One man tries to make sense of our modern version of chivalry.
Years ago, in trying to put together a parenting class for our church, I was more or less wandering from one social service agency to another. Eventually, I was talking to the director of the appropriate agency. After about ten minutes, she asked me why I hadn’t sat down. “You haven’t asked me,” I said.
I don’t know what she thought of that. But after some administrative issues, she began talking about how she was traumatized by her recent divorce due to abuse. She was clearly still upset and having trouble dealing. Later, I figured the fact that a large, hard-faced guy she’d just met who wouldn’t even sit down without her express permission might have helped rebuild her confidence. Just a bit. Don’t know. Couldn’t have hurt.
Which brings me to a hypothesis about the origin of chivalry. Note that a minor rank in France is “chevalier”, which is no doubt connected to “cheval”, or horse. In Spanish, it’s caballero from caballo—horse. Don’t know about Portuguese or Italian and I don’t think there’s an English equivalent.
These guys were fighting men from the time the Legions left. They fought local bandits, raiders from further away and each other. The horse was what gave them the advantage over the lesser classes. They intimidated peasants and extorted whatever was available. They fought in their own or their overlords’ wars. A contemporary writer referred to them as “a terrible worm in an iron cocoon.” A historian said that those centuries resembled the world of The Godfather [minus the sappy sentimentality] rather than the world of Prince Charming.
Indeed, the symbol of the gentleman—who had to be of this fighting class—was a sword. There were court swords and small swords. Cavalry sabres were too big to be hauling around the furniture so you had a ceremonial sword for evening wear. At Colonial Williamsburg, I saw the court costume of one of the Founding Fathers when he was in Europe (not Ben Franklin). Hanging from his left side was a dinky little item not much bigger than your average letter opener. But it was a still a sword, symbolizing the presumption that the wearer was a gentleman, which meant, at least symbolically, a fighting man. And, as a gentleman, presuming to be willing and at least somewhat able to get to it Right The Freak Now, if necessary in defense of the Right. You have more effective weapons in your kitchen. But the cultural norms had to be obeyed and they always mean something, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
So, to chivalry: Is it possible that the exaggerated deference built into manners directed toward women was an evolution of an effort to assure the woman in question that these bloody-handed, bloody-minded warriors were no threat? Like the attenuated influence that led me not to sit down until asked? After all, I did not take over her office and her space by sitting myself down without anybody’s say-so.
We have a niece who lives about a hundred and fifty miles away. When she’s in our area on business, she bunks in with us and we have some fun family time. About a year-and-a-half ago, she brought her new boss with her to learn the territory. They were both women in their late thirties. It was high summer so between the grill and the paddle board and the blender we had a great time. I told my niece that we’d sure locked down her job, but she was going to play hell getting a motel allowance.
Some time after everybody else had gone to bed, our guest came upstairs mostly ready for bed. I asked as a host will, whether there was something I could do. No, she said, she was going to the car for a book. We live out in the country and beyond the driveway lights, it’s dark.
They come from a town small enough that a sensation a couple of years ago was a mature black bear in a tree a block from downtown. And it’s not worth remarking when somebody sees coyotes trotting through the riverbank park in what is known generically in towns in the Upper Midwest as the “lumber baron district.” Coyotes are generally not a threat to adults but a dog mix is bigger, stronger, and not as prudent, so you don’t actually know. We can frequently hear them though rarely see them. But you don’t know and it was dark. So I walked out to the car with her, asking about the subject of the book and for all I know that’s all she thought. That would be best, I suppose.
It was chivalry because it was gender-specific manners. It was chivalry because it took into account gender specific characteristics and obligations. It had to do with sexual dimorphism—I’m a foot taller and twice her weight—and presumed combat training as a soldier, or on your own dime, or perhaps informally during the adolescent-hormone years. It was chivalry because it was expected that, should some kind of trouble actually show up, I would attempt to deal with it while she fled.
The point was to make her less apprehensive when she was outside. The obligations and expectations were a shield or…a reassurance. You don’t have to have a specific threat to be concerned in the dark in or near the woods. In fact, I have no idea if she would have been more apprehensive without me, or apprehensive at all. But it’s what you do. It’s manners and it’s gender-specific manners and presumed obligations.
It’s a normal guy thing.
I don’t see doors having anything to do with chivalry. In public buildings, doors are frequently automatic and open as you approach. You can’t actually open a revolving door. Most buildings have two sets of doors for climate control, so if you open one for a woman, she’s ahead of you at the next. So she either waits for you to catch up and scoot around her, which women generally don’t do, or she goes ahead. I’m tall enough that, if the second door is tough to move, I can reach over the woman and pull on it for her. But that’s generic consideration and helpfulness.
Women help with doors as much as men do.
My son-in-law and I were in a building and a bunch of guys came in, not connected to each other as far as I could tell, one at a time. One guy slipped in behind one who’d held the door and did not deign to hold if for the guy behind him. My son-in-law remarked the guy was probably from New York.
Later, going into an Interstate rest area in Georgia, I held the door for…somebody. Nothing happened. I looked around and saw four people holding doors and waiting for somebody else to go through. We smiled at each other and started moving again. Doors are consideration, not chivalry.
Chivalry is gender-specific manners based on the differences between men and women and, I suggest, is an evolution of the desire to reassure women that the guy in question is not a threat, no matter what he does for a living.
Don’t think women don’t know it. Decades ago, in a field project, three women went—let’s say—into town, to an establishment they were warned not to go to. Their Plan B was to find out in advance where I was going to be and get the phone number and even what I was wearing so they could direct the waitress to the correct person, the Plan B person. Sure enough, they called. I and the two guys with me were bound with the iron chains of chivalry and went to fetch them. We had some tense moments but we got away clean. We did express our opinion of their thoughtlessness.
I’ll be seventy-one next month. About two weeks ago, I had a heart valve repair. When the visiting nurse was here last, I was quizzing her about what kinds of exertion were safe. You never know about emergencies, which is probably why they’re called emergencies. I figured if I blow my incisions, that’s okay because it’s just stitches. If I blow my heart valve, that’s different. I was assured that, although the holes were small, the work inside was big and I should remain a useless lump for at least a month.
This is a guy thing; checking that the equipment for dealing was available and, if necessary, disposable. Depending. Flat tire…no. Assault…yes and see what happens later.
You can do without chivalry…until you can’t.
Photo: Getty Images