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Chivalry was a medieval concept encompassing what was considered to be the ideal conduct for a knight. In modern usage, chivalry can mean various forms of 'polite' behaviour, often that of men performing small courtesies for women, such as offering to carry their things or holding doors open for them.
Chivalry derives from the French word chevalier meaning a knight. This is also the origin of the words "cavalier" and "cavalry." Chivalry was not a fixed set of rules, but a set of standards and expectation, essentially upholding the values of the feudal system. Hence chivalry encouraged knights to show total devotion and loyalty to their master, lord or king, as well as devotion to God and the Church, strength and courage in battle, and virtues such as honour and dignity. Bushido, a set of similar values, was espoused by the socially equivalent samurai class in Japan.
One of the most famous aspects of chivalry is the idolization of women. This was partly connected with a knight's duty to protect his family, his master's family and other women and children within his kinship group, and partly with the concept of "courtly love," which was heavily connected with chivalry. Courtly love involved winning the affections of a noble lady, through service, devotion and demonstrations of valour in battle or jousting. Importantly, during the High Middle Ages there was a distinction between one's beloved and one's spouse; it wasn't considered strictly inappropriate for a married man to court a woman other than his wife, though the procedure was complicated and doing so openly was frowned upon.
Courtly love and chivalry were promoted and romanticised in poetry and stories, most famously the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. By the time of the Renaissance, tales of chivalry had become something of a cliché, and were satirized in Cervantes' Don Quixote. Nevertheless, the ideals are still familiar in many fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, which involve a "knight in shining armour" or "handsome prince" rescuing a "damsel in distress."
Chivalric ideals of 'gentlemanly' conduct remained current in society well after the demise of the feudal system.
Modern uses of the word "chivalry" tend to refer primarily to the concept that men should treat women in a particular way because they are women, a relic which has lasted from the first age of chivalry and before. Many of the behaviours associated with chivalrous conduct - always walking between a woman and the street, holding the door for women - are meant to reinforce the idea that women cannot protect themselves and cannot get through their daily lives without a man's help. As such, an act of chivalry might, in some contexts, be considerate and courteous, or might be offensively patronising and sexist. The opposing veiwpoint, that men are to be considered servile to women likely has the same effect.
Of course, anyone can hold the door open for anyone else, regardless of gender. Just because chivalry is "dead," that doesn't mean you have to be a dick.
- Literally a horse-rider, from the word cheval, meaning a horse.
- Note: there's still a proportion of society - largely those who live in a basement - that thinks that a man holding a door for another man implies homosexuality. This opinion entails equating being nice to people with being sexually attracted to them, which is disturbing to say the least.