Chivalry is often thought sexist, but once you look at its structure, it turns into a far more interesting and complex beast.
We know Chivalry from the middle ages, where knights rode off to rescue ladies, which today is taken as sexist behavior. But if we hold sexism up against an informed looked at the medieval period chivalric narrative, does this claim hold up?
The chivalric meta-narrative is based on the culture and practices of the middle ages, especially those at the upper end of the social scale. This narrative codified a set of behaviors, relationships, and obligations. There was a very formalized relationship between Lord and Vassal, but also a formalized relationship between Knight and Lady. Because those days were literally dangerous, knights were assigned to ladies to act as their protectors, with their honor on the line for both how well they protected their lady and how well they honored her.
Much of chivalry wasn't real, it was a meta-narrative that informed stories, every bit as artificial as the sexism meta-narrative. However, as a practical reality, wealthy women did, in fact, need protection. That part isn't artificial. Because this need existed as an institution, and because everyone who relied upon this institution needed to understand it, they told stories about those who uphold the institution and those who didn't. In addition, women in castles worked among mercenaries, men who were hired for combat, hired for their ability to harm others. These were all strangers and very unreliable. It's easy to understand how women would get nervous with these strangers, often foreigners, hanging about the castle.
We think of chivalry as sexist because so many medieval movies were made where the sexist meta-narrative overlaid the chivalric meta-narrative. Naturally, chivalry looks like sexism because the two meta-narratives copulated copiously. That, and the middle ages weren't known for their socially progressive social structure, so while the chivalric narrative doesn't focus on sexism, the sexism of the era did inform the meta-narrative. Interestingly, the sexism of the era differed from today as the middle ages era had different notions about a woman's place and duties. Women were freer in some ways while more restricted in others. For example, women nursed injured knights back to health, literally saving lives, so a woman with great medical skill was incredibly valued by men.
I suggest that judging medieval life by the lives of noblewomen is in error. Due to their station, they had obligations, duties, and privileges not shared by most women, who lived on farms and worked hard. Rich women might be delicate flowers, but poor women got to shovel the manure.
Chivalry concerns itself with the following:
- A knight owes obligation to his lord.
- A lord provides for his knight.
- A knight may be given an obligation to protect a lady.
- A knight's reputation depends on his ability to protect a lady (a relative of his lord).
- (Losing a lady is a career limiting move.)
- A knight's life is subservient to his lady's life.
- Knights don't boss the ladies around. They serve ladies, not the other way around.
- Knights gives affection to his lady.
- A lady gives affection to her knight.
- A knight's actions are at the behest of his lady. (The Lady gets all the credit.)
- A badly behaved knight, who violates chivalry, kidnaps women, making the world go wrong.
- The world is set right when the knight defeats the bad knight, and thus fulfills his obligations.
Fortunately for women, even in sexist stories, ladies found way to get information to their knights so that their knight could win. The villains usually used dirty tricks, and the ladies exposed those tricks so that her virtuous knight would win fairly on the battlefield. (Those kidnapped women weren't totally useless.) This aiding showed the audience that the lady had kept her virtue and wanted to go home with her knight. This was understandable. Who really wants to stay with the villain?
Contrast that narrative with sexism, which is concerned about where each gender is happiest and where each has a natural place. This doesn't mean that the medieval system itself wasn't sexist, it merely means that the focus of the chivalric narrative was chivalry, not sexism.
If we inject a modern sensibility into chivalry, where the woman frees herself, that would indicate a failure on the knight's part. If the lady were to say, "I rescued myself," that would be the same as kicking the knight to the curb, who had just literally risked literal life and limb while accomplishing nothing. His reputation would have been shattered. In the context of chivalry, such a modern twist would break the social contract, rendering the narrative unsatisfying.
Am I saying that the lady has to sit back so that the man can rescue her? If you want a story to satisfy a medieval audience, then yes. These stories weren't written for me and you, but for people living in a different age who had different ideas on what made a complete story. They were written for people who had different fears and concerns than you or I do today.
I think that the medieval writers got the balance right on this one: with the knight as the brawn and the lady as the brain, the combination of which gets evil defeated.
In summary, although the chivalric meta-narrative occurs in a sexist context, the central themes of the narrative are more concerned with relationships and obligations than they are with enforcing gender roles.