Friday, March 21, 2014

The meaning of chivalry

If you are a serious student of history, paid or unpaid, it sometimes comes as a shock to realize how little other people know about the problems and eras that you find fascinating, or the amazing misconceptions they sometimes have.

This school year I have been teaching a fourth year seminar on chivalry, and I started out the course by asking the students to characterize or define chivalry, not so much in a formal definition sense, but by relating the concept to stories, symbols, or analogies. At the end of last month I asked them as the seminar started winding down, to tell me what they had learned about chivalry, and what sources in particular had shaped their current view.

I wasn't really surprised to see three of the students talk about chivalry as courtesy as the view that they started out with. But still, look at this:

Prior to taking this class, it would suffice to say, I knew next to nothing about the concept of chivalry, except for within the context is used today.… My understanding of chivalry was limited to the concept of acting in a polite fashion, holding doors, surrendering the shotgun seat of a vehicle etc. I wondered how an entire class could be devoted to the study of "being polite."
 There you are.

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