Why the Subversion of Chivalry Matters

This article is written by TJ Martinell

Everything most Westerners know about chivalry is wrong. This profound misconception exists even though people have varying notions of what chivalry is or what it means to be chivalrous – and whether it’s even an admirable thing.

But whether it’s letting girls go first at the school drinking fountain, allowing women to get on the life boats while the men drown, or a man bowing before a woman before asking her to marry him, all of them really amount to the same thing; a man submitting to a woman, any woman, in a manner meant to earn respect, admiration, and favor. Whether it draws “respect” or ridicule doesn’t matter. This is what people think it is.

Yet that is not what chivalry was and has nothing to do with its origins, application or purpose. Writers such as Dalrock have done the yeoman’s task of documenting its connection to courtly love, and Rollo Tomassi has previously written on how the feminine imperative gradually subverted chivalry.

In an October 2019 blog post, Dalrock wrote:

“One of the frequent criticisms I’ve received with my writing on chivalry is that I’m using the term incorrectly. The argument is that chivalry is merely a code of martial honor, and that the ideals of reverence of women, idolization of romantic love, etc. are something entirely separate (courtly love). While it is true that courtly love has been adopted as the academic term describing these specific aspects of what we call chivalry, it is a fundamental part of how we use the word chivalry today, and how we have used it for hundreds of years.”

Dalrock's point is well taken, but there is more to be said. Had chivalry been founded upon courtly love and idealizing romance, it wouldn’t be so troubling. But the mutation of the word "chivalry" from what it was to what it is considered to be today, is one of the finest examples of Orwellian doublethink.

I already anticipate some men rolling their eyes and groaning “dude, nobody cares. That was hundreds of years ago. Why does this matter?”

It matters because the way in which a masculine concept was subverted centuries ago can be seen in how other ideals or concepts, such as masculinity itself, have also been tainted to a degree we struggle to comprehend in our modern context, because we've never known anything else.

To fully answer the question, we need to understand what chivalry initially looked like. For that, we turn to Leon Gautier’s Chivalry. Published in 1883, it reveals more than just the true history of a warrior ethos. It exposes just how early the feminine imperative subverted a patriarchal, masculine code of honor.

Although people occasionally dare to ask (perhaps rhetorically) whether chivalry is dead, Gautier already has answered it. “The old institution is no longer with us. The events which we have had the misfortune to witness do not give us any ground to hope that chivalry, extinct and dead, will rise against tomorrow to light and life.”

The seeds of chivalry were sown during the fall of the Western Roman Empire which left Europe fragmented for several centuries. In the place of unified central governments were small kingdoms squabbling with each other. Germany, Italy, and France were regions, not nations. The continent was ravaged by barbarian invasions and mass human migrations.

The only real centralized power left was the Roman Catholic Church. Although the peoples of the former empire were heavily “Christianized,” they nevertheless retain ethnic rivalries and squabbles. The struggle for the Church was how to address this. On one hand, the infighting within Christendom was condemned, yet they understood they would never be able to end war itself.

They finally concluded that best way to control warfare and bring some form of stability was by adopting existing Germanic warrior ethos and combining it with Christian doctrine. As Gautier writes, “chivalry…arose from a German custom, which has been idealized by the Church. It is less an institution than an ideal. To sum up, the word is Roman, but the thing itself is German.”

Gautier summarized the Code of Chivalry in Ten Commandments as follows:

  1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.
  2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
  3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
  5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
  6. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
  7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
  8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
  10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil

Contrary to the modern belief that chivalry is a service or duty owed to all women by all “real” men, Gautier described it “in fact as a kind of privileged body in which men were received on certain conditions, and with a certain ritual..."

It is from chevalier (Old French for knight) that the word chivalry comes from. In other words, it was a warrior code for men who received a knighthood and who fought of their own free will, not out of obligation. "It is all manly and of a military character," Gautier writes.

Becoming a knight required years of service starting first in their youth as a page and then a squire.  Even then, only men from noble birth could receive knighthood. The knighting ceremonies were no small affair or trivial; they were elaborate and meaningful.

[caption id="attachment_898" align="aligncenter" width="707"] An allegorical depiction of chivalry.[/caption]

Chivalry was also an explicitly religious ideal; before their ceremony, squires would confess their sins and then spend the night praying while wearing all white. Gautier writes that the ideal was “nothing more than Christianized form of military service,” adding that the “whole spirit of chivalry” is “If the Word is to be defended, we are ready.”

“Our knights did not remain content with the mere belief in God; they considered it their duty to abandon themselves wholly to Him and not limit their trust in Him,” Gautier writes. “This faith (or trust) was an integral portion of the Code of Chivalry.

A knight's loyalties were specific and clear. They were to submit to the moral authority of the Church and the legal authority of their lord. They lived at a time of small, decentralized fiefdoms, not multiculturalism, and they were not morally accountable to strangers or foreigners who had no obligations toward them.

In contrast to the Disneyesque vision of white knights in shining armor fighting for their One True Soulmate, Gautier says that “knights in those days had no regard for anything but fighting, and the most beautiful woman did not please them half so much as a good lance, or a fine horse.”

He recounts an anecdote from Girbers de Metz, a 12th Century troubadour poem believed to have historical basis. As two knights are riding, one of them calls attention to a stunning woman nearby.

“Perhaps you will think that the other knight would have turned round and even glanced at the object of his encomium,” Gautier observes. “But no; he only replied; ah! But see what a fine beast my horse is!”

Gautier claims this anecdote, though from a poem, is an “exact picture of the period.”

The original masculine spirit of chivalry was personified in Roland, a Frankish military commander under Charlemagne who in 778 A.D. made a famous last stand at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass to protect retreating Frankish soldiers. His sacrifice was celebrated in the Song of Roland, the oldest surviving piece of French literature. In the poem, he fights until he is the last of the Frankish lords left, then smashes his sword to prevent its use by the enemy.

In manner that surely served as the inspiration for Tolkien's Boromir, Roland sounds his olifant (war horn) one last time, then later found by Charlemagne dead under a tree.

[caption id="attachment_950" align="aligncenter" width="623"] The front page of a copy of the Song of Roland written between 1129-1165 A.D.[/caption]

This passage depicting his final moments convey the sense of patriotism, loyalty, duty and self-sacrifice later incorporated into the Code of Chivalry.

Then Rollanz feels that death to him draws near,
For all his brain is issued from his ears;
He prays to God that He will call the peers,
Bids Gabriel, the angel, t' himself appear.
Takes the olifant, that no reproach shall hear,
And Durendal in the other hand he wields;
Further than might a cross-bow's arrow speed
Goes towards Spain into a fallow-field;
Climbs on a cliff; where, under two fair trees,
Four terraces, of marble wrought, he sees.
There he falls down, and lies upon the green;
He swoons again, for death is very near.

 High are the peaks, the trees are very high.
Four terraces of polished marble shine;
On the green grass count Rollant swoons thereby.
A Sarrazin him all the time espies,
Who feigning death among the others hides;
Blood hath his face and all his body dyed;
He gets afoot, running towards him hies;
Fair was he, strong and of a courage high;
A mortal hate he's kindled in his pride.
He's seized Rollant, and the arms, were at his side,
"Charles nephew," he's said, "here conquered lies.
To Araby I'll bear this sword as prize."
As he drew it, something the count descried.

 So Rollant felt his sword was taken forth,
Opened his eyes, and this word to him spoke
"Thou'rt never one of ours, full well I know."
Took the olifant, that he would not let go,
Struck him on th' helm, that jewelled was with gold,
And broke its steel, his skull and all his bones,
Out of his head both the two eyes he drove;
Dead at his feet he has the pagan thrown:
After he's said: "Culvert, thou wert too bold,
Or right or wrong, of my sword seizing hold!
They'll dub thee fool, to whom the tale is told.
But my great one, my olifant I broke;
Fallen from it the crystal and the gold."

 Then Rollanz feels that he has lost his sight,
Climbs to his feet, uses what strength he might;
In all his face the colour is grown white.
In front of him a great brown boulder lies;
Whereon ten blows with grief and rage he strikes;
The steel cries out, but does not break outright;
And the count says: "Saint Mary, be my guide
Good Durendal, unlucky is your plight!
I've need of you no more; spent is my pride!
We in the field have won so many fights,
Combating through so many regions wide
That Charles holds, whose beard is hoary white!
Be you not his that turns from any in flight!
A good vassal has held you this long time;
Never shall France the Free behold his like."

Sadly, this notion of chivalry did not last long before the decay began. The degradation goes as far as the 1300s, when English King Edward III created the Most Noble Order of the Garter, as well as the legend of St. George from around 1275. However, some historians have noted that the alleged origin of the Order of the Garter is likely apocryphal.

Regardless, Gautier argues that it was the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table “may be considered one of the works which hastened the downfall of chivalry.” A combination of Welsh myth from the Roman era and French minstrel tales, the Arthurian legends were combined into a single canon by Sir Thomas Malory in the famous Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th Century.

But how did a Welsh hero like Arthur become infused with Norman courtly love and integrated into French chivalry? In an introduction to Malory’s book, Robert Graves explains how vital elements of the original myth and Arthur’s status as a horseman caused it to be embraced by the Normans following William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England.

“Had Arthur not been a cavalryman as well as a hater of Saxons, the Norman knights who broke King Harold’s Saxon footmen at Hastings would have never celebrated him.”

Had he fought on foot or been Saxon, Arthur would have likely remained a regional, rather than national hero and had little connection to chivalry.

Graves adds that even in Malory’s version the “Round Table is Christian in name only.” While the Song of Roland is centered on devotion to king, country, and the Church, the Arthur tales celebrate courtly love in which a man submits himself to a married woman without consummating the relationship. This was added to the Arthur legends not only to appease the French nobility, but was a satirical take on marriage, an institution court jesters and minstrels considered foolish. That most Western Christians see courtly love as a part of biblical marriage is the ultimate joke.

While the adulterous affairs between Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Iseult were cultivated for the entertainment of certain French nobility, Gautier writes in disgust that “one will never know how much harm this cycle of the ‘Round Table’ inflicted on us. It civilized us no doubt; but effeminated us. It is dangerous but charming literature that we owe the theatrical, the boastful rash chivalry which proved so fatal during the Thirty Years War. It was against it, and not against our (chivalry)…that Cervantes pointed his pencil.”

He added that “our (French) epic poems are German origin, and the ‘Table Round’ is of Celtic origin, Sensual and light, witty and delicate, descriptive and charming, these pleasing romances are never masculine, and become too often effeminate and effeminate. Both camps have enjoyed the favor of the public. But in such a struggle, it was all too easy to decide to which of them the victory would eventually incline.”

Further, the infusion of effeminacy into chivalry transformed completely. Rather than a code of honor among men, it became a form of male servitude toward women, initially only among nobility and then applied to any female.

The convergence also transplanted chivalry's core value of truth with etiquette, Gautier writes. “In this way, temerity replaced true courage; so good, polite manners replaced heroic rudeness; so foolish generosity replaced the charitable austerity of the early chivalry.”

He concludes that what has passed for chivalry for centuries is illegitimate, declaring that it "has never been, is not, and never will be anything but armed force in the service of unarmed truth."

Yet the term has and continues to be used to describe male sacrifice for women, from the HMS Birkenhead and the Titanic to the Costa Concordia sinking in 2012. At the same time, the term "chivalry" is also still applied in numerous history books within an exclusively military context. But as Dalrock has noted, while chivalry does not only refer to courtly love, it is nevertheless considered an integral aspect of it.

Which bring us to why it matters today.

The perverted notion of male submission to the feminine via courtly love has also been fully integrated into modern masculinity, whether one thinks themselves "Red Pill" or not. Chivalry was created in a patriarchal society in which men were primarily occupied with earning respect from other men. They didn't center their lives around attracting women, who were their social inferiors.

Consider this passage from Gautier's book describing how noblemen handled their wives.

Today we live in what Jack Donovan calls a "matrilineal hump-fest. Libertinism used to be a form of rebellion, but increasingly, it's part of the program."

Too often what many men consider pragmatic adaptation is rationalized compliance to a world where they are within the context of sex and/or romance a woman's social inferior. It is in an allegorical sense male submission to the feminine, and really it's merely a less effeminate form of courtly love.

As Dalrock writes, "Gladly bearing the deepest humiliation at the hands of the woman was seen as the greatest virtue." How many men happily endure this kind of degradation within the context of modern "dating," whether it's a long-term relationship or a hookup?

We also see this in how men care far less about earning the respect of men and developing meaningful friendships than they do earning the short-term or long-term approval of women, i.e. "how do I get the gurlz?" This is despite the destruction of traditional marriage as a lifelong-institution and the increasingly diminishing value (if any) of casual trysts even among the most successful. They can't see the difference between becoming a better man and doing better with women they find attractive.

As Donovan writes "a society that over-emphasizes sex to the point where it seems like the only thing in life that means anything is grotesque and degraded, and for most people it delivers more emptiness than ecstasy."

Making sex the highest value also benefits the feminine, because it is where they hold the most (unearned) advantage. Two hundred years ago, a young girl had to be more than pretty. Now, all she need do to garner male attention and financial support is film herself playing video games in her PJs and not be grotesquely overweight. Technology has its role in this, but "thirsty" men are pitied, even despised. They're not hated. That emotion is reserved for decent men that these girls have absolutely faith will marry them when they reach 30, but don't.

Even men who successful navigate the current modern dating market aren't setting the rules; they're paying the price women collectively demand, and I wonder if men ever consider the cost of entry. Too often, it's their dignity; they renounce any semblance of gravitas and become clowns.

Most men today typically regard "real" or "old fashioned" manhood in terms of how well he attracts woman in an abstract sense, rather than his personal character or the quality of men he befriends. Men are more interested pursuing a one night stand with a girl they can hardly tolerate through a dating app than cultivating genuine brotherhood.

It isn't only because men have been stripped of their capacity to build groups and successful undergo hardships together; the very notion discomforts them, because they've been conditioned against it. They see their own masculinity through a feminine lens of one shade or another, which is why they mistakenly think what works well with women they date can also be applied to forming male friendships.

When men with dignity or honor are sneered at or dismissed as antiquated, it is part of our lifelong social programming to detest anything that threatens the matriarchal system. It is a man's sense of honor and self-respect that makes him capable of saying "no" in circumstances where our entire modern social order depends on him complying.

A society that values honor and virtue instead would require more of women than merely cleverly-angled profile photos and makeup. It would also place honorable men in moral authority, not random thots.

The old code of chivalry befits its time and has little context in ours. There is also no realistic way for any kind of institution to pick up the mantle with a revised code. As I wrote in the Rise of the Lone Wolf, modern men struggle to collective organize.

But that does not stop us from developing our own personal codes similarly rooted in the truth, rather than the false morals meant to suppress our masculine virtues. Nothing stops us from rejecting dishonest "niceness" in favor of honesty. We can still embrace painful courage over shameless cowardice.

As Gautier writes:

Chivalry is not quite dead. No doubt, the ritual chivalry, the solemn reception, the order itself, and the ancient oaths, no longer exist. But whatever we may do, there still remains to us, in the marrow, a certain leaven of chivalry which preserves us from death. There are still in the world an immense number of fine souls – strong and upright souls – who hate all that is small and mean, who know and who practice all the delicate promptings of honor, and who prefer death to an unworthy action, or to a lie. On the day these last vestiges of such a grand past are effaced from our souls – we shall cease to exist!

Ironically, I sense chivalry will retain its elite, exclusive status among men today as it did in the 1300s - but what excludes men won't be an accident of birth.

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