On Reimagining Chivalry

Liam McGlohon (’23) deconstructs traditional ideals of masculinity through chivalric codes and uses them to reimagine a new code for masculinity.

Knights and the ideals of chivalry have always captured my imagination. The imagery of galant paragons riding the countryside, defending the weak, fighting off tyrants, and holding for the ideals of justice and compassion is one of the few visions of historical masculinity that I’ve ever aspired to. Under the modern patriarchy, men are expected to be cold, detached killers, to destroy or control those weaker than them. They deserve all of life’s spoils and should take them by force. It is an expectation of masculinity that invariably hurts men and their victims. Many men (myself included) struggle with these expectations. Toxic masculinity is a cage that prevents men from expressing themselves in any meaningful way. A cage I’ve been working to escape all my life. 

In contrast to the cruelty of toxic masculinity, the romantic ideals of chivalry emphasize compassion, honor, protection, and generosity. All of which are ideals I feel every man should hold himself to. The chivalric code holds all practitioners to a high standard of conduct, and while individual orders differed in their specific tenants, all knights were expected to follow it. In chivalric fiction, knights represent the best a man can be. They are paragons and heros unto themselves. Knights represented the masculine ideal in European medieval society. Both peasants and nobles aspired to the standards of King Arthur, Gawain, and others. Even while knights served a military role many orders had provisions related to avoiding violence, unnecessary bloodshed, and cruelty. Knights are a vision of masculinity that embraces and glorifies compassion, virtue, and dignity while being considered no less masculine. Perhaps this conception of masculinity could be adapted to rectify the crisis of toxic masculinity men face now. 

But before I move on I must first acknowledge that the mythical vision of knights and chivalry I condoned before was not a historical truth but rather a manufactured fiction. Knights were first and foremost soldiers, the chivalric code developed out of french warrior codes. Knights and knightly orders were in effect the armed forces of the church (and thus the state). A majority were nobles themselves and corruption was common among their ranks. They were not heroes or paragons as the mythology would have us believe, and the primary source documents of the period were written by nobles attempting to legitimize their “divine” duty to rule over their “lessers”. In the Crusades and other wars Knights committed horrible atrocities in the name of their “code.” They were chauvinistic, misogynistic, and cruel. More recently the trope of “white knights” has emerged; men who treat women with seeming kindness only to expect sexual favors in return, thus perpetuating the toxic masculinity I want to rectify. We must acknowledge these historical truths if I am to create a chivalric code that truly embodies the romantic ideals of knighthood. 

As men have become more aware of toxic masculinity and systemic injustice some men have refused to face that. Instead doubling down on misogynistic, and dangerous kinds of masculinity, out of fear of not being “men.” On a more personal note, with the kinds of men I see around me and on the internet, I’ve felt more disconnected from my masculinity than ever before and I think a lot of other progressive men feel that way. In this moment creating a unified chivalric code that both embodies positive, popular, conceptions of masculinity and progressive values could bring myself and men like me a lot of peace. In the creation of my revised code I’ll be using the code defined in Chivalry by Leon Gautier. While each order had different codes and ideals this is the compiled edition constructed out of the most common codes so it should still be useful. 

1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.

The church, well obviously still a powerful force, is just another method of reinforcing toxic masculine tropes, extracting wealth from the poor, and perpetuating colonialism. Rather than serve religious institutions, I choose to have faith in the potential of ourselves and society, if that potential originates from the divine or human matters not. The belief that a better world is possible is the first step to achieving that goal.

I shall have faith in myself and humanity. 

2. Thou shalt defend the Church.

Again, the church is not an institution I wish to tie my masculinity to. However conviction and strength in our beliefs is an admirable trait I seek to emulate. At the same time I mustn’t allow myself to become stubborn and unwilling to change my beliefs when they’re challenged. Changing our beliefs and perspectives is not a weakness but a sign of strength of character. 

I will defend my beliefs but accept challenges to them in good faith. 

3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.

“Thou shalt respect weakness” is a very interesting phrasing of this thought. In medieval Europe feudal monarchies following the tripartite ideology divided society into those who work, those who pray, and those who fight. In this context ‘weakness’ was not a moral failing, it was not the expectation that all men be paragons of physical strength. So respecting weakness can be interpreted as respecting all people’s role in society and the diversity inherent in an individual’s strengths. Now the concept of “defending the weak” has a lot of unfortunate parallels to the white savior trope – and has historically been used to justify misogyny and authoritarian hierarchies. “Defending the weak” is still a powerful virtue but it should never be at the expense of another’s autonomy. 

I will respect the strengths and virtues of all. I will use my own strength and privilege to aid the marginalized and victimized, but never for my own ego.

4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.

Now my take on this virtue is going to be uniquely American but I hope it can be applied to others as well. In its current state I hate the US government – many of its actions have killed millions over sea, perpetuated poverty, and victimized queer people like me. But the ideals and virtues of the US, the “american myth,” still holds sway over me. And I think the virtues of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are still worthwhile goals, despite their failed implementation. A country is its people, not the state and thus I still hold to my faith in them. 

I will love what my country has the potential to be, and fight for that potential even if it contradicts the edict of the state.

5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.

Fighting and physical prowess is certainly not a priority of mine, solving problems with violence is an unproductive path the majority of the time and men have spent far too long fighting over simple problems rather than fixing them. That being said, the phrase “never let the enemy see your back” still holds true. During the pandemic I attended some BLM marches, protests, etc, and something I learned there was that when combating systemic injustice I can never allow myself to be perceived as weak by the opposition (even if that perception of “weak” is unfair). If I am to help change the world I must project confidence and strength of conviction.  In the face of adversity, no matter the scope or challenge, I must hold my head high and virtues intact. 

I will hold my head high in the face of all adversity, no matter how difficult.

6. Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.

This tenant will need the most radical changes, where the others were at least tangentially related this one needs an entire reimagining. Tenants like this were used to justify the crusades, genocides against non-christians, and the subjugation, and later assimilation, of non-christians. This tenant also contradicts the kindness, mercy, and generosity embodied by the chivalric ideal. Now this was largely justified by the belief that only christians were deserving of that dignity, which as a non-christian myself is unacceptable. Dignity and charity should be extended to all, no matter their personal differences or (even heinous) ideologies. The line “without cessation” (i.e without end) is still relevant however: In the fight for a better world I must never stop fighting the good fight. If I allow myself to become complacent, accept a negative peace, then I have failed. 

I will show mercy and kindness to all, never cause unnecessary harm or suffering to another, but always remain fighting for a better world.

7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.

I will again be using our revised definition of “God” here to mean faith and ideology, not a divine figure. Because of the cruelness inherent in the feudal system; rather than aspire to that instead I choose to read this as fulfilling my current role (whatever that may be) to the best of my ability. I feel it’s important to hold myself to a high standard of quality, both in work and general life. That being said, I feel that labor should always be compensated fairly. If I’m being paid substandard wages, that effort goes unrecognized, I see no reason to hold myself to that standard of excellence. My work isn’t necessarily my ‘role’ and exploring my various roles has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my life. 

Thou shalt fulfill their role to the best of your ability, so long as that role remains true to their ideals, and the best interest of themselves and society.

8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.

There has been much philosophy written on truthfulness and well I won’t be speaking in detail on that I want to acknowledge the diversity of thought in this matter.  Personally, I think the expectation of total truthfulness is one born of immense privilege. This code assumes that lying is a moral failure rather than a tool that can be used in a variety of ways. That being said, I still feel untruthfulness is best used sparingly and with great consideration. It should only be used as a last resort or in moments of danger.  If nothing else, casual lying erodes others’ confidence in you and can project a false image of your character. Keeping promises however (or “your pledged word”) is to me a moral imperative – when I make a promise to another, a commitment, that is a sacred oath that I must fulfill to the best of my ability. Truthfulness also extends to character, how can I remain true to my identity and beliefs if I mislead others for petty gain? Despite its simplicity “a man is only as good as his word” is an adage for a reason.

I will be true to my word, keep promises and remain truthful whenever possible. I will never lie without significant consideration and reflection

9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.

To me, generosity in behavior is one of the most important elements of leading a compassionate, empathetic life. Assuming goodness and giving the benefit of the doubt to all encourages the same kindness in others. Through small acts of generosity I can fight against the nihilistic, doomerist despair of my generation. In respect to the monetary generosity this tenant likely originally referred to; charity and donating to nonprofit organizations is most definitely a force for good in the world but the focus on charity alone – and the funding of nonprofits by the very people profiting from the exploitation of workers, destruction of the environment, and endless war, is unacceptable. Someone’s ability to receive medical treatment shouldn’t be based on the generosity of others on gofundme. Charity is a stop-gap solution to societal problems that require fundamental systemic changes. 

I will be generous in thought and deed, and give others the benefit of the doubt. I will give to others when able but also seek to create a society wherein financial charity is not necessary.

10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

This tenant has probably had the most impact on my life, ever since I learned about knights and chivalry being a “champion of the Right and Good” has been the ideal I think I’ve aspired to. As my beliefs on just what “the right and good” means has evolved so has what the role of “champion” entails. For all of society’s changes the role of tyrant-king, bandit, and cruel dragon still exist; morphed into bigoted politicians, wage-stealing managers, and mercurial CEOs. To be a champion of good in this era is to oppose those who seek to oppress the people, steal hard-earned wealth, and harm minorities. The times may have changed but the need for these mythic knights still exists. They may not be of noble blood but  the community organizers, activists, and unions championing these ideals are more valiant than any real knight of old.  

I shall be a champion of the Right and Good against Injustice and Evil
You may notice this code has little in common with the original. That was very intentional. A new masculinity cannot be solely based on the virtues of the past and what others’ expectations of masculinity are.  it must embody the diversity and values of men that has always existed. In its time chivalry can be viewed as just another kind of toxic masculinity. This new code was invariably shaped by my own political beliefs, experience, and morals. I don’t presume to tell you what masculinity should be but rather to interrogate your own vision of what it means to be a man. This is a perspective on masculinity that has brought me a great deal of peace and my hope is that it can help others too. Men can be anything and the man I want to be is a knight who embodies these virtues.

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