“Is chivalry dead?” The answer, m’lady, is a definite yes.
Cultural commentators have a strange obsession with asking whether things are dead. Time magazine in particular has courted sensationalism over the years with covers that dramatically check the pulse on “God,” “feminism,” or “truth.” And for the past few decades, when op-eds tackle relations between straight men and women, there’s a particular question they love to explore.
Chivalry is as dead as the eighth-century knight Count Roland, whose personal conduct became one model for chivalric codes in the Late Middle Ages. And although chivalry disappeared hundreds of years ago, people can’t seem to stop talking about it.
The term “chivalry” loosely refers to informal codes of conduct developed by European knights in feudal systems starting in the 12th century. These codes differed based on region and time period, and covered issues like whom knights should show mercy to and whom it was okay to attack.
In these feudal systems, knights worked in paid service to their lords, and enjoyed social superiority to the serfs or peasants. In the 1984 book, Chivalry, the late historian Maurice Hugh Keen argued that chivalric codes had served as a kind of international law of war that protected these knights as an aristocratic class. Keen’s argument countered the widely held presumption that chivalry was more focused on courtly love and protecting women.
As feudalism faded in the 15th century, so did chivalry—but it popped up again in the 18th and 19th century when writers began to romanticize the Middle Ages. In 1790, for example, Irish statesman Edmund Burke took one look at the queen-killing French Revolution and bemoaned: “The age of chivalry is gone: that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded: and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”
His statement was melodramatic, especially considering no one had followed chivalric codes for hundreds of years. But Burke wasn’t the only person to belatedly announce the death of chivalry. In 1823, poet Lord Byron stated that chivalry was dead, and the 17th-century novel Don Quixote had killed it. Author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had used Don Quixote to satirize chivalry, and Byron indignantly wrote that “Cervantes smiled Spain’s chivalry away; A single laugh demolished the right arm of his country.”
To Burke and Byron, chivalry was a noble ideal about how soldiers should behave in battle and life, rather than a specific code that helped protect a feudal class in the Late Middle Ages. Writers continued to think of chivalry as a military ideal through World War I, when wartime posters used images of medieval knighthood to portray war as something noble. But after the horrors of World War I, the notion of “chivalry” lost its luster as returning soldiers became disillusioned with the idea that there can be any glory in war.
A century later, “chivalry” has shed most of its association with war, at least among non-historians. When opinion columnists evoke it today, they’re usually trying to make an argument about about how men (even the non-knights!) should treat women, particularly in romantic relationships. Though this equation of “chivalry” with “civilian gentlemanliness” probably has its roots in the Victorian Era, the divorcing of chivalry from war is still quite new.
Long before modern cultural commentators began wringing their hands about what feminism hath wrought, Burke and Byron were already writing their own hot takes about how the French peasants and Don Quixote had killed chivalry. The tradition of publicly declaring that chivalry is dead is almost as old as the notion of chivalry itself.