There is a common error of assuming that because chivalry and feudalism were contemporary for several centuries that they are inexorably linked. In reality, they had nothing in common. Feudalism was a successful social and economic system that required a strict class structure. Chivalry was an ideal, and although it had a simple class structure, membership was not hereditary. While its roots stretch back to the 9th and 10th centuries, the system of chivalry flourished most vigorously in the 12th and 13th centuries before deteriorating at the end of the Middle Ages. However, the ideals of chivalry continued to influence models of behavior for gentlemen and the nobility during the Renaissance in the 16th century.
Now people want to know “The Old Code”, the one they have heard of from movies and books. The Old Codes has the ethos of being superior to the modern values, echoing the “Good Old Days” ideal. In truth there was no such code; chivalry as a set of ideals and duties changed throughout the Middle Ages to meet new socio-economic realities.
Although there is no ‘authentic’ code, discussions of knightly virtues can be found in the writings of knights and bards throughout history. It seemed to be something you just “knew”, an intuitive understanding based upon the Christian Culture of the Feudal Period (Much like “Cool”, “The Jazz”, “Street Cred”, and “Elite” are in the last century).
This is best Old Code I can put together. It comes from many sources (Chrètien de Troyes, Ramon Lull, Geoffrey de Charny, Honoret Bonet, Léon Gautier, The Exhortation of Charlemagne, and others. I have adapted them as best I could to a modern understanding.
Note: Chivalry is often taken to be a matter of opinion and of dispute. Most would agree that the following virtues all have a place in the virtues a knight should have. What will occur, and did in the past, will be arguments on the weight of each value and the expression/ actions required to meet said value. Since the code was never “formulated” durings it era, it was always a matter of opinion.
Prowess: To seek excellence in all endeavors expected of a knight, martial and otherwise, seeking strength to be used in the service of justice, rather than in personal aggrandizement.
Note: Prowess is an oft taken for granted or forgotten virtue when discussing the philosophy of Chivalry, but it must remain pre-eminent. Chivalry is military in nature and Knighthood is, above all, a military order. When Chivalry lost its intimate connection with the mounted warrior and his code, it lost its force and hold, as well as much of its meaning.
Justice: Seek always the path of ‘right’, unencumbered by bias or personal interest. Recognize that the sword of justice can be a terrible thing, so it must be tempered by humanity and mercy. If the ‘right’ you see rings true with others and one follows it without bending to the temptation for expediency, then the path of Justice is yours.
Honesty: Honesty and Honor are and always have been tied together with bonds that cannot be broken. Indeed Honesty and Honor are from the same root word (Latin, Honus) and a man who would have Honor must have Honesty. A knights word is his bond. This is as it should be. All people should guard against swearing lightly, as what is sworn must be done. So also should one be honest in witness. Be always careful not to let your feelings about something become fact in your speech. Most importantly, a Knight should always be Honest with himself and not let excuses or wishes color one’s beliefs.
Loyalty: Be known for unwavering commitment to the people and ideals you choose to live by. There are many places where compromise is expected; loyalty is not amongst them. The ideal knight was sworn by oath to defend his liege lord and those who depended upon him. Seek always to defend your nation, your family, and those to whom you believe worthy of loyalty. Remember, loyalty can also mean defending or helping someone to whom you are not sworn, but to whom you owe your help. Often one may need to make personal sacrifices to support a person or ideal to which he is Loyal. A Knight must not shirk his responsibilities, even if they are self imposed.
Courage: Being a knight often means choosing the more difficult path, the personally expensive one frequently facing death. Be prepared to make personal sacrifices in service of the precepts and people you value. At the same time, a knight should seek wisdom to see that stupidity and courage are cousins. Courage also means taking the side of truth in all matters, rather than seeking the expedient lie. Seek the truth whenever possible, but remember to temper justice with mercy, or the pure truth can bring grief.
Faith: A knight must have faith in his beliefs, for faith roots him and gives hope against the despair that human failings create. While historically a Knight was to support the One and Catholic faith, supporting of any church would be acceptable. Following the Religious Ideals (even if the religion itself does not always follow them) can often lead a person towards moral perfection. However, Faith can be extended beyond mere religion. A knight should not be a cynic, or believe that his fellows and opponents are anything less than noble. A Knight should believe in the inherent nobility of all, from peasant to the Crown. Foster and maintain these virtues, defend them if they are under attack and you will be acting with Knightly Honor.
Largesse: Be generous in so far as your resources allow. Those of Nobility are supposed to support those “under them” in the social structure. Be generous in all things you can. Generosity also makes the path of mercy easier to discern when a difficult decision of justice is required.
Courtesy: Observe all forms of voice and behavior. To be polite, treat those who are your equal as those above you, threat those below you as your equals.
Humility: Value first the contributions of others; do not boast of your own accomplishments, let others do this for you. Tell the deeds of others before your own, according them the renown rightfully earned through virtuous deeds. In this way the office of knighthood is well done and glorified, helping not only the gentle spoken of but also all who call themselves knights.
Nobility: Seek great stature of character by holding to the virtues and duties of a knight, realizing that though the ideals cannot be reached, the quality of striving towards them ennobles the spirit, growing the character from dust towards the heavens. Nobility also has the tendency to influence others, offering a compelling example of what can be done in the service of rightness.
Franchise: A noble heart can equal noble blood. While those of High Blood should follow these rules, others can have it within them to be chivalric. Elevate those few the best you can. Show them Largesse and aid them on their chivalric path, as they will aid you.
Additional Ideas (4)
The Age of Chivalry was also the age of the horse. Bedecked in elaborate armor and other trappings, horses were certainly well dressed, although they might have wished for lighter loads. That the horse should be featured so prominently during the Age of Chivalry is etymologically appropriate, because chivalry goes back to the Latin word caballus, "horse, especially a riding horse or packhorse." Borrowed from French, as were so many other important words having to do with medieval English culture, the English word chivalry is first recorded in works composed around the beginning of the 14th century and is found in several senses, including "a body of armored mounted warriors serving a lord" and "knighthood as a ceremonially conferred rank in the social system." Our modern sense, "the medieval system of knighthood," could not exist until the passage of several centuries had allowed the perspective for such a conceptualization, with this sense being recorded first in 1765.
1. Thou shalt believe all the Church teaches and shalt obey her commandments.
2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
4. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
5. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
6. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
7. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
8. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
9. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.
To fear God and maintain His Church
To serve the liege lord in valour and faith
To protect the weak and defenceless
To give succour to widows and orphans
To refrain from the wanton giving of offence
To live by honour and for glory
To despise pecuniary reward
To fight for the welfare of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honour of fellow knights
To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
To keep faith
At all times to speak the truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
To respect the honour of women
Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
Never to turn the back upon a foe.
The second list is The Exhortation of 800 AD, issued by Charlemagne in the year he became Emperor.
Love God Almighty with all your heart and all your powers
Love your neighbor as yourself
Give alms to the poor as ye are able
Visit the sick
Be merciful to prisoners
Do ill to no man, nor consent unto such as do, for the receiver is as bad as the thief
Forgive as ye hope to be forgiven
Redeem the captive
Help the oppressed
Defend the cause of the widow and orphan
Render righteous judgement
Do not consent to any wrong
Persevere not in wrath
Shun excess in eating and drinking
Be humble and kind
Serve your liege lord faithfully
Do not steal
Do not perjure yourself, nor let others do so
Envy, hatred and violence separate men from the Kingdom of God
Defend the Church and promote her cause.
Faith, Charity, Justice, Sagacity, Prudence, Temperance, Resolution, Truth, Liberality, Diligence, Hope and Valour