If we cannot produce Lancelots, humanity falls into two sections— those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall”, and those who are “meek in hall” but useless in battle— for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this dissociation of the two halves of Lancelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair… Indeed, nothing much else can ever happen if the “stern” and the “meek” fall into two mutually exclusive classes. And never forget that this is their natural condition. The man who combines both characters— the knight— is a work not of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium. (“The Necessity of Chivalry,” C.S. Lewis)
The definition and general idea of chivalry is already familiar to us; expressions like “chivalry is dead” are commonplace. Yet, if pressed, most of us might concede that its ways are both impractical and old fashioned: forgotten remnants of the medieval age. If, however, it is suggested that its pursuit is a more a goal or hope, the student begins to hit upon a hidden truth. The applicability of chivalry to the modern age is no less than ages past, only its associated trappings have changed. In picturing the ideal knight—a consistent model of chivalry—the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table may rightly leap to mind. A good example of the chivalric model is found in the pure and brave character Sir Gawain, for instance. The opening scene of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight conveys the integral role chivalry played at the castle of King Arthur. (The emphasis here upon courtesy is particularly interesting to me.)
With all of the wonder of the world they gathered there as one: The most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom; The most wonderful women to have walked in this world; the handsome king to be crowned at court. Fine folk with their futures before them, there in that hall. Their highly honored king Was happiest of all: no nobler knights had come within a castle’s wall. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Author Unknown)
It’s helpful to briefly mention here a French Author named Leon Gautier. In 1884, he wrote Le Chevalerie as an endeavor to bring Britain a stronger and clearer picture of what chivalry truly was. Within this work, he gave us the “Ten Commandments” of Chivalry.
1 Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.
2 Thou shalt defend the Church.
3 Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
4 Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
5 Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
6 Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
7 Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
8 Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
9 Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil. (Le Chevalerie, Leon Gautier)
With the exception of number six, this list seems to be compatible and even complimentary to the Christian tradition. It certainly emphasizes strength and honor over taking the easy path, reflecting the Christian’s journey of discipleship—e.g. Ephesians 6:14.
Using personal experiences to illustrate concepts may encourage the danger of pride, yet, if I have done anything right and well at any time, it is not but for the power of Christ. Over the past decade, or so, I’ve been struck with the helpfulness of a sort of internal chivalric code, which seems to dovetail perfectly with the teachings of Christ and His Church. Take the workplace, for example. At one point in my career, I had a supervisor whose management style included a monomaniacal focus upon one employee after another, searching out faults and weaknesses like a lion on the prowl. He found one: a colleague who was emotionally weakened by the death of her father. The manager, sensing weakness and vulnerability, began to focus his energies upon her. At every opportunity, he would tear her down, because she was his new “favorite”. During this period, I was witnessing this colleague returning from his office frequently in tears; she didn’t know what to do to escape. My job was proceeding smoothly at the time, and I was thankful to not be in the crosshairs myself. Yet, I knew that it was not right for evil to go unchecked—even the relatively small evils found within one’s workplace. I stepped forward to lend aid, but my career turned into a dark struggle for the following years. The good news, for my colleague at least, was removed from the spotlight.
Even knowing what was to come, I still believe attempting to stand up for my fellow employee was the just and right thing to do at that time. In many ways, the code of chivalry seems to describe the Christian life under pressure. It’s not perhaps helpful when all is good and easy—if you’re fortunate to experience a Christian walk of that nature—but when one finds himself walking through the valley of the shadow of death, I suggest there is a supplemental value in reading and thinking upon the great knights of old, because chivalry is needed as much today as it was in the Middle Ages. It’s more than holding a door open for a woman; it’s a willingness to do what’s right even when it will likely bring dire personal consequences. It’s also an attempt to infuse one’s life with a degree of courtesy and civility, which has grown sadly uncommon these present days. Whether you are speaking up concerning the Culture of Death (the defenseless) or showing gentleness to one and strength and a quiet steadfast sprit before another, chivalry can continue to have purpose and rich meaning within Christianity.
There is also a sense in which a life led in conformity to the general principles of chivalry is a life looking more into the future than the present; it sees the big picture. It’s willing to sacrifice temporal happiness for that eternal hope. As Saint Julian of Norwhich wrote in the medieval age, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”