I’ve been thinking a lot about chivalry these past few weeks. The seed was planted by a friend of mine, who had the misfortune of getting involved in a protracted argument about chivalry and feminism, and whether the two can co-exist. I’ve been reading/watching a lot of Game of Thrones, generally drooling at great length over the spectacular can-of-whoop-ass that is Brienne of Tarth. At the same time, I’ve also stepped in to do some editing work on Combustion Book’s upcoming Dragonpunk anthology. All of which has got me thinking about knights, chivalric values, and whether these things can be re-imagined to be more inclusive of those of us who don’t happen to be straight, white, ripped examples of manhood like Jaime Lannister.
(…I’m sorry, what was I saying?)
Sadly, all of this thinking led to me inevitably typing ‘feminist chivalry’ into Google in the naive hope of finding others who had been thinking along the same lines. Instead, what I got was page after page talking about how feminism has killed chivalry—all basically re-hashing the same arguments thrown in my friend’s direction the week before.
There are many things that bother me about this argument, but I think what troubles me the most is that the people (both men and women) who are moaning about the death of tradition and chivalric values,have at no point sat down and decided what they actually mean when they talk about chivalry.
Chivalry does not mean what you think it means.
Two options would seem to present themselves:
Option one: the form of ‘chivalry’ that’s been heartlessly killed by feminism is a set of traditional values that go back to ye olde days of knights in armour. It is, in fact, the way that things have been since time immemorial.
The first problem with this is that, while medieval chivalric values did indeed include a lot of the stuff you’d probably expect (like protecting the weak and being polite to the ladies), there’s also a bunch of other stuff that you should probably consider carefully before signing up for, such as:
- 1) Showing no mercy to ‘the Infidels’ and going out of your way to make war with them; or
- 2) Submitting absolutely to God, and to your liege lord… so… probably these days it’s your boss.
It’s also probably worth noting at this point that the aspects of chivalry that deal most with the treatment of women are pretty much tied up with the ideal of courtly love, and there’s a damned strong argument to be made that, if these principals were ever practised at all, then they were mostly used as a way for lower-class men to get a leg up in society (sometimes, ahem, literally) by flattering and submitting to high-born women. In fact, rather than being a system which began from the assumption that women were weak and pathetic and needed to be protected, the chivalric knight viewed his lady as a symbol of both the unobtainable sexual ideal and spiritual ecstasy—someone who was both respected and obeyed.
Needless to say, this involved a fair amount of actually figuring out how your lady would like to be treated, rather than complaining every time she wanted to open doors for herself or carry her own bags.
Option two: chivalry has changed and evolved over the years, and no longer means what it meant back in the High Medieval.
This is fine. Values and belief systems change and adapt all the time, so it makes perfect sense that chivalry as it is now is not the same as it was back when people wore armour, slew dragons, wore pointy shoes and shot fireballs from their fingertips.
However, once you acknowledge that something has changed over the years, it becomes vital to address the issue of how it has been changed, by whom, and for what purpose. And a cursory glance over how our perceptions of chivalry have changed over the years should make it pretty obvious that it’s not developed with inclusivity and diversity in mind. That, if anything, our ideas of chivalric masculinity have grown more dominating, oppressive, and controlling, whilst the image of the chivalric woman has slid steadily from the powerful head of the household (or even the kingdom) to the weak, vulnerable princess in the tower in desperate need of rescue.
So, what can we do about it?
Some women are happy as princesses, and more power to them. I’m not here to tell any woman what she can and can’t do, or for that matter, to tell a guy whether he can or cannot hold a door open. What I’m talking about here is opening up these narrow perceptions of male and female gender roles, and not telling the same old, tired stories over and over again. It’s about killing the parts of chivalry that are sexist, racist and hierarchical: filling in the spaces with whatever we can scavenge from the world around us, or the one we want to see in the future.
With this in mind, I would like to present the following list of punked chivalric values for the modern knight-in-armour, regardless of her race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, or physical ability:
- 1) Submit only to whichever master or mistress you choose, and then only for as long as it pleases you. Otherwise, serve no one at all, and be proud;
- 2) Defend the right of all voices to be heard, especially those that speak more softly than you do;
- 3) Be gracious. Listen. Empathise. And treat others as they ask you to treat them;
- 4) Be loyal to your fellows and your friends, and dauntless in the face of your enemies;
- 5) Know yourself, and seek to become stronger in your mind, your body, and your spirit than you are;
- 6) Be wrong sometimes, and know how to apologise;
- 7) Be humble. If there is work to be done: pitch in! Remember that you are never too important to pick up a broom, or a shovel;
- 8) Be courageous, and protect that which is sacred to you. There is much broken in the world and many things that need protecting. Fight for them with your whole heart.
- 9) There is more in the world then the human mind can hold, or can be learned in a lifetime. Remain a student, always eager to learn.