What’s the Definition of Chivalry

by | Oct 21, 2023 | Aristocracy, Kingdoms, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

The notion of chivalry has long been associated with the nobles of the ages, particularly with the rank and title of knights and knighthoods. 

Since the earliest knights of the Christian Crusades during the medieval times, the idea of chivalry has called to mind themes of honourable behaviour, loyalty, courage and military prowess. 

The term itself conjures up the epitome of chivalric honour and valour – that of a heroic knight on horseback, valiantly protecting his lord and master, or fighting for the virtue or a fair maiden. 

Beyond the fairytale stereo-types, though, what are the true themes of the chivalric code? What is the true definition of chivalry? And where did these esteemed noble ideas and traits come from? 

What’s The Definition Of Chivalry? 

In many modern dictionaries, the definition of chivalry includes sentiments of gallantry, nobility, valour, courtesy, and skill in battle and warfare. 

To the modern mind, the definition of chivalry is the highest order of respect and politeness, particularly towards women and girls. It also relates to ideas of protection and the courageous provision of safety for the weaker members of a social group. 

This definition of chivalry is the result of centuries of stories, myths and legends of brave knights who have valiantly served their countrymen and women with their skilled military achievements, most notably administered on horseback. 

The idea of a knight on horseback is such a strong theme in the definition of chivalry for a number of reasons. 

The Earliest Knights In Shining Armour. 

During the Middle Ages, as the Christian Crusades got underway across Europe, the role of a knight in shining armour became a very real and much-needed figure in the protection of pilgrims as they journeyed to the Holy Land. 

The various charters and orders of knights that emerged to provide this crucial form of protection would soon capture the imagination of the stories and fables used to entertain the ordinary people, both in the areas en route to the Holy Land and the peasant folk back home in the European countries. 

Although the original knights of the Crusades were generally regarded as bodyguards or guardians, or sometimes treasurers of valuables, over time the myths and legend spun around these courageous figures took on an air of fantasy, so much so that the idea of a brave and heroic knight who would valiantly rescue a damsel in distress became a popular theme in the arts and narratives of the time. 

Some stories of great and noble knights – those who gave rise to the early definitions of chivalry – were no doubt based on real men and actual events, where the courageous cavalryman proved the strength of his mettle in a daring act of rescue, recovery or protection. 

Over time, however, the fairy stories and fantasies of larger than life characters proved to be so popular with people from all walks of life that the idea of a brave knight in shining armour took on mythic proportions and developed stereo-typical traits and characteristics that delighted audiences the world over. 

The enduring appeal of these types of chivalrous characters is evident in the modern retelling of fairy stories, the typical Disney productions for example, that feature  a strong and handsome man on horseback, one whose mission is to heroically save the day and woo the fair maiden in question. 

After generations of retelling these stories of knights and chivalric honour, the definition of chivalry has evolved to reflect the highest and best virtues of these kinds of archetypal characters. 

The Epitome Of Chivalry

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of this definitive chivalry comes from the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of The Round Table. 

King Arthur and his knights in a 14th-century Italian manuscript of the Vulgate Cycle's Quest for the Holy Grail

King Arthur and his knights in a 14th-century Italian manuscript of the Vulgate Cycle’s Quest for the Holy Grail – AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These famous, legendary characters have charmed audiences across the ages, with their tales of bravery, romance and loyalty – the very epitome of knightly courtship and the chivalric code of honour. 

While the accuracy of these legends has often been called into question, it’s likely that these much-loved fables did originate with the adventures of real characters around the time of the 11th and 12th centuries. 

The lives and loves of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the ancient knights Lancelot, Percival, Galahad and Tristan have enjoyed such deep and enduring popularity, that variations of these tales and characters still feature in modern retellings of knightly honour and courtly romance. 

The knights of these legends took the idea of honour and the emerging definitions of chivalry to tantalising extremes, a feat possible within the realms of fiction and the arts, likely less so in real lives with their human flaws and failings. 

The Role Of Chivalry In Modern Romance

The role of chivalry and the appeal of the chivalric code endured for many centuries, and can still be witnessed in certain archetypes and legends today. 

Yet, trends and sensibilities can change greatly over time. Much as the power and influence of the aristocracy is greatly reduced from the times of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, at least in official terms, so too the notions of chivalry and honour have been subject to modernisation and contemporary shifts. 

After enduring as appealing legends for over a thousand years, the definition of chivalry as the ideal traits and behaviours in suitors or courting couples has been met with some resistance in recent decades. 

The notion of females as the weaker sex who needed rescuing from their fate is a narrative of another time, one that many modern minds regard as old-fashioned and outdated.

While it’s true that the men and women of today have evolved greatly in terms of autonomy, equality and independence, these ancient stereotypes have been so deeply embedded in the stories and fables of so many generations, that the ideas of chivalry are unlikely to completely disappear. 

It may no longer be fashionable for modern women to long for a valiant knight in shining armour to come and save her, yet the noble traits of loyalty, honour, respect, kindness, courage and protection are as desirable today as they have been throughout the ages. 

While the fantasy image of an honourable protector may have evolved to meet modern sensibilities, it’s like the definition of chivalry will still hold its value and appeal in the hearts and minds of people everywhere for many generations to come.

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