Once, writes Mark Greengrass (Christendom Destroyed), “Nobility existed to defend Christendom by force of arms. Knighthood was the institution founded by the Church for the purpose” (123). Changes in the technology of warfare, along with the breakdown of unified Christendom, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, undermined that aim. Chivalric rituals continued, but chivalry “became a way of life by which lay aristocratic elites retired from the increasing brutality of warfare into a make-believe world, peopled by perfect, gentle knights.” Chivalry didn’t disappear, but “its meaning changed until, like Christendom, it became a fantasy land” (123).
In place of a code for Christian warriors, chivalry became “a courtly code of aristocratic behaviour”(123). Chivalry became a set of gestures and decorum “that turned ways of behaviour into social distinctions.” One’s gait in walking, speech, dress, riding still were “signs of who you were. Books of etiquette told you how to use body language to master your emotions, and the space around you.” A young nobleman could find tutors aplenty who would teach riding, fencing, and manners (126-7).Nobles were distinguished by the right to carry weapons (133), which they used less and less to fight infidels and more and more to fight one another: “Writing in 1609, the Parisian diarist Pierre de L’Estoile reckoned that 7-8,000 Frenchy noblemen had lost their lives in duels in the previous twenty years. His estimate may be inflated but he was writing a bout a France that had lived through forty years of intermittent civil war and its accompanying encouragement to noble feud and division” (134).
Dueling was a sign of the sophistication of early modern honor codes: “For its aficionados, it was the public defense of honour and, as Jesuits argued in defense of duelling, since honour is as precious as property one should be entitled to defend it. Treatises on noble honour and its defense abounded” (134).
After medieval Christendom collapsed, chivalry collapsed too, into an honor game no less brutal for being so set about with civility of manners.