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Chivalry is a term related to the medieval institution of knighthood. It is usually associated with ideals of knightly virtues, honor and courtly love. The word is derived from the French word "chevalerie", itself derived from "chevalier", which means knight, derived from "cheval", horse (indicating one who rides a horse).

Today, the terms chivalry and chivalrous are often used to describe courteous behavior, especially that of men towards women.

Regardless of the diverse written definitions of chivalry, the medieval knightly class was adept at the art of war, trained in fighting in armor, with horses, lances, swords and shields. Knights were taught to excel in the arms, to show courage, to be gallant, loyal and to swear off cowardice and baseness.

Related to chivalry was the practice of heraldry and its elaborate rules of displaying coats of arms. When not fighting, chivalric knights typically resided in a castle or fortified house, while some knights lived in the courts of kings, dukes and other great lords. The skills of the knight carried over to peacetime activities such as the hunt and tournament.

The tradition of the chivalric "knight in shining armor" may be traceable back to the Arabs, with notable pre-Islamic figures like the Bedouin knight Antar The Lion (580 AD). Charles Reginald Haines noted traits "such as loyalty, courtesy, munificence...are found in eminent degree among the Arabs." Medieval Spain, which he calls the "cradle of chivalry", could bear that pre-modern title, due to the direct impact of Arab civilization in Al-Andalus. "Piety, courtesy, prowess in war, the gift of eloquence, the art of poetry, skill on horseback, dexterity with sword, lance, and bow" was expected of the elite Moorish knight. Richard Francis Burton, when characterizing this strain of thought in the writings of Europe as a whole, maintained "were it not evident that the spiritualising of sexuality by imagination is universal among the highest orders of mankind", he continues, "I should attribute the origins of love to the influences of the Arabs' poetry and chivalry upon European ideas rather than to medieval Christianity."

Christianity had a modifying influence on the virtues of chivalry. The Peace and Truce of God in the 10th century was one such example, with limits placed on knights to protect and honor the weaker members of society and also help the church maintain peace. At the same time the church became more tolerant of war in the defense of faith, espousing theories of the just war; and liturgies were introduced which blessed a knight's sword, and a bath of chivalric purification. In the 11th century the concept of a "knight of Christ" (miles Christi) gained currency in France, Spain and Italy. These concepts of "religious chivalry" were further elaborated in the era of the Crusades, with the Crusades themselves often being seen as a chivalrous enterprise. Their ideas of chivalry were also further influenced by Saladin, who was viewed as a chivalrous knight by medieval Christian writers.

The relationship between knights and the nobility varied based on region. In France being dubbed a knight also bestowed noble status. In Germany and the Low Countries, knights and the nobility were distinctly different classes. In England, the relations between knights, nobles and land-owning gentry were complex.

In the later Middle Ages, wealthy merchants strove to adopt chivalric attitudes - the sons of the bourgeoisie were educated at aristocratic courts where they were trained in the manners of the knightly class. This was a democratization of chivalry, leading to a new genre called the courtesy book, which were guides to the behavior of "gentlemen". Thus, the post-medieval gentlemanly code of the value of a man's honor, respect for women, and a concern for those less fortunate, is directly derived from earlier ideals of chivalry and historical forces which created it.

When examining medieval literature, chivalry can be classified into three basic but overlapping areas:

  1. Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: this contains virtues such as mercy, courage, valor, fairness, protection of the weak and the poor, and in the servant-hood of the knight to his lord. This also brings with it the idea of being willing to give one’s life for another’s; whether he would be giving his life for a poor man or his lord
  2. Duties to God: this would contain being faithful to God, protecting the innocent, being faithful to the church, being the champion of good against evil, being generous and obeying God above the feudal lord
  3. Duties to women: this is probably the most familiar aspect of chivalry. This would contain what is often called courtly love, the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her all other ladies. Most especially in this category is a general gentleness and graciousness to all women

These three areas obviously overlap quite frequently in chivalry, and are often indistinguishable.

Different weight given to different areas produced different strands of chivalry:

  • Warrior Chivalry, in which a knight's chief duty is to his lord, as exemplified by Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
  • Religious Chivalry, in which a knight's chief duty is to protect the innocent and serve God, as exemplified by Sir Galahad or Sir Percival in the Grail legends
  • Courtly Love Chivalry, in which a knight's chief duty is to his own lady, and after her, all ladies, as exemplified by Sir Lancelot in his love for Queen Guinevere or Sir Tristan in his love for Iseult

One particular similarity between all three of these categories is honor. Honor is the foundational and guiding principle of chivalry. Thus, for the knight, honor would be one of the guides of action.

ordersThe first Orders of Chivalry were formed during the 12th Century. The first of these was the Military Order of Malta. From this Order, others were formed such as the Order of Saint John (Knights Hospitaller) in 1080, the Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem (Knights Templar) in 1119, the Order of Saint Lazarus in 1100, and the Order of Saint Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem (Teutonic Knights) in 1190.

These orders were groups of Knights who banded together to create their own fraternal organization. These organizations were either sponsored by the Monarch of their home countries, or by the Pope (who is a sovereign power of himself). Each member of their organizations typically took vows and in essence became warrior monks. Their warrior nature (because they were all Knights their profession was war) gave the Pope an opportunity to use them as the military arm of the Church. Each one of them had a different charter, or reason for being in existence. For example, the Knights Templar were the guardians of pilgrims going to the holy land. These Templar Knights set up safe houses for pilgrims to seek shelter and safety within. The Templars also protected the pilgrims by setting up the first banking system. Instead of attracting bandits in search of stealing from the pilgrims, the Templars took the money from the pilgrims and gave them a note for how much the Templars were holding for them. Once at their destination, the Templars would give the money back to the pilgrim who gave their money to the Templars.

These Orders of Chivalry, acting as an arm of the Church, received donations. After time, the Orders of Chivalry became wealthy organizations. So large was the wealth and power of these Orders, Monarchs were threatened by them. The power and wealth of the Orders allowed them to gain lands of their own, giving them the ability to legitimately call themselves Sovereign. Monastic Orders like the Knights Templar were given special privileges so they only answered to the Pope and need not answer to any Monarch in whatever land they resided.

In 1291, when the last stronghold of Christendom fell to the Arabs, the missions of the Orders of Chivalry became obsolete. They now had neither hospitals to run, pilgrims to protect, or mission to achieve. Some Orders, like the Teutonic Knights, survived because they had already settled in eastern Europe. Others, like the Knights Hospitaller, conquered Malta and became a naval power and continued to wage war against the Arabs and later the Turks. Yet others, like the Knights Templar, tried to make a transition to become bankers (they also tried to merge with the Order of Saint John). However, because of their wealth, the French Monarchy falsely accused them of heresy and successfully disbanded the Order in 1312 (the way the King did this is how Friday the 13th became an unlucky day).

This did not last indefinitely, however. The Order of Saint John (Order of Malta) lost it's sovereignty in 1798 and is now dedicated to medical and charitable activities. The Teutonic Order became a simple religious order in 1929. The Order of Saint Lazarus split into two factions with one being protected by the French Crown and one protected by the House of Savoyard. The French faction was abolished by Louis XVI in 1791. There are many organizations today that claim to be descended from each of these orders.

Between 1335 and 1400, there was a rise in Monarchical Orders of Chivalry. The Monarchs saw the power and use for an organized Order of Knighthood, and they were able to utilize this power for the benefit of the Crown and Country. Some of these order still exist today. For example the Order of the Garter is an Order of Chivalry created by the British Crown. Over time, with the development of new ways to wage war, the Knights profession transformed into the modern soldier. With new technologies and the need for vast numbers of highly trained soldiers, the title of Knight became primarily honorific by the mid 1500's. By this time, only the Order of the Garter in England, the Order of the Golden Fleece in Spain, the Order of Annunziata in Savoy, and the Order of Saint Michael in France remained.


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