“The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide To Chivalry.” By Brad Miner
At a time of astonishing confusion about what it means to be a man, Brad Miner has recovered the oldest and best ideal of manhood: the gentleman. Reviving a thousand-year tradition of chivalry, honor, and heroism, The Compleat Gentleman provides the essential model for twenty-first-century masculinity.
Despite our confusion, real manhood is not complicated. It is an ancient ideal based on service to ones God, country, family, and friendsa simple but arduous ideal worthy of a lifetime of struggle.
Miners gentleman stands out for his dignity, restraint, and discernment. He rejects the notion that one way of behaving is as good as another. He belongs to an aristocracy of virtue, not of wealth or birth. Proposing neither a club nor a movement, Miner describes a lofty code of manly conduct, which, far from threatening democracy, is necessary for its survival.
Miner traces the concept of manliness from the jousting fields of the twelfth century to the decks of the Titanic. The three masculine archetypes that emergethe warrior, the lover, and the monkcombine in the character of the "compleat gentleman." This modern knight cultivates a martial spirit in defense of the true and the beautiful. He treats the opposite sex with the passionate respect required by courtly love. And he values learning in the pursuit of truthall with the discretion, decorum, and nonchalance that the Renaissance called sprezzatura.
The Compleat Gentleman is filled with examples from the past and the present of the man our increasingly uncivilized age demands.
A review of The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry, by Brad Miner
By: Terrence O. Moore
Posted: March 10, 2005
This article appeared in: Vol. V, Number 1 - Winter 2004/05
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."
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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.
Chivalry is Dead, Long Live Chivalry
Author of "The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry" argues the ideal endures.
Books By Christian Chensvold
Ours is an age of conflicting messages. Human progress is simultaneously thwarted and thriving, technology both connects us and isolates us. And when it comes to masculinity, some cry it’s a toxic social construct that must be eradicated, yet it is concurrently celebrated in every big-screen depiction of superhero saving the world from destruction.
In 2004, Brad Miner wrote a non-partisan though deeply traditional interpretation of heroic manliness entitled The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. It is assiduously researched, soul inspiring, and quite literally a call to arms. Miner and his sons are all practicing martial artists, and he sees physical prowess and being “combat ready” as intrinsic qualities of any gentleman, who by definition is prepared to summon the courage to confront evil and to sacrifice himself for others.
Having recently discovered the book, I was immediately curious what relevance it may still hold to any but that small minority that binge-watches Game of Thrones on Saturday night and then attends services the following morning. Wouldn’t new cultural concerns, such the rise of social media, with its fake news and public shaming; #MeToo, the wage gap, and equity across the gender spectrum; free speech vs. punch-a-Nazi (that’s anyone who disagrees with you); and the teaching of white privilege/supremacy/colonialization made notions of gentlemanliness and chivalry more antiquated than ever?
I reached out to Mr. Miner and found that, like any true traditionalist, he hadn’t changed much, even if the world around him has.
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Fourteen years after The Compleat Gentleman, has the call for chivalry and gentlemanliness become hopelessly quixotic, or is it needed now more than ever?
Brad Miner: Early on in the book I acknowledge that there is a quixotic character about all this, but I also assert that it has always been so. Thoreau, who is among America’s most overrated icons (only slightly less odious than his buddy Emerson), wrote that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe so, although I doubt it. But few are, or ever were, chivalrous. They may have intelligence, good manners, and humor — and those are fine qualities — but few will be willing to lay down their lives for others.
Increasingly, the active life is succumbing to the passive life. Social bonds are weakening, military enlistments are declining. If the trend of turning inward continues, we will be a diminished people. However, there will always be men — and women — who will seeks something better, higher, and more fulfilling.
So much has changed since the book came out. If you were to sit down and write the book today, how would all the social changes affect your thinking on chivalry and the role of the contemporary gentleman?
BM: Well, as to what I might change, the answer is nothing. The point of my book was to identify the aspects of chivalric and gentlemanly behavior that are not rooted in any particular time and place; that, with allowances for cultural change, are the same in 2018 as they were in 1118.
You’ve said our current president is much closer to a cad than a gentleman, and many think he’s far worse than that. Likewise, #TimesUp and #MeToo are exposing the worst side of male behavior. We seem to be in an indeterminate state in which there are shreds of the old chivalry but not enough to exert the controlling influence on men’s baser behaviors that it used to help curtail, and an imagined future of gender equity in which men no longer behave badly. Can you comment on this current limbo-like state?
BM: We’re not in “limbo” any more than in any previous moment in history. It’s our perennial existential predicament. If there is a difference between now and a time when chivalry was assumed to be among humanity’s highest ideals, it’s that in those other eras many men aspired to be chivalrous; now far fewer do. But never believe that chivalrous men were ever more than a minority. It takes courage to be a compleat gentlemen, because it is always countercultural. As Chesterton wrote, there are an infinity of angles at which a man falls; only one at which he stands upright.
In your book you describe the compleat gentleman as always combat-ready and physically able and willing to defend good against evil. How would you update your assessment of this in this age of polarized self-righteousness when who the bad guys are has become more subjective than ever. Could your views about “be ready to defend against evil” be misinterpreted?
BM: It’s true that chivalry is above all the worldview of fighting men. In my book, however, I acknowledge that not all compleat gentlemen are necessarily combat-ready. There are other ways a man can fight. But as to the thuggishness to which you refer, it bears no similarity to chivalry, given that in the incidents of violence by fascists right and left of which I’m aware, seem, in every case, to be expressions of cowardice.
As to my words being misinterpreted, that goes with the business of writing. And, as Antonio tells Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
The current state of boys and young men continues to be troubling. They exhibit far more social pathologies than girls and far underperform in scholastic achievement, including college enrollment. The right says our culture has become too feminized, while the left says antiquated “toxic” ideas about masculinity are the problem. What are your thoughts?
BM: Any man – from his teens into his thirties – who succumbs to “feminization” deserves his fate. I’m neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, but if I were assigning a bird-dog researcher to nose out an answer, I first give him the scent of passivity. That’s a good place to start in the matter of violence too. Many boys now come through American schools being taught that their masculinity is toxic. It’s up to parents, fathers especially, to reject this. I think it’s entirely compatible with the development of young, chivalrous men that they should learn to smile through the stupidity – to listen to the nonsense and to reject it without engaging in too much confrontation. Take what is good; reject what is bad.
I write a lot about restraint in The Compleat Gentleman, even calling it the great “lost virtue.” Martial skills, sports, hobbies, reading that challenges the mind, lively conversation, and lasting friendships will sustain a young man through good times and bad. And I’d be remiss if I did not suggest that religious faith is also very important.
Third-wave feminism has also advanced significantly, aided by social media. And yet there are reports that anxiety and neurosis among young women is at a record high. How would you characterize the trade-offs we’re seeing as the old patriarchy and its courtesies continues to evaporate, replaced by a kind of bureaucratic chaperone chivalry (affirmative consent, chaperones during male-female business meetings) in the guise of gender equality?
BM: I must say this is the first time I’ve encountered the term “chaperone chivalry.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase, except I’m unclear what you mean by it. In my chapter on “The Lover,” I did my best to think through the implications of the obvious and ongoing changes in the relationship between the sexes. It’s clear to me that feminism has been good for some women – perhaps most – and bad for others. It’s also clear that sex roles have changed, for good or for ill. But it’s also clear that there are two sexes and that they are different. If feminists of whatever wave wish not to acknowledge those differences and, therefore, to reject the deference and support of good men, that’s their right.
Besides the cliché of being a doorman whenever a lady is near, what are things that a man can start doing right now to make himself more gentlemanly and chivalrous?
BM: He should stop thinking so much about himself. He should drop to one knee and thank God for giving him life, and he should swear never to act dishonorably.