“She makes me a better man,” explained a young geologist. His parent had asked why he hadn’t broken off his relationship after a quarrel with his girlfriend (and future wife).

Did the same desire to become the best version of oneself lie at the heart of the chivalry tradition? For those with high aspirations, quests and tournaments may have been the outward trappings of a deep desire for personal and spiritual development.

Chivalric principles included behaving honourably, striving to fulfil one’s oaths and undertakings, and protecting the defenceless. Mercy, justice and humility were also ideals.

One reward was higher status among one’s peers for adhering to this code of selfless service and lofty ideals. Of course if there’s such a thing as karma chivalry inevitably rewarded its adherents one way or the other, in the long run.

The divine feminine

Chivalrous knights ideally treated female peers as earthly representatives of the divine feminine, elevating “chaste love” to an ideal. This was actually a shrewd way of enabling men to tap their mating instincts for higher ends. It’s not easy to resist and rechannel the drives behind our appetites. They push us toward selfish gratification. If you’re a strong, capable man there’s little to stop you from taking what you want. Of course, if there’s such a thing as karma such selfishness also returns in kind.

But how to rechannel the powerful “urge to merge”? By devotion to a beloved who could only be won by noble achievements. The desire to impress this person (theoretically) imbued with divine qualities then acts as a sort of crutch. It’s easier to face difficulties and deprivations in the present when a future reward dangles, whether it’s a chance to compete in the Olympics or a cherished mate.

Scholars suggest that a humble, sincere and much-admired group of Christians known as the Cathars may have inspired the worship of the divine feminine that later suffused chivalry. The Cathars, in turn, retained a lot of the so-called Gnostic ideas of primitive (pre-papal) Christianity.

For example, the Cathars held that God was both male and female. The female aspect of God was Sophia, “wisdom”. The Cathars encouraged equality of the sexes in their communities and clergy.

Church persecution drove the Cathars underground. Yet their noble ideals resurfaced in the “courtly love” tradition (and in condemned practices and writings). Courtly love and chivalry spread among the aristocracy via troubadours singing lays filled with love for “the Lady.” During chivalry’s heyday, great cathedrals dedicated to “Our Lady” (“Notre Dame”) arose across Europe.

Chaste love

The chaste-love concept laced the courtly love tradition. Some scholars believe that chaste love may have alluded to non-ejaculatory intimacy (a variation of Synergy). According to Mexican poet Octavio Paz, asang was one of the degrees of “courtly love” in which the lovers went to bed together naked, but did not consummate the sexual act. This demanding practice purified desire and acted as the chivalrous “proof of love”, according to René Nelli (L’Erotique des troubadours). It also left the courtier who practiced it with plenty of energy for his quests and service to others.

Intriguingly, the early Christian practice of syneisaktism (sacred marriage) seemed to revolve around the same practice (sleeping together without consummation), or something very similar. There’s even evidence that some early Gnostic sects may have engaged in non-procreative intercourse as part of their sacrament of the bridal chamber, which sounds like karezza.

In any event, the chivalry tradition placed high demands on women as well. As combination muse-and-ministering-angel, a woman was expected to hold her knight to his lofty vows, uphold her own vows, and perhaps even assign her gent suitable quests. A lady encouraged her knight when he met with obstacles, and soothed his hurts.

Ideally a woman chose to live up to her role as an earthly representative of the divine feminine. Thus, she too observed the principles of selflessness, mercy, humility, fairness and service. She inspired her beloved by perceiving and acknowledging the divine qualities (in him) toward which he strove on her behalf as well as his own.

The power of chivalry

All of us find it challenging to resist the material-plane temptations that too often undermine human integrity. In those difficult moments it’s perhaps easier to choose the high ground if we are also motivated to win or retain the favour of a highly admired beloved. In contrast, a “race to the bottom,” in which each partner uses the other for selfish gratification, brings out the worst in both.

Chivalry adherents sought to harness humankind’s potent desire to fall in love (pair bond) to achieve challenging goals: sexual self-control and selfless service. Today, passing up consummation strikes most of us as pointless and foolish. Yet our current results are not impressive.

Perhaps exploring chivalry’s principles would help us bring out the best in each other. Might mastery of desire offer other rewards, such as greater mutual magnetism? Could it help us sustain the reciprocal respect of the courtly love ideal?

Of possible interest: