Chivalry is Six Feet in the Ground

 A man on his knees before a woman, a behaviour that can be seen in the ancient idea of chivalry, but not the modern version. Photo by Alyson Sutherland. 

When I hear the phrase “chivalry is dead,” I tend to think “good riddance, why should we continue to idolise the bare minimum from our partners, when even then, they are treating me, a (kind of) woman, as something weak, something that needs assistance in the most simple tasks?” But is the problem really with the idea of chivalry? Or is it with what it used to mean to us as a society? And how the repercussions of this ideology now affect us?

There are multiple definitions of chivalry, depending on what era you are looking at. Our modern day understanding of chivalry mainly regards behaviours—usually of men, that can range from opening a door to beating up an ex-partner for any number of reasons. This social code has ancient examples as well, dating as far back as 2100 BC, in the poem of Gilgamesh, where the warrior Ekidnu stops King Gilgamesh from relentlessly and nonconsensually sleeping with women on their wedding night. ‘Chivalrous’ behaviour was not only reserved for men in this era; another key ancient example of chivalry is when a woman priestess in the Bible assasinates a predatory general and shames his mother for raising such a person.   

In its originality, though, chivalry was created for Christian knights who originally had no moral code. It was used to create a kind of law for knights to abide by, both on the battlefield and in their love affairs. Before the implementation of the code of chivalry, the soldiers were garish horsemen who were, in the words of Texas A&M University’s mediaeval studies professor Jennifer Goodman Wollock, “hired thug[s].” As the soldiers began to implement the idea of chivalry in their era (to be considerate of civilians and women), the idea of chivalry was immersed into romantic fiction, where knights were portrayed as pious and generous men who did everything for their loves. This is only how it seemed on the surface though; we all know that just because someone writes something, doesn’t make it true. It is safe to assume that few knights actually followed this code of protecting women, although some undoubtedly still prided themselves on being saviours of women. 

Many men took this idea of being a saviour of their female counterparts very seriously, believing that women need to be saved, and that their one and only salvation was a man. This pedestal that men were put on thousands of years ago has been prevalent across cultures and time, creating an incredibly toxic power dynamic with men in control, and being seen as the strong protector of the weak woman. This power dynamic can be seen across American history, where men were seen as the strong warriors, capable of being the societal leaders while the work that the women put in was most often disregarded, and even rejected or claimed to have been done by a man instead. Men in American history were painted as the heroes, and they made sure of it. 

Not only does the idea of chivalry restrict women across history, forcing them to constantly play the damsel in distress role, but it also puts men into a box, where they must follow these requirements or they aren’t considered ‘a real man.’ This enabling of toxic masculinity has invaded our culture for centuries and influenced the way boys and men have been raised—to be strong and emotionless soldiers, who then in turn raise their sons in the same way, only further strengthening the hold toxic masculinity has on our society. 

As time went on, the idea of chivalry cemented itself into Western culture. In the 20th century, namely the 1950s, women were expected to stay at home and raise the children, take care of the home, etc., while men were expected to be the money makers of the home, always responsible for providing for their family. 

This doesn’t mean that being a housewife or a hardworking executive is a bad thing, they can actually be very fulfilling and beneficial for some people. But the fact is, there was no real choice in society. Chivalry was so deeply ingrained in the system, it chained everyone to their roles and ensured that if you did not follow the societal standards, you were renounced by society. 

Now, in the 21st century, we are still recovering from these standards, even at their mercy at times. Many men in government still consider themselves protectors of women and children, those that they deem to be weak. At the same time, women are still constantly being disregarded and put to the side, no matter how hard they fight to have their voices heard. The fact is, we have to reconsider what chivalry means to us as a country now that times are changing. We cannot remain the way we have for years. 

As time continues and the world continues to change, it’s a question to think on, what does the past definitions of chivalry mean for us going forward? Franklin High School counselor Keixa Bridges talked about what she hopes to see in the future of our social world: “hopefully [chivalry] can evolve in a way that will break out of the binary [and] isn’t so rooted in toxic masculinity, but rather in integrity and valuing others.” Times change, people change, so why not chivalry too?

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