The term chivalry originates from the 10th century French word cheval, which means horse. A chevalier was one who rides a horse, such as knights. By the 12th century, early medieval times, the term chivalry was in common use in chronicles, vernacular literature and other written records, but with varied meanings. It can refer to a company of mounted knights. Or it can mean the status of being a knight, either as an occupation or as a social class.
The 12th century seems to be the demarcation line when chivalry became synonymous with moral, religious and social codes of conduct. While those codes varied, chivalrous virtues focused on courage, honor and service. It was an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court. Medieval knights also glorified and identified with the valor, tactics and ideals of ancient Romans and strove to emulate them on the battlefield.
By the 13th century, texts on chivalrous warfare were being published. What had been long-accepted behavior on the battlefield was now deemed inappropriate. In a way, a certain respect for ones opponent was demanded. And it was this respect that followed into the household.
What also followed into the household were traveling bards, storytellers and minstrels who swapped glorious romances for food and lodging. Romance was a term meaning adventure stories. Bards shared a similar status as visiting nobles and given the best food and drink the household had to offer in exchange for these tales. Quite often, a bard could spend months or even years within a single keep, as long as his tales were fresh, captivating, and most especially, honored the master of the house. Romances featured kings, brave knights and mighty warriors who emulated chivalrous behavior—pretty much what we read in today's historical romance novels. Romantic tales helped evolve boorish manly behavior into gentlemanly or courtly behavior—those who enjoyed such romantic tales were inspired to emulate heroes in the stories.
When examining medieval literature, chivalry can be classified into three basic but overlapping areas:
1. Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: this contains virtues such as mercy, courage, valor, fairness, protection of the weak and the poor, and in the servant-hood of the knight to his lord. This also brings with it the idea of being willing to give one’s life for another’s; whether he would be giving his life for a poor man or his lord.
These three areas obviously overlap quite frequently in chivalry, and are often indistinguishable.
When we think of these chivalric classes, one can't not think about the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These tales are the quintessential archetype of chivalrous behavior. Because of this, we're also given three similar but different areas to consider:
1. Warrior chivalry: A knight's chief duty was to his lord, as exemplified by Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight (a knight not only dressed in green, but also is green himself) offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts, and beheads him in one blow. Then the Green Knight stand up, picks up his head, and reminds Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. This is an important poem in the romance genre, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest that tests his ability, as Gawain struggles to meet the appointment and his adventures along the way and demonstrating the spirit of chivalry and loyalty.
One particular similarity between all three of these categories is honor. Honor is the foundational and guiding principle of chivalry. Thus, for the knight, honor would be one of the guides of action.
However you look at chivalry and tales, it's all very romantic.
Perhaps ironically, the word for romance (remembering the origin in adventure tales) in many languages translates to novel, novela and novele. Think about it. When you go into the bookstore and look for a novel to read, you'd probably gravitate to the romance section, or even westerns, science fiction and thrillers, as long as it was a tale of adventure. When I first started reading romance books I called them adventure stories. I preferred stories set on the high seas or the American west. Rogues and warriors, danger and adventure, and of course the love story. It was all intriguing. How was I to know at that age that the real meaning of a romance was adventure and not sex as so many romance stories have become?
But it's not all about chivalry. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true on two counts:
The quintessential bad guy: If it weren't for the villain, there would be nothing in which to compare to virtue. White must face black. Right must face wrong. And good must face evil. Without disappointment and failure, we cannot appreciate success and fulfillment. Even still, remember the saying—there is honor among thieves. Even bad guys have rules to live by. Why? Because all great undertakings involve groups of people who work together to the same end. Groups of people can accomplish more than individuals. A group of thieves must be just as organized as a team of do-gooders, if not more so. A command structure makes coordination flow more smoothly. Thieves steal. It is good to steal if you are a thief. It is not good to disrupt the group by stealing from each other. "We must be able to trust each other in order to be maximally effective."
And the quest for love: Even as a chivalrous hero can coerce his woman to part with her most precious possession—her virginity—by wooing her with treats, gems and words of love. There's something attractive about a man who wears his honor as his shield of pride. Women have always favored men with honor, integrity, and a love of God and country. Women have always gravitated to a man in uniform. The uniform represents an honorable mission, a job that demands integrity, and a certain sense of protection and safety. Who wouldn't love a man like that?
Here are a few old time courtship customs and love tokens from around the world:
All the Nordic countries have courtship customs involving knives. For example, in Norway when a girl came of age, her father announced that she was available for marriage. The girl would wear an empty sheath on her belt. If a suitor liked the girl, he would put a knife in the sheath, which the girl now wore as a sign that she was betrothed.
In 17th century Wales, love spoons were ornately carved from a single piece of wood. These were made by the suitor and given to his beloved. The decorative carvings held meanings, such as and anchor meant "I desire to settle with you" and an intricate vine meant "love grows." These spoons are still common, but rather than the man making one himself, these are available for purchase to give a lady love.
Gentlemen in England often sent a pair of gloves to their true loves. If the woman wore the gloves to church on Sunday it signaled her acceptance of his proposal.
Probably the most popular tradition is the giving of a betrothal ring. This custom dates back to time of ancient Romans who called them truth rings. Fede rings were also popular, the name coming from an Italian phrase, mani in fede, "hands in trust/faith." The name was derived by a pair of clasped hands on the front of the ring. Fede rings were popular in many countries, as the Romans made their conquests around Europe.
Romans were also the first to wear rings on their third finger on the left hand, today commonly known as the ring finger. This is because Egyptians believed that the ring finger has the "vein amoris", the vein of love, which runs straight to the heart.
In medieval times, a betrothal ring was also called a bond ring. As well, Gimmel rings were popular, a pair of loops that fitted together to form one ring. Wealthy suitors would have added gems to their rings.
Inarguably, the most famous Fede ring is Ireland's Claddagh ring, which is represented by a heart (love) clasped by a pair of hands (friendship) and crowned (loyalty). The first of these rings was designed in the 1690s by Richard Joyce of Galway who was captured by Algerian pirates while on a ship for the West Indies. He was sold into slavery to a goldsmith who trained him in the art of metalworking. Released or escaping around 1690, he returned to his native Galway where he was soon betrothed, creating a special ring for his lady love. The name Claddagh is derived from the Claddagh region of Galway City. Three examples of Joyce's rings exist today: two in a ring museum in Dublin City and one in Claddagh Jewelers in Galway City.
The first diamond ring to signify engagement was given by the Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. Engagement rings weren't the standard engagement ring until the end of the 19th century, and diamonds rings weren't common until the 1930s. Now, 80% of American women receive diamond rings to signify their engagement.
In the 19th century, brides-to-be often received sewing thimbles instead of rings. This was popular with religious group who shun jewelry.
The topic of romance is much longer and more involved that I've explained here, but you get the gist of it. Our common use of the word romance has a very long and rich history. It's not something easily explained, and when attempted can branch off in dozens of directions. I've just chosen this one as it relates to what many of us write today—love stories.
To further my musings, you might enjoy watching this Time Team Special about how the King Arthur legend influenced Edward III's role as King of England (not available in all regions) --