Chivalry: Meaning and Codes

Chivalry was a medieval era ethical concept which summarized the ideal behavior expected of Middle Age warriors (knights). In other words, chivalry was a specified code of conduct which spelled out the virtues of real warriors. That being said, it should not trick you into thinking that chivalry was a formal law written down for knights to observe. Nothing was well-documented. What then is chivalry? And what are some of the codes of chivalry? 

The Meaning of Chivalry

It’s very far from a formality: the interesting thing about chivalry is that, it was an informal social norm which was popular during the 11th and 12th centuries. To further elaborate this, chivalric codes were just some accepted moral standards which viewed an ideal knight as one who exhibits nobility in the battlefield and also presents himself well to other people (especially the weaker ones).

It’s important to realize that the “meaning of chivalry” has greatly evolved with time. If the Middle Age generation had a second chance to come and hear us define chivalry today, they are most likely going to disagree with us. Before we delve into the chivalric codes and the modern era concept of chivalry, let’s look at its origin.

Origin of Chivalry

The earlier known usage of the chivalry codes arose from the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. At that time, cavalrymen was a branch of the military that used horses to fight. Cavalry takes it roots from the French word “cavalerie”. In the same way, “chivalry” came from an old-fashioned French word “chevalerie” which literally means “horse-riding soldiers”.

Now you may want to fully understand this by looking up the fact that, “cheval” is a word in French which refers to “a horse”. Consequently, Chivalry (originating from the French word “cheval”) was initially used when referring to horse-riding soldiers. From there, Chivalry later became associated with the English knighthood.

Evolution of Chivalry and the Knighthood

The meaning of chivalry continued to evolve in Europe. During the Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was refined to stand as a moral system of good knightly behavior. Examples of such good behaviors expected of knights include: bravery, loyalty, truthfulness and helping the weak.

It should never be forgotten that chivalry (as a virtues of the knights) was highly motivated by what Christian historians call “the Crusade”. The Crusades were a series of military actions undertaken by 11th-13th century Christians, to fight and put a lid on Islamic expansion. Because of influences from the European Christian Crusades, the chivalric codes combined religious virtues with war qualities. For example, a soldier must be brave and at the same God-fearing. Interesting, isn’t it?

The Chivalry Codes of the Knights

Members of the knighthood were expected to show certain ethical values when on war grounds or at home. The Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table also obeyed the chivalric codes: Truth, loyalty, courage and honor.

Love for God and Fear of God: An ideal knight is one who is devoted to God, loving him and fearing him at all time. Knights should be willing to go all lengths in order to maintain God’s churches.

Exhibit Valor and Serve the Lords (Kings) with Faith: Knights were expected to be courageous and be in a position to confront danger with vigor.

Care for the Weak (Less Strong Ones): The Chivalry codes emphasized the need for the stronger ones to offer helping hands to weaker ones (especially women).

Giving Assistance to Orphans & widows: Courtesy demands that, aid should be given to the widowed and the orphaned.

Desist from Rudely Offending Other People: The Chivalry codes frowned on soldiers who carelessly threw their weight on others, without any good reason.

Respect for People in AuthorityKnights were expected to be obedient to their superiors.

Being Truthful: The Chivalry codes of the knights asked all members to desist from lies. Truth must always be told unconditionally.

Don’t Run Away from Any Challenge: Knights were supposed to be fearless. It would be cowardice for a knight to turn down a challenge from an equal         

Protect the Honor of Other Knights: Knights were expected to be each other’s keepers, guarding the dignity of their colleagues.

Commandments of the Codes of Chivalry

The codes of chivalry can be summarized in a way similar to the 10 biblical commandments. The list of chivalric commandments is as follows:

          Believe in all teachings of the church, and also observe them

          Be Ready to Defend the Church

           Love Your Country

          Don’t Retreat from an Enemy

          Never Entertain a Non-religious Person. In fact, don’t show him any mercy

          Perform all Your Feudal Duties, Provided They Do Not Offend God’s Law

          One Should Never Concoct Lies

          Be Kind and Generous

          Always Fight for what is Right

What does chivalry mean today in our world?

The underlining principles of chivalry haven’t remained the same since medieval times. Truth be told (in today’s generation), few people are familiar with chivalry as a word. To worsen the erosion of the chivalric codes, society has now solely interpreted chivalry to mean courtesy shown towards women.

In that regard, our society now views chivalrous men as those who open doors for their women or girlfriends to pass through. They are those who assist women with their luggage. Owing to the association of chivalry with kindness towards women, many people think that the concept of chivalry is a sexist ideology which mostly favors women. This appears to be a deviation from the medieval era chivalric philosophies, which stressed on platonic love.

Do all ladies appreciate chivalry?

It would shock many people to realize that even though chivalric codes favor women, not 100% of them actually like it. Don’t be surprised! Current statistical reports confirm that 10% of ladies think that, it is not necessary for men to open doors for women. Anyway, that becomes easy to explain when you realize that, gender equality campaigns are now at their peaks, suggesting that women can also open doors by themselves, and maybe even much better than men.


We’ve put together the following key questions and answers to help summarize the history behind this famous historical code of conduct:

Where did chivalry originate?

The concept of chivalry has its roots in the medieval Christian setting of feudal Europe, especially in France. It evolved as a set of expectations for knights in both war and courtly life.

What are the key tenets of chivalry?

While varied, some key tenets include loyalty to one’s lord or monarch, protection of the weak and defenseless, respect toward women, and adherence to religious duties.

How is it related to knighthood?

Knighthood was the institution that most exemplified chivalric ideals. Aspiring knights underwent rigorous training and were often ceremonially dubbed as knights, swearing to uphold chivalric values.

What is “courtly love”?

Courtly love was a medieval European literary conception of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry. It often expressed love in a manner that was secretive and adulterous, usually between a knight and a married noblewoman.

Is chivalry dead in modern times?

The term “chivalry is dead” is often used to lament perceived declines in manners and courteous behavior, especially towards women. However, some argue that modern values simply reflect evolving societal norms and expectations.

How did chivalry impact warfare?

Chivalry imposed rules and constraints on warfare, such as the respectful treatment of prisoners and the avoidance of harming non-combatants. However, adherence varied and was not always consistent.

What role did chivalry play in literature?

This code of conduct played a significant role in medieval literature, most notably in romantic epics like “The Song of Roland” and tales of King Arthur. Such stories often extolled the virtues of chivalric heroes.

Why is chivalry often associated with treating women with respect?

One aspect of chivalry was the knight’s duty to protect those who could not protect themselves, including women. This led to ideals of treating women with particular respect and deference, especially within the context of courtly love.

How has the perception of chivalry changed over time?

While chivalry was once an aspirational code of conduct, its association with patriarchal and hierarchical systems has led to critiques in modern times. Some see it as outdated, while others believe its core values remain relevant.

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