by Elle Berry | 16 May 2019 |
I’m not sure if you have heard—but chivalry is dead. Or at least this is an often-voiced concern I hear from certain quadrants of the populace, perhaps as a distressed pushback to the alleged feminist agenda. So far as I understand the matter, there is a mounting concern that in the cultural wake of female advancement, feminism has swung the pendulum too far. There seems to be a concern (and underlying accusation) that as women develop more cultural self-sufficiency and take on more leadership roles, and as we put more regulations on male romantic advances, we are in fact conditioning men away from such noble ideals as being good leaders, taking initiative, or being manly men.
And yes, this ultimately often gets wrapped up in the conclusion that feminism is killing chivalry.
So is chivalry dead? Well, in a word, yes. Chivalry is totally dead. As a millennial, I am well accustomed to being part of a generation known for killing things (for instance, see this list of 70 things millennials are accused of killing.) However, strangely, this concern of feminism ruining men’s chivalrous nature is not new with millennials. In fact the concern over chivalry’s untimely demise is a recurrent one.
One of the reasons for this is that “cultural commentators have a strange obsession with asking whether things are dead.” However, another more obvious reason is that chivalry has actually been more or less dead for years, as it was a system developed by European knights around the 12th century. The world has changed a lot since then, and so that system has, like many such things from the 12th century, become obsolete.
Nonetheless, as a feminist, you might be surprised to find that I actually think chivalry of a certain kind is something we need more of in the world, and we should perhaps give a little more thought to bringing chivalry back into style. The problem isn’t that chivalry is anti-feminist. The problem is, we’ve become a little confused about what exactly chivalry is, or how we should use it.
All the King’s Horses
For a long time I assumed, as I suspect many people do, that chivalry was a code of conduct originated by knights that included how men should behave, specifically towards women. This included things like opening doors, or walking women home at night, or picking them up for a date, etc. Modern feminists have often pushed back against this, because unfortunately many of these things can be a bit patronizing (for instance, most woman I know are remarkably capable of mastering the door.) Yet, having someone hold the door open is a fairly benign and often thoughtful act. The problem of course comes when there is a perception that women cannot or should not do things for themselves that they are perfectly capable of doing, or worse yet, that men should be rewarded romantically (or sexually) for their generosity in helping women do things that we could actually do for ourselves.
But for years, I thought this was what chivalry was. And while I was a feminist and pushed back against the more patronizing aspects of it, I could appreciate someone opening the door for me (and I still do, so please carry on with that.) However, a few years ago I came across a short essay that challenged my ideas about chivalry.
As it turns out, chivalry has nothing to do with women. In fact, it actually has everything to do with having a horse. (And lest you be confused, women are not horses.) For the etymology fans out there, you might have noticed the word chivalry comes from the French chevalier and if you’ll jump in your Delorean and follow that root word back into time, you’ll discover it originates from the Latin word for horse.
That’s right. Chivalry is literally just rules for having a horse.
For 12th century knights this was a practical idea whose time had come. While not all horse owners were knights, knights did have horses, and in the age of the European Federal system, being a horse owner (and a knight) was a big deal. This advantage of being a knight gave you significant privileges over serfs and peasants, and where there is advantage, it is often a really good idea to have a code of conduct for the privileged. In fact Maurice Hugh Keen argued that chivalric codes should be thought of more like an international law of war.
So basically chivalry had nothing to do with women.
To take the example of one of the most famous knights, Sir Galahad, he was not only known for being a knight, but he was also known for being chaste. That’s right—according to one legend, Sir Galahad had to be a virgin in order to reach the Holy Grail. So in other words, his chivalry had nothing to do with the ladies—and also, Galahad is a fictional character, so that’s another problem with our ideas of chivalry. Unfortunately, it seems that our mythology around chivalry is entirely wrapped up in such tropes such as “the good “ol’ days” – making them more a product of nostalgic romanticizing than reality.
The Privileges of Knighthood
However, despite romanticizing chivalry into an unrecognizable thing, the real chivalric code was an important idea of its time. Knighthood was not an inherited position—you did have to work to become a knight. However, entering into that training was something you got at a young age (thanks undoubtedly to your parents) and upon completion of this training a knight could make a lot of money or receive a grant of land. To be a knight brought great privileges. Chivalry acknowledged that those privileges existed, and that the path in life to acquiring such privileges was not open, or equal, for all. It therefore provided a code of conduct about how people with privilege behave like decent human beings in the face of inequity.
I think this idea is still relevant. No, we don’t need rules for having a horse. But we do need conversations about how we engage with one another in an unfair world, where some people are born with advantages while others are not given those same privileges.
And I can’t help but think of many of the conversations happening the last few years around gender equality, race, wealth, and privilege. Obviously, there are some clear distinctions between knighthood and modern day privilege. As mentioned, knighthood was somewhat earned, but it’s also important to note that a woman, for instance, could never earn that privilege. What chivalry did a good job of understanding, was that when we find ourselves in positions of advantage there is an obligation to first recognize that you have an advantage, and then act in such a way that you do not abuse your privileges—and maybe even go so far as to use your privileges to lift up those around you.
Of course chivalry is not a perfect system. As mentioned earlier, it always runs the risk of becoming condescending and patronizing. Condescension is the risk of privilege. But at the bare minimum chivalry acknowledges inequity and provides a code for addressing the problem. And while no amount of chivalry can entirely fix, or course-correct, inequity, acknowledging your privilege and attempting to use it well is always superior to ignoring that your privileges exist. And so as a feminist I still see true chivalry as being completely relevant to the modern world.
Embracing Biblical Chivalry and Privilege
But more than a feminist I am a Christian, and as it turns out the Bible is not mute on privilege. While it does not attempt to fix all social problems, the Bible does provide some clear (and chivalrous) codes for how we engage with those around us. We’re told that we are not to be domineering to those who are under us, but instead we’re to be examples to the people who look to us for support. We are also commanded, that those who are rich in this present world are not to be arrogant, but rather to be generous to those who do not have as much.
In reality, this true chivalry shares many aspects in common with Christian virtues. As Cory O’Brien writes, “Chivalry boils down to three things: mercy, charity, and humility. Mercy means being conscious of your advantages, and treating other humans gently. Charity means giving without expecting anything in return. Humility means accepting your mistakes, and recognizing that those who don’t have your advantages aren’t your inferiors. Anybody can embody these traits – woman, man, or even horse.”
In this respect, as both a Christian and a feminist, I can hardly think of anything the world could use more of today than some good ol’ fashioned chivalry. To the men and women who, without patronizing, are already using your advantages to open doors—be those metaphorical doors or physical ones — you embody this life. Your chivalry is admirable, and may we all aspire to use our privileges, whatever they may be, in that same spirit.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.