Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Code of Chivalry: Protect the Weak and Defenseless, Guard Others' Honour, Fight for the Good of All

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and Forever. Amen.

To protect the weak and defenceless, To guard the honour of fellow knights, and To fight for the welfare of all, these are rule numbers 3, 10 and 8, respectively, from the Song of Roland, and they are what I'm going to talk about today.

These are the defensive rules, and first among them is the protection of the weak and defenceless. Who would have been classified as "weak and defenceless" in the medieval context? Mostly, the same people we would think about today: infants, children, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped. Women would have also been understood as being part of this rule, though today that wouldn't necessarily be the case. Catholics today would certainly put the unborn in this category.

But they also included people we might not think about today: monks, members of the clergy, merchants, artisans, artists (including musicians, poets, painters, sculptors, etc.), and others. These people might have been healthy and fit, but they usually lacked combat training, which made them "defenceless" if they were faced with a trained enemy.

Knights were able-bodied, trained fighters, and because they had both the physical strength and the training, whereas other parts of the population did not, they had an obligation to put that training to use in the defence of those who could not properly defend themselves. Note, that in this frame of reference, being "weak and defenceless" wasn't derogatory. It was a simple matter of recognizing the capabilities of others who had different gifts in life.

For example, I, being an accountant, would be considered one who needed such protection. I have no combat training, and my arms are, quite frankly, not very big. If I was put in a fight with a skilled opponent, with a sword in hand, I would be laughably outmatched. Now, this might be a blow to my ego, to think about myself this way, but that part of me that wants to shout in opposition to this is really just bravado, not reality. That doesn't mean I couldn't go get training, and bulk up a bit, of course. And people did to do that out of necessity, but in times of peace you'd have simply gone into whatever vocation you felt God was calling you toward.

So, they had this obligation to protect those who, for whatever the reason, were unable to protect themselves, and this extended beyond the battle-field of course. In every-day living, if you witnessed people being assaulted, or being taken advantage of, you stepped in for their protection. Everyone, no matter their state in life, had dignity and value as people, and so were treated as such, and protected from being used or abused in any way.

This included guarding peoples' good reputations. This is where the next rule comes in, the guarding of the honour of fellow knights. Of course, protecting peoples' honour is a virtuous thing to do in any circumstance, but for the knight, accusations of impropriety could mean being stripped of his title, and therefore his nobility, which meant he could no longer be a vassal to a liege-lord, and he would then lose his land and all the other benefits that came with vassalage and nobility. So, a pretty serious matter.

This was especially problematic during times of war, during which all manner of vicious behaviour could occur, and so rumor of dishonourable conduct could carry real weight. Everyone knows that there are really dark temptations in the heat of battle, especially if that battle was the sacking of a city. And this is where another meaning of protection a fellow knight's honour can be uncovered: to stop a fellow knight from actually committing heinous acts, which would be dishonourable in themselves.

To guard a fellow knight's honour didn't simply mean to protect his reputation from slander or calumny, but it also meant to help each other to keep their honour, to confront a fellow knight who is about to violate the Code, to counsel each other on how to live virtuously, even in times of war, to be true brothers in arms, not just in physical warfare, but also in spiritual warfare.

Part of this meant keeping in mind, at all times, the reason that they are fighting: for the welfare of all. I would like to say that this was a rule that was widely upheld, but I don't think I can. This is, perhaps, a significant area where there was discord within the chivalric code. If one is to fight for the welfare of all, but one's liege lord is attacking a neighboring city-state to gain land, then is that really fighting for the welfare of "all", or is the "all" here simply being interpreted to mean "all who live under our monarch." Obviously, since there was much infighting among the city-states, this tenet was being interpreted maybe a little differently than we might today.

From a Catholic perspective, and in the context of spiritual warfare, this means fighting against heresy, paganism, and sin. This is because the superabundant welfare that we are all destined for is heaven, and eternal communion with God. Heresy, paganism and sin threaten that eternal beatitude. So, this means spiritual combat. Fight heresy with the truth, fight paganism by showing the beauty of the Church, and fight sin by upholding virtue.

But in the context of physical, material welfare, this is certainly more ambiguous. Which political system do we use to govern society, which best protects and promotes rights, freedoms, responsibilities and duties? What economic system to we employ in order to manage and distribute wealth for the benefit of all persons? What duty does one owe to people of different nations, if any? What should be our response to tyranny within our own nation, and among other nations? Should I consider the welfare of my own nation above that of neighboring ones? What role does land expansion play in all of this?

Certainly, the Catholic Just War doctrine plays a role here. St. Augustine, in the latter part of the fourth century, taught that legitimate authority, in accordance with the Divine Will, could wage war justly, and indeed had an obligation to it in the face of great evil. It wasn't until St. Thomas Aquinas expanded on this in the thirteenth century that we gained a clearer notion of what a just war looked like. He said:

  • First, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
  • Second, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. 
  • Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

Now remember, the Code of Chivalry was around long before St. Thomas, and it is likely that St. Thomas specifically sated point #2 due to the common exercise of warfare for self-gain and exercise of power. One could certainly "justify" warfare, if one had to, on the notion that because "my" nation is more prosperous, secure, and stable than a neighboring nation, I have a duty, therefore, to bring those neighboring lands under "my" rule (or my monarch's rule), so that they, too, can benefit from the excellence of our social, political, and economic systems.

Now, let me state, that the above is speculation on my part. But, really, it seems to me be a logical way of upholding this tenet of the Code, to fight for the welfare of all, and at the same time see so much infighting between the European city-states, most of which were Catholic, operated on the feudal system, and had knights of their own. Of course, another reason may simply be that they had long and deep-seated resentments from ages before the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, and people being weak, it's not difficult to imagine those resentments persistently rising to the surface throughout the centuries.

But, on a more individual basis, if one is to uphold this knightly code, then it seems to me that one has to create a rationale for behaving in a manner that, at least from our perspective, looks like a contradiction.

I think the big virtue here is courage. Stepping in to stop a confrontation or abuse from happening is difficult to do when you're getting involved with strangers. It's even more difficult to do when you're stepping in to stop a friend from doing something you know he'll regret, but maybe he doesn't see it that way right now. Perhaps the most difficult of all is to stand up to your superior, especially someone you've made an oath of loyalty to, and who could take away all that he's given you, when he's acting self-interestedly, and not for the common good (as all people who are in positions of authority must seek).

We're getting a good ways into this now. What do you think? Do you think would have had what it takes to be a righteous knight?

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