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Did Knights Really Live by a Code of Chivalry?

Painting of Richard, Earl Marshal of England in a skirmish with Baldwin of Guisnes before the Battle of Monmouth in 1233 by Matthew Paris.
Richard, Earl Marshal of England portrayed by Matthew Paris in a skirmish with Baldwin of Guisnes before the Battle of Monmouth in 1233

The many-headed internet beast seems to have grown increasingly fascinated with the medieval period over the last several years. One focal point has been that men were better back then, and part of that was derived from strict adherence to chivalric code.

The modern interpretation seems to be a 10-20 point list of hard-and-fast rules superimposed next to a drawing of a crusader. This list is presented as a moral compass so that knights could live in a state of civilized Christian purity.

The problem is that so many of our modern assumptions about the medieval period (and the classical period, but that’s another story) are based on later historical romanticism. In the case of chivalry, we take our cues from the Victorian Era rediscovery of chivalry—during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which was about 800 years after Chivalry Classic began its decline.

Chevalerie in Francia

First off, Europe isn’t the biggest continent in the world, but it’s big enough that we need to narrow our focus a bit. Let’s focus on the English tradition, by way of the French.

In the early middle ages, France was Francia (pronounce that “c” that sounds like a “k”), and home of the Franks. Since the eighth century CE, the Franks had been equinely inclined (meaning they liked horses). The Franks also had a martial, clan-structured culture. Mounted cavalry was their wartime bread and butter. The term for these mounted soldiers would become chevalier, a term based on the French word for horse—cheval. Note that medieval French differed from modern French (as did older forms of English, German, etc.).

As time went on, two cultural influences merged: Western Christianity and a highly martial Frankish clan culture. (They descended from the Gaulish Germanic barbarians who fought the Roman Empire.) These horse-soldiers became an elite class whose main profession was doing quite a bit of the old ultra-violence.

This hereditary class of killers was wildly effective, it would seem, to a fault. As such, the Western Church decided that this killing business was in need of some regulation. From this effort came the idea of chivalry—or chevalier. Basically, it was the idea of a general set of guidelines that would keep this elite martial class in check. And that was important, considering that chevaliers were, by definition, bound in service to a political leader.

In pop-culture terms, too many chevaliers had turned into Gregor Clegane (The Mountain from Game of Thrones, and the church needed to mold them into Sandor Clegane (The Hound)—still vicious and scary, but controllable.

Knights in England

Bayeux Tapestry of Odo, half brother of William the Conqueror, encouraging his Norman chevaliers to charge.
This image, from the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrates Odo, half brother of William the Conqueror, encouraging his Norman chevaliers to charge. Bayeux Tapestry [Public Domain]
In the early eleventh century, there was a group of Franks called Normans—these folks were the descendants of Viking raiders who the Franks had bribed with land and titles (in Normandy) some years earlier, to get them to stop raiding Francia. By 1066, they’d traded their beards and paganism for shaved faces, undercuts, and Christianity.

Under the leadership of William the Conqueror, the Bastard (nickname dependent on how many of your family members he killed, presumably), the Normans brought an Anglo-Saxon apocalypse down upon the people of England when he invaded, killed their king, and replaced the upper class with Norman nobles.

The Normanification of England gave us names for food, big changes to the English language, and, for our purposes here, a lot of horses. Prior to all this, the Anglo-Saxons were footmen when it came to war, along with much of Northern Europe. In fact, England was more closely Scandinavian than European, and so their fighting forces would have looked more or less like the Danes—with shield walls and the like.

The Anglo-Saxons had their own version of elite soldiers, known as cnihts among other terms, and are what give us “knights” (or “Knechten,” in German). However, the Normans merged their particular brand of Frankish culture with their new Anglo-Saxon subjects, much like how a tractor-trailer truck merges into an unseen cyclist. Bam: the English called ’em knights, the French called them chevaliers, but they were the same thing—a special class of elite horse soldiers, living more or less by varying codes of chivalry, as dictated by the vassals to which they were pledged.

Chivalry: More Like a Set of Guidelines

Some of the stuff we think about chivalry today is true: knights were expected to be practicing Christians; they would profess their admiration for upper-class married women (which was believed to have a civilizing effect on the knight); and they were often expected to show some level of relative decency toward their equals or their betters, even as enemies.

Yet, here’s the important thing: while chivalry was well-gripped by the tendrils of Christianity and the Church, chivalric codes were a series of best practices for secular, professional, fighting men. Christendom was something to be publicly adhered to and defended because that was politics. But to believe that all knights were altruistic—or even that this was expected—is romanticism.

Think about it: this was a class that was specifically useful due to its ability to commit violence. While it’s been a while since someone made me open a Bible, chivalry appears to be at odds with itself. Ultimately, knights lived up to their chivalric ideals when it was pragmatic.

For example, knights would often spare the lives of enemy knights, as was the chivalric expectation. These men had some measure of social status (there was such a thing as the “knightly class”) that indicated they couldn’t just be slaughtered wholesale without consequence. More often than not, knights were happy to oblige this guideline. But the obliging knights weren’t doing this altruistically
—rather, an imprisoned knight is worth far more than a dead one. You could trade a captured enemy knight for some real estate or cash money, or even political favor. On top of that, you could convince yourself that taking a prisoner meant you were a real stand-up Christian man.

Meanwhile, any peasants who proved to be minor obstacles were often slaughtered by knights en masse, as there was nothing to gain by not slaughtering them.

Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

At the end of the day, sure, it was common to have bits about being a good Christian and being polite to (upper-class) women in codes of chivalry for knights in the early medieval period. It was also common for knights to commit war atrocities, murder, rape, and looting. All things could be justified, depending on the knight doing the justifying.

And, when it comes to chivalry advocating for politeness toward women, it actually served to diminish female agency. The more that chivalry placed women on a pedestal, the more those women were expected to embody their contemporary ideal of passive elegance.

To answer the question posed in the headline: there were codes of chivalry, but knights didn’t always live by them. They were more like … guidelines. Guidelines to be totally quickly dismissed at a knight’s earliest convenience. Guidelines meant to ensure that an entire class of maniacs only killed the politically correct groups of people.

All the rest—the stuff we see in internet graphics about altruism and roaming the land performing feats of heroism—that’s the result of Victorian idealism.

Here are some sources:

Alex Johnson Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson is a freelance writer who has been writing professionally for over 12 years but has been a critical geek for nearly 34. He also writes history books with curse words in them. Read Full Bio »