Parfit Gentil Geeks

Chivalry is not dead — certainly not as the subject of an inane and repetitive debate about rude men and wronged women anyway. When Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery confessed in Radio Times that she longed for a bygone age of door-opening, dinner-table-rising men, female columnists were quick to mount their anti-sexism steads.

Jenni Murray briskly reminded us that we should be grateful to see the back of a gendered code of manners, while Bryony Gordon expressed concern about the dry-cleaning bill should some gallant fellow place his cloak over a puddle for her. Emily Maitlis assured us of chivalry’s Lazarine fortitude in the technological age. As proof of its contemporary social relevance and power for civility, she cited the example of social media users “anxious to be of service” when an attractive celebrity newsreader such as herself implores her “tweeps” for help. Thus, the stereotypical cyber-geek, with his obsessive love of Scandinavian death metal and medieval warfare, becomes a modern-day Sir Galahad, armed to the hilt with a laptop and Twitter account.

So how did the debate come to be a mere matter of relative sexism, and forget about chivalry’s most crucial component: the notion that God informs and guides good behaviour, and that chivalry is enacted, not out of some unscrupulous desire to enfetter and ravish womankind, but out of “piety and virtue…the essence of a knight’s life”, as Johan Huizinga argued in 1919 in his seminal work, The Waning of the Middle Ages

Edmund Burke famously blamed revolutionary France for abolishing chivalry, but perhaps it was the overripe sensuality of the Pre-Raphaelite Arthurian revival that tarnished chivalry’s holy armour in the post-Enlightenment imagination. A case in point: Tennyson’s knight may have wished the Lady of Shalott well on her way into the next life” — God in his mercy, lend her grace” — but only once he had dazzled her to death with his brazen greaves. The fact of the matter is, however, that chivalry itself was always an unstable entity, inviting poet and envoy Peter of Blois to proclaim a crisis as far back as the 13th century, as the Church struggled to reconcile violent mercenary life with divine duty. 

Chivalry, then, never quite lived up to the noble ideals of the troubadors and their ladies. It degenerated into a mere code of male manners once it became obvious fighting in the name of God was just too difficult for the Church to justify. Which probably means that these facile debates on the death of chivalry being an inevitable and positive consequence of women’s rights would do just as well to explore the seemingly paradoxical challenge of trying to live “a sublime form of secular life” in an age where the Church didn’t always inspire confidence in its congregation — much like today. Of course, we couldn’t illustrate those with pictures of the comely Michelle Dockery or her like. When it comes to chivalry, it’s always been easier to focus on Her Indoors rather than Him Upstairs.

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