Chivalry and the Fighting Arts

Continuing from the conversation last month

The Code of Chivalry that I follow was created by Brian R. Price, a professor of Medieval History who extrapolated what made the most sense to him from a number of pre-existing oaths.  He posted his Code on a page that predated the common usage of the internet, whereby it eventually made its way to me through word of mouth.  As I do not have written permission to repost his Code, I link to it.  Through the course of this project, I will be referring back to it and expanding upon it as it will be impossible for me to discuss any context of Chivalry otherwise, such is its foundation.

That Code resonated with me at a time when I needed it most to inspire me on towards “something more.”  After reading it through several times, finding within it no fault and everything I admired, I adopted it as my own, always giving credit where it was due.  Little did I suspect that one day I would someday take my first face-to-face lessons from him in the art of the Medieval sword.  My time under his instruction was short, but memorable for all the right reasons.  His text that formed the basis for our studies, and others like it, remain touchstones for me to this day.

Most books like this do not teach Chivalry.  The basis of my art comes down from Fiore dei Liberi, whose treatises date to the beginning of the 15th century and stand as prime examples of Chivalry removed from a situation.  Fiore’s lessons and techniques are designed to be used to survive, especially in situations where Chivalry has already been cast aside.  This implies that Chivalry served its purpose in society in the first place, and it was cast aside in anger and hubris.

As it was first explained to me, picture a situation where two knights of renown oppose one another in fair combat on the field of joust.  One wins and proceeds back to a local pub or tavern to celebrate with his comrades.  The other loses and plots with his confederates to jump the winner in the back alley behind the pub with intent to murder the winner for his “transgression.”  Clearly, Chivalry is not a factor in the mind of the would-be assassin.  If anything, it proves the other knight to be the better warrior by the understanding of societal expectation in that age.  Fiore’s system is designed to translate from the sword to virtually any other hand-to-hand weapon, or to empty hand, disabling, disarming, or otherwise neutralizing one or more opponents quickly and with minimal effort.  The optimum combat is “I hit you, you hit the floor.”  Failing that, it’s “I block your attack, hit you, and you hit the floor.”

This paints the illusion that Chivalry is separate from combat and is therefore somehow a hindrance or sign of weakness.  But if one reads Fiore with intent, he acknowledges that if any parties face one another without resolution in four moves, both are Masters and have nothing further to prove to one another.  That sounds like an acknowledgement of honor to me.  Of course, this isn’t going to stop someone who has divorced himself from reason with intent to kill you out of spite, which is why a person would seek to learn from Fiore’s example and teachings.  Marketing was everything, even in the Middle Ages, and his was a “can’t lose” system.  But just because a system taught you how to kill, that doesn’t mean you were a slave to it.  The choice is ultimately still yours.  In some situations, it truly is “kill or be killed.”  In others, mercy may win you an ally.  A discerning mind makes the call.

In the Middle Ages, Chivalry and the fighting arts went hand-in-gauntlet.  According to popular tradition, this is due to Eleanor of Aquitaine looking to spread the concept of Courtly Love across her realm with the intent of making her knights and courtiers — and the population at large by example — less brutish and more civil.  By the same tradition, her instrument of propaganda was Chrétien de Troyes and his Arthurian tales, especially through his creation of the character Lancelot.  I’ll leave it to the historians to argue what may or may not be true about any of this.  For these purposes it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is this idea that Chivalry was superimposed upon the upper classes whose duty it was to protect the realm.  The martial arts created a skill set within the knight; Chivalry created a moral core that tempered those skills and directed them to higher purpose.

This is the outlook behind all such Codes of behavior.  Religions impose moral guidelines with the threat of punishment from a divine force.  Civil laws are imposed as the secular version of this same idea, to keep people from destroying one another with a threat of reprisal.  Codes of ethics are imposed upon various groups in order to build character and create a representative vision for the whole of such groups.  The idea of a moral code and a higher state of being go together as something that separates us from the animals, right up there with fire, the arts, and the opposable thumb.  Those of brutish imagination tend to see such codes as limiting and unnatural.  Perhaps that’s true from a certain point of view, but I would challenge such views as being mere excuses to justify the thirst for violence.  A code is not so much a limit of violence as it is an opportunity to exercise creativity.  True strength comes from the ability not to exercise it.

When the use of violence is acceptable is always up to interpretation.  That’s part of why such codes are developed, to allow for a guideline to do just that.  The easy justification then becomes “a breach of honor.”  In Feudal Japan, the Samurai were said to never act out of anger.  As with the concept of the Western knight, the history and the romance of the Samurai are often at odds with one another.  In those moments, the romance is the ideal to be exemplified — the purpose behind all stories of Chivalry — where the history is often (but not always) the cautionary tale of how things went wrong.

When adopting a code to follow, it’s often best to find an example that operates with those guidelines.  We humans always seem to work better with story and imagination.  In the Middle Ages, the examples in play were the Knights of the Round Table or Charlemagne.  For my purposes, that example was Wonder Woman as reimagined in the late 1980s by writer / artist George Perez.  As with every popular literary character, each generation puts a different spin on them in order to represent the ideals and character of the age in which they are written.  Our own times seem to do this way too often, mostly to make a fast buck more than any other reason.  Wonder Woman is no exception.  Today’s version doesn’t match what was in place a decade ago, or a generation ago, to say nothing of her first incarnation in 1941.  This is why I specifically reference the version offered by Perez for this example, because this is the version that resonates most with me.

As written, Perez gave Diana a mission of peace and a code by which to operate.  When a character like that is raised on an island of over 3,000 immortal martial arts masters who learned the hard way that war is rarely the answer, such codes are hardlined as part of the fabric of who that character becomes.  For superheroes, the defining question is always whether or not they should kill, and this tends to change with each generation, character to character.  In the case of Perez’s Wonder Woman, her code operates something like this.  In all situations, her primary objective is peace.  To her understanding, peace is best achieved through diplomacy and understanding.  Violence is used as an absolute last resort when all other options have been exhausted.  When the situation has degenerated into violence, and only then, the objective is to end the conflict as quickly as a possible, with as minimal damage as possible.  In the case where an adversary absolutely will not stand down and cannot be contained or subdued by any other means, only then is the ultimate sanction permitted.  Should death be warranted in those hyper-extreme situations, it should be quick and merciful, not a prolonged affair.  The idea is that the longer the fight goes on, the more possibility there is for bystanders to be injured or killed, and the more possibility that the champion who would intervene on their behalf could be lost in the process.  Death is never something to glorify.  Indeed, to a character like Wonder Woman, death is seen as abject failure.  Remember, her mission is peace through understanding and diplomacy.  She must embody that mission through example if she is to inspire others to follow her lead.  That’s how a character becomes an icon.  That’s precisely how Chivalry works too.

Translated to the real world, the average person in a civilized society is almost never going to be in a situation where death is necessary.  One can argue that it happens, but it isn’t necessary in most cases.  If one opts to enter the military or a police unit, that possibility increases, and there will be guidelines in place to govern the use of violence.  Above and beyond anything, the mind and the heart are still the first adjudicators for any of us.  Without these things, any other imposed set of ethics is hollow and empty.  Similarly, a weapon is but an extension of the person wielding it.  Without honor — the result of heart and mind — the weapon is as blunt an instrument as the person using it.  To remind us that this same weapon can still kill is obvious and has also completely missed the point.  Pragmatism is a poor excuse for dismissing Chivalry, as much as Chivalry cannot dismiss pragmatism.  The two must go hand in hand to achieve the greatest good.

“I carry my sword in my hand. You carry yours in your heart and in your mind. As I see it, that gives you a two-to-one advantage in arms. Be fair, Citizen G’Kar.”

— Ta’Lon, Babylon 5: “A Day in the Strife”

The important thing to understand when using fictional characters as examples is that, exactly like a code of Chivalry, such ideals are impossible to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to strive ever closer to that ideal.  The objective is to be aware when we fall short and to atone for such mistakes.  By that, I don’t mean we should punish ourselves.  It means owning up to our actions, making restitution in the eyes of whomever may have been offended (i.e., apologizing for the offense in a humble and sincere manner), and returning to the path set by the example in play.  To expect any of us to be perfect is just asking for trouble.

Working back around to the study of a martial art, then, the name of the game becomes sportsmanship.  In any competition, it will typically be more difficult to win playing by the rules.  This is the axiom of cheaters the world over.  But in honoring the boundary lines, one gains insight, excels through obstacles, and gains renown with his / her peers.  These things are not only far more rewarding than an easy victory, they are the sorts of ideas that create a reputation, the perception of honor, if you will, earned through adherence to the code in use.  The greatest opponent you face in any contest is yourself.

The same can be applied to military victories.  Is a person perceived as a hero or as a butcher?  Is an army a force for good or a force for evil?  This goes beyond which side you’re on.  Rules of Engagement determine how the world perceives any military, as much as the politics behind the deployment of that military.  The idea of Rules of Engagement is Chivalry by any other name.  The Geneva Conventions of 1949 help to delineate civility for the modern era.  After the horror of two world wars, it was a way of maintaining honor on the battlefield and ensuring the fair and civil treatment of prisoners of war.

Hopefully I’ve illustrated by this point that while it seems somewhat old fashioned, the concept of Chivalry is indeed alive and well, regardless of the label anyone wants to use to define it.  It begins with one’s basic humanity and the desire to be more than a prisoner to one’s base emotions or instincts.  It’s a means of elevating one’s personal and social awareness, an ideal towards which to constantly strive.  It’s a means of making us stronger on a number of levels, as  individuals and as collectives.  Examples abound, it’s just a question of finding what works best for you.  In the case of the fighting arts, Chivalry and martial skill are very different ideas, but they not mutually exclusive.  Chivalry without skill creates piety.  Skill without Chivalry creates monsters.  In the marriage between skill and Chivalry, that’s where true warriors are forged.

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