History of Chivalry in Christianity and Islam

Discussion in 'Tasawwuf / Adab / Akhlaq' started by abu nibras, Jan 25, 2005.

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  1. abu nibras

    abu nibras Staff Member


    Since there was a discussion about Chivalry a while ago - I researched and found this interesting bit.

    It is taken from the book Decisive Moments in The History of Islam

    by Muhammad Abdullah Enan

    Chivalry its History, Principles and Conventions

    Feudalism was the essential foundation of the edffice of social and political systems in the Middle Ages, chivalry was the corner-stone in the edifice, of feudalism; indeed it was' the fundamental frame of feudalism which supported its edifice, bound its parts and brought its upper and lower classes togêther.

    One of the most important characteristics to distinguish between men in the early days of the Middlê Ages, before chivalry flourished, was freedom and slavery. Men were eithêr free or slaves. When the system of slavery declined and chivalry flourished the most important characteristic to distinguish between men was nobility and ordinary birth. Men were knights, nobles or lords, or of the lower classes.

    The origin, conventions and traditions of this chivalry, which was for ages the flower of Christian societies and which played an important rôle in the Crusades, go back to the end of the êighth century or the beginning of the ninth and to the fêudal system in thê days of the Normans.

    In thë time of Charlemagne it took the form of a ceremony in which thê young knight was suppliêd with his arms, It appears that, as a military system, it goes back to èarlier days. The historian Tacitus mentions it in dealing with the conditions of

    the Germanic tribes and describes its usages.a But chivalry, as a great miIitary honour, is conferred in a sort of religious ceremony and goes back to the eleventh century.

    Muslim chivalry, however, is much older; it goes back to the first Muslim age in the tïrst century of the Hejira ,(sevênth cêntury A.D.). But it was not a religious or political system; it was merely quality, talent and ability, and had also in it a code of formalities and traditions. Ibn Qutaiba, in his book Uyun aZ-Akhbar, reserves a chapter for chivalry and its manners, and cites, with regard to its origin and convention, some well-known statements. As for Christian chivalry, it did not flourish and become well established and, in addition to its military character, become a political and social system with established

    principles and conventions with which were incorporated rights and duties before the eleventh century.

    Nobility, as we bave seen, was the basis of chivalry and its foremost characteristic. The distinction between the nobles and the masses, in the first stages of feudalism, was generally obscure, but it advanced since the inheritance of the allotted lands became an established right and finally became the basis for the classification of people in strong classes which were the most prominent element in the society of the Middle

    Ages. Nobility is formed of two different elements

    (1) the inheritance of the land with all its obligations to accomplish important duties,

    (2) capacity to fight on horse-back or in other words chivalry.

    The second quality implies the idea of property also. It implies thê ability to possess the expensive arms required for the accomplîshment of the knight's duties.

    The conjunction of this idea with that of 1and property, and that of good birth, supplied the feudal prince the services of an Cire of combatants. Thiæ élite, with their familles, composed the highest aristocracy and the strongest class in a barbarian society such as that of the Middle Ages.

    Nobility of birth led to the conversion of this aristocracy to a class, in every sênse of the word, which the masses could not reach or join without many. digiculties and various formalities. One of.thê means of joining nobility for the ordinary man was to. buy a farm to which the qualification of nobility was attached (terra nobilis) or when the king or one of the great nobles conferred upon him the qualifîcation of nobility as a gift for services renderëd or certain abilities for which he was noted The qualification of nobility was then attached to the land he owned and was inherited by his children. It is evident that the creation of nobles in this manner was an excellent means to surround the throne with persons who supported it and looked after its interests. That age was, in fact,

    the beginning of the rise of monarchy and its liberation from the shackles of feudalism, and the preponderance of its institution on ail other systems of domination and government.

    The inheritance of nobîlity was at first limited to the male descendants, but the inclination of the throne to the adoption of the aforesaid policy soon after led to granting it to females. Thus a woman could confer the qualification of noblity upon ber descendants who then became knights and nobles.

    When the feudal system was settled, and the resources of aristocracy increased by the improvement of agriculture, the duty of the knight to follow the prince at his own expense became, as regards the feudal lords, thê highest kind of honour and dignity.

    When the knight donned ail his accoutrements, carried arms which covered him from head to foot, and mounted his horselikewise covered with iron and steel, he could meet tens of unarmed men of the lower classes. When some of these knights would come together they could terrify hundreds and thousands of their followers and force them to submit and obey. It is evident that the growth of this enmity, or its mere

    existence, often led, on many occasions, to sanguinary battles in which the masses round means to avenge themselves from the tyranny of the knights. But the combination of rights and duties of both parties, in the ordinary affairs of lire, supported a social systêm like chivalry, lacking ail the elements of poIitical settlement.One is astonished at the formalities and traditions of' chivalry and it sêems to us that they were the

    formalities of a religious sect or of a great secret society. The fact is that these formalities, which would be observed before obtaining the honour of knighthood, are very old. As we havê already said, Tacitus referred to them when he spoke of the conditions of the Germanic tribes.

    They assumed, since the origin of chivalry, a tint of glamour and dignity which amounted almost to sanctity. These formalities may be summarized as follows" before the candidate of knighthood was given a sword and spurs he had to pass through certain tests and spend a number of days in fasting. He then passed a night in an old dark church where he gave himself up to meditation. He was then given a sword and spurs and réceived on his cheek or shoulder a slight stroke as the symbol of the last offênce he should pardon. Yet, although chivalry was both a social and political system, it was not free from religious character; indeed this character was so strong that the system of chivalry itsêlf was likened to the rights and duties of the holy ecclesiastic classes.

    A novice was obliged to take a bath and to wear a short coat, as was the case in baptism ceremonies. The knight received his sword on the altar of the church from a priest, the ceremony having been preceded, as already said, by fasting and supplications. He was then declared a knight in the naine of God and Saint George and Michael.

    The knight then took the oath that he would accomplish the duties of his profession Knighthood being a profession, as stated--and the only guarantee that he would observe his oath was his good breeding, good example and the judgment of public opinion. This oath is, in short, to say the truth, to support right, to protect the miserable, to be kind and courteous in his dealings, to persecute the enêmies of religion, to despise the attractions of luxury and security, and to avenge his honour in any dangerous adventure whatever. ' These formalities attaîned, in the eleventh century, a high degree of splendour and sanctification, so that it was the duty of the King, in order to join chivalry, that he should serve the Court as a page, then as a lord-candidate go Knighthood. Golden spurs, the emblem of chivalry, were then conferred upon him.

    As chivalry had peculîar fomal obligations ît likewise had peculiar tournaments and sports. It was chivalry which contributed to the evoludon of hese aristocratic sports. It abandoned the oldOlympian sports in which naked scenes were exhibîted, thus keeping girls and womên away from them, and corrupting the morals ofthe youth, and replaced them with decent and serious sports. Duels were the most popular sport among te knights and the nobles. Specîal grand ceremonies were held to which the knights astened from all parts, and were attended by the most noble and most beautîful girls and lades. The ceremony, sometimes, lasted two or more days in which two knights met one another wit lances, the vîctorious winning the arm and the horse of his adversary. Hê could also choose one of the ladies present to preside over the rest of the encounters

    and sports, and she was called the 'queen of love and beauty.' Hence the connexion of the idea of love with chivalry in the Middle Ages; the love of a woman meant to the loving knight the high estimation of the whole of the fair sex. A knight sometimes fell in love with a certain beautîful woman, but their relations were pure, merely platonic. The rôle of

    chivalry was, in this respect, a fertile source of literature full of beautiful stories, of delîcate enthusiastic poêtry and endless charming songs and romances. But chivalry was not lîmited, in its sports, to distraction and amusement ; ît organîzed small combats and serious exercises such as the attack and the defence of afort, etc. These combats and exercises were a means in which the knight acquired knowledge and experience.

    What were the effects of this strange system on the mentality of society and man ?

    Chivalry was, without doubt, one of the most beautiful and striking aspects of the Middle Ages, if not the most beautiful. But it did not only crêated a society unique in its customs and organization embodying a homogeneous and solidary group of men, it had also, in the minds of men and of society, deep effects which sometimes rose to sublime character, and at others sank to the lowest human passions. Chivalry alleviated much of the impetuosity of rude societies and improved their character and inspired them with a strong spirit of the principles of loyalty, justice and humanity. Indeed chivalry was the fîrst to shake national egoism. Did it hot bring together, in one field, the knights of different nations who mixed in public sports, united by common principles and ries ? But, on the other hand, chivalry inspired the knights, and particularly the uneducated with deep despise of peaceful arts and professions, and a strong feeling of conceit, selfishness and revolt against institutions and laws. A knight considered that he had the right of self revenge and disregarded every law and usage. Perhaps the worst that chivalry inspired the society of the Middle Ages was a savage feeling of deep religious fanaticism. We have seen that the hatred of the enemies of religion was one of the passages of the oath taken by the knight when he joined the ranks of knighthood, and that the evident religious character was connected with the formalities o£ this system. It is a fact that the Church thought, from the very begînning, to extend its influencè and domination on Christian chivalry,and was able to realize its aire to the extremist point.

    The Arabs conquered Spain and settled there since the eighth century ; they then conquered Sicily and other islands of the Mediterranean and, more than once, threatened Rome, the seat of Christendom. The phantom of the Muslim danger always appeared before the Church and Christianity, strong and imminent. Hence arose the sentiment of defending religion and the fatherland. The Church exploited this feeling.

    The Byzantine Empire repulsed the attacks of Islam in the East, but when the Byzantine Empire, which the Church considered the sole im pregnable barrier for the protection of Christianity in the East, declined and the Seljukes rose to overrun its territories and penetrated far deep into Asia Minor, and the Church hastened to appeal to the Christian nations to declare the Crusades on the Muslim nations, apparently to save the Holy Sepulchre, but in fact to maintain the supremacy of the Church and to protect Christianity, chivalry was ready to enter the holy war in the name of God and religion. The princes and the feudal lords rose, followed by the knights in successive bands, to go to the ports of Syria and Palestine. The knights used to go to the field of battle, accompanied by their attendants and a number of their soldiers, and êvery prince gathered as many of his knights as he could. Every party was distinguished by the emblem of its

    prince and his war cry. The history of the Crusades is full of stories of the private expeditions and missions organized by individual knights, fighting some times for religion, but generally to seek spoils and fortune. Indeed these adventurous bands often limited their activities to pillage and robbery in all the lands through which they passed. But there is no doubt that, dêspite the rivalry and elements of dissolution which prevailed in its ranks, chivalry rendered great services to Christianity in the Crusades, particularty when we remember that European chivalry with all its preparations, its excellent arms and shields, in many cases was superior to the light Muslim chivalry which was not so well prepared and armed In short Christian chivalry was, from the moral point of view, a conflicting mixture of good and bad qualities. Saint Palaye, historian of chivalry, says that it the laws and conventions of chivalry were strongly bound to religion, virtue, honour and humanity, the ages in which it most flourished were ages of profligacy, violence and barbarism, and that these bad qualities were particularly attached to those who joined chivalry.

    But nevertheless the principles of chivalry were meant to encourage order and virtue. From its early days chivalry carried the elements of decay ; in fact, not more than a century after, its rise and the ardour of the knights abated and objects of ornament and luxury were seen on the horses in place of arms, and chivalry was reduced to military anarchy with ail its passions and evils? Then came the invention of guns in the fourteenth century which was a fatal stroke to chivalry and its heavy armament ; thus chivalry lost, 'flore that rime, its importance and impregnability, and soon after it became a memory and a tradition.

    Now a few words about chivalry in Islam.

    Chivalry is latent in Arab character. It had a great importance in pre-Islamic era as it was a prominent element in many Arabian combats and " famous days," and was one of the greatest sources of inspiration and

    revelation to pre-Islamic poets. It had, in the early days of Islam, much importance and consideration. But it was not an established political and social system with peculiar laws and conventions as was the case in Europe. It was at the beginning nothing bùt quatity and military ability looked upon with honour and dignity and had certain traditions. But organized Muslim chivalry, with principles and social customs, originated in Andalusia under the aegis of the Caliphate of Cordova, and derived its conventions from the principles of honour, courtes3, and high character. It became, since the days of Al-Nasir and his son A1-Hakam, a social system under the banner of which stood the nobles, the high and the brave. It flourished particularly under Al-I'Iajib al-Mansur. Sédillot says: "The characteristics of Andalusian chivalry and its charming qualities, were the source from which Christian chivalry took many of ifs characters and conventions ";

    Reinault says : " The idea of chivalry began fo flourisla in this age, that is to say, the age of Al-Nasir, associated with a strong feeling of honour and respect for the fair sex." Viardot says: "Chivalry and all its institutions, known in the western Christian nations flourished, among the Andalusians in the days of A1-Nasir, Al-I-Iakam and A1-Mansur." Andalusia was at that age a centre to which Christian knights repaired from all parts, assured peace and protection by the Caliphs, to hold competitions with Muslim knights. The old traditions, such as the knight's shouting the naine his sister or lady-love, in rushing fo the field of battle, had disappeared in that age; the knight going to the field merely wearing on his arm or on his helmet an emblem from the woman he loved. The Andalusian ladies attended these competitions and encounters which were held in the squares of the great cities, and their presence lent these delightful ceremonies charm and elegance. The conditions of chivalry, as required by convention, were ten in number, piety, courage, high character, strength, the talent for poetry, eloquence , good horsemanship, skill to use the sword, the lance and the bow.

    The mêeting of the two sexes in tjis way, helped to polish feelings and character, strengthen the sense of loyalty, decency and truth. The Muslim chivalry attained the zenith of its strength and brilliance in the kingdom of Granada whose history overflows with stories of noble and renowned warriors, and their galtantry and loyalty whicb it would be too long to record here. We shall see, in another chapter, in speaking of the fall of Granada, examples of this sublimity in courage, patriotism and qualities which characterized the Andalusian chivalry. As an example we cite the following historical event-the Muslim knights besiêged the Queen of Castille, wife of Alphonso VII, in the fort of Azika in 1139 A.D. (534 A.H.). The Queen reproached the Muslim knights for their conduct and for their want of courage and character in attacking a fort defened by a woman.

    The Muslim knights recognized the justice of this reproach, and asked her only to look at them from a window of the fort. When shë did so the Muslim knights saluted her with the greatest respect, raised the siege and departed at once.

    This is a short account of the principles and institutions of chivalry, which reveals a great deal about the characteristics of medieval society, its feelings and mentality.


    Feudalism is a political, social and military system which prevailed in

    Europe in the Mîddle Ages. If appeazed in the ninth centuzy when central

    governments weze not able fo dominate all the provinces subject to them.

    The origin of the system is unknown, but if is a mixture of Roman Law of

    ownership, the. principles of dealings and personal relations. In a few words. this system means that the land is the property of the throne which granted it to princes and nobles who, in their turn, granted it for the people. Each of these has political, military and financial rights an'd duties. This system prevailed in the west of Europe till the thirceenth century. The Frankswere the first to apply if and to lay down for it established principles,

    Tacitus : Annals

    G. Miller: History Philosophically Illustrated Ch. XIX.

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