Now and forever. Amen.
To give succour to widows and orphans, and to respect the honour of women; these are rules 4 and 15 from the Song of Roland. I'm going to talk about respecting the honour of women first, because I see supporting them in their widowhood as an extension of this principle.
This principle is about exactly what it sounds like: treating women with dignity and respect, living chastely, and defending them and their good name in the face of unjust aggression.
Women during this time in Europe were very important to society, and were part of roughly five classes: the Lady of the Manor, Free Townswoman, Unskilled Townswoman, Peasant Woman, and Religious (Nun).
Ladies were highly competent women. Though the management of the estate was largely run by the Lord of the Manor, the Lady had to be capable of carrying out his duties in his absence, and due to the fact that war was frequent, and the Lord (especially in the case of Knights) was therefore either frequently away at war, or dead because of war. Thus, the Lady was often in charge of the management of the estate, including management of the land itself, its crops, animals, and other property. She had charge over, often, hundreds of employees and their homes. She was also responsible for making legal arguments, settling fights and riots, as well as defending the manor against armed attacks. Competent, indeed.
Free townswomen, on top of managing the household, was also normally a skilled tradesworker, frequently working alongside her husband in craft. These were part of the merchant class. Some trades they engaged in were solely a woman's craft (textiles, for example). Unskilled townswomen were a lower class than free townswomen in that they were often uneducated, and untrained in a craft. While these did take up some crafts that required little skill, very often these women turned to prostitution to earn income. Peasant women were part of the country folk, who farmed the land alongside their husbands. Peasant women did virtually all of the same work that the men did, as well as tending to home care.
Finally, religious women were educated and taken care of by the order they belonged to. These included both cloister and non-cloister orders, the latter of which participated in charitable works throughout their communities. Much more can be said of this class, but I'm trying (as I usually do in vain) to be relatively brief.
Because Knights were part of the Noble class, and had their own manor, and land, and employees, they would have been seen as desirable men and would have had plenty of opportunity for carousing with the maidens (St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind). Part of respecting the honour of women was to behave modestly and chastely with them, and if one was married, to not violate one's own vows of faithfulness.
This would have been a particularly important rule in warfare, as with the sacking of a city, the women of the sacked city would have been particularly vulnerable to violation, as is so often the case in war. This would have also been seen as a direct contradiction to the rules of Islamic warfare, which considers women to be part of the war booty to be divided among the victors.
This ties in well with the second rule I want to talk about today: supporting the widows and the orphans. As happens in war, men are killed, leaving women without husbands and children without fathers. This rule of responsibility to these deprived women and children was firstly to their fellow Knights and Infantrymen in arms. The Knights, who had status and a small wealth, would return home and take care of the women and children that their brothers in arms, their friends, had waiting at home. War might have been profitable, but it came at a heavy cost to the families who lost their husbands and fathers, and their comrades made the dedication to care for them.
But it was just as important to offer care and aid to the women and children of the men they killed in battle. Rather than taking these women as war booty, the Knight would have been obliged to offer recompense to them for taking the lives of their husbands and fathers on the battlefield. It was a very different way of conducting war.
I feel this is probably a good place to interject an important note. I was going to wait until I had completed the full Code, but I've changed my mind.
What I have been presenting, and what I will continue to present, is an ideal, an objective to be obtained by following the Chivalric Code. The reality is that this ideal was rarely met. During the late part of the first millennium (800's-900's), knights did not have nobility, and really anyone who could afford to buy and train a horse and ride it into battle was a knight. That's what a knight was, a soldier who rode a horse. During this time, there was tremendous violence in Europe as the Nobility fought over land. And along with that violence, came the other violence that attends warfare (such as violence against women).
At the turn of the millennium, in the early 1000's, Knights began entering the Nobility, until the Knight became a static Noble position. It was during this transition, that the Chivalric Code was developed, and largely promulgated by the Church. It was done in order to, firstly, curb the violence of the knighthood, and secondly to transform the Knights, who were becoming part of the Nobility, into men who should properly act as Noblemen, with integrity, virtue and honor.
The sad fact is that it wasn't until the 1200's, that these ideals really started taking hold among the Knightly class. Why? Because it was at this time that the Arthurian Legend was written. In this tale, the Code of Chivalry was on full display in the honorable characters of Lancelot and Arthur, etc. This made the ideal of the Code much more attractive.
Now, this doesn't mean that there were no good knights. However, even the most virtuous knights, as is true of all of us, had their own vices. The point is, the Code as I'm presenting it is idyllic, but cannot be said to have been the norm for those times. Nevertheless, it was an ideal that was striven for, particularly in the latter years of the Middle Ages, and I consider these rules to be ideals we should strive for even today.