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Olden Life: What was Noblesse Oblige? by John Davie

Regulars | By John Davie

What was Noblesse Oblige? by John Davie

Le Lys dans la Vallée (1836). An elderly aristocrat tries to sum up for a younger friend how to live. Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘Noble ancestry constrains to honourable behaviour; privilege entails responsibilities.’ Why is the concept originally French? It’s related to the idea of chivalry, the word itself deriving from the French word for horseman, chevalier (from the late- Latin caballarius). This word doubled as a term for a member of a higher social class, as it did with the Greeks and Romans. The code of chivalry, familiar to us from Arthur’s knights and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, dated from the end of the 12th century, but was never codified. It derived from the medieval Christian institution of knighthood and was popularised in medieval literature. The code of chivalry originated in the Holy Roman Empire, deriving from the idealisation of the cavalryman, especially in Francia, where Charlemagne’s horse soldiers...

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