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THE primitive sense of this well-known word, derived from the French Chevalier, signifies merely cavalry, or a body of soldiers serving on horseback; and it has been used in that general acceptation by the best of our poets, ancient and modern, from Milton to Thomas Campbell.
But the present article respects the peculiar meaning given to the word in modern Europe, as applied to the order of knighthood, established in almost all her kingdoms during the middle ages, and the laws, rules, and customs, by which it was governed. Those laws and customs have long been antiquated, but their effects may still be traced in European manners; and, excepting only the change which flowed from the introduction of the Christian religion, we know no cause which has produced such general and permanent difference betwixt the ancients and moderns, as that which has arisen out of the institution of chivalry. In attempting to treat this curious and important subject, rather as philosophers than as antiquaries, we
cannot, however, avoid going at some length into the history and origin of the institution.
From the time that cavalry becomes used in war, the horseman who furnishes and supports a charger arises, in all countries, into a person of superior importance to the mere foot-soldier. The apparent difficulty of the art of training and managing in the field of battle an animal so spirited and active, gave the ἱπποδομος Εκτορ, or Domitor equi, in rude ages, a character of superior gallantry, while the necessary expense attending this mode of service attested his superior wealth. In various military nations, therefore, we find that horsemen are distinguished as an order in the state; and need only appeal to the equites of ancient Rome as a body interposed betwixt the senate and the people, or to the laws of the conquerors of New Spain, which assigned a double portion of spoil to the soldier who fought on horseback, in support of a proposition in itself very obvious. But, in the middle ages, the distinction ascribed to soldiers serving on horseback assumed a very peculiar and imposing character. They were not merely respected on account of their wealth or military skill, but were bound together by a union of a very peculiar character, which monarchs were ambitious to share with the poorest of their subjects, and governed by laws directed to enhance, into enthusiasm, the military spirit and the sense of personal honour associated with it. The aspirants to this dignity were not permitted to assume the sacred character of knighthood until after a long and severe probation, during which they practised, as acolytes, the virtues necessary to
the order of Chivalry. Knighthood was the goal to which the ambition of every noble youth turned; and to support its honours, which (in theory at least) could only be conferred on the gallant, the modest, and the virtuous, it was necessary he should spend a certain time in a subordinate situation, attendant upon some knight of eminence, observing the conduct of his master, as what must in future be the model of his own, and practising the virtues of humility, modesty, and temperance, until called upon to display those of a higher order.
The general practice, of assigning some precise period when youths should be admitted into the society of the manhood of their tribe, and considered as entitled to use the privileges of that more mature class, is common to many primitive nations. The custom, also, of marking the transition from the one state to the other, by some peculiar formality or personal ceremonial, seems so very natural, that it is quite unnecessary to multiply instances, or crowd our pages with the barbarous names of the nations by whom it has been adopted. In the general and abstract definition of Chivalry, whether as comprising a body of men whose military service was on horseback, and who were invested with peculiar honours and privileges, or with reference to the mode and period in which these distinctions and privileges were conferred, there is nothing either original or exclusively proper to our Gothic ancestors. It was in the singular tenets of Chivalry, in the exalted, enthusiastic, and almost sanctimonious, ideas connected with its duties,-in the singular balance which its institutions offered
against the evils of the rude ages in which it arose, that we are to seek those peculiarities which render it so worthy of our attention.
The original institution of Chivalry has been often traced to the custom of the German tribes
recorded by Tacitus. "All business," says the historian, "whether public or private, is transacted by the citizens under arms. But it is not the custom that any one shall assume the military dress or weapons without the approbation of the state. For this purpose, one of the chief leaders, or the father or nearest relation of the youthful candidate, introduces him into the assembly, and confers on him publicly a buckler and javelin. These arms form the dress proper to manhood, and are the first honour conferred on youth. Before he receives them, the young man is but a member of his own family, but after this ceremony he becomes a part of the state itself."1 The records of the northern nations, though we cannot rely upon their authenticity with the same unlimited confidence, because we conceive most of the legends relating to them have been written at a much later period than the times in which the scene is laid, may be referred to in confirmation of the Roman historians. The Scandinavian legends and Sagas are full of the deeds of those warriors whom they termed heroes or champions, and who appear to have been formed into an order somewhat resembling that of Chivalry, and certainly followed the principal and most characteristic employment of its
1 [De Moribus Germanorum.]