Looking For a Renaissance Man?


Long before the hopelessly self-absorbed metrosexual role model
was manufactured by Madison Avenue, other codes of conduct defined the
male sex. In response to the increasing frequency of barbarism and
feudal wars during the Middle Ages, for example, the Church instituted
a code of Christian conduct for knights. This code was called chivalry.

Knights were the soldiers of the time, and expected to be honorable
and courageous. They were entrusted to protect the weak and innocent,
and to defend the rights of the Church throughout Christendom and
beyond, as this anonymous poem illustrates:

Sir Bevis supported the widow’s cause
And upheld the orphan’s claim—
Did good, but never for man’s applause,
For little he sought for fame.
When his most bitter foe he found
Bleeding upon the plain,
His thirst he quenched and his wounds he bound,
And brought him to life again.
Gentle in peace as brave in fight,
Was not Sir Bevis a Christian knight?

From 1300 to 1550, much of Europe experienced what we think of today
as the Renaissance, the rebirth of Greek and Roman classical culture.
During this time, much emphasis was placed on individual achievement in
arts and sciences rather than on an army column’s performance on the
battlefield. Because of this individualism, a greater emphasis was
placed on beauty and manners. The Renaissance man wanted, more than
anything, to be recognized as a gentleman, the contemporary
manifestation of the chivalrous knight. There was honor to defend and
women to impress – and it all had to be done in the proper manner.

Drawing on the medieval code of chivalry, countless books were
devoted to the subject of education, conduct, politeness, and
propriety–primarily because many crude men had risen to positions of
wealth and power through commercial or military means. All searched for
the easiest way to become genteel.

The most important book on the subject was Castiglione’s The Courtier,
published in 1528. It set the pattern for gentlemanly conduct not only
for its own time, but future generations as well. Castiglione divided
his advice into four main categories.

The first and foremost piece of advice for the Renaissance
gentleman, was that his conduct ought not be governed by his own fancy.
Rather, he ought to consider the feelings of those whose company he
keeps, especially when courting. “For instance,” writes Castiglione,
“when you have blown your nose, you should not open your handkerchief
and inspect it, as though pearls or rubies had dropped out of your
skull.” Gentlemen are reminded that such behavior is “nauseating”, and
more likely to lose him the affection of those who may otherwise be
keen on getting to know him better.

Table manners is the second topic of concern for Castiglione. The
relationship between man and food has not always been a flattering one.
It is here in the dining room that a man’s refinement–or lack
thereof–is most obviously on display. Not a few gents through the ages
have committed unsightly gaffes through force of impolite habits.

A few tips: don’t gobble your food so greedily, Castiglione warns,
as to give yourself hiccups or “some other unpleasantness”; don’t fill
both sides of your mouth so full with food that your cheeks are
bloated; don’t clean your teeth with your napkin, and still worse,
don’t do it with your finger. Finally, Castiglione instructs, “when you
rise from the table do not carry your toothpick in your mouth like a
bird making its nest, or behind your ear.”

In the category of “personal propriety,” the Renaissance man was given a number of rules of thumb:

  • do not indulge in foolish presumption
  • do not endeavor to be the bearer of bad news
  • do not be careless in speaking words which can offend
  • do not be obstinate or contentious
  • do not make a profession of contradicting everyone
  • do not be “an idler or lying babbler nor a boaster or inept flatterer”
  • be modest and reserved

Castiglione’s final bit of instruction comes by way of the
chessboard. He admits the game of chess is a “pleasing and ingenious
amusement.” But, he warns, it also has one serious defect: it is
possible to have too much knowledge of it, so that whoever would excel
in the game must devote a great deal of time to it—“as much study as if
he would learn some noble science or perform well anything of
importance.” For all his pains, the author adds, the great chess player
only knows how to play a game: “Thus, I think a very unusual thing
happens in this, namely that mediocrity in chess is more to be praised
than excellence.”

Some of this advice appears on the humorous side to us today, but
great points are made all around. Castiglione was promoting the
virtues, a striking contrast to today’s dandyish narcissist, who is in
love with no one but himself.


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