Monday, August 9, 2010

chivalry, truth and the Medieval world

You out there who are reading, reenacting, going to Renaissance faires, opting out of the 21st century if just for a little while to be in the Middle Ages.

What is it we are looking for? Not a time when life was easier. It is as if we have some fundamental "hard wired" hunger for elements of that past time: for a knowledge of herbs, for loyalty to a personally known and nearby figure of leadership, for clothing that celebrates the human shape instead of merely covering it, or concealing it.

For a social system that is knowable: for a system where we are not cast out at the end of high school or college into a vastly complex world where we must sink or swim. In the Middle Ages, and for eons back through time, men and women knew their place in the world from birth, though there was room for the energetic and ambitious to move upward, or the very unfortunate to move downward.

But for most people life was going to be what it was for their parents. What old people knew had value because the world had not changed so greatly during their lifespan as to make their experience irrelevant. The young could feel comfort in the wisdom of their parents.

It is this comfort of continuity, I believe, that we seek in the Middle Ages. We have the traditional culture imprinted within us. We are drawn to it as a magnet draws iron.

For the last third of a century I have spent my most contented hours researching the life and times of Simon de Montfort. His life was far from happy, the complexities that beset him were very "modern": in addition to his loving the wrong women, he struggled with high interest rates and the jealousy of his fellow lords -- what amounted to his co-workers.

But though his problems were not so different from current issues, his solutions -- honor, truthfulness, care for his family, fidelity to the principles he had come to believe in -- are eternal and yet seem to be slipping from view in our current time amidst the hurly burly of ambition, insecurity and a culture that seems more and more to be holding greed and celebrity as the principal virtues.

How can we capture for ourselves what we perceive to be of worth in the Middle Ages?

1 comment:

  1. The question has come up -- what is chivalry? Opening doors for ladies? I would hope not. I remember, as a child, working myself into a little fury that I had to sit and wait for my father to come around the car and open the door for me, as if I were crippled.

    There may be a point of safety in children not getting out of cars on their own, or of a gentleman walking on the outer side of the sidewalk to screen the lady from splashes from the street -- his clothes presumably being easier to launder than her delicate attire.

    But that certainly isn't the point of chivalry. Yet there is an essence of chivalry even in these outmoded acts. Putting oneself in the possible way of harm to protect another person -- and doing it as a matter of course without expecting any notice for it.

    There is a profound self-security in chivalry, and from that security, a flow of kindness and consideration. This self-security is a quality found in women and men -- the boss who shields her employees from the unreasonable behavior of a senior executive, taking the brunt herself, and never complaining or mentioning it to the workers; the person who loves but never gives an indication of that love lest it disturb the beloved's happy marriage; and most vividly, the soldier who risks his life to rescue another soldier -- "Saving Private Ryan" is about chivalry.

    Chivalry is tough. But it is a quality that makes mankind worthy of love and admiration. We need this -- we cannot thrive in an atmosphere of cynicism and despising.