In the middle ages, especially prior to the 12th Century, where the Noble Habitus was in fact the prototype for the Code of Chivalry, and it wasn’t written down, loyalty was perhaps considered one of the most important aspects a knight could express, especially considering the bloody nature of the middle ages themselves. It’s important to note that loyalty wasn’t only associated with your personal dedication to an individual or a cause, but also with your prowess in battle, as that was the physical expression; if you have prowess, then you have been loyal enough to practice every day, or at least enough to be better than the opponents of your cause, most usually your King or Lord. In many cases, that loyalty could transcend your sense of self-preservation, or even your sense of moral righteousness, as there were plenty of knights and soldiers that would follow a tyrannical king or queen out of a sense of loyalty.
In the modern age, loyalty has been refined somewhat, although if you ask twenty individuals what the definition of loyalty is, you are sure to receive twenty answers, although the closer those individuals are, the more likely they are to be similar to each other. By contrast, if you ask the same twenty people as a group, they are likely to talk about it more as a topic of discussion, tailoring their own definitions until there is a group consensus. Such groupthink isn’t uncommon in humans, and may in fact be why we can interact with each other without beating each other senseless on a regular basis. Despite that, there needs to be some evolution to the term of loyalty from the 12th century, if only because the level of socio-culture and technology has greatly evolved in the last nine centuries.
If I had to distill the term to its core, it would come out as wanting the best for someone despite negative factors. Notice how I did not say agreeing with a person, or assisting a person despite a pathological problem with their intent, or an intent to commit a crime; nor does it mean wanting them to be happy to the detriment of yourself or others. It means wanting that person to be as successful as possible, or as healthy as possible, with as minimal negative impact to others as possible. It also means being willing to tell someone they’re wrong, even when it could temporarily or permanently damage your relationship to them. A prime example is when a child, seeing the ailing health of a parent, repeats an often repeated request for the parent to stop smoking, especially in light of a cancer diagnosis; or stop drinking due to liver problems. Often times, especially in the latter case, the parent will become angry or upset, sometimes even cutting the child out of their lives except perhaps at socially required gatherings such as the holidays. Even though the parent and child don’t speak, it’s due to the loyalty the child has to the parent, and wanting the best for them, even as they self-destruct.
It also means the same thing in your interactions with your friends. Friends often are loyal to each other, sometimes to a fault, but unlike family, friends are often able to tell each other when they’re wrong, or being outright stupid, even if the person receiving the information doesn’t want to hear it. It’s interesting that members of a “chosen family” would meet with less turmoil when presented with bad news about themselves than that of a “blood family”, but perhaps it can be boiled down to a much older set of social factors surrounding friendship than family itself. Friendships are often formed on the basis of shared values, and not on the basis of blood ties or mandatory interaction. Since you’re able to select your friends, although some people are far more selective than others, you are able to determine your ability to be loyal to that person prior to becoming friends, making the bonds of loyalty far tighter. This is also why people that are friends with those that are naturally introverted can put up with the introvert’s naturally anti-social behaviour, which often includes long periods of needing to be left alone, and slow responses to messages or phone calls. It’s the shared set of values, and perhaps a mutual understanding of each others’ negative or even toxic personality traits, and a desire for the best for that person, or at least positive development, that defines modern loyalty as a trait.
As humanity evolves both socially and biologically, it will be interesting to see how the term loyalty evolves with it; in today’s socio-political structure, the word can have many meanings and although we as a species are constantly evolving, it does not mean that our language evolves at the same rate. As the method in which humans interact with each other change to heavier reliance on technology and less so on interpersonal interaction, the depth of loyalty could easily change over the course of the next two to three generations. This is compounded by curated interaction in the form of social media, often ten second tidbits of information about a person’s life, often times a person we’ve never met. Over the course of the last two generations, namely the often reviled Millennials, and our children in Generation Z, the volume of technology has allowed the members of these cohorts to become more loyal to people they’ve never actually met, than some of the people they interact with daily.
This presents a serious social problem, as the interactions they give on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter only have the most superficial notion of interaction; comments are often ignored by the person being tagged, especially if that person has some modicum of fame. This, of course, isn’t universal; some influencers, as they’re often called, take the time to read each comment and if one is warranted, respond. Such responses, even if it’s one response in one hundred messages or comments sent, can cause an endorphin rush to the commenter, and increase their belief in the relationship formed, even if that relationship is imaginary.
That isn’t to say that all digitally-sourced relationships are imaginary or superficial; the development of platforms that require deep, social interaction and reliance, often in the form of video games where groups must be formed to complete a task, can instill a sense of both loyalty and family in those who play them. World of Warcraft is perhaps the most well known platform, as Guilds can often become tighter peer groups than coworkers or even family relationships. This comes from first-hand experience, although our guild was and is quite small. It also means that such groups can become quite insular, depending on the people in question and how narrow the values they share can be.
Loyalty, being the first trait on the Noble Habitus, which would later become the Code of Chivalry, forms the foundation for the remainder of the traits; as it evolves, the likelihood is that the other five traits will be required to evolve with it. As that happens, the code itself will gain more meaning to those who follow it, as we refine and sharpen our ability to follow this ancient and noble foundation of interaction, and move forward into an ever evolving future.