This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Origin of Chivalry.
Writers on the history of chivalry are unable to refer its origin to any definite time or place; and even specific definition of chivalry is seldom attempted by careful students. They rather give us, as does Gautier in the picturesque account which follows, some recognized starting-point, and for definition content themselves with characterization of the spirit and aims of chivalry, analysis of its methods, and the story of its rise and fall.
Chivalry was not an official institution that came into existence by the decree of a sovereign. Although religious in its original elements and impulses, there was nothing in its origin to remind us of the foundation of a religious order. It would be useless to search for the place of its birth or for the name of its founder. It was born everywhere at once, and has been everywhere at the same time the natural effect of the same aspirations and the same needs. “There was a moment when people everywhere felt the necessity of tempering the ardor of old German blood, and of giving to their ill-regulated passions an ideal. Hence chivalry!”
Yet chivalry arose from a German custom which was idealized by the Christian church; and chivalry was more an ideal than an institution. It was “the Christian form of the military profession; the knight was the Christian soldier.” True, the profession and mission of the church meant the spread of peace and the hatred of war, she holding with her Master that “they who take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Her thought was formulated by St. Augustine: “He who can think of war and can support it without great sorrow is truly dead to human feelings.” “It is necessary,” he says, “to submit to war, but to wish for peace.” The church did, however, look upon war as a divine means of punishment and of expiation, for individuals and nations. And the eloquent Bossuet showed the church’s view of war as the terrestrial preparation for the Kingdom of God, and described how empires fall upon one another to form a foundation whereon to build the church. In the light of such interpretations the church availed herself of the militant auxiliary known as chivalry.
Along with the religious impulse that animated it, chivalry bore, throughout its purer course, the character of knightliness which it received from Teutonic sources. How the fine sentiments and ennobling customs of the Teutonic nations, particularly with respect to the gallantry and generosity of the male toward the female sex, grew into beautiful combination with the rule of protecting the weak and defenseless everywhere, and how these elements were blended with the spirit of religious devotion which entered into the organization and practices of chivalry, forms one of the most fascinating features in the study of its development; and this gentler side, no less than its sterner aspects, is faithfully presented in the brilliant examination of Gautier. And the heroic sentiment and action which inspired and accomplished the sacred warfare of the Crusades are not less admirably depicted in these blog posts; while in his summary of the decline of chivalry Gautier has perhaps never been surpassed for penetrating insight and lucid exposition.
This selection is from La Chevalerie by Léon Gautier published in 1884. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Léon Gautier was a French Literary historian specializing in the Medieval Period.
There is a sentence of Tacitus — the celebrated passage in the Germania — that refers to a German rite in which we really find all the military elements of the future chivalry. The scene took place beneath the shade of an old forest. The barbarous tribe is assembled, and one feels that a solemn ceremony is in preparation. Into the midst of the assembly advances a very young man, whom you can picture to yourself with sea-green eyes, long fair hair, and perhaps some tattooing. A chief of the tribe is present, who without delay places gravely in the hands of the young man a framea and a buckler. Failing a sovereign ruler, it is the father of the youth, or some relative, who undertakes this delivery of weapons. “Such is the ‘virile robe’ of these people,” as Tacitus well puts it; “such is the first honor of their youth. Till then the young man was only one in a family; he becomes by this rite a member of the Republic. Ante hoc domus pars videtur: mox rei publicae. This sword and buckler he will never abandon, for the Germans in all their acts, whether public or private, are always armed. So, the ceremony finished, the assembly separates, and the tribe reckons a miles — a warrior — the more. That is all!”
The solemn handing of arms to the young German — such is the first germ of chivalry which Christianity was one day to animate into life. “Vestigium vetus creandi equites seu milites.” It is with reason that Sainte-Palaye comments in the very same way upon the text of the Germania, and that a scholar of our own days exclaims with more than scientific exactness, “The true origin of miles is this bestowal of arms which among the Germans marks the entry into civil life.”
No other origin will support the scrutiny of the critic, and he will not find anyone now to support the theory of Roman origin with Sainte-Marie, or that of the Arabian origin with Beaumont. There only remains to explain in this place the term knight (chevalier), but it is well known to be derived from caballus, which primarily signifies a beast of burden, a pack-horse, and has ended by signifying a war-horse. The knight, also, has always preserved the name of miles in the Latin tongue of the Middle Ages, in which chivalry is always called militia. Nothing can be clearer than this.
We do not intend to go further, however, without replying to two objections, which are not without weight, and which we do not wish to leave behind us unanswered.
In a certain number of Latin books of the Middle Ages we find, to describe chivalry, an expression which the “Romanists” oppose triumphantly to us, and of which the Romish origin cannot seriously be doubted. When it is intended to signify that a knight has been created, it is stated that the individual has been girt with the cingulum militare. Here we find ourselves in full Roman parlance, and the word signified certain terms which described admission into military service, the release from this service, and the degradation of the legionary. When St. Martin left the militia, his action was qualified as solutio cinguli, and at all those who act like him the insulting expression militaribus zonis discincti is cast. The girdle which sustains the sword of the Roman officer — cingulum zona, or rather cinctorium — as also the baldric, from balteus, passed over the shoulder and was intended to support the weapon of the common soldier. “You perceive quite well,” say our adversaries, “that we have to do with a Roman costume.” Two very simple observations will, perhaps, suffice to get to the bottom of such a specious argument: The first is that the Germans in early times wore, in imitation of the Romans, “a wide belt ornamented with bosses of metal,” a baldric, by which their swords were suspended on the left side; and the second is that the chroniclers of old days, who wrote in Latin and affected the classic style, very naturally adopted the word cingulum in all its acceptations, and made use of this Latin paraphrasis — cingulo militari decorare — to express this solemn adoption of the sword. This evidently German custom was always one of the principal rites of the collation of chivalry. There is then nothing more in it than a somewhat vague reminiscence of a Roman custom with a very natural conjunction of terms which has always been the habit of a literary people.
To sum up, the word is Roman, but the thing itself is German. Between the militia of the Romans and the chivalry of the Middle Ages there is really nothing in common but the military profession considered generally. The official admittance of the Roman soldier to an army hierarchically organized in no way resembled the admission of a new knight into a sort of military college and the “pink of society.” As we read further the singularly primitive and barbarous ritual of the service of knightly reception in the twelfth century, one is persuaded that the words exhale a German odor, and have nothing Roman about them. But there is another argument, and one which would appear decisive. The Roman legionary could not, as a rule, withdraw from the service; he could not avoid the baldric. The youthful knight of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, was always free to arm himself or not as he pleased, just as other cavaliers are at liberty to leave or join their ranks. The principal characteristic of the knightly service, and one which separates it most decidedly from the Roman militia, was its freedom of action.
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