Precepts of Chivalry

2nd quarter of the 13th century - Mail clad kneeling knight with his horse before setting off on the crusades. His servant leaning over the turret presenting his masters helmet (only a small portion visible on the left folio). Westminster-Psalter, British Library, Royal Ms. 2 A XXII, f. 220. illumination on parchment. [1]

The concept of chivalry was born in the early 13th century, possibly late 12th century, probably around the time of the first Crusade. Chivalry is most definitely, an evocative word in the Western culture today, whereby, it conjurs up images of fully armoured knights mounted on large chargers; of martial adventures in strange lands and castles with tall towers and of fair women who dwelt in them. Without a doubt, chivalry and knight are synomimous. The French chevalier denotes a man of aristrocratic standing, probably of noble ancestry, who was capable, if called upon, of equipping himself with a war horse and the arms of a heavy cavalryman, and who had been through certain rituals that make him what he is - who has been 'dubbed' to knighthood. [2] Ramón Lull, a Catalan knight, philospher and writer, wrote a book which described the strong connection between chivalry and its relgious dimensions and obligations with respect to the maintaining of justice and social order. [3] He carefully explaining in detail the Christian symbolism that informs each movement of the dubbing ritual - the bath recalling baptism and sygnifying the cleansing from sin, the white belt signfying chastity that is girded on the new knight's loins and the sword placed in his hand whose sharp edges remind him of his duty to protect the weak and uphold justice.[4] According to the French historian of chivalry, Léon Gautier in the 19th century, treated the ritual almost as if it had been for the mediaeval church, an eighth sacrament, the baptism of the warrior. [5]

Gautier attempted to condense the concepts of chivalry and wrote a set of commandments which established a standard throughout the history of knighthood. The Ten Commandments of the Medieval Code of Chivalry was published for the first time in 1891:

  • Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.
  • Thou shalt defend the Church.
  • Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  • Thou shalt love the country in the which thou wast born.
  • Thou shalt not recoil before the enemy.
  • Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.
  • Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
  • Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  • Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
  • Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

The most important and the most sacred of them is the first Commandment. The thought of God filled knights’ hearts, and the main part of the medieval knight’s service was due to the Church. He was brought up in the use of her sacraments, and in obedience to her precepts and reverence for her ministers. No one could become a knight without first becoming a Christian, without having been baptized. [6] The Crusader, the Templar, and the Hospitaller were champions of the Church against the infidel. The knight’s consecration to Chivalry was after the form of a sacrament, and to defend the Holy Church was part of his vow of initiation. War and his mimicry were to be his business, honor and religion the sanction of his actions.

However, secular attributes of knighthood, one of which can be described by a statement written by a French chronicler, Jean Froissart (1337-1412) with "As firewood cannot burn without flame, neither can a gentleman achieve perfect honour nor worldly renown without prowess". The ideal physical qualities of knights were broad and varied, but an underlying tone can be found with qualities such as one's readiness to exercise in hunting and the participation of hastiludes. [7][8] Other ideal physcial qualities found in various sources include courage or boldness, loyalty, size, health, strength, agility and beauty [9] and finally, cleanness of body[10]. The knightly qualities and virtues were not limited to those mentioned, in particular when one refers to primary sources prior to the 18th century. There were at least fourty-one qualities or virtues identified promoting the ideals of chivalry across the examination of six dedicated treatises originating in the early 13th century, in French suggests a disparity amongst these six sources with respect to common qualities and virtues defining chivalry in chronological order: (1) the romancier Raoul de Hodenc's allegorical poem Roman des Eles (or Romance of the Wings) of 1210/15; (2) the contemporary Discourse of the Lady of the Lake in the anonymously-composed prose romance Lacelot do Lac; (3) the poet Guiot de Provins' allegorical poem L'Armeurer); (4) the anonymously-composed poem L'Ordene de Chevalerie; (5) the Libre del Orde de Cavayleria, composed by the Catalan knight-turned-missionary Ramon Llull in 1270/5; and finally, (6) the Libre de Chevalerie of the heroic French knight Geoffroi de Charney, 1352.[11] In the years following the medieval period, out of the numerous characteristics promoted from the earliest writings, the most common qualities across those sources include loyalty, liberality and humility common to four works, and five others, common to three of the six sources include courage, truthfulness, courtesty, charity and prudence.[12]

The ideals of chivalry, with its many qualities and virtues was undoubtedly in-grained in the psychology of the knight in the medieval period. The strong, almost genetic desire to claim reknown by proving one's skills and prowess was a powerful force which ultimately found the demise of Sir Henry de Bohun (died 23 June 1314) who was an English knight riding the vanguard of heavy calvary at the Battle of Bannockburn. de Bohun who caught sight of the Scottish king Robert the Bruce, thought that he could capture worldy reknown by killing the Scottish king and be the cause of ending the war between the Scottish and English. Lowering his lance, he charged but met with is demise as Bruce was able to evade the lance and while standing up in his stirrups, he split de Bohun's helmet and head in two.[13] This story along with the many others shaped the chivalric ideal in the modern manifestations of chivarly which has become a common thread throughout many, if not most of the chivalric orders today. The desire to promote and encourage the chivalric ideal in their orders, have in the least, enhanced the richness of these organizations and ultimately, facilitates the desire of its membership to do good.

  1. The Westminster Psalter, British Library, MS Royal 2 A XXII, is an English illuminated psalter c.1200, with litany, prayers and Easter tables. It is comprised of 5 full-page prefatory miniatures in colours and gold (ff. 12v, 13, 13v, 14, 14v). Roundels of the Signs of the Zodiac in colours and gold, in the calendar (ff. 5-10v). 4 historiated initials in colours and gold (ff. 15, 80v, 116, 132), and 6 foliate or inhabited initials in colours and gold (ff. 38v, 53, 66, 66, 98, 114), at the beginning of major Psalm divisions. Initials in red or blue with penwork decoration in red, blue and/or green, some with pen-flourished extensions into the margin. Initials in red or blue. Line-fillers in red and/or blue, some with animal heads. Some extra folios with tinted drawings were added in the second quarter of the 13th century. It is the oldest surviving psalter used at Westminster Abbey, and is presumed to have left Westminster after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It joined the Old Royal Library as part of the collection of John Theyer, bought by Charles II of England in 1678. Both campaigns of decoration, both the illuminations of the original and the interpolated full-page drawings, are important examples of English manuscript painting from their respective periods. British Library: Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Detailed record for Royal 2 A XXII. Last accessed: April 13, 2016.
  2. Maurice Keen. Chivalry. Yale University Press. 1984. pp.1-2
  3. Ramón Lull. Llibre qui es de l'ordre de cavalleria (The Book of the Order of Chivalry written between 1279 and 1283). Ramón (c. 1232-1315) was a Catalan philospher born on the island of Majorca at Palma of a wealthy, noble family. A knight, logician, Franciscan Tertiary and writer, sometime between 1263-1266, Lull experienced a religious conversion that changed the course of his life and caused him to leave his family and his more worldly court behind. He saw a vision of the crucified Christ on five successive nights, and he decided then to devote the remainder of his life to the task of converting the Muslims to Christianity. Lull probably wrote this book afer his conversion and appeared to have a purpose to redefine medieval knighthood (chivalry) so as to highlight its implicitly religious dimension and its obligation.
  4. Maurice Keen. Chivalry. Yale University Press. 1984. pp.64-65
  5. Léon Gautier (8 August 1832 – 25 August 1897) (Translated by Henry Frith). Chivalry. London. George Routledge and Sons, Limited. 1891. p18. Available and accessible in digital form under Google Books at Chivalry
  6. ibid. pp.25-26.
  7. Hastilude stems from the Latin hastiludium which means literally "lance game", is a term to describe medieval martial games which were used as training for war. Periodically, competitors would be severely injured or killed in these games. Hastiludes were popular prior to the appearance and evolution of the tournament or joust (deed of arms), which embodied increasingly ritualistic and heraldic attributes towards the end of the 14th century. Barker (1986), pp. 138–9.
  8. Ramón Lull. Llibre qui es de l'ordre de cavalleria, Geoffroi de Charney. Livre de chevalerie. c1352. (text, context and translation by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy. The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charney. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1996.)
  9. Elspeth M. Kennedy, ed. Lancelot do Lac, 1 (Oxford, 1980), pp. 142-46.
  10. The anonymously-composed poem L’Ordene de Chevalerïe (or The Order of Knighthood) composed c. 1220 and copied to c. 1360. Busby, Le Roman des Eles, pp. 105-119.
  11. Boulton, D'Arcy J.D., Ph.D. Chapter 1. The Notion of “Chivalry” as the Social Code of the Later Medieval Nobilities: A Modern Construct and Why it Should be Abandoned. University of Notre Dame, USA. October 28, 2011. pp. 12-14. Dr. D'Arcy Boulton is the Professor of the Practice of Medieval Studies and Concurrent Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. USA. He also published Knights of the Crown. The Monarchical Orders of Knighthood in Later Medieval Europe, 1326-1520, Revised 2nd Edition (St. Martin’s, 2000), and The Treatise on Armory in Christine de Pizan’s Livre des Fais d’Armes det de Chevalerie and Its Place in the Tradition of Heraldic Didacticism,” in Contexts and Continuities: Proceedings of the IVth International Colloquium on Christine de Pizan, ed. A.J. Kennedy et al, pp. 87-98. He is also elected to the Faculty of Fellows and Registrar of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada.
  12. ibid. p.16.
  13. Marshall, Henrietta E. Scotland's Story. Galore Park Publishing Ltd. 2006. pp. 212-217.