Chivalry is a lofty ideal. But it is so lofty an ideal that it is subject to continual exaggeration and mockery. In fact, all in the name of chivalry, a knight can be a hero, a clown or a knave. Getting chivalry right requires one not to be distracted by the pretentions of romanticism.
Even St. Francis of Assisi was for a time under the spell of the flashy side of chivalry and only escaped the lure of worldly honor by the providence of God. A lofty ideal is sometimes only for show, as both the gospel account of the pharisees and the legend of Lancelot demonstrate. Men knew Lancelot as the “flower of chivalry,” but in reality he was a traitor to Arthur, his king. Shining armor can be very much like the whitewashed sepulcher of a pharisee’s heart (Mt 23:27).
Miguel Cervantes had lost the use of his left hand at the Battle of Lepanto in defense of Christian Europe and later used his right hand to write a satire of chivalry. Even this courageous soldier was not convinced by its outward show. Yet it is not at all clear that Cervantes’ mockery was unqualified disdain. Don Quixote may be a fool, but he certainly is a courageous and honest one.
There is much to be commended in any idealism as long as the ideal is true. It is really unfortunate that the inertia of original sin tends to drain the life out of youthful enthusiasm. With the death of idealism a bit of hope dies as well, and thus the aspiring generation retires at an early age. But idealism can also be an ideology in which the human person becomes a cog in the inexorable solution-machine of the zealot. The idealism of the cross is the foolishness of God and not the wisdom of men. It is not a calculation, but a commitment to something one has no control over. The cross saves chivalry from becoming and illusion of grandeur.
Chivalry is a code of honor,and as such it deals entirely with externals. It attempts to translate the ideal into a standard of measurable behavior by which the knight is distinguished from the knave. Modern egalitarianism despises honor and standardizes at a lower standard—a state of society that Chesterton called “vulgarity.” The absence of a code of honor within peer groups is evidenced by our shameless society and the dereliction of duty en masse. But at the same time romantic chivalry is blissfully unaware of the limitations of its code, which can become a cover for an unchaste heart or the pride of life. So, even where chivalry is not dead, it sometimes lives a shadow life.
Christianity in particular, underscores the limitations of any attempt to simply comply externally with a law. St. Paul in his letters reminds us that the law will not save us, and today the voice of Christ must rise above the clamor of the secular gospel to assure us that neither will mere integrity save us. Our external life must match our internal convictions, and our internal convictions need to be objectively true, but getting all that to line up is a work of grace, not simply of grit, and that alignment runs along the Paths of the Dead. There is a reason why it is only on the cross that Christ is raised above the world. There is a reason why He must descend among the dead before He can rise. The code of Christ is a paradoxical standard. To go up one must go down.
The code chivalry may express the standard of Christ’s universal evangelical message or it may promote some elitist worldview. In practice the code of chivalry has done both. Sometimes it has been an instrument for the defense of the universal Church, at others it had been used to promote gnosticism and elitism. The distinctively Christian character of chivalry can only exist where it is directly related to the person of Christ, whose knighthood shines forth in His conflict with the ancient enemy in the Battle of Skull Place (Jn 19:17). The code of Christ is the discipline of the cross. The seats at the Round Table of Christ are occupied by simple and ignorant fishermen, chosen, not for their conformity to an elite standard, but for reasons inscrutable to all but God.
Status will not save us. The great helm of chivalry can be an instrument of defense against the enemy or it can also be a theatre mask to hide behind. Noblesse oblige can be a moral dictum or an argument for status. To say that one’s behavior should match one’s status could motivate a man to become a better person, or it could lead him to imagine himself better than he really is. Status has its place when it is put at the service of the common good. But the interesting thing is that the one person who had absolute right to status said that He had not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28).
The Church is hierarchical by the design of its Founder. But the interface between spiritual and temporal authority has always involved entanglements with the logic of power, so that the Church in every age has had to fight for its liberty. Even a truly Christian state can only be run by mortal men, and there is no hierarchy of earthly angels to protect us from the logic of domination. This is one of the reasons that the modern magisterium of the Church has put such a high value on the dignity of the human person. Persons can never be used as a means to end. They are never to be reduced to the status of a tool in the service of an idea. The Church is the guardian of the Round Table and the circle of that knighthood cannot be subjected to the logic of power. The fact that the Church is a hierarchy is no argument for elitism.
Authentic chivalry is a balance. Every culture needs a warrior class. Every man needs to be a warrior. But the world also needs lovers and monks. In fact, the world needs every man to be some combination of all three. The ideals of the gentleman and the manners of courtliness are military values precisely because they do not come naturally to the man who seeks to achieve domination over another men. Both the defense of the weak and the violation of the weaker require aggression. Both the honor of virtue and the despoiling of virgins are served by good manners. Both martyrdom and phariseeism are draped in the robes of religion. Being a man for other men is indeed a Holy Grail and a coincidence of opposites.
There is a sense in which every world crisis is a crisis of manhood. And so there is a sense in which chivalry is always the answer, though ever a problematic answer. Personal, global and cosmic histories are all the same story of conflict between the light and the dark. But to fight on the side of the light, does not in itself make us children of the light, because the end does not justify the means. In fact, the triumph of the light over the dark is not an act of domination, but of surrender. Christ reigns not from an earthly throne, but from the cross. The Apocalypse is a paradox. The Lion is a lamb, and the Victor is a lamb who is slain.
The Inversion of Chivalry
Fr. Mark Elvins has pointed out that St. Francis of Assisi turned chivalry on its head. Prior to the seraphic saint’s conversion, he had been imbued with the romanticism of the Arthurian legends and did everything he could to obtain a title of nobility. Our Lord directly intervened in his plans and transformed his chivalric idealism into the service of God rather than the honor of men. St. Francis was a knight for Christ, a troubadour and herald of the Most High King, a lover of Our Lady and of Lady Poverty, and the leader of those who sit at the Round Table of the Lord’s least brethren. But the essential thing that is different about his knighthood is that it is shorn of status. St. Francis transformed the world around him, rebuilding the Church and defending it from its enemies by following the humility and poverty of Christ.
For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross (Phil 2:5-8).
This is the inversion of chivalry and the transformation of its idealism into something pure and supernatural. It is an honorable life shorn of the hankering after worldly honor. Through it virility is placed at the service of God and the protection of His people. This is the Knighthood of Christ, and its name is Marian Chivalry.