Chivalry (Fr. chevalerie, riders of horses), an institution forming the special characteristic of European civilization in the middle ages. It flourished from about the beginning of the 10th century to the end of the 15th; a century more for its rise and another for its decline will include the period of its existence as an organized institution. Almost every feature of chivalry has existed in all ages and among all peoples except utter savages. Its germs, especially in its avowed relations to the female sex, existed in the German forests long before the Christian era, although they remained undeveloped until after the destruction of the Roman empire and the establishment upon its ruins of the states of modern Europe. During the period between the 5th and 10th centuries there existed in that part of Europe winch had been a portion of the Roman empire scarcely a trace of culture except in the cloisters, scarcely any safety to person or property except such as had come into the possession or under the direct protection of the church. Elsewhere the strong hand was the only law. In time the spirit of the church began to spread beyond the cloister, and here and there a brave and humane man would take upon himself the task of protecting the weak and redressing the wrongs of the injured.
Women, being the weakest and most liable to suffer wrong, naturally first claimed this protection; and so to courage was added courtesy and refinement, and at least in theory chastity and temperance, as essential to the character of these self-appointed champions. These naturally associated themselves for mutual aid and protection. The church was eager to aid and be aided by this growing institution; and so it early took upon itself a religious form. France was the country in which the new civilization first gained strength; and here the institution of chivalry first took form. From France the institution spread to England, Spain, southern Germany, and southern Italy. Ethnologically the order belonged to that branch of the Teutonic family which had overrun these countries, which then mainly constituted Christendom. The crusades suddenly melted all Christendom into a sort of body politic, of which chivalry and the church became the notable characteristics. The decrees of the famous council of Clermont (1095), which sanctioned the first crusade, indicate the importance which the institution of chivalry had then attained.
This council, after confirming and extending the "truce of God " (see Truce of God), formally recognized the institution of chivalry by decreeing " that every person of noble birth, on attaining 12 years of age, should take a solemn oath before the bishop of his diocese to defend to the uttermost the oppressed, the widows and orphans; that women of noble birth, both married and single, should enjoy his special care; and that nothing should be wanting in him to render travelling safe and to destroy the evils of tyranny." In this decree all the amenities of chivalry were sanctioned by the civil and ecclesiastical power. It will be noted that, unlike the church, which in theory at least recognizes the right of all men to all her privileges and immunities, chivalry had nothing to do with any except those of gentle birth; but by the decree of the council every male person of such birth was from childhood enrolled as a candidate for the order. The training of the chevaliers, or, as we usually style them, the knights, grew into an elaborate system of education, admirably adapted to its purpose. Except for those who should enter the church, there was no career but that of arms. Every noble youth was to be trained as a soldier. This training was seldom carried on at home.
Youths of the highest rank were usually educated at the court of the sovereign or at the castle of some neighboring lord. The importance of a noble was measured to a great extent by the number of his followers. The castle of every noble of wealth and repute became a kind of school for the training of the sons of his friends and neighbors. The education of the boy began at the age of 8 or 10. He was taught the rules of courtesy and the mysteries of hunting, and trained in riding and the use of the weapons fitting his age and strength, and was styled a valet or page. At the age of 14 he was held fit to become an esquire or squire, that is, a shield-bearer, and to accompany his master to the battle field, rather as a spectator than as a combatant. At 21, and sometimes earlier, he might become a knight. The full induction to the order was sometimes made on the battle field, when the forms were few and brief; but when the rank of the candidate and the circumstances permitted, the induction was accompanied by elaborate religious rites, at the close of which he received from the investing knight the accolade, or three blows with the fiat of the sword, with the words, "In the name of God, of St. Michael, and of St. George, I dub thee knight; be brave, bold, and loyal." Originally every knight had the right to confer the dignity, but in course of time this came to be restricted to sovereign princes, and to the commander of a royal army in the field.
Only a small portion of the squires became knights, although all were entitled to claim the honor. The knight required several horses, a squire or two, and a number of attendants. Unless he had considerable estates, or had won renown for valor and skill sufficient to gain for him a large guerdon, he would not be able to defray all these expenses; and so most of them remained squires, attached to the service of some prince or baron, or not unfrequently in a state of independence, hiring out their own military services, and those of such men-at-arms as they could gather around them, to any one who was able to pay their price. These squires must be distinguished from those others who were the attendants of knights, and undergoing training for the order of knighthood. Not a few of the stoutest soldiers of chivalry were never more than squires, and a brave squire not unfrequently had under his control a large band of followers. He was entitled to lead these to the field under his own banner. The especial standard of a squire was the pennoncel, a long, narrow triangular flag, in distinction from the forked or swallow-tailed ensign of a knight, which resembled two pennoncels united at the base or flag staff, and the square pennon of the barons or great feudatories.
Every knight had the right to ask of his sovereign or immediate commander in the field the privilege to use the square pennon. This request was granted if he had won renown at arms, and had a sufficient number of followers, which later became fixed at not less than 30 lances, with the requisite number of men-at-arms. The commander took the forked flag, cut off the points, and returned it thus transformed into the square pennon. The knight then became a knight banneret, a degree which has sometimes, though improperly, been considered a separate order of chivalry; but it was really only a grade in the same rank, merely giving military precedence over the other knights, who in time came to be designated as bas-chevaliers, or bachelors. - The strict definition of a knight or chevalier is one who tights on horseback; the Germans called him a Ritter, or rider. His proper arms were the lance, the two-handed sword, sometimes a battle axe or mace, and a short sharp dagger. He was clad in complete armor, and his horse was also protected. When mounted and armed, he was almost invulnerable against any opponent of the time, except one equally armed and armored. His coat of mail was proof against any missile but the shaft from the formidable longbow, used only by English archers.
The ineffective weapons of the common European soldiers could not touch him; the keen scimetars of the Saracens, which would sheer off a limb or a head, were useless against him. A score of knights could ride unharmed through a host of common soldiers. So the crusaders found it against the Saracens, and the Spanish conquistadors against the Aztecs. But the knight, once unhorsed and thrown upon his back, was as helpless as a turtle in the same position. He could not even gain his feet without assistance, and no matter of what proof his armor was, there must be some joint or opening through which a dagger could penetrate, or it might be battered in with a club or stone. The ideal knight of the middle ages was a man trained to the use of arms, imbued with generous sentiments, and possessed of all the humane virtues, He was ideally brave and courteous, chaste and temperate, generous and pious. Guizot has digested into 25 articles the various knightly oaths as administered at different periods. The man who even measurably observed them might fairly be considered a secular saint. But the actual knight of chivalry, even taking into account only its most illustrious examples, fell far short of this standard.
The exaggerated devotion with which he was supposed to regard his lady love, which should, as an old writer phrases it, "defend him from pride and the other deadly sins of anger, envy, sloth, and gluttony, and render it impossible that his conduct should ever be stained with the vice of incontinence," became in effect only a veil to cover the grossest amatory license. The morals of the age of chivalry, tried by any modern standard, were gross and licentious. The romances of chivalry, which must be accepted as a fair picture of the social morals of the time, are mostly unfit for reading. Chivalry indeed bound the aristocracy toeeth-er, and caused the knights and squires of even hostile and warring nations to sympathize with each other, and observe many amenities of warfare. But the chivalry who had today fought with each other were ready tomorrow to unite to exterminate a squalid peasantry who had been driven to insurrection by intolerable outrage. Here and there, indeed, a knight or noble would protect his vassals, just as he would protect his horse or hound; but that the common people had any intrinsic rights as against the will of a noble was an idea which never entered into the code of chivalry.
War was the main business of a knight; but in the most turbulent times men cannot be always fighting. The chase, tournaments, jousts, and other games of mimic warfare were the occupations and amusements of chivalry. The tournament was the most elaborate form of these martial games. Tournaments were held under the auspices of some sovereign or great noble, and were attended by ladies, who bestowed the prizes won by the successful combatants. The combats, whether between individuals or companies of knights, were conducted in accordance with fixed rules, which no one might violate. The jousts and passages of arms were merely less formal combats. They might be simply a duel to decide a private quarrel, or a knight, merely to display his prowess, would challenge all comers to encounter him. A class known as knights errant arose, whose special avocation was to encounter any opponent who might present himself. They were the chivalric representatives of the champions in the modern prize ring. The aspects of chivalry were considerably modified by the circumstances of the different countries in which the institution existed. In Spain the chief business of the knights was to fight against the Moors, and hence hatred and contempt of infidels came to be the marked characteristic of Spanish chivalry.
In England the predominance of the order was kept in check by the yeomen and archers, who formed a military body unknown in France. During the crusades arose the great military orders, semi-monastic in their character, such as the knights templars and the hospitallers or knights of St. John, formed for the defence of the Holy Land; and later the Teutonic knights, who afterward undertook to exterminate heathenism in the north of Europe. - The institution of chivalry sank gradually under a combination of physical and moral causes, the changes introduced into the art of war, and the equally great changes in the social and political condition of Europe. Society advanced as the power of the great nobles and feudatories declined, Many of the nobles had sold their estates to fit themselves out for the crusades, and lost their lives in the Holy Land. Those who returned found that towns had sprung up near their castles, tilled with burghers ready and able to defend by force of arms the privileges which they had bought or wrested from their feudal lords. Slowly it began to be discovered that infantry could be so armed and manoeuvred as to withstand the shock of cavalry.
At the battle of Morat (1476), the Bur-gundian chivalry, the finest in Europe, led by Charles the Bold, were shattered against the ranks of the Swiss pikemen, and the old superiority of the knights disappeared. When a few years later firearms were so improved as to become weapons of precision, the value of the knightly armor was wholly destroyed. An arquebusier was more than a match for a knight in the field. The knights laid aside their heavy mail, their long lances, and two-handed swords, and chivalry as a special military organization disappeared. By the end of the 16th century chivalry as an institution had disappeared. The descendants of the French knights became courtiers, more and more dissolute and effeminate from generation to generation, until the very name of noble was swept away by the revolution. The place of the institution of chivalry in the world's history is clear. It was good in that it partially took the place of something much worse. If men must fight, it is better that the horrors of war should be ameliorated by some rules of amenity. The benefits which chivalry conferred upon the world were many and great, and cannot be questioned.
For the rest, it is safe to affirm that the general condition of society in the best parts of Christendom, during the best days of chivalry, was worse than it now is in the worst parts of the civilized world. - The literature connected with chivalry runs through all the history, fable, and poetry of the period of its existence. Among the most important modern works relating to it are: Memoires sur l'ancienne chevalerie, by De la Curne de St. Palaye (Paris, 1759-80); Collection historique des ordres de chevalerie, by Perrot (1836); Dictionnaire historique des ordres de chevalerie, by Gourdon de Genou-illac (1853); Ritterzeit und Rittemcesen, by Busching (Leipsic, 1823); Ritterwesen und die Templer Johanniter, etc., by Weber (Stuttgart, 1822-'4); especially the very complete Geschichte des Rittenresens, by Reibisch (Stuttgart, 1842); the "History of Chivalry," by Mills (London, 1825); "Chivalry and the Crusades," by G. P. R. James (London, 1825, and often reprinted). Sir Walter Scott's article "Chivalry," in the "Encyclopaedia Britan-nica," almost a volume in itself, gives a graphic sketch of the character of the institution; and several of his novels, notably "The Talisman," "Ivanhoe," "Count Robert of Paris," "Castle Dangerous," and "Quentin Durward," contain vivid pictures of the manners and habits which prevailed during the age of chivalry.