Ethical Notions and Conceptions of Chivalry


Feudal chivalry depended on certain ideal and preconceived characteristics, including fighting abilities, trustworthiness as well as a generous attitude.

The formation of ideal characteristics of what constitutes a perfect knight was a slow and gradual process that spanned over centuries. However, certain traits were of utmost importance from its onset, namely the virtues of prowess, loyalty, and generosity.

The Relevance of Prowess and Warfare for Noble Knights

The ideal noble knight descended from the heroes of age-old Germanic legends in a period of time when martial qualities were highly sought after. In particular, bravery, physical strength and the skilled use of arms and weapons set the fighting noble apart from the rest of society.

The main concern and occupation of a noble was to become an effective and skilled soldier, and prowess (preux in French) was a common admonition during the knighting process of young hopeful knights. In fact, the highest compliment for a noble during the Middle Ages was to be called “preudome”, a man of prowess.

Why Loyalty was an Essential Quality for any Knight during the Middle Ages

However, prowess could not exist without loyalty. The knight had to show that he was not only skilled but that he was responsible and fulfilled his obligations faithfully. They had to show loyalty and swear fidelity to the ones they served and it was equally important for the Frankish, who called it truste, the Germanic tribes, calling it comitatus, as well as the Carolingian vassi dominici.

In the context of medieval society, it was a necessity to follow and abide the mutual contracts between lords and vassals because without it the feudal system could have fallen into complete anarchy. In other words, loyalty ensured peace and stability in a tumultuous medieval society.

Generosity a Desirable and Popular Quality of the Noble Knight

For the nobleman of the 11th century the trait of generosity was important for attaining and ensuring popularity through the use of propaganda. In fact, the wandering minstrels who were in charge of circulating the epic tales of the wondrous and heroic deeds of the noble knights usually depended on the generosity or largesse of their noble patrons.

Nonetheless, this trait often led to extravagance and happened to ruin many nobles. It could even lead them to a state of “perpetual bankruptcy” as was the case of Henry the young king.

All in all, the three traits of prowess, loyalty, and generosity were considered vital during the foundation of knighthood. Noble knights needed to have those three qualities to be respected and admired in their society. These characteristics were only to be replaced by a later addition of another trait, which would commence a new chivalric notion, namely that of courtesy and the arrival of the courtly chevalier.


  1. Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Medieval France. Cornell University Press: New York, 1957.