The Code of Chivalry

The entry on the Code of Chivalry in The Dictionary of Chivarly by Grant Uden (Kestrel Books, 1968).

 While it is difficult to find the precise rules laid down for the conduct of a knight, it is clear that a code comes to be recognised, even though, in the stern tests of day-to-day life, it was rarely faithfully lived up to; and since, as a German philosopher has said, “ideals cherished in the minds of men enter into the character of their actions”, amid all the treachery, greed and cruelty there are to be found shining examples of unselfish courage, gentleness and mercy inspired by those rules that only a perfect man could keep perfectly.

Some seventy years ago, Leon Gautier, a French scholar who had devoted his life to the study of the literature of chivalry, worked out Ten Commandments governing the conduct of a knight. They required:

  • Unswerving belief in the Church and obedience to her teachings.
  • Willingness to defend the Church.
  • Respect and pity for all weakness and a steadfastness in defending them.
  • Love of country.
  • Refusal to retreat before the enemy.
  • Unceasing and merciless war against the infidel.
  • Strict obedience to the feudal overlord, so long as those duties did not conflict with duty to God.
  • Loyalty to the truth and the pledged word.
  • Generosity in giving.
  • Championship of the right and the good, in every place and at all times, against the forces of evil.

The picture of the true knight as a Christian soldier emerges clearly. Military glory and prowess were not enough. They must be gained and displayed in the service of the Church and of worthy ends. “It is not without reason,” wrote St Bernard to the Knights of the Temple, “that the soldier of Christ carries a sword: it is for the chastisement of the wicked and for the glory of the good.”

Carved in the stone of Chartres Cathedral is the knightly prayer: “Most Holy Lord, Almighty Father… thou hast permitted on earth the use of the sword to repress the malice of the wicked and defend justice… cause thy servant here before thee, by disposing his heart to goodness, never to use this sword or another to injure anyone unjustly; but let him use it always to defend the just and right.”

Writer … and still in the fifties