This week we looked at the motives and methods of chivalry in the medieval period. As a high ideal, medievals never really lived up to it, but such is the case with all high ideals. While they fell short of the standard they set for themselves, the ideal at least set the bar high and gave them something to aim at. Chivalry’s heart still beats faintly in much of the modern conception of manners, so all in all I think we can say it’s had a good run.
Chivalry has many origins, but one of them surely comes from the medieval Church’s practical realism. Man will not attain perfection. War will always be with us. But that did not mean that civilization could not seek to limit the effects of war. Limiting war’s collateral damage meant among other things, strict rules governing how and when people could fight.
To perhaps better understand we need only to imagine another kind of contest, like a basketball game. We know when the game is over, and we know who has won. We know this for more reasons than the score. Both sides have agreed on the rules beforehand. A clock tells you when time expires. Referees stand ready to enforce rules that help make the contest fair. No one likes losing, but when you lose according to the rules, you can accept it, and stop playing. The ‘war’ is over.
Suppose the final horn sounds, and team ‘A’ is ahead 50-48. But what if to score the last basket and pull ahead, the point guard of team ‘A’ punched a guy in the stomach to get a clear lane to the hoop? If noticed by the ref, the basket would not count. It’s not just the score that determines the winner.
Suppose now that the ref did not see the punch, and therefore the basket counts. Will team ‘B’ accept the result? Would the game be over for them? Ask the USA basketball team from the 1972 Olympics if they think they lost the gold medal game. . .
Imagine if no rules governed how people played basketball. At first, an someone would throw an elbow, then a punch. Maybe someone brings brass knuckles onto the court. A player might run out of bounds but now no out of bounds exists. What would happen would quickly cease to resemble anything like basketball. The contest would not test basketball skill but instead, each sides cunning use of violence.
The medievals believed that while war would involve killing, it should not be about killing. War needed to serve something higher than mere accretion of power. This meant that
- War needed to have a definite defensive purpose. They justified fighting when done only for those that could not fight themselves.
- The limited when they could fight. No fighting on Sundays. Or Fridays. Or during Lent, Advent, Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, feast days, and so on.
- They limited who could fight, which was both by accident and design. Learning how to fight on horseback with armor took a lot of training. Thus, only those who had the time to train would fight, which restricted it to the special class of nobles.
The idea of showing deference to women inspired a whole new set of manners, poetry, literature, and so on. I can’t think of any other civilization that exalted the feminine ideal to such a degree. A quick comparison of ancient and medieval art reveals this.
For civilization to survive, we need people willing and able to defend it. We do a fearful thing during war when we hand over the fate of our civilization to men practiced in the arts of violence. Killing machines like Achilles will defend us, but then drag us down with them in a spiral of violence. After the Trojan War, Greece descended into a Dark Age. After Rome’s victory over Carthage, their Republic flew apart at the seams in an intermittent civil war that lasted for a century. Chivalry sought to stop the cycle of violence and allow civilization to return after the fighting stops.
Women today have many more rights, and have much more equality with men than they used to. But modern women face a dilemma. Can chivalry and equality co-exist, or do they cancel each other out? If so which ideal should we prefer? If they can co-exist, how would they do so? We had an interesting discussion about holding doors open. All the girls agreed that they liked it when guys hold the door for them, at least under most circumstances. But guys almost universally agreed that they did not like it when girls held door open for them. Why might this be? Is it sexist for the guys to think this, or are they onto some fundamental truth about the nature of male and female?
I asked the students whether or not any objected to having a girl’s soccer team, and no one did. But just about everyone agreed that a girl’s wrestling team wouldn’t just be weird, it would be “wrong.” And yet, 100 years ago many would have thought that women wearing pants was fundamentally wrong (i.e. women shouldn’t wear men’s clothing/cross-dress), whereas today we don’t give it a second thought. How can we know the difference? Knowing where to draw the line between relative cultural difference and eternal principle requires a great deal of discernment.
In the end, medieval people believed that the presence of male and female in creation revealed certain truths about God Himself. These truths should be “acted out” in our daily lives so that we might better know God. So for medievals, the confusion of genders not only denigrated God’s creation but obscured God’s revelation.
This idea makes more sense if we think of life as a kind of play. The playwright has a particular message to get across to his audience. That messages requires each of the performers to know their role, and to know their lines. Forgetting ones lines wouldn’t be a sin, but it would obscure the play’s message for the audience. In this analogy, the “audience” would be those all around us everyday. We all have the responsibility and privilege of imaging God to others all the time. The diversity of creation reveals the “diversity” of God. Both the male and female “principles” reveal something about God, and again, we should not obscure the revelation God means to give through us.
To cap off our discussion of chivalry we will look at the life and ministry of St. Francis. I wanted to focus on his famous “Canticle of the Sun.” It reads,
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.
We looked at how St. Francis personified creation and even assigned various roles, or genders, to different parts of creation. The ‘male’ aspects are active, the female more humble and nurturing. Despite this strong distinction, no one would call St. Francis a chauvinist.
Lest we think this a complete relic of our past, why does some much love poetry involve the moon and not the sun? Why do we give our ships feminine names? Are we living in the past or recognizing in some way a fundamental truth about reality? Peter Kreeft discusses this in his wonderful “Love Sees with New Eyes” essay, which can be found here.
For those who may be interested, C.S. Lewis excellent (and short) essay entitled “The Necessity of Chivalry is here. He writes, “The ideal embodied [in chivalry] is escapism in the sense never dreamed of by those who usually use the word; it offers the only possible escape between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.”