Is chivalry dead? I have considered, conversed on and contemplated this topic on numerous occasions in the last few years. Modern women are accused of desiring its demise as they search for equal treatment (we’ll get back to this later) and young men have been accused of forgetting it as they navigate a daily modern existence that is different from that of their fathers.
As a relatively independent Southern woman with a very independent and capable daughter, I have long considered the fine details of how women are treated by men and whether the idea of chivalry can remain while chauvinism is defeated, and I think it is interesting to compare the two.
It was pointed out to me this week that Mark Twain proposed that if Sir Walter Scott hadn’t written such romantic accounts of medieval chivalry the Civil War would never have happened. What a bold statement! While we hear a lot about chivalry as it relates to societal norms and manners, we have rightfully left behind the war-bound knightly expectation that was the very construct Twain was blaming for the South’s demise. In “Life on the Mississippi” he was pretty pointed about it:
“Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner ... would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.”
He is not wrong. Sir Walter Scott’s novels were high on the list of popular books of the 1860s and there is tremendous documentation of the influence his words had on Southern society and the mindset leading up to the war. That trumped up sense of knighthood is considered a driving factor in the belief that the South could defeat the North through sheer noble effort.
There is way more than I can say here on that topic, so I encourage you to do some reading of your own. I would like to think that we have moved away from the embattled construct of Ivanhoe, but some days I question the influence it still has on some of the rhetoric I see. Perhaps a reading of Twain’s perspective could help cure the “battle cry” response we hear on occasion, especially in the South. Let’s, instead get back to what chivalry means in a modern world. If you Google the definition you find the following:
The medieval knightly system with its religious, moral and social code.
♦ Knights, noblemen and horsemen collectively.
♦ The combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice and a readiness to help the weak.
♦ Courteous behavior, especially that of a man toward women.
When I think of chivalry, when I consider what it means to me and whether or not it still exists, it is the last bullet that I think of, though the most chivalrous men I know hold many of the characteristics of the second point, too. Opening doors, pulling out chairs, walking on the outside of the sidewalk, standing when a woman approaches the table, etc. are a short list of behaviors that denote chivalry. I asked several of my friends if they thought chivalry was dead and I got a variety of perspectives.
My more feminist-leaning friends say that they don’t like a lot of these habits, that they don’t need a man to do these things. I’ve heard it argued that women who expect equal treatment shouldn’t expect a man to do these things for her because he would never do them for another man.
Most of my friends, who are obviously similar in age to me, feel that chivalry is not dead, though the men mostly believe that younger men have not been taught to treat women properly, and most of the women feel that, while they believe in striving for independence, it does not have to preclude men treating women kindly.
I like to discuss this topic with my daughter because the women of her generation are particularly strong and strong in their belief that they do not need to be treated differently by men. And, it’s true that most of the males of her generation are happy to give them that freedom, having avoided a stringent training by their parents on the matter.
But, why does equal treatment for women have to throw chivalry out the window? When any pendulum swings too far we forget the nuanced middle ground, and I would argue that women can be treated equally without being treated exactly the same. I believe that we bring equally valuable but different qualities to the table. Chauvinism is the belief that one side is better than the other, chivalry is the belief that allows that both sides are valued and treated with respect the same but differently. In my book, chivalry isn’t dead, but just a little different than it used to be. What do you think?