Arms and the Man


Looking at the chivalric virtues, it occurs to me that there may be a disconnect between my love of the ideals of knighthood and my mistrust of the right to bear arms.

My country doesn’t recognise the possession of weapons as a fundamental right, and is largely a gunless society. This shapes my understanding of What Ought To Be in ways that most Americans would find bizarre, even unnatural. Even the police don’t carry guns as a matter of course, and never have. The arming of the police would change forever the nature of British policing, and for the most part they lead the charge in resisting any efforts to make that change.

But at the same time, the knight was first and foremost an armed man.

It’s easy to romanticise the sword and the lance, but they were weapons just like guns, if not worse. Most of the time, a well-aimed bullet will kill cleanly. Swords were made to dismember.

Chivalry was a warrior code, designed, at least in theory, as a constraint on the behaviour of the armed and the strong, with social benefit to following it and social sanction against those who did not. It was, in effect, a formalised expression of “This is what a good man looks like”. But it assumes the bearing of arms. That’s part of what makes a knight. The Mediævals would have understood the right to bear arms as being the grant of a coat of arms and its associated status, but the language makes it clear that this is for a military purpose necessitating and assuming weapons.

Can you update the ideals of chivalry without the inherent idea of the possession and use of weapons? Does the nature of modern weaponry law and law enforcement mean that new standards need to be brought into play?

In short, can I reconcile the armed factor in Mediæval knighthood with my personal distaste for and mistrust of firearms and their partisans?

The answer may well be both yes and no.

Nothing in my version of the chivalric virtues mandates the bearing of arms, but I have to admit here that this is my list of seven virtues: Faith, Courtesy, Mercy, Largesse, Courage, Fealty, Humility. It’s entirely possible I have unconsciously selected or interpreted in a way which minimises their armed nature and justifies my non-armed stance.

Guns are the weapon of the modern age, as swords were back then. Borrowing from the parallel Japanese code of Bushido, you weren’t supposed to put your sword away unblooded.

In more modern terms, you don’t draw unless you intend to shoot, and you don’t shoot unless you intend to kill.

My personal difficulty with the idea of bearing arms in the modern sense is that I don’t want to kill anyone, and I’m not sure that I have much if any right to as a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. There may be times and situations in which killing someone is the least worst option, but I’d just as soon remain unarmed and avoid the temptation, and the issue. Why make it as easy as crooking a finger to do something as permanent as killing?

With this mindset, I personally have no business carrying a gun. Or any other weapon, even the sword that I’d love to own.

Chivalry is a good code for an armed man to follow, but we’ve lost a lot of the social advantages in terms of reputation for those who do, and a lot of the social sanction against those who do not. Even in the Middle Ages, nothing forced you to follow the code, and there were enough who didn’t. Cowards in armour, bullies with a “Sir” in front of their name, merciless Black Knights and men of deceit with the spurs of knightly rank.

There is, in many ways, even less incentive today. There’s little kudos for being chivalrous, and little sanction for not being. Times have changed, and I have to hesitate to draw a parallel between the armed knight of story and the armed citizen of American right-wing politics.

Whereas you generally knew who a knight was by their surcoat and shield, today’s armed man can disappear into the crowd. The open, above-board ideal of the chivalric knight goes well in some ways with the idea of open carry. They can see your weapons from the outset; you’re not trying to hide anything. It’s a gesture of integrity.

The trouble is, it’s also a gesture of intimidation. We have comparatively huge and faceless populations, and no-one knows either you or your family, even by reputation. So if no-one knows who you are, how do they know if you’re one of the good guys or one of the bad guys? When the knights and the raiders look exactly alike, how do you tell who is who?

We don’t have enough of the trappings of the chivalrous age for me to be comfortable with bearing arms in the American sense. The American gun lobby resists any attempt to create a registry of gun ownership, fearing that it could be used by the government to disarm the people, so no-one really knows who is armed.

Contrast the age of knighthood, when heraldry, the art of knowing who was who and who had a right to call themselves who meant that those who were knights were in effect registered and known. It’s a rather more public act to carry a weapon in your own name and authority as a known public figure than as one of a faceless and nameless crowd.

If there were some way of visually distinguishing who was who, and small enough numbers of “knights” that you could tell at a glance who it was and what their reputation was like, it would be one thing.

But the good guys don’t wear white hats. Armed men do not, for the most part, advertise who they are. Except for the police and uniformed military. These might be our modern knights, in that sense.

Knights were, after all, men with authority as well as arms, certain responsibilities and rights including the enforcement of the King’s Law and maintenance of the King’s Peace.

Is there a place in the chivalric world for unregistered men-at-arms owing allegiance to no-one? Maybe not. We will touch on this again when we look at the virtue of fealty.

But what of unarmed chivalry?

As I said, nothing in the seven virtues necessitates the bearing of arms. Faith-Integrity is about the character of a person, not whether they happen to have a gun. Courtesy is highly desirable in an armed society, but the bearing of arms does not create courtesy by itself. Mercy, including fighting for the cause of the weak and defenceless, doesn’t necessarily have to always mean an armed struggle, though Right without Might in its service may be in danger of being overpowered by the ruthless. And the other virtues, too, are about one’s character, not one’s weaponed status. It’s the mindset of a knight, not necessarily the weapons and armour, that make the man.

For centuries, knights in full plate armour dominated the battlefield, but at Crècy and Agincourt the flower of chivalry fell to a handful of English longbowmen. What happened? Was it all truly the technological superiority of the longbow, or had the armed knights begun to trust more in their armour and weapons and knightly status than in their actual skill?

Chivalry is an attitude of the soul. It comes from within, by training, upbringing and personal choice, rather than from without, via the picking up of weapons or the donning of armour, or the imposition of an external standard of behaviour. Unless you own it, you will be a pretender. Anyone can wear the armour, but it’s what’s in your heart that makes you a knight.

In former times, this was expressed in the idea of inherently good or bad blood. Nobility was considered a birthright. We don’t need to incorporate this idea into any modern code of chivalry, but we might use it as metaphor for the idea that it’s the inside that counts.

My apologies for a somewhat rambling post, but I don’t have as much time as I would like to be able to tweak it into shape.



3 thoughts on “Arms and the Man

    • It’s not quite that way for me. Chivalry is about the internals, the character stuff. But knighthood in the Mediaeval sense has a distinctly armed component. What, after all, is the knight of legend without his sword, lance and shining armour?

      • I agree Geoff. I didn’t explain myself well. I meant applying knighthood today. The Medieval knight certainly is thought of with weapons and armour. I have a few of the replica swords myself.

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