Chivalry died, some contend, when "liberated" women decided to open doors for themselves rather than wait for men.

But those who pine for the days when damsels-in-distress were served by knights-in-shining-armor may be surprised to learn -- according to one expert -- that our idea of chivalry never lived in the first place.

"The image of helpless maidens rescued by bold knights is no doubt appealing to the romantic in each of us," says medievalist Richard Walker. "But it is probably as far removed from the reality of the Middle Ages as it is from our own."

Walker, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's Germanic and Slavic Languages department, teaches one of the few -- if not the only -- college courses on "The Age of Chivalry."

"Although strictly speaking, chivalry refers to the ideals and behavior considered appropriate for a nobleman of the Middle Ages," says Walker, "we concentrate on the one area -- romantic chivalry -- that is most commonly identified with that period."

Romantic chivalry, says Walker, "refers to how a man treats a lady. We've gotten our notions about these romantic attitudes through the stories of King Arthur and the poetry of the period. Women were models of purity beyond reproach, the men devoted themselves to gaining their lady's favor.

"But these attitudes were part of a literary convention adopted at the time. It was just as much a fiction then as now. Whatever romantic chivalry did exist was restricted to a relatively small portion of society -- maybe five percent -- who comprised the nobility."

Although the literature often descirbes women in a "highly laudatory way," he says, "contradictory attitudes about women existed. They were put on a pedestal, but treated almost solely as sexual objects."

The church likened women to both Eve and Mary -- two opposing personalities. "Like Eve, women were seen as sinful and responsible for the problems of males and of society. But like Mary they were symbols of purity and virture. Socially and spiritually they were on a higher -- or at least a different -- plane from men. They were viewed as unapproachable by the carnal male; love of her enobled a man's existence."

Other contradictory views: Ideally, a man loved a woman from afar. The male wanted sexual gratification, but realized he could never get it. If a woman became attainable, she also became undesirable.

"Adultrous love was a primary theme," says Walker, 40. "The female object of love had to be married to someone else. Probably this was because most marriages were arranged, so people weren't expected to love their spouses. m

"Also, there were often unattached males living in a lord's castle, and the female they had the most contact with was the lord's wife. This may be the reason why love was supposed to be kept secret."

In reality, he notes, the punishment for adultery was extremely severe, usually including public humiliation. Sometimes the pair were beaten, and occasionally the offending parts of their bodies were cut off.

The pain of unrequited love? Walker points to a section of a love poem by Friedrich von Hausen as illustration: had I not taken on such lofty love, I might be saved. I did it without thinking. And every moment now I suffer pain that presses deep. Now my own constancy has tied down my heart and will not let it part from her. It is a great wonder. She whom I love with greatest torment has always acted like my enemy.

Lofty love and other chivalrous ideals did not, however, apply to lower-class women. Scholar Andreas Capellanus penned this advice on making love to peasant women in his 1174 work "The Art of Courtly Love": Be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, When you find a convenient place, Do not hesitate to take what you seek And to embrace them by force.

As "romantic-at-heart," zoology major Joe Bruzzese, 22, put it: "It's kind of disillusioning to discover that it wasn't all fairy maidens running around with very little clothes on. You spent your time clanking around in heavy old armor, in what sounds like a very dreary existence."