Posted On May 5, 2010 by Print This Post

AMM: The Code of Chivalry: Man in the Middle Ages

Good morning and welcome to Anatomy of the Male Mind! Today, we have a special treat for RU readers. I’ve always loved reading medieval romances. After reading the Regency/Victorian era for a few months, I’d shift to a more nitty-gritty, wholly male medieval. For some reason, I enjoyed seeing a big knight brought to his knees by the oftentimes petite heroine. 🙂 So, help me welcome author Blythe Gifford as she discusses the complexities of chivalry during the Middle Ages.


The word conjures up a knight in shining armor on horseback, ready to rescue a damsel in distress.  The essence of romantic myth.

But what was the reality?

By the 14th century, the knight, originally simply a mounted warrior, had become a person of specific social and economic status.  No peasant could ever aspire to be “chivalrous.”  A knight must be born to a noble father.  (Nothing said about the mother.  Convenient, if your father had dallied with a woman of lower rank.)  The assumption was that only a man of “noble” birth and “noble” character could be militarily successful.

Let’s follow a typical young noble of this era as he grows into manhood and learns these tenets.

First, he would be sent away from home at about age seven to be reared in the household of a relative or a patron of his family.  (Women, too, were raised away from home.)  As a page, he would begin to learn the skills he would need as a man alongside other boys of his age and rank.  They lived in a military establishment, surrounded by warriors, for all castles were ultimately fortresses, organized around the needs of war and defense.

But in addition to the skills of warfare, he also learned how behave in polite society.  He was expected to participate in conversation, dancing and singing with the ladies and to have table manners good enough to sit at the royal table.  He was also taught the “romances,” a term that in those days meant poems of epic chivalric adventure, such as legends of Charlemagne and Arthur.  Love stories could be included, but so could religious allegories.

After several years as a page, he would become a squire at about fourteen.  In this role, he helped a knight care for his armor and horses, as well as perfecting the riding and fighting skills he would need in war.

Finally, he could expect to be knighted at about age 21 to 25, ready for a life as a professional soldier.  The ceremony of ascending to knighthood was not a sacrament of the church, but it carried many religious trappings.  The warrior spent the night before his knighting ceremony in prayer.  He bathed and dressed in white for purity, red for blood, and black for death.  A white belt signified his chastity.  The sword that dubbed him a knight was blessed.

Military service was, ultimately, service to God.  The Crusade to regain the Holy Land was the new Holy Grail, the knight’s highest pursuit.

The code of chivalry encompassed the conduct of war.  The knight was expected to play by the rules.  Prisoners were to be treated fairly, according to their rank, but the prisoner was also expected to stay meekly in captivity and not try to escape.  (Prisoner ransoms were a significant portion of a knight’s income, so everyone played politely, knowing that next time, they might be on the other side.)

Yet we know that the rampant destruction of the chevauchee was a key tactic of the Hundred Years War.  How do we reconcile this noble knight with the man who could rape, pillage, and burn villages?

The answer?  Only others of the noble class deserved to be treated by the code.  Peasants did not.

If there were not enough wars to keep him busy, the knight would compete in tournaments to prove his prowess and fill his coffers.  He may have carried his lady’s scarf and earn her kiss, but the real prize of a tourney was status, money, and a reputation among his fellows that could lead to advancement.

A man’s success in love was another demonstration to his fellows that he was a “winner.”  He wins the tournament, therefore, she “loves” him.  It was not an emotional commitment, but a reward for prowess.  Women were, ultimately, prizes to be won.

In the tradition of chivalry, the woman who held a knight’s devotion was probably not the one he would marry.  (Marriage had to do with much more important things:  land, money, and inheritance.)  In fact, she might be married to someone else, but she must be of his station or higher.  Seeking the approval of such an honorable (chaste) lady was encouraged, as it could inspire the knight to higher deeds.

The “love service” he did for her also had rules.  If a wealthy woman provided him horse and armor for battle, he might be “inspired” to higher feats, but also obligated to perform them.

Then, if he did the service she requested, she could not refuse him.  For a woman, honor meant chastity, either as a virgin or as a faithful wife.  Yet as a man “won” a woman, he must possess her to truly win her.  It was a win/lose proposition.  He must win her.  She must surrender to him (and thereby lose her honor).  And the other man must lose her.

Does this sound “unheroic”?  Welcome to another of the muddy realities of chivalry.

A knight was first and foremost a warrior.  His business was violence, dominance, and death.  The code of chivalry was a mix of religious, romantic, and militaristic tenets in a sometimes uneasy combination that provided a veneer of civilization in a warlike era.

It is this contrast between myth and reality that fuels the conflict in my May release, HIS BORDER BRIDE.

* * *

So RU Readers, what do you think about being a lady in the Middle Ages? Be sure to post any questions you may have for Blythe.

Stop back on Friday for Kimberly Llewellyn’s discussion on humor-oriented stories and how comedy is big business!

BLYTHE GIFFORD is the author of five medieval romances from Harlequin Historical. She specializes in characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket.  With HIS BORDER BRIDE, she crosses the border and sets a story in Scotland for the first time, where the rules of chivalry don’t always apply.  Here’s a brief description:

Royal Rogue: He is the bastard son of an English prince and a Scotswoman. A rebel without a country, he has darkness in his soul.

Innocent Lady:  Daughter of a Scottish border lord, she can recite the laws of chivalry, and knows this man has broken every one.  But she’s gripped by desire for him—could he be the one to unleash the dangerous urges she’s hidden until now?

She loves to have visitors at or

Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited.  All rights reserved. ®and T are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license. Copyright 2010

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8 Responses to “AMM: The Code of Chivalry: Man in the Middle Ages”

  1. Blythe –

    Excellent post. I think I might be confused about if the knight performed the service required by the woman who held his devotion. Does this mean he could demand anything of the woman?

    Many thanks!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | May 5, 2010, 2:38 am
  2. Hi Blythe,

    Thank you for joining us today. I had never quite thought about how a knight looked at peasants. On a subconscious level, I understood the dynamic going on, but you summed up the matter quite nicely. It’s kind of sad when you think about it in today’s terms. One would think knights would protect peasants rather than treat them like objects.

    Ah well, it’s good none of “our” knights ever raped and pillaged. At least, that’s true in most of the books I’ve read. 🙂

    Thanks again,

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | May 5, 2010, 5:00 am
  3. Morning Blythe!

    Great post. I love reading historicals! I had read about boys being sent away at a young age to a relative’s home/castle, but I guess I never realized the girls were sent away as well. What were they sent away to learn? And why did the sending away even start?



    Posted by Carrie | May 5, 2010, 8:32 am
  4. Hi Blythe and thank you for being with us today. You mentioned the woman might be married to someone else, but that she could provide the knight with a horse and armor. So, does that mean she would be obligated to perform a “love service”? How did that fly with the husband?


    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | May 5, 2010, 8:42 am
  5. Good morning, all! I’m on the road, so may be delayed in checking in today. Thanks for the warm welcome. Kelsey, I think the answer to your question is tricky and sort of gets at the heart of the contradictions I found in the chivalric code. It’s sort of “yes,” but as an honorable knight, he wouldn’t demand anything dishonorable. I was struck in my studies by the fact that we think of a knight as being devoted to his lady, when it was more that he was trying to impress his fellows. Tracey, we do try to keep the worst of the medieval reality out of our books – or at least waaay off-stage. Carrie, not sure of the origins of the “fostering” of young children. It was well established by the 14th century, which is my period. But I think it helped to cement alliances. And I suspect it is also less likely that a child would talk back to a foster parent than a real one! It must also have contributed to a sense of loneliness, I suspect, and an emotional distance, or toughness, that might have been necessary in those times.

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | May 5, 2010, 9:00 am
  6. Hi Blythe!
    I’ve read a few medieval romances, but after reading this, I’m inclined to read more. I can’t begin to imagine life as a woman during the Middle Ages, but I’d rather be a lady than a peasant. But even as a lady, given the strict social parameters, life would be hard.

    Thanks for this very informative glimpse into history.

    Posted by Jen | May 5, 2010, 6:25 pm
  7. Adrienne-Remember that marriage was not a love match in the middle ages, so an attachment to a married woman was viewed as a more “pure” love since it couldn’t (technically) be consumated. I’m sure some husbands minded and some didn’t! I actually used this in the book, as the heroine is thinking of a gallant knight and the hero is thinking – yes, a knight who is technically in “love” with someone else’s wife!
    Jen – Hope you enjoy reading some more medieval romance. And thanks to all for welcoming me today!

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | May 5, 2010, 8:24 pm
  8. Blythe, That picture of the knight being christened has always spoken to me. I’ve just finished The Knight’s Templar class, so your post is of particular interest. I’ll be adding this to my notes.

    I’ve always been fascinated by The Age of Chivalry, which apparently was not so chivalrous! But I see why now I’ve always loved the knight. He’s like my fav modern romance heroes–military and law enforcement guys.

    Posted by Julie Robinson | May 5, 2010, 9:50 pm

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