The New Knighthood

The same restless yearning that drives the evolution of species likewise impels the transformation of human societies. In culture as in nature, the Earth is ever transcending itself. Nothing in human life is static. Tradition is not the antithesis of change, but a modality that channels its unstoppable momentum.

The resurrected chivalry of the 21st century cannot, and must not, replicate the long-dead chivalry of the Middle Ages. Yet it belongs to the same tradition of heroic idealism.

In his magisterial study of medieval knighthood, the French historian Leon Gautier distills the essence of 12th-century chivalry in the form of ten “Commandments”:

  1. Thou shalt believe in all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.
  2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
  3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  4. Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
  5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
  6. Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.
  7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
  8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesseto everyone.
  10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

There is much in these admonitions that still inspires. But there are also problems, serious problems. What might a contemporary interspiritual expression of this code look like? Perhaps some slight adjustments are all that is required. Here is a proposal:

  1. Thou shalt honor the revelations of all of the Prophets.
  2. Thou shalt defend what is sacred.
  3. Thou shalt respect interdependence, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of all in need.
  4. Thou shalt love the Earth on which thou wast born.
  5. Thou shalt not recoil before intimidation.
  6. Thou shalt challenge Tyranny without cessation.
  7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy duties toward all, if they be not contrary to Divine Wisdom.
  8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
  9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
  10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

Leon Gautier, Chivalry (New York: Crescent Books, 1989).

Comments (7)
  • Thank you, Pir Zia, for these beautiful and relevant updates to guide us in the pursuit of our heroic idealism in what appear to be such tumultuous times.

    Sincere gratitude,
    Junayad

    — Junayad Moore on August 14, 2009

  • Dear Pir Zia,

    The changes you chose are so beautifully reflective of the universal laws that really underly those “regional” laws of time, place, religion, class, and gender. I found myself wanting to change some of those original words as I was reading them. Then I read yours; they felt so so superbly fitting. The only word I had a problem with was “Evil,” which you left unchanged from the original version you quoted. I guess we differ in that I don’t believe n “Evil,” which leaves me feeling spiritually uncomfortable and excluded. I do believe that the universal problem is a lack of universal application of the universal law of love, and the use of the word “Evil” perpetuates exclusion and division, for me. Also, the words “Right” and “Good” leave me feeling uncomfortable because they can lend themselves to subjective interpretation that can also be destructive or spiritually exclusive to others. As someone of a different sexual/gender/spiritual orientation from the dominant ones, I guess those words will always leave me feeling uncomfortable until such time that I can trust that we are all on the same spiritual page of love, understanding, and respect, that what others believe is religiously or spiritually “Right” and “Good” through religious or spiritual eyes includes everybody. Perhaps using the words/language of love and devotion for which the knights of romantic myths were so famous, in their quest of true love and beauty, in human and spiritual (holy grail) forms. Certainly these chivalrous qualities could serve as most honorable universal principles of what is Right and Good, just to eliminate, or at least reduce the possibilities of more exclusionary interpretations. Just a thought.

    Thank you for all your work and wisdom in evolving the old forms of chivalry, something very dear to my heart as someone who has studied and drawn heavily from my pre-Christian Celtic ancestors who, like the medieval knights, could be quite a “rough/violent lot” in their externalized battles and conquests. I always feel so inspired by your writings/musings. I hope that will continue in the realms of real and universal chivalry.

    — Zahira Conaire Sheehan on August 15, 2009

  • Dear Pir Zia,
    Thank you for taking the time to post this thoughtful and beautiful contemporary code. At this moment, the world could use a little more chivalry and the code is a nice guide for all ...

    — Lisa on August 15, 2009

  • Dear Pir Zia,

    Thank you for focusing on the subject of ethics, a subject often neglected in modern times, both in this article and many other recent writings.  Very inspiring work indeed and reminders for us all to become exemplars of the virtues we adhere to.

    — Max Strom on August 15, 2009

  • I am very grateful for the clarification of Chivalry as it might apply to these times. “Heroic idealism” is the phrase that resonates deeply with me and will, I think, do likewise among our contemporaries. It is important to know that what we undertake is nothing short of heroic, and that those who put on this mantle belong to a kind of knighthood—companions along the way, a way that is both treacherous, uncertain yet glorious.

    This reminds me of a moment in early June when, at the funeral mass of the great “geologian” Father Thomas Berry, celebrants were treated to a recording of his words, originally spoken on the occasion of his 80th birthday. What Fr. Thomas said applies to this article and to this moment:

    “It is a touching moment, a poignant moment a person might say. Together with you all here, in a sense for the last time that we would meet in such a large assembly with those of us who have been associated with each other over all these many years.
    I came across something not long ago, it was a story of an Indian whose name was Rubin Snake, a rather large person, he did so much for his tribe. I’m not sure exactly what tribe?
    He was talking with someone and they were venturing on something of monumental importance. The other person was reflecting on it and said, ‘dear, this is something awesome to try to do. There’s you and me, and we are nothing. And we must be very foolish to even think of such a thing.’
    The old Indian, in a gruff voice said, ‘Yea, but we’ll find good companions along the way.’
    And so in my own life venture, I’ve found good companions along the way. And from moment to moment the number has gathered until it seems almost limitless the number of good companions.”

    I know the numbers of heroic idealists, companions along the way, in the quest for Beauty—protecting it, restoring it, and enhancing it—are increasing. May we continue to draw strength from each other and from the Wisdom that guides our best yearnings, thoughts and actions.

    — Angela Manno on August 19, 2009

  • Dear Pir Zia,

    I have been following the work you have been doing with the modern interpretation of the traditional concept of chivalry with some interest. I note that Chögyam Trungpa too wished to revive the chivalric traditions of Asia and particularly Tibet as a basis for spiritual work, notably in his book “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warier”. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come.

    Unlike one of the previous commentators, I do believe in Evil. I watched a video today of cats and dogs being skinned alive by a Chinese fur company, with bystanders laughing. I cannot find in myself the slightest doubt that I should call that anything but Evil. So, there is indeed Evil for the Knight to combat; it is by no means a dead letter. There are levels beyond that, I grant, where even this is seen as part of the cosmic harmony, but the other level remains where this must be fought.

    As a fussy professional English teacher, I would like to suggest one emendation in the generally very apt wording: in the phrase “...love the Earth in which thou wast born” the word “in” is not very felicitous. We may speak of “in the world”, but surely it would be a more natural collocation to say “on the Earth”, would it not?

    Hoping that you will excuse my reservations on that small point, I can only reiterate that this piece of updating struck me as being of both general and personal value. Thank you for it.

    — Bradius V. Maurus III on September 1, 2009

  • My sincere thanks to all who have shared reflections here.  And thank you, Bradius V. Maurus III, for your valuable correction.  The text has been updated accordingly.

    Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

    — Zia Inayat-Khan on September 5, 2009

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