Chivalry was always an ideal. It defined the way a knight was supposed to behave. No one in the Middle Ages seriously expected every knight to live up that ideal. Even the heroes of chivalric romances usually fell short of the ideal at least some of the time – and many only achieved their goal and glory when they overcame their baser instincts or their natural shortcomings to live, however briefly, like “perfect, gentle knights.”Chivalry was a code of behavior that young men were supposed to aspire to – not to already have. The code was articulated and passed on to youths in the form of romances and poems lionizing the chivalric deeds of fictional heroes. It was also recorded in the biographies of historical personages viewed as examples of chivalry, from William Marshal to Geoffrey de Charney and Edward, the Black Prince. Finally, there were a number of textbooks or handbooks that attempted to codify the essence of chivalry.
So what defined chivalry? First and foremost, a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. He was also supposed to be upon a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.” The troubadours, meanwhile, had introduced for the first time the notion that “a man could become more noble through love." Thus love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature.The chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. But the tradition of the troubadours put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment! The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.
Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues, albeit only within the band of society that was “noble.” By definition, the heroes of chivalry are knights, and their ladies are just that: ladies. Stories about peasants, priests, and merchants are simply not part of the genre, any more than lusting after a serving “wench” qualifies as “love” in the chivalric tradition. But within the chivalric class, a lady was supposed to be loved and respected for her beauty and her graces regardless of her status, and a knight was supposed to be loved for his chivalric virtues, not his lands or titles.In more practical terms, one of the handbooks on chivalry written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull lists the virtues of a knight as nobility, loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), love, courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal, on the other hand, stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness.
Geoffrey de Charney, the French hero from the Hundred Years’ War, also wrote a handbook on chivalry that is particularly valuable because he was a man with a powerful reputation as a chivalrous knight. (He was killed at the Battle of Poitiers defending the French battle standard, the oriflamme.) Charney puts the emphasis on love as a spur to great deeds and stresses that a knight must love “loyally” (with exclusive devotion to his own true love), but includes good manners, generosity, humility, fortitude, and courage among the qualities of chivalry as well. As a reflection of his career, Charney places greater value on fighting – stressing its hardships, deprivations, and risks – over frivolous tournaments.On the other hand, the biographer of William Marshal, writing in the early 13th century, sees in tournaments a means of giving men a chance to demonstrate their “worth” – i.e., their courage, audacity, and skill at arms. For Marshal these are the skills, combined with unwavering loyalty to his liege, that enable him to rise from landless knight to regent of England. While Marshal (or at least his biographer) put the emphasis on courage, the themes of courtesy and discretion with respect to ladies, and generosity, are also present.
It is lamentable that nowadays the discussion of "chivalry" is so often confined to whether a man should open a door for a woman and similar nonsense! Chivalry wasn't about a set of anachronistic manners, it was a fundamental code of conduct that put the strong in the service of the weak -- a concept that ennobled both.
For more about chivalry, I recommend especially the following sources:
Barber, Richard W. 1970, 1974, 1995. The Knight and Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1970, 1974, 1995.Duby, George. 1985. William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry. New York: Random House, 1985.
Hopkins, Andrea. 1990. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. London: Quarto Publishing, 1990.