Sitting on the High Horse of Chivalry

Who are these people? The confused, dismayed people who are asking: Why? Why is my totally harmless, totally helpful assistance not appreciated in the way that I was expecting it to be appreciated? Does no one like manners any more, does no one appreciate simple common courtesy? I was only being chivalrous.

These people, of course, are the men who are attempting to live by some sort of modern code of chivalry. By this declaration of chivalric intent we are to draw the conclusion that they have only honorable and valorous intentions meant to uplift the object of their attention. Chivalry is good, right?

In the world of modern chivalry the men asking these questions are heroes of their own imagination, performing noble deeds of good manners for gentle ladies where ever they go. They are then baffled and hurt at the rejection of these noble efforts by their target. What is it about this code of chivalry that seems to give them permission to treat others the way they do? Is it really a code that demands gentlemen perform acts of courtly courtesy to ladies who are then expected to readily accept such acts? Let’s take a look at the chivalric code and see if this is really what it is all about.

A basic history discovers that the chivalric code was conceived for knights living during the era from approximately 900–1200 AD, give or take. The origin of the word ‘chivalry’ comes from the French via a Latin root and means ‘a horseman’ or in other words: a guy on a horse. About 1000+/- years ago knights were plentiful and their knightly behavior needed to be curtailed as they were running rampant across the countryside creating all sorts of havoc. Social pressure to behave in ways that were not harmful to the local populace or other knights was forming and codes of conduct were circulating. A formal code was never written but the epic poem Roland (1040–1115 AD) listed these items that are often referred to as covering the basics of chivalry for the times. All knights are:

  • To fear God and maintain His Church
  • To serve the liege lord in valour and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenceless
  • To give succour to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence
  • To live by honour and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honour of fellow knights
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times to speak the truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
  • To respect the honour of women
  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

These remained the common understanding of good knightly behavior. Other codes like the one in the poem circulated and all revolved around war and fighting or not fighting and how to be a knight, which was essentially a guide on how to soldier on. (Remember this era was during many of the crusades, so there was a lot of fighting to be had.) Whether medieval knights adhered to this code is questionable, but it made good press. And when modern British scholars began researching the era in the 19th century it made a good impression on them too and they went with it, insisting that modern men live up to this code. They also liked the code of courtly love, (which essentially codifies the rules for adulterous affairs and how to be a drama queen, and has nothing to do with opening doors or lifting heavy things) and mixed the two together in a now confusing mashup.

These 19th century guys determined that a person who is chivalrous is noble and good and should be always admired. Buried in this belief is the implication that chivalrous persons hold a superior quality that no one else possesses, giving them special dispensation to engage in whatever behavior they determine as chivalric without criticism.

So, how did these medieval codes of war and horses and the associated code of courtly love get all entangled in the modern day display of holding doors and lifting heavy things for women by men? The only code directly addressing the courtly behavior toward women noted in the poem is one near the bottom of the list. It states that the knight should “respect the honor of women,” and loosely translated that means that no sexual assault was allowed. It implies nothing about grand gestures of door holding or any other display. A person who is truly abiding by the chivalric code as noted by Roland has other more important things to mind in addition to honoring (not assaulting) women.

But for some reason modern men only focus on the women part of the code, believing it to be about ‘doing things for women’ and ignore the rest. They defend their actions within this limited ideal and then look for support and sympathy by being hurt, declaring they do not understand why their behavior is rebuffed by their intended. They insist that they: meant no harm, were only trying to help, were only being courteous, were exhibiting good manners, or all other manner of reasoning along those lines. In adhering to the chivalric code that wants us “[t]o eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit,” we will give them the benefit of the doubt that this is really what they believe they are doing, and the following advice is for them:

If you are a guy today, you’ve heard some things about chivalry, and it sounds like a good idea and you are willing to give it a go. It doesn’t always go well. You are now confused and don’t understand why people (i.e. women) are distressed, or upset, or mildly or even emphatically miffed when you behave in ways that you understand as chivalric.

Following along with the original codes listed in Roland, here are some things that you may want to consider, hopefully before you demonstrate your noble valor on the next woman you run across. We can use the example of door holding, but any gesture could be substituted and the reasoning be the same. Things like lifting luggage from the overhead bin, helping a woman use power tools, ect., you get the idea.

1. First consider how well do you know the person. Is she related to you, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a random stranger. Context is everything. Holding the door for a spouse, who expects it and is ready for it, is one thing, but holding the door for a random stranger falls into another category. In the original codes you were giving honor and respect to your liege lady, not some random one, though one would hope that you didn’t assault ladies you did not know either. In other words, you are given a pass at holding doors for people you don’t know. Just don’t assault them either. Let them live their lives in peace.

2. Did the person stop what they are doing and wait for you to do the thing? For instance, are you walking into the building at work and another employee, presumably a women, gets to the door, stops, stands there and waits for someone to open the door before she enters. Please, by all means open the door.

Or did she walk up to the door, reach for the handle and is seemingly going to enter without any assistance from you. For all that is good and holy please, do not hold the door. Do not try to beat her to the door, rushing past, grabbing the handle before or at the same time as she does. If you have to step in front of her, pushing her aside in order to “help” her with the door, no. Just no. Don’t do it. A handy rule to remember is that if what ever you are going to do forces the other person to wait for you to accomplish your heroic deed and it only impedes their progress, don’t do it. This is not helping, this is getting in the way. (Oh, and a major pet peeve of mine about the door holding thing. It really does no one any good if you are holding the door in such a way that the person cannot pass by you. If you are all contorted holding the door and in the door way, you have just defeated the whole purpose of holding the door if they can’t get through the door way because you are standing in the door way.) So, in conclusion here, if what you are going to do impedes the other person from making progress let them go about their business without interference.

3. Are they visibly struggling or did they ask for help? There are all kinds of opportunities to be a good and well-mannered citizen. Help a shorter person who can’t reach for something on the top shelf at the store. In keeping with the door holding, help the person struggling with the door, the parent with a stroller, a person in a wheelchair when the automatic door isn’t working, things like that. There are multiple opportunities to help someone who actually needs it. Ask first. “No thank you,” is an acceptable reply. Just stop with the pouting, there will be plenty of times you can be a good guy. Just not this one.

4. The power dynamic. This is critically important here, especially within the gender dynamic. Are you sincerely helping someone as in #3 examples, or just showing off your expertise/strength/knowledge or what ever. Like helping a woman with power tools by grabbing them out of her hands to “show” her how to do it “properly” is an incredibly awful move. If you don’t understand how something like that is insulting or humiliating, I don’t know what to do for you. The door holding thing is a mild version of this, but the idea is the same. Taking over someone’s autonomy in the name of chivalry is arrogant. Being nice sometimes isn’t really nice, its self congratulatory. You very well may be smarter, bigger, stronger, or what ever, but you are not superior to any other human being. Ever. Chivalry is respect for others and “letting” others live their best life without judgement.

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But, if you are still committed to living a life of chivalry, focus on some of the other codes. Like “refrain from the wanton giving of offence” or “fight for the welfare of all.” Those are good ones. The request to never refuse a challenge from an equal is outdated so you should ignore that one. Really, just ignore it. So, good luck and godspeed good sir. Take off your armor, get off your high horse, and you will discover that will be appreciated, very much appreciated.

(Note: This treatise is based on a heterosexual context of chivalry. Please feel free to substitute pronouns and experiences that may be more applicable to your personal experience. The misuse of chivalry knows no gender.)

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