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Dec 12 2012

Chivalry Versus Civilization

I will give Emily Esfahani Smith this: She’s got a much lighter touch than anyone in the Schlafly family. After that, the comparisons start to get more even.

Phyllis Schlafly herself has long been arguing for a return to “traditional” gender relations. She’s also long been known for making rather bizzare claims in support of that argument. A couple of weeks ago, her niece, Suzanne Venker received lots of attention–and derision–for doing the same.

Then, yesterday, Esfahani Smith had a piece published in The Atlantic calling for a return to chivalry. Yes, chivalry. Yes, The Atlantic. Not only that, but people I would normally expect to react to appeals to tradition with at least suspicion weren’t incredulous.

So, well played Esfahani Smith. Well played. That said, let’s look at what you’re actually proposing.

First, the problem:

This past spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, as the ship was on its maiden journey from Southampton, UK, to New York City, it hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic. About three hours later, it sank. Three-quarters of the women on the ship survived; over three quarters of the men, by contrast, died. In Washington DC, there is a memorial to these men. The inscription on it reads: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic…They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”

About a year ago, a group of today’s men were tested the way that the men on board the Titanic were. When the cruise ship Costa Concordia hit a rock and capsized off the coast of Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, last January, men pushed women and children out of the way to save themselves.

Oh, our degenerate times. Why are we no longer like those brave men of yore who heroically sacrificed for the helpless?

In large part, we are no longer like that because we never were. Aside from the passengers on the Titanic, that kind of gender disparity just didn’t happen. When an economist looked at more than 100 fatal wrecks over the last 300 years, he discovered that men survived at twice the rate of women and that children fared far worse than either.

The Titanic was an anomaly. Nor was it an anomaly because it was a luxury liner and, thus, full of noble souls. It was an anomaly because the captain gave a specific order to prioritize women and children over men. He also is generally have presumed to have gone down with his ship, which is almost unheard of in maritime disasters.

So, we’re not really less heroic than we were 100 years ago. Still, maybe we could be better. What does Esfahani Smith recommend? Chivalry.

Historically, the chivalry ideal and the practices that it gave rise to were never about putting women down, as Connelly and other feminists argue. Chivalry, as a social idea, was about respecting and aggrandizing women, and recognizing that their attention was worth seeking, competing for, and holding. If there is a victim of “benevolent sexism,” it is not the career-oriented single college-aged feminist. Rather, it is unconstrained masculinity.

“We should have a clear notion of what chivalry is,” argues Pier Massimo Forni, an award-winning professor of Italian literature and the founder of the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins. “It was a form of preferential treatment that men once accorded to women generations ago, inspired by the sense that there was something special about women, that they deserve added respect, and that not doing so was uncouth, cowardly and essentially despicable.”

Chivalry arose as a response to the violence and barbarism of the Middle Ages. It cautioned men to temper their aggression, deploying it only in appropriate circumstances—like to protect the physically weak and defenseless members of society. As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”

Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm. The tacit assumption that men would risk their lives to protect women only underscores how valued women are—how elevated their status is—under the system of chivalry.

My first thought on reading this, of course, is “And they say feminists hate men and demonize masculinity?” My second thought is that I’m going to point every person who cites Hoff Sommers as an exemplar of social thought at this. My third: “Chivalry? Really? Chivalry?”

Picture of a sword fight from a Renaissance Faire. Bad costumes, bad background.

Cover it in burlap. No one will notice the historical inaccuracies.

The first thing you need to know about chivalry is that it was a military code. It was not, despite Forni’s statement, a way that men treated women. It was the way that knights–professional soldiers–were supposed to treat everyone. It put, in theory at least, limits on the power of those who were allowed to wander around with weaponry, military training, and the kind of preferential feeding that produced big, healthy, muscular men. These soldiers agreed to temper their power and put it at the service of those who didn’t have it. That meant the peasantry as a whole, at least those who were Christians, as well as the monarch who allowed them to hang out armed.

That form of chivalry? That’s fine. (More or less. The part where it codified a culture of continual warfare not so much, but I can see how that might be invisible to some people in our current culture of continual warfare.) In fact, we already do something very similar in how we temper the power of our professional soldiers with the respect to the populations we serve.

That isn’t, however, what is being proposed here. Esfahani Smith is not saying the strong and the armed should feel a particular duty to everyone who is weak or unarmed. She, and the people she cites, are saying that men should have a particular duty to women.

This too has historical precedent. This too was not what Esfahani Smith and friends are trying to tell us it was.

This sort of chivalry, to the extent it existed, was based in the idea of courtly love. You know, the stuff of ballads. For those of you not immersed in folk tradition, ballads generally means tragedies. There’s a fun little bit on the Wikipedia page on courtly love that tells you how the stories that make up this particular chivalric tradition go:

  • Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
  • Worship of the lady from afar
  • Declaration of passionate devotion
  • Virtuous rejection by the lady
  • Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
  • Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness)
  • Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady’s heart
  • Consummation of the secret love
  • Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection

Sound appealing? Whether it does or not, the important thing to note is that there are very strict roles for the players here. This tradition of chivalry is a purity cult. The lady (and lady is used advisedly; this was a court game) is worshipped first for withholding sex and later for fidelity and sharing the risk of detection. She is cared for exquisitely because she is worshipped. Other women are cared for carefully because they are, like the knight’s lady, pure and worthy of worship.

If you can’t tell what that means for any woman who is not so pure, it’s worth looking at those story elements again. That’s a rough timeline, meaning that the elements happen in order. So all that trouble that our romantic couple meets, the endless subterfuge, etc.? That’s what happens after sex, when the purity ends. And although the list doesn’t specify, this doesn’t go on until old age.

Our chivalrous lovers don’t die in a cottage some place with gray hair and wrinkles while holding hands. They undergo punishment until the balladeer is tired of taking it out on them. Then one of them dies, if not both. The other, if female, does religious-y work or pennance after that. If male, he sacrifices himself in some battle, not infrequently for the benefit of the king he wronged by stealing a wife or daughter or sister-in-law or whatever.

No one lives happily ever after in these things. They can’t consummate and go unpunished and maintain the purity myth. There has to be separation and there has to be sacrifice.

That, of course, is all story. However, traditions based around stories take some cues from those stories. In the case of chivalry, one of the cues taken is that women are worth protecting based on their “virtue”, their sexual purity, along with the nobility (of the political sort) that is the background for these stories.

So, you want a world in which men treat women according to chivalrous codes? Then you’re looking at a world in which chastity plays a big part in determining whether you’re safe from violence. A world in which being the object of a man’s sexual interest determines how you’re treated. A world in which we have one standard of behavior for dealing with women from the upper classes and a different standard for all other women. A world in which a woman who is no longer “pure” has rightfully earned punishment of some sort.

A world in which nobody much cares about how guys treat each other.

The traditions of this kind of gender-based chivalry are traditions of carving very small, coercive exceptions to violence out of the world. It’s not the world I’m working for. Update: See Andrew Tripp for a good take on this modern end of things.

It’s not the world Esfahani Smith acts like she’s sellling us either, but she is, and with a certain amount of deliberation. Look at the rest of her writing. Look at her article on hookup culture that sells the degredation as the cost of casual sex. Look at who she quotes and what they’re selling you in the way of gender and sexual politics. Esfahani Smith is waving a world of reduced violence under your nose and hoping you won’t notice the repressive gender roles she’s got tucked behind her back.

I have to give her credit for creativity. I’ll even hand over a bunch of style points. But I really hope people give that offer a good solid look before they buy. It’s just the same old lemon dressed up as a suit of armor.

Image by Sue Talbert Photography. Some rights reserved.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    loreo

    “Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm.”

    This sounds like passive-aggressively reminding every woman you will ever meet that the only thing protecting them from your masculine power is your own heroic chivalry.

    “Oh, let me protect you! You could never protect yourself!”

    /barf

    And haven’t we figured out that the right thing to do is to treat women like they’re individual people, not representatives of some uniform tribe?

  2. 2
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    And haven’t we figured out that the right thing to do is to treat women like they’re individual people, not representatives of some uniform tribe?

    That would require women to differ from one another in meaningful ways above and beyond their physical appearance and sexual desirability.

    As far as Smith’s target audience is concerned, they do not. You’ve got men who only view women on these terms, and women who have internalized the idea that, sure, maybe there is more to them than that, but these are the only aspects that are truly important, and that these aspects are harmed when you question the idea out loud.

  3. 3
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Yeah, no.

    And Stephanie is generously charitable in her descriptions of chivalric codes and courtly love in that the “better” points were not part of every such code, and the practice was far different from the theory.

  4. 4
    Alverant

    OT, but Chivalry is a key development in Civilization. Once you research it you get Knights and Samauri if you play the Japanese. Those are good units in the game.

  5. 5
    Greg Laden

    The Titanic is a class issue!

    I recommend Huizinga or any other good treatment of the middle ages for a broader discussion of chivalry. As you say, it is not just about how to treat the ladies, but rather, about relations between and among war lords, which in those days were just called “lords.”

    It is very appropriate for you to call on the carpet.

    (That was really funny what I just said there.)

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    Hee.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    loreo

    I got sucked into the comments there – painful experience. It was a damn-near constant stream of “women”, “ladies”, “girls”, like they’re uniform and alien groups.

    I responded to several of them until I realized I was saying the same thing: “Treat women like they’re individuals!”

    It’s a simple fucking lesson, but that DOES require you to stop being self-centered for a minute. I guess that cost is just too high for some people.

  9. 9
    Nepenthe

    Did they stop teaching Tess of the d’Urbervilles in schools? Started that book and four hours later I was soured on chivalry and the good old days forever.

  10. 10
    Dunc

    It’s worse than that… According to Chretien de Troyes, one of the contemporary experts on the code and conduct of chivalry:

    “If the damsel were accompanied by another knight and if it pleased him to give combat to that knight and win the lady by arms, then he might do his will with her, just as he pleased, and no shame or blame whatsoever would attach to him.”

  11. 11
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness)

    There’s nothing creepy about telling somebody that you’ll die if they don’t love you back…

    “Chivalry is grounded in a fundamental reality that defines the relationship between the sexes, she explains. Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm.”

    No threat here, either.
    You know, I much prefer men who see me as a person who therefore gets some basic respect, dignity and bodily autonomy as a fellow human being.
    Why do they hate men so much?

  12. 12
    D. C. Sessions

    You’ve got men who only view women on these terms, and women who have internalized the idea that, sure, maybe there is more to them than that, but these are the only aspects that are truly important

    Or that being a combination housekeeper, sex toy, and brood mare may not be what she wants but is the best she’s likely to get.

  13. 13
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    According to Wikipedia it was more than just that:

    Believe the Church’s teachings and observe all the Church’s directions.
    Defend the Church.
    Respect and defend all weaknesses.
    Love your country.
    Do not recoil before an enemy.
    A single coward could discourage an entire army. Even if the knights knew death was near, they would rather die fighting than show weakness.
    Show no mercy to the Infidel. Do not hesitate to make war with them.
    Perform all duties that agree with the laws of God.
    Never lie or go back on one’s word.
    Sincerity and honor were two of the most crucial traits of chivalric knights.
    Be generous to everyone.
    Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice.

    So yea – the Chivalric knights were basically God’s holy warriors. I know a certain group of people who’d LOVE for us to go back to a form of chivalry like that. They start with a “Vision” and end in a “Forum” and are headed by a guy whose name rhymes with Doug Wilson (because it IS Doug Wilson)

  14. 14
    D. C. Sessions

    If the damsel were accompanied by another knight and if it pleased him to give combat to that knight and win the lady by arms, then he might do his will with her, just as he pleased, and no shame or blame whatsoever would attach to him.

    She, on the other hand, was an object [1] of contempt for the rest of her life … which was ideally short.

    [1] As distinct from being an object, period.

  15. 15
    eric

    Given that most men are physically stronger than most women, men can overpower women at any time to get what they want. Gentlemen developed symbolic practices to communicate to women that they would not inflict harm upon them and would even protect them against harm.

    If that’s what she wants, then prior to puberty girls should be opening doors for boys – or maybe neither should be chivalrous, since differences in strentch are an effect of puberty. Even after puberty, women HS varsity team members should open doors for the male members of the chess club. Amiright? Sigh. We all know this ‘argument from strength’ is just a B.S. line, and the real system she espouses would be based solely on which genitalia you have.

    Greg Laden @5:

    The Titanic is a class issue!

    Yes, absolutely. Smith is misrepresenting what happened in the disaster, painting a rosy picture which does not reflect reality. In reality, first class women had a very high chance of surviving. Less than half of the third class women and children survived. Overall (men, women, and children), 62% of the first class passengers survived while only 25% of the third class passengers did.

  16. 16
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yeah, there was a lot of wrong of various sorts that I just didn’t get to. Dunc, real consent being completely unimportant is to be entirely expected in a system that requires women to say “No” no matter how they feel.

    I just updated the post to include a link to Andrew Tripp’s take on that artice. It’s well worth reading too.

  17. 17
    Phiknight

    A previous post got lost…

    I got to take a couple of courses during my undergraduate years that touched on chivalry and courtly love. One of my favorite bits was a book that had images from plates depicting the rules for duels between men and women (in one of them, a man had to stand in a hole up to his waist). Now that’s real chivalry. I can’t find the book though.

    Courtly love just seems like a terrible idea. The comment about “moans approaching death” made me laugh. Those knights were so emo.

  18. 18
    Martha

    As the author and self-described “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers tells me in an interview, “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”

    Stephanie, you are so right about pointing this out to CHS’s “equity feminist” fans. I can’t believe I missed that she of all people was the source of that quote. Thanks for giving me a good laugh or two as I contemplated just how insidious EES’s article was.

  19. 19
    Forbidden Snowflake

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that the Titanic survival stats, uncharacteristic as they were for a disaster at sea, were soon picked up and used as an argument against Woman’s Suffrage. Because you see, women don’t really need any rights – men would protect them out of sheer noblesse.

    Small criticism, though:

    When an economist looked at more than 100 fatal wrecks over the last 300 years, he discovered that men survived at twice the rate of women and that children fared far worse than either.

    This sentence is technically true, but also misleading, since only 18 shipwrecks were included in the study. It seems that the researchers couldn’t find reliable survival data on the rest.
    Elinder says:

    We went through a list of over 100 major maritime disasters spanning three centuries to see if we could find data on survival rates of men and women. We ended up with data on 18 shipwrecks, involving 15,000 passengers.

  20. 20
    brucegee1962

    Excellent post. Another problem of chivalry in the popular imagination, I think, is that most people think of it as = to basic kindness — opening doors for a woman carrying packages, for instance, or giving up a seat to a pregnant woman. So people who are against chivalry are bad people. They don’t think about the fact that there’s nothing that says that kindness has to be gendered — why shouldn’t a man open a door for another MAN carrying packages, or a woman who is young and healthy give up her seat to another woman who is old and frail? Perhaps we need to call for new chivalry, that is based on kindness rather than gender.

    Also, one quibble:

    The part where it codified a culture of continual warfare not so much, but I can see how that might be invisible to some people in our current culture of continual warfare.”

    My take would be that the cultural of continual warfare had been the default state of mankind since before the dawn of civilization. The idea that warriors of both sides should follow a mutually-agreed upon code was certainly a step of progress, though limited by class as mentioned.

  21. 21
    shari

    haven’t been reading you in a while, did all my catching up today. Great posts!

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