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.
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.
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.
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!