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Chivalry and Modern Times

Society as a whole must support and cherish virtue to breath life into it and make it live.

By D. Edward Goff, Ph.D. 

Kenelm Henry Digby (1800-1880) in his book The Broad-Stone of Honour or, The True Sense and Practice of Chivalry defined chivalry as follows:

Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world. (p. 86)

Probably the best way to understand the power and influence of chivalry in modern times is to understand its past. Chivalry was an ideal started in France and Spain to dispose men to the heroic and ideal life instead of brutish/savage behavior and uncivilized manners typical in an era of darkness and cruelty. It was an effort to lift the level of manhood to the noble and true in man. The models and codes of chivalry changed and differed from area to area and in different orders and times, but they all basically extolled the virtues of honor, courage and service.

The word  [chivalry] evolved from terms such as chevalier [cheval] (French), caballero (Spanish), [caballus (Latin,] and cavaliere (Italian), all meaning a warrior who fought on horseback. [However,] The term came to mean so much more during medieval times. (http://www.medieval-life.net /chivalry.htm) 

It included a call to a higher form of life. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote:

. . . chivalry fell . . . sadly short of its theoretic standard. . . . [However,] it remains one of the most precious monuments of the moral history of our race, as a remarkable instance of a concerted and organized attempt by a most disorganized and distracted society, to raise up and carry into practice a moral ideal greatly in advance of its social condition and institutions, so much so as to have . . . left a most sensible, and for the most part a highly valuable impress on the ideas and feelings of all subsequent times. (David Wootton, Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, p. 723)

Chivalry along with some other important movements of those days helped awaken humanity to a higher form of life, rather than to continue the dark ignorance that was so strong and prevalent in those perilous and violent times. Most certainly, in the words of Horatio Alger (1832-1899), “The institution of chivalry forms one of the most remarkable features in the history of the Middle Ages.” (www.washburn.edu/sobu/broach/chivalry.html

It was much more than a code of manners, it was a way of life that inspired and governed the whole of life. Its contribution to civilization is one of the most profound of all times and it should never be forgotten. During the 12th century, “. . . when governments were unsettled, and laws little regarded, the laws of chivalry alone imposed a salutary check upon a rude and barbarous age.” (Ibid.) 

That is, from the depths of the darkest abyss of the dark ages, which barely operated above the law of the jungle, resulted in wholesale despair, torn hearts, anguish and ruin, came something so out of the ordinary---something so unexpected. This movement brought with it ideals like uncommon decency, gallantry, valor, generosity, being a protector of the weak and the poor, admiration for noble and virtuous womanhood, chastity, sanctity and loyalty, being a defender of the faith and of justice, fairness and equity, and a champion of good over evil. It is one of the most amazing feats of history. “It is true, the knights did not always live up to the principles which they avowed; but these were only exceptions to the general rule.” (Ibid.) These ideals swept across Europe cultivating a higher form of manhood so needed for such things as the Renascence to flourish and for mankind to take a giant leap forward. In other words, the cradle of chivalry became the cradle of a more refined and good hearted society. Horatio Alger elaborated on this. He wrote:

In order correctly to estimate the benefits of chivalry, we must consider what the world would have been without it. Had it not existed, all the vices which we behold in that period of the world's history would have been greatly increased. The immorality of that age would have been much greater, for it would have wanted the only principle of refinement; the warlike spirit of the brave would have displayed itself in darker scenes of bloodshed, and even religion would long have been obscured, had not chivalry, by softening the manners of the age, and promoting general communication between man and man, gradually dispelled the darkness and admitted light. (bid.)

Whether the exploits of notable knights set new standards of behavior, or whether they were merely reflections of existing models of conduct doesn’t matter. The point is, having heroes, who were not only great, but also good, along with organized, highly respected and admired standards that exemplified the best in man, made a huge difference on society. Horatio Alger explained in the early period of the 11th and 12th Centuries:

. . . Each member of the order of chivalry had the right to admit to its honors any other person without restraint. Of this distinction all were desirous, and, as a natural consequence, the object of each noble youth's ambition was one day to become a knight. . . [Hence,] the castle of each feudal chieftain became a school of chivalry [with all the ideals and virtues included], into which any noble youth, whose parents were from poverty unable to educate him to the art of war, was readily received.” (Ibid.) 

All in all, as concluded in a University of Rochester bulletin, “. . . Chivalric ideology ranked second only to religion in its power to shape the cultural imagination of its society. . . .”  (www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm ?page=1284) Everything, “. . . warfare, love, courtliness, religion, social relations, art, architecture, games, sculpture, pastimes, and politics were all affected by chivalry.” (Ibid.) George James wrote in his book The History of Chivalry, “. . . Gradually, chivalry became no longer a simple engagement between a few generous and valiant men, but took the form of a great and powerful institution. . . .” (p. 27) 

Chivalry can be divided into four main periods. The first is the golden age or time of the crusades. The pattern of the perfect knight emerged. And he was to rescue the holy places and protect innocence, pilgrims, the downcast and poor.

The second period was the time of the military orders crowned by sanctity and vows similar in austerity to the monastic professions of brotherhood, fidelity and fair play. It was also a new chapter in the history of literature and produced its great heroes. Of course, "Not all knights were great men, but all great men were knights." (Matthew Bennett, "The Knight Unmasked," The Quarterly Journal of Military History, vol. 7, no. 4, Summer 1995, p. 10) This was also golden time of prosperity and positive influence for knighthood in valiancy and in being gentlemen.

The third period devoid of war made knights and knighthood more and more the property of kings and princes, who began to establish their own order with the purpose of controlling the nobility. This period brought in the amorous dimension of courtly love or the worship of noble women. The respect for women that was generated was admirable, but knighthood lost its anchor in virtue during this time. Even though they were to love and adore a Lady from a distance, it eventually lead to appalling results. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia suggests that "courtly love was little more than a [elaborate] set of rules for committing adultery."  (www.answers .com/topic/courtly-love) If not in physical consumption, then in the heart through lust. And the so-called great treatise on courtly love actually made it okay for these lost and misguided men to rape good-looking farm girls! Where was the honor, valor and the good deeds of the past?—the quest for moral integrity and excellence was badly waning during this time. There were, however, still good honorable men around.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_amore_(Andreas_Capellanus

However, the loss of ideals marked the beginning of the end of greatness around the fourth period of history, in the 15th Century. The literature that once exalted the exploits of knights, their genuine contributions to society and their high ideals, now focused on their extravagances and wrongs.  They had been decoyed or derailed from the vow of duty and virtue that had made them great and had caused them to be an astonishing influence on the society of a whole continent. But honor was no longer the fundamental and guiding principle of chivalry. Far too many were committing acts of crime and excess.

Of course, other things pulled down the meaning and original high purpose of the Orders. For example, infantrymen became just as valiant and loyal to country in the face of the enemy, and ordinary weapons consisting of advanced archery, guns or cannon could overpower a knight in shining armor. The whole manner and course of war changed dramatically. The exalted place of the warrior horseman was no longer the guiding star of society. The knight had lost his place of exaltation. But it was the loss of his ideals that hurt them more than anything else.

Society has a basic need to honor and worship something bigger than itself, because people have those deep seated needs inside themselves. Whatever we highly value and admire reflects on who we are as a people, and influences how we will behave both now and in the future. If we worship anti-heroes like many celebrities or big business men, there is a big problem brewing for the future, because the famous and the rich all too often fail to be role models, or teach one to live a healthy life-style that exemplifies the ideals of mankind. If people emulate their lack of moral fibre and lack of compassion and integrity, civilization will take a turn downward. Especially if youth become infatuated with non-heroes—such as, mobsters and gangsters, none of which builds solid citizens or touches on the higher nature or flower of mankind. Chivalry once stood so tall and in its golden age it changed the lives of millions of people and changed the face of history. It was in its golden age, according to Will and Ariel Durant, nothing less than a "major [unforgettable] achievement of the human spirit." (The Story of Civilization--The Age of Faith 4, Simon & Schuster,1950, p. 578) But could it have any meaning and value today to touch people deep in their hearts to follow ideals? 

One group interested in the ideals of knighthood did a survey on what people thought of chivalry today. Out of 150 respondents, the answers were surprisingly positive. 

The results . . . show[ed] that chivalry continues to carry an unspoken appeal to the majority of men and women, even though they live in a world where such ideals are trivialized or completely overlooked. (www.chivalrynow.net/survey_results.htm)

Maybe there is a place for such people and such an institution yet in our day and time that could exemplify what is truly great in people—what truly makes people wholeheartedly honest, loving, caring, contented and good inside themselves. Thankfully, there have been heroes in modern times whose lives have stood out, but we need organizations that manifest the best that mankind can be, to offer to all the world an ideal that can be lived and bring a breath of fresh air to the cold calculating world we live in. Knighthood in ancient times did this and although not perfectly, they made a powerful and lasting contribution to all of mankind.

Sadly, knighthood today often goes to people who have contributed remarkably in some areas, such as, in sports, academics, science or politics, but their lives do not reflect the high ideals of the past. This is unfortunate. It could be different. The Nobel prize or honoring with Metals, certificates, notoriety, etc. for special contributions like this should honor remarkable and deserved achievement. But knighthood as special as it is, should honor virtue and right living day in and day out—a life that reflects the old code of honor—such as, integrity and honesty as well as valor for the right, the good and the beautiful. It is to keep oneself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight at all times and help people in need and do one's duty.

Whatever a society chooses to reward and honor will increase. If knighthood is given to the wealthy, wealth is worshiped or considered to be what really matters. If knighthood has nothing to do with virtue, but only for doing something remarkable, then virtue is downplayed and deemed as unimportant in comparison. But if people begin to realize that knighthood is given to the common, ordinary person who is not necessarily the man of the hour, but is definitely the man of a lifetime in doing good and loving his family, then that very behavior that will be promoted and valued and placed in high admiration and esteem. This is what knighthood did in ancient times. Lady Margaret Thatcher once stated:

No government at any level, or at any price, can afford, on the crime side, the police necessary to assure our safety unless the overwhelming majority of us are guided by an inner, personal code of morality. And you will not get that inner, personal code of morality unless children are brought up in a family -- a family that gives them the affection they seek, that makes them feel they belong, that guides them to the future, and that will build continuity [and love for what is right and good] in future generations. . . . (www.liberty1.org/virtue.htm)

Society as a whole must support and cherish virtue to breath life into it and make it live. Otherwise, it dies and everyone suffers. No wonder many have sorely lamented the loss of ideals and integrity in our day and age. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote that because chivalry is gone, the real and true “. . . glory of Europe is extinguished . . . .” (www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/opinion/columnists/will/s_10309.html) He wrote this because he well knew that it is virtue that makes a nation or a people great, not material wealth, but rather the level of humanity that exists in the hearts and minds of the common man. He was saddened that “sophists [those not authentic, genuine or true], economists and calculators [that is, materialism]” have filled up the void or vacuum of past greatness leaving society empty handed and without heroes who exhibit true greatness; and those who are true are doubted, discredited and discounted by the suspicious and untrusting society we live in. A society which is overly saturated with lies and appearances instead of authenticity and genuineness. 

Paraphrasing Montesquieu in Spirit of the Laws, IV, ch. 5, Virtue, honor and knighthood are like anything else in society, to preserve it, we must love it. And to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education, each and every family, and society as a whole. Whatever society upholds as worthy will be venerated, even if it is evil and disgusting. Fortunately, the ancient code of qualities exemplified by true knights are still admired and the concepts of knighthood and chivalry survived and are applicable to modern times. For example:

Hardiness, determined

As in ancient times as well as now, a knight should be strong, skilled and talented in his or her ability to combat evil in society. This takes practice in the used of modern day weapons. One dedicated to the life of a warrior must continually strive to refine and improve his or her ability to be effective and successful in the battle of good and evil. This takes continual determination, being a good observer, learning from others and profiting from ones own mistakes. This is an inner disposition of greatness and hardiness.


Modern society is quite selfish, greedy and materialistic. Whereas, a knight or dame must be loyal and self-sacrificing, within proper reason, but with resolve to be loyal and true to God, family and country all of one's life. Such a person would be law abiding and promote or exemplify the best ideals of mankind by one's own life and contributions; in this there is greatness.


One must be willing to give of one's time, money and energy to chivalric ideals with full purpose of heart. Promoting justice, defending the weak and helpless are virtues of the highest order and respect. A knight will give of himself in a balanced way and not deprive his wife and family, but show by example the kind of life one should live especially on the level of the heart. The disposition of a knight is to give much without reward or recognition within an appropriate balance of priorities.

Courtesy, Well-mannered, Well-behaved

This is to be civil, respectful, gentle, polite, kind hearted and not give way to anger or insult. A knight must be in control of himself. If anger has dominion, he must withdraw, re-evaluate his judgmental attitude, take a fresh perspective and patiently wait until he is again in charge of himself. He is to be driven by noble aims and to be a gentleman at all times. This would include opening the door, when it can be appreciated, for women, children, the handicapped or the elderly when given the chance. It is a duty and way of letting one's light shine before men that they might glory in the good that they see and the decency of mankind.   


In modern society this trait is often mistaken for weakness, but really it is a sign of strength. The message is that one has great inner confidence and does not have to boast or prove one's worth before men to feel a deep centered esteem for self and others. Humility does not take credit for what others have done or attempt to impress others. Rather, chivalry demands that one merely fight the fight and walk the walk of greatness even if he is misunderstood or misread. It is never to give up or give in when the cause is right. The inner quest is never forgotten. Praise is never sought. Love for the right and the good is at the heart or core. It is the crowning virtue.

The following are the lyrics to the song "The Impossible Dream" from MAN OF LA MANCHA (1972) by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. (www.reelclassics.com/Actors /O'Toole/impossibledream-lyrics.htm) The words may seem to be over the top, but at least they convey the deep inner longings, spirit and desire of a true knight:

To dream the impossible dream

To fight the unbeatable foe

To bear with unbearable sorrow

To run where the brave dare not go 

To right the unrightable wrong

To love pure and chaste from afar

To try when your arms are too weary

To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest

To follow that star

No matter how hopeless

No matter how far

To fight for the right

Without question or pause

To be willing to march into Hell

For a heavenly cause

And I know if I'll only be true 

To this glorious quest

That my heart will lie peaceful and calm

When I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this

That one man, scorned and covered with scars

Still strove with his last ounce of courage

To reach the unreachable star

Outstanding achievements are still rewarded by sovereigns who preside over exalted orders of knights. And the opportunity for knighthood still exists for the humble soul who is willing to contribute for the rest of his or her life and live right and good upon the earth.

This article originally appeared on https://www.nobility-royalty.com/id80.htm


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