Chivalry generally refers to a code of ethics adhered to by knights during the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Duty and honor were foremost among the personality traits that were most valued and admired.
During these times, it took a great deal of cunning and self preservation measures to survive a world of shifting loyalties. Dukes, barons, and other nobles took advantage of the general chaos to strengthen themselves by any means they could.
Kings as a rule had to be constantly on guard for any conceivable threat to their position of power. In these dangerous times, kings and barons strengthened their households by hiring bands of soldiers sworn to loyalty only to them. These men were equipped at their king's expense with armor and weapons and also wore the crest of the king they served.
In time these men came to be known as knights. Their strong morals, military traditions, and strict code of behavior soon became the stuff of legend. By the end of the 12th century, knights in armor had come to exemplify a sense of duty and honor and strict ethics known as Chivalry. The word comes from the French word Chevalarie, which literally means "what the horse soldiers did."
Chivalry would govern a knight's actions on and off of the battlefield. Many knights eventually came to be rich and powerful in their own right, mostly by virtue of service to their lords as well as prizes won in tournaments with their peers.
There was one more major influence on the conduct of knights during this time in Western Europe. One remnant of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, sought to unify Europe both politically as well as spiritually. The Church sent missionaries into all corners of the continent to convert nobles and their subjects to the Christian faith. The missionaries enjoyed great success in winning local rulers over to the faith. The most notable of these conversions being Clovis I, king of the Franks, in 496, and the influential King Ethelbert of Kent in 597. These kings strongly valued religious fervor among their lieutenants. As such, the Christian faith became an integral part of the knights' code of ethics from the start.
During a time of general disorder in Europe, a knight's moral code along with the Christian faith were some of the few things that emerged from the Dark Ages to hold societies together and present a clear view for a culture's future. These are lessons that should not be forgotten.
The Song of Roland
One of the oldest surviving written examples of chivalrous duty is recorded in the Old French epic poem, The Song of Roland. It details Charlemagne's defeat of the final Saracen army during his expedition into Spain which began in 778 AD. Roland leads the rear guard and is ambushed as they are crossing the Pyrenees Mountains after he is betrayed by his stepfather.
Roland is one of the main characters in this poem who bravely dies on the battlefield in service to God and his country. Before the final battle he knows that by simply blowing his horn, he could alert Charlemagne and he and his army would come to save him. Instead he and his men face the enemy against all odds instead of risking the lives of Charlemagne and his men. Roland dies selflessly in battle and is remembered as a hero in his country forever.
The anonymous author of this poem praises the valor of the Franks who fought for "Sweet France" and for God. This poem likely inspired many knights and storytellers alike to value the courageous example set by their forebears.
The Code of Chivalry
Below is a loose collection of codes adhered to by chivalrous knights of Europe:
The Code of Chivalry
Obey and defend the word of God above all else
Love and serve King and Country
Protect the Innocent
Never attack an unarmed foe
Never abandon a friend, ally, or noble cause
Keep one's word forever
Live for freedom, justice, and all that is good
Never lie or deceive
Place others' lives before your own
Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
What Life Was Like in the Age of Chivalry
The Song of Roland translated by Patricia Terry