I not only enjoy words, I learn from them. Today I held the door for a young woman and, instead of the expected, ‘Thank you,’ received a quizzical glance. It reminded me of the word chivalry, now almost archaic if it isn’t already there. This word tells us a great deal about who we are today and where we came from historically.
The word comes to us, via French, from Latin caballus “horse” (also the origin of cavalry) and probably originally meant “horsemanship”. However, in the Middle Ages it became the term for the behavior expected of a knight: bravery, honor, strength, and gallantry toward women. I see the image of Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cape over a puddle before Queen Elizabeth I.
After the age of knighthood, the word lingered on, its meaning narrowing to simply “gallantry toward women”. By the turn of the 20th century the word was dying out, though the concept was not.
I can recall a lovely orientation session at the beginning of my studentship at the University of North Carolina, under the spreading elms of the old quadrangle behind the Well. This session was for men only and was devoted to an excursion into the character of the “Carolina Gentleman” and the rules of chivalry expected of me and my male counterparts. It focused on the development of a sense of gallantry toward women.
I suppose the necessity for an orientation session on the subject indicated that the concept itself was struggling even in the mid 50s. Then, when the feminist movement hit the 60s, it became politically incorrect: showing favoritism toward the ‘fair sex’ was taken as an expression of deep-seated anti-feminine sentiment. Chivalry does, of course, rub against the grain of equality.
So why did it ever arise? Well, I grew up in a rural Southern community before the feminist movement and my recollections all point to an understanding on the part of men that women were making great sacrifices by remaining at home, taking care of them, and raising the children. Men made sacrifices, too, for the entire economy of the family rested on their shoulders, and that was a burden they would not be able to sustain without a helpmeet.
But men were at least able to leave the house, to live in two environments; women were tied to one. In deference to that, men removed their hats and stood when women entered the room, never entered a door before a woman but always held it open for her, and offered several other similar symbolic gestures of appreciation for their role as birth-givers, child-raisers, and husband-tolerators.
Very, very few men mistreated their wives in the community I grew up in and those surrounding. I only heard of occasional cases. And the chivalry of opening doors and removing hats was probably rote behavior in most cases. However, it was there, it bespoke a gentler age (no drive-by shootings), and now it is gone.