Knighthood in the Modern Age

My first question received under the “Ask Medieval” feature came from Gaharet and concerns how knighthood can be carried into the modern age.  To paraphrase, what are the essential features of knighthood and how might one be a modern knight?  The first quality of a knight is to be able to fight.  All other qualities of a knight surround the central fact of the knight being a warrior.  A knight may hesitate to strike a blow, but will not hit weakly when his hand is forced.  To that end in modern times, knowledge of how to shoot and martial arts are eminently desirable.  Next there comes keeping fit and healthy for action.  Thirdly, a knowledge of Historical European Martial Arts, though archaic, help in staying fit and better imagining what combat was like from a medieval knight’s perspective.

knights horses mountblade artwork medieval 1920x1200 wallpaper_www.wall321.com_97

The central virtue of the knight is courage.  The word courage derives from the French word for heart.  The knight must take care to keep his heart pure lest the taint of sin lead him to use force wantonly.  To which end, the virtues of faith, charity, chastity, honesty, magnanimity, obedience, loyalty, and good cheer are necessary.  To perfect his character still more, the knight ought to take on the mantle of meekness, not vaunting his own achievements but giving the glory to God.  The knight par excellence is a Christian gentleman.

What does a knight look like in modern times?  I recall the following anecdotes as instances of chivalry:

  • During the formal surrender of the Confederate infantry at Appomattox at the end of the Civil War, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Federal soldiers saluted the defeated Confederate troops, which salute these men returned.  This ceremony stood in stark contrast to the more humiliating surrender of the cavalry officiated by General Philip Sheridan.
  • During the Civil War, a wounded Union soldier, seeing General Robert E. Lee upon horseback, shouted to Lee: “Three cheers for the Union!”  General Lee halted from his course, dismounted, and went up to the young soldier, saying, “My son, I hope that you are soon well.”  The words were said with such kindness that the soldier wept.
  • During WWII, a German fighter pilot on combat patrol chanced upon a damaged Allied bomber.  His initial desire was to destroy the bomber, but seeing the wounded men inside turned his heart to pity.  Whereat, the German pilot escorted the bomber to the North Sea and waved them onward.  After the war, the airmen in both planes met and became good friends.

  • During the Allied invasion of Italy, a retreating German soldier filled the head of a young Italian girl with stories of how brutal and vicious the invading American soldiers were.  Naturally, when this Italian girl first ran into an American soldier, she was terrified and stood trembling with her eyes closed.  When she opened them, she discovered that the GI had placed a chocolate bar in her hands.
  • The U-boat Captain Peter Cremer’s boat was once caught on the surface by a small and maneuverable British corvette (a small anti-submarine vessel).  Cremer ordered all his crewmen below decks so that he might alone guide the boat to a safe position to dive.  After a continuous series of twists and turns, in which Cremer was subjected to artillery shots, small arms fire, and the corvette’s attempts to ram the U-boat, Cremer at last safely dived the boat–having been wounded eighteen times.  These two captains met after the war and became friends.
  • For a final and more violent example of chivalry, read the medal of honor citation of Sgt. Roy Benavidez.  While volunteering to help with a medical evacuation in Vietnam, Benavidez suffered seven major gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel wounds, his arms slashed by a bayonet, and his head clubbed with a rifle butt.  Despite all that, he saved the lives of eight men during prolonged combat and prevented classified materials from falling into enemy hands.  Collapsed from blood loss and presumed dead, the doctor almost had him zipped into a body bag; but Benavidez was strong enough to signal that he was alive by spitting into the doctor’s face.
Roy Benavidez Medal of Honor

Roy Benavidez front and center.  President Ronald Reagan, who awarded him with the Medal of Honor, is pictured right.

Those are some military anecdotes.  The question remains how the virtues of chivalry should be applied in every day life.  Like the aforementioned mantle of meekness, most of the knight’s virtues are quiet outside of wartime.  But, it is the men of quiet virtue or “men of courtesy,” as J. R. R. Tolkien puts it, who will count when the situation turns dire.  In a civilian context, the virtue a modern knight needs the most is honesty.

In this democratic and egalitarian age, the desire to conform is so strong that many people–even Christians who should know better–conform to the lies of this age lest they be ostracized.  Speaking the truth as one knows it, whether about God, human nature, sin, history, or politics, can carry a heavy social cost.  But, a knight must refuse to dissemble in order to fit in with the crowd.

Thomas More

St. Thomas More seeing his daughter Margaret for the last time before his execution.

As for where to learn about chivalry, the ideal of chivalry has essentially been crafted by churchmen, literate knights, and romantic poets and novelists.  Since chivalry is a Christian ideal, the first source is the Gospels, as Our Lord is the highest exemplar for all persons.  Perhaps Sir Walter Scott is the best interpreter of chivalry in modern times–especially in his work Ivanhoe.  (I shall never forget the introduction to one of Sir Walter Scott’s works which stated that Scott’s novels made men want to say to their brides that they had never known another lover.  Would that modern times had such champions of chastity!)  To name a couple of movies, the high ideal of knighthood is most succinctly expressed in the movie Dragonheart (1996).  (The ending of which would move a heart of stone!)  Excalibur (1981) has to be the greatest movie dealing with Arthurian legend.

As for classic sources of chivalry, I could name the works of Chretièn de Troyes, the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s works, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Poem of the Cid, Froissart’s Chronicles, and The Song of Roland.  Let me also add the Arthurian legends of Howard Pyle and of Alfred Lord Tennyson as good modern works on chivalry.  And, of course, one cannot forget the works of J. R. R. Tolkien!

7 comments on “Knighthood in the Modern Age

  1. Reading this, I get the feeling that I’ve been believing a lot more in distorted depictions of the ideal modern knight for a long while now. As far as I’ve realized, though, both the true and the distorted depictions present the good sides and bad sides of the person who is a knight, yet the distorted depiction is the more cynical and, sadly, more popular viewpoint, while the true one is the more faithful but more seemingly unbelievable viewpoint. I’d blame others for that, but then again, I myself seem to be like those distorted modern “knights” as well, having an imbalance with the ways of forgiving yet admonishing, among other things. Perhaps I would need to accept that I will be losing a lot of earthly power if I push towards becoming more like the true ideal knight, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is always tension between the ideal and the reality. You might call the first Sir Galahad knight and the second the “Game of Thrones” knight. All people fall short of the ideals they try to follow. If an ideal could be easily met, it wouldn’t count for much.

      Yet, the cynical view of knighthood is not really worth that much. It’s essentially the view of the scoffer. More important is knowing the ideal and then the actual history surrounding knights, which reveals both the failures and successes of knights in trying to follow the ideal. Many knights by the twelfth century were greatly influenced by the chivalric literature of the times, and often tried to meet the heights of that ideal.

      Take King Richard the Lionheart. He was imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, and Prince John, his own brother, tried to keep him in prison. But, supporters raised the money to ransom Richard from prison, and Richard came home to find his brother revolting against him. After Prince John surrendered, Richard forgave John completely, saying that John was “a child led astray by evil advisors.” On another occasion, Richard slew over two thousand prisoners of war during the Crusades because he suspected his Muslim opponents of being duplicitous in some negotiations. At the very end of his life, Richard forgave the crossbowman who mortally wounded him and ordered the crossbowman’s release; but this did not prevent his followers from flaying the crossbowman alive when Richard passed away. The knights of history have their ups and downs!

      We might call the modern knight a gentleman, and it’s a worthwhile ideal to follow even if people scoff at it. You might lose earthly power or pride in living the ideals of chivalry, but you would discover a better self in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much for your encouraging reply, Medieval. I do not come from the land where knights and chivalry hold deep roots in, but people like me can take pages and make something better out of it, no? Of course, God better be in the equation for things to truly turn out right! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Overlord Bear's Den and commented:
    Being a truly good knight is freaking tough, yo.


  3. Gaheret says:

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful answer! This is a long-time research of mine, and I always appreciate a good contribution.

    You see, the first thing that struck me about knights is how their fight is both interior and exterior. A good soldier must fight to defend, especially loved ones, avoid injustice, be loyal to comrades and superiors, use his force to serve without undue arrogance an show humanity to civilians and defeated enemies. A Pagan warrior like Gilgamesh, Achiles, CuChulainn, Caesar, Sigfrid or Gengis Khan may have something of that, but his main goal is the seeking of inmortal fame, glory and honor, and behaves so that his legend as a fighter will grow, he will surpass his limits and his people will remind him fondly, and ultimately accepts his (often tragic) destiny (or else, succumbs to hybris). They will sometimes court the loved princess or defend her, or save/avenge a friend or a father and it will be a feat done for love, so to speak, but above all feat, part of the legend. But I discovered reading Arthurian tales that a Christian knight gives a twist to that, trying to live the combat, the fellowship of arms, the allegiance, the defense, the courtesy, the passionate and faithful courting of a lady, the defense of family and friends, labours of government (sometimes) and the service of those in need as a way/metaphor of interior combat, and guarding his honor or legend as a mean to become a symbol of hope for others. Thus, in the Matter of Britain we see an uncivilized, savage land which is civilized and enlightened (for a time) by a noble ideal. Some ceremonies and important steps mark the road for the knight, who hopes to be both a contemplative saint and a lay whose place is the secular world, like, say, Perceval or Galahad.

    Not without some paradoxes. The knights will not follow the ideal sometimes, and that´s unavoidable: ups and downs, cynism having a point, etc. But there is something more. This kind of interference between the symbols and the natural order creates some important distortions: first, about the fight, which Arthurian knights often seek unnecesarily. They will duel to death to see who´s better or to settle a point of honor, and once the fight has ended here, either devote themselves to tournaments (which is OK, more or less, but sometimes will interfere with important duties, as in Erec and Enyd or, more so, Yvain) or to militar conquest (which is not): in La Morte, the long, pointless campaign against Rome has something of this. War itself becomes then a tournament, sort of a game, even if it is in a “culture that takes games seriously”. This is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a soldier: to become addicted to war and prefer it over the things one fight to protect.

    Second, I think the “courtly love” may be lived well (in a “Dante” way, so to speak), but also has its perils, and that what happened between Lanzarote and the Queen was kind of a structural vice on the ideal of love, which had diverted in some ways from the healthy love to a bride, a wife, a damsel in need or a great lady one admires to become something more symbolic: the poem treats the adultery increasingly leniently, romantically, even admiringly. The comment of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by Tolkien also points this: the code of courtesy has some deficiency in regard to adultery (this would be the point of the poem, according to him).

    Third, the code of honor has a social, external aspect which leads to some further inconsistencies about justice and truth which are neccesary. Virtue and strenght are not the same, but they become intermingled when a duel/ordaly is a way of judgement, or when a knight may defend himself with a “prove it on my body”, or when the virtue of a knight is only recognized if he is strong. Galahad is virtuous and strong: were he not, nobody would deem him the best knight in the world. But he is. Some knights are disgraced by faults others get away with because of a corageous fight (the feud between Arthur and King Lot, for example, and the subsequent realpolitik concerning Mordred). Lanzarote claims his right to defend that he is not an adulterer in a duel against any who says otherwise, but he is, in fact, an adulterer. The logic of honor and the logic of truth are both related to the logic of virtue, but they have differences which need correction, or else the sign of hope becomes a substitute of hope, so to speak. The best work I know in this subject is the Life of Agloval of Galis by Clemence Housman. A fourth and relatively minor fault is that you must be an aristochrat to live the Arthurian code of chivalry.

    These faults are recognized: in the poem, they destroy the brotherhood of the Round Table and bring an end to the Arthurian world. The poems also present some knights which don´t have them (for example, Galahad is the son of Lancelot, but lives an ascetic life in chastity and never kills his rivals, Sir Brastias becomes a hermit, etc), but they all die soon or become monks, so their character of lay knights is somewhat compromised. Unlike any Pagan heroes, Arthur, Ginevra and Lanzarote all repent of their aforesaid faults and turn to God, and accept what happens to them not as fate, but as God´s will. They die in peace, despite their “glory” crumbling and falling. This marvelous, hopeful effect is also present in the death of the Spanish “Don Quixote”, which brings this paradox (hopeful, enlighting ideal of virtue and chivalry/broken, faulty man, poor results), to the extreme. As you say, the ideal of the Christian knight greatly influenced real-life knights in the following centuries, as well as fiction. I believe it is a rich, fertile and useful model for a lay Christian man. Yet, it will need both an actualization and some correction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. Thank you for describing the issue of honor, which I rather neglected in writing this post. (I blame being part of a guilt culture rather than a shame culture for this oversight.) The need to preserve one’s honor adds a lot of complexity to the life of a knight. A knight needs to have a certain amount of honor lest other people think that they can push him around. Also, honor carries with it the ability to influence society to the good, since not only dishonorable persons but those of little merit tend to be ignored.

      You’re right about chivalry or courtliness having certain problems with regard to the temptation of adultery. Knights are discouraged from behaving brusquely towards any lady, but one should really not mind being rude towards an aspiring adulteress! The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Pearl-Poet, wrote some other works, and they do highlight the importance of chastity, especially The Pearl and Cleanness.

      Don Quixote counts as my favorite novel. It does well in pointing out some of the absurdities of chivalric literature. I’ve always found the ending of the second novel particularly touching. I’ll have to read it again sometime in the future.

      Also, I’ll definitely read The Life of Agloval of Galis when I have a chance. It sounds like the author worked hard to replicate the style of Le Morte D’Arthur, which sounds intriguing to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] there are many ways, paths and ideals in the City of God, I have always found the ideals of chivalry and knighthood very useful to grow and be more like the patriarchs or St. Joseph, who according to Pope Francis, […]


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