Define: Courtly

Back in September, I asked for a word for someone who accepts chivalry. We had a lively discussion in the comments about what that person would be called.

It’s a very specific skill, really. Not everybody knows how to move when someone else is pulling out your chair, slipping your jacket onto your shoulders, how to navigate a door being opened for you, how to wait until the car door is unlocked. It takes a lot of consciousness about what is happening around you, and between you and the chivalrous person.

Many folks liked “gracious” as a word to describe those who receive chivalry, but I feel like it’s not specific enough. It has another definition and commonplace usage in our culture, so the word wouldn’t stand out as being used with this intentional meaning in conversation.

Which is why I really like the word “courtly.” (Thanks to Femme Gender for suggesting it!)

Court·ly: adjective.
Receiving chivalry and politeness with graceous skill.
Example: “That sub boy I went out with last night was really courtly, it was fun to have the foreplay start with chivalry.”

Court·li·er: noun.
A person who receives chivalry with politeness with graceous skill.
Example: “When the courtlier rises from the table, it is customary for the chivalrer to also rise.”

Here’s why I like this word:

  1. Courtly is uncommon in daily speech, so it stands out. If used in conversation with someone who isn’t familiar with it as a term for receiving chivalry, it will be different enough for that person to be able to ask, “what do you mean, ‘courtly’?”
  2.  It has an archaic quality, yes; it reminds us of the royal courts (and reminds me specifically of the historical stories of British knights and kings and queens). But I like that, especially because many people see chivalry as archaic as well, so they kind of match. Plus, I think there is some reclamation of these terms that has to be done and explained in order to use them consciously.
  3. Definitions of the term “courtly” relate mostly to manners, elegance, refinement, and politeness, which isn’t specifically what I mean, but it’s definitely related. Much of chivalry is about manners and awareness, and I think being courtly is too.
  4. It also relates to the term “courtship,” that dance that we do when we’re interested in another person, courting each other into a relationship. I like the connection of chivalry and courtliness to courting and courtship.

This also pulls a little on the idea of chivalry as consensual – I think it’s important to have enough awareness over chivalrous acts that you stop opening doors, holding umbrellas, rising when the courtlier stands at a table, if the person in question does not like to be treated that way.

“Hey, I’m not courtly,” s/he can say. “I don’t like being treated that way. No offense, but knock it off.”

Having a word for the position of accepting it, aside from the acknowledgement that accepting chivalry is a skill that, for most of us, must be studied, acknowledges that some folks may prefer not to be in that position, may prefer not to be courtly.