Modern Manners Does Not A Chivalrous Man Make

lady of shallot
John William Waterhouse  The Lady of Shalott

My friend slid this op-ed into my Twitter DMs about a week ago. From the headline, I knew this was going to be a wild ride. Now, I in no way wish to tear down the author or insult her. However, she has made some pretty bold claims and I take issue with quite a few of them.

Right off the bat, in the headline, is a claim made without definition.

“Angry feminism?” What makes feminism “angry?” How are “angry feminists” different from regular old feminists? Or does she mean feminism is angry by nature?

Nor does she clearly define what constitutes “modern chivalry” at any point in the article.

If one wishes to craft an argument, one must define the terms of the argument. It is not up to, nor is it useful for, the reader to imagine and place their own definitions into the article. That is how misinterpretation and confusion are created in what may be a perfectly reasonable debate. Two people might find themselves arguing against each other when, if they had agreed on a definition, they might have found that they completely agree.

Example: My policy professor and I argued over the role women have played in American politics since 1789. I said women were never traditionally political actors, and he said of course they were and cited Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dolley Madison, and Abigail Adams. Come to find out, we had totally different definitions in mind for what constituted a “political actor.” For me, a political actor was an elected or employed politician. For my professor, a political actor was anyone who tapped into and infiltrated the political sphere, regardless of profession, i.e., Dolley, Abigail, and Elizabeth. We were in complete agreement when I accepted his definition in place of my own.

Definitions are important and the author does not clearly define what “angry feminism” or “modern chivalry” are. She does give plenty of examples of what she thinks “modern chivalry” is, however. Those might serve as a type of definition.

My issue is that her examples are simple manners and she clearly equates Southern manners with “chivalry.” The falsehood of that equivalency, however, is that manners are inherited and handed down by the society into which you are born and they differ everywhere. Chivalry was a very particular system from 12th century Europe that was created to distinguish the nobility from the peasantry, which was growing in wealth and could imitate the appearance of nobility. In the European North, it was largely derived from French and English culture, Arthurian legend and French military codes. In Italy, it would not be called chivalry but the concept can comfortably fit inside Italian humanism.

Chivalry was inherently exclusionary and was not a factor in how anyone outside of the elite functioned in society. It excluded men who could not read, since it was derived widely from classical and high literature, it excluded men who could read but were not wealthy enough to be tutored in the classics or religious texts, and it excluded, entirely, women of all classes. Chivalry in particular, as it pertained to ideas of “knighthood,” excluded men who did not own weapons or horses…the non-elite. In every form, at every point, chivalry excluded the peasantry. It was meant for that very purpose.

There’s a whole lot more to chivalry, involving knights and war and Christian ethos. It has almost nothing to do with holding open doors, pulling out chairs, and bringing flowers to a first date. The only claim the author makes that relates to chivalric codes is that men ought to act in the interest of the defenseless. However, that is more than the simple manners she describes throughout the rest of the article and should not be exclusive to men.

She makes the claim that everyone ought to exhibit the manners she writes about, which is a subjective but socially acceptable claim to make. However, again, that’s just manners. Chivalry was not all inclusive.

And, chivalry has been dead since the Baroque Era, when it was declared by the aristocracy to be “outdated” and “medieval.” Hence: Don Quixote. It never even existed without criticism, even Petrarch, a man of the chivalric era, had a bone to pick with it.

It came back in the 18th and 19th centuries, labeled as “Romanticism,” and defined war culture from the Napoleonic Wars to the American Civil War.

And on that note, the chivalry of the Southern male was disastrous for the wives of plantation owners during the Civil War. The women were socialized to be discreet, polite, and mostly inactive. They never needed to lift a finger. Until the men left. The Civil War left almost no southern male untouched. The wives of plantation owners found themselves without food, ill-prepared to perform the chores the plantation required, and lacked the proper leadership skills that men learned. They could not keep the plantation in working order because they had no authority. Authority is learned, it turns out, and Southern chivalry left women out of that particular classroom. The society these women lived in broke down and collapsed in on itself and that, in part, is why the Confederate war effort failed so desperately. In the last half of the war, the Confederate Army was losing soldiers to desertion faster than it could draft new ones. Why? Because the women of the home front begged them to desert and refuse the draft order.

Antebellum society in the South, for the upper class, was so dependent on male codes of conduct informed by chivalry that it literally could not function without men, which proved disastrous to the women and the war effort.

(And, honestly, good.)

Romanticism would “die” again with the Suffragette movement and the only revival it has seen is people lamenting it’s death with lackluster arguments and false equivalencies on the internet.

In short, chivalry does not equal simple manners. Manners are not universal, they differ from culture to culture, so lamenting a loss of manners is a tad naive. Live your life treating others how you want to be treated, and such. There has never been a universally applied and adhered to code of conduct, ever. The idea that “chivalry is dead and we should have it back,” is nothing more than hearkening back to “the good old days.” The days have never been that good. We have what we have.

Also, chivalry has a long, weird, and deep history that goes far beyond the simple manners the author complains society has lost, and also, we can be informed of the ways chivalric societies were ultimately harmful in times of social upheaval and war.


Sources: (With no uniform citation method because this is a blog not an essay but just so you all know I’m not making this up.)

Avalon to Camelot, vol. 2, No. 2 (1986 [1987]), p. 2., reproduced at

Anonymous (1994). The World Book Encyclopedia. World Book. ISBN 0-7166-0094-3.

Perman & Taylor, Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays. Third Edition. Chapter 8, pp. 246-283

Robert Bast. Literary Culture of the Renaissance, Humanism Pt 1. Lecture. History of the Italian Renaissance. University of Tennessee. Knoxville, TN. September 27, 2016

Robert Bast. Literary Culture of the Renaissance, Humanism Pt 2. Lecture. History of the Italian Renaissance. University of Tennessee. Knoxville, TN. September 29, 2016.




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