This article was serialized over two issues of our magazine, From the Housetops. Here, we present parts I and II together. —Editor
Chivalry, it is said, is dead. Inasmuch as it was already being said before the rise of modern feminism, back in the pre-60s days when men did not risk a nasty look or sharp words if they opened a door for a woman or offered a seat on the bus to one, it is probably true — more or less. After all, opening a door for a woman or offering a seat to her is more a matter of simple good manners than chivalry as such.
Yet, now and then something will happen that suggests chivalry, moribund as it may be, is not quite dead. The present writer remembers hearing about a dramatic instance of the real thing — not mere good manners but true chivalry — as recently as 1982. This was during a trip to Argentina. Our Lady was central to the story.
Anyone who knows Argentina will probably agree that even today it is the most Marian land in ex-Christendom. Eighteen years ago, it was still more the case. This was to the extent that Our Lady, by law, was Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces. By custom, a statue of her as Our Lady of Lujan, the national patroness, stood at every entrance into every town and city. Whether you were driving in by car or arriving at the airport or train or bus station, there she would be.
The story I was told in 1982 was of an incident that took place a couple of years before. The so-called “Dirty War,” a military campaign to crush an urban-based Marxist insurgency, was still going on. The eventual success of the campaign so outraged leftists in the U.S. and elsewhere that to this day they continue to vilify the officers who conducted it, labeling them fascists, Nazis and anti-Semites. At the time, the danger of falling victim to a Marxist guerrilla action was sufficient that many ordinary Argentines carried guns for self-defense.
Something else about those days: Argentina’s hierarchy was one of the soundest left anywhere in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. That meant there was a screening process to eliminate liberals who presented themselves as candidates for the priesthood. Of course, no screening process ever will be perfect, and at least one liberal made it to ordination in the Archdiocese of Córdoba right at the height of the Dirty War.
Córdoba is Argentina’s second city. Historically, it is an industrial center, something like Detroit used to be in the U.S. The first railroad locomotive built in Latin America was manufactured there.
At the end of the 1970s when there were still plenty of factory jobs, Córdoba was the kind of place where men would stop at a church in the industrial suburbs for Mass early in the morning before punching in at the plant. It was to such a church that the liberal who made it through the screening process was assigned.
Now, Argentina being a Marian land, many of the working men who attended Mass at the church used the time to say a Rosary. This rankled the liberal priest. He thought all the men should “participate” in the Mass. So it happened, I was told, that one morning the priest stopped the action of the Mass and began repeating, over and over, “Buenos dias, buenos dias .”
Naturally this got the attention of the men. They stopped saying their rosaries. When this happened, the priest said to them, “You see how stupid it sounds when I repeat Buenos días . Do you think it is any different when you keep saying ‘Hail Mary’?”
At that, one of the men in the church stood up, and with his beads still in one hand, reached into his jacket with the other, pulled out a pistol, pointed it at the priest and said, “Finish the Mass for us without another word, Father, or I’ll drop you where you stand.”
The priest did as he was told.
When the Argentine gentleman who told me this story saw a look of wonder and some shock on my face, he decided an explanation was needed.
“I suppose such a thing would never happen in your country,” he said. “That is because the U.S. is not Catholic. The same feeling for Our Lady does not exist. That man in Córdoba was not going to let his Mother be insulted by anyone, not even a priest. Perhaps especially not a priest, who ought to know better.”
His Mother? Insulted? The gentleman did not say it, but what he meant was that the man in Córdoba was being chivalrous. That is, at the heart of chivalry is the defense of those who cannot defend themselves. That would include Our Lady, who has no one in this world to defend her except her spiritual children.
The English word chivalry comes from a French one, cheval. It means horse. From cheval the French get their word for horseman, chevalier . Interestingly, chevalier also means gentleman. The French have another word, gentilhomme , that also means gentleman, but that is more nearly in the sense we usually mean nowadays when we speak of a gentleman: a man who is simply polite. When they wish to speak of a man who is noble, they say chevalier . Once upon a time, that is what was meant by gentleman in English, but we also have a word that is derived from chevalier . It is cavalier. The word is not much used today except, strangely, as an adjective meaning off-handed or brusque. In its older meaning, we are most familiar with it in history as identifying the gentlemen, the Cavaliers, who fought to defend the throne of England against the republican Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell, though it also had considerable currency in the South during the War Between the States. Then it was used in reference to men, usually cavalrymen, who especially distinguished themselves for gallantry in battle. Doubtless, however, when the commander of the Union forces of occupation in New Orleans, Gen. “Beast” Butler, issued an infamous order instructing his troops to treat the ladies of the city like streetwalkers, there was not a man under arms anywhere in the South, irrespective of rank or social standing, who did not regard himself as a cavalier defending his womenfolk as well as the land.
As for the word “gentleman,” we hardly use it anymore in its old sense of meaning “noble” except in reference to a military man trained, or coming up through the ranks, to become “an officer and a gentleman.” Of course this usage will soon be forgotten now that the services are full of females. Why not? There is not very much that is noble about pushing a button on a computer console, let alone other acts of modern war-making, like dropping cluster bombs on a civilian marketplace from three miles in the sky, as in Serbia last year.
Certainly there is nothing about such an act that would be pleasing to the Lady, Our Lady — not like the action of that gentleman in Córdoba one morning 20 years ago. If he never did anything else in his life, he earned a place in the pantheon of Christian heroes in that one shining moment.
(Though we are speaking of chivalry and thus of manhood’s highest development, it must not be ignored that women, even if they have no business trying to be soldiers, are fully capable of rising to such a moment. Catholics who were around in the late 60s will remember an occasion when a leading feminist of the day, Ty-Grace Atkinson, was invited to speak at the pontifical university in the U.S., the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. If that by itself were not scandalous enough, during the course of her talk she dared to utter a Talmudic blasphemy about Our Lord and His Mother. When she did, a member of the audience, Patricia Bozell, raced to the podium and slapped Atkinson across the face. It was a slap heard ‘round the world, for Mrs. Bozell was the sister of a celebrity, William F. Buckley. A photo of the blow she struck for the honor of Our Lady appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. Johnny Carson made a joke about it on The Tonight Show , which was no surprise, the function of modern comedians being to teach us to take nothing seriously by making us laugh at even the most sacred things.)
We have spent time looking at the origins and relationship of these terms, “chivalry,” “gentleman,” and so on, with a particular purpose in mind. Although truth is most fully revealed in the religion established by Truth Himself, Christianity, aspects of it exist in other faiths. In the same way, chivalry was most highly developed among Christians and was exemplified by the figure of the Christian knight, but the spirit of it has not been entirely unknown in other cultures. The greatest example of it outside Christendom was bushido, the Japanese code of chivalry, whose knights were the samurai . As the study of another language — notably Latin or a language derived from it, especially French — will greatly increase our understanding of English and how it works, consideration of another code of chivalry like bushido will shed light on the system that was the glory of the West when men valued honor more than riches.
In Christian chivalry, the aim of the training of a horseman or chevalier was to make him bienseant . The term literally translates to mean “well-seated,” but the notion of it embraced far more than sitting a horse as a man ought. What is striking is that the samurai had exactly the same notion. Here is a passage from a kind of handbook of the samurai school of etiquette known as the Ogasawara: “The end of all etiquette is to so cultivate your mind that even when you are quietly seated, not the roughest ruffian can dare make onset on your person.”
If it was said a few lines ago that the notion of well-seatedness embraced more than sitting a horse well, that passage helps us understand how much more. In part, it is what is being got at when we read in old books of a gentleman, a knight, having a noble bearing, whether he was seated, standing, or moving. He was someone who bore himself with uprightness, and it was not merely in public. Gentlemen never let themselves slouch, not even when alone. Keeping upright was a physical act, but it was supposed to reflect the inner state. When a man was described as upright, it meant he was of sound moral character. He was honest, incorruptible, self-controlled, imperturbable. That inner state was arrived at through cultivation of the spirit (“cultivation of the mind,” according to the Ogasawara handbook).
The inner state that is reflected in a noble bearing is called “grace” when it is seen in movement. Gracefulness bespeaks an economy of force. The repetition, the constant practice of gracefulness — i.e., training, especially in such disciplines (once known as the manly or martial arts) as horsemanship and swordsmanship — builds up a reserve of force. The fine manner, which is to say the patience and serenity of temper that marked a true gentleman, whether a Christian knight waiting on another or the Japanese samurai engaged in a tea ceremony, was this power in repose . The expression “quiet strength” attempts to describe it. It kept the ruffian from besetting the quietly seated samurai. The same wordless message may be communicated by a young Marine lieutenant (an “officer and a gentleman”). We may see him in civilian clothes and drinking beer, but everything about him says, without menace, “I’m not someone you want to mess with.”
The ideal Christian knight was as formidable kneeling motionlessly and silently in prayer before an altar as he was with a broadsword in hand and a battle-cry on his lips. Of course, we know from Scripture that Our Lady, who is all grace and whose stillness in prayer cannot be equaled by any other human being, is as “terrible as an army in battle array.”
Reference was made a few paragraphs ago to honor. It, and the fear of disgrace, was every bit as important to the samurai as to the Christian knight. Honor is grounded in a man’s consciousness of his personal dignity and worth. The violation of that dignity is what produces dishonor, and it must be guarded against at all cost. Should dishonor befall the knight, whether by his own act or through that of another, it must be rectified. Why? A samurai warrior explains in another Japanese text: “Dishonor is like a scar on a tree, which time, instead of effacing, only helps to enlarge.”
Because exploration of it would lead us too far afield, the point will here be no more than registered, but registered it must be: In the history of humankind, whether in Medieval Japan or Medieval Europe, the Old South or today’s Latin America (the only part of ex-Christendom where honor still matters very much), honor is closely bound up with a strong consciousness of family. If riches now matter more to us than honor, doubtless it is largely due to the decline of the family, and that decline has been going on for two centuries. We are told why by Honore de Balzac, the great 19th -century French novelist: “When it beheaded Louis XVI, the Revolution beheaded in his person all fathers of families. The family no longer exists today; there are only individuals.” Elsewhere, and more to the point we are making, Balzac writes: “In losing the solidarity of families, society has lost the fundamental force which Montesquieu named Honor.”
(This is completely aside, but English-speaking Catholics ought to know Balzac better than they do. In the Preface to his masterpiece, Human Comedy, he describes himself as “definitely on the side of Bossuet and the Vicomte de Bonald” and says he writes “in the light of the spiritual truth of the Church and the social truth of the Monarchy.” It is from that vantage that he can pithily observe, for example: “If the Press did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it.” There is also this, in anticipation of the feminist drive to make language “gender-free”: “Politically speaking, man is the basis of society. It would be a mistake not to understand by man, three persons: a man, his wife and child. ‘Man’ means ‘family.’”)
It is from the family that we learn to form attachments to other persons and entities, ones for whose honor a man may feel bound to fight: brothers and sisters in the Faith, countrymen, the 82nd Airborne. The media, the public-school system, government programs and other influential bodies and agencies now seek to break down such attachments, which are also preferences. They want nothing left for which men might fight. Why this is being done is not our subject here, but it is what is behind the current celebration of “diversity” and “multiculturalism”. So far as our subject, chivalry, is concerned, we only observe that men who will not fight are men who will make chivalry impossible.
Our point about the importance of family to honor having been registered, the last comparison to be drawn between bushido and Christian chivalry is this: When the two were in full flower, their influence was not limited. It was the high standards of the knights that set everyone’s standards. Their ideals, their manners, their morals and the codes that embodied them were the model for entire peoples. This made their world the opposite of today’s. Today, from the Oval Office, to the boardroom, to the war room, to the living room, it is the lowest standard that has risen to the top. Even in the confessional, we are liable to be asked, “Why are you bothering to tell me this?”
The fullest development of chivalry in Christendom took place in the Middle Ages. That came with the establishment of the great military orders like the Knights Templar. The Knights of Malta, who long ago ceased to bear arms, are the most famous, if not the most exclusive, vestige of this tradition in the Catholic world today. The most exclusive would be the Knights of the Golden Fleece, of whom Ven. Emperor Karl I, the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary, was one. Outside the Catholic world, the most prestigious orders have included the Knights of the Order of St. George, whose members were named by grace of the Russian Tsars, and the Knights of the Order of the Garter. The latter, as is well known, have the English monarch at their head. There used to be papal orders of knighthood more prominently on view than any others. They would be seen in newsreels from Rome. The distinctive uniforms and regalia of their members, perhaps especially those of the Noble Guards, contributed much color and dash to Vatican ceremonies, but these bodies lost their function with the general ecclesiastical leveling that began during the pontificate of Paul VI, the last pope to be crowned with the papal tiara — a leveling that corresponded to what went on in society outside the Church when titles, honorifics, distinctive dress denoting rank and, along with them, much else, began to be abandoned.
(We should not think titles, or even names, a negligible matter. The defense of honor could be defined as a man’s defense of his “good” name. Note also that the President who has degraded the Oval Office as no predecessor ever did insists on being called “Bill.” And how much is lost when a priest says, “Don’t call me Father. My name is Jim.”?)
It would be interesting to continue to discuss the modern vestiges of chivalry — interesting and also worthwhile insofar as any future revival of chivalry will probably be fashioned from the vestiges. However, it is past time to turn to the heart of our subject: chivalry as it relates to Our Lady. As we do, we shall continue to speak at times in terms that are more evocative than precise. That will be fitting. Our subject has much more to do with a world of which we can only dream today, not the one that confronts us every time we see a crime go unpunished, incivility met with more of the same, or the religion mocked with impunity.
If chivalry reached its highest development in the Middle Ages and is exemplified by the Christian knight of those times, its origin is more ancient. This is not to speak of the Romans, among whom the true origin can be located, but of the men, including many heroes, who first gave form to Christian society when the old Empire was gone from the West, and who did so by living the Faith. Foremost among them was Arthur.
Is not his name, King Arthur, the one that comes to mind when we think of the first Christian leader whose heroism and skill at arms routs all enemies of the Faith and the civilization born of it — his name and the names of his Knights of the Round Table, Percival, Lancelot, Gawain, et al.?
The fame of Arthur has lasted for fifteen centuries. Children believe in him, but most adults today seem to think he was never anything but a myth, simply a figure of romance. Scholars know that there is documentary evidence that he existed.
It was traced by Elizabeth Jenkins in her 1975 book, The Mystery of King Arthur . To summarize:
In the British Museum is a collection of documents under the title Historical Miscellany. The documents include a set known as Easter Tables. These were tables kept by monks wherein was calculated the dates on which Easter, the greatest of movable feasts, would fall in a given number of years. The tables were arranged in columns. On the left were the dates. On the right would be noted corresponding events of importance as they took place. The latter are called Easter Annals. Some of the dates in the Annals are disputed. Thus it is that some say the following entry is dated 499, others argue 518: “Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulder for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.” For “shoulder,” Jenkins explains, we can read shield.
Another entry, for 539, reads: “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Modred perished. And there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”
Also in the Historical Miscellany is a collection of writings by an eighth-century Welsh monk named Nennius. It is known as the Historia Brittonum . Nennius describes what he had done: “I have heaped together all that I found from the annals of the Romans, the writings of the holy fathers; and the traditions of our own old men.”
The monk really starts to get our attention when he relates, for the year 488: “Then Arthur fought against them in those days, with the Kings of the Britons, but he himself was the leader of the battles.”
“Them” were the still-pagan Saxons. What Nennius is telling us is that after the Roman withdrawal from Britain, several rulers of small British kingdoms united to fight these pagans, and Arthur was the general who commanded their forces. What is truly exciting — in terms of our subject — is that Nennius lists twelve battles fought by Arthur. The eighth in the list was fought at Tor Guinnion. No one today knows where that was, but “here Arthur carried the image of Mary, Ever-virgin, on his shoulder, through whose virtue and that of Jesus Christ,” the pagans were beaten.
The picture we can form in our mind’s eye of King Arthur bearing this image of Our Lady on his shield is more than arresting if we consider how like her the image may have been. It will seem to us that it could have been very like her if we recall a particular, very old tradition. (You can find references to it in the old Catholic Encyclopedia and in various hagiographies.)
It is that St. Joseph of Arimathea, he in whose tomb the body of Our Lord was buried and who certainly knew His mother, married the daughter of St. Longinus, the centurion who thrust his lance into Christ’s side, was subsequently converted, and was eventually martyred in Mantua in Italy. According to the tradition, St. Joseph and his wife, the daughter of St. Longinus, journeyed to Britain and settled there, even as St. Lazarus and his sisters, Sts. Mary and Martha, settled in Gaul (today’s France), all of them being faithful to Our Lord’s commandment to His followers to make disciples of all the nations. Here is what is important to us: A direct descendant of St. Joseph and his wife is supposed to have been Igerne of Cornwall, the mother of King Arthur.
Inasmuch as any family will cherish the memory of an ancestor associated with an illustrious historical personage, an ancestor whose recollections of the personage, including even his appearance, will be passed down from generation to generation, is it not possible — is it not likely — that Arthur’s mother would grow up hearing from her family recollections of the Mother of God? They would still be fairly fresh. After all, no more time (a mere couple of centuries) would have elapsed between the demise of St. Joseph and the lifetime of Igerne’s parents, than between the death, say, of George Washington and a family of today with an ancestor who knew him. Would Igerne not have shared these stories with her son? Could a description of Our Lady have been part of what she had to tell? If so, would he not see to it that the image on his shield corresponded to what his mother told him?
Obviously it is impossible to say for sure. However, we do see here a link between Our Lady and him who remains, after all these centuries, the very type of the chivalrous Christian knight, for he was chief of all who gathered at the Round Table.
In the first part of this article, we spoke in broad outline of what chivalry consists. This included the two notions that (1) honor is paramount and (2) the defense of those who cannot defend themselves is at its heart. We also established that Our Lady figured in even the very beginning of the highest form of it, Christian chivalry. Now there remain other matters to be discussed in the space that is left to us.
For instance, some detail must be given as to the actual organization of chivalry. Also, we need to see that for a very long time Our Lady was actively present — there is no other word for it — in the chivalric defense of Christendom, and this even after the unity of Christendom was sundered in the 16th century. Nor must we neglect to consider the role of chivalry in civilizing society beyond the field of battle. In this, both Our Lady and a very notable woman in history played a part.
Still, chivalry arose in the first place in order that the conduct of men engaged on a field of battle, knights, would be civilized. It seems desirable, therefore, to consider all these matters in the context of the Christian view of war. This is the more desirable insofar as too many nowadays imagine that warfare, or fighting, must always be totally un civilized. Accordingly, we shall very briefly give the Christian view of war and then sketch some of the history of it as it has been waged by Christians, as well as some of what resulted when the teachings of the Faith stopped guiding the actions of men who fight. (The student who wants a complete picture of these things cannot do better than to read J.F.C. Fuller’s A Military History of the Western World . It is a massive work of three very thick volumes, but professional historians and warriors alike will tell you it is all that is necessary for knowing its subject.)
Inasmuch as the nation’s last protracted war, the one in Vietnam, was waged in terms of “kill ratios,” “search-and-destroy” missions and “body counts,” it is not surprising that most Americans today seem to suppose that the object of war is to kill persons, and always has been. The supposition was reenforced during the decades of the Cold War when the cornerstone of national defense policy was the counter-value doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). That is, if the Cold War became hot, population centers on both sides, as well as military targets, were to be obliterated by thermonuclear weapons.
In a way that is now practically incomprehensible, it was possible for men during most of Christian history, right up to modern times, to go to war to do — perhaps, more precisely, to discover — God’s will. That is, our ancestors in the Faith saw war for what it is, a result of sin (and therefore, like sin, inevitable). It followed that unless the men who fought practiced restraint and cultivated the essential military virtue, self-sacrifice — unless, that is, they fought un sinfully — they could not hope to transcend war’s sinfulness and be rewarded with victory. That was the Christian view of war, succinctly stated.
As for the history of it as waged by Christians, our earliest ancestors in the Faith had virtually nothing to do with war. They avoided military service. In the first place, they did not want to collaborate with the pagan authorities. Beyond that, they understood themselves to be peaceful bearers (that is, bearers still full of peace) of the Good News meant to complete the Old Covenant of a God who dealt with man in a less pacific, indeed sometimes fierce, fashion.
However, by the time Constantine gave Christianity the status of a veritable state religion in the 4th century, Christians had begun to enter the army of the Empire, and other government services, in some numbers. After Constantine, when government and Church were inextricable in the Eastern Empire, Christians became more or less integrated into military life.
It was toward the end of the 4th century, with the Empire under attack in both Europe and Africa, that the Christian justification for war was first articulated in a systematic way. This was done by St. Augustine. The justification was based on natural law and, until recent times, remained unchallenged, like other traditional teachings founded on natural law. Briefly: War, being the expression of sin, is always an evil, but may be resorted to in order to eliminate another, greater evil, or to forestall greater evils. The principles that would regulate warfare (which is to speak of actual military operations) were refined after St. Augustine, but he stated the one governing all others, the Christian insistence on mercy in warfare, even as he presented the justification for a Christian’s engaging in war: “Even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace.”
After the fall of Rome in 410,1 it took nearly four centuries before the Empire in the West was revived, but by the time Charlemagne became Emperor, Church and state in the West, in something like the shape we know them, were closely connected, were even in ways indistinguishable. It would occur to no one for hundreds of years that it should be otherwise. As the armies of Charlemagne extended his sway, they also Christianized Europe. For, even as missionaries would be in the vanguard of Europe’s conquest of American lands in the 16th century, missionaries of the 8th century followed — no, marched with — the imperial forces, baptizing men whom we think of as the “barbarians” but who were known to the missionaries simply as the unsaved. This missionizing presence — Cross marching alongside sword — gave rise to a new concept among fighting men: henceforth a soldier, an army, fighting for the Empire’s expansion or defense, fought for the Church’s defense, fought for the Church’s strengthening, fought, even (here was the new element), for the glory of Christ, for where the soldiers of Christ marched, there would He be glorified. Of course, wherever He is, so is His Mother.
Even as Christ’s dominion was extended, the rise of feudal lords took place. Conflicts between competing lords resulted. Violence between them became so widespread that the Church was finally moved to curb it. By the 10th century, she had devised the “Peace of God,” meant to ensure the security of non-combatants. Under the “Peace,” anyone guilty of attacking non-combatants, or religious places, was excommunicated — automatically. From the “Peace of God” grew the “Truce of God,” according to which, first the Sabbath, then whole liturgical seasons, were to be kept peacefully. (As late as the 17th and 18th centuries, it was customary to wait until May to start a war, although in that increasingly secularized age this was due as much as anything to a gentlemanly understanding that summer’s clement months were the best time for fighting.) Moreover, penances, severe penances, were commonly imposed on warriors for violations of these terms — not simply on commanders but on ordinary soldiers — even of armies that fought in avowedly Christian causes. (After William the Conqueror conquered England, with the pope’s blessing, every man in his army who had killed an enemy soldier had to do a year’s penance for each man he killed.)
Not penances but indulgences were offered in 1095, when Pope Urban II summoned Christian warriors to the First Crusade. From the very homily in which he issued his summons (see Housetops No. 45), it is clear that the Pope conceived the enterprise, in part, as a means of ending the scandalous fighting that went on between the feudal Christian lords of Europe at that time. That does not change the character of the Crusades. They were quite literally holy wars: wars mounted to relieve Christians in the East who were under Mohammedan attack because they cleaved to the Faith; wars fought to defend Europe, because if the Mohammedans prevailed in the East they would then threaten the West; wars intended to secure Christendom’s holiest places everywhere; wars meant to assure that the name of Christ would be glorified in the places hallowed by Him when He was on Earth. In a word, the Crusades were justified.
Excellent as have been the reasons for Christian historians’ past praise of the Crusades, it ought not to be ignored that their prosecution finally began to exceed the bounds of what is permissible in Christian warfare, perhaps because they were holy wars. (Holy wars probably always have a way of degenerating because, when a war is holy, the adversary tends eventually to be regarded as totally wicked — that is, diabolical. Against the Devil, of course, anything goes.)
Before the Crusades, during the Carolingian wars against the “barbarians,” the spirit of chivalry — whose movement could already be discerned in the “myths” that grew up around the figure of King Arthur — arose anew among Christian knights. There is no question that this spirit was enriched by contact with the Mohammedans, who did possess a highly developed chivalry of their own. However, it was especially now, as Europe crusaded, that Europe, aiming to arrest a growing contrary spirit of unbridled violence, and led in this by the Church, finally refined chivalry’s complex, arduous rules. Through them the passions of battle were regulated. This control made Christian armies the strongest in the world. (We have seen in Part I of this essay that the greatest strength consists of force brought under control.)
A general loosening of restraints, and thereby of control began with the Renaissance and so-called Reformation, and was then greatly accelerated by the French Revolution. We shall outline that development in a few moments. Right now we want to pause to consider the shape of chivalry when it finally became an institution.
The Culture of the Knight
For that, some understanding is necessary of what chivalry was in strictly military terms, and something of its social organization, which was hierarchical. Militarily, chivalry, not as a code of behavior but as a collection of knights (remember our examination in Part I of the origins of the word and ones related to it), was the cavalry of the Middle Ages, and cavalry was the main military force of the time, as the infantry had been in the days of the old Empire. The chevalier, or knight, was the mounted soldier who fought in the cavalry. Apart from his qualities as a man, certain things distinguished the knight from other fighting men, including his weapons, his horse, his attendants, and his banner.
Space prohibits our spending much time in a discussion of these things, but it is interesting how traces of them still exist. For example, a knight really had to have at least three horses. One was the horse he rode from place to place. The second carried his gear. The third, always the biggest, was his battle horse. The knight never mounted this steed until it was time to fight, and to this day we say of a man vigorously defending an action or his position in an argument that he is on his “high horse.” Similarly, the knight’s attendants included one who bore his shield or escutcheon. In French the bearer of the escutcheon was known as an escuyer . From him we get our English words “equerry” for certain officers of the British royal household and also “esquire.”
Knights’ banners still figure in our culture. Devised in the Middle Ages to distinguish one knight from another on the battlefield, they were of two kinds. There was the pennon that identified a particular knight and which was attached to his lance. A vestige of that is still seen in the little flag, also called a pennon, that flies on the front fender of the cars of high government officials, like the President. In the Middle Ages there was also a square banner that showed the insignia of a baron who had at least ten knights under his command. These insignias — called “coats of arms” in today’s American English — eventually became hereditary. Keeping a record of them so one baron could be told from another became the work of a class of specialists known as heralds. Their work, heraldry, still flourishes.
As for the hierarchical organization of chivalry, it came about because being a knight was expensive. Since the state as we now know it did not yet exist when organized chivalry came into being, sovereigns had neither standing armies to wage a war nor defense budgets to pay for one. This meant that a knight had to pay his own expenses. Inasmuch as there were no riches apart from land, in order for war to be waged, what happened was that the lord of a particular domain would divide it into military fiefs with the tenant of each one liable to do service (at his own expense) for a certain period of time (40 days in France, and the same in England after the Norman conquest). These fiefs became hereditary, and thus was born the class that was eventually known as the nobility. For its members, knighthood, the profession of arms, became the only possible profession outside the ranks of the Church. However, knighthood as such was not hereditary at the time. On the other hand, it was usually only the son of a knight who was eligible to become one. He would be trained for it by sending him to the court of another noble where he would learn to ride and how to use arms. Also learned: courtesy, a word whose very form tells us that it signifies the manners of a court. Beginning in the 13th century, candidates for knighthood were allowed to take part in battle once they acquired the rank of squire, a senior attendant of a full-fledged knight.
In a ceremony called the “dubbing,” full knighthood could be conferred on a squire by any knight once the candidate turned 21 years old; that is, unless he was not the son of a knight. In that case, only the sovereign could make him a knight.
The religion’s role in the creation of knights, and thus the Church’s involvement in the profession of arms, began when the “Truce of God” was first instituted. New knights had always sought to have their swords blessed as families today will still have in a priest to bless, for instance, a new home. With the “Truce,” the clergy began to exact a vow before they would bless. The vow was that the knight’s arms would be used to defend the weak and defenseless, especially women and orphans, and churches. The vow, being religious in character, conferred on the soldier a dignity in society analogous to that of those who also took religious vows: monks.
Gradually a very elaborate ceremony, the Benedictio novi militis , developed for the blessing of knights and their arms. It required of the candidate that he make confession, keep a vigil of prayer, and fast. He then bathed, after which he was vested with a white robe. The bath and robe were symbols serving to impress on him that purity of soul was necessary for his career as a knight to be truly noble. After his investiture in the white robe, the candidate knelt before an altar in the presence of witnesses, often as not renewed his baptismal vow, and finally pronounced his vow of chivalry — the one whereby he swore to employ his arms in defense of the defenseless. Then his sponsor, the knight conferring his new rank on him, struck him lightly on the neck with a sword (this was the actual dubbing) in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost and St. George (the patron of chivalry). Only after all this was done would the new knight’s sword, placed on the altar, be blessed.
The religious aspect of knighthood became more marked once the Crusades began. Now the knights who went on Crusade vowed to rescue the Holy Land from Mohammedan rule and also to defend pilgrims making their way there. For undertaking their mission, the Church conferred on the knights privileges enjoyed by no one else, like the remission of all penances.
At the beginning, the vow taken by the crusading knights was of limited duration — two or three years, depending on how far a knight had to travel in order to reach the Middle East. However, when the Christian warriors of the First Crusade succeeded in taking Jerusalem, there arose the necessity of having a standing army to defend the Holy City from Mohammedan reconquest. This is when history saw the birth of the great military orders whose members took a fourth monastic oath: to wage unceasing warfare against the infidel Mohammedans. Doubtless it was in these orders, where the religious and military spirit became fused and whose story deserves to be told on its own, that chivalry of a specifically Christian character reached its highest development. Yet, the heroism of such “secular” crusaders as Richard the Lion-Hearted and King St. Louis IX also deserved to be sung, and was.
Setting It to Music
That word, sung, was carefully chosen. Even as their vows bound together the brotherhood of knights, whether secular or religious, and no matter from what land a knight hailed — bound them together according to a code of ideal conduct that exacted fidelity to a lord and to their own word, gentlemanly restraint in battle and courtesy at all times — their living of this code gave rise to a new form of literature of tremendous cultural significance. The chief form of it was the epic, like the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland ), that celebrated the ideals of knighthood and the exploits of knights. Very soon, these epics or poetic renderings of knightly exploits came to be sung by troubadours, professional poet-musicians, some of whom traveled extensively. As they traveled and performed, the ideals of knighthood, as well as the story of the exploits of particular knights, were spread. This is how the term “chivalry,” besides designating the knights themselves, came to connote the behavior of knights.
One of the first troubadours — some say the very first — was not a “professional.” In fact he was a high and mighty lord, but one with musical talent and whose court was the most refined in Europe at the time. He had also been a knight on the First Crusade.
He was William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. His territory covered most of the west of the country we now know as France, one that extended from Normandy in the north, to the Pyrenees in the south. William IX was succeeded as lord of this vast domain by his son, William X. The latter was succeeded by a daughter. History knows her as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor’s “Courtly Love”
Eleanor was no saint, but she was one of the most remarkable women in the history of Christendom. She was celebrated in her lifetime as “a woman beyond compare” on account of her beauty. When she died in 1204, at the age of 82, she had been Queen, first of France and then of England, for a span of 67 years. She had a total of 10 children, two by her first husband, King Louis VII of France, and eight by her second, King Henry II of England. Two of her sons by Henry are very well known to us: Richard, called the Lion-Hearted, and John, the King of England who granted the Magna Carta. One of her daughters, also named Eleanor, would be the grandmother of King St. Louis IX of France.
One of numerous momentous events in Eleanor’s life was the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of St. Thomas Becket by noblemen believing that they acted according to the will of King Henry. That was in 1170. That same year, Eleanor, who had become estranged from Henry, set up Courts of Love at her chateau in Poitiers. It is because of these Courts of Love that Eleanor figures in this essay.
She devised them as a kind of game, a way to keep amused all the young persons who surrounded her at Poitiers — her children, their spouses or spouses-to-be, their friends and others who flocked to the palace to be near the glamorous Eleanor. During the day the young knights could joust with one another and the young ladies could do the things done by young ladies. But what to do in the evening? The Courts of Love were Eleanor’s answer. There is no exaggerating the influence they would have on chivalry and the development of Western culture.
That is because Eleanor soon saw that besides keeping them amused, the Courts were a means for the discipline and training of the spirited young persons, especially some of the unruly young knights. What they consisted of was mock trials. Eleanor and her ladies, as many as 60 of them, would sit as jurors on a dais in the great hall of the chateau. The young men would gather before and below them. Proceedings would begin with songs sung by troubadours, songs about love. The young men would then ask questions — questions about love, about how lovers should behave, even, on one memorable occasion, whether true love could exist in marriage. Like a court deciding questions of law, the ladies — the “jurors” — would hand down their decision on these questions of love. There still exists a book written at Poitiers at the time, a book with rules on how a lover should act towards his beloved and explaining how love improves and even ennobles a man. It includes the records of 21 “cases” on which Eleanor’s ladies passed judgment. The judgments all tended in the same direction: to impress on a young knight that to win the love of a lady, he had to prove himself worthy through loyalty, a willingness to serve her and, finally, by adoring her. Here was born, at Poitiers in the 12th century, our whole modern notion of romantic love.
Of course it would not be “our notion” if it had remained limited to Eleanor’s court. It did not. A vogue of “courtly love” soon spread throughout the courts of Europe. With this vogue was spread the idea of the gentleman in more nearly the sense we understand the word today: a man who puts a woman on a pedestal, who always sees ladies as needing to “go first,” who is always “polite,” by which is meant willing to give his seat to a woman or open a door for one or watch his language in the presence of one.
This attitude towards women, born in the 12th century, was soon reflected in religious practice. This was with an increase in devotion to the Blessed Virgin. To be sure, she was already loved and venerated, and had been since Apostolic times, but now there was a real flowering of devotion to her that has never been surpassed, that lasted throughout the high Middle Ages, and would not begin to be equaled again until the 19th century. If nothing like it exists today, testimony to the Medieval flowering does still endure. It is in the form of some of the great Gothic cathedrals. They were all just then being built. Indeed, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as Queen of France, was present in 1144 at the consecration of the first, the Abbey Church of St. Denis, burial place of the Kings of France and home of the Oriflamme, the battle standard of those same monarchs. Many of the greatest new cathedrals, like Notre Dame in Paris and Notre Dame in Chartres, were dedicated, not to this or that saint, but to Our Lady.
If great cathedrals dedicated to her are no longer being built, neither do we much see men acting toward women with the kind of politeness that was commonplace in years past. This is as much as to say that the notion of romantic love and the manners it engendered were not bad or evil in themselves. Yet, what began at Poitiers in the 12th century would lead in time to a real decline in the institution of knighthood. That is, once a woman became an idol in the heart of a knight, an idol he worshipped as formerly he yearned for nothing so much as to be upright in battle, it was probably inevitable that the knight himself would eventually become little more than a servant in some ruler’s court — a courtier with “Sir” before his name. Inevitably, too, as knighthood declined, warfare degenerated. To see that, let us resume our little history of it. As we do, we also want to behold how fighting men for a long time — even past the Middle Ages — did not lose a sense of the importance of one Lady, Our Lady, though they might also now idolize another.
Other factors besides the softening effect of court life contributed to the weakening of the Christian spirit in warfare. One we can identify was the writing of Nicolo Machiavelli, whose career preceded only by a little the Protestant Revolt commonly referred to as the Reformation. The principles laid down by Machiavelli played a role in the development of the modern, highly-centralized state. Then the so-called Reformation’s vernacularization of Holy Scripture and other religious texts further nurtured the growth of nationalism. The papacy soon could no longer enforce its authority, not where princes found it politically advantageous to ignore the kind of transnational European unity that existed at the time of the Crusades. In other words, the old internationalism of Christendom broke down. The breakdown of political unity naturally made it impossible to enforce the universal application of those regulations put on warfare that had been realized in the chivalric code — this at the very moment technological development of gunpowder’s potential made possible the wide use of artillery. It was artillery that finally rendered militarily obsolete both castles and the knights who lived in them.
If religious disunion fostered the loosening of restraints, it was fitting that men first learned the cost of license in the conflicts sparked by disunion — the 16th century’s wars of religion.
The wars of the 17th century were equally ferocious. Europe had never known wars as savage as those fought in these two centuries. Still, they were fought by armies against other armies. Towns were battered, even destroyed. Townfolk and peasantry were killed. However, the object of the fighting was not to kill them. Indeed, even on the battlefield, the object of the fight was not to kill. The object of war, as defined by the commentators of the time, was still limited. It was not the enemy’s destruction or even the destruction of his soldiers that was sought, but merely a sufficient advantage over the enemy to produce a resolution of the conflict which seemed agreeable to truth. Battle itself, offering the most difficult of circumstances in which to preserve one’s humanity, still offered men the chance to become noble. It was the rise of democracy, a system in which there are no nobles, that introduced for the first time in the world the possibility of warfare in the fully modern sense.
We shall soon turn to consideration of that development. First, we want to observe the role that Our Lady continued to play in the defense of Christendom’s heartland, Europe, at least for as long as there still were warriors conscious of themselves as being, and fighting, as Christians.
“Terrible as an Army”
In another essay (“Islam vs. the Faith,” From the Housetops, No. 43), this writer gave some of the history of Our Lady’s involvement in the defense of Christendom against the Mohammedan threat. It was not only at the Battle of Lepanto.
Her involvement continued during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. Time and again, in places like White Mountain in Bohemia in 1620, La Rochelle in France in 1627, and Jasna Gora in Poland in 1655, Catholics, battling in defense of the One True Faith, fought and beat back armed forces of Protestantism and did it beneath banners emblazoned with Our Lady’s image and with her name, Sancta Maria , as their battle-cry.
We shall consider but one of these places: Jasna Gora in Poland, where is located the monastery that enshrines the famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The Protestant King of Sweden, Charles Gustavus, had invaded Catholic Poland with the intent of seizing its throne for himself and imposing a Protestant regime on a Catholic nation. One of his armies, a force of 3,000 men under the command of a general named Muller, arrived at Jasna Gora in December 1655, and Muller, speaking of the monastery, declared, “We shall flatten this henhouse in three days.”
It was not an unreasonable thing for him to say. The monastery was poorly fortified. No one was defending it except 70 elderly monks and 170 peasant soldiers, or so it seemed. Yet, after six weeks of besieging the “henhouse,” Muller gave up and marched away with his army. Why? Someone had appeared to him. Who?
He was shown eventually a reproduction of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. “She is not in the least like the one who appeared to me,” he said. “Her face had in it something divine, suffused in light, and it terrified me.”
It seems fair to conclude that Muller had seen Our Lady “terrible as an army in battle array.” Of course he had! Which ordinary mother will not fight if need be to defend her children? How much more likely, and how much more fearsomely, will the Mother of God, the Mother of the Church, fight to defend her own? But it will only be her own, which is to speak of those who acknowledge her spiritual maternity.
Protestants do not. Devotion to Our Lady was one of the first things abandoned by them when they abandoned the Faith. No image of her will be seen in a Protestant church today. (Interestingly, neither will any image of her Son. As is well known, the Protestant Cross has no corpus . Where He is, we said earlier, there is His Mother. Evidently, when she is thrown out, He leaves.)2
The French Revolution
It was not Protestants, but revolutionaries, who dared to throw her out at the end of the 18th century — throw her out of the very cathedral named for her, Notre Dame de Paris, and, in an infamous ceremony, enthroned in her place a prostitute under the title Goddess of Reason.
It was, of course, the French Revolution that introduced to the modern world in an important way the idea of democratic government, the theory of which is that all citizens equally rule. If that is the case, however, all citizens must perforce share responsibility for the state’s conduct of its wars. Thus it was that the Revolution, for the first time in human history, introduced universal military conscription.
Tragically, once the idea of universal, equal responsibility for war’s conduct, even unto the organization of a “citizen army,” was introduced, it would not be too long before men would conceive that all citizens were equally liable to attack. To argue that the democratic idea was wrong, as did the great Joseph de Maistre and some other Catholic commentators of the time, and therefore that civilians (or non-combatants) are, in reality, not suitable targets for military operations, is somewhat like arguing that the symptoms of psychosomatic disease are not real. Once men imagined themselves equal, they did actually believe before long their own words when they said “We shall win,” instead of “Our army will gain the victory.”
By the time Napoleon had taken command of the conscripted armies of the Revolution and usurped the title Emperor, another transformation had been wrought in the European, increasingly less Christian, consciousness. An intoxication born of the sudden new, liberating sense of social equality — and a fanaticism born of the determination to preserve the equality now that it had been tasted — combined with the idea of equality itself. In a kind of complicity, nearly all citizens embraced the new state of things: men were all equal now, everyone said, so it must be so. The nation, homeland of equal men, was one now, all men equally desiring whatever great national goals were said to be equally desired by all. If the nation waged war, all equally played their part, and such a war in which all bore equal responsibility (so easily transformed to equal guilt) was prosecuted drunkenly, fanatically, with the destruction of the enemy country’s power the object of fighting for the first time. Destruction of the enemy country was the object of Napoleon’s conscript armies. To render the enemy country powerless and to leave France supreme — Imperial — became the object of national policy.
The Napoleonic Wars ushered in a series of bloody 19th -century conflicts, most involving for the first time “citizen armies” and claiming large numbers of victims. None was more notable than our own War Between the States. Not since the rise of chivalry had the purposeful, large-scale destruction of civilian property and civilian lives been the direct object of military operations — not until Gen. Sherman, with Mr. Lincoln’s approval, staged his “March to the Sea” through Georgia.
What remained of Western civilization was revolted. While the war still raged, the first of the famous Geneva Conventions met with the purpose of moderating the horrors of modern war by assuring the rights of civilians, the wounded, prisoners of war, the protection of hospitals, and a role for the newly-formed Red Cross. So radically had Europe and the world altered in the three centuries since Luther, that humanity and the humane (noble and merciful, that is) prosecution of war was being championed in 1864, not by a Church invoking the name of God and capable of threatening His wrath, but by the functionaries of 20 some-odd secular states meeting in the world capital of hotel-keeping! So badly had the disunited Church been savaged, first by the Encyclopedists’ rationalism and now by scientism, so widespread had been the repudiation of Christian principles, that the Church, being invited to no role in the efforts to keep war limited by international legislation, played none. The regulation of warfare was now left entirely in the hands of powers determined to regulate things to their own advantage.
The results were predictable. At the Hague Conference in 1899, which set up the International Court of Justice, the U.S. voted against a ban on poison gas. In 1932 Britain, faced with rebellion in India and wishing to reserve the use of bombers for “police work,” blocked an Italian proposal to abolish them at that year’s International Disarmament Conference.
World War I was fought, at least in the beginning, with some consideration of a vestigial chivalric code, especially on the part of the various belligerents’ air combat units. But before he died in 1916, Austria-Hungary’s aged Emperor, Francis Joseph, going through one day’s reports from the front, was heard to mutter, “There is no longer anything elegant about war.”
Benedict XV was Pope during most of the period of World War I. At its conclusion he called on the world’s nations to end compulsory military service and urged the creation of some sort of international body that could arbitrate disputes between states. (His dying words, in 1922, are supposed to have been: “We offer our life to God for the peace of the world.”)
WWII: Chivalry Dead
The international body that was meant after World War I to keep the peace was the Geneva-based League of Nations. Some of the major conflicts of the League of Nations years: the Russian Civil War, which involved large contingents of foreign, including American, troops; the Chaco War in Paraguay; the Japanese campaigns in Manchuria and China; the Italian-Ethiopian war; the Spanish Civil War, which involved foreign forces. All were utterly eclipsed by the most appallingly inhuman, unChristian war that has to date ravaged mankind: World War II.
Of everything said about that war by all the leaders of those days, we are going to offer but two quotes. Then we shall come to our conclusion.
On Christmas Eve, 1943, speaking to the world via Vatican Radio, Pope Pius XII struggled to find the language to convey the horror of what was then going on: “We see only a conflict which degenerates into that form of warfare that excludes all restriction and restraint, as if it were the apocalyptic expression of a civilization in which ever growing technical progress is accompanied by an ever greater decline in the realm of the soul and morality. It is a form of war which proceeds without intermission on its horrible way and piles up slaughter of such a kind that the most blood-soaked pages of past history pale in comparison with it.”
That same year, as if in confirmation of the Pope, Winston Churchill stood in the British Parliament and boasted: “The horror wrought [by bombing] is indescribable and the effect upon German war production in all its forms is matched by that wrought upon the life and economy of that guilty organization…. There are no sacrifices we will not make, no lengths in violence to which we will not go.”
“We” — all those choosing to wreak horror — were not only the British. Two years after Churchill spoke, World War II culminated with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Six decades later there are still no lengths in violence to which “we” will not go. Worse, we hardly even notice when, for instance, a combination of 10 years of bombing and economic sanctions have produced a million dead in Iraq. Asked on television about all that death, the U.S. Secretary of State can look unflinchingly into the cameras and declare the killing has been “worth it.” Of course another war “we” scarcely notice has been going on in this country since 1973. It is waged against life itself. Its cost: the souls of 4,000 preborn babies every day.
Thus may it truly be said that chivalry is dead. Its demise has little to do with there being so few “gentlemen” who will still open a door for a woman or stand when one enters the room. It has everything to do with the fact that whereas men once swore to defend the defenseless, now “we” do not even notice when they perish. “We” kill them without a thought. Violence has never gone to such lengths before now.
Remaining Christians know there will be a price to be paid for this but do not know what it will be. About it, however, they know one more thing. Since it will be exacted by Heaven, its severity can be mitigated only by Heaven’s Queen; for She said, at Fatima, “war is a punishment for sin” and “only I can help you.” “We,” therefore, had better try to get right with her, as once aspiring knights did when they knelt in white robes before an altar to be blessed in the name of her Son.
Domina nostra Sanctissimi Sacramenti, ora pro nobis.
1. This date is that of the sack of Rome by Alaric. The Western Empire itself did not fall until 476.
2. One may object that there are some Protestant Churches with both images of the Blessed Virgin and corpuses on the crosses. While this is true, such an external show does not cover the essentially anti-Incarnational doctrines of the Protestants. The Mass, the Eucharist, the Priesthood, the Immaculate Conception and the Infallibility of the Pope are all part of the order established by our Emmanuel (God with us). Officially, Protestants reject all of the above.