Chivalry in the Middle Ages

Chivalry in the Middle Ages was a moral, religious and social code of knightly and courtly conduct.  The code varied, but it often emphasized honor, courage and service.  Chivalry in the Middle Ages may also refer to an idealized life and a knight’s manners while among his court.


The term chivalry was derived from several different languages.  The French term chevalier, the Spanish term caballero, and the Italian term cavaliere, all meaning “warrior on horseback” came together to form “chivalry.”  While the term was originally used the same as it had been previously (for warriors on horseback) it became known as a broad term for the code of conduct followed by knights.

The first appearance of chivalry in the Middle Ages was seen in military activities against non-Christian states.  Europe desperately sought to control more land during the Middle Ages.  The first known chivalric movements were comparable in nature to the monastic orders of the time.  Both of these movements sanctified members through fights against supposed “infidels,” while protecting religious pilgrims.  Both movements also required taking a vow and the logging of activities.

Three types of knightly chivalry

There were three types of chivalry in the Middle Ages.  These included duties to countrymen, duties to God and duties to women.  These three areas intertwined often and were sometimes hard to distinguish.

-Duties to countrymen
Sometimes referred to as “warrior chivalry,” this area of chivalry deals with a knight’s virtuous traits such as valor, honor and protecting the poor.  To the knights, this was the most important type of chivalry.  This type of chivalry also calls for knights to put others’ lives before their own.  An example of warrior chivalry in the Middle Ages was Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.

Though it is called warrior chivalry, over half of the entries in the Knights codes of Chivalry relate to acts of chivalry rather than acts of combat.

Medieval courtly literature glorifies the ideologies and valor of the ancient Romans.  An example of this is De Re Militari, a handbook on war and warfare written by Vegetius.  De Re Militari was translated into French in the 13th century as L’art de chevalerie.  Later works on war and warfare often drew from De Re Militari, such as HonoreBonet’sL’arbes des batailles.

Other attributes of warrior chivalry included:

  • Serving the lord faithfully
  • Aiding orphans and widows
  • Refraining from malicious offenses
  • Refusing and abhorring monetary awards
  • Living for glory
  • Guarding the honor of fellow knights
  • Never retaliating upon a foe, but never refusing a challenge from an equal
  • Completing any task or challenge that has been started
  • Always speaking the truth

-Duties to God
A knight’s duty to God under chivalry included being faithful to God, being faithful to the church, always being a proponent of good against evil, and putting the worship of God above all others, even the feudal lord.  This was known as “religious chivalry.”  Examples include Sir Percival, the legends of the Grail and Sir Galahad.

-Duties to women
Today, the most commonly recognized form of chivalry in the Middle Ages is chivalry towards women.  Chivalry towards women included honoring one woman before all others, as well as a general graciousness and gentleness towards all women.  This was known as “courtly love chivalry.”  A famous example of courtly love chivalry in the Middle Ages was Sir Lancelot in showing his love for Guinevere.

Chivalry  towards women was derived from worship of the Virgin Mary.  This worship also contributed to the flourishing of chivalry towards women.  Interestingly, the Medieval worship of Mary contrasted greatly with the attitudes in Medieval society about women in general.  For the most part, women were oppressed and viewed as much lesser beings than men.   Women outside of noble families were viewed as especially worthless.  Women were even sometimes viewed as a source of evil, even though Mary was seen as a refuge for man and a mediator to God.

Courtly Love

Courtly love was the practice of chivalrously expressing love.  It was usually secret and not expressed between husband and wife.  Its purpose existed somewhere between spiritual enlightenment and erotic desire.  Generally, only nobility participated in affairs of courtly love.
The term “courtly love” was not coined until the late 19th century.  The rules of courtly love were laid out in Andreas Capellanus’ very influential work De Amore (“Concerning Love”).  Today, the book is listed under the title “The Art of Courtly Love.”  The book gives information on how to love depending on class, gives example conversations between men and women and lists 31 rules for loving.“The Art of Courtly Love” is one of the first published “self-help” or “love and dating guide” books.

“He saw a written parchment which was fastened… with a little gold chain.  When he inquired carefully concerning this, he was told, ‘This is the parchment on which are written the rules of love which the King of Love himself, with his own mouth, pronounced for lovers.  You should take it with you and make these rules known to lovers…”
-Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love

Some of Andreas’s 31 rules of love include:
-Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
-He who is not jealous cannot love.
-It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
-Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
-When made public love rarely endures.
-Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
-When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
-He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little.

Democratization of Chivalry

In the late Middle Ages, the wealthy merchant class began to be educated on chivalry and the ideals of the knights.  This led to the publication of the courtesy book.  Courtesy books were guides for gentlemen on how to behave.  This indicates that men’s values and ideals after the Medieval era were shaped by the chivalric culture.

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