The word summons up different images and meanings for us. Some imagine King Arthur, Sir Galahad, and the other Knights of the Round Table. Some may envision a Victorian gentleman defending a lady’s honor against the insults of a cad. Others may find themselves thinking of men holding a door open for women or drawing out her chair in a restaurant.
In some ways, the word and the concept seem antique, contraptions from the past now covered in spider webs and dust sitting in some corner of the attic. Some women regard chivalric gestures by men such as holding open a door or paying for a bill in a restaurant as insults, demeaning signals of oppression and male chauvinism, and are happy to see chivalry vanquished by our modern age.
But what exactly do we mean by chivalry? Should we celebrate or mourn its loss? And is it really dead or is it disguised in different attire?
Let’s take a look.
The Meaning of Chivalry
My online dictionary partially defines chivalry as “the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak.”
Inclusion of the word knight in this definition shows chivalry’s links to the Middle Ages and to men. In fact, the word itself derives from the French “chevalier,” meaning a horseman or a knight, and the code of chivalry is a product of the late medieval period. In 1883, Leon Gautier published “La Chevalerie” in which he summed up these ideals of the medieval knight as “The Ten Commandments of Chivalry.” A few of these would be dated today, but overall Gautier’s commandments undergird the above definition.
Vocabulary.com includes this short, stand-alone definition: “courtesy toward women,” a meaning that’s perhaps closer in spirit to our modern conception of chivalry.
Let’s ask ourselves a few questions. When we look at that first definition, would any man argue that these qualities are ridiculous or unfashionable? Wouldn’t a decent father seek to raise his sons with these as guidons for living an honorable life? And wouldn’t a woman seeking marriage treasure a man marching beneath these banners?
And what woman—or man, for that matter—wouldn’t wish to be treated with courtesy?
‘Men Without Chests’
While I know many young men who fit the dictionary’s definition of chivalry, others come nowhere close.
I live in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Across the way, a construction crew was recently remodeling the basement of a house. At one point, a member of this crew strode up and down the street for almost a quarter of an hour, bellowing obscenities into his phone, curses, it soon became apparent, delivered to a woman—and anyone within earshot.
A New York friend tells me that young men on the buses and subways rarely offer their seats to female passengers. Some are undoubtedly afraid of having their heads snapped off by an angry feminist, while others are simply oblivious to this once-common courtesy.
On the radio in the coffee shop I visit, I’ll occasionally hear rap music denigrating women and filled with obscenities. In “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer described a “verray, parfit gentil knyght.” Were that knight to rise from his grave and stride the streets of some of our cities today, he might wonder whether his chivalric code was as obsolete as Chaucer’s spelling.
Our crude, profane, and sexualized culture has bred what C.S. Lewis described in “The Abolition of Man”: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Ladies and Gentlemen
Women often deplore the lack of courtesy and chivalry among men, yet they, too, must bear some responsibility for this decline.
In her online article, “Low Standards, Apathy to Blame for the Death of Chivalry,” 19-year-old Te’Kayla Pittman wrote: “This generation of women have become independent and headstrong, and nothing is wrong with that. However, the problem comes when women want to be independent to the point that they don’t want men to do anything for them.”
Pittman then cited author Suzanne Venker.
“Men only changed because women did. That’s because men are born to please women. Modern women don’t know this, for they’ve been conditioned to think of men as oppressors,” she wrote.
Pittman concluded that both genders share responsibility for the decline of chivalry.
“Both genders are at fault for the demise of chivalry. … Nothing is wrong with being an independent woman, but feeling as though you don’t need a man to be a gentleman can be a curse,” she wrote.
Radical feminism accounts for a part of this decline in male chivalry. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was a popular maxim 50 years ago. When a man feels unneeded, he’s not apt to go out of his way to meet someone’s standards.
Women who lack decorum and respect for themselves have also abetted the waning of male courtesy. In a book of history I read long ago with a title and author I’ve forgotten, the writer made the point that in the Old West, respectable women, known in those days as ladies, could travel cross-country without fear for their honor or their lives.
Women who want a man to be a gentleman must themselves be ladies.
What’s in a Name?
Some words become extinct with time. For instance, anyone who opens Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” may feel as if they’re reading a foreign language.
Perhaps it’s time to let chivalry rest its bones in this linguistic cemetery.
But we’re making a grave mistake if we plant the ideals of chivalry into that same grave. Courage, honor, justice, courtesy, and a willingness to defend the weak or to help the impoverished: Surely these are the blood, sinew, and nerve of true civilization, and they’re virtues that belong to males and females alike. We can—we must—keep these ideals of chivalry alive, even if we mutter our prayers over her headstone.
So how do we perform that resurrection?
When I was a child, my parents subscribed to Highlights, a children’s magazine that featured a monthly comic strip, “Goofus and Gallant.” Goofus was a self-centered, mean-spirited kid, while Gallant was polite, helpful, and kind. Gallant was a knight, Goofus the varlet. It was always perfectly clear which was which.
If we want to raise our children with these same ideals, and if we ourselves want to practice them, we must bring to bear this same clear distinction. A year ago, I wrote a piece for The Epoch Times on men keeping chivalry alive. This time, I write for both men and women. If we want to preserve chivalry—not the word, perhaps, but the ideal—then the best way to do so is to adopt its principles and to live by them.
No one can resuscitate the ideals of chivalry, except us.
And if we want to revive Gallant, we must say goodbye to Goofus.