Institution of Chivalry, etc.
Among the most remarkable institutions of the middle ages was that of Chivalry. The institution was certainly not the result of caprice, nor a source of unmixed extravagance, as it has been represented, but an effort of human nature to express its feelings of love, honor and benevolence, at a time when the spirit of liberty was extinguished, and religion had become debased. The feudal state was a state of perpetual war, rapine, and anarchy, during which the weak and unarmed were often exposed to injuries. Public protective law scarcely had an existence; and in these circumstances assistance came oftenest and most effectually from the arms of private friends. It was the same feeling of courage, united to a strong sense of duty, which both gave rise to chivalry, and led such multitudes to join the Crusades. Chivalry existed before them, and it survived them. Those whose devoted themselves to a life of chivalry were called knights, and sometimes knight-errants, in allusion to their habits of wandering from one country to another in search of helpless objects, which their generosity might find a pleasure in relieving and defending. Admission to the order of knighthood was long reckoned an honor of the highest sort: and to fulfill the vows which entrants took upon them might well be considered so. They were bound, ' by God, by St. Michael, and St. George,' to be loyal, brave, and hardy; to protect the innocent, to redress the injuries of the wronged; and, above all, to uphold and defend the characters of women. The institution of chivalry is sometimes thought to have thrown an air of ridiculousness upon everything connected with the softer sex, and some of the vagaries of knight-errantry gave sufficient countenance to such a supposition; but on the whole we are bound to rate its beneficial influences in elevating the female character high indeed, when we contrast the gross and groveling situation held by the sex in former times with the high and virtuous emotions that we have learned to associate in modern times with the name of woman. If the whole of this effect is not to be ascribed to chivalry, not a little of it must certainly be so; nor do its beneficial effects end here. The feelings of honor, courtesy, and humanity, which distinguished it, spread themselves into other parts of conduct. War, in particular, was conducted with less ferocity, and humanity came to be deemed as necessary to an accomplished soldier as courage. The idea of a gentleman is wholly the production of chivalry; and during the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, a sense of honor and a refinement of manners towards enemies sprung up, which have extended to modern times, and form a distinguishing feature of them.
The history of the Crusades has carried us over nearly two centuries of the history of Europe. But Europe might be said, almost without exaggeration, to have been then in Asia. It was certainly not the scene of any transaction of importance during all that period. The numerous quarrels, both public and private, which had before agitated the several countries, and had constituted all their history, gave way, by mutual consent, as well as by the orders of the church, to the one idea which then reigned supreme among them. Society was thus unconsciously the means of permitting some of those powerful and pacific principles to come into play, which were soon to give it a new destiny. The absence of so many great barons during the time of the Crusades, was a means of enabling the common people, who have hitherto lived as their slaves, to raise themselves in public standing and estimation; while the possessions of many of these barons, by sale or the death of their owners without heirs, reverted to the sovereigns. In this way the power of the people and of royalty advanced together, and both at the expense of the class of, nobility. The people were not unwilling to exchange the mastery of inferiors for that of a superior; and the kings, on their part, looked on this rising power of the people with pleasure, as it offered a shield to protect them from the insolence of the nobles. In these circumstances boroughs began to flourish. This was a new element in the progress of civilization. Men who had hitherto skulk ed in castles, and had sacrificed their liberties and their lives for bread and protection from isolated chiefs, now found that, by a union among themselves, they might secure bread by industry, and protection and liberty by mutual aid. Multitudes, therefore, forsook their feudal subservience to enjoy independent citizenship. Villeins, or laborers, joyfully escaped, to take their place on a footing of equality with freemen; and sovereigns found means to pass a law that if a slave should take refuge in any of the new cities, and be allowed to remain there unclaimed for a twelvemonth, he had thereby become free, and was henceforth a member of the community. Another improvement which kings were able to introduce about this time was the gradual abolition of minor courts of justice, which barons had previously held in their several domains, and their getting public and universal law administered by judges of their own appointment. Even single combat, the practice most inveterately adhered to of any among the ancient nobles, became less frequent and less honorable. The more revolting and absurd features of it were wholly abolished, though the great absurdity, and indeed the great crime itself, cannot be said to have become totally extinct, even up to our own day, when we recollect that the barbarous practice of duelling is still permitted to exist.