Courtesy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the introduction to the series, go here.


Courtesy is pretty well universally recognised as an admirable quality, but a lot of the time we are left with some kind of idea that it’s weak.

We have an idea that it’s somehow unmanly, or a sign of weakness, or an invitation to be taken advantage of. At best, it’s a kind of “good but prissy” virtue associated with daintiness and knowing which fork to use rather than anything resembling strength.

And yet it’s one of the chivalric virtues, almost universally acknowledged as such even in the Middle Ages when chivalry was a warrior code first and foremost. Let’s see if we can strip away the prissiness and reveal the strong heart of this excellent virtue.

It’s also something that Christians aren’t always very good at. We often get the idea that “standing for truth” means that we can overlook courtesy. After all, isn’t the Truth more important than someone’s hurt feelings?

Not to the Mediæval way of thinking. The beauty of the code of chivalry was that it combined the greatest acts of bravery and self-sacrifice with the least deeds of politeness and respect, unifying both in a single whole. To this code of honour, being courteous is not less important than speaking the truth; it is the same. Biblically, we are instructed to “speak the truth in love”; the “in love” part is neither more nor less important than the “speaking the truth” part. It is not loving to fail to speak the truth, nor is it truthful to neglect the love of Christ which ought to be what compels us to speak in the first place.

In the knight Roland‘s chivalric vows, the vows to “always respect the honour of women”, to “guard the honour of fellow knights” and to “refrain from the wanton giving of offence” speak to the idea of courtesy. It’s this last that we as Christians seem to fall down on most readily. Don’t go out of your way to be offensive.

This is not to say that we need to deny the truth or fail to address issues of righteousness. But you know as well as I do when something is likely to offend, and chances are that either there’s a better way of saying it or it doesn’t need to be said at all.

People are offendable enough by the Cross anyway without us going out of our way to ram unpalatable “truths” down their throats.

And yes, there may be times when the most loving thing to do is to break the bounds of what would normally be considered courteous and call someone out on their crap. But if you’re finding that these times come along every time it’s day, you may be missing the point.

Courtesy also includes “guarding the honour of fellow knights”. Assuming the best of others, even if they are opponents or rivals. I have Christian friends whose Facebook pages are an almost unbroken stream of attacks against this person or that person for “heresy” or “worldliness” or whatever. You may find aspects of their teaching to be erroneous or unhelpful, but these are, metaphorically speaking, fellow knights. “Heresy” is a big and very loaded charge; the theological debating equivalent of nuclear weapons. There are times when it’s called for, but just because someone disagrees with you on the finer points of how to apply a particular Scripture does not make them a heretic.

Courtesy. Showing our fellows the benefit of the doubt. Not going out of our way to make uncalled-for personal attacks.

It’s interesting that this is part of a warrior code. As much as I generally disagree with the NRA in most circumstances, they may have a point when they talk about an armed society being a polite society. As usual, though, I think they may have it backwards. There’s very little intrinsic to the carrying of weapons that makes people act courteously. An armed society needs to be a polite society, because of the intrinsic danger in offending an armed person.

Collectively speaking, they’re right in the long term, because those who aren’t polite will get eliminated from an armed society. But it’s not an automatic thing; courtesy must be trained. It’s a virtue; if it were automatic to the possession of arms, we would not characterise it as such. Anyone could access virtue merely by picking up a gun, and there have been enough criminal acts committed using weapons that we know this to be untrue.

Still, for the trained man (for such were the knights), there may conceivably be something about strapping on that weapon that reinforces the seriousness of what you are about. This is not a situation for easy offendedness, nor is it a situation in which you can give offence with impunity. I can’t speak experientially to whether this is the case or no, but it is conceivable.

Attaining the virtue of courtesy does not mean that we bend over backwards to remove everything that might possibly cause offence and tie ourselves in knots to please our fellow man, but at the same time we don’t go out of our way to be offensive and then cry persecution when people get upset. Courtesy is a virtue, yes, but it is one among seven, and the true path of chivalry lies in mastering them all. Faith-integrity will not allow us to become chamæleonic using the excuse of “being courteous”. But courtesy remains one of the virtues, and we may not overstep it either.

In my planetary symbolic scheme, courtesy is associated with Mercury. Mythologically, Mercury was the messenger; the creator of words and lord of language. The proper use of language naturally falls in that sphere, and though language alone does not constitute courtesy, it plays a large part.

In modern cosmology, Mercury is the smallest planet, and courtesy may be something like the least virtue, with others like courage and faith seeming to play a more substantial part. Yet the virtue of Mercury, too, is important, particularly as Christians. Are we not messengers ourselves?

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4 thoughts on “Courtesy (Chivalric Virtues series)

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

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