Monday, May 2, 2016

The Code of Chivalry: Never Refuse a Challenge, Never Turn Your Back

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and Forever. Amen.

I have to say, my friends, that the last two rules listed in the Song of Roland were perhaps the two more interesting rules for me. These are never to refuse a challenge from an equal, and never to turn the back upon a foe. Now, at first glance, these seem like pretty straight forward, even obvious rules that an intelligent and capable knight would live by. In fact, more than any other rule, these look like the kind of rules you'd expect to see on a list of rules about how to be a good knight.

Ah, but looks are often deceiving, aren't they? Consider the tone of these rules so far, what theme do we see repeated throughout: relationship, trust, going out of oneself to think about and act for the good sake of the other. How do these two rules continue to carry these themes forward?

Never to Refuse a Challenge from an Equal

When first confronted with this idea, you might be tempted, as I was, to think this is all about machismo and bravado; the Knight is out to prove his worth. The truth is that this goes much deeper than that, and the way we know this is by the phrase "from an equal." If this were all about machismo, the rule would just be "never refuse a challenge," and leave it at that, but it doesn't. We have this phrase from an equal attached to the end of it, and that changes everything.

First of all, in order to keep this rule, a knight has to know who an equal is. This means that he must be very aware of his own abilities. And not just in combat, but in anything. So, first of all, this rule requires humility; it requires the knight to know who his superiors are, and who his inferiors are, not by social status, but by ability. This isn't about chest-puffery at all.

The second thing this phrase tells us is that there are times a knight ought to refuse a challenge: namely, from someone who isn't an equal. We could all guess why a knight would refuse a challenge from someone who is his superior: he could come to harm, or at least be humiliated. Not only this, but by refusing such a challenge, the knight clearly acknowledges his challenger's superiority. If done publicly, that's a notable thing, both for yourself, and the challenger. The challenger gains a reputation of excellence, and you gain a reputation of good prudential judgement.

And we could probably also guess why he'd refuse a challenge from an inferior: he could cause serious harm, or at the very least humiliate his opponent. Of course, the difficulty with this is that you might gain a reputation of pride, thinking yourself better. So, the handling of it should have been done with tact, with the refusal being a challenge to the challenger to improve his skill before making the same challenge again.

But this rule prescribes something peculiar. Sure, you can refuse challenges from people who are not your equal, but the rules says to never refuse a challenge from one who is an equal. Why? I think the reason has to do with these other scenarios: of refusing a challenge from someone who is not an equal. If you refuse a challenge, what does that say? It says you don't think you're on equal footing. The implication being that the challenger is either better or worse than you are. And since the challenger doesn't know certainly which you believe it to be, it may well be taken as a social slight against him. That creates, or advances bad blood.

However, if you accept the challenge, that would be seen as an honorable gesture. It means you recognize your opponent's ability, and that being understood by the challenger, fosters good relations. Even if this person is an enemy, honoring them in such a way is like extending an olive branch.

So even in such affairs as these, the knight bears social responsibility, and must continue to think beyond himself.

Never to Turn the Back Upon a Foe

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "okay yeah, I can see that last one, but how does this rule have anything to do with anything other than protecting yourself? Or trust for that matter?" Good question. I had to ask it, myself. For all appearances, this is simply a pragmatic rule. It's really just a good idea if you don't want to get stabbed in the back.

You have to remember, though, that this is Christian Europe, and these rules were highly endorsed by the Church. So you have to think, there must be a Christian character to even this. Well there is, and I'm going to try to make it clear, but it's going to require me to remember all the way back to high school, to one homily that one of the priests there gave.

So what Fr. David told us was that in Jesus' time, the Aramaic word that we translate as "hate" literally means to "turn one's back on." So, for example, when we read about Jesus teaching that we must hate our father and our mother, what He's talking about here is turning away from them, and toward the Lord. And this is how the Jews then understood what it was to love and to hate something: to turn one's face toward, or to turn one's back toward.

There are dozens of Scripture passages that speak about facing the Lord, speaking face to face with God, turning toward Him, seeking His face (1 Chronicles 16:11, for example). And what do these mean? They refer to the love that one has for God. To hate God is to turn one's back on Him, to turn away from His face, and away from His Law.

But why is it seen this way? It's because it is through the face, the eyes in particular, that we recognize the personhood of another. It is a particularly personal action, looking someone in the eyes. So what is it, then, to turn one's back on an enemy? It is an act meant to dishonor them. Not only does it imply they aren't a threat, but the act itself is a denial of the dignity they possess as persons created in God's image. It is a hateful act.

And, of course, what are we commanded to do, by our very Lord, Jesus Christ? To love even our enemies. Why? Because they possess the dignity of being created in the very image of God. Facing one's enemy isn't about oneself, about conquering one's own fears as an act of empowerment. It's about the enemy, and honoring them by facing them as men who deserve respect. It's about being obedient to our Lord who commanded that we do this thing; love them.


  1. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this. You make some solid observations.

    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for taking the time to share your thoughts. I really appreciate the compliment, and I'm glad to hear from one of my readers! God bless!