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On Chivalry

January 1, 2015

There was once a little boy who knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. He would be a knight, noble and brave. He would have a black horse and a shiny sword and adventure would find him. He would redress injustices and protect those in need. Damsels, widows, orphans, and kittens. Yes, he would be a hero.



He soon discovered there were many logistical flaws to his plan. For one thing, Beirut in the 1980s had neither horses nor swords. And though injustices were plenty and those in need numerous, there was no romance to the suffering, and knights in shining armor were nowhere to be found.


The truth is that ours is a sad age for an aspiring knight. Chivalry, whatever that word means today, has been dead for over eight centuries now.


Our modern understanding of chivalry, or knighthood, associates the word with a set of altruistic ideals, virtues, or characteristics endemic to a gentleman of a certain standing in society. But when the term first originated in the 11th century, ethics and style had nothing to do with it: a knight was a professional soldier. Period.


‘The term knighthood comes from the English word knight (from Old English cniht, boy, servant) while chivalry comes from the French chevalerie, from chevalier or knight (Low Latin caballus for horse). […] Any man who could afford to make and maintain the heavy capital investment required by mounted warfare (horse and armor), and obtain the necessary training, could join the trade.’


Knights were not necessarily nobles, nor were nobles necessarily knights. The social and ethical dimension came along in the 12th century, when the French monks of Cluny set a code of code of conduct we now call chivalry, to ‘give an ethos to savage warfare:’


1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions. 
2. Thou shalt defend the Church. 
3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them. 
4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born. 
5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy. 
6. Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy. 
7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God. 
8. Thou shalt never lie, and shall remain faithful to thy pledged word. 
9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largess to everyone. 
10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

- Leon Gautier, Chivalry


Chivalry became romantic, knights became heroes. The literature practically exploded with stories that induced daydreams and inspired courage. The adventures of King Arthur and Sirs Lancelot and Gawain, Tristan, and Ivanhoe introduced heroic action as the ultimate measure of a man’s worth:


These men, ‘even if they were mortals, were so magnificent in their deeds that they seemed to partake of divinity.’


But beyond this glittery aura, the tacit reality was that pragmatism could and would overrule ceremony when necessary. The chivalric code was based on principle, not law, and as such its edicts were more guidelines than actual rules. Knights were certainly inclined to be courteous with their friends and merciful with their foes, but had no qualms about discarding those lofty ideals in times of crisis or war. Their titles made them aristocrats, but they were first and foremost warriors, and the kings they served were politicians. Noblesse did indeed oblige, as long as it was convenient. But when was the high road ever convenient?


Naturally, with centuries of wear and tear, chivalry shed its ethical component; values were an elusive heirloom to hand down. Titles were easier, so the social dimension remained. The measure of worth shifted from valor to class, from moral principles to social etiquette.


And today, we have watered chivalry down to holding doors for little old ladies.



Another story that comes to mind is that of an older man called Don Quixote, who went mad from reading too many books about chivalrous knights that no longer existed. He set off on an adventure to bring purpose and beauty back to the real world, by reinstating the chivalric code of knights-errant. He died sad and disillusioned, ‘an idealist crushed under the weight of reality.’ 


I do not like the ending to that story, and I refuse to accept it. You see, Don Quixote never met my father.


My father was the little boy from Beirut who decided he would be a knight in a world where they were obsolete. Who chose chivalry when it was outdated and good when it was inconvenient. Who on one adventure met a woman he swore to love forever, and did. A man with no title, sword or horse, who turned back and swam for me when a sea current was pulling me away from land.


'There are many who are errant,’ said Sancho.
'Many,’ responded Don Quixote, ‘but few who deserve to be called knights.'

- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote


As I said, Don Quixote never met my father.


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