Fealty (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series looking at the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction go here.


I was in my teens when the Promise Keepers men’s movement first hit the UK. I gathered that it was some sort of men’s thing, but I never really felt like I got a straight answer to my questions as so what it was about. It seemed to me like they were running on an assumption that everyone already knew what they were about.  Well, “everyone” didn’t: ” So it’s about encouraging men to be faithful to their wives, then?” Well, that’s part of it, but there are other promises…” “Huh?”

It didn’t connect. I used the word “promise” very seldom, and much of what they were trying to talk about just didn’t fit into my categories of what constituted promises. Didn’t Jesus effectively teach us not to make vows of that sort? In my mind, I didn’t make “promises”, therefore they had nothing to say to me.

Maybe now I understand a little better what they were trying to say. What I think they they meant was encapsulated in the chivalric virtues of Faith and Fealty.

There’s no guarantee I would have understood back then even if they’d used those words, but I might have done. The likelihood of anyone using the word “fealty” in order to make it clear what they were talking about, though, is and was effectively nil.

It’s an old word, replete with significance but seldom used today. In our modern Western democratic world, we don’t see things in the stratified way of the Middle Ages. Everyone’s equal, and fealty is about vertical relationships. We don’t have much use for it.

Of all of the seven chivalric virtues I’m identifying, fealty may well be the trickiest to update, tied so closely as it is to Mediæval notions of innate class distinctions. What does it look like in the democratic age?

In modern terms, “allegiance” is probably the closest we come to the full sense of its meaning. At its best, this gives us pictures of patriotism, of the love of country and the claims it may make on us. Apparently some Christians are so into the use of romantic imagery for God that they consider it inappropriate for our relationship with Him. Jason Gray’s “More Like Falling In Love” seems to suggest that “giving my allegiance” is some cold, distant, bloodless thing that doesn’t really mean very much.

Not in my personal universe it isn’t, but it shows how little use most of the modern world has for the idea.

America in particular is home to a spirit that runs directly counter to the notion of fealty. At best, it manifests itself in a love of freedom that is noble and right. At its worst, it devolves into a rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” The virtue of fealty is that no, actually someone does have the right to tell you what to do.

There are people here in America that don’t like the current president. I can’t legally vote, so I feel like I’m messing in dangerous waters here, but I understand this. In any democratic system there are going to be people who voted for the other candidate and can’t stand the one that got elected. But he’s still the leader of the country, and the office is bigger than the one filling it, something that some people appear to have forgotten.

Allegiance is in part about belonging to something greater than yourself. Being a follower in a right sense: submitting your individual freedom to a higher cause and purpose.

It’s a hard thing: harsh, uncompromising, uncomfortable. This is not feel-good. We like to hear how Jesus is our Lover and Friend and Saviour. We find it rather less pleasant to hear how He’s our Overlord and Master and Sovereign. But like all hard substances, it makes a jolly good foundation.

You don’t build a house on soft clay and expect it to bear up as if it’s on rock. All of the piers and piles and digging down and moisture conditioning that we do in the construction industry are designed to mitigate the negative effects of unstable soils, particularly, here in North Texas, clays. It makes me wonder how many of our discipleship programs and conferences and special events are the same sort of thing: stuff designed to mitigate the effects of our self-centred Gospel because we haven’t been building on the bedrock of Jesus’ right to tell us what to do.

In my Mediæval planetary symbolic scheme, Fealty is associated with Jupiter, the kingly planet. The association is obvious, but the ancient conception of Jupiter was not only solemn majesty and kingly power, but also joy. Gustav Holst, in his The Planets suite, made Jupiter “the Bringer of Jollity”; this is pure Mediævalism in a good way, and exactly the way the most important planet was viewed.

Joy in allegiance?

Absolutely. Certainly there’s a joy in it. A patriot doesn’t feel that their country is a burden, nor that its demands are unreasonable. Following Jesus is joy and peace. He makes demands of us, but we know that, unlike our countries that are governed by fallible people and can even get it horribly wrong at times, God is absolutely good and really does have our best interests at heart, and unlike us, He’s omniscient, so He knows far better than we what our real best interests are.

Loyalty is the other half of Fealty, and where it begins to overlap with the chivalric virtue of Faith. Sticking by your friends. Staying true. Keeping faith, in the Mediæval sense. Not abandoning an allegiance given just because it’s becoming less comfortable.

Allegiance and loyalty.

Like the knights of old, we can choose whom we give personal allegiance to. The oath of fealty was a special vow of allegiance that went beyond the normal requirements of hierarchical position: you pledged your life, your honour and your sword to the service of your liege lord. It was a deeply personal thing that goes way beyond some of our modern understanding of the giving of allegiance – witness the American oath of citizenship in which one renounces “all other allegiances” and the non-enforcement of that by the US government.

To my mind, “Liege Lord” encompasses things about our right relationship with God that simply cannot be expressed in the romantic “Lover” image we seem so fond of at the moment. As I’ve said before, choosing to follow Christ isn’t so much falling in love as pledging fealty.

I may be weirdly anachronistic in my approach, but this is the way I feel. I pledge my life, honour and sword – all that I am, all that I have and all that I do – to Him, knowing He’s good and that He loves me.

There’s an old patriotic hymn that seems appropriate here. Its music, aptly enough, is taken from Holst’s Jupiter, and though it’s seldom sung any more, with my Mediæval mindset, of course it’s one I have a deep attachment to.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price

The love that makes, undaunted, the final sacrifice

And there’s another Country I’ve heard of long ago

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering

And soul by soul, and silently, her shining bounds increase

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Parts of it may be questionable in our modern times. “The love that asks no questions” sounds eerily like the “just following orders” mentality of every Secret Police we’ve ever heard about. Combine it with our “freedom-loving” rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” attitude and we’re looking at an uphill struggle to understand.

Fealty does not absolve you of the demands of conscience. What it does is negate the demands of comfort. There may be good reasons to abandon your loyalty to a cause or a person, but there’s a world of difference between abandoning your loyalty for just cause and abandoning your loyalty just because (And different people will view what constitutes “just cause” differently).

Fealty, after all, goes both ways. The one who pledges fealty makes claims on the one to whom they pledge just as surely as the other way around. Lord Steward Denethor’s response to Pippin’s oath of fealty in The Lord of the Rings is instructive: “And I see it, and will not fail to reward what is offered: service with love, fealty with honour, oathbreaking with vengeance.”

After the fact, Gandalf is a little more cautious. “It was nobly done, whatever put it into your fool head… Still, you are his, now, and he will not forget it.”

This is fealty in its essence. Applied to God, we are His now, and He will not forget it.

Let us not forget just Whose we are.

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One thought on “Fealty (Chivalric Virtues series)

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

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