Chivalry is a code of honor that developed out of the military culture of the ancient world. Literally the word means “cavalry.” Over time military action and the moral code that governed it became synonymous so that the order of knighthood and the code of honor came to be known by the same name. Wealthy and powerful men had to be kept in check by something other than the threat of violence from other men. Hence the code of chivalry set a standard of behavior based on the values of fidelity, honesty, courage, courtesy and generosity. Those who lived up to the code were honored and those who did not were shamed.
Many cultures have codes of honor for their warriors. In the West, the code of chivalry was a mixture of Christian and non-Christian traditions. For instance, the little we know for sure of King Arthur indicates that he was a Christian who bore an image of Mary the Mother of Jesus on his shield. But most of the stories we hear of Arthur and the Round Table are strewn with elements of paganism. Written centuries after his death, the Arthurian legends have more to say about the time in which they were written than about the time in which Arthur lived. Competing interests within the courts of medieval Europe set Christian morals and the pagan cult of courtly love at daggers drawn.
Though this military culture was not ecclesiastical in the first instance, it could hardly be removed from the religious context of the society in which it developed. Indeed, the code of chivalry gained greater moral force because of the monks who defended the liberty of the Church and the welfare of the common man, both of which were violated by the wanton violence of the knights. Furthermore, the religious and spiritual character of chivalry was reinforced by the foundation of the military orders, like the Templars and Hospitallers, and through the teaching of men like St. Bernard of Clairvaux who supported these institutions.
Paganism and Mere Manners
The tradition of chivalry lent itself also to gnostic influence, as both the military and occult arts were luxuries of the wealthy and educated. Military elitism and spiritual elitism became unholy allies. This was facilitated by the Arthurian legends, and the gnostic myths associated with both the Temple in Jerusalem and the Knights Templar. The proponents of chivalry became the guardians of a mythical secret concerning the so-called “true” origins of Christianity. Freemasonry, for example, has maintained and handed down this hybrid of chivalric gnostic Christianity for centuries. Aside from being occultist, this strain of chivalry is an honor code that is essentially elitist.
Where chivalry is mythologized or otherwise stripped of its moral content it is reduced to secular philanthropy and the cult of good manners. The word “gentleman,” derives from the word “gentle,” meaning “high born” or “noble.” Courtesy, when linked to both moral and military virtue, has a humanizing effect on manliness and is something more than good manners. But chivalry is limited in its ability to produce this “something more,” since the code is wholly about external appearances and behavior. Chivalry is an external standard by which men judge other men, and without the interior life of supernatural faith, hope and charity it is simply an empty suite of armor. In the hands of unscrupulous men good manners and bravado become the instrument of the crooked politician, the womanizer and the occultist.
God or the Goddess
The ancient code governing the conduct of war was about channeling the power of domination toward the protection of the true, good and beautiful. Chivalry took masculine brute force and humanized it. Hence, the relation of the sexes plays a central role in the tradition of chivalry. In a particular way, woman humanizes civilization. As the object of love and as the center of the home she represents in herself the true, good and beautiful, all that is worth living and dying for in this world. In the hands of Catholic saints this tradition turned upon veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, love for the Church and respect for the sanctity of marriage. In the hands of the gnostics this became the worship of the feminine and the cult of sex. Hence, pagan influences have taken the traditions of chivalry and put them in the service of the lustful cult of courtly love. These traditions are maintained in the beliefs and rites of Freemasonry and neopaganism.
The Knight and His Lady
The manly code of honor needs to be ransomed from gnosticism and pride by Christ who is the ultimate ideal of all knighthood. In the Battle of Skull Place (Jn 19:17) He stands at the Tree of Life and places Himself between his bride and the raging dragon. Jesus is the real knight who rides into battle on a white horse, appearing as the Faithful and True, and in righteousness judges and makes war (Rev 19:11). But just as His kingdom is not of this world, so is his knighthood otherworldly (Jn 18:36). His victory is not an act of domination. On the contrary, Christ willingly submits himself to the violence of other men (Jn 10:18). In this Our Lord not only ransoms us from sin, but He also ransoms the sword from the logic of domination.
He who came to bring the sword and not peace, wields only the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Mt 10:34; Eph 6:17). He comes to give witness to the truth, and because he will not relent from that witness he is put to death. But the word of truth is the last word. It cannot be silenced because it is ultimately Christ Himself who through His death and resurrection is the source of life and victory for all.
When St. Paul exhorts us to put on the mind of Christ, he has this self-emptying in mind (Phil 2:5-9). The knighthood of Christ purifies the castle of the Round Table and Holy Grail. There is an authentic Grail mysticism of which the chivalric myths are at best only allegories. Our Lord pours Himself out in the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption. The Holy Grail is the earthly vessel of His self-emptying. It is the vessel containing the Eucharist. But in the first place the Holy Grail is the womb, heart and person of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Marian devotion in the Church is based on one of the most fundamental ideas of Christian revelation: Christ is the New Adam and Our Lady is the New Eve. Mary is the virgin earth from which the humanity of Christ is taken. The chivalrous behavior of Christ is His courtesy towards the Blessed Virgin. Because of his honor for Her, He becomes Her Son, makes Her Queen Mother and offers Himself on the cross (Eph 5:25-27). If woman humanizes the culture of the warrior, and stands as the icon of all that is true, good and beautiful, then the spotless Virgin is the principle object of Christ the Knight’s defensive action and of His honorable deeds for the glory of His Father.
This Marian truth has always been present in the highest expressions of Christian chivalry and harnessed in a particular way through the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and his sons, particularly of St. Maximilian Kolbe. The prophetic graces of modern times, such as the revelations at Rue du Bac, Lourdes and Fatima, and the great Marian prophets like St. Louis de Montfort, St. Maximilian and Bl. John Paul II all point to the restoration of virtuous manliness through devotion to Mary. Noteworthy modern laymen like Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, G.K. Chesterton, Orestes A. Brownson and Frank Duff have been champions of Marian Chivalry.
The Heart of Chivalry
Men need a code of honor. But no law or structure will save mankind from the logic of domination and death. Neither are external constraints and peer pressure enough to end the dereliction of duty among men. The law of Christ is not written on stone but in the heart of man. It is written from the inside out. It is a plan of action, but before it translates into external transformation, it is a personal encounter with the Son of God who humbled Himself to be born of a Virgin.
The monks who promoted the code of chivalry put it most succinctly in the following expression: “He who fails to honor the Mother clearly dishonors the Son.” If internalized, this principle gives life to all the external requirements of fidelity, honesty, courage, courtesy and generosity. Marian Chivalry is the evangelical message that the cosmic battle of good over evil is won only through our humble entrance into the mysteries of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. And the only doorway though which we may enter these mysteries is the Heart of His Mother.