Gentlemanly Conduct: Chivalry in Combat

The concept of chivalry originated with the knight. In fact, that’s all it means: knightly. The French word “cheval” means horse, and the thing that separated a knight from other soldiers was his steed.

But we all know that chivalry goes beyond horse grooming, it is more closely related to the code of honour expected of knights. The gentlemanly conduct among professional soldiers is found across many cultures, and Academie Duello promotes this behaviour, especially through youth Knight Camp.


There are three domains generally accepted as central to medieval chivalry:

  1. Duties to fellow Christians: mercy, valour, fairness, protection of the weak and poor, loyalty to his lord and king.
  2. Duties to God: faith, defense of the Church, upholding the Good.
  3. Duties to Women: gentleness and servility toward all ladies.

I recommend the CBC Ideas show 3-part series called The Sword Brothers. It is not focused exclusively on chivalry, but gives an excellent overview of the rise of the knight and the behaviour we associate with them… that includes banking.

Samurai Bushido

The word “samurai” means “one who serves”, so even by their title they are reminded that their role is to obey their lord, called a daimyo.

All samurai were also bound by a code of conduct called bushido, or “the way of the warrior”. Bushido has Seven Virtues:

  • Rectitude
  • Courage
  • Benevolence
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Honour
  • Loyalty

Above the others was honour, and the remaining six could be construed as “requirements of honour”. A loss of family honour – especially losing a battle in which the samurai didn’t die trying – would lead to ritual suicide, called Seppuku.


As soon as the topic of warrior-monks is raised, there are some who immediately point out the abuses of power and misuses of the code of honour. Both sides are correct: some knights exploited their communities and behaved badly when on Crusade, some samurai did less serving and more random violence, but that does not negate the formal existence of their vows and that the majority of them tried to follow those principles.


In Victorian England, a gentleman was expected to be morally upright and physically fit. Eugen Sandow wrote that the ideal man “is gentle and only uses his powers… in the defense of the oppressed and helpless. It is your weakling who is a bully and a tyrant.”

Although bare-knuckle boxing is certainly a burly-man’s game, the introduction of jujitsu into the culture perfectly epitomized the gentleman’s chivalry: it is entirely designed for the smaller combatant to defend against the larger bully.

You probably know that the tip of the hat and the modern military salute are throwbacks to the raising of the knight’s visor. If the Renaissance was the rebirth of Greek and Roman classicism, I would say that the Victorian age was a rebirth of medieval chivalry among gentlemen.

Why Have a Warrior Code?

The really important question, especially for those who practice a martial art, is why not just learn to fight? Why obey an imposed cultural standard?

The answer starts with that horse. When you have an advantage of towering over ground troops on a fast, dangerous, muscled animal, it is good for society that you not abuse the privilege. The king needs his army to be loyal and not turn from the enemy when a battle gets difficult… there’s two virtues that are required from the start. From there, it’s obvious that providing the tools of oppression (weaponry, training and comrades) should come with an obligation to use them properly.

By extension, any formal training in combat must come with the lessons of what is appropriate for the good of society. Rules and codes are easy ways to communicate these principles without debate.

This is why we are appalled by police brutality. They are given tools and trining, but their procedures are too convoluted to follow properly. In the words of the late George Carlin: “There should be two new requirements for the police force: intelligence and decency. It just might work. It certainly hasn’t been tried yet.”

Is Chivalry Dead?

It has been some time since men were instructed which side of a lady to walk on (the answer is “toward the middle of the street”), and many claim that chivalry is dead because men no longer open doors for women.

I’d rather skirt the debate by pointing out that servility to women was always subordinate to other virtues. Regardless of reproductive equipment, we should all hold doors for those who are smaller, whether the difference is due to sex, age, physical disability, or species.

Upcoming Workshop

This Saturday 16 July is an Introduction to Bartitsu or Fight Like Sherlock Holmes. We’ll focus on the skills of jujitsu, pugilism, savate and walking-stick self-defense… with a little talk about gentleman’s conduct along the way.


Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
Read more from Devon Boorman.