Chivalry is the code of honor recognized by knights in the Middle Ages. Knights were supposed to behave honorably toward each other by observing certain rules. In general, knights were expected to serve God, protect the weak and innocent, and be brave and fair in battle.
Beowulf, though his tale predates notions of chivalry that developed during the Middle Ages, exhibits these qualities throughout the epic poem. In his efforts to save Herot from Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he protects the people of Herot, even though he doesn’t really have to—he could have just stayed in Sweden and avoided the fight altogether.
There is another hero, Unferth, who fails to live up to the chivalric code early in the story. When Beowulf and his men first arrive at Herot, Unferth challenges Beowulf’s honor regarding his claims about a famous swimming match that occurred earlier in Beowulf’s life:
Unferth spoke, Ecglaf’s son,
Who sat at Hrothgar’s feet, spoke harshly
And sharp (vexed by Beowulf’s adventure,
By their visitor’s courage, and angry that anyone
In Denmark or anywhere on earth had ever
Acquired glory and fame greater
Than his own). . . .
We see here that Unferth is jealous of Beowulf’s fame. This is a very “unknightly” attitude to have toward a fellow hero. In attempting to stain Beowulf’s honor, he tarnishes his own in the process.
Beowulf’s own men fall short of meeting chivalric ideals at the end of the story when they, except for Wiglaf, fail to come to his aid when he dies fighting the dragon.
By showing how many otherwise strong and courageous men fail to maintain a strict code of morals (like the ones outlined in the code of chivalry), the poet, whoever he was, intensifies the impact of the special qualities of a character like Beowulf.