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The Chivalric Ideal: A Historical Commentary on the Customs and Manners of a Chivalric Society

By Saga, Goddess of History and Lore
Part One

An Introduction to the Concept of the Chivalric Ideal

The word "Chivalry" comes from the French word for knight, "Chevalier". Chevalier literally means "Man who rides a horse" ("cheval"="horse"). A man who was able to afford the keep of a horse for riding into battle would have owned his own land at least. These men were often called miles from the Latin for warriors. The elevation from a mounted warrior to the concept of a knight came with the advancements of the feudal system in the 12th century.

Because a mounted warrior had to be of some wealth, the term Knight or Chevalier came to be associated with a specific noble class, those who held land as vassals to a lord or to the king. As a social class aligned with the court and politics, then, the behavior and customs of that class became codifed into what we now call the Chivalric Ideal.

According to manuals of knighthood written between the 13th-14th centuries, a knight was to have specific qualities beyond his ability to fight. These were loyalty, courage, wisdom, charity, generosity, courtesey, humility, and honesty. It was his sworn duty to uphold and protect his liege lord and his lord's lady, defend the Christian faith, honor and defend all women and orphans and be ready to aid them to the limit of his power. A knight was expected to keep both body and honor in good shape by regularly attending tournaments and jousts and by taking on noble quests.

The idea of nobility implies that one person is better than another because of their birth. Social status defined by blood needed justification in order to keep it intact. It was generally believed that if a person was successful and wealthy, it was because they were blessed by God. By this line of thinking, if one was blessed to be born into a noble family, he was meant to rule over people of lesser birth. Therefore, it was only right that a knight serve in the name of the God who had placed him in this exaulted position.

Knighthood then, became akin to a religious order or a cult. Those aspiring to be knights went through a rigorous training period from childhood. Each aspirant was expected to uphold all the moral virtues of knighthood or risk losing his opportunity. When finally deemed ready, the squire would spend an overnight vigil in prayerful contemplation of his vocation, then be knighted in the morning during Mass.

The fullest expression of Knighthood as a type of religious vocation were the Knights Templar. These knights lived as monks yet fought as fierce warriors in the name of Christ. This order was the ultimate combination of what the role of the knight was percieved to be, that of a holy and virtuous Christian soldier.

Yet the ideals of Knighthood were also propigated through of stories of Courtly Love. In these stories, such as the Romance of the Rose, Tristan and Iseult, and the Arthurian tales, knights and ladies were held to the strictest of moral virtues. Those characters who broke the code of behavior were deemed traitors without honor, and usually met bitter fates. A good example is that of Lancelot and Guinevere. When they gave into their passion for each other and broke their separate vows to Arthur, the kingdom fell into war and Camelot was lost. The message was clear: a knight must remain worthy of his spurs or risk the loss of all that was important to him.


Part II: The Germanic Knights

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