The Manliness of Chivalry

In Howard Pyle’s version of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, the Tanner sings a ballad entitled “The Wooing of Sir Keith” in which an old, ugly woman arrives at King Arthur’s court begging for the noble deed of a chivalrous knight:

“Quoth she, ‘I have a foul disease
Doth gnaw my very heart,
And but one thing can bring me ease
Or cure my bitter smart,

There is no rest, no ease for me
North, east, or west, or south,
Till Christian knight will willingly
Three kiss me on the mouth”

After King Arthur, Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Gawaine refuse to answer the “foulest dame’s” request, Sir Keith volunteers to honor the hag’s desperate plea and kisses her three times. Thereupon the foul dame is transformed into the fair maiden with the reddest of cheeks, the most fawn-like of eyes, and the most glittering of hair, and the beautiful princess offers her love and wealth to the chivalrous Gawaine: “For never knight hath lady shown/ Such noble courtesy.”

This motif of the handsome knight kissing the wizened hag appears in George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, in the fairy tale entitled “Little Daylight” in which a beautiful princess is plagued by an evil fairy’s spell. The lovely maid dances only in the nighttime when no one beholds her beauty, and she is hidden in sleep during the daylight hours so that no one can love her. When a prince beholds her transformed into an old woman moaning as if dying, he lifts her in his arms and pities the old crone: ” ‘Mother, Mother!’ said he. ‘Poor mother!’ and kissed her on the withered lips.” Miraculously, the dying lady assumes the form of a lovely princess. Because he kissed little Daylight when she was an old decrepit woman, she now kisses him in the form of a dazzlingly beautiful maiden whose countenance is as bright as the glorious son: “The prince recoiled in overmastering wonder. It was Daylight herself.”

Courtship, love, and marriage are inspired by chivalry and honor–the quintessential masculine virtues that capture a woman’s heart and awaken her deepest love and gratitude. Why is this knightly ideal hardly in vogue in modern culture where the exploitation of women appears commonplace, especially in the habit of contraception, the practice of abortion, and the tolerance of cohabitation–all areas in which men commonly use women for pleasure, gain, or convenience?

If patriarchy is the root of all evil and men are superfluous for the fulfillment of women as some feminists claim, then knighthood is an obsolete institution. As the natural, inherent distinctions between men and women diminish in military institutions and in the armed services, chivalry becomes redundant. Knighthood can flourish only when a culture clearly defines the meaning of masculinity and femininity. A gentleman knows that a woman deserves to be treated in special, considerate, sensitive ways that are reflected in manners, speech, and courtesy. If men and women look alike, dress alike, talk alike, and act alike, then the mysterious, idealistic, or romantic relationship between men and women disappears.

Emily from a Knight's Tale

Emily from a Knight’s Tale

Knighthood also flourishes when women hold high ideals for men, expecting them to be magnanimous, gallant, civilized, and chaste. The ideals that women instill and expect in boys and men determine the moral level of a society. Sex education courses, coeducational dormitories, and the easy availability of contraceptives in schools and campuses undermine chivalry, the idealizing of women, and they pander to lust, the exploiting of women for selfish pleasure. Without the virtue of chastity governing the relationships between men and women, the respect due to a woman’s honor is absent. In Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” Emily, the fair maiden the knights compete to win in marriage, is devoted to Diana the goddess of chastity. Emily prays to her patroness:

Behold, goddess of pure chastity, the bitter tears which fall upon my cheeks. Since you are a maid and the guardian of all maidens, guard and preserve my virginity, and as long as I live I will serve you as a maid.

Just as Emily inspires the gallantry and magnanimity of the knights, the virtue of chastity cultivates the ideal of chivalry. Likewise, modesty is the handmaiden of chastity. But modesty does not prevail in a pornographic culture where sexuality is flaunted in Hollywood, television, the mainstream media, and academic institutions.

The deadliest poison to chivalry, however, is contraception –the abuse of women’s equilibrium and health through invasive devices and chemicals such as the Pill, abortifacients, and even RU-486. Instead of becoming elevated as a woman worthy of courtship, respect, dignity, and devotion in the way Palamon and Arcite honor Emily, fight to win her hand in marriage, and even risk death on her behalf, woman becomes, to quote from Humanae Vitae, “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment”, and no longer man’s “respected and beloved companion.” A chivalrous man gives with liberality; a contracepting man niggardly refuses the gift of self and total surrender, frustrating the fecund nature of love. A chivalrous man protects and defends woman; a contracepting man exposes a woman’s health to many hazards, carelessly ignoring the many side-effects and potential dangers such as cervical cancer, liver cancer, heart attacks, strokes, depression, and migraines. A chivalrous man keeps his word, honors the truth, and is bound by the highest moral principles; a contracepting or sterilized man lies with his body language, pretending to give without really giving, and he avoids the truth that the act of love and the beginning of life are inseparable. A chivalrous man is thoughtful and courteous, respecting a woman’s sensibilities and avoiding the giving of offense in thought, word, or deed. A contracepting man lacks tact and delicacy, assuming that contraception allows constant availability and instant gratification. Chivalry cannot thrive in a culture dominated by the contraceptive mentality where men are wont to take and use rather than serve, give, and sacrifice.

Thus, the lack of education in the ideal of chivalry that reduces it a relic of medievalism, the feminist rejection of the complementarity of the sexes that results in a unisex ideology, and the prevalence of a contraceptive mentality that divorces love from romance all reduce the mystery that governs the relationship between the sexes. What is that mystery? As the ballad of Sir Keith and the story of Little Daylight illustrate, when a man gives with a pure heart and makes a generous gift of himself in the manner of a noble knight, it transforms a woman. It makes her fall in love. It makes her want to surrender herself and long for marriage. It unlocks her heart, awakens her beauty, and inspires her to return love for love. It is woman’s nature to love and give abundantly and totally, but that desire requires men to be noble gentlemen who respect her as a lady deserving of chivalry. Something dramatic and mysterious happens when the old hag changes into a beautiful princess and when Little Daylight is restored to life from nearly dying.

A woman’s heart melts, and the fullness of her femininity reveals itself. In both cases a handsome knight kisses an ugly crone, performing a disinterested act expecting nothing in return but the reward of loving good for its own sake. This kiss symbolizes the ultimate chivalric act of self-forgetfulness, honoring the woman for her own sake rather than for pleasure or gain. Woman intuitively senses when she is loved for her own sake and responds with all the gratitude, beauty, and generosity she possesses. This kind of love is dynamic and surprising, not perfunctory; a mutual giving and receiving in self-donation, not a hidden form of selfishness; a priceless gift, not a calculated risk

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell:

  • Chanankat

    It goes two ways, sire, for many a husband with nobility in mind gets abandoned or betrayed by the other sex. Therefore both sexes are to blame and both needing repentance is the remedy.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    You are quite right. Many noble men are abandoned and betrayed. A man’s chivalry must be received with a grateful heart by women who recognize honorable men. But the contraceptive mentality has tempted men to exploit women as instruments of pleasure with no commitments, promises, or vows, and it has tempted women to lower their standards and cheapen themselves into “living together” with dishonorable men who pretend to love but do not give all that a noble, chivalrous man should offer to a woman he respects,.