Chivalry in its modern sense tends to apply to the courtesies a man might pay to a lady. These include standing until a woman sits, offering a woman a seat on a bus, or opening a door for a woman. These actions are the remains of the once great code for knightly behavior espoused during the Middle Ages.
Chivalry is derivative of the French chevalier. Cheval translates to horse, and chevalier refers to a man on horseback, and is usually translated as simply “knight.” Knights utilized horses for transportation, battle and games like jousting, separating them from the general populace. The English picked up the term cavalier as a corruption of chevalier.
Simply riding on horseback, however, is not an example of chivalry. In fact the term implies not only the knight, but also the duties of a good knight. These duties were defined as faithfulness and service to God, kindliness to fellow Christians, protection and championship of the weak, and courtly love.
Courtly love is often confused with the adulterous love in medieval stories involving Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Isolde. In fact, adultery had very little to do with the chivalry that governs courtly love. Courtly love includes gentleness and appreciation of women, championing women who required defense or rescue, and a whole code of behavior for speaking to women. Chivalry, as part of courtly love, essentially beget the idea of romantic love. Yet not all romances and flirtations progressed into sexual relationships.
Instead, women and men might “play” at courtly love, because in most instances, marriage was a contractual obligation, and not a match made because of love. Gentle behavior, and elaborate praise of the woman helped to satisfy a deep yearning to be admired and appreciated, something not always obtainable from a husband.
As well, a younger knight might act as champion for a woman with an older husband, who did not have the strength to bear her colors in jousting tournaments. This aspect of chivalry was seen as the attention due to women, and not a chance to gain a woman sexually. In fact, by following church teachings as part of chivalry, adultery verges off the path of the chivalrous.
All aspects of chivalry are guided by a knight’s service to honor. Personal worth was measured by adherence to chivalry, and by not simply being chivalrous when others were around to observe it. Chivalry was meant to guide the knight through situations where he was alone; it gave him a chance to act for the salvation of his soul and for the salvation of others.
Naturally one must contrast chivalry with the outrageous and barbaric behavior often in keeping with the feudal system and the crusades. Since chivalry is conducted as a Christian code, it did not apply to the “infidel” such as Jews, or Turks, killed during crusades. Nor did chivalry apply to the abuse frequently inflicted on serfs, though in Arthurian legends, much chivalry was practiced to punish feudal lords who abused their serfs, as part of the protection of the weak.
However, chivalry was a code for a certain small strata of society. As such, chivalrous behavior could separate the knight from the masses rather than have him work for the many poor and abused in the feudal society. Chivalrous behavior in almost all cases did not apply to the treatment of non-Christians.