances and flirtations progressed into sexual relationships.

Instead, women and men might “play” at courtly love, because in most instances, marriage was a contractual obligation, and not a match made because of love. Gentle behavior, and elaborate praise of the woman helped to satisfy a deep yearning to be admired and appreciated, something not always obtainable from a husband.

As well, a younger knight might act as champion for a woman with an older husband, who did not have the strength to bear her colors in jousting tournaments. This aspect of chivalry was seen as the attention due to women, and not a chance to gain a woman sexually. In fact, by following church teachings as part of chivalry, adultery verges off the path of the chivalrous.

All aspects of chivalry are guided by a knight’s service to honor. Personal worth was measured by adherence to chivalry, and by not simply being chivalrous when others were around to observe it. Chivalry was meant to guide the knight through situations where he was alone; it gave him a chance to act for the salvation of his soul and for the salvation of others.

Naturally one must contrast chivalry with the outrageous and barbaric behavior often in keeping with the feudal system and the crusades. Since chivalry is conducted as a Christian code, it did not apply to the “infidel” such as Jews, or Turks, killed during crusades. Nor did chivalry apply to the abuse frequently inflicted on serfs, though in Arthurian legends, much chivalry was practiced to punish feudal lords who abused their serfs, as part of the protection of the weak.

However, chivalry was a code for a certain small strata of society. As such, chivalrous behavior could separate the knight from the masses rather than have him work for the many poor and abused in the feudal society. Chivalrous behavior in almost all cases did not apply to the treatment of non-Christians.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon993432 — On Nov 14, 2015

Chivalry is far from dead: A Gentleman Should - Facebook page. Just one example of many. You see people showing the characteristics of a chivalrous person all the time, and possibly don't see it. Someone holding the door open. Following common etiquette and letting people out of building before walking in. Examples of proper behavior of a chivalrous gentleman are abundant if you pay attention.

By anon278318 — On Jul 05, 2012

Chivalry is not dead -- just perhaps not as commonplace these days.

I have been quite pleasantly surprised when men (I should say "gentlemen") down at the Chevron mini-mart and other public places, hold open the door for me to pass through before them. None of them are white-collar guys, by the way.

I think it's a matter of the heart and of character. Either you have it in you, or you don't. Perhaps it used to be taught, but it does not seem so nowadays. I sure appreciate it when it happens.

By anon194573 — On Jul 08, 2011

"After all, in chivalry history, women like to feel rescued and many of these gestures add to the romantic notion of chivalry."

Looks like that's changed, gaiz. Because -- "... as these women often feel offended when a man holds the door for them."

How about we respect that, now, huh? If you want to be polite, be polite. Who needs "politeness" directed especially at women? Just be polite, not chivalrous, to your female partner.

By Renegade — On Nov 29, 2010

@icecream17

This is an interesting point that you make and it raises some questions about modern chivalry. Could a woman avoid chivalry in this day and age because, without the constraints of the church, it can be seen as "hitting on" a woman and trying to woo her sexually? Often, the more "paranoid" of feminists might legitimately look down on such acts of courtesy which they see as a dominating condescension. In our day and age, maybe it is impossible to resurrect chivalry due to a lack of a clearly defined code of social behavior.

By icecream17 — On Oct 30, 2010

The question that many ask, “Is chivalry dead?” refers to the notion that old fashioned courtesies that a man would perform for a women are so uncommon that many people ask if the age of chivalry is over.

Chivalry today would include something like opening a door for a lady. It is really a pleasant surprise when the code of chivalry is expressed because it is rare.

Another chivalry definition would include to pay for a ladies meal when on a date. This measure allows women to feel special which is the intent of chivalry.

Many feminist viewpoints have really stifled much of the chivalry expressed today, as these women often feel offended when a man holds the door for them.

It is a shame that men can’t feel like men again and make women feel special with these courteous gestures. After all, in chivalry history, women like to feel rescued and many of these gestures add to the romantic notion of chivalry.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
Learn more
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