The word, “chivalry”, comes from the French word, “chevalerie”, which means “skills to handle a horse”. The ability to handle a horse, especially in combat, was of utmost importance to a medieval knight. As the Middle Ages progressed, the term “chivalry” began to take on new meanings.
It was around the time of the preaching of the first crusade (1095 C.E.) that the Christianization of knights began in earnest. With the crusades as a “holy war” the pope needed the support of the nobles and knights of Europe to help him with his agenda of ridding Jerusalem of Islam, and returning the “land of Christ” to Christian sovereignty. By bestowing the title of Christian warriors to the knights, the pope had begun the evolution of a code of conduct that all knights were supposed to follow.
The protection of the poor, women and children, and defense of the church were just some of the chivalry codes that a knight was supposed to always obey. In combat when nobles and knights were taken prisoner, their lives were spared and were often held for ransom in somewhat comfortable surroundings. This same code of conduct did not apply to non-knights (archers, peasants, foot-soldiers, etc.), who were often slaughtered after capture.
However well intended this “chivalric code” was, it rarely affected most knights, who plundered, slaughtered, and looted often when given the chance. Our modern notion of knights is very much based in the ideas of chivalry, and it is the survival of medieval romantic writings that tend to show knights as the chivalrous ideal, that sways our view of medieval knighthood.