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The Medieval Code of Chivalry

Before we talk about the Medieval Code of Chivalry, let's try to define what Chivalry itself is. Chivalry may be defined as the moral and social law and custom of the noble and gentle class in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, and the result of that law and custom in action.

Medieval Code Of Chivalry-Consecrating A Knight
Consecrating A Knight

Its three principal factors are religion, war, and love of ladies, and its merits and faults are a result of these factors. The whole duty of a gentleman was included in the idea of Chivalry, which regulated his life from his early childhood.

The principle of service to God, his lord, and his lady underlay everything. The knight's rule of service was governed by the Medieval Code of Chivalry with its three main elements: religion, military duty, and love. These elements intimately connected with pride of birth will generate that frame of character which is expressed by honor and loyalty. We may reduce the ancient code of chivalry into ten "Commandments".

The Ten Commandments of the Medieval Code of Chivalry:

  • 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. 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.

Medieval Code Of Chivalry-Knightly Figure-End Of The 13th Century
Knightly Figure-End Of The 13th Century

In the 11th Century, the doctrine of love became an essential part of the Medieval Code of Chivalry, expressed in social life, and literature. Knighthood, from being a matter of war and feudal dependence, gained more dignity by becoming romantic. In the lives of all knights, the tournament bore a principal part, and the laws and customs of the tournament were inseparable from the love of ladies. A lot of the knight’s leisure time was spent in hunting, but also in music, and exercising the “science” of gallantry and poetry. The chivalric literature, whether its note was that of love or of deeds of arms, shows that the laws of gallantry were more imperious than even those of military honor.

The science of heraldry, and the distinction of ranks on which it was founded, taught the knight to show reverence to his superiors in rank, and gentleness to his inferiors. Connected to heraldry and ceremony were the laws and usages of the feudal system, and the symbolical consecration of these by solemn forms, the tenure of land by knight service, and the consequent personal loyalty to his lord.

The point of culmination of the perfect knight, devoted to the perfect Medieval Code of Chivalry may be placed between 1250 and 1350. It was the time of the knights errant and troubadours, welcomed everywhere in Europe, and speaking “lingua franca”, common to the courts of France, Germany, and England. The romances, fabliaux, chansons de geste, and ballads of southern and central France were recited and sung in England. The Celtic literature of Ireland, Wales and Brittany, and the Teutonic legends of Charles the Great and of the Niblungs found their way to Provence, France.  And the presence of Houses of Templars and Hospitallers in every country worked in the same direction of establishing an "international" Chivalry throughout Europe.

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