Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
CHIVALRY. It was not in the middle ages that the word knight made its first appearance in the language of politics. The small cities of Greece and the republic of Rome had their knights. They formed a distinct class in the state, and in some respects had a faint resemblance to the knights of the middle ages. We find the spirit of chivalry, as the unselfish prompter of valiant deeds and of heroism, in the most dissimilar nations and ages. It is characteristic of a certain period in the life of most nations; the period of transition from a barbarous state to a more refined civilization. During this period, while retaining to some extent the savage grandeur of the previous age, nations begin to acquire the graces of the other. For instance, chivalry shed some light on the Arabs before Mohammed appeared. Mr. Ampère calls attention to it in the poems of the Radjastan. Hallam sees in Homer's Achilles the model of chivalry in its most general form. Heeren finds in Godfrey of Bouillon, the Agamemnon of an army having in Tancred, Raymond, and Boemond, its Achilles, Diomedes and Ulysses. Greece, in the time of its glory, conceived Hercules as a sort of knight-errant and righter of wrongs. But the feudal system alone gave rise to, and has the right to claim chivalry as its own, that is, the perfect development of the spirit of chivalry in an institution peculiar to itself. What then, is chivalry, as Montesquieu calls it, "the marvelous system of chivalry," which according to Hallam, was "the best school of moral discipline that appeared in the middle ages;" and which Mr. Ampère alludes to as "the greatest moral and social event between the establishment of Christianity which produced it and the outbreak of the French revolution which utterly destroyed it"? The question is not easily answered. Many causes, impossible for us to allude to here, have contributed to obscure the subject. There are two kinds of chivalry. First comes primitive, hereditary chivalry. It can not be clearly distinguished from feudalism; or rather it is feudalism, armed feudalism. It is the true militia, properly speaking, what the French call the ancien ordre. It was composed of the old crown vassals, holding their fiefs direct from the crown before the final establishment, of the feudal hierarchy, and all the titled gentlemen from dukes to barons inclusive. They were milites per naturam, generositate sanguinis. In Spain they existed too. They were the "Ricos hombres," "Ricos hombres de natura." This chivalry had its esquires, valets and varlets, also esquires by birth, with the name of their fiefs, for which they rendered a special service. They were rear vassals, brought into existence by the large increase in the number of fiefs, nobles provided with the benefices by the great barons, freemen and allodial proprietors who were included in the feudal system when the latter extended to all who owned land.
—The other chivalry is the nova militia; the militaris honos, as opposed to the genus militaire, the militiæ cingulum, the order of chivalry. It is the chivalry of honor, of the accollade, and is personal, not hereditary. As time passed, people came gradually to consider it as the recompense of courage or merit. Its first recruits were from among the vassals already alluded to, the nobles of inferior rank, or esquires, who could thus be made knights without changing the nature of their fiefs, and rose in the feudal hierarchy by personal merit. This chivalry also admitted into its ranks hereditary knights who, however, were not full knights until they were able to bear arms.
—It is of this second species of chivalry that we wish to say a few words here. Its cradle, as that of all great institutions, is veiled in obscurity. It first saw the light in "France, the classic land of chivalry." (Hallam.) It grew in the shade, spontaneously, the natural development of various germs planted in modern society. When first noticed it had actually been in existence for a long time. Some elements borrowed from the manners, traditions and ideas of ancient Germany supplied its military foundation, its very substance, so to speak. Religion soon claimed it as her own, aiming to direct it toward a noble and moral end, and to make it an instrument of order and a means of social improvement. Gallantry, in turn, with the worship of woman, with love and the muses, left its imprint upon it, giving it grace, brilliancy, originality and polish.
—Tacitus tells us of an ancient custom which existed in the forests of Germany. When a youth was old enough to bear arms his father, or his next of kin, handed him the sword and buckler in presence of the council of the tribe. The German conquerors never gave up this custom. Under the feudal system the court of the feudal castle took the place of the council of the tribe, the lord paramount succeeded the barbarian chieftain and conferred the new dignity, not only upon his own son, but upon the young vassals brought up in his household, who were proud of receiving it from the hands of the suzerain, surrounded by their companions. The two ceremonies are in fact the same. Such was chivalry.
—Knighthood consisted essentially in admission to the rank and honors of the warrior, in the solemn delivery of arms and giving of emblems of warlike life. This was its origin. (Guizot.) From the beginning of the ninth century certain religious rights accompanied the investiture of the knight, and at the end of the tenth century the ceremony was, in its principal features, what we find it later. Chivalry soon received a wonderful impetus from the crusades. They developed all its latent germs and made it a religious institution, especially devoted to the defense of the faith. Chivalry thoroughly organized in the twelfth century, had spread from France to all the states of western Europe, England, Germany, Italy and Spain. Its leading features remained the same in all these countries, but its minor characteristics and its fortunes varied. It even penetrated to the east for a while, but the conditions being unfavorable, its existence there was of brief duration.
—We do not care to enter into all the details of a knightly education. We know that the youthful aspirant was taken from the government of women at 7 years of age. He passed the next 14 years of his life either in the home of his father's suzerain, or in that of some distinguished knight. The first 7 years he spent as a page, the remaining 7 as an esquire. During all this time he performed menial duties, which were not considered any disgrace by the nations of Germanic origin. The esquire, at least in early times, was dubbed a knight at 21 years of age, the age at which noblemen attained their majority. Sometimes high birth, or tried courage, enabled him to anticipate this age. As a rule he postponed assuming the belt until later, or else abandoned the idea altogether, either hoping that some brilliant exploit would shed lustre on his knighthood, or because his poverty made it impossible for him to meet the expense. As we have seen, there is no doubt that the honor was, at first, almost exclusively conferred, by the suzerain, within the walls of his castle. And the writers of the middle ages liked to compare the investiture of knighthood with that of a fief or homage, even to the conferring of holy orders. When chivalry afterward loosened the ties that bound it to feudalism, periods of great public solemnity, tournaments, festivity at the coronation of kings, or at the baptism or marriage of princes, were selected for the investiture of knighthood. In accordance with the taste of the time, the ceremonies accompanying the conferring of knighthood had a deeply symbolic character. They pictured, in noble and poetic rites, the tasks and duties of a knightly career. These ceremonies varied, in their details, with the country and the age; but, while they were performed, their leading features remained the same. When the esquire had taken the prescribed bath, and performed the vigil of arms, the weapons he was to carry were committed to his keeping. The lance and sword were the special emblems of his new dignity. Then his sponsor, that is, the person who was to introduce him to the order, struck him on the neck with the flat of his sword. This was the accolade. Henceforth the knight was said to be dubbed. Then the priest performed his part. Suiting his speech to the occasion he reminded the new knight of the obligations he was under. To these the latter, in a solemn oath, swore to remain faithful. He swore to defend the right, to protect the defenseless, widows and orphans, and to succor the oppressed. He was to be "humble to the lowly," valiant, loyal, gentle, courteous, generous and modest; he was to keep his plighted word, to love truth, and to be just in all things. The mediæval idea of a knight was the embodiment of all that was noble and warlike. He united in his person all the qualities, all the virtues, all the graces which constitute the moral perfection of a man of the higher classes. This was of course only an unattainable ideal, and but a few chosen ones ever attempted to attain it. The majority made no effort in that direction. Yet the fact of this ideal being impressed on men's imaginations at that time had a tendency to raise the average of character, and to prevent the sentiment of honor and of right from being obliterated from a society ruled by force and violence. The words with which Renan describes the nations of Indo European origin, apply more particularly to the knights of the middle ages: A race capable of self-sacrifice, and preferring many things to life.
—Knighthood was not always conferred with such ceremonies as we have attempted to describe. Knights were often, more especially toward the close of the feudal period, created in great numbers on the battle field, either before engaging in battle in order to excite their valor, or afterward to reward it. There the accolade alone sufficed. Little by little this custom gained ground, and, in the fifteenth century, the rites of investiture were discarded.
—The education of the knight was not over by any means, when the belt encircled his loins. He completed it in time of war on the field of battle. In time of peace he perfected himself in all those martial exercises which were used in warfare. These exercises were always bloody and dangerous. They constituted in great part the military pageant called a tournament, which Saint Palaye compares to the French camps de plaisance in which the knights were alternately encouraged by the example of princes, and hampered by their decrees; but which the church, though in vain, never ceased to oppose with all the influence and spiritual power at its command, as bloody games where cruelty vied with license.
—But the tournament was not a mere military school. any more than was chivalry itself a purely military institution. Chivalry was the embodiment of the feelings and customs which left their imprint on the middle ages. The tournaments illustrated this in the most striking manner. They were great feasts, "the drama of chivalry," as Hallam calls them; and soon became chivalry itself. All the luxury and magnificence of the middle ages were displayed on these occasions. The ladies, though hesitatingly at first, soon attended them in great numbers, excited the valor of the contestants, acted as judges, distributed the rewards, and there exercised their undisputed power. This feature was the crowning glory of chivalry, its brightest ornament, and, in the end, its greatest danger.
—Compared with what it was in antiquity, the condition of woman had very much improved in the new society formed by feudalism. Many causes combined to produce this transformation. The German conquerors had only to consult the traditions of their race to find evidence of a profound respect for women among their ancestors. This respect had been strengthened by the isolated life of families living on their estates; and the dignified position held by the lady of the castle. Christianity gave it a character of greater gentleness and tenderness, and the worship of the Virgin, more than anything else, cast around it a halo of mysticism. This tender and austere respect for woman, carried to an extreme, no longer found satisfactory expression, and gallantry, of which more refined and at the same time more dissolute southern France furnished in its manners and customs and in the troubadours who had formed them, the most captivating and dangerous example. Chivalry accepted henceforward the dogma, that the man who was faithful both to God and to his love could count on happiness here below and heavenly joys hereafter. A vigorous aristocratic literature, eagerly devoured in the feudal castles into which it penetrated, contributed largely to the spread of this dubious species of mysticism. How far did people go in the path thus entered on? The character of knightly love has been the subject of much controversy. Perhaps no subject in the history of chivalry is as difficult or delicate. Each side has furnished proofs in support of its opinion. The testimony is voluminous and contradictory, and varies with the country, the time, and the national character, according as it was warlike and sensual, or chaste and pure. The literature of chivalry was always of a high character as compared to the depraved cynicism and low satire of the stories and the metrical tales of the troubadours. Two powers struggled to control this literature: the church, which, after vainly trying to suppress it, endeavored to make it its own and to use it in the interests of morality; and the world, which sought in it the interpreter of its passions. Whatever may be said on the subject, the prevalent looseness of morals can not be denied. Should the teachings of chivalry bear the undivided responsibility of these disorders? It would be unjust to say so. A portion of them is no doubt due to causes always in action, and another portion to the violence characteristic of that particular age, and which chivalry certainly contributed to temper. It introduced delicacy where it could not introduce purity. But it can not be denied that the amorous scholasticism, professed by poets and romancers, puerile subtlety and inordinate curiosity peculiar to the middle ages aggravated the evil and contributed to the deterioration of morals.
—We find chivalry heroic "and even a little barbarous" in the twelfth century; austere in Godfrey de Bouillon, brilliant and ornate in Richard Cœur de Lion. It attained the height of its development in the thirteenth century. Here we find all the graces, all the glories and all the virtues that adorn it combined in noble harmony and proper equilibrium. It began to decline in the fourteenth century. It was doomed, but died slowly. It passed away because it had no longer any reason to exist. It had become a useless instrument, out of harmony with the spirit of the times, not able to meet its requirements. The great national wars which developed a new patriotism entirely opposed to that of chivalry, the predominance of infantry, and the invention of gunpower, destroyed chivalry. When the knights, beaten at Courtray by the Flemish burghers, and at Creçy by the English infantry, fought on foot at Poitiers, Cocherel, Auray and Agincourt, chivalry had ceased to exist. The military hierarchy, with the king at its head, destroyed the hierarchy of chivalry. When the military organization of knighthood and the feudal system disappeared, the spirit of chivalry based upon them soon followed. The fading lustre of the great institution brightened for a moment before it passed away, and seemed to the inexperienced eye more full of life than ever. But this was a deception. The old rules were ignored. The rude discipline to which the youth had submitted who wished to carry the lance, and the tedious novitiate of knighthood, had long been neglected. The distinguishing badges of rank were no longer worn. Sentiment became false and a pretense for over-refinement. Devotion to the fair sex and gallantry turned to folly. When the great satirists who appeared at the beginning of modern times—Rabelais, Ariosto and Cervantes—treated with scorn or ridicule the beloved heroes of a previous generation, their shafts were aimed more at the degenerate literature of chivalry than at an institution that could never be resuscitated.
—But in the last period of chivalry heroes appeared whose great prowess and nobility of character might stand a comparison with any in former ages: Walter Manny and John Chandos, and, later, Talbot and Suffolk in England, Duguesclin and Boucicaut, and Lahire, Dunois, and Xaintrailles in France. With Bayard the list is about ended. Francis I., after just receiving the accolade from the knight "without fear and without reproach," on the very day of the battle of Marignan, excuses himself to the marshal of Fleuranges for offering to knight him. "I well know," said the king, "that after the many battles you have been in you do not care to be knighted, but I have been made a knight myself to-day. Please accept the same honor at my hands." Henry IV. of France, a little later, in 1590, seemed to seek an excuse to make Sully a knight, saying, "I wish to embrace you and declare you a true and faithful knight, not so much with the accolade, which I now give you, nor with the order of St. Michael, or of the Holy Ghost, as with my heartfelt and sincere affection." What need had a man to ask the king for what he could take himself? Any gentleman of ancient noble lineage who had knights among his ancestors had a generally recognized right to the title. The word knight had gradually come to be used to designate the lowest title of nobility, coming immediately after that of baron. The orders of court chivalry, coming into vogue during the fifteenth century, gradually took the place of the other; and the ribands and crosses which were its insignia, began to be eagerly coveted by the ambitious. We shall not discuss them here. We merely intended to treat of the militant chivalry in its general features.
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