Quest for the Holy Grail Tapestries: The Arming and Departure of the Knights (1895–1896), William Morris, Sir Edward Burne–Jones, and John Henry Dearle. Public domain.

After Chivalry

We’re not going to like what comes next.

From time to time, the king of Constantinople found it necessary to host a beauty pageant. Promising young women from across the realm were gathered at court and subjected to a series of trials, including philosophical interviews and a nude physical exam conducted by the queen mother. At stake was nothing less than the title of Mrs. Byzantium: the winner would marry the king.

It’s said that in the 9th century A.D., Emperor Theophilos’ mother embarked on just such a talent search. Among the candidates she presented to her son was “an exceptionally lovely young maiden from the gentry, by the name of Kasia.” In awe of her charms but wary of her quick tongue, Theophilos confronted her with a challenge: “All ruin poured down upon man through woman,” he informed her. Bashfully but resolutely, she answered: “yet woman was also the fountainhead from which the highest blessing sprang” (Symeon Logothetes, Chronicon 130.2-5). This retort was too clever by half for Theophilos, who opted for someone more pliable and left Kasia to pursue her own literary career. Some would say she dodged a bullet.

Embellished though it probably was by its contemporary narrators, the whole story is quite telling about how Christianity changed the game when it came to women. On the one hand, Theophilos’ accusation was certainly not foreign to Christian or Jewish thought. It was a common complaint that Eve had been the weak link who let the devil into the world. The insinuation was that her daughters could be expected to keep spoiling what would otherwise be a perfectly good universe.

But the Book of Genesis was not the only or even the most suitable proof text for those inclined to gripe about girls. Arguably, a better case could be made by citing the first woman of Greek myth instead. Eve, after all, had been tailor-made as “a suitable helper” for the lonely Adam; Pandora, on the other hand, had been inflicted on mankind out of spite—“as an evil they will cherish in their hearts, fondling their own doom” (Hesiod, Works and Days 57-8). The playwright Euripides had his uptight hero Hippolytus remonstrate with Zeus that he should have just let men purchase children at shrines in exchange for precious metals, sparing them the perils of congress with the inferior sex (Hippolytus, 616-24). In complaining that women were an unmitigated drag on what could otherwise be the orderly, vigorous, and carefree world of men, Theophilos was indulging in a fantasy that was every bit as pagan as it was Christian.

Kasia’s answer, though, was something new. There were plenty of female scapegoats resembling Eve in Greek literature. But there was nothing close to Mary, mother of God. Notable femmes fatales of the pagan world, such as the legendary Amazons or the Persian queen Artemisia, usually extracted begrudging respect from men by beating them at their own games. But Mary won no military victories and built no fortresses. Instead, she argued eloquently on behalf of womankind by doing something only womankind could do: consenting to bear a child. Maybe mothers do add heartache and vulnerability to the human equation. But they also offer blessing and renewal, a route for the life of all life to burst in upon a weary world. Kasia was presenting a uniquely Christian proposal that the very things which could make women troublesome, could also make them highly exalted.

There has always been a certain logic that measures women against men and finds them wanting. Their bodies are feebler on average. They are afflicted monthly by pain and mood swings. These can only be naturally altered by pregnancy—a condition that brings on mounting pain, and more mood swings. None of this is particularly conducive to, say, ruthless efficiency in war. And so, as Aristotle notoriously pointed out, from a certain standpoint the female is just “a kind of stunted male” (Generation of Animals 2.737a7-8).

Again, it’s not that Christians have always been strangers to this kind of thinking. The so-called “Gospel of Thomas” depicts Jesus promising to transform Mary Magdalene into a man at the resurrection, “for every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Saying 114). Like the Persian King Xerxes who marveled at Artemisia, some Christians have assumed that anyone, given the option, would rather be a boy.

But the question is not what some individual Christians say—to which the answer is that Christians, like all people, say all manner of nonsense. The question is what Christianity as a tradition added that was new. And there the answer is that Christian thought, informed in part by Jewish scripture, cut radically against the logic that positioned women as inferior men. You didn’t need the Bible to teach you that logic: it is the most obvious logic in the world, the logic of the animal kingdom. It equates brute force and physical strength with absolute goodness.

On those terms, yes, women fall short. But those are not Christianity’s terms. They are the terms of what Christians are taught to call the “world” and the “flesh,” as contrasted with God and the Spirit. The Gospel of Thomas is a heretical gospel: look closely at the Genesis story, and you’ll find it is actually a very bad resource for making the case that “woman” equals “worse.” Indeed, it could almost be read as a countercultural rebuke to the prevailing thought of the ancient world on this very point: “It is not good that man should be alone.” Even labor pains are excluded from God’s original plan. The text proposes that creation’s perfect design includes women as a positive good—suggesting that an all-male heaven would be woefully desolate and incomplete. There is a New Yorker cartoon in which Adam and God sit slumped on a couch in the beer-stained squalor of a bachelor pad, playing video games. “Hey, God?” says Adam, “Can we make Eve now?” That gets it about right: from page 1, there is more good to be had in the Bible’s world than the kind that men are best at providing.

Christianity underlined this point aggressively, as Kasia observed. It did so by positioning Mary as God’s entry point into the human race. To the consternation of Friedrich Nietzsche and Edward Gibbon, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” when he favored a peasant girl with the role of preparing salvation’s way (1 Corinthians 1:27). Humility and obedience, no less than courage and resolve, were required of both Mary and the son she would mourn on the cross. The heaven whose gates were thrown open by a God in pain was not Thomas’ boys’ club. It was Dante’s paradise, where Mary sits enthroned as “she who ennobled human nature so much that its Maker did not disdain to make himself his own creature” (Paradiso 33.4-6).

Gradually this logic, which tempered strength by elevating tenderness, would recast the ideal relation between the sexes as a gracious exchange of complementary love. “Wives, submit to your husbands,” wrote St. Paul—but equally, “husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:22-5). During the Medieval period, Church authorities made a famous effort to encode this theological mystery into social policy, using the principles of chivalry to redirect the raw violence of roving European warlords toward Marian veneration and courtly passion. Chivalric literature is an achingly delicious mix of sexual frustration and manly derring-do. The conceit that fuels the whole rollicking adventure is that women, epitomized in the Queen of Heaven, give meaning and honor to men’s exertions by embodying everything that is worth fighting for.

When the Arthurian knight Gawain armed himself, “one thought pulled him through above all other things: the fortitude he found in the five joys which Mary had conceived in her son, our Savior” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 2.645-7). Modern chivalry—the customary gestures of respect extended to women by men who hope to woo them—is not some benighted holdover from the Church’s effort to smother women’s ambitions in a prison of soft luxuries. It is a response to the Church’s teaching that men need women to give their lives direction and their souls grace, just as women need men for the more obvious material purposes of protection and security.

Some women—perhaps many—find this exchange unacceptably condescending. That’s understandable enough. The voice of the world, which screams that material power is the same as personal worth, remains as loud now as it did centuries ago. And the breakneck developments of technology have made it more plausible than ever that women might one day offset any perceived physical deficiencies using gadgets rather than men. Perhaps birth control and medical advances can finally eliminate the need for women to suffer the indignity of relative weakness and pain. The advent of these possibilities onto the horizon helped inspire a whole strain of feminist thought, which argues it is past time to dispense with the unequal contract that once balanced men’s and women’s strengths against each other. “A just future would be one without gender,” wrote Susan Moller Okin in Justice, Gender, and the Family (1989): “one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.”

Of course, every deal involves tradeoffs. Maybe hormone pills and artificial wombs can relieve women of their ancient physical burdens. But at what cost? The old arrangement, under Christian chivalry, gave women a unique position of respect in exchange for deference to men, who likewise occupied a sphere of their own. The new proposed arrangement, which would use technology to level the playing field, might set women free from men at the cost of having to become like them. “And I think that would be such a funny way for feminism to end,” observes the writer Ginerva Davis wryly, “if someday, we get artificial wombs, and parents get to choose the body of their child, and they all choose ‘male,’ and females can be, at long last, wiped from the face of the earth.”

Under such conditions, the triumph of sex-neutral feminism starts to look less like a long march toward newly sunlit uplands than a gradual lapse away from Christian ethics, back toward the old pagan baseline which measured all people according to one, male, standard. If women are not the shining grace of God’s creation—if that is too glib, or too embarrassing, or too unfair—then what are they? The answer offered by techno-capitalism seems to be that they are undifferentiated competitors in a pitiless market that recognizes only force and economic prowess as viable markers of status. That is not some innovation: that is the same old world that Hippolytus and Thomas lived in, where people buy children and it is assumed that everyone wants to be as male as possible.

Recently the provocateur H. Pearl Davis tweeted, “I keep trying to think of things women are better at and I can’t think of any lol.” Of course she can’t. She is among the many post-feminist, post-Christian influencers who now size up men and women by the neo-pagan standards of raw strength and wealth. Another is the hugely prominent Andrew Tate, who argues that “the truth about women is they are always gonna be a weakness for a man.” The swaggering edgelords who idolize Tate and the would-be tradwives who nod along with Pearl are united in seeing no real use for women except as subalterns in the harem of some steampunk chieftain in a regressive tribal future.

Chivalry was not without its weaknesses as a civilizational arrangement. But judging from the current state of affairs, we have yet to come up with a better alternative. The only other thing going is a return to a set of pre-Christian axioms under which women are tolerated at best and eliminated at worst. That would be disastrous for men and women, both of whom would be diminished and bereaved by the exchange. A post-sex future would look less like a serene utopia than a global frat party that goes on way too long, or a feral state of nature in which all really do war against all.

It is not good that man should be alone.