The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction)

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I have a deep-seated love of the ideals of knighthood. Elsewhere I’ve half-jokingly said that I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body of a 21st-Century nerd.

I like the idea of chivalry, in its full original sense combining valour and courtesy in a single system. My concept of manhood is largely tied to the knightly ideal.

It occurred to me that I might have a look at the chivalric virtues and how we might apply them today, in the post-modern world of cynicism and mistrust.

Why do this? Isn’t the whole idea of chivalry rather sexist? Not to mention antithetical to the ideals of democracy and capitalism. Why waste time on such a Quixotic project?

I’ll admit that this is largely for my own benefit. In choosing to cleave to the ideals of knighthood, it behooves me to have a clear sense of what I’m aiming at. But I have had vague thoughts for a while now on the notion of seeing if I could work out some kind of teaching for children, and probably in particular boys, based on the chivalric virtues. Tilting at windmills is not part of the plan.

The allegation of sexism is more serious. I’d argue that it’s applicable to the debased form of patronising courtesty that the word “chivalry” has come to mean rather than what I have in mind. I’d have no problem with the idea of a woman choosing to live by this sort of code without sacrificing her femininity. The Middle Ages even had a term for such a one, coming to the age from the Vikings: the “shield-maiden“. Arwen Evenstar in Lord of the Rings, or Guinevere riding out with spear and shield to rescue the young Arthur is a good example of the type: not an Amazon (in Greek, literally “without breasts”) – a woman who sacrifices femininity for valour – nor a damsel in distress, but balancing femininity with chivalric honour.

I’d argue that our ideas of “strong” and “weak” have changed enough that women are no longer automatically to be viewed as “weak” and in need of a (male) rescuer.

Firstly though, of course, we need to define which virtues we mean. At this temporal distance, it’s hard to tell whether something is authentically one of the Mediæval chivalric virtues or whether it’s a modern anachronism that happens to look good. No doubt they will need some updating (as above, for example), but if we’re going to do this, we should do it properly and start with an authentic list.

Is there such a thing?

Investigation reveals that there are numerous lists of chivalric virtues compiled by different authors, and that they vary considerably. The Chanson de Roland (or “Song of Roland”), one of the definitive works of chivalric literature from the period, lists seventeen vows that the knight Roland makes, forming the core of chivalry as it was understood.

But seventeen is an awfully big and particularly unsymbolic number. Can we distill them down to a more manageable and memorable list of virtues?

Other contemporaries certainly did so. Some list as many as twelve chivalric virtues, others nine or seven, others as few as four.

There being no single definitive list, it seems I can use my own judgement. Trust the soul of the knight within, as it were.

The seventeen vows of the knight Roland were as follows:

  • To fear God & maintain His church

  • To serve the liege lord in valour & faith

  • To protect the weak & defenceless

  • To give succour to widows & orphans

  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence

  • To live by honour & for glory

  • To despise pecuniary reward

  • To fight for the welfare of all

  • To obey those placed in authority

  • To guard the honour of fellow knights

  • To eschew unfairness, meanness & deceit

  • To keep faith

  • At all times to speak the truth

  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun

  • To respect the honour of women

  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal

  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

By a process of comparing these vows with other existing lists of chivalric virtues, I have distilled it down to the following list. I should note that this is not a definitive list, because such does not exist. It’s my personal list, and you are welcome to take it or leave it.

  1. Courage

  2. Faith

  3. Mercy

  4. Justice

  5. Largesse

  6. Courtesy

  7. Fealty

There. The astute reader may be surprised at a list of chivalric virtues that does not include the most basic knightly quality of honour, but it appears to me that honour is so inextricably tied to so many of these other virtues that I would contend that the virtue of Honour arises from all of the other virtues together, or itself gives rise to them all. The chivalric virtues, then, describe what honour looks like.

I plan to take a series of posts, probably intermittently, and look at each one of the virtues invividually, but in this overview, some idea ought to be given of the scope of each one. Meanings are not always obvious, and I’m deliberately using some words anachronistically rather than in their modern shades of meaning.

This, then, is how I understand these named qualities:

Courage is one of the more readily understood qualities, including not only physical bravery against material threats but also moral courage, the willingness to stand up for what is right even if no-one else is and the willingness to face up to an uncomfortable truth. Its opposite qualities are not only cowardice but bravado – making a show of boldness to hide one’s true fear.

Faith, on the other hand, has a considerably broader meaning than our modern usage would suggest. Faith to us implies first and foremost the idea of religious feeling. Belief in God. In Mediæval thought, however, it’s not belief alone but trust which is at the heart of the idea of faith. An individual of faith not only exhibits an active trust in God, but shows trustworthiness and trusts those who merit it. He or she gives the benefit of the doubt, though is not blind to the fact that some are indeed faithless. She or he keeps their word and acts with integrity.

Mercy covers Roland’s vows of protecting the weak and defenceless, giving succour to widows and orphans, and fighting for the welfare of all. In the words of one definition, mercy is “seeing a need and wanting to help”. And then being moved by that desire into action.

Justice covers a lot of familiar ground, just like courage. It’s tied to faith in its Mediæval sense – acting with integrity and righteousness – but goes beyond, into the idea of proactive standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Largesse is a deliberately old-fashioned word. It’s mostly the same as generosity, but it goes beyond that idea. It’s tied to magnanimity and graciousness as well as generosity, and is the opposite of covetousness and avarice. In Roland’s vows, the idea of despising pecuniary reward – doing things not for payment but because they are the right thing to do – encompasses the notion of largesse.

Courtesy is the most similar to what most people think of when they hear the word “chivalry”. However, I am not meaning an empty formalism or condescension, but an attitude of consideration and restraint. The knight Roland’s vows to respect the honour of women – particularly needed in light of #Yesallwomen – and to refrain from the wanton giving of offence encapsulate the idea. We do not go out of our way to offend people, similar to the Biblical injunction not to put any stumbling-block in anyone’s way.

Fealty is another Mediæval word, like largesse, involving respect for authority and knowing one’s place in the order of things. I am expanding it here to include the related idea of humility as expressed in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” It goes downwards as well as upwards, tying the one in authority to the one under authority as surely as the other way around. In modern terms, it’s expressed in the ideas of loyalty and allegiance, acknowledgement that you are part of something greater than yourself, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Seven virtues, which if I wanted to be really Mediæval I could tie in to the characters of the seven Mediæval planets: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But while several of them are easy – Courage would go with Mars and Fealty with Jupiter, for example – other relationships are not so clear. So perhaps I won’t.


Edit: It occurred to me some time after publishing this that if I combined the virtues of Mercy and Justice (weird on the face of it, but see here), and separated Humility out from Fealty, that I could get a one-to-one correspondence between the Mediæval planets and my list of chivalric virtues. Which makes a nice (and very appropriate for the time period) secondary symbolic framework to hang this list on, so I might tweak my list enough to do that.

The revised list, with its planetary correspondences, would be as follows:

  1. Faith – Luna

  2. Courtesy – Mercury

  3. Mercy – Venus

  4. Largesse – Sol

  5. Courage – Mars

  6. Fealty – Jupiter

  7. Humility – Saturn

I will explain these correspondences more over the course of this series.

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11 thoughts on “The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction)

  1. Geoff, what a great post and one like I’ve never read. I told you that old-fashioned manhood I’m into. I have never really equated myself to having the characteristics of a knight I can see how they fit. Manhood has pretty much gone by the wayside it seems to me. Chivalry is a thing of the past. My son and I have discussed this a few times. Nice post. Thanks!!!

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

  3. Pingback: Courtesy (Chivalric Virtues series) | The Word Forge

  4. Pingback: Mercy (Chivalric Virtues series) | The Word Forge

  5. Pingback: Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series) | The Word Forge

  6. Pingback: Courage (Chivalric Virtues series) | The Word Forge

  7. Pingback: Shield-Maidens | The Word Forge

  8. Pingback: Fealty (Chivalric Virtues series) | The Word Forge

  9. Pingback: Humility (Chivalric Virtues series) | The Word Forge

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