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Cult of Chivalry

"If I had one foot already in paradise, I would withdraw it to go and fight!"

--Garin li Loherains, heroic character in a chanson de geste.

Chivalry is an idealized code of military and social behavior for the aristocracy in the late medieval period. The word "chivalry" comes from Old French cheval (horse) and literally means "horsemanship." Normally, only rich nobility could afford the expensive armor, weaponry, and warhorses necessary for mounted combat, so the act of becoming a knight was symbolically indicated by giving the knight silver spurs. The right to knighthood in the late medieval period was inherited through the father, but it could also be granted by the king or a lord as a reward for services. The tenets of chivalry were attempts to civilize the rather brutal activity of warfare. The ideals include sparing non-combatants such as women, children, and helpless prisoners; the protection of the church; honesty in word and bravery in deeds; loyalty to one's liege lord; dignified behavior; and single-combat between noble opponents who had a quarrel. Other matters associated with chivalry include gentlemanly duels supervised by witnesses and heralds, behaving according to the manners of polite society, courtly love, brotherhood in arms, and feudalism.

The paradox of chivalry can be seen in both its violent nature and its emphasis on polite rules of behavior. Consider the quotation below:

"My heart is filled with gladness when I see
Strong castles besieged, stockades broken and overwhelmed,
Many vassals struck down,
Horses of the dead and wounded roving at random.
And when battle is joined, let all men of good lineage
Think of naught but the breaking of heads and arms,
For it is better to die than be vanquished and live. . . .
I tell you I have no such joy as when I hear the shout
'On! On!' from both sides and the neighing of riderless steeds,
And groans of 'Help me! Help me!'
And when I see both great and small
Fall in the ditches and on the grass
And see the dead transfixed by spear shafts!
Lords, mortgage your domains, castles, cities,
But never give up war!"
--Bertrand de Born, French aristocrat and troubadour

It is clear that warfare is near and dear to the heart of the knight. However, this can be contrasted (especially in the late medieval period and early Renaissance) with the ideals listed in other quotations about knighthood in the days of the Renaissance courtier.

 

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