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Men on Horses: C is for Chivalry (Alphabet b-sides and rarities)

2012 December 12

Ed’s note: In the original Alphabet we did ‘C is for Crinoline’ – but here’s something we thought was topically worth coming back to.



Chivalry is dead, but you’re still kinda cute.

– Nelly Furtado, Promiscuous (2006)

Chivalry. Not one of feminism’s most pressing issues, but definitely one of its more genteel debates.

Do you, as an attractive female who also happens to be a feminist, deign to take the seat that dude offers you on the crowded tube or laugh hollowly and stick your head back in your neighbour’s armpit? Is chivalry OK?

Personally, my view on this debate is always affected by the point that 99% of the men I’ve met who talk about chivalry with misty-eyed fervour are also the kind of Nice Guys who Really Aren’t Very Nice At All.

But that’s not for here.

What I am interested in is looking at its complex linguistic heritage.


What’s that sound in the distance?

Why, it’s the sound of clopping hooves – and chivalry‘s etymological root come to join us. Neiiigh.

Horse and boy

Animal instincts. Photo by Hodge.

For though chivalryin English means (first definition ahoy!)  ‘the code of behaviour demonstrated by a perfect knight‘, were we French we’d replace ‘knight’ with ‘chevalier‘, or ‘horseman’ – from the root word cheval (= ‘horse’).

The knight, or chevalier, is in origin a nobleman on horseback who goes around rescuing maidens and fighting dragons. He is chivalrous in behaviour, displaying (the word’s second definition) ‘courage, honour, justice and readiness to help the weak’.

Key examples can be found in the legends of King Arthur and his horsebacked Knights of the Round Table – in particular Sir Gawain and the so-good-he-couldn’t-be-gooder Sir Percival (who later becomes Wagner’s Parsifal).

The chivalrous are those on horseback.

But it’s the secondary meaning of chivalry that we best recognise today: ‘courteous behaviour, especially towards women’ (that is, giving up your seat on the tube, which Percival would totally have done if he didn’t travel everywhere by cheval).

Courtly-powered lovin’

Chivalry – and the courtesy that defines it – is also the base idea behind courtly love, which the devoted may remember we addressed separately in the Alphabet Glory Days.

Charles I depicted on horseback by Anthony van Dyck

Charles I – Equestrian portrait by Anthony van Dyck

This is what the knights are doing when they’re not out fighting –  sighing for love among rose bushes, swooning at the touch of a ‘lily-white hand’ and definitely giving up their seats for a woman on the medieval commute.

And it was said to have been invented by a woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Before she married Henry II and brought her French customs over to England, Eleanor had a period presiding alone over a predominantly male grouping in Poitiers.It seems inventing an elaborate code of chaste devotion to a single lady – courteous behaviour, if you will – was a good way for Eleanor to bring these bored and potentially restless knights into order – and, I assume, to block potential sexual aggression at the same time (cf. the court of Elizabeth I, which saw a resurgence of ‘courtly’ devotion to ‘Gloriana’, the ‘Virgin Queen‘).


With these courtly roots, it’s appropriate that, during the English Civil War, the word chevalier should lend itself so enthusiastically to the Royalist cause in fighting for king (and court).

In this context, the Cavaliers were enemies to the Roundheads and cousins to chevaliers via the Latin source-word ‘cabellarius’ (also meaning ‘horseman’).

The origin of this term is actually pre-war, in the grouping of courtly ‘cavaliers’ at the original Carolingian court (a bit like the courtly lovers at Poitiers).

These included the ‘Cavalier poets‘, a conglomerate of literary courtiers formed by the King himself, including Robert Herrick and Edmund Waller.

The term in this usage is ambiguous, though. On the one hand, cavalier was often used in allusion to the King’s refined (indeed ‘knightly’) sensibilities, which, incidentally, included a famous love of horses – as the many magnificent equestrian portraits of him attest.

But, in a pejorative sense, the cavalier poets were so named because they were famously ‘roistering gallants’ and ‘libertines’. This is cavalier‘s other meaning: ‘haughty, disdainful or supercilious’ or ‘offhand and unceremonious’ (a bit like wearing your hat at a ‘rakish’ angle).

So cavalier is almost a contraction in terms.

The Don

This is the very ambiguity we find in Mozart’s great libertine opera, Don Giovanni, written about 100 years later. The ‘Don’ is a nobleman and serial womaniser. He’s a standard-issue rake, in fact: we learn in the Catalogue Song that he’s seduced 1,003 women in Spain alone.

Sir Charles Grandison

Sir Charles Grandison

He is throughout referred to in the Italian as a ‘cavalier’, understood (and, for us English-speakers, translated) according to context variously as ‘gentleman’ (nobleman on horseback) and ‘rake’ (careless womaniser) – as in the opera’s subtitle, ‘Il dissoluto punito’ (‘the debauchee punished’).

Thus, when Don Giovanni takes the pretty peasant girl Zerlina away from her finance, Masetto, to show her his castle (no, really), Don Giovanni ‘reassures’ the jealous Masetto by saying he needn’t worry – his fiancee is ‘in the hands of a cavalier‘.Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Masetto is afraid of. “Let the cavaliere make a cavaliera out of you!” he trumpets at the departing Zerlina – he knows what’s going down (this).

Court to City

Back to English climes.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Queen Anne halved the size of the English court and moved it out of central London.

In so doing, she ultimately ended up transferring power from court to city – and courtesy became civility (from the Latin cives (= the city)).

The White Knight - Alice Through the Looking Glass

The White Knight accompanies Alice through the forest

This is the age of opening doors, watching your language and standing up when a woman enters the room. Chivalry has gone domestic; men are civil now in Britain. Only the hot-headed Italian Don Giovannis are still cavaliers.

But when Samuel Richardson wanted to depict a perfect (but domestic) Englishman, he still made him an aristocratic knight (Sir Charles Grandison). Jane Austen did too: her paragon of virtue (himself based on Sir Charles), is pointedly named Mr Knightly (Emma).By this point it’s faded away to a name rather than a title, but the gentleman still has a vestigial horse (if you will).

White Knights

Strangely enough, the vestigial horse becomes more literal in the modern age, in the form of the ladies’ proverbial ‘ideal man’ – a chivalrous gentleman. Mr Right is also a ‘knight in shining armour’.

He’s even a  Lewis Carroll-esque ‘White Knight’, a noble rescuer (as in the song ‘My White Knight’ from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, where the knight in question will, her mother thinks, ‘save’ Marian the Librarian from Old Maidery).

Remember when Grace first meets Leo – the Great Romance – in Will and Grace? He’s on a horse in Central Park. That’s how you know he’s a Big Deal Romance.

Never trust a man on horseback

And, to conclude very crudely, I suppose this is what happened to chivalry .

It became the polite behaviour of the  gentleman – enshrined in tradition and developed over a couple of hundred years to become our friend offering me a seat on the bustling 21st century commute and sitcom single girls dreaming of their ‘Mr Darcy’.

But I still hear the sound of clopping hooves. The fantasy may be more Sir Gawain than Don Giovanni, but you know what they say – the apple never falls far from the lexical tree.

  • For more from the Alphabet of Feminism – a whole series of posts about language, gender and history – visit the Alphabet category. Contains lots of hand-drawn illustrations!
5 Responses leave one →
  1. December 12, 2012

    On the original meaning of chivalry, this seemed to be more focussed on the behaviours that kept the medieval gang operating successfully: prowesse (know how to fight), fidelité (understand where loyalties lie) and largesse (share the wealth between the group).

    These practical concerns fit neatly into the romantic Arthurian ideal (courage=prowesse , honour=fidelité and justice=largesse). The ideal of courtoise (giving up your seat on the Tube) didn’t come until much later, probably by the same guy that invented Sir Lancelot.

    It also means that the closest modern-day match to original chivalry is probably Tony Soprano.

    • Hodge permalink
      December 13, 2012

      Nice bit of homosociality!

      I wonder if that links thematically with the early ‘rakehells’, who tended to hunt in gangs when they went out pillaging, window-breaking and whoring (cf. Shadwell’s The Libertine). The lone Don G-style aristocratic rake (Johnny Depp’s The Libertine) presumably arises out of more of an individualist way of thinking (‘the self’ got invented in the 1700s, of course*).


      *oh wait

  2. December 12, 2012

    I’m really pleased to see the return of the alphabet. Reading this b-side or rarity brought a number of things to mind.

    One is to do with Don Giovanni taking Zerlina away to show her his castle. I used to read books about vampirism, and thus gave the eyeball treatment to several potted lives of Elizabeth Bathory. The countess, when finally convicted of monstrous deeds, was walled up in her husband’s castle. One book said that the castle was symbolically her husband’s body, and subjecting her to that punishment had to do with the perception of her as a blood-crazed lesbian. The idea of the castle as a symbolic male body might either illuminate or cloud the Don Giovanni incident.

    On Lewis Carroll’s white knight, this character is generally seen as a portrait of the author. There may be something interesting, here, to do with how he perceived his relationship with Alice Liddell.

    Another thought to arise is the debasement of knighthood in the modern British honours system. It has long been my view that knighthoods should not go to pop stars, bankers, civil servants and the like. The prime qualification for a knighthood should surely be a proven ability to fight from horseback. Given the popularity of horses with young women, I suspect that most knights — these days — should be female. When I see someone on horseback, she is usually a she.

    • December 17, 2012

      Perhaps I will be beheaded for posting treason, but I would be much cheered to see the flower of twenty-first century chivalry hacked down on the field of blood. Would that the French landed a boatload of proper knights on the south coast. Then, the queen would (surely) have to send her knights to fight them. (Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?) How lovely it would be to see Sir Fred Goodwin unhorsed, and on the spiky end of a morning star mace. And all those aging pop stars: Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Mick Jagger. Please, please French knights! Put them to the sword. The whole world would thank you!

  3. December 15, 2012

    You refer to men offering their seats to women on public transport. I wonder how, if at all, this relates to more rational seat-offering — to people with difficulty in standing. Does it depend on a perception of women as (in some sense) an infirm sex? Admittedly, the people with difficulty in standing surely include more women than men — since this group includes pregnant people, who are necessarily female.

    I suppose that, when women commonly wore tightly laced corsets, they probably were less able to stand than the generality of their male fellow-passengers.

    Indeed, women seem more afflicted than men by fashion items that make it difficult for them to stand. Another, and continuing, example is found in high heeled shoes. On that matter, something returns to mind that has bothered me (on and off) for years.

    I can’t recall who she was, nor whether she expressed herself on radio or in print, but a woman advanced this argument: Since men want women to wear high heels, they should give up their seats on public transport. One of the things wrong with this idea is that it depends on a sexist generalisation. Some men, certainly, like women to wear high heels, but “men” as a whole? It would have been less objectionable had it been expressed as “many men” or (more certainly correct) “some men”. I don’t know whether anyone has ever taken a survey to establish the truth of the matter. My guess is that the majority of men don’t care very much either way. I can recall hearing only one man express pleasure in seeing women wear high heels. The man in question was quite certainly a shoe fetishist. It would make a certain sense to say that shoe fetishists should give up their seats to women who wear high heels. But, if expressed thus, it would (I feel fairly sure) make most of the women involved feel uncomfortable (at the very least).

    While I have no wish to say women should or shouldn’t wear on their feet what they choose, I find something wrong in their adopting uncomfortable and impractical fashions specifically to please men. Women, I think, should be moved (in such matters) by what pleases themselves, rather than what pleases others. Or is that too idealistic?

    This takes us some way from chivalry, but I hope expresses a coherent (and connected) train of thought.

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