Chivalry is the code of honour observed among knights. The ideal of chivalry is defined in modern times to include "courage, honour, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak,"[1] though the concept of chivalry and its tenants have differed greatly over time.

Etymology and originsEdit

Chivalry entered the Middle English language, from Old French chevalerie, with translations of The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland), which was a popular medieval epic verse recounting tales of the French knights under Charlemagne. The term chivalry, along with English cognates cavalry and cavalier, French chevalier (knight) and other cognates, ultimately derive from medieval Latin caballus (horse). While words for knights and knighthood in most Latinate language (such as French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) are all derived from caballus, the analogous terms in Germanic languages (such as German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, English, etc.) derive from Germanic terms for horseback riding, such as Ritter (knight) and Ritterlichkeit (chivalry) in German, ridder (knight) and ridderskap (chivalry) in Danish, etc.

Changing concepts over timeEdit

Chivalry was a central theme of many great works of medieval literature, but literary evidence of chivalry indicates both an elusive definition and ever-changing attitudes about the chivalric ideal. The earliest literary mention of chivalry known today is the popular medieval epic The Song of Roland, recounting tales of the knights of Charlemagne, who displayed the qualities of their contemporary notions of chivalry in their fight against the Moors in Spain during the Reconquista. The sort of chivalry detailed in Roland, however, bears little resemblance to popular modern definitions. Rather than concerning itself with romantic notions and treatment of the fairer sex, this early form of chivalry dictated rigorous honesty and unshakeable loyalty to one's liege-lord. The subtext of Roland's chivalry shows the underpinnings of feudal society, to the ignorance of the affairs of women and romantic love.

By the time Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy (Tuscan: Divina Commedia) in the 14th century, this militant, feudal form of chivalry had given way to a more religious, moralistic form of chivalry which emphasized obedience to God rather than loyalty to one's earthly liege-lord. Nearly 200 years later, Baldassare Castiglione published his early 16th century courtesy book titled The Book of the Courtier (Italian: Il Cortegiano), which detailed a more courtly form of chivalry, which had not completely rid itself of its military roots, yet concerned itself much more keenly with matters of courtly behaviour. At the dawn of the 17th century, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote (full Spanish title: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha), a resounding refutation of chivalry. In Don Quixote, Cervantes recounts the misadventures of a sane man who has been led into insanity by reading the hopelessly unrealistic chivalric romances of the age and decides to set out on an old nag to become a knight errant, embodying all the tenants of 17th century romantic chivalry. Meanwhile, his neighbor and companion, Sancho Panza, is the voice of reason, reflecting the reality to which Don Quixote is apparently oblivious.

Modern chivalryEdit

Our modern notions of chivalry, popularized as recently as the 1990s struggle for social sensitivity and political correctness, are concerned almost entirely with romantic love, dictating that a man (not a knight, but any man) should always treat women, but especially the object of his romantic love, with the utmost respect and dignity, going so far as to always cheerfully open doors, pay restaurant bills, and even (as the legend goes) throw down his coat for her to walk over a mud puddle. Gone are any notions of loyalty to a feudal superior or piety and obedience to God, or even genteel courtly behaviour. Ironically, when people today assert that "chivalry is not dead," invariably in reference to this modern notion of chivalry, the chivalry they speak of has nothing in common with the earliest form of medieval chivalry, which applied only to knights and dictated their behaviour on the battle field and with reference to their lord or king.


  1. "chivalry" (2008). Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 11th ed, rev. New York: Oxford University Press.