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How Chivalry Died—Again and Again

February 14, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

An illustration of Knights from A History of the Development and Customs of Chivalry, by Dr. Franz Kottenkamp, 1842. (Credit: Historical Picture Archive/Corbis/Getty Images)

“Is chivalry dead?” The answer, m’lady, is a definite yes.

Cultural commentators have a strange obsession with asking whether things are dead. Time magazine in particular has courted sensationalism over the years with covers that dramatically check the pulse on “God,” “feminism,” or “truth.” And for the past few decades, when op-eds tackle relations between straight men and women, there’s particular question they love to explore.

Chivalry is as dead as the eighth-century knight Count Roland, whose personal conduct became one model for chivalric codes in the Late Middle Ages. And although chivalry disappeared hundreds of years ago, people can’t seem to stop talking about it.

The term “chivalry” loosely refers to informal codes of conduct developed by European knights in feudal systems starting in the 12th century. These codes differed based on region and time period, and covered issues like whom knights should show mercy to and whom it was okay to attack.

An illustration of Knights from A History of the Development and Customs of Chivalry, by Dr. Franz Kottenkamp, 1842. (Credit: Historical Picture Archive/Corbis/Getty Images)

In these feudal systems, knights worked in paid service to their lords, and enjoyed social superiority to the serfs or peasants. In the 1984 book, Chivalry, the late historian Maurice Hugh Keen argued that chivalric codes had served as a kind of international law of war that protected these knights as a aristocratic class. Keen’s argument countered the widely-held presumption that chivalry was more focused on courtly love and protecting women.

As feudalism faded in the 15th century, so did chivalry—but it popped up again in the 18th and 19th century when writers began to romanticize the Middle Ages. In 1790, for example, Irish statesman Edmund Burke took one look at the queen-killing French Revolution and bemoaned: “The age of chivalry is gone: that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded: and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

His statement was melodramatic, especially considering no one had followed chivalric codes for hundreds of years. But Burke wasn’t the only person to belatedly announce the death of chivalry. In 1823, poet Lord Byron stated that chivalry was dead, and the 17th-century novel Don Quixote had killed it. Author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had used Don Quixote to satirize chivalry, and Byron indignantly wrote that “Cervantes smiled …read more

Source: HISTORY

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