Friday, October 4, 2013

Prestage on Chivalry

From Edgar Prestage’s Chivalry (1928):
In its medieval form--that is to say, during the period of its prevalence in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and still more during the age of its decadence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries--Chivalry was marked by the following vices. First, it glorified war for its own sake; exalted fighting as the only occupation worthy of a gentleman; instituted a love of bloodshed, and at the same time a contempt for human suffering; and yet, at the same time, because of its excessive individualism, remained as a military instrument amazingly inefficient, retarding rather than advancing the science of warfare. Secondly, it was an exclusive class-institution; it placed a gulf between the knightly order and the commonality, and restricted its code of honor and courtesy peculiarly to members of its own caste; it generated a contempt for social inferiors and a disregard for their feelings which explain, if they do not justify, the retaliatory outrages of the Peasants’ Revolt and the Jacquerie. Thirdly, its religion was at once formal and obscurantist. On the one hand it was engrossed in ceremonies and external observances; on the other hand, it was merciless in waging war on so-called infidels, in carrying through crusades against heretics, in persecuting and suppressing freedom of thought. The Inquisition found in the knighthood a ready instrument of its worst atrocities. Finally, under cover of its improved and refined manners, it concealed and disseminated a code of debased and deadly immorality; at its worst, in Provence, it elevated fornication and adultery to the rank of social obligations.

These are grave indictments, and they are sufficient to prevent us from regarding Chivalry, in its medieval manifestation, as an ideal way of life. In mitigation, however, of an undue severity of judgment, it should be borne in mind that our standard of comparison ought not to be the more enlightened religion and morality of the present day, but rather the less elevated condition of superstition and barbarism which preceded the emergence of Chivalry. In war, in faith, in manners, and even in morals, Chivalry marked an advance on the savagery of the dark ages which came before it. It was distinctly an upward move; a move towards the light and air of the more perfect day. It manifested, if sometimes only in a crude and rudimentary form, the elelments of virtues and graces which display themselves as the fine flowers of the cultured and Christian society of this later age. Purged of its grossest imperfections, and refined by the educated conscience of Christendom, it has, throught the agency of our public schools and universities, our military and naval services, our churches and ethical associations, transmitted to us an incalculably valuable treasure of lofty principle and noble precedent.

What are the typical virtues of Chivalry in its purified and ideal form? We have seen that Chivalry was a compound of three elements, viz. war, religion, and gallantry. Each of the three respectively emphasized and exalted three qualities as essential to the true knight. The three primary virtues of Chivalry, based on its military character, were courage, loyalty, and generosity. The three secondary virtues, derived from religion, were fidelity to the Church, obedience, and chastity. The three tertiary virtues, social in their nature, were courtesy, humility, and beneficence. On the side of theory and principle, at any rate, Chivalry stressed the duties and obligations of knighthood, rather than its rights and privileges. It held up a high standard of honour, and required it to be maintained without any diminution. It insisted on a truthfulness, a trustworthiness, an adhesion to plighted word, a fidelity to engagement, from which no allurements of advantage and no plea of necessity could cause any deviation. It required a liberality which lavished largesses, even though they reduced the donor to poverty. It demanded a regular observance of the offices of religion; a full acceptance of the Catholic faith; a complete submission in things spiritual to the authority of the clergy, and, as a counsel of perfection for the elect, a respect for marriage vows. It instilled a courtesy (courtoisie), a code of fine manners based on heartfelt consideration and genuine regard which immensely added to the deligbht of the intercourse of social life. Courtesy, especially in the relations of men towards women, although it had been anticipated in the Christian Church, was a new thing in the hard and general world. It differed in its grace and charm and geniality from the mere politeness, civility, or urbanity, which (as the words themselves imply) were the forms of good manners evolved amid the crowded and commercial population of the towns. Above all, it inculcated an ideal of social service; service without remuneration; service, however humble its nature, free from degradation or disparagement; service of the weak by the strong; service of the poor by the wealthy; service of the low by the high.

Thus, even though in the day of its dominance Chivalry had defects grave and deplorable, nevertheless, it remains a glorious and honourable name, and its principles, freed from their medieval accidents, are among the noblest and most splendid that have assisted the progress of the human race.

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