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( Originally Published 1913 )
The feudal system gave opportunity for the rise and development of chivalry in mediaeval Europe. An organization of society- which set a comparatively small class of men free from exacting duties, usually incumbent upon citizens, accounts for the existence of knighthood as we find it in the Middle Ages. From the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries knighthood flourished, being more powerful during the first three hundred years.
Knights belonged to the upper or noble class and their activities were undertaken for the most part in behalf of that class. Nevertheless, their influence was felt throughout Eu rope and among all social classes. In some ways this influence was fortunate; viewed from other standpoints, it was less fortunate, and even at times pernicious. When all is said, the good it embodied probably outweighed the evil.
"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 results of that law and custom in action. It applies, strictly speaking, to gentlemen only. Its three principal factors are war, religion and love of ladies: its merits and faults spring from those three heads, and all the side influences which attend its growth and decay may be summed up under these."
Boys belonging to the nobility were trained from childhood in the spirit of knight-errantry. At about the age of seven a boy would be sent to the castle of some noble to serve as page until fourteen. Here he came and went at the command of lords and ladies-carrying messages, and doing slight commission,. By the ladies he was taught courtesy and by the men he was trained in feats of arms, riding and tilting. He lived in an atmosphere of chivalry and the dignity and worth of knighthood became firmly fixed in his mind. When about fourteen he became a squire. Now he carried the armour of his lord, bore his shield, aided him in every way. When twenty-one he was usually knighted, preferably upon the field of battle where he had distinguished himself by his bravery.
The knight served the Church, his lord and his lady. He showed respect to his superiors and gentleness to his inferiors. Truth, honor and fidelity were qualities he esteemed before all others, and he promised to defend the weak and oppressed. His principal occupation was war. During times of peace, the mock-battle-the tournament-was engaged in. The crusades gave ample opportunity for the knights to distinguish themselves in battle. Other occasions were given by wars between nobles, between kings, and in the rendering of assistance to the Pope. Many accounts remain to us of daring deeds upon the field of battle, notably during the Hundred Years' War. The complete armour worn by the mediaeval knight rendered him wellnigh invulnerable before the invention of gunpowder.
Between one campaign and another or in extended periods of peace, tournaments were held in lands where knighthood was well established. As a matter of fact, more were held in France and England than in kingdoms farther east. At such times knights from all over Christendom might enter the lists and contest with their fellow-knights in various feats of skill and strength. Such occasions were anticipated and eagerly hailed. Kings and queens sometimes graced the gatherings by their presence; each knight was stimulated to do well in the eyes of his mistress, or at least in her estimation. We may read various accounts of these tournaments, both in the literature of the English and the French. The Chronicles of Froissart are famous. He was a native of Flanders who spent quite a portion of his life at the courts of France and England. He had a wide acquaintance in both lands and was favored by royalty. He wrote down many incidents that he witnessed, and because he chronicled them so simply and so truthfully withal, his writings have become a repository for modern knowledge of chivalry and gallant deeds in the fourteenth century. Not only does Froissart lead us into the spirit of his age, but he brings men before us in so striking a manner that they become as familiar as characters in a story. Two or three descriptions of military encounters, tournaments and tilting matches are appended at the close of this chapter, but he who would wander in the land of knight and lady, squire and page, gallant king and faithful vassal, should become acquainted with the Chronicles in their entirety.
Probably in the beginning the order of knights came into existence to support the king in the stand he took against the Saracens. Mounted horsemen who defended the borders after the battle of Tours seem to have merged into knights. However, it is difficult to tell how early the spirit of chivalryhonor of women and respect for them, accompanied with the attentions of courtesy-became allied with knight errantry. It must be granted that it was this spirit of chivalry, toward religion and women, that exalted knighthood and gave it dignity.
During their leisure the knights found plenty of time for dancing, feasting, singing, making love and writing love literature. With the songs of bravery-as, for example, the Song of Roland-were sung songs of love, for example, the story of Aucassin and Nicolete. Lovers addressed poems of praise to their ladies, and troubadours carried such songs from court to court, from castle to castle. In their relations with each other knights showed remarkable delicacy of feeling and respect. The law of gallantry, we are told, was equal, if not superior, to the law of military honor as a guide to conduct.
Gradually knight-errantry died out in Europe as a distinct estate and occupation of men, and yet it is safe to say that to this day, to whatever extent the spirit of chivalry still domi nates men, to whatever extent they spring to the aid of the weak and espouse the cause of the oppressed, however proudly they prize their pledged word and their honor, next to the teachings of Christianity, this is the result of the teachings and ideals of mediaeval knighthood. Unworthy knights there certainly were-knights who were selfish, quarrelsome and false to their vows. Unchivalric men there certainly are today; but both in the Middle Ages and at the present time such men have existed, not because of knighthood and its ideals, but in spite of them. In modern times there has been no such unity in religion as allowed men to be. as one in espousing it, and during the past century society has undergone such social revolutions that bewilderment has resulted and no longer are the duties of the chivalrous clearly defined as they once were. Nevertheless, so widely has a chivalric spirit become diffused among the nations that we scarcely realize how different the world would be were it suddenly eliminated.
Another fortunate result of knight errantry was the dignity given to personal service. Among the ancients we find little that was exalted in service. It was rendered from ne cessity rather than choice. In the Middle Ages the monk who served humanity in serving God, and the knight who served his church, his king, and his lord, gave to personal service a feeling of pride and consecration.
"Chivalry taught the world the duty of noble service willingly rendered. It upheld courage and enterprise in obedience to rule, it consecrated military prowess to the service of the Church, glorified the virtues of liberality, good faith, unselfishness and courtesy, and above all, courtesy to women. Against these may be set the vices of pride, ostentation, love of bloodshed, contempt of inferiors, and loose manners. Chivalry was an imperfect discipline, but it was a discipline, and one fit for the times. It may have existed in the world too long: it did not come into existence too early, and with all its shortcomings it exercised a great and wholesome influence in raising the mediaeval world from barbarism to civilization."