The word Chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things—from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train. But if we want to understand chivalry as an ideal distinct from other ideals—if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme il faut which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture—we cannot do better than turn to the words addressed to the greatest of all imaginary knights in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Thou wert the meekest man, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot. Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear at rest 1.
The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise of happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.