When a Knight Won His Spurs

There’s something about the image of the mediæval knight that won’t let me go.

Since childhood the idea of knighthood has been powerfully attractive. The title of this piece is taken from one of the few decent school songs we used to sing in assembly:

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old

He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold

With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand

For God and for valour he rode through the land

The song went on from there to paint life as a knightly enterprise; a fight “‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed”.

Unlike some of the things we sang, this one spoke to me on a deep level. I already had a mind of valiant last stands, death-or-glory charges and mediævalist romanticism, and this fed right into it, so much so that I can still remember the words to this day.

I liked the idea of chess at least partly because one of the pieces was called a knight. But when I actually started to play I quickly became frustrated by how difficult the knights were for my child brain to use effectively.

Even in my love of sci-fi, the idea of knighthood persisted. One of the reasons the Jedi were and are so cool was that they were Jedi Knights, dedicated to the knightly ideals of justice, might in the service of right, and the defence of the weak.

One of my ambitions to this day is to own a broadsword. (Ideally I’d like to have this before my daughters start dating, so that I can sit by my front door sharpening the thing when the boys come to call. I realise that a shotgun is probably more effective as a weapon, but a broadsword has style.) As I said, there’s something about the imagery of knighthood that won’t let me go.

In fact, the ideals of knighthood and Mediæval chivalry form the core of my conception of masculinity. To be a real man is to take on something of the virtue of a knight.

Chivalry has garnered something of a bad reputation in modern times. Associated first with simple politeness, it then became something that men displayed towards women – opening doors, being courteous, treating women with respect. But then it began to be perceived as condescension, tied into the whole “weaker sex” thing. All I can say about women being the weaker sex is that anyone who believes that has obviously never been around the process of childbirth, quite aside from the wonderful strong examples of womanhood in society, history and Scripture.

I’d like to return chivalry to its roots, and hopefully go some way towards rehabilitating it as an ideal.

Chivalry and knighthood go hand in hand. The root word for chivalry is the French word chevalierie, meaning “knighthood”. Chivalry, then, was the complex of behaviours and attitudes expected of the true knight.

It all started out as a system for determining who could fairly attack whom.

Attacking a peasant or someone from the common classes was beneath the dignity of a proper knight, because peasants couldn’t spend their lives training for war nor afford the protective gear of knights, and it was and is wrong for the strong to prey on the weak. It was unfair to attack someone who was inherently less able than you. If they attacked you, you could defend yourself, but you should never attack someone weaker. Knighthood is thus the opposite of bullying.

Admittedly, in purely historical terms, this rule was almost certainly honoured more in the breach than the observance, but archetypal roles are defined by their ideals, not their failures.

Building on the radical notion that the strong should not prey on the weak, chivalry evolved into a complete code of behaviour, unifying the greatest deeds of valour and derring-do and the smallest acts of courtesy and politeness in a single system. For the true knight, no feat of courage was so great that it should not be attempted, and no courtesy was so small that it could be safely overstepped. The two were one. He was gentle and brave.

In this essence of knightly behaviour, then, the ideal is that you use your power on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves. Like the ideal of proper policing, the knight was the upholder of justice and the law, the defender of the innocent, the protector of the defenceless. In the Mediæval world, this meant women and children, but the principle is of wider application. It’s just as wrong for the wealthy to use their economic muscle to prey on the poor, just as antithetical to the ideal of knighthood for preachers or teachers to exploit those entrusted to their care. It’s wrong for the bully to use his strength to cow and overpower those weaker than he (or she; bullying is not restricted by gender any more than knightly behaviour is).

Chivalry shouldn’t be a condescension, though it can devolve into one. It’s all about how you use your strength. Might in the service of right. You show every courtesy right down to the smallest because that exhibits a proper respect for other people. You do not shrink from the hardest acts of courage because that’s what courage is about. Gallantry, boldness, courage in the face of fear, doing what’s right no matter the personal cost.

It’s a high ideal, and it’s one that I still hold to this day as the core of my concept of manhood. Gentle and brave, gallant and bold. Knightly.

The knightly virtues of courage, faith, justice, reverence, courtesy, integrity and honour have a personal resonance that few other things do. Even though I’m fully aware of just how far from the original conception the modern honour is, it’s still one of my secret dreams to do something meriting a knighthood one day. It may be foolishness, but it’s meaningful foolishness. At least, it’s meaningful to me.

By an amusing coincidence, my wife’s American high school used a knight as their school badge. However, their conception of knighthood was totally wrong. The school team were the “Blue Raiders”; this is the antithesis of proper knighthood. When you say “Blue Raider”, I think Picts or Celts, or some kind of evil Smurf (apologies, L. D. Bell High School). Apart from the evil Smurf, it can be a good and strong identity for a sports team – powerful, agrressive and proactive – but a knight is the wrong image. Raiders are predators in human form. Knights are the guys that defend you from raiders.

With the knightly ideal forming one of the cornerstones of my sense of identity, it’s probably no wonder I struggle with the portrayal of God in Lover terms by a lot of modern worship music. There’s little place for a God who is Lover in my sense of knighthood. As a man who thinks of themselves as a knight, I can serve my King, fight injustice at the orders of my Commander, worship the Lord as Light and Truth, follow Him on pilgrimage as my Leader. I can grow like Him as Son, I can even know Him as the Word and the Truth. I can give my life in His cause, and if necessary, by His grace make an end worthy of a true martyr of God. But there’s no good place for responding to Him as Lover and Bridegroom.

And the weird thing (as far as modern worship would have you believe) is that I don’t feel any sense of incompleteness about it.

I know He loves me. But the important thing is that He’s my King and He loves me.

For better or for worse, I think of myself in chivalric terms. I may have the body of a 21st-Century nerd, but I have the soul of a knight from the High Middle Ages.

So to see my children playing knights yesterday was a source of great joy for me. I have successfully reproduced myself. Tremble, O world.

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5 thoughts on “When a Knight Won His Spurs

  1. Pingback: A Venusian God in the sphere of Mars | The Word Forge

  2. Pingback: The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction) | The Word Forge

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