Catholic Encyclopedia warns against being a “chivalrous” beta orbiter
February 19, 2013 § 14 Comments
Chivalry is primarily a warrior concept, a way of reconciling religion and the profession of warrior, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1917:
In chivalry, religion and the profession of arms were reconciled. This change in attitude on the part of the Church dates, according to some, from the Crusades, when Christian armies were for the first time devoted to a sacred purpose. Even prior to the Crusades, however, an anticipation of this attitude is found in the custom called the “Truce of God”. It was then that the clergy seized upon the opportunity offered by these truces to exact from the rough warriors of feudal times a religious vow to use their weapons chiefly for the protection of the weak and defenseless, especially women and orphans, and of churches. Chivalry, in the new sense, rested on a vow; it was this vow which dignified the soldier, elevated him in his own esteem, and raised him almost to the level of the monk in medieval society. As if in return for this vow, the Church ordained a special blessing for the knight in the ceremony called in the Pontificale Romanum, “Benedictio novi militis.”
Chivalry began to lose its religious relevance not long after the end of the Crusades, in what the Catholic Encyclopedia calls the Third Period or Secular Chivalry. It speaks rather critically of the kind of chivalry in which a particular woman (not women in general) became the focus of a vowed knight’s (not Everyman’s) personal protection:
But with all the brilliance and glamour of their achievements, the main result was a useless shedding of blood, waste of money, and misery for the lower classes. The amorous character of the new literature had contributed not a little to deflect chivalry from its original ideal. Under the influence of the romances love now became the mainspring of chivalry. As a consequence there arose a new type of chevalier, vowed to the service of some noble lady, who could even be another man’s wife. This idol of his heart was to be worshipped at a distance. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the obligations imposed upon the knightly lover, these extravagant fancies often led to lamentable results.
One thing I haven’t been able to find in any legitimate historically based – that is, traditional – conception of chivalry as a part of Western Christendom is deference to and opening doors for “Girls Gone Wild”. I expect we need to apply the appropriate “Princess Bride” disclaimer to the use of the term “traditional”.
Chivalry is a universal duty of the man towards all women indiscriminately; it is a principle of ethical conduct rather than it being in response to any particular behaviors or characteristics of the woman.
This seems to be a false dichotomy, since principles of ethical conduct do not in general require us to ignore the facts about a particular person’s behavior. If by “chivalry” people simply mean that we should approach each stranger as a gentleman or a lady until demonstrated otherwise, that seems perfectly reasonable to me (though it isn’t particularly chivalry). Since men and women are different that means different things in one’s default approach to male and female strangers. But how we approach strangers is just a matter of civility, of acting civilized among civilized people; and it does not admit of universality in all circumstances nor does it maintain priority as more information comes in. As with stereotypes more generally, in individual interactions the more we get to know the particulars the less pertinent the stereotypes become.
And certainly there are many things we ought never do, period: intrinsically immoral acts. But chivalry cannot mean simply “don’t do something intrinsically immoral to a woman.”
So the notion that “chivalry” requires us to ignore certain facts about a particular person’s behavior because she happens to be a woman doesn’t strike me as chivalry, even in a modern colloquial sense. It strikes me as a repackaging of liberalism‘s insistence that reality must be reconstructed in the face of inconvenient facts.