Chivalry Now

A review of The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry, by Brad Miner

Edmund Burke’s famous pronouncement that “the age of chivalry is gone” was perhaps premature. Sure, ten thousand swords did not leap from the scabbards of the French nobility to defend Marie Antoinette, but such a betrayal did not mean that “the unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise” was forgotten in Britain, or America. More than two centuries later, the spirit of chivalry has not been entirely eradicated from the human heart, even in our pacifist, feminist, postmodern age.

While teaching both college and high school students, I have found nothing to electrify a classroom as much as the topic of chivalry, which I always introduce with the simple question, “Is chivalry dead?” The reasons for student interest are straightforward: young women are curious to see how men used to treat women in a more mannered and moral age, and young men, for their part, are painfully aware that in many respects they are less manly than their forefathers. These students have usually been given little instruction by their parents and teachers on what it means to be a man or a woman. Perhaps no other image, then, can appeal to them as much as the knight on horseback who will, for the sake of honor, fight any man, and still bow in deference to every lady.

And yet, the story of chivalry has not gotten out. Maurice Keen, Richard Barber, and Georges Duby have written excellent academic histories of chivalry, but these works are aimed at a scholarly audience and make no attempt to explore the relevance of chivalry for our own time. Medieval narratives, especially Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, are often tough reading and Hollywood blockbusters like last summer’s King Arthur or A Knight’s Tale from a few years ago are utter disappointments. But now Brad Miner, an executive editor at Bookspan and former literary editor for National Review, has given us The Compleat Gentleman, an attempt to trace the chivalric tradition from medieval times to our own and to return contemporary manhood to its moorings in this gentlemanly tradition.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, lawless young men on horseback roamed the countryside in search of a fight. They threatened any semblance of order, and especially threatened women. Gradually, these young men became less dangerous by accepting the code of knighthood. They promised to display certain virtues: loyauté, prouesse, largesse, courtoisie, and franchise. In return, they might gain property by marrying the daughter of a lord. Or they might make a considerable fortune and win glory by testing their mettle in frequent tournaments. Miner offers interesting snapshots of the knight’s training, the knighting ceremony, and tournaments. These last, in particular, were crucial to the development of chivalry, having “the dual virtues of providing both a means of testing a knight’s prowess and of expiating his violent energies.” And Miner reminds us that tournaments in the heyday of chivalry were not celebrated in the fashion of the confined jousts of either Scott’s Ivanhoe or cinematic lore, but rather in the form of a mêlée, a massive battle lasting all day and often engaging hundreds or even thousands of knights. Injuries were frequent, and death was not uncommon.

While Miner offers the basic outlines of medieval chivalry, he fails to recount certain facts and anecdotes that might do more to win our hearts. For example, as courtly philosophy began increasingly to shape the ideal of knighthood, a knight could be barred from tournaments for any unchivalrous behavior, including deserting his lord in battle, destroying vineyards and cornfields, or repeating gossip about a lady. Can we imagine a sporting event today in which players who had “talked trash” about a girl would not be allowed on the field? Who would be left to play? Miner makes excellent observations on William Marshal, “the flower of chivalry,” but most of his other character sketches amuse more than they impress. Other knights should have appeared in this book. Consider Maréchal Boucicaut who while in Genoa running the government of Charles VI, once bowed to two prostitutes, whom he did not know. His page said, “My lord, they are whores.” Boucicaut responded, “I would rather have saluted ten whores than to have omitted saluting one respectable woman.” Another good lesson for a culture that too often treats respectable women as “ho’s.”

* * *
Miner classifies the chivalrous man as part warrior, part lover, and part monk, and addresses each aspect of this ideal in separate chapters. A reformed pacifist who prefers his sons to be Galahads rather than Gandhis, Miner clearly sees that a post-September 11 America is no place for milquetoasts. We are living in a fallen world and bad men want to do bad things to us. We must be ready to respond in kind: “a gentleman really must face the reality of violence and not reject it, but like any warrior he will turn to violence only as a last resort.”

The chapter on the lover is not nearly as inspiring. Miner does a good job of explaining how troubadours and assertive ladies with questionable sexual histories, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, could establish the quasi-religion of courtly love. He is also forthright about the difficulty such love poses to all contemporary moralists who want to adopt chivalry as a model: knights and ladies were often adulterers, most famously Guinevere and Lancelot. But Miner never mentions Wolfram von Eschenbach, the 13th-century Bavarian knight who tried in his Parzival to reconcile courtly love with marriage. Nor does he say anything about the reforms of the 14th and 15th centuries, that sought to turn weak-willed knights into true gentlemen. And most curious of all, he ends a chapter about love with a discussion of women in combat. According to his rather strained logic, the true gentleman respects women and gives them what they want. If she is strong enough and willing, then today’s “woman warrior” should be allowed to fight alongside today’s chivalrous man.

Miner’s treatment of the gentleman is likewise far from “compleat.” He does relate the history of the gentleman, the successor to the knight, from the Renaissance onward, but unfortunately he sandwiches this chapter between his first chapter on the knight and his three chapters on the warrior, the lover, and the monk, which all return to medieval themes. As a result, he never shows any of the improvements or adjustments that the culture of the gentleman made on the original model, especially with regard to sexual mores. And too often he considers gentlemanly advice books as a true reflection of how actual men thought and acted. Such a selective use of sources is understandable for the Middle Ages, but the historical record is far richer in modern times. His handling of the 18th century is particularly lacking: he focuses on Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his illegitimate son, a work which Miner himself tells us was considered by Samuel Johnson to “teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.” Only by confusing the century of Washington and Hamilton and Burke with the letters of Chesterfield could one conclude that the “heroic aspect of the gentlemanly character would begin to be lost in the mystification of manners.” Miner actually gives no more than a passing mention to America’s greatest gentlemen, the Founding Fathers. And he seems to think little of manners generally. The muddled section on politesse hardly recommends good manners at all but instead insists, “nobody has better manners or finer suits or more skill in debate than the devil himself.”

Finally, Miner overlooks one vital aspect of modern manliness altogether. His tripartite knight roughly corresponds to the medieval conception of the three orders in society: oratores (those who pray), bellatores (those who fight), and laborares (those who work). Yet he substitutes lovers for workers, leaving no place in his scheme for what most gentlemen do in modern times: work hard to provide for their families. Calling for a return to the warrior ethic in these times is certainly warranted. But in practical terms, not all of us can serve in the military. And as Adam Smith knew and American history has shown, an industrialized power firm in its will and purpose will always prevail over a less developed enemy.

Despite its flaws, Brad Miner’s book is a good introduction to chivalry and one hopes it will inaugurate a rich discussion over the qualities of true manliness. For that, we owe him our courteous thanks.

Posted March 10, 2005. This article appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of the Claremont Review of Books

Review: Men to Boys – The Making of Modern Immaturity

Men to Boys:
The Making of Modern Immaturity
Gary Cross
Columbia University Press, 2008; 316 pages, $29.50

About a year ago when all the world was learning the lurid details of Tiger Woods’s sexual history, a history marked by depravity that was surpassed only by its immaturity, a lesser-known sports figure was also having romantic troubles perhaps more indicative of the culture of today’s young men. The girlfriend of fourth-ranked tennis star Andy Murray of Scotland, Kim Sears, decided to call it quits. The reason? Apparently Murray spent upwards of seven hours a day on his Play Station, one of his favorite video games being the popular Modern Warfare 2. Murray’s coach defended the star by pointing out that the young man spends no more time on his console than most 22-year-olds. Other apologists held that seven-hour engagements with this particular game are hardly unusual. Later reports indicated that Mr. Murray was not terribly heartbroken over losing the beautiful Miss Sears. He was seen out with other women not long afterwards.

The phenomenon of chronically immature males refusing to grow up is the subject of Professor Gary Cross’s extremely readable, informative, and unsettling Boys to Men: The Making of Modern Immaturity. Cross is not the first to explore this theme. In a growing body of research and commentary, cultural critics have alarmed the nation with accounts of and diatribes against the disturbing trend of young men’s “failure to launch.” Indeed, Cross has consolidated and provided keen insight into this literature in his own analysis of what he calls the “boy-man.” He places the boy-men in their historical context: to show on the one hand how different they are from the two preceding generations of men—the Greatest Generation of the forties and the Baby-Boomers of the sixties—but on the other hand how the boy-men understandably grew out of the ambiguities surrounding the idea of manhood in the modern world, ambiguities that clearly troubled even the heroes who were our grandfathers. For Cross, these themes can be best perceived by an investigation into popular culture, including facets such as film and television, advertising, sex in certain instances, and amusements. In addition to offering the perspective of a historian, the author draws upon his own experiences as a campus radical throughout the sixties in order to reevaluate the assumptions and tally the results of that most celebrated, and often self-righteous, youth movement.

Cross’s achievement is his ability to weave various strands of popular culture produced over nearly a century into a convincing narrative of decline in the tradition of male maturity and responsibility. The greatest generation had the cultural script of Judge Hardy and his son Andy, played by the naïve and lovable Mickey Rooney. The benevolent patriarch allowed his son the freedom to make predictable mistakes in life and love, but the judge with sage advice always redirected Andy after a failed experiment. The goal of culture, as with Andy, was growing up. The judge knew and could tell his son how to get there. Today it is the reverse: “The critical difference today is that the joke is on the father and not on the son. Today, the father has the unsettled role.”

The decline of male maturity, Cross contends, was not at first openly revolutionary but rather latent in the culture of post-World War Two America. Men returned home to find a corporate structure far from hospitable to individual heroism, homes in which the mothers managed things most of the time, children whose primary role seemed to be to spend what their fathers earned, and a variety of experts touting “progressive” and “democratic” parenting techniques. The ubiquitous televised Westerns of those days, such as Gunsmoke, taught the virtues of courage and responsibility and cool-headedness (a view the sixties’ radical would not have shared) but also served as a vicarious escape from a world that resembled in no way the simple verities of the Old West. A father in fifties might glory in his garage workshop or in the Little League ballpark in order to teach his sons diligence, teamwork, and problem-solving, or he might use these activities as a vehicle for escaping from the house and perpetuating his own adolescence, an ambiguity brought to the screen recently in Clint Eastwood’s marvelous Gran Torino (albeit a film about a Korean War vet of the forgotten generation). The mixed messages sent by such fathers could plausibly lead to sons in the anti-heroic mold of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or James Dean’s role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

After rethinking the fifties, Cross battles his own sixties’ saints and demons, putting himself on the couch, as it were, by means of a compelling contrast of the initial moral earnestness of the sixties with its juvenile, Oedipal, and, ultimately pleasure-principled foundations. Like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, eager to see through the fatuousness of suburban society but not always so articulate in making sense of his own life, the men of the sixties (particularly those who were white and middle-class) never offered a positive agenda. Once black activists took back their own civil-rights movement, the “new men” only had things to be against: the war, patriarchy, and traditional authority. Therefore, the draft was the summum malum, and not always for high principles: “The thought of being lorded over by some hick sergeant who loved guns and tormenting dreamy college boys scared me more than the thought of killing and being killed.” (I should ask parenthetically as someone who has been a dreamy college boy tormented by hick sergeants, what other way is there to prepare men for battle? The new men, of course, had an answer. Wars are going to end, and why should men be the only ones to fight them in the first place? The Judge Hardies are free to smile—or wince.) The ultimate failure of the new man, Cross realizes, owed to his proximity to the old wimp or coward. The only smiling, self-assured alternative seemed to be that presented by the playboy. He could spend money on himself, allow women freedom (into his bed), and show all the marks of a successful bourgeois life without buying into the stultifying culture of the suburbs. If only he could be guaranteed of finding, in Hef’s words, an obliging “female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Nor did the Boomers ever grow up. Enter Viagra.

Cross shows the almost predictable result of the fifties’ escapism, the sixties’ youth revolt, and the increasingly seductive siren of America’s culture of consumption, the real villain in this story. Having nothing to rebel against, having no inner drive towards hard work or Stoicism or even delayed gratification, the boy-men of Generation X made an art form of indulgence. Though having roots in fifties’ hot-rodding and sixties’ rock, thrill-seeking takes over. Not only is thrill-seeking mindless, not only is it an appalling waste of time, but there also seems to be no moment at which the boy-man puts away his gaming console or dons a coat and tie: Cross considers it “more troubling the possibility that many men don’t experience that ‘real thing’ of participating in a grown-up world and thus don’t put away the toys.” Further, “videos games [among other mindless pursuits, Cross reveals,] induce otherwise ‘mature’ men to forego relationships with women and family (as well as more subtle and cultivated forms of leisure) for the highly individualistic and largely isolated encounter with the ephemeral thrill.” Cross could have added that the boy-man, when confronted with the shallowness of a life based upon “the cool” or the thrill, simply does not care. Like the tennis star, he can have a job, get along in life, have a girlfriend (who secretly holds him in contempt) and still enjoy addictive gaming or some other thrill. He will even tell you, as my male students have told me as the women rolled their eyes, that gaming really is a “community,” though presumably not the kind that Tocqueville had in mind when he pointed to vibrant associations as the cornerstone of American and democratic freedom.

As engaging a story as Men to Boys offers, there is a great deal lacking, owing to the author’s venturing important social criticism while limiting himself to writing a history of mostly popular culture. His thesis works if it is true that the phenomenon of the boy-man is caused exclusively by adolescent-minded advertising and the purveyors of action films and video games. Although he mentions fatherlessness at a couple of important junctures in the book, the possibility that the great refusal of the Boomers’ men to stay married and rear their children has been far more destructive than “Reagan-era” action films such as First Blood, hardly gains a hearing. Instead, the closing chapters in which Cross has promised some solutions, or at least suggestions, turn into progressively tired, though accurate, restatements of the problem, further jabs at the culture of consumption, and complaints against the decline, since the seventies, in wages and opportunity, using statistics that seem contestable at best. (Don’t men make their own opportunity?) Finally, Cross eschews an “essentialist” definition of maturity, and even more, of manhood. He only tells us that the benevolent patriarch is not the answer, with an occasional slur against Promise Keepers or some other religious organization. He says much about his own experiences in the sixties but nothing about his own interactions with his son or male students. He seems not to know that a little old-fashioned “hick wisdom” could go a long way in this matter. Boys will become men when they have fathers who stay married to their mothers, fathers who are engaged with the world and can tell their sons how to make their way in it, fathers who burst into their sons’ rooms on a Saturday morning, say “turn off that crap,” and then go do something useful with them.