North Carolina State University
Amidst a wealth of metaphors and apocalyptic maxims, this line is perhaps the most memorable from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. He masterfully employs the concept of chivalry to express his anti-revolutionary sentiment, and he dramatically connects it to images of land, sex, birth and money to express the widespread disorder that accompanies a loss of chivalry. Nowhere is this idea more explicit than in the following passage:
...But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists,
and calculators, has succeeded and the glory of Europe is extinguished for
ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank
and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination
of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted
freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse
of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize is gone! It is gone, that sensibility
of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which
inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it
touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness...
(Mellor and Matlack, 16).
To fully understand this passage, one must recognize Burke's rhetorical strategy as well as his choice of words beginning with the "age of chivalry" line. First, instead of declaring that this age of chivalry is "dead," he merely asserts that it is "gone." The temporality of this word is important as it sustains potential for chivalry to return. Burke lends permanence, however, to the line that follows: "...the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever." The ambiguity of the word "Europe" allows one to query if necessarily the glory of England or even France is dead. What it does imply is that the glory and bond of Europe as a conglomerate in which England and France are leaders may have been severed.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that Burke believes either of the aforementioned statements. Subsequent lines in the essay like, "...we still bear the stamp of our forefathers" and "We have not (as I conceive) lost the generosity and dignity of the fourteenth century..." suggest that English society still clings to its heritage and manners to some extent (18). Additionally, one cannot overlook the prophetic nature of Burke's claims; he predicts what will happen if chivalry is lost. He and the reader both recognize that chivalry survives at least in the minds of men and sometimes even in the practice of men (like Burke who acts chivalrous by defending chivalry), but also because Burke's motivation for writing his essay would be significantly diminished if the revivification of chivalry were an impossibility. Similarly, if he truly believed that the glory of Europe were gone forever and the ties permanently severed, it is less likely that he would choose a Frenchman as the recipient of his philosophical letter.
To comprehend Burke's argument based on chivalry, one must ascertain the meaning that chivalry holds for him. The language of the passage at hand unveils terms such as "loyalty," "dignified obedience" and "proud submission" all of which the codes of chivalry necessitate. But the idea of the importance of chivalry to Burke manifests itself best in the lines that immediately follow and summarize the "age of chivalry" passage: "This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in ancient chivalry" (16). Burke seems to view chivalry as a blending of opinion and sentiment or less specifically, of reason and emotion. Such blending creates a balancea harmony in man that ultimately lends to harmony and order at all levels. One sees this microcosmic-macrocosmic relationship at work at various levels in other dictums of the work such as, "Our political system is placed in just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world" (14 ).
Indeed, chivalry functions as a representation of order for Burke. He continues to assert his notions of chivalry when he later uses the term "chivalrous spirit" to describe fealty. Fealty is synonymous with allegiance, fidelity, and loyalty (all of which Burke deems as chivalrous), but it has its origin in feudalism as a tenant's "acknowledgment of the obligation of fidelity to his lord" (OED, 925). Burke's choice of aligning feudalism with chivalry is remarkable. Feudalism exemplifies a pinnacle of order contingent at the most basic level on the relationship between vassal and lord; but, this alliance is more than a working one. Feudalism is a system of "administration, jurisdiction, land tenure, etc." (OED, 939 ). In a sense, it even imposes order on a spiritual level; the vassal-lord relationship serves as a microcosm for the lord-king bond, which (adhering to Divine Right) functions as a microcosm for the king-God relationship. Thus, none but God escapes the duty to be loyal to a superior; and of course, Burke asserts that one's "...duty becomes a part of his nature" ( Mellor and Matlack,19).
Like the age of chivalry, the formal convention of feudalism is extinct in Europe; nevertheless, a deep dependence on the land remains crucial in establishing order. Ownership of land draws class distinctions, is a prerequisite for parliamentary participation, and is virtually the foundation for economic prosperity. Hence, by associating chivalry with feudalism and the land, Burke speaks to the greatest fear of the landed gentry. A loss of order in the guise of a destruction of chivalry could result in the loss of land; in fact, many nobles lost their land during the French Revolution when the spirit of rebellion prevailed over the spirit of chivalry (12).
In returning to the paragraph that reveals an understanding of Burke's philosophical/political argument , one notices the economic and land-based terminology that surfaces, but more overtly, one recognizes them in the context of the sexual images present. Burke insists that like chivalry, "...the sensibility of principle, the chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound.." is also "gone." The sensibility of principle reflects the mixture of feeling and reason inherent in chivalry, but the "chastity of honour," seems both chivalrous and sexual. Since honour is also referred to as chastity, one might easily interpret the phrase as the "chastity of chastity," the by-product of which would be perhaps the purest form of virginity. It is of course violated when it feels a "stain like a wound." Following the virginal image of pure chastity, one immediately conjures up visions of the blood signifying a female's loss of virginity. The wound, of course, may represent the physical pain of virginal intercourse as well as the damage conceivably done to the woman who has lost her honour. Thus, Burke's metaphoric representation is loaded with the allusion that when chivalry and thereby order are subverted, honor and virtue will likewise be damaged.
Interestingly, the image of land is imbedded in this sexual passage as well. In the late eighteenth century, a verb tense of the word "stain" meant to "spoil a crop" (OED, 3022), and a "wound" was damage done to a plant (3725). Burke prefaces this sexual representation with words charged with economic value: "the unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize is gone!" (italics, mine). The synthesis of the images of sex and money inevitably culminate in the representation of prostitution. Therefore, implicitly, Burke suggests that when chivalry is devalued, prostituted or sold-out, the value of one's rank, sex, manners, virtue, business, land, nation, and life will be at stake, and such a loss of chivalry will be very expensive.
Like "stain" and "wound", the word "nurse" is multiplicitous and similarly associated with the land. In the eighteenth century, a nurse was not only a type of care- taker but also a type of tree, "planted to shelter others" (1957). During this same period the verb "to nurse" also meant to "manage (land) carefully and economically" (1957). By associating a loss of chivalry with these terms that allude to the land and nature, Burke reiterates the value of land while adding legitimacy to his argument that chivalry, as it represents loyal obedience, is natural.
Burke's choice of the word "nurse," of course, more readily evokes images of a caretaker, but in doing so it also invites visions of infancy and birth. This is fitting in that it mirrors the fact that Burke regards the two previous English revolutions as restorations that did not produce something "wholly new" (Mellor and Matlack, 14). On the contrary, he sees a completely new spirit in the French Revolution ,"...the birth of which he dated...from the storming of the royal palace..." (10). In a sense, Burke likens this revolutionary spirit, that even has a birth date (October 6, 1789), to an infant. He enhances this birth image in his assertion that France is "the cradle of our race" (17). It seems as if France has given birth to a child and perhaps an illegitimate one that was possibly conceived through vice in the "swinish multitude." Regardless, Burke illustrates an ironic inversion of what seems natural; France is a protector of others, and it seems the spirit of rebellion alive in France now needs guarding.
Finally, the duplicity of the word "vice" also employed in the "age of chivalry" passage is crucial to extrapolating the underlying image Burke creates to engage his audience. Though one's vice is his immoral practice or habit (such as prostitution), "Vice" was often a character in morality plays (OED, 3574). Burke is evidently concerned with drama as he calls the French Revolution a "monstrous tragi-comic scene" (Mellor and Matlack, 14). In the Revolution, one recognizes an element of the tragedy in the fall of nobility, as well as a characteristic of comedy in its absurdity, but the French Revolution doesn't fit neatly into either genre. Additionally, it doesn't fit into the tragi-comedic genre in that it does not exhibit two of the most typical characteristics: to ultimately escape imminent tragedy, and to end happily (Holman and Harmon, 508). It is certainly appropriate that this scene cannot fit into a genre, because Burke would posit that it also has no place in the natural order of things.
Burke, on the other hand, stages his own drama. Chivalry is essentially a way of "acting," and Burke calls for his players to engage in such acting. He urges them to wear their costumes, "their decent drapery of life," and embrace their ordered roles on the stage/ in the world. Fulfilling such duty becomes natural and thereby is really not acting at all.
No, chivalry is not gone, but Burke exposes the dangers that would accompany losing it. He suggests that chivalry is jeopardized when its components, morals and sentiments, no longer mix or when one takes over the other, as evinced by the French Revolution. Burke makes it explicitly clear that this divorce endangers order in all realms of life. And though the revolution does not exemplify a tragi-comedy, perhaps Burke's writing does. If his society heeds his forewarning and renews chivalry instead of adopting the infant-spirit of rebellion, it will avoid imminent tragedy and end happily in the comedic marriage of reason and emotion.
Brown, Lesley, ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Holman, C. and William Harmon, eds. A Handbook to Literature. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1986.
Mellor, Anne K. and Richard E. Matlack, eds. British Literature: 1780-1830. Fort Worth; Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.