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What The Code Of Chivalry Can Teach Us Today

What The Code Of Chivalry Can Teach Us Today
When you think about the martial arts, knights in armor usually do not come to mind. But a new book which examines martial arts and philosophy finds links with the medieval code of chivalry. We'll speak with a San Diegan who's busy introducing that code to modern students.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Most people know that the graceful but powerful martial arts of Asia combine physical action with philosophy. To become masters in combat, practitioners must first master themselves. But most people don't know that there's also a Western version of combat that blends aggression and reflection. And practitioners say Western martial arts can be traced to the days of old, when knights were bold. Usually the history of knighthood and chivalry are relegated to Renaissance fairs and “Monty Python.” But, a new book explores the connection between martial arts and philosophy, and includes an examination of the medieval code of chivalry. That chapter is written by my guest, Scott Farrell. He runs the Chivalry Today educational program here in San Diego. And welcome, Scott. Thanks for coming in.

SCOTT FARRELL (Educator, Chivalry Today): Thanks for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have questions about the roots of chivalry or where the code of chivalry has gone in our modern age, give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, Scott, on the face of it, Asian martial arts and then knights crashing around in armor don’t seem to have much in common.



CAVANAUGH: What is the link that binds them?

FARRELL: Well, both come from a martial tradition. Both are practices that, you know, are intended to get soldiers from a bygone era ready for battle, and so it’s not surprising that the code of honor that drew from those Eastern traditions, the code of the Samurai, the code of Bushido, is surprisingly similar to the code of chivalry in its authentic and historical form as a martial code. And so both of those codes really kind of do the job of bringing together some elements of the human character that we often think of as kind of contrary or divergent, you know, courage but also meekness and humility, a sense of fierce competitiveness but also a sense of compassion and, you know, and responsibility to help other people. And so as sort of an amateur student of philosophy myself, I saw in that aspect of the code of chivalry, that contradictory nature, something that was very similar to the approach that Aristotle takes in his work, the “Nicomachean Ethics” to his sense of virtue ethics, which is a exploration of trying to find the golden mean between two extremes of human behavior.

CAVANAUGH: Now getting back to what we, I think in common parlance, think of as the martial arts, and that is the Asian martial arts, we know that winning is not the only thing that’s important in that form of combat. Was that true about combat between knights?

FARRELL: Yeah, in some ways, you know, a knight’s – knights in competition, in tournaments, whether they’re riding on horseback or fighting with swords, in some ways, it was a spiritual and a moral competition as well as a physical one, and the competition was with the self. And so in some ways losing was as much of an important lesson in character education as winning.


CAVANAUGH: Now, you’re – in this book, “Martial Arts and Philosophy,” you’re tracing the code of chivalry back and seeing how it measures up to the philosophy of Aristotle but where, in fact, did the code of chivalry come from?

FARRELL: Well, the – Chivalry can be traced back to roots in Western Europe in about the 9th century. They wouldn’t necessarily have called it chivalry in those days but, you know, the foundational elements of that warrior’s code started back in that time, back in about the time of Charlemagne. And during that time, it – they became aware that a warrior’s code needs to emphasize sort of a warrior’s responsibility within the greater context of society. So a warrior shouldn’t just be somebody who is a glorified bandit or a raider in armor but needs to have that sense of a champion, somebody who protects other people, someone who puts themselves into harm’s way to make society a safer place, and, obviously, those are still very much concepts that we expect of our warriors and our soldiers today.

CAVANAUGH: And since chivalry arose in Europe’s Middle Ages, how closely is it tied to Christianity?

FARRELL: Well, certainly medieval Europe was a very Christian, practically an exclusively Christian culture but it’s worth noting that, you know, a lot of church authorities weren’t too keen on this concept of chivalry that placed responsibility for a warrior’s actions firmly on their own shoulders. And so chivalry obviously came out of that Christian culture but there are a lot of aspects of chivalry, of helping the needy, of having a sense of humility, of having a responsibility to build the world as a better place, there are a lot of those aspects that, you know, are universal to all sorts of, you know, moral customs in cultures around the world. Certainly Christianity or no spiritual tradition doesn’t have a monopoly on those sorts of things.

CAVANAUGH: And is that the core of the code? Where does bravery come in, for instance?

FARRELL: Yeah, bravery, courage, what the medieval knights would’ve called prowess, is certainly very important in the code of chivalry. As a warrior’s code, that obviously is a big part of it. But the chivalry, you know, makes an awareness of tempering that bravery, that ferocity, that competitiveness with also a sense of meekness, of humility. And in the code of chivalry, there is an awareness that both of those, you know, again, kind of contradictory or almost, you know, extremes of behavior, both of those have the right time and place to be expressed. And so on the battlefield, of course, a warrior’s expected to be brave and courageous and really, you know, ferocious. But at home in the dining hall amongst civilized company, a warrior’s expected to be kind and gentle and courteous to other people. You know, somebody who is only one of those two things is not considered to be courageous, whether it’s overly meek or overly ferocious, neither of those things is really an expression of courage.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Scott Farrell. He is the co-author of the soon-to-be released book, “Martial Arts and Philosophy.” We’re talking about the Western martial art and that is the code of chivalry. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And we have a number of people who want to join the conversation. Jenna is calling from Kearny Mesa. Good morning, Jenna. Welcome to These Days.

JENNA (Caller, Kearny Mesa): Well, it’s – I’m glad that you have chosen to put me on though I am the second person that has asked this question and the previous person, I was told, was a man.


JENNA: Yes, it’s very interesting for me to attempt to form this question…

CAVANAUGH: And what would that question be?

JENNA: …which has to do with males, chivalry having to do with males and battle and so on and so forth. Let’s get to the present world. Can a woman be chivalrous?

CAVANAUGH: Great question, Jenna. Thank you.

FARRELL: Yes, absolutely a wonderful question. And, you know, chivalry obviously was born in a time and place where, you know, women were, you know, kind of second class citizens obviously, but that’s not true anymore today. You know, and as we strive for gender equality, it’s important to recognize that there’s nothing in chivalry that is inherently gender biased. It’s simply an exploration of the need to help those who are in need, to protect those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Today, of course, women can and do often participate in martial arts and, certainly, Western martial arts is no different than that. And so women can and should live by the code of chivalry, use their skills, their knowledge, their authority to help those in need, whether that’s, you know, their children, their students, their families, people around them in the community. There’s absolutely nothing that is inherently sexist about the code of chivalry when it’s seen, really, at its foundations.

CAVANAUGH: Now you say practice Western martial arts which, indeed, is part of the entire practice of the code of chivalry but where do you do that these days? I mean, I see, you know, little martial arts studios all in strip malls and so forth for Asian martial arts but do you – where is the jousting field? Where do you do that?

FARRELL: Well, interesting that you should ask that. We do have a martial arts evening up at the Team Touché Fencing School up in Sorrento Valley. We do that on Friday evenings. Western martial arts in comparison with Asian martial arts is, of course, still a very kind of growing field. And there are not, you know, martial arts schools that focus on German or Italian sword fighting of the 14th or 15th centuries but it is – it’s becoming a more popular activity as we learn a little bit more about it, learn about the formal schools of defense that were being taught in those time periods. More and more martial artists today are being curious about that and being interested in taking up that tradition as well as things like karate and judo and Kendo.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, how did you get involved in learning about all of knightly combat and chivalry?

FARRELL: Well, back when I was a high school student, which was a year or two ago…


FARRELL: …I had in one of my humanities classes one of the folks from a local historical reenactment group came in and gave a lecture on history and dressed us all up in chainmail and let us handle swords and armor, and I was pretty impressed with that and I thought that would be a pretty fun way to learn about history in a real hands-on kind of fashion and so ever since then I’ve been both involved in the field of historical reenactment and study – a practitioner and student of Western martial arts.

CAVANAUGH: When did it become more for you than simply crashing about with armor and chainmail and swords?

FARRELL: Well, it’s sort of since I took it up back in those days sort of slowly, gradually evolved to recognize that, you know, that along with this physical activity there is also, you know, a mental exercise that goes along with that. And so it’s – both of those have been a continuing exercise for me throughout the years.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Scott Farrell. He is the co-author of “Martial Arts and Philosophy,” soon to be released book, and he runs the Chivalry Today educational program here in San Diego. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Midge is calling from Santee. Good morning, Midge. Welcome to These Days.

MIDGE (Caller, Santee): Hi. Thanks for the chance to talk. I come at it from the perspective of an English major and one of my professors said that in Chaucer’s work he pretty much codified the way that courtly love was expressed in his writing. However, after hearing the conversation, I was thinking about this must have been a way for men to rise in society by strength of arms and proving themselves to be in control of themselves and also protecting the weak. So those are my comments and I am interested in the Society for Creative Anachronism and, oh, but only from the point of view of a costumer. And there are practiced fights and – Oh, oh, I must say, morris dancing in England was a way of fighting in a way that was actually art. So those are my comments. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much, Midge. I’m interested. What is your feeling about Renaissance fairs? I know a lot of people get their first real life glimpse of armor and the Renaissance, actually medieval, way of life. What do you think about them?

FARRELL: Yeah, well, they can be a lot of fun. It’s important, I think, to recognize, as somebody who practices sword fighting as a martial art, it’s important to recognize that a Renaissance fair is staged combat, and that’s an art unto itself. I don’t mean to denigrate that. But it’s a performance. You know, what’s going on in a Renaissance fair is a performance. Often, those performances are based on actual historically documented styles and types of fighting, which is great. The more we learn about the styles of fighting that they did, the styles of fencing that were done in 13th, 14th, 15th centuries, the more they can be incorporated into performances like Renaissance fairs and those dinner shows. But it’s also important to recognize that those are distinct from martial arts in the same way that a kung fu movie is distinct from the practice of a martial art that you would do at a martial arts studio.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of movies, you know, we can’t leave this without mentioning “Monte Python’s Holy Grail.”

FARRELL: Yes, or “Spamelot.”

CAVANAUGH: Yes, exactly, these – it’s kind of the definitive spoof of the knights of old. What do you think of the movie?

FARRELL: Oh, it’s a great movie. It’s – Both of those productions from the Monte Python crew are a lot of fun. And, you know, in a lot of ways they are reminiscent of, you know, as our caller here said, they’re reminiscent of some real medieval writings. I mean, folks in the middle ages didn’t take this stuff dreadfully seriously either. They loved to laugh at themselves and they had a sense of humor about life around them. You know, no matter how grim and dreadful things were, they could always laugh at it.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. James is calling us from Santee. Good morning, James. Welcome to These Days.

JAMES (Caller, Santee): Oh, good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning.

JAMES: I’d like to make a few – just a few comments about a course I took at SDSU called “Love, Envy and Jealousy.”

CAVANAUGH: James, we only have time for one of those comments so give us the best one.

JAMES: Okay, I learned about the chivalry of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, Lancelot, Guinevere in the search for the Holy Grail which was not only the search for the cup of blood and water from Christ’s side but the search for the cup of a woman.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for that, James. Appreciate it.

FARRELL: It’s interesting that you bring that up. That’s – that is one of the quotes that I use to demonstrate that contradictory nature of chivalry from one of the – in my chapter, from one of the writings of C.S. Lewis. He describes Lancelot as the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall, and the sternest knight to ever face a mortal foe. So, again, it really brings together that contradictory nature of chivalry.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now how did chivalry come down to us as the idea of a man opening a door for a woman or helping a lady across the street? I think that’s probably how most of us relate to that word when it’s said in the modern age.

FARRELL: Yeah, again, think about this code as something of bringing together those contradictory natures. Well, if you think of a fearsome, you know, ferocious warrior, the thing that he is least likely to do in this world is be courteous and kind and gentle to someone else. And so that sense of courtesy, courtoise that they would’ve said in the Middle Ages, was a way for a knight to break out of that mentality of always being competitive, always being ferocious, and to think of someone else’s welfare, to look out for someone else. And I think that’s still what the code of chivalry can do for us today in a time when, boy, we all need to kind of break out of that me-first mentality, to force us to look around and say what can I do in this world to help someone else, whether it’s a little daily courtesy like opening a door, letting someone merge in front of us on the freeway, or something, you know, a lot more world-changing, helping the environment, working for human rights. All of those sorts of things are really expressions of chivalry in today’s world.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Scott Farrell and he teaches a course here in San Diego about chivalry today. He’s also the co-author of a new book, “Martial Arts and Philosophy.” And I want to just expand on that because another thing you hear in popular parlance is chivalry is dead.


CAVANAUGH: Chivalry is dead. Is it?

FARRELL: Chivalry has always been a rare and uncommon quality. You know, we go back again to the writing of Aristotle. He says very succinctly, it is no easy thing to be good. Well, that pretty much expresses, you know, virtue and morality in any kind of context. C.S. Lewis also said that to be chivalrous requires, you know, specific and deliberate effort. In the Middle Ages, in the age of chivalry, chivalry was a pretty rare thing. Not every knight lived by the code of chivalry. In fact, you could almost say that chivalry was more practiced by its lack than, you know, by its reality. You know, today, unfortunately kind of the same way. But the fact that honor, that ethics, that chivalry, is uncommon in today’s world certainly doesn’t mean it’s dead. In fact, in some ways, it means it’s more valuable and more cherished than ever before.

CAVANAUGH: You might look at Asian martial arts and see the counterpoint to it being reflection and meditation before one enters into combat. Is there some – Are you reviving a similar form of reflection and meditation before you begin the practice of, you know, sword play or whatever, fencing perhaps?

FARRELL: Sure. You know, chivalry tends to be a very active and, you know, engaging kind of mental outlook. You know, really, in some ways, it makes that act of fencing, of physical activity, of martial arts, kind of a meditation in itself and that is, you know, really the aspect of, you know, a martial arts code that it really – it brings that meditative state into physical present practice.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very Asian as well. Let me ask you, though, we’ve been talking a lot about fencing.

FARRELL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Are there any other forms of Western martial arts that people engage in and can, you know, learn step by step?

FARRELL: Sure. When we say fencing, we kind of maybe think of this, you know, sort of elegant, collegiate, you know, with everybody in white jackets. Fencing, as that term would’ve been used in the Middle Ages, was simply a word that comes from the art of defense. And so for a medieval knight, there would have been all sorts of aspects that you would’ve learned as part of your school of fencing, fighting with a sword, fighting with a poleaxe, riding on horseback with a lance, even hand-to-hand wrestling kind of combat. All of those are encompassed in that medieval tradition of fencing and all those are things that we practice as part of Western martial arts.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any – you know, we think of horses being involved…

FARRELL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …in chivalry a great deal. Is that practiced today at all?

FARRELL: Yes, absolutely. In fact, we have here in San Diego, we have one of the premier jousting matches in the world that’s coming in October, October 23rd through the 25th up in Poway. It’s the Tournament of the Phoenix, and it really is a great example of world class riding and jousting as a martial art. And I’m delighted to be the ringside commentator for that. I get to watch these guys from all over Europe come and demonstrate their martial art, the skill on horseback in armor with the lance in that event.

CAVANAUGH: And we talked about “Monte Python” being perhaps the movie that doesn’t perhaps show chivalry in its finest light. Are there any other movies that people can really see this side of chivalry, not just the combat, the prowess and combat, but the entire package so to speak of how this code of honor, this code of chivalry, influenced not only the men who practiced it but perhaps their culture.

FARRELL: Sure. One of the things that – or one of the movies that I really enjoy and it was just recently re-released, there’s an old movie from the sixties, I think, called “El Cid.” And it’s really a great depiction of, you know, that knightly culture of medieval Spain, which, of course, was one of the, you know, very powerful cultures in medieval Europe. But, you know, even more recently I think the movie “A Knight’s Tale” really captured – I mean, obviously there are some anachronisms in that movie but I think that it really captured that culture of martial arts from the Middle Ages. I mean, this is not a movie about war, it’s a movie about sports, about knights participating in sports. And I think it’s a – I think it’s really a good example of how, you know, a medieval knight would have approached that concept of a martial art as a sport.

CAVANAUGH: Now you were talking a great deal before about the fact of chivalry being perhaps not in line with the kind of me culture that we have these days, me first, out of my way, I’ve got to win.


CAVANAUGH: I know that you teach a course called Chivalry Today.

FARRELL: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Where do you teach that course and what do you teach?

FARRELL: Sure. We have actually several presentations that we offer through the Chivalry Today educational program for schools, for libraries, for summer camps, even for adult enrichment courses. I’m teaching next week at a retirement community who wanted to know a little bit more about knighthood and chivalry. In all of those, we focus both on the history and values of chivalry in their historical context but also, you know, bring that into the modern world and look at where do the ideals of chivalry still live on today? Everywhere, you know, as you say, that we sort of look for ways that we can help others, that we can make our communities a little bit stronger, that we can reach out and help people in need, and those are all things that we look at. You know, all of our presentations are somewhat of a dialogue and, you know, when I’m in a classroom, when I’m in a library, you know, I ask young kids, where do we find these qualities like courage and justice and charity in today’s world? And I’m always surprised with the answers that they come up with. They are much more creative with those concepts than I am and so that’s, you know, that’s kind of how we bring these concepts into the younger generation today.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate you coming in and speaking with us about this. Very, very interesting.

FARRELL: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Scott Farrell. He runs the Chivalry Today educational program here in San Diego. And Scott is also co-author of the soon-to-be-released book, “Martial Arts and Philosophy.” It will be released by Open Court Books probably late next month. Thanks again.

FARRELL: Thank you. And for anybody that would like to learn more, I’d welcome them to come to our website,

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. And if you’d like to comment, you can go to our website, Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview here on KPBS.