Chivalry v. Knavery: A Comparison

Today, chivalry usually means courteous behavior, usually between men and women. In the past, however, it was a whole different way of life, usually associated with knighthood, knightly values, honor, and courtly love. In stark contrast, knavery is defined as roughish, dishonest, crafty, and tricky behavior. Today, both chivalry and knavery exist in our society. To compare medieval chivalry and knavery with their modern counterparts, it is essential to define them, compare their integration in various literary works, and evaluate their modern day characteristics.

In the medieval society, chivalry was a way of life. The term chivalry originated from the French word chevalier for mounted knight. Knights possessed military training, horses, and equipment that required substantial wealth and prestige to acquire. Knights were also taught to excel in weapons training, show courage, be gallant, be loyal, and swear against cowardice. This mindset was the essence of chivalry. In medieval Spain, traits expected of a Moorish knight were piety, courtesy, prowess in war, the gift of eloquence, the art of poetry, skill on horseback, dexterity with sword, lance, and bow. As the evidence dictates, the medieval world had stringent views on chivalry.

To contradict the strict chivalrous characteristics of medieval knighthood, a knave was a tricky or deceitful person. The etymology, however, comes from the Old High German word knabo meaning boy. The archaic definitions for knave include a boy servant, or of humble birth of position. In the medieval times, children were apprenticed and put to work. Children were thought of in the same line as women; under submission to men. Also, low ranking people in the society were stereotyped as dirty, filthy, low leveled, animal-like sub-people. Thus the modern definition of knavery arises; to be marked by trickery or deceit.

The idea of chivalry came out of the fundamental Western values that bind our civilization. It came out of the dark ages of fighting, first emerging from the virtues set by Charlemagne to unify Europe in the eighth century. As the feudal system was founded, warriors became important social figures, glorified as heroes. As time progressed, the church began to shape the image of knights to their own use. Knights became beacons of light in dark times; standing for all that was true, just, and virtuous. During the 12th century, the church added piety, defense of the innocent and the weak, honesty, and purity to the religious chivalry image. Out of this, secular influences arose that had an equally strong effect on the popular view of knights. Courtly love affected the strength of a knight. Out of this love, tales of romance and war came about, such as the legends of Charlemagne and Alexander. This chivalric heroism did not stop, however. A perfect example of this chivalric heroism exists in the form of a prominent British lore: the story of King Arthur of Camelot and his Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur is the epitome of a chivalrous king and knight. Due in part to the very nature of the Round Table in itself, King Arthur is often shown as an equal to his knights, rather than their ruler. In Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poems The Idylls of the King, Arthur is portrayed as the perfect king in his rule of Camelot, and the perfect husband in his marriage to Guinevere. His chivalry is so great, that when Guinevere commits adultery with Arthur’s best knight, Sir Lancelot, he is still able to forgive her. The stories of King Arthur are vast and widespread, but all of them include the chivalrous nature of King Arthur, from the earliest Celtic storytellers in Wales and Brittany, and the full account from Geoffrey of Monmouth. No matter the author, King Arthur represents the Golden Age of Chivalry.

Knavery, on the other hand is present in the play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare. Knavery is the reason that the play is even a tragedy. The story of Othello was first coined by the Italian novelist and poet Giovanni Battista Giraldi, better known as Cinthio. The antagonist Iago is a double crossing knave that’s only goals are revenge and self-content. Iago devilishly twists and manipulates the plot, turning friends, lovers, and colleagues against each other, causing mayhem, confusion, jalousie, sadness, and death. Iago is to knavery as King Arthur is to chivalry.

As time passed, chivalry changed. Although chivalry once provided the foundation for the male code of ethics, it still had flaws. Nevertheless, its influence shaped the basic tenets for later European gentlemanly behavior. In the late 1700’s, it was embraced by the forefathers of the United States who envisioned proper social interaction as an integral part of what America was all about. The freedom that they so desperately sought took for granted personal ethics and responsibility. They knew that without a moral base, freedom easily degenerates into social liability, as opposed to serving as a source of prodigious personal inspiration. They knew that freedom without ethics is like a ship without a heading, unable to reach its final destination. Chivalry spells out this sort of code of ethics. It encompasses various morals such as truthfulness, loyalty, courtesy, justice, defense of the weak, honesty, kindness, and compassion. Chivalry today, however, is quite different from the code of ethics that was the way of life centuries ago. Chivalry has been largely overrun by the abundance of knavery in the current modern society. Capitalism dominates our lives. Our current society mandates that every person is for themselves. Unfortunately, that is temptation for knavery. Business scandals and dishonesty reigns in the financial world; finances rule the lives of the people. No longer do people care about the welfare of others, but rather for the personal survival of one’s self. However, in spite of the knaveries of the world, random acts of kindness still occur. People act chivalrously not by gallantly fighting in heraldry, but rather hold open doors, give coats to the cold, or other little things that can be called kindness.

Throughout the ages, the definition of chivalry has changed. Knavery has taken control of the society. Chivalry used to be honor and glory in heraldry. Knavery was looked down upon, and Chivalry was worshipped. What was once a way of life is now a forgotten remnant in the knavery of the world.


~ by rupendajee on April 23, 2009.

One Response to “Chivalry v. Knavery: A Comparison”

  1. A very good detailed explanation. Sums up on how much our world and culture has changed, very ironic, and very true. I would have never have been able to bring these two topics into this perspective.

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