Chivalry began in the 12th century in the form of a knightly code of conduct, with special emphasis on courtly manners toward women. Thirteenth century stories that showed the ways a warrior should behave in romance became popular . Churchmen liked the idea of high standards and made the knighting ceremony a religious occasion with a church vigil and purifying bath. Books on the subject soon began to appear.
Many forms of chivalrous code can be found today, from The Cowboys Code to the Rules of Courtly Love. These codes are stated with the hope that people will try and follow them to some degree; yet only the perfect could adhere to them all. Considering the fact that such perfection is impossible, the authors merely set out a guideline for honorable behavior. In the context of medieval times, a knight was expected to have faith in his beliefs; for faith was considered to give hope against the despair that human failings create.
I chose to use The Code of Chivalry for my comparisons on literary characters great successes and failures. For my first example, I chose the brave and fearless Beowulf. According to the 19th code of chivalry, one must Destroy evil in all of its monstrous forms, and also Exhibit courage in word and deed. Beowulf proclaimed to fight the evil Grendel, saying We shall fight for our lives, foe against foe; and he whom death takes off must resign himself to the judgment of God (1200). After the battle, the terror-filled Grendel crept away, mortally wounded. Beowulf had upheld this particular code with valor and bravery.
For my second example, I looked to Sir Gawain. The story of the Green Knight is seeped with instances of chivalry, and honorable men. Always keep ones word of honor, was an obvious code for this particular story. Not only did Sir Gawain show respect for the codes of chivalry by serving his king, exhibiting courage, and fighting with honor; he kept his words of honor that had been spoken with the Green Knight. Although he was distracted in his course, he kept the appointed new year challenge with the knight. Not a perfect instance of chivalry, yet his example leads nicely into my next character assessment.
Don Quixote, if nothing else, must be praised for his valiant efforts to follow the laws of the great knights. After encountering a man beating a half naked youth, he informs him that it is a caitiffs deed to attack one who cannot defend himself. This directly follows the code that one must never use a weapon on an opponent not equal to the attack. Don Quixote also attempts to protect the innocent, avenge the wronged, and defend the weak and innocent. Unfortunately, he fails miserably in aiding the poor boy; as he assumes that the man will keep his word in ceasing the horrid beating.
Falstaff of Henry IV shows more concern for others opinions than his own actual purity and honor, which is in direct contrast to Don Quixote. Falstaff tells the prince, in scene II, that he wants to be spoken of a well-behaved man, which belies his actual character in the play. Falstaff is said to be alternately a rake, a swashbuckling good fellow, a ladies man, and a pious innocent ruined by bad company. Not only is he failing to live ones life so that it is worthy of respect and honor, but he is clearly lacking loyalty . . . to the code of chivalry.
Last, but not least, I chose to look to Chaucer for hints of chivalric values. Not only do the gentlemen during the telling of the Wife of Baths Tale choose to ignore the credence to Respect women, the woman herself does not inspire the need to respect, defend, or otherwise follow codes of chivalry and courtly love. Her prologue is a lusty tale, that leads into a tale of equal trickery and of marital sorrows. The knight in that particular tale can be applauded for upholding his word with the witch; yet, any applause given would have to be soft after reading of his former misdeeds.
All in all, we were presented with many deeds, and misdeeds, of chivalry and honor. Lust, baudiness, and the will to have a little fun were all tempered with underlying wishes for respect, honor, and valor. Each character fit into his or her own particular scale of principles, lending entertainment and examples for all who are brave enough to read about them. Should you succeed in even a tiny measure then you will be well remembered for your quality and virtue.