Friday, November 15, 2013


Toward a Clarification of the Word "Chivalry"

I am of the opinion that a major front of “the gender wars” could be won with a simple lesson in etymology. If we merely understood the actual meanings and histories that certain loaded words contain, we could be living in a post-gender society. Maybe.

“Chivalry” is one of those words. And it seems to be getting a lot of attention lately. Specifically (from a so-called website), regarding its so-called death. Some say men are to blame—men who no longer feel obligated to hold open doors, pull out chairs, or cover the cost of dinner for their female companions. Some say it’s women who are at fault—women who are too independent, too self-sufficient; women who don’t give men a reason to be chivalrous. Purportedly, these are all symptoms of our society’s descent into moral degeneracy. Purportedly.

Of course, those who most loudly decry its decline tend to have the narrowest, most distorted notion of what “chivalry” actually is. It comes from the Anglo-French chevalerie, which is derived from chevaler, the Old French word for a knight on horseback. I assure you, the medieval Normans had little time to deliberate such frilly conundrums as the etiquette of going Dutch on a bill. Things like not dying of plague tended to take precedence. In any case, if we’re to abide by the origins of the word, being chivalrous entails little more than owning a horse. 

No, the historical qualifications for chevalerie had very little to do with horses, women, or the treatment thereof. The British monarchy, for instance, traditionally bestowed knighthood in return for superior military service—a field generally dominated by men; some good, some bad. True, chivalric code dictated that knights use their weapons chiefly for the protection of the weak (read: women and children), but the idea of a knight-errant—roving the countryside, performing random acts of valor—is a fairytale. A knight’s gotta eat. In order to survive, he would fight in the employ a liege lord, a nobleman who swore no such oath of chivalry to gain his title, land, and (most important) coinage.

In 1917, the British Crown began knighting men and women, recipients ranging from industrialists and scientists, to actors and schoolteachers. Helen Mirren, Jane Goodall, and Miriam Rothschild have all been knighted. It’s an accolade they all deserve. All three are definitively chivalrous.

Why? Because, ironically, the antiquated institution that is the British monarchy takes a fairly modern and meritocratic approach to knighthood: those individuals who have made “significant contributions to [British] life.” That is, to say, those who have performed a service of genuine societal value. Those who have made great films, developed cures for deadly diseases, and yes, even fought in the occasional war.

Holding the door open for a lady does not make a man “chivalrous.” Equating the two suggests that men, by carrying out simple, quotidian niceties—actions whose good intentions sometimes obscure their roots in the patriarchal conception of women as fragile—have achieved an award-winning distinction. Paying for dinner does not a white knight make. So do the world a favor: get off your high horse.


Photo via pianowow/flickr.

Jake Flanagin is a researcher at The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter @jakeflanagin.

9 Comments / Post A Comment


From now on everyone I date has to have a horse, and bring said horse to dinner.

And the horse has to pay and hold the door for me.

Ten Thousand Buckets

@commanderbanana And it should be a good Spanish charger, not one of those cruddy pre-1066 English horses. Those things couldn't even carry a man and his armor into battle at any decent speed.


good good goood :]@y

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

Well, now I'm picturing Helen Mirren in armor and on a horse and IT IS GREAT

279th District Court


I kept wondering at the beginning of this piece, however, if it was going to be pointing out how horrible chivalry was or saying it should only be considered for proper beyond-normal heroic/compassionate acts. Trying to do both resulted in a bit of whiplash, but hey, I'm happy.


Only tangentially related, but I was at Trader Joe's a couple of weeks ago and walked over to take a handbasket and there was a slightly older guy there ahead of me. He handed me one first, and I said, "Oh, thank you!" to which he replied, "Chivalry's not dead, you just gotta kick it in the ass!!"

Which... doesn't really make any sense to me. Am *I* the one kicking it in the ass? Is *he*?? So confused...

Kimberly McColl@facebook

One of the notions of chivalry that we're saddled with (sorry, couldn't help myself) comes from the literary genre of the chivalric romance, which was popular among literate people in medieval Europe. The works in this genre generally followed a pattern in which an errant knight would go on a quest, defeating monsters, etc., and win the love of the lady. The knight's behavior was bound by a strict code of "honor," which is recognizable today in bros who want to throw their weight around and feel noble while doing it. Cervantes made fun of chivalric romances in Don Quixote. Around the turn of the 17th century. Literally hundreds of years ago. Let it go--it's over!

Story #2

@Kimberly McColl@facebook re: bros who want to throw their weight around and feel noble while doing it -- "A desire to have all the fun is nine tenths of the law of chivalry."


Ugh, I dated this guy who was very keen on the idea of chivalry--holding doors open, walking on the road side of the pavement, paying for dinner. But at the same time, he didn't listen to me when I was talking about feminism or inequality, and brushed it off when a guy catcalled me when we were walking down the street together one time. He seemed to think that the little gestures (doing things I was perfectly capable of handling myself) somehow made up for not pulling his weight when it came to actually addressing things that were real problems. I'd like to redefine the ideas of respect in chivalry as pertaining to listening and paying attention to a person's needs, rather than just carrying out a generic list of outdated symbolic tasks.

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