The concept of chivalry usually refers to chivalrous codes of behavior that knights and gentlemen of medieval Europe should demonstrate in their social interactions. In the time period of about 1170 to 1220 CE, knights created the social rules of the chivalric code of conduct.
The word “chivalry” came from the Old French word “chevalerie,” which means “horse soldiery.” Initially, it referred to the men who rode horses. But later it denoted the ideals of a knight.
Medieval literature popularized chivalric ideals, which later shifted their meaning to noble social and moral qualities. The aristocracy and noble people of medieval France, Spain, and Germany widely accepted such chivalrous norms of behavior. Chivalry has become an essential feature of the courtly love art (Karandashev, 2017).
According to Henry Finck, chivalry practice was much less refined than its literary representation.
Many historians have praised the moral virtues of chivalry. However, some knightly behaviors appeared to be less than morally virtuous. It is true that the knights took a solemn oath promising to defend widows, orphans, and ladies. They also showed respect for and deference to them. Nevertheless, they treated women harshly when they invaded cities or stormed castles. Henry Finck defined this kind of chivalry as militant chivalry (Finck, 1887/2019).
Let us read his writings. Chivalry militant was most common in Spain, Southern France, and Germany. The warm climate and friendly nature of those countries provided ideal conditions for wandering knights in search of adventure. Here are two examples of medieval chivalry and the art of love. One is the story of the Spanish Don Quixote, and another is the story of the German Ulrich von Lichtenstein.
The Spanish Images of Chivalry
For example, it appears that the medieval knights of Spain were wandering around the country, interfering in every quarrel.
In the literary genre, Cervantes presented a lifelike picture of knight-errantry in Don Quixote. His intention was to make fun, not so much of chivalry as of trashy contemporaneous romances of chivalry. However, he could not avoid depicting the comic side of chivalry itself. It was indeed “difficile satiram non scribere.”
Each knight had his own Dulcinea, whom he may not have seen. Nevertheless, he fights all these battles for her honor and love. And whenever he meets another knight, he immediately challenges him to admit that his Dulcinea, whom he has never seen, is the most beautiful lady in the world.
The other knight repeats the challenge on behalf of his Dulcinea. Therefore, he fights the battle through the inexorable logic of superior strength, intended to prove the superior beauty of his chosen lady-love. The victor celebrates victory and sends the defeated knight as a prisoner to the victor’s mistress with a love message.
The German Images of Chivalry
When medieval German knights came into close contact with French knights, the Germans adopted the idea and the fantastic aspect of chivalry from the French. And they pursued the code of chivalry with great diligence. As the 19th-century German cultural historian Johannes Scherr noted,
“Spain has imagined a Don Quixote, but Germany has really produced one.”(cited in Finck, 1887/2019,p. 100).
His name was Ulrich von Lichtenstein. He was born in the year 1200.
“From his boyhood, Herr Ulrich’s thoughts were directed towards woman-worship, and as a youth he chose a high-born and, be it well understood, a married lady as his patroness, in whose service he infused method into his knightly madness. The circumstance that meanwhile he himself gets married does not abate his folly. He greedily drinks water in which his patroness has washed herself; he has an operation performed on his thick double underlip, because she informs him that it is not inviting for kisses; he amputates one of his fingers which had become stiff in an encounter, and sends it to his mistress as a proof of his capacity of endurance for her sake. Masked as Frau Venus, he wanders about the country and engages in encounters, in this costume, in honour of his mistress; at her command he goes among the lepers and eats with them from one bowl…. The most remarkable circumstance, however, is that Ulrich’s own spouse, while her husband and master masquerades about the land as a knight in his beloved’s service, remains aside in his castle, and is only mentioned (in his poetic autobiography) whenever he returns home, tired and dilapidated, to be restored by her nursing.”Johannes Scherr, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 100.
When a German knight chose a Dulcinea, he adopted and wore her colors. He was now her love-servant and stood in the same relationship to his mistress as a vassal to his master. As Scherr continues his writing,
“The beloved gave her lover a love-token—a girdle or veil, a ribbon, or even a sleeve of her dress; this token he fastened to his helmet or shield, and great was the lady’s pride if he brought it back to her from battle thoroughly cut and hewn to pieces. Thus (in Parzival) Gawan had fastened on his shield a sleeve of the beautiful Olibet, and when he returned it to her, torn and speared, “Da ward des Mägdlein’s Freude gross; ihr blanker Arm war noch bloss, darüber schob sie ihn zuhand.”Johannes Scherr, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 100.
Chivalry Love Across Cultures
Here I presented two cultural examples of chivalry. However, romantic ideas of chivalry and courtly love similar to European conduct of love evolved in South Asia and Japan during 900–1200 CE. American historian William M. Reddy (2012) explored the depiction of courtly love and of the emerging ideal of chivalry in twelfth-century romances.