Real life codes of honor for Knights, Samurai, and Vikings

There are several interpretations of the code of chivalry most commonly associated with knights. The most predominant one was Charlemagne's Code of Chivalry, originating around 1098-1100:

  • To fear God and maintain His Church

  • To serve the liege lord in valour and faith

  • To protect the weak and defenceless

  • To give succour to widows and orphans

  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offence

  • To live by honour and for glory

  • To despise pecuniary reward

  • To fight for the welfare of all

  • To obey those placed in authority

  • To guard the honour of fellow knights

  • To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit

  • To keep faith

  • At all times to speak the truth

  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun

  • To respect the honour of women

  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal

  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

A simplified alternative would be the Duke of Burgandy's Code Of Chivalry:

  • Faith

  • Charity

  • Justice

  • Sagacity

  • Prudence

  • Temperance

  • Resolution

  • Truth

  • Liberality

  • Diligence

  • Hope

  • Valour

For the Samurai, they respected the Bushido code as broken down into the following parts:

  • I. Rectitude or Justice

Bushido refers not only to martial rectitude, but to personal rectitude: Rectitude or Justice, is the strongest virtue of Bushido. A well-known samurai defines it this way: ‘Rectitude is one’s power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right.’ Another speaks of it in the following terms: ‘Rectitude is the bone that gives firmness and stature. Without bones the head cannot rest on top of the spine, nor hands move nor feet stand. So without Rectitude neither talent nor learning can make the human frame into a samurai.’

  • II. Courage

Bushido distinguishes between bravery and courage: Courage is worthy of being counted among virtues only if it’s exercised in the cause of Righteousness and Rectitude. In his Analects, Confucius says: ‘Perceiving what is right and doing it not reveals a lack of Courage.’ In short, ‘Courage is doing what is right.’

  • III. Benevolence or Mercy

A man invested with the power to command and the power to kill was expected to demonstrate equally extraordinary powers of benevolence and mercy: Love, magnanimity, affection for others, sympathy and pity, are traits of Benevolence, the highest attribute of the human soul. Both Confucius and Mencius often said the highest requirement of a ruler of men is Benevolence.

  • IV. Politeness

Discerning the difference between obsequiousness and politeness can be difficult for casual visitors to Japan, but for a true man, courtesy is rooted in benevolence: Courtesy and good manners have been noticed by every foreign tourist as distinctive Japanese traits. But Politeness should be the expression of a benevolent regard for the feelings of others; it’s a poor virtue if it’s motivated only by a fear of offending good taste. In its highest form Politeness approaches love.

  • V. Honesty and Sincerity

True samurai, according to author Nitobe, disdained money, believing that “men must grudge money, for riches hinder wisdom.” Thus children of high-ranking samurai were raised to believe that talking about money showed poor taste, and that ignorance of the value of different coins showed good breeding: Bushido encouraged thrift, not for economical reasons so much as for the exercise of abstinence. Luxury was thought the greatest menace to manhood, and severe simplicity was required of the warrior class … the counting machine and abacus were abhorred.

  • VI. Honor

Though Bushido deals with the profession of soldiering, it is equally concerned with non-martial behavior: The sense of Honor, a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth, characterized the samurai. He was born and bred to value the duties and privileges of his profession. Fear of disgrace hung like a sword over the head of every samurai … To take offense at slight provocation was ridiculed as ‘short-tempered.’ As the popular adage put it: ‘True patience means bearing the unbearable.’

  • VII. Loyalty

Economic reality has dealt a blow to organizational loyalty around the world. Nonetheless, true men remain loyal to those to whom they are indebted: Loyalty to a superior was the most distinctive virtue of the feudal era. Personal fidelity exists among all sorts of men: a gang of pickpockets swears allegiance to its leader. But only in the code of chivalrous Honor does Loyalty assume paramount importance.

  • VIII. Character and Self-Control

Bushido teaches that men should behave according to an absolute moral standard, one that transcends logic. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. The difference between good and bad and between right and wrong are givens, not arguments subject to discussion or justification, and a man should know the difference. Finally, it is a man’s obligation to teach his children moral standards through the model of his own behavior: The first objective of samurai education was to build up Character. The subtler faculties of prudence, intelligence, and dialectics were less important. Intellectual superiority was esteemed, but a samurai was essentially a man of action. No historian would argue that Hideyoshi personified the Eight Virtues of Bushido throughout his life. Like many great men, deep faults paralleled his towering gifts. Yet by choosing compassion over confrontation, and benevolence over belligerence, he demonstrated ageless qualities of manliness. Today his lessons could not be more timely.

For the Vikings:

The range of behaviors in Norse society ran the gamut from drengskapr to níðr. The first is usually translated as "honor" and the second as "shame".

At one extreme, the state of drengskapr was admired, and the actions of a drengr would be emulated and praised.

At the other extreme, the state of níðr was despised, and the actions of a níðingr would be avoided and reviled.

Snorri Sturluson wrote, "Valiant men who exert a good influence are called drengr." A drengr possessed bravery, nobility, magnanimity, a sense of fair play, respect for others, the strength to do what is right, and a sense of personal honor. Physical bravery was taken for granted. More important was self-control. A drengr showed equanimity in the face of danger, not because of insensitivity or stupidity, but because the danger and the possible risk to life and limb was unimportant compared to the need to maintain self-respect and the respect of the community. There was a practical side to such imperturbability, because not only was it unmanly to show concern or fear in the face of danger, but also useless.

Examples from the saga illustrate that imperturbability. In chapter 6 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, the earl noticed Gunnlaug's injured foot that oozed pus and blood with every step. The earl asked why he didn't limp. Gunnlaugur replied, "One mustn't limp while both legs are the same length." In a battle described in chapter 30 of Heiðarvíga saga, Þorbjörn's foot had been cut off at the ankle, but he continued to fight. His opponent Barði called him a troll for continuing to fight without a foot. Þorbjörn said, "You don't have to be a troll to bear a wound well and fight as long as you can. That should be regarded as drengskapr."

A níðingr was the object of hate and scorn. He was an outcast. Typical causes for such disgrace included: cowardice; treachery; shameful acts (such as killing kinsmen or defenseless people); breaking one's oath. When a man betrayed the trust of another man, that man would become known as a níðingr. In chapter 32 of Gísla saga, Eyjólfr ordered his men to kill a woman, a despicable act. Hávarðr stood up to him, telling the men not to do níðingsverk (the work of a níðingr).


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