The Origins of Chivalry, Knights Beating Maidens


Sansa while she is being beaten by the Kingsguard knight, Ser Meryn Trant. (c) HBO.

I only just discovered that, for the next four days, the Getty museum in Los Angeles, California has an exhibit about chivalry. It ends on November 30th, 2014. The museum created two videos for the exhibit, which made me reflect on the origins of chivalry.

If you love knights and all things martial, definitely check out the combat demonstrations in the first video. It brings to life the fighting styles in the Italian manuscript The Flower of Battle (Il Fior di Battaglia) c. 1410.

Both videos are embedded in the window above. If you watch the second video without seeing the first video, it’s a little misleading. The second video makes it seem like courtly love and chivalry are synonymous. The video skirts the dark side of chivalry and focuses on the manifestations of courtly love in art.

The Getty is simply showing specific aspects of chivalry, notably ones that relate to their manuscripts; they aren’t trying to be omissive.

Chivalric ideals have become a form of propaganda in our society that have far outlived the medieval age. The blending of courtly love and chivalry has led to a knight in shining armor archetype (think: Disney) that rarely existed.  George RR Martin subtly resists these archetypes in favor of historical fact. Knights were more apt to brutalize maidens than rescue them.

For example, it is the knights like Ser Meryn Trant who beat Sansa whereas the men like Tyrion, Dontos, and the Hound who reject knighthood (or don’t meet to its ideals) are the ones who protect her. At a symbolic level, there’s some truth in the somewhat ironic image of knights beating maidens. Chivalry originated as a way to protect the defenseless from marauding nobles.

Warrior classes played an essential role in protecting medieval people from invading (and enslaving) armies. Many cultures over the last few millennia, including European (nobility), Japanese (samurai), and maybe even Indian (Kshatriya, or the warrior varna or caste), had warrior classes. However, some of these classes abused their power and failed to meet their obligations as protectors.

In medieval Europe, chivalry was a warrior’s code — the code of knightly conduct — that focused on behavior befitting a warrior. In how knights came to see chivalry, it might be similar to the samurai code bushido, which means “samurai’s way.” The meaning of chivalry was controversial even in the Middle Ages, and many writers presented their own interpretation of its meaning in texts (basically instruction manuals). The chivalric ideals included largesse (generosity and lavish display), loyalty, military prowess, and courtesy.

Ultimately, chivalry came to focus primarily on the ends that benefited the nobility rather than the Church’s initial attempt for it. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chivalry had evolved to focus — in large part — on treating other members of the aristocracy with respect and courtesy in times of war. This wasn’t the Church’s original intent.

Initially, in the late twelfth century, the Church promoted chivalry to rein in an increasingly violent caste. In other words, a dominant class – who were hardened to violence from childhood, who trained in military arts daily, idealized war, and who (when war wasn’t available) hunted deer in a ritualized manner to keep their skills sharp — had become a bloodthirsty and uncontrollable element in society. Quelle surprise. Northern Europe’s military caste was a problem: chivalry was an attempt to redirect this caste’s energy. The lethal competition between competing nobles harmed bystanders.

This isn’t to say there weren’t good nobles who upheld their obligations to their vassals and tenants to protect them.

Chivalry wasn’t the first attempt to rein in noble violence.

As early as the eleventh century, noble violence and private wars had become so common that two Church movements originating in France — the Peace of God and the Truce of God — formed to try to manage them. Local clergy in Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Languedoc (France) began issuing Peace of God (Pax Dei) proclamations to protect defenseless noncombatants – notably the peasants and clergy – against noble violence. The fact the noble attacks occurred enough to warrant taking this stance was significant.

With Pax Dei, the Church pledged to excommunicate any noble who attacked or robbed a church or peasants, struck the clergy, or stole donkeys and other farm animals from the poor. Invading churches, burning houses and peasant villages, and beating the vulnerable were also banned. Eventually, the Pax Dei also protected children, women (virgins and widows), and merchants and their goods.

By the early eleventh century, King Robert, the Capetian (987-1031) supported the Pax Dei movement. The nobles themselves swore oaths to the villagers that they would uphold the peace.

The common people loved the Pax Dei movement, but it wasn’t that effective. Nobles could buy their way out of violent attacks by making large donations to the Church. But, Pax Dei did pave the way for other movements to subdue noble violence like chivalry.

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."


  • Reply November 27, 2014


    It seems to also have been, at least going by the stories of admittedly uncertain reliability, the priests in what’s now India that played a major role in asserting some kind of civilian control over the warriors.

    • Reply November 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oh that’s fascinating, Grant. I went to India years ago and spent about four months reading about the history and culture — most of which now escapes me. As I was writing this article, it occurred to me that India also had a warrior caste, but it was very difficult in finding information quickly on their actual role. That is, presumably if you have a warrior caste, it originated with a historical group who played a warrior role.
      It is an intriguing parallel that the priests played a role in reining in warrior violence there as well.

  • Reply November 28, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Looking back to school-days we learned rather cursorily that the Norman ruling class did so harshly after William I’s conquest of England and things continued as hard fro the more humble folk for some centuries afterwards. We learned about the code of Courtly Love tangentially because in my year we studied the poet, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” (part of the “Canterbury Tales” in which it featured. It’s pretty well known that Chaucer made the tale told by each pilgrim fit the character of the teller. So the knight who is a “verray parfit gentle knight” told a story (not the one told in the “A Knight’s Tale – any book purists lurking here, D&D’s adaptation of ASOIAF is much closer to the original than “A Knight’s Tale” to the Chaucer poem). Apparently (or so I was taught) on the whole Chaucer treated the theme of Courtly Love as something of a joke. This poem certainly takes it lightly. I think it’s called “When from Love Escaped” though to be fair to Courtly Love Chaucer also wrote this short poem “Merciless Beauty” which is more serious In the wife of Bath’s tale there is the rather more heavy subject where a not very chivalrous knight raped an innocent young girl. He is told his life can be spared if he can solve a riddle – and the rest of the story if I remember rightly is a bit like “Gawain and Dame Ragnall or the Loathesome Lady”.

    I’m sure I mentioned on another thread that at the time of the (British) peasants’ revolt the equivalent of what GRRM calls the “small folk” came up with the couplet “When Adam Delved and Eve Span” – I’m sure I’ve come across a four-line version but can’t find it online. If anybody follows the last link it mentions Jaime’s favourite (not) historical person John of Gaunt and his sometime mistress, later third wife, Katherine Swynford. Another well-known fact is that Philippa, G Chaucer’s wife, was Katherine Swynford’s (nee de Roet) sister.

    I may have mentioned it before but there was a book I read (roughly) 20 years ago about the legends of British Robber Barons and poems about them. I can’t remember the writer or the title unfortunately and of course it’s dealing with stories that grew in the telling rather than hard, historical facts. The three names I remember are Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake and Fulk Fitzwarren. Sometimes the same legend is told about different settings.

    Lastly (and I hope I’ve not gone too far off-topic) I remember when I was learning about Corneille and Racine, two renowned French playwrights (I didn’t learn in very great depth) that we were told that at that time (which of course was post-medieval) it was forbidden to have a fight take place on stage [seemingly too many off the potential officer class had been killing each other in duels so the powers that be decided to discourage dueling].

    • Reply December 4, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Watcher, this is a wonderful comment. So sorry it took so long to appear. It didn’t publish automatically and ended up in my pending folder.

  • Reply November 29, 2014

    Jun Yan

    Violence is absolutely necessary in human history. A caste of specialized men who “own” violence is necessary to free up the rest of the tribe on cultivating food and raising children and other activities. Yet these men are also a threat of the rest of the society, so they must be controlled in some way. We have to live with violence like we live with fire. Our survival is not possible without it, but we are constantly at risk of being swallowed up by it.

    It is no surprise that, in the fable at the heart of ASOIAF, the man who has to make a choice among a king, a priest, and a rich man is a sellsword. He is the man in the center, because he has a sword to sell. This fable is the most simply elegant illustration of how human society is organized and how power is appropriated.

    • Reply November 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I love that fable. I think of it quite often as I write actually. I also love this, “We have to live with violence like we live with fire.” It reminds me of that quotation from Hilary Clinton, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbors.” (See roughly 2:21 of this video to hear it:

    • Reply November 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Admittedly, the Clinton quote is a little different than what you mean…

  • Reply November 30, 2014


    Really interesting, thank you! Loved the video!

    (spelling note: I think you have “reign” when you mean “rein”)

    • Reply November 30, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oh whoops! Thanks! Very good point. I’ll fix that. 🙂

  • Reply November 30, 2014

    Joan Kelly-Marotto

    Most of the misconceptions about chivalry, as we know it, were propagated just before or just after the Victorian Age, pushed by literature. The best description for chivalry would be Rules of Engagement. Modern military still uses the same basic concepts and has contempt for those who don’t. Brilliant article. Thank you.

    • Reply November 30, 2014

      Jun Yan

      That’s what I’ve always suspected but cannot prove. I think the whole “knights in the shining armor” thing was pushed on us by the Romantic poets and novelists who had a rosier nostalgic view of the past than the past really had been. Walter Scott and Byron come to mind.

    • Reply December 3, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Joan, thank you very much for reading. Coincidentally, I read a similar point that some people in the military have tried to encourage a code of behavior like chivalry; they must have meant Rules of Engagement. Thanks for raising these very interesting points.

  • Reply December 8, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    This comment is a tad late – and of course being female I don’t agree with the following couplet – but there was an old rhyme “a Woman a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat ’em the better they be”. I haven’t checked this on Wikipedia but what I heard was that in the bad, bad old days in England it used to be acceptable for a man to strike his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb. Terrible..absolutely terrible. I think I mentioned on another thread that in the early days of her marriage (so say the early 1970s) some of the friends of the husband of a lady I know were quite surprised that he “let her” go on the train to London by herself….he’s a decent sort of chap I believe but knowing the lady I don’t think he could very well have stopped her…..that wasn’t anything to do with hitting women of course but it does show that some men who were the older generation when I was the “young ‘uns” had very old-fashioned beliefs about women.

    • Reply December 8, 2014


      Wow, that rhyme… Here I had thought only the Chinese culture is cruel to women. Unfortunately, it still has not caught up with most of the developed world now, especially in the countryside.

  • Reply December 9, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Re: the thyme and attitudes to women in times past. I started to type a reply but lost it Jun. You probably know that in the UK it was only after the First World War that women acquired the right to vote and originally it was only for women over 30. Richard Pankhurst (the husband and father of some women very active in the suffragette movement) had done something in the nineteenth century to allow married women to bring any property they brought to the marriage after the wedding (previously a woman’s property became her husband’s after marriage). This is a link to a website with some information about Richard Pankhurst. Though you will see that the Married Women’s Property Act was changed in the format in which it was passed from Mr Pankhurst’s original idea. I don’t know if this comment will show straighaway because sometimes posting a link sends it into “pending” (apparently some naughty people have been poaching Jaime’s work without as much as a by your leave). I also remember the town museum having a “scold’s bridle” on display when I was a child. A contraption whereby – I think – an iron bit was put into a woman’s mouth for a time, if she was thought to be too free with her opinions. Funnily enough there wasn’t a male version….. Incidentally, I don’t know if you are familiar with the works of the nineteenth century English writer, Thomas Hardy. He touches on divorce laws becoming (slightly) more liberal in England in his novel “The Woodlanders”. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea though I like his work but I know a lady who likes his novels about as much as I like those of PG (i.e. she can’t stand his work).

    • Reply December 9, 2014

      Watcher on the Couch

      Edit: My above post should have referred to “rhyme” not “thyme”. Still, at the time of typing it is December and the count-down to Christmas has begun (mind you I’m a vegetarian!!). Also in reference to the Married Women’s Property Act, cited in my previous post, Richard Pankhurst’s aim was to allow women to RETAIN any property they brought to the marriage in their own names if they so desired after marriage. My previous unedited post does not really make that clear.

  • Reply December 21, 2014


    The ‘code’ only applied to the aristocratic class, not the commoners. The only time they protected the peasants was when they were under attack from some other King or noble family. They didn’t protect them out of love or compassion, but out of necessity.

    Here are some excepts from Chapter III of “The Book of the Order of Chivalry” by Ramon Llull

    “The duty of a Knight is to support his land, for the whole reason why the common people labor and plow the ground is that they fear the Knights and are terrified lest they should be destroyed. And since they fear the Knights, they also revere the kings, princes and lords from whom the Knights derive their legitimate power.”

    “Neither horse, nor armor, nor even being chosen by others is sufficient to show forth the high honor that pertains to a Knight. Instead he must be given a squire and a servant to look after his horse. Likewise, the common people must be required to work the lands to bring forth the fruits and goods by which the Knight and his beasts may live.”

    “The shield is given to the Knight to represent the duty of a Knight. For just as the Knight puts his shield between himself and his enemy, so the Knight is the shield between the prince and the people.”

    Knights weren’t created to be courteous, they were created, as Lull tells us, to enforce order, mostly through fear and intimidation.

    Consider the etymology of the word ‘villain’ which we know as an evil, wicked, scoundrel or criminal… it actually derives from the word ‘villager’
    villain (n.) … c.1300, a “base or low-born rustic,” from Anglo-French and Old French “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” — (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand”

  • Reply March 3, 2015

    Earl Howard

    I think us men have left any sort of chivalry code wanting in ANY era, greatest example being the present day lot. A order or group of us need to band to save our Mothers, Sisters, Daughters and Wife’s. In that we have lowered our tolerance in judging the so called men of no morals. The so called men that marry off 9 year olds and even use the word “Honor” to justify rape and murder. Do you think there are REAL men that can group to save the forsaken? Can we win ALL Ladies favour? If there are such men that think as I and we gather, recruit to show that there are good men, that will shine a light into the dark abiss pit these women in. I ask this, from a male that would like to ern the title of man again. What does a female think of such a group being called..
    Order of Enlightened Knights Quest for Favour. Longwinded, yes me lady, but it will be a long quest. For as long as there is such excuses for evil to our Mothers as “Honor killings”, Selling Daughters young as 8-9 (All doubters you-tube search “Child Bride” and see) We have to ern back titles like “Noble” or more sad yet, Men. If any serious males want to join this, yes let’s call it a crusade to save the feminine being stripped and abused to the point they are happy just to completely cover themselves in all black when 100+ degrees out. I will check back with contact info (as believe or not I thought of this after reading we as men have never really held self’s to own honor oaths (for most part, not all of course) Also the creator of site being female, I wanted to get a ladies view and input. Plus she/you are a true G.O.T. fanatic so you have the correct taste and by posts, view as well. If I am alone and find no response. I will be gracefully absent from babbling or looking for brethren.

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