Horatio Alger Jr. was at Harvard less than a year when he burst into print in a Boston magazine,
with the somewhat ostentatious title, Pictorial National Library. The March 1849 issue contains
Alger¹s first published writing, a brief, sophomoric essay titled Chivalry. Ralph Gardner asserts,
without attribution, that Horatio received two dollars for Chivalry and a poem published in the June
issue1. Two dollars could buy something in 1849 and there can be little doubt that the seventeen
year old Alger was pleased. Had Alger relied on the Pictorial National Library as his authoring
venue his career would have short indeed. The magazine lasted from July, 1848 until December
1849,three volumes by its definition, and longer than many publications of the day. The theme Alger
made famous, hard work and morality leads to success, is clearly evident in Chivalry and also in the
editorial dogma of the Pictorial National Library. As far as I could determine from Alger
bibliographies and biographies, the essay has never been reprinted and this publication is its first
appearance in a book.
The institution of chivalry forms one of the most remarkable features in the history of the Middle Ages. Accounts differ with regard to the period and nation to which it owes its origin. Some, deceived by a fancied resemblance, have supposed that the equestrian order of the ancient Romans gave rise to it; others have thought that the Franks and other German nations, who, on the fall of the Roman empire, subdued and divided Gaul, brought with them the seeds of chivalry. In defence of this opinion they cite the customs of the German tribes, who, especially towards the period of the conquest of Gaul, were wont to choose from the bravest of their tribe a number of warriors, to be the companions and guards of the chief. These were called Leudes, and served on horseback, while the greater part of each German nation fought on foot; and they were bound to their chief by an oath of fidelity. These Leudes were, in fact, the nobility of the German tribes, but resembled the knights of an after age in nothing except the circumstance of fighting on horseback.Some suppose the origin of chivalry should be attributed to the ancient warlike tribes of the Northmen, or Normans, who, about the ninth century, invaded the southern parts of Europe in large numbers, and settled themselves principally in France. But though in their actions is to be found an energetic and romantic spirit not unlike that which animated chivalry, yet much is wanting. The defence of the weak, which formed one of the most prominent features of chivalry, as well as its forms and ceremonies, were absent. The object of the Northman's valor was plunder, and the only qualities which he shared in common with the knight were courage and the contempt of death.Many have imagined that chivalry took its rise during the reign of Charlemagne, about A. D. 800, but we can find nothing in the authentic records of this sovereign to corroborate this statement. In the absence of all other proof that it was unknown at this period, it would be sufficient that the capitularies of this monarch, which had cognizance over every thing that could fall under the eye of the law, make no mention whatever of this institution. The best supported account, then, would seem to be that which fixes the origin of chivalry, as a regular system, in the eleventh century. Subsequently it pervaded all parts of Europe; yet in France and Spain it appears to have flourished in its greatest purity and splendor. It also was introduced into Germany at an early period; but in England it was of later birth and slower growth. The first point required of those who aspired to chivalry in its earliest state was the following :-"To speak the truth, to succor the helpless and oppressed, and never to turn back from an enemy." We find that, in all periods, but one class of people enjoyed the privilege of furnishing members to this institution; this was the military class, or the conquerors of the soil. The original inhabitants of the conquered countries had, with few exceptions, been reduced to the situation of serfs, and could not be invested with the honors of chivalry. This is evident from the following decree of the twelfth century: Ad militarem honorem nullus accedat qui non sit de genere militum.* It has already been seen that each member of the order of chivalry had the right to admit to its honors any other person without restraint. Of this distinction all were desirous, and, as a natural :consequence, the object of each noble youth's ambition was one day to become a knight. But this could not be obtained without previously passing through a long course of education, which should prepare him for its duties, since those who had been previously admitted into the order were careful not to receive any who might disgrace the sword that dubbed him. Thus the castle of each feudal chieftain became a school of chivalry, into which any noble youth, whose parents were from poverty unable to educate him to the art of war, was readily received. Even those barons who were able to educate their sons preferred to entrust them to the care of some neighboring knight, that the young aspirant to chivalric honors might not from parental tenderness be spared those trials and hardships necessary to prepare him for his future career. The education of those destined to chivalry commenced at the age of seven years. The first situation filled by these youth was that of page or varlet, and was considered highly honorable, though it implied every kind of attendance on the person of their new lord. Here they remained a large portion of the time with the females of the family, the rest being spent in the service of the knight, whom they accompanied in all his excursions. At the age of fourteen, when advancing age and skill in the use of arms had qualified the page for war, he was usually admitted to the higher grade of eseuyer, (esquire or squire,) and at the same time exchanged the short dagger of the page for the sword. The squires likewise passed seven years in manly exercises and perfecting themselves for the art of war. The third and highest grade of chivalry was knighthood, to the honors of which the squire was admitted at the age of twenty one. The candidate was required to prepare himself by confession, fasting, and passing the night in prayer. Having performed the preliminary religious rites, and taken an oath in which he promised, among other things, to be a brave and loyal knight, to protect ladies and orphans, never to lie, nor utter slander, and to be a champion of the church and clergy, he received the accolade, a slight blow on the neck with the back of a sword, from the person who dubbed him a knight. The words which accompanied the accolade were to this effect : "I dub thee knight in the name of God and St. Michael; be faithful, bold, and fortunate." By these ceremonies the new-made knight acquired a right to roam through the world in quest. of adventures, which, whether just or otherwise in their purpose, were esteemed honorable in proportion as they were dangerous.It has already been mentioned that one of the strictest requirements of chivalry was that enjoining respect to females. This was the most prominent feature of the system, and nothing more powerfully influenced the mind of the knight than the hope, by his valiant deeds, of rendering himself acceptable to the eyes of his mistress. Thus, when the sovereign led his army to the attack, his never-failing injunction was, "Let every one think of his mistress." In confirmation of this is the language of Spenser:
³It hath been through all ages ever seen,
That, with the praise of arms gild chivalry,
The prize of beauty still hath joined been;
And that for reason's special privity:
For either doth on other much rely;
For he, me seems, most. fit the fair to serve,
That can her best defend from villany;
And she most fit his service doth deserve,
That fairest is, and from her faith will never swerve."
The tournament was the favorite exercise of the knights, ³in comparison of which every scenic performance of modern times must be tame." ³Impartial taste," says Gibbon, ³must prefer a Gothic tournament to the Olympic games of classic antiquity. Instead of the naked spectacles which corrupted the manners of the Greeks, the pompous decoration of the lists was crowned with the presence of chaste and high-born beauty, from whose hands the conqueror received the prize of his dexterity and courage. The skill and courage that were exerted in wrestling and boxing bear a distant and doubtful relation to the merit of a soldier: but the tournaments, as they were invented in France, and eagerly adopted both in the East and West, presented a lively image of the business of the field. The single combat, the general skirmish, the defence of a pass or castle, were rehearsed as in actual service; and the contest, both in zeal and mimic war, was decided by the superior management of the horse and lance."Though to our eyes the institution of chivalry involved many absurdities, yet we must consider that it exercised a powerful and beneficial influence over the manners of society in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At this period, when governments were unsettled, and laws little regarded, the laws of chivalry alone imposed a salutary check upon a rude and barbarous age. It elevated the character of the female sex, by exacting of the knights a strict and respectful attention to them; and the reverence paid to them chiefly prevented mankind from relapsing into a state of barbarism. It is true, the knights did not always live up to the principles which they avowed; but these were only exceptions to the general rule.In order correctly to estimate the benefits of chivalry, we must consider what the world would have been without it. Had it not existed, all the vices which we behold in that period of the world's history would have been greatly increased. The immorality of that age would have been much greater, for it would have wanted the only principle of refinement; the warlike spirit of the brave would have displayed itself in darker scenes of bloodshed, and even religion would longer have been obscured, had not chivalry, by softening the manners of the age, and promoting general communication between man and man, gradually dispelled the darkness and admitted light.
The spelling used in the magazine, defence for defense for example, is used in this printing.
1 Gardner, Ralph D. Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era. The Wayside Press, Mendota, (1964)
* Let no one be admitted to military honors who is not of the military class.