IS THE AGE OF CHIVALRY DEAD?
By Vincent Lyn
Chivalry is defined as, “behaving in an honorable or polite way especially toward women.” Most men who originally practiced chivalry were nobleman, knights, and horseman. Though, the tradition of expressing respect and honor towards women was presented by these men it developed into a way to woo women in a respectful manner.
Cultural commentators have a strange obsession with asking whether things are dead. Chivalry is as dead as the eighth-century knight Count Roland, whose personal conduct became one model for chivalric codes in the Late Middle Ages. And although chivalry disappeared hundreds of years ago, people can’t seem to stop talking about it. As feudalism faded in the 15th century, so did chivalry — but it popped up again in the 18th and 19th century when writers began to romanticize the Middle- Ages. In 1790, for example, Irish statesman Edmund Burke took one look at the queen-killing French Revolution and bemoaned: “The age of chivalry is gone: that of economists and calculators has succeeded: and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”
His statement was melodramatic especially considering no one had followed chivalric codes for hundreds of years. But Burke wasn’t the only person to belatedly announce the death of chivalry. In 1823, poet Lord Byron stated that chivalry was dead, and the 17th-century novel Don Quixote had killed it. To Burke and Byron, chivalry was a noble ideal about how soldiers should behave in battle and life, rather than a specific code that helped protect a feudal class in the Late Middle Ages. Writers continued to think of chivalry as a military ideal through World War I, when wartime posters used images of medieval knighthood to portray war as something noble. But after the horrors of World War I, the notion of “chivalry” lost its luster as returning soldiers became disillusioned with the idea that there can be any glory in war.
More than a century later, “chivalry” has shed most of its association with war, at least among non-historians. When people evoke it today, they’re usually trying to make an argument about how men should treat women, particularly in romantic relationships. Though this equation of “chivalry” with “civilian gentlemanliness” probably has its roots in the Victorian Era, the divorcing of chivalry from war is still quite new. Long before modern cultural commentators began wringing their hands about what feminism hath wrought, Burke and Byron were already writing their own hot takes about how the French peasants and Don Quixote had killed chivalry. The tradition of publicly declaring that chivalry is dead is almost as old as the notion of chivalry itself.
Kind gestures such as holding a door open and pulling out a chair can say a lot about a man. Whether or not he does it, how he does it, or if he even believes a woman needs a man to do these small things for her. It is not a matter of if men are capable of them, but if they are willing and there is even a purpose to practice them anymore.
Today’s generation has been referred to as many things. They are called millennials, the technology age, and the hookup generation. The thought that chivalry exists within this generation seems glim, but we can ask ourselves if we still perform acts of romanticism and for what purpose. In a time when young ladies are now able to do almost everything by themselves, men are often referred to being obsolete. Men used to be the breadwinners and leader of a household. Women used to suck in their stomachs and have a smile plastered on their face while waiting for their husbands to come home for their dinner. Now, men either share in every responsibility that a woman has or the woman will simply take control all together. In a way it is empowering that woman can run a household, take care of children, be the head of the household and still find time for yoga, but how has this changed the view of chivalry?
I don’t believe that chivalry is dead. It is certainly in low supply though. After centuries of the rulebook always being the same. It wasn’t always being the same. It wasn’t hard for men to know what to do in terms of being a gentleman. But the rulebook of chivalry has changed whether anyone would like to believe that or not. It is all a matter of open mindedness, communication and respect. Chivalry is not about praising women and bringing men to their knees. It is a simple matter of respect. I doubt a woman would ask you to throw your jacket over a puddle for her to walk over like they did in medieval times, but I’m sure she would appreciate you holding the door open for her.
My Mom and Dad worked tirelessly to ensure I was raised on values. In the 1950’s, you rarely came across someone who didn’t have values. Growing up in the UK I attended elite public schools and not only were the rules extremely strict but the etiquette of being groomed to be a polite and gentlemanly young man was all part of the curriculum. Being properly taught to shake hands, open the door for others, to tip your cap and to say Ma’am and Sir. I respected authority and though I might’ve not cared much for certain teachers, I respected their position. And if not, the punishments were surely handed out of which I received many. Even coming to America there was a mutual respect among teenagers and police officers. Sure, I tried to get away with things, but when pulled over I showed respect to the officer as he did the same in return.
However, most of all there was a great respect for ladies. I remember some years ago with my family and Mother. Upon arrival at the restaurant, the lobby was full with no available seating. My Mom being ill walked with a walker to aid in her balance. To my surprise not one man or boy in that lobby yielded his chair to my Mother. She had to stand till our table was ready. I was appalled and embarrassed for my gender. I am sad to say this problem has gotten worse. Society has developed an “it’s all about me” mentality and it’s ruining our society. What has happened to our manners, integrity and chivalry?
Many years ago I was in Mexico on a vacation and decided one afternoon to stop by a store and pick up some snacks. I caught a bus, found a seat and proceeded to eat some of the goodies I bought. Like in so many countries I’ve traveled I always try my best to learn a few handy phrases. It is customary when you are in a foreign country to respect their tradition and try to at least speak a little of their language. I’m always sensitive to that issue. As the bus continued its travel, the stops were getting more frequent, and more and more people were boarding. It also seemed that more local workers than tourists were boarding as it was around the time workers finish work. When the bus stopped again a young woman got on and proceeded to stand in the aisle. There were no seats available and no one offered theirs to her. I was concerned with the language barrier, but stood and tapped on her shoulder and motioned for her to take my seat. She looked surprised and shook her head, “No.” I insisted and she finally took my seat, but I was getting looks from other men and boys on the bus.
The young woman spoke English. She thanked me and told me that men in Mexico do not give up their seat to women, which explained the stares. I politely told her, “I was raised to respect a lady and to relinquish my seat when I saw a lady standing.” So many times living in New York City I’ve seen men and boys sitting while ladies stood, whether on a bus, train, or waiting for a table in a restaurant. I even watched men sit while their wives or girl friends stood.
What has happened to our society?
Chivalry was formed in the 11th century. Only men with a solid reputation and a warrior mentality could join the ranks of Knighthood. The ancient code of chivalry was put together in the 11th and 12th century and had Ten Commandments, all of which are inspiring and could be used today. The ninth code fits this article very well, “Thou shalt be generous, and give largess to everyone.” That means, “Be generous to everyone.” Those words inspire me because it follows right along with doing unto others’ as you would have them to unto you.
Chivalry is all about respect, being a man, having integrity and being generous. Of late I have seen less and less common courtesy and respect than I can ever remember. Just take a look the next time you’re in a restaurant at family gatherings or even couples most are buried in their iPhones. Chivalry needs to be resurrected and used every day. It must not die the slow, painful death and then be forgotten. My concern is that my generation is the last generation to have any chivalrous values. I love to hear the sound of gratefulness when you hold the door for someone, smile and greet someone with a, “Good Morning” or “how are you?” It’s the good feeling you get deep in your heart when you have done a generous deed.
So I pose a challenge to every man. Be chivalrous in everything, Everyday take responsibility for your actions and instruct the young men following in the ways of chivalry and generosity. It will make our world a better place to live. There is a quote I came across that reverberates with me, “Chivalry never died. The gentleman in most men did. Being a male is a matter of birth. Being a man is a matter of age. But, being a gentleman is a matter of choice.”
I hear my darling need me in the kitchen. Got to go be generous and help her.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency