Chivalry Essay, Research Paper


Chivalry, order of knighthood and, especially, code of knightly behavior that was a feature of the High and later Middle ages in western Europe (Encarta). Having developed out of the lofty and pious ideals of the Crusades, chivalry encouraged high personal values and well-manicured behavior. Loyalty to one’s lord, valor, honesty, humbleness, faith in god, and respect and reverence for women were foremost in the code of Knightly conduct of the Medieval ages. It flourished in the 13th century and eventually merged into the Renaissance idea of the gentleman in the 16th century (Encarta).

In the 12th century the term chevalier (horseman) acquired a connotation of honor, and the English term knight came to have the same meaning (Encarta). Knighthood and chivalry?the ethos and ideals of knighthood?acquired a mystique that combined aristocratic qualities, Christian virtues, and the courtly love of women (Encarta). The ideal knight should be a man of prowess, loyalty, and generosity, like the heroes of epic poetry (Encarta). In the eyes of the church, he should put his sword at the service of the poor and needy and also take part in the Crusades to the Holy Land (Encarta). From southern France came the idea that a knight should serve a lady (often promised or married to another) whom he loved passionately, if hopelessly (Encarta). An example of this is when Gawain helped the princess to safety in the movie First Knight.

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Though many fell horribly short of chivalry, knights were supposedly bound to this code. Since Arthur’s court of the Round Table came closest to this, most often it became the example. King Arthur himself was exalted as the primary role model, due to his being at the head of the Table and his high moral code expressed in all of the romances pertaining to him.

Knowing that he went to his death, ?Morte d Arthur? still had no choice but to slay his enemy Madred (a name traceable to meanings of death) because his morals would not allow him to do otherwise. He loses his life as predicted in the dream featuring Sir Gawain, but dies pure and honorable, and he is content in that. He senses the demise of his empire, and opts to die with it rather than struggle vainly against it. With his worthy nephew Gawain and all but two of his army deceased, he has his follower throw his beloved sword Excalibur into the lake from whence it came. After two treacherous failures at the act, it finally returns to the lake, its cycle symbolic of the rise and fall of chivalry (Tunball). The fact that Sir Bedivere twice does not let go the sword and the commoners rabid attack and theft of the fallen knights illustrates the loss of faith in Arthur, and he does well to die at his time. The questionability of his grave (unmarked and undocumented) furthers his role as more of a symbol and ideal rather than an actual person.

Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, is more complex and more real a character, though he is less known. His perfection comes from the very fact that he is fallible, and therefore human. Though everyone else in the court exalted his honor, he had a lowly concept of

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himself, thinking that he was included in the Round Table only by the virtue of his relation to Arthur. In accepting the game of the Green Knight, Arthur explains “I am the

weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would be least of any” (Tunball). When others, not knowing of his identity, talk of the fame of Gawain, he goes so far as to deny the name as his. When the wife of the lord comes to him the first day and says, ” For as certain as I sit here, Sir Gawain you are; Whom all the world worships.” (First Knight), he replies, “I am not he of whom you have heard” (First Knight). He learns and his character develops and strengthens through this experience of failure. The Green Knight gives Gawain a chance to see himself from a more distant and objective perspective, and the Green Knight in the end is more impressed than is Gawain himself.

He is a textbook example of chivalry. It is simple to keep faith as long as it is not threatened. Sir Gawain is the most perfect ideal of the medieval knight because not only does he follow the doctrines of chivalry, but he also goes beyond them to better himself, and feels shame at his shortcomings. Personal growth results from failure, and without growth there is no character. Gawain keeps the girdle as a token of this failure with the intent of never again performing such a deed (Tunball).

Arthur and Chaucer’s Knight are strong examples of chivalry, but there has been proof of little test and growth except for that of Sir Gawain.

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Work Cited

Encarta? Concise Encyclopedia Article…

First Knight. Dir. Jerry Zucker. Perf. Sean Connery, Richard Ger.

Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Tunball, Stephen. The Book of the Medieval Knight. Arms and Armor Press. New York,



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