Code of Chivalry

Had the empire of Charlemagne endured; had the rules of succession been codified and dynastic power established, it might have resulted in a rebirth of civilization. Europe might have escaped its dark age and the Fall of Rome would have been viewed by history simply as a transition from Paganism to Christianity rather than the termination of an era. Europe responded to the collapse of the Frankish throne in 843 much the same way it did to the withdrawal of Roman rule 400 years earlier. Rule became localized. Lords exercised sovereignty over their individual fiefs and fought private wars with one another for additional territory. The church once again attempted to maintain order among the nobility—with mixed results—through adjudication and moral proselytizing. Knights, who had previously been regulated through their alliances to their lords and subordination to the throne, now acted independently and fought mostly to suit their own interests. They went around extorting the peasantry and robbing towns. Without a royal standard to march under the warrior class in Europe was directionless. It was around this time that knights began to adopt the chivalric code. Chivalry was devised as a remedy to the noble caste’s degeneration into a class of thieves and cutthroats. The chivalrous knight swore loyalty to all nobles of greater rank than he, not just his own lord. He vowed to protect the weak and to uphold the peace. He dedicate himself to living a virtuous life above all other pursuits. The tradition of martial discipline promulgated by an organized military system was no longer available to knights and other soldiers of this time. Instead, they submitted themselves to a strict program of self-discipline. With this cultural shift, knights were supposedly made docile. They became gentlemen.

It is an interesting trait of the European aristocracy: the entire edifice of manners, of refinement, of respectability, all of the behavioral attributes that we come to identify with “good breeding” developed out of a need to suppress antagonism between the powerful, so that they would not tear society to pieces fighting one another. And the greater their power grew the more exaggerated became their expressions of composure and self-control; while all the time, lurking beneath that veneer of restraint was the same anarchic potential, never fully resolved from the dark ages.

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