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The doctrine of the English Gentleman in the 16th Century-Ruth Kelso [1625]




Of all the researches magnificent that have engaged the human spirit the most honorable and the most ancient has been the quest for the perfect man. Poets and philosophers have gone on pilgrimage, and Diogenes with his lantern is not an eccentric, but a type and a symbol. Though the image has varied with time and place, like the ancestral portraits of an ancient house a family resemblance shows in Greek and Roman, medieval and renaissance ideals despite disguising robe, ruff, or coat of mail. The roots of every age lie buried deep in the past, and most of what seems new in one age is only the re-flowering of old things that have lain dormant or unnoticed. Yet any attempt to set forth the ideal of human, personal perfection which an age sought for itself presents peculiar difficulties because of the protean character of ideals-they will scarcely bear seizing; and in the English renaissance, with its sharp contrasts and contradictions-its intellectualism and its bestiality, its reverence for authority in the ancients and its originality-the/1 difficulties are multiplied. For us today such a study, however, is of particular interest because the perfect man of the renaissance bears a modern look and we have not yet found a better name express our ideal than that of gentleman, which the sixteenth century first made current. The adoption of the name is in itself significant of the setting-in of the new current which marks the modern period. It indicates the broadened base of the ideal and its greater attainableness.

The perfect man of the Greeks was the philosopher, admittedly realizable by only a few individuals in the state. The loftiest conception of the Romans was the orator, obviously also of extremely limited distribution. The ideal of chivalry belonged only to the warrior class of the middle ages, and the courtier of the Italian renaissance could live only in the palaces of princes. But the gentleman of England was a pattern men might take to themselves not merely at the court and on the battlefield, but in the universities, in the halls of justice, and even the countinghouse. It may be doing, however, a sort of violence to the facts to talk of the English ideal, since strictly speaking, in England there was not one but many, the courtier’s, the scholar’s, the lawyer’s, the soldier’s, the statesman’s, the merchant’s but all proudly claimed the name of gentleman, and today no origin is so mean, no calling so mechanical as to shut out a man from striving to become a gentleman. Thus have class prerogative and exterior marking fallen away from the ideal, and inner qualities of mind and character received increasing emphasis. So far has the process gone, indeed, that men wish to lay hold of the title through sheer possession of a common humanity, as if to say, “I am a man and therefore a gentleman,” and thus are emptying the term of meaning; but in its most indiscriminate use it still bears witness to the impulse of man to walk erect, and even yet covers more amply than any other one-word all that we prize in man.

What was this ideal of Elizabethan England? Whence came it, and how did it differ from its forerunners? In answering, one is reminded of Portia’s flippant words: “How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behaviour everywhere.” Whether the English gentleman was an eclectic in his choice of fashions and manners or merely indiscriminately hospitable may be a fair question, but it is true that he fashioned himself as well as his clothes on a pattern more noteworthy for its motley effect than for its harmony. To speak broadly, his virtues, his statecraft and his pedagogy he took from the Greeks and Romans, his manners in peace and his conduct in war from chivalry, his fundamental notion of his favored position in the state from medieval politicians, and on top of all he claimed to be a Christian. He was therefore both the latest fashion in perfection of a long series, and also a composite of all the ideals which the history of western Europe has recorded. Could the philosopher, the orator, the knight, the courtier, and the gentleman have met together, they would have found that beneath the surface they had much in common.

Aristotle, they would have agreed, had set forth adequately the private virtues, without which no man may lift his head above his fellows. The ostentatious rich man, the arrogant fool, the profligate, and the corrupt in high places, they would all have condemned with equal scorn, and praised with equal zeal modesty and graciousness, self-restraint and generosity, courage and justice. The public duty of unselfish devotion to the best interests of the state would have had as eager support from the knight as from the philosopher. The differences which appear lie in the type of public service demanded, and consequently in the equipment required for the performance of duties, in the social qualities desired, and in the countless details of manners, dress, forms of recreation, besides the subtle shadings that morals themselves take on with the change of times.

The difficulty of arriving at a fair representation of the Elizabethan ideal of the gentleman is indicated by this variety of its sources, which often present incompatible if not warring elements. The renaissance claimed that it drew its morality from Christianity, that is from the church fathers, and made use of pagan philosophers only in so far as they were compatible with Christianity and reinforced it. The two systems of morality, however, are fundamentally irreconcilable, one a system of renunciation, of abasement of the individual; the other a system of expansion, of perfection of the individual. It is easy to guess which formed the real basis of renaissance ethics. And yet Christian_ethicscannot be left out of the account. Likewise what may be called national and foreign elements entered into conflict. So potent was the influence of contemporary Italian and French thought that through translations and adaptations the expression of the English ideal took on a character opposed in many respects to actual English conditions and ideas, and it is hard to say how much of the borrowed matter is to be considered a corporate part of the English ideal. Thus Castiglione’s Courtier presented in Hoby’s English dress becomes to all appearance and intention an English book, and the recommended bible of the gentleman; and yet in many respects the ideal of the Italian courtier seems never to have become the ideal of the English gentleman. The ingredients, as may be seen, are greatly mixed.

The scope of the subject, moreover, is not apparent at first glance, for its ramifications are many and often unexpected. Every office and aspect of life was ordered for the gentleman by the fundamental assumption that he was the example, the leader, the governor of the common people, and must therefore be distinguished from them. To fill his place in the hierarchy of this world, he must be better born and better educated, have better manners, wear better clothes, and wear them more gracefully, live in a larger and more beautiful house, find recreation in more refined and more taxing amusements, look to his morals more closely, cherishing above all things a fine sense of honor,in short, never forget his essential superiority to the rabble. Consequently those concerned to foster and improve the qualities needed for a governing class, according to their own interest and their degree, poured forth “Institutions,” “Moral_Methods,” “Courtiers,” “Governors,” “Complete Gentlemen,” “Schoolmasters,” “Quintessences of Wit,” “Blazons of Gentry,” “Books of Honor and Arms,” of “Horsemanship,” of “Hunting and Hawking.” If England lacked any store of perfect gentlemen in Elizabeth’s days, it was not for lack of good advice and rules, administered in straight, unsugared style, or sweetly coated in a Euphues or Faerie Queene, in case, as Spenser said, men preferred to read for amusement rather than profit. Academic as much of this discussion seems today, outgrown and discarded, in the sixteenth century it still had vital import. For though the century saw the ending of the nobility as a real class through the loss of a business peculiar to it, military service, and through the shift of emphasis to civil service, the form still remained and with it the power. In affairs of state the gentleman still bore the responsibility for all the good and all the evil of the day. So Lawrence Humphrey wrote of his book, “I attempted to describe the ryghte pathe to Nobilitye, Syth of it, whatsoever eyther felicitye or calamitye, is in our present state, seemeth to issue.” The conditions which brought about the change from the knight to the gentleman are complex, and cannot be analyzed here in detail, but the main facts are generally known, and a brief outline will be sufficient to suggest the source of the ideal and the background against which it is to be projected.

Tudor policy resulted in concentrating political power in the sovereign and making the court the real center of the country. The Wars of the Rose had destroyed the last of the great self-sustaining establishments of the nobles, and the Tudors took care to reduce the power of the old nobility still further, partly by repressive laws regarding the size of their households, keeping of retainers, and so forth, and even by execution when desirable; and partly by encouraging the rise of a new nobility, often from the plebeian class, through judiciously distributed offices and the confiscated lands and titles of the old nobility. By Elizabeth’s time the court was looked upon as the chief means of rising, and the crown as the chief dispenser of rewards. Moreover, peace abroad and a greater degree of security at home contributed toward the identification of English interests with the sovereign, and a growing enthusiasm for him as English prestige increased abroad. “It is no small comfort unto an English Gentleman,” writes an apologist for monarchy, “finding himselfe in a farre countrey, when he may boldly shew his face and his forehead unto any forren Nation; sit side by side with the proudest Spaniard; cheek by cheeke with the stoutest German; set foote to foote with the forewardest Frenchman, knowing that his most Royal Prince (her Majesties highness) is no whitte subjecte, nor inferiour unto any of theirs.” The increasing intricacy of foreign affairs furnished more opportunities for distinguished careers abroad, the door to which could be opened only by the sovereign’s hand.

Thus political conditions conspired with the unwarlike character of all the Tudors to shift the emphasis from military to civil service, and the knight became the gentleman, a man dedicated essentially to the pursuits of peace.

A still more fundamental element in the change was the spread of education among both the lower classes and the upper. Here the revival of ancient_learning under Italian influence did some of its most far-reaching work in setting new ideals of education, giving it a new spirit and a new content, and in secularizing it. Education in England had been under the domination of the church no one else had been interested in dominating it and was therefore primarily directed to the training of churchmen, who then, after becoming churchmen, might devote their talents to serving political as well as ecclesiastical lords. As long as opportunities for education were furnished largely by church schools preferment to office lay also through the church, and the result was to limit the number of educated men, and particularly of men trained in law, oratory, history, languages,the equipment of the statesman and the politician. Secularization of education, therefore, was necessary to the building up of a new group of men, laymen who, under old titles, became more and more identified with the permanent business of government. The closing of the monastery schools in 1535 gave added impetus to the development of secular schools, turning men as a result away from the church as a vocation. When education, the key to office, could be had beyond the shadow of church doors, especially when the head of the church was no longer a pope but a prince of the royal house, men no longer troubled to take spiritual orders for secular affairs. But the work of Colet, Linacre, Grocyn, More, Elyot had already before the destruction of the monasteries set English education into new channels, and grammar_schools for poor boys were springing up everywhere at the same time that at court and in the houses of the great nobles the new learning was being taught by tutors like Sir John Cheke and Roger Ascham to the sons of gentlemen.

The contribution of the printer to the spread of education must also be taken into account. It is significant that the same century that witnessed the increase in schools and the inauguration of a new movement in education witnessed also the beginning of the age of printed_books, and therefore of cheap and accessible books. No small credit should also go to the tribe of translators who arose for their zeal in opening up the treasures of the ancients and the stimulating thought of renaissance Italy and France to the plain man whose Latinity was far to seek.

Another powerful factor in the enlargement of the gentle class, was the increase in wealth. The steady Tudor policy of encouraging commerce resulted in the rise of a large, wealthy merchant class, which not only held considerable power in its own hands through possessing the purse-strings, but furnished recruits for the ranks of nobles and, what was more important economically, opened up new occupations for the younger sons of nobles. Not only the merchant but all classes, artisan and yeoman as well, prospered, and evidence is abundant that the lines which separated gentleman from plebeian were scarcely discernible so far as habits of living were concerned. Such blurring of class lines exerted a definite influence on the conception of what the character and office of a gentleman should be by increasing the pressure from below and consequently by enlarging the class itself.

No better summing up of the period can be found perhaps than that of Samuel Daniel in his history of England: “A time not of that virility as the former, but more subtle, and let out into wider notions, and bolder discoveries of what lay hidden before. A time wherein began a greater improvement of the Soveraigntie, and more came to be effected by wit then the sword: Equal and just incounters, of State and State in forces, and of Prince, and Prince in sufficiencie. The opening of a new world, which strangely altered the manner of this, inhancing both the rate of all things, by the induction of infinite Treasure, & opened a wider way to corruption, whereby Princes got much without their swords: Protections, & Confederations to counterpoyse, & prevent over, growing powers, came to bee maintained with larger pensions. Leidger Ambassadors first imployed abroad for intelligences. Common Banks erected, to returne and furnish moneys for these businesses. Besides strange alterations in the State Ecclesiasticall: religion brought forth to bee an Actor in the greatest Designs of Ambition and Faction.”/3 Out of all these things and by them is produced the gentleman of the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Three significant developments are to be noted: the shifting of emphasis to civil employments; the addition of learning as necessary equipment; and the beginning of the democratization of the gentleman.

The purpose of this study, therefore, is to set forth what the sixteenth century called the institution of the gentleman, meaning thereby, as Mulcaster explains, the entering of “the young and untravelled student into that profession where unto they belong.” More than that, it is for us today the entering into the ideal which men still aim at in their search for personal perfection, and in their acknowledgment of a new noblesse_oblige, public service whether in a public or private capacity. Such a survey will include consideration of the place the gentleman was accorded in the general scheme of things, the particular offices he might most fittingly perform, his special moral_code which involved the so-called code of honor and its accompaniment of dueling, the education necessary to fit him for those offices both in mind and body, his manners, his dress and equipage, his pastimes everything which may become a man. This study of the personal ideals of the age will, it is hoped, contribute something to the history of social ideals, and illuminate if only by a flash here and there certain aspects of the great literature of the Elizabethan period. For the image which arises Out of the confusion of ideas, elusive yet alluring, graces in corporeal form the court of Elizabeth, and lives for us no less actually in the pages of Shakespeare.



Before proceeding to the business in hand it would be well doubtless to begin in the time-honored way with a definition, supposing, as the sixteenth century firmly believed, “that from good definition the solution of all doubts which occur in science springeth,”/4 although the results in this case, it must be admitted, tend rather to confuse than to clear the mind. Like every other term which covers an accumulated array of abstractions, gentleman has teased men to attempt definition and at the same time has eluded them; far easier is it to recognize a gentleman than to say what makes one. Sixteenth century England was particularly interested in the problem, since those who lacked the title were busy trying to acquire it, and those who had it were anxious to resist encroachment, but the sixteenth century was no more successful than its predecessors in arriving at a complete, unambiguous, and generally acceptable definition. The methods of the renaissance scholars, to begin with, doomed their efforts to failure, for they made little attempt to approach the subject from a fresh point of view, but accepted the accumulations of the past, drawing indiscriminately from the laws, the ancients, the church fathers, and the poets, and likewise from the prolific treatises of contemporary Italy and France. If what Plato, Cicero, Justinian, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and every commentator and interpreter of renaissance Italy and France have to say on nobility must be worked somehow into the definition of the true gentleman, no reasonable, consistent, clear result is possible. The vocabulary which they had to employ was time-worn also and contributed to the confusion. Nobility, gentility, and generosity were used in two senses, in the general sense common today to mean excellence of kind, and applicable to inanimate as well as to animate objects, to animals as well as to men; and in a special sense, almost if not quite lost today, to indicate position in society.

The arguments over the proper signification of these words arose largely through the inevitable attempt of moralists to include the first meaning in the second. In this special sense of social prominence the three terms, which passed currently for synonyms, were felt to mean different things, but there was no agreement upon the differences./3 Up to the middle of the century nobility was the general word employed to signify the status of a man who stood above the common crowd through the possession of special rights, privileges, and powers, conferred either by the king or by noble descent. All who ranked above plebeians therefore were called noble. By the end of the century however, common usage restricted noble to the upper ranks, that is, of baron and above, and thus associated it with titles rather than with qualities either of birth or person. Gentility, or gentry, by this time had taken the place of nobility as the general term to mark the distinction between high and low, as this passage from Segar illustrates: “We in England doe divide our men into five sorts: Gentlemen, Citizens, Yeomen, Artificers, and Labourers. Of Gentlemen, the first and principal is the King, Prince, Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Vicounts, and Barons. These are the Nobilitie, and be called Lords, or Noblemen. Next to these be Knights, Esquiers, and simple Gentlemen, which last number may be called Nobilitas minor.”/5 But gentility was also used for the lowest order above the plebeian, the foundation upon which all the other orders should be built, and was therefore differentiated from nobility as an inner and inherited quality which distinguished all who had it from plebeians, and of which nobility with its titles was the outward sign./6 The simple gentleman, the lord, and the prince all prided themselves first of all on being gentlemen; as Mulcaster put it, “Truth being the private protest of a gentleman, honour of a noble man, fayth of a Prince, yet generally they do all joine in this. As they be true, gentlemen.” Glover, indeed, expressly said that nobility and gentility were not one and the same thing, because gentility was natural, belonging to a certain good family or stock. Nobility was civil or political, involving particular privileges, and it might belong to the son and not to the father, and might be lost either voluntarily or through crime. A bill of attainder, for example, could deprive a nobleman of an ancient house and his heirs of titles and lands, and another bill restore them again; but no bill could change the blood that flowed in their veins into something low and plebeian. The privileges of rank, indeed, could not be dependent on birth, because otherwise a new prince would be lower than a mere gentleman of ancient family.

Nobility and gentility in reality often did not mean the same thing, since kings in their wisdom sometimes saw fit to confer high rank not only on the base-born but on wicked and worthless men, and hence arose the often repeated boast, “The king cannot make a gentleman.” Blurred as class lines became during the sixteenth century, and new as many of England’s prominent families were, the idea that gentility meant fundamentally gentle birth was never lost. Sir Thomas Smith might admit gentlemen made “good cheape” to the name, but he defined gentlemen as those whom their blood and race “cloth make noble and known.”/9 The other term generosity, when differentiated from nobility, had reference like gentility to personal qualities rather than dignities and honors, and when differentiated from gentility, to merit rather than birth. But even in the midst of definitions writers “wittingly confound” the three terms, and leave them with little more value than synonyms, and it is as synonyms that they will be employed in the following pages.

Such were the difficulties imposed on sixteenth century definers of nobility by the dead weight of authority and the confusion of terms, and out of them arise the difficulties of the student of today who would learn what the much bandied word gentleman meant to the educated Englishman of the renaissance. So much that was quoted was quoted perfunctorily, so much that was said was said ambiguously, that what follows must be taken purely tentatively. On no other subject is it less safe to be dogmatic.

Out of the double meanings that nobility with its synonyms —– was made to bear arose its classification by the medievalists into three kinds: Christian or theological, natural or philosophical, and civil or political. The first, Christian nobility, is founded on religion; given by God to the elect, it is the highest kind and most to be desired; but since it falls inscrutably upon some whom the world dishonors, slaves for instance, and not upon all whom it honors, it must be left to God and the theologians. Thus a ready answer was found for those who tried to use this kind of nobility as an argument against the recognition of ranks in Society. The second, natural nobility, comes through perfection of nature, and belongs to all things animate and inanimate, according as they perform their functions properly. The peculiar function of man is to live according to reason, that is to be virtuous; but so difficult is this of achievement that this kind of nobility belongs only to philosophers to understand. Thus were answered those who would deny nobility and therefore obedience to wicked men, tyrants. The third, civil nobility, is founded on custom, and comes from honors bestowed by princes; it can therefore be discussed by everybody, learned and unlearned. Renaissance writers often began with this classification and sometimes attempted to use it as the basis of their discussion, but usually they abandoned it without ceremony, after paying their respects to it, or like Muzio finally gave up in despair and left the task to their readers. “Fit what I say in my confused discourse,” said Muzio, “to whichever sort it belongs.” For practical purposes, however, these three kinds of nobility, as Milles said; are not “so at odds within themselves that their natures and their essences admit no reconciliation or may not be united in one person all together.”

The third, as a matter of fact, is all that we need to concern ourselves with here, since by the generally accepted definition it included all the variants of human nobility, whether it arose from birth, virtue, learning, office, or honors bestowed by the king. So Milles, aiming to “redeeme so faire a Subject  from the wandering Ideas of discoursing Phylosophers, and contemplative Divines,” defined civil nobility as “a dignity bestowed by Sovereign Grace upon Persons of Vertue or ability, for life, or forever, whereby a Man exempted and raised by Degrees, becomes lawfully preferred above the vulgar People, the better to do service, to the King and Common-wealth./15 This civil nobility was usually considered to be of two sorts, derived either by direct acquisition from the prince, and then called nobility dative, or by descent from noble ancestors and then called nobility native./16 It will help to keep the distinction.

Nobility native was the most obvious and most desirable kind of nobility. Among the common people the name of an old house coupled with a lordly air and a velvet cloak constituted the chief claim to the title of gentleman; and though, as Bodin remarked, “It is one thing to reason of degrees in the assembly of wise men and another thing to do it in the presence of the vulgar sort and scum of people,” even in the assembly of wise men of the sixteenth-century descent from an ancient and noble house was to be accounted “a blessing to thank God for.” The presumption at least was always in favor of the gentleman-born; he achieved in a moment what the base-born must labor years to attain, for he had opportunity, expectation of success, and all the assistance that his position, connections with the powerful, and reverence from his inferiors could give.” The truly noble of course followed in the footsteps of their illustrious ancestors, but as Sir Thomas Smith said, “If they doe not, yet the fame and wealth of their auncestors serve to cover them so long as it can, as a thing once gifted though it be copper within, till the gilt be worne away.” Other reasons for valuing gentle birth, however, bore great weight with the true gentleman. Aristotle taught that those sprung of better stock are likely to be better men, inheriting an inclination to do well and to shun evi1./20 Experience shows that men, like animals, birds, and trees, produce their kind; from one house proceed virtuous, brave, wise men, from another the opposite. Bad education, it was admitted, and free will to choose between virtue and vice may give a worthless son to an excellent father, but to begin —– with, such a son inherits an inclination to virtue, the manners and high spirit of his ancestors, and their ability for the tasks that fall to gentlemen, government and ladership in war.

The son of the ignoble man, on the other hand, inherits a disposition to vice, skill in low and mechanic arts; and a servile and mercenary spirit, and ris even if he turns to virtuous ways and performs worthy deeds, he is not actuated by the disinterested love of virtue which inspires the gentleman, but by desire for gain, perhaps even by fear./21 The more ancient nobility was therefore, the purer it was, as having bred into a man all the accumulated impulse toward virtue of a long line of illustrious ancestors, and bred out of him every lingering inclination toward the baseness of obscure progenitors. But it was only inclination to virtue, not virtue itself, that was inherited. Therefore if a man had only the good name of his ancestors to boast of, he had nothing that was really his. Besides the advantage of inheritance, the nobly-born had a better education, from his cradle up surrounded by gentle influences and honorable men, so that there was produced a harmony between birth and virtue. Greater than either of these advantages was the spur to noble actions which came from a long line of ancestors whose valorous deeds and wisdom in high counsels had filled the pages of history. Example was more powerful than blood, than education, and desire to prove worthy of the past pricked the noble spirit on to emulation. Such a spur the base-born lacked, nor could their virtuous deeds shine so graciously against their dark and obscure background. A diamond in a splendid setting shines so much the more fair.

For certes, the landes, renowme and worthy fame, And noble enterprises of your old progenitors, are left as bright sparkles yong mindes to inflame, And as sede provoking their minds to honours, Not by ambition nor by heaping of treasures, Nor rentes augmented without lawe or measure, But by godly virtue and manners clear and pure.

Such nobility was to be valued by men, because they thus showed gratitude for the noble deeds of the past and gave a spur to their continuance, and because such nobility was the main pillar of every well established community. This was the generally accepted view in the sixteenth century, based on the assumption that nobility in the first place had been conferred on remote ancestors for their good qualities, and that the descendants of such illustrious men continued to exhibit the qualities which had made their ancestors famous. The greatness of the past was the spur applied by those who saw in the aristocracy the only hope for a well governed country, and who feared its destruction through what they called its degeneration. Philosophers, historians, and reformers all joined in creating a splendid dream of a time in the past when all gentlemen devoted themselves to service of country, eager for high deeds, choosing by instinct and habit to follow the worthy, and shun the unworthy. Whatever basis of truth underlay this fiction of ancient honor and glory and inherited qualities, there were not wanting those whose study of less biased historians, or whose clearer-eyed observation of existing conditions led them to find no essential difference in the substance of the body of the noble from that of the ignoble but rather in the bringing up.

The seeds of virtue, they said, are sown in all by the goodness of God, and prove fruitful according to their cultivation. A man well brought up though of humble origin may more easily attain to the nobility of personal excellence than can a man merely well-born, as experience amply proved. As one writer put it, “The stocke and linage maketh not a man noble or ignoble, but use, education, instruction, and bringing up maketh him so: for when a man from infancy is instructed in good manners, all the rest of his life he shall be inclined into acts of nobility and vertue. And on the contrary, if he be evilly instructed in his young years, he will have as long as he liveth such manners as are barbarous, strange, and full of all villeiny.” There was an obvious difficulty, however, in insisting upon ancient lineage as a prerequisite for nobility. Ancient lineage would make every one noble, if pushed back to Adam, an absurdity, orelse it must ignore a beginning. Nobility therefore could not rest on noble birth for its beginning. Granted that perfect nobility rested on the good deeds of ancestors joined to the good deeds of descendants, there must be some efficient cause, as the philosophers say, for the beginning and the renewing of nobility, since time changes all things and old families die out or are lost from the rolls of honor. We are brought thus to the other sort of nobility, nobility dative.

Whatever a common man’s claim to reward for excellence in himself and for service to the state, it was presumption and disobedience to the law, subversive of the established order of things, for him to assume nobility on his own authority. The king must judge of his worthiness and by the conferring of dignity raise him above the state of the multitude. Nobility dative, therefore, involved ideally two prerequisites, the existence of some merit which deserved reward, and the conferring of reward by royal action. The absence of one or the other derogated from the individual’s claims to gentility.

Royal action was at least theoretically involved even in the assuming of the gentleman’s status, for though the College of Arms issued the coats of arms which established the unquestioned right of a man to the description gentleman, the heralds bore their license by grant of the king and acted in his name; such at least was the theory. The higher ranks, which were conferred directly by the king, presented an increase only in honor and dignity, not in quality. The coat of arms indeed became so closely associated with the idea of gentility that a current definition of gentleman was one who bears arms./27 But it must be said that the heralds themselves were chiefly responsible for both the definition and the currency. Once important as a distinguishing mark in military operations, and assumed voluntarily by those who needed it, the heraldic device had first become hereditary (in the reign of Henry III) and then been reduced to system and emptied of meaning by the formation of the College of Arms (under Richard III), which assumed that no one was a gentleman unless he were registered there./28 As a matter of fact heraldry was a part of the feudal system and passed with it so far as any vital meaning was concerned.

By the end of the sixteenth century the College of Heralds had fallen into evil repute, for the sale of coats of arms was notorious, and the devices were stolen from old families without shame or designed to suit the whims of their buyers to the utter confusion and degradation of the honorable sign language of chivalric days./30 The devices, however, were accepted as a convention, and the heralds exercised a certain dominion sanctioned by royal grants and popular acceptance, though not acknowledged by lawyers. New gentlemen, at any rate, hastened to seek the herald’s offices in establishing a visible claim to a new status. Old families whose gentility had been assumed and acknowledged for generations might and sometimes did defy the herald’s visitations and edicts, for in England, as elsewhere, gentility also grew up from the soil with generations of thrift well applied and good living, without asking by-your-leave of the king, or seeking from heralds the outward badge of gentleness./32 In practice the line separating plebeian and gentleman was a very thin and movable line. Sir Thomas Smith’s often quoted passage on the point will bear quoting again: “Ordinarily the king doth only make knights and create barons or higher degrees: for as for gentlemen, they be made good cheape in England. For whosoever studieth the lawes of the realme, who studieth in the universities, who professeth liberall sciences, and to be shorte, who can live idly and without manuall labour, and will beare the port, charge and countenaunce of a gentleman, he shall be called master, for that is the title which men give to esquires and other gentlemen, and shall be taken for a gentleman.” He raised directly the question which was perhaps most vehemently discussed of all the points bearing on nobility, whether the manner of England in making gentlemen so easily was to be allowed. Most writers inveighed against it, lamenting the growing difficulty of distinguishing between high and low-born, the confusion of callings, the encouragement to idleness and consequent dearth of laborers and increase in crime.

Sir Thomas, however, found nothing objectionable in the system, for the king and state profited; there was no loss of revenues as in France, since the gentleman was more heavily charged than others in payments to the king; moreover, the gentleman himself to make and preserve his reputation must live more magnificently than others, dress to suit his station, arm himself if he went to the wars, show higher courage, better education, more liberality, and keep about him idle servants to wait on him. No one was hurt but himself, who might be carrying a bigger sail than he could maintain. “For as touching the policie and government of the common wealth, it is not those that have to do with it, which will magnifie them selves, and goe in higher buskins than their estate will beare; but they which are to be appointed, are persons tryed and well knowen.” The assumption throughout, however, whether the status of gentleman was acquired by royal or private action, was that some distinction existed in the individual which raised him above his fellows. As legitimate ground for royal action in conferring nobility dative three qualifications were commonly discussed, virtue, learning, and riches.

The chief claim to distinction was admitted to be virtue, that is, conspicuous personal merit and ability shown in actions beneficial to the state. A man might practice the private virtues all his life and still not be worthy of nobility, for virtue that was private was restricted in its influence, while virtue that was suitable for ennobling was public, conferring benefits on the whole state and reaching to posterity as it raised a family to distinction and honor. Virtue then which was profitable to one’s country was sufficient cause for ennoblement, in fact the only true cause and test, as “not only philosophers and divines, but poets, historiographers, and almost all lawyers agree.”Next to virtue learning held a favored place. Mulcaster set wisdom and valor as the chief means to advancement, and gave the honors in the order of their importance to the counsellor, the divine, the lawyer, and the physician. A student in the Universities or the Inns of Court by that fact assumed the standing of gentleman, and the lawyer in particular rose in esteem with his reputation for learning, the Tudors delighting to honor him with place and title.

Riches were undeniably regarded by the crowd as a main reason for reverencing their possessor, because certainly ancient descent in tatters dropped into the gulf of nonentity, whereas vulgarity richly clad imposed its pretensions on the undiscriminating/39 Scholars, too, recognized wealth as an essential concomitant if not foundation for nobility, for two reasons. Liberality, one of the chief distinguishing virtues of the gentleman and Christian, was not possible without wealth, and the practice of the liberal_arts, the arts of the gentleman, must fail lacking the wherewithal for their support. Theoretically, wealth should have been honestly come by, or old enough for the memory of its dishonest origin to have been lost. The Stoics and others who repudiated riches utterly in relation to nobility did so partly because of the evils that luxury, introduced and partly because of the assumed wicked origin for all riches in dishonesty, robbery, murder, and all other crimes./40 English theory admitted their desirability and almost their necessity. Burghley in his precepts to his son says, “That gentleman that selles an Acre of Land, looseth an ounce of credite, for Gentilitie is nothing but ancient Riches: So that if the Foundation doe sinke, the Building must needes consequently fall.”/41 The rapid decay and disappearance of old families because of poverty furnished adequate object lessons, no less impressive because of the correspondingly rapid rise of thrifty yeomen and merchants by the purchase of the forfeited estates. The strongest argument for the English practice of primogeniture was that if the family possessions were divided among all the children, none could support the chatges of maintaining high estate and the whole house must sink./42 The result of such distribution on the continent, which filled France and Spain with ragged nobles, who abated no whit of their pride but lowered the dignity of nobility, was often called in point. “Absolutegentlemen,” therefore, wrote Guazzo, are those “who to their gentrie by birth and vertue have great riches joined, which serve greatly to the maintenance of gentrie.”

One other cause of nobility dative should not be omitted. The old saying had it, “Arms bred nobility,” and still enumerated among the causes that ennobled was service in the wars, but not without specification. Ten years of active service was usually set as necessary to assumption of gentility, and not merely as a rough soldier in the lower ranks but in some position of command. Nor might any common hireling be honored but such a man as “is given by his owne disposition to delight and follow the Cannon wheel, whose countenaunce and cheerful face, beginnes to smile and rejoyce when the dromme soundeth, and whose harte is so high, it will not stoupe to no servile slaverie. But hath a bodie and mynde able to aunswere that is looked for, and hath often been tried and experimented in Marshall affaires; through haunting whereof he is become ignoraunt of drudgyng at home, and made a skilful scholler in the discipline of warre: which is not learned without some losse of blood, charges of purse and consuming of time.” The question was often raised as to which should be preferred, the new or the old gentleman,those who through their own merit won great renown without the example of their fathers, or those who followed in the footsteps of famous ancestors.

The balance usually weighed in favor of the old, true gentility even being denied to the founder of a house, and granted only to his grandson, whose blood might be supposed to be purged of all inclination to mechanical things. But some, admiring the successful struggle against odds held the new noble more praiseworthy than the ancient, or at least equally so./46 There seems as a matter of fact to be a tendency in the renaissance to lay more emphasis than had been laid before upon the part that personal worth plays in acquiring and maintaining nobility and less upon birth, which becomes desirable for its initial advantage rather than for its assured heritage of personal superiority. But though emphasis may have changed it would be a mistake to suppose that either in theory or practice gentle birth played a negligible part in determining a man’s status. True nobility is almost always defined as that of race and virtue, and much of the insistence on virtue is intended not to comfort the lowly-born but to admonish the well-born who seem generally to have prided themselves on birth to the neglect of virtue. The presumption of superiority in character and ability still lay with the man well-born, who, as Mulcaster said, when he adds desert in his own person “cloth well deserve double honour among men, as bearing the true cote of right and best nobilitie, where desert for vertue is quartered with descent in blood, seeing aunciencie of linage and derivation of nobilitie is in such credit among us and alwaye hath bene.”



Man is ever a theorizing creature restlessly spinning cobweb reasons to support the facts of his existence; nor did he fail in the sixteenth century to buttress the position of the ruling class with theories long current and much worn as to the origin and necessity of such a class in the state. The fundamental assumption of the whole of gentility was the aristocratic theory that some are born to rule and some to be ruled; that inequalities must be maintained between men, sharply cleaving them apart by differences in occupation, education, dress, manners, and even morals.
Such an assumption, to be sure, has never been without its challengers, and certainly was not without them in the sixteenth century.

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?

The familiar bit of doggerel had been for centuries and was still the taunt and challenge of the common people to a system which bade them labor contentedly for their betters. John Ball in 1381 had voiced this protest against the injustice of inequality: “Good people, things will never go well in England, so long as goods be not kept in common, and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen. By what right are they whom men call lords greater folk than we? If all come from the same father and mother, Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride. They are clothed in velvet, and are warm in their furs and ermines, while we are covered in rags. They have wine and spices and fair bread, and we oatcake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the wind and rain in the fields. And yet it is of us and of our toil that these men hold their state.” And sixteenth century England was rife with the same discontent, as indicated not only by uprisings similar to John Ball’s, but by the innumerable complaints about the striving of everyone to climb higher than he found himself, as well as by the innumerable counter-arguments to prove inequality necessary and right. No fault of the century was more often attacked than this discontent with things as they were, and the word ambition had the connotation of a vice. Ratcliffe, the translator of a French work on vocations, itself an argument against a presumptuous seeking to change one’s vocation, in his dedication to Sir Francis Walsingham thus inveighs against the times. “For whoever saw so many discontented persons: so many yrked with their owne degrees: so fewe contented with their owne calling: and such number desirous, & greedie of change, & novelties? Whoever heard tell of so many reformers, or rather deformers of estates and Common weales; so many controllers of Princes, and their proceedinges: and so fewe imbracing obedience? whiche beginneth nowe (the more pitie) to be lagged at the carte’s taile. And to be short: such straunge and souden alteration in all estates? Doth not the unlearned Layman, undertake the office of a Minister? Doth not the Minister disallowe of inferiour orders, and levell (as a man would say) with both eyes at once, (for sayling) at the Bishops myter? Is the Bishop, trowe ye, so exempt of self love, and desire of honour, as that he could not be contented to leave his former vocation to imbrace the supreme dignitie of Priesthood? Likewise, the Plough man, doth he not thinke the Merchant happier then himself? The Merchant, doth he not tickle at the title of a Gentleman? The Gentleman, doth he not shoot at the marke of Nobility? And the Noble man, hath he not his eye fixed uppon the glorie and greatnesse of a Prince? What Prince could not be contented to be Monarche of the whole world? What should I say? would not the Lawyer (think ye) agreeably accept the title of a Lord?” Apologists indeed were busy answering the “English Switzers” of their own time “who were so super-paradoxical as to deny the fundamental assumption that differences must exist.”

All the writers from Sir Thomas Elyot on, however assured they might be of the necessity and divine right of nobility, were making an apologia for it, conscious that power and place were slipping away from the bearing of proud old names. The nobles, stripped of military power, were threatened with loss of all distinction. The ground on which their clairrl to reverence rested needed defining, and many set themselves to prove the necessity of noblesthat is a favored classin a “well ordered and Christan like governed state.” Two institutions were interested in justifying the existing order, the church and the state; the church in order to justify the ways of God to men, and the state, the ways of men to men. The current theories as to the origin of a favored class and its position in the state worked equally well on both counts and furnished a more or less logical foundation for all the gentleman’s pretensions to superiority.

The origin of nobility was explained in various ways that suggested, if they did not prove, its inevitability. The most generally held belief was based on “Genesis.” Adam, according to this explanation, must be the source of all nobility, though perhaps not noble himself, since he had no father or mother from whom to draw his nobility. Cain then for his ungentle behavior to his brother was the father of all ignobility. Through Seth nobility was passed on to the generations of men until the flood and then continued through Noah, the descendant of Seth. The flood of course wiped out all distinctions, but the world was saved from noble but dull uniformity by the unfilial conduct of Ham. Noah’s curse renewed the race of churls. The chief objection made to this theory was(, the difficulty of tracing descent back so far. The College of Heralds could perform wonders but not so great a miracle. And if the misconduct of sons be ignored and the common paternity of Adam be claimed, then all men must be noble, as John Ball urged, and the explanation of evident differences in men not only in possessions but in ability was still to seek.

Other explanations for the rise of nobility were drawn from two theories of the origin of kingdoms. Both theories assumed in the beginning a community of goods and equality among people until an increase in numbers brought about a change. Then, according to one, the contract theory, the necessity for order and for someone to administer order caused people to seek out the most virtuous among them and offer him kingship over them, an idea borrowed from the ancients and the Old Testament. Then for assistance in governing, the king or the people chose other virtuous men and gave them office and power. The sons of these, being well brought up and encouraged by their fathers’ advancement, walked in their footsteps and held the favor of the people; thus nobility began and became hereditary. This is the theory of triumphant-virtue. Inequality begins with the consent of the people. The objection to this theory was that if nobility began as a reward of virtue voluntarily given, there was no accounting for the endless, recorded succession of rulers and powerful ones who gained their place by breaking all the laws of the decalogue. Some nobility would seem to have been the reward of vice.

The other theory, which was more commonly held, obviated this difficulty by postulating that all nobility was founded upon violence and oppression. The increase in population that resulted after the fall (if not because of it) occasioned misunderstandings, feuds, wafts, which brought about inequalities between victors and vanquished. Men at first had no more knowledge of virtue then to rob, kill, and enslave other men, and the bolder the killer, the more worthy of honor was he thought to be. Later when men had become instructed, virtue might have been the cause of ennobling, but most houses had taken heir rise in crime, robbery, spoils, treason, flattery, adultery, lies, murder, poison./7 Therefore nobility must be a forgetting of origin. This is the theory of triumphant_force; inequality arises from injustice. But to admit crime as the origin of nobility was scarcely to justify the demand for reverence and submission to the noble as the preserver of order, protector of the people, and representative of God upon earth.

It is plain to be seen that speculation as to whether nobility and unequal division of the goods of life originated in Adam and his sons, or in a contract between the people and certain individuals whom they chose to honor, or in the tyranny of superior force would not go far to convince the restless, discontented, halfliberated, seditious world of the sixteenth century that the existing system was right or necessary. More substantial ground than that was needed, and it was found in the theory that order is heaven’s first law. By this it was easily shown that the very existence of society with all its blessings of peace, opportunity for cultivation of the virtues and the arts, necessitates such an organization, which provides for the division of labor and supply of laborers fitted for their work.

Drawing on a medieval conception,/8 the renaissance apologists for nobility represented the state as a hierarchy. At the top was the ruler, deriving his power directly from God, acting as God’s_viceroy upon earth. Under him, since it was impossible, as Elyot said, for one mortal man to know everything that went on in his realm and settle all controversies, must be a body of lesser authorities to assist him in the administration of justice. This body included dependent princes, magistrates, officials of all sorts, and the, whole body of the nobility, in whom was vested something of the divine authority of the king. At the bottom, furnishing support for the pyramid and the admitted reason for its existence, were the common people. The hierarchies of heaven where the angels differ in degree and all make obeisance to God; and of the sky where the stars vary in magnitude and the sun is overlord of all; and of nature where beasts, birds, and plants acknowledge degrees and one more excellent than all the rest; and even of the body of man where each member has its appointed task and the head rules allall these were proof that God intended man to exhibit like order as well as to seek peace and unity in a single head.

A ruling class was thus established upon as firm a basis as the king, even, one may add, as God himself, for in this organic_theory of the state the lower part was no less important than the higher for the proper functioning of the state. Refusal to recognize the necessity of this ruling class, or attempts to push one’s way up from the bottom into it, was obviously subversive of the state, and more than that, a flying in the face of God’s decree. For it was evident that God intended such a division of men since he had created men unequal at birth in character and abilities. Men are equal in Christ, it was admitted, and in the facts of birth and death, but by nature they differ in all other ways. Some are strong and beautiful, some weak and ugly; some incline to virtue, some to vice; some are apt for one thing, some for another. Such differences could have been ordained by God to no other purpose than that order might be preserved.” To maintain life food, clothing, and shelter must be had, and men must produce them. Inferior talents of hand and brain are sufficient to provide all these fundamental needs, and these inferior talents the mass of the people possess, these and no more. They are therefore incapable of ruling themselves, having neither the inherited qualities necessary, nor the training, nor the leisure. “The popular sort,” said one writer, the echo of many such detractors, “are commonly evil conditioned, variable, inconstant, suspicious, hard to be ruled, and as Virgil saith, always divided into factions, and to conclude, their imperfections, excluded from all good discretion and news. “The nobles, on the other hand are commonly “of greater abilitie, of better behaviour and more civil than the common people, than artificers, and men of base estate, because they have beene brought up from their infancie in all civilitie and amongst men of honor. Moreover to have a noble hart and invincible to resist the enimie, great to exercise liberalitie, curteous and honest in talke, bold to execute, gentle to forgive, are graces and virtues proceeding from honesty, which are not so commonly found among men of base condition, as among those that come of good and ancient stocks?”

To sum up, “As there must be some men of policy and prudence, to discern what is metest to be done in the government of states, even so, there must be other of strength and readiness to do that the wyser shall thinke expedient, bothe for the maintenance of them that govern, and for theschyng of the infinite jeopardies, that a multitude not governid fallith into: These must not go, arme in arme, but the one before, the other behynde, wyt and prudence muste be as maysters of a worke, and appoynte strength and redynesse their taske.”* The laws of inheritance thus fastened upon men this division into classes, and the stability of society depended upon maintaining such a division. to

*Remedy for Sedition, fo. A2b. See also Rich, Faultes Faults, and Nothing Else but Faultes, fo. 43a; Patrizi, t4 Moral Methode of Civile Policie, 1576, bk. I, fo. 5a; Mulcaster, Positions, ch. 39; Fitzherbert, The Boke of Husbandy, “The Author’s Prologue”; Spenser, Fairie Queene, V, II, XXXLIV.

The gentlemanto use the term applied to all above the common people irrespective of rankthus held a fixed and essential place in this earthly hierarchy, as the intermediary between the king and the mass of his people. From his position as supporter of the arms of the king, protector of the people in war, and administrator of justice in peace was argued his title to all the privileges and exemptions that were his. All the splendid trappings of dress, furniture, and retinue that his wealth could support, his offices, and his titles of honor were justified from the necessity to command the reverence and obedience of the ignorant masses, who bowed only to obvious superiority, and also from a regard for justice, which gives to superior excellence its due reward, the visible tokens of that excellence. Such rewards are necessary to spur the individual on to achievement for his own sake and for the sake of his posterity. Few men would make an effort to gain a great name if they thought that it died with them.

Such in brief was the unmodified theory of the reason for the existence and for the character of the gentleman with all it implies of actual superiority to his fellows inphysical and mental qualities, partly inherited, partly developed by contact from birth with the best and by wise education. Such by implication was the justice of shutting off the great majority of men from access to similar advantages of training and opportunities for self-development. Unfortunately for the effectiveness of this extreme theory there was a great discrepancy between its fundamental assumption and the facts. Each century out of its confusion and dissatisfaction pictured the preceding age as happy in well defined classes that performed their allotted tasks, never seeking to climb above themselves, or to shirk their duty to rule or be ruled. But search backward reveals no such happy period. The churl was aways to be found pushing his way among his betters, and the gentleman degenerating and sinking into the state of the churl. The impression that one gets of an acceleration in the renaissance of this rising and falling may be due rather to the greater articulateness of the period through its printed record, but the notorious discontent of all classes in the renaissance represents at most an acceleration and not a new condition. Classes were not sharply distinguished; that is, the line between the gentle and the ungentle was vague. There was a group certainly that bore the name of gentlemen by unmistakable right; there was another group that just as unmistakably had no right to the title and never claimed it, but there was a large intermediate group that deservedly or undeservedly appropriated the title and few were bold enough to deny all the members of this group the right to wear it. Sir Thomas Smith, as we have seen, even found the English facility for making gentlemen an advantage since it put men on their mettle to emulate the virtues and manners of the real gentleman. The fact, however, that new men were constantly rising from the lower classes, often through particular merits of their own, had an effect on the theory of gentility, helping to throw the emphasis from birth as an essential to quality, and thereby making provision in theory for strengthening the governing class with new blood. For the troublesome fact was patent to all, that individuals born into the upper class were continually falling away from it through poverty, or disaster, or physical and moral degeneracy.

The theory of the favored class, therefore, has only been half stated in the claim to its necessity in an ordered scheme of things, for if it gave a high place to the gentleman it also laid upon him heavy obligations both in his private and public character. And even stronger than the desire to justify nobility, the desire to make nobility worthy of its high place actuated the apologists for the gentleman, who bent their main efforts toward defining the obligation and preparing and persuading the gentleman to meet it. “Nobility is far greater than manye conceive of it,” said Lawrence Humphrey, “And the calling heavenly but hard. The honour lightsome, but the burthen heavy. And to vaunt and professe him self others superiour and better; of all others the moste massye charge.”The gentleman was likely in practice to regard superiority as resting in externals, brave dress, arrogant manners, even inconspicuous indulgence in fashionable follies and vices. Many are the biting descriptions of these “carpet knights.” “But touching the true difference, and as they oughte to differ:” said one writer most tender of the good name of the gentleman, “lyke as the rose in beauty passeth al other flowers and is an ornament and settyng forth of the place wher it groweth and so by the excellency that nature hath geven, it leadeth a mans eye soner to the aspecte and beholding of it then of other flowers, so ought a gentleman by hys conditions, qualities, and good behaviour to excell all other sortes of men, and by that his book of Hunan, excellence to set forth and adorne the whole company emong whom he shall happen for to be; and therby to leade the eye of mans affecion to love him before others for his vertues sake.” But the heaviest responsibility of the English gentleman lay not in the attainment of personal perfection (and therein he differed from the Italian courtier), but in the performance of public service. The Englishman of the sixteenth century was not much interested in political theory, speculation as to the nature of the state; he took his theory chiefly from continental writers; but in practical politics he was deeply interested, and set duty to the state as the prime consideration of the gentleman. It was not a new idea. The medieval theory of monarchy stressed the obligation that rested on the king to govern well, because the office existed not for its own sake but for the people’s; and to the nobility also was applied the admonition, “Whoever has the dignity has the burden attached.” Caxton’s Book of Chivalry, assigned to the fourteenth century, admonished knights that they should be lovers of the common good because the welfare of all is more important than the welfare of the individual. Their office was to maintain justice by protecting the people and the judges from violence, and if they might become learned none should be so fitted to be the judges as they themselves. The education of the knight, which fitted him only to fight and serve in his lord’s hall, alone prevented him from administering the laws. The sixteenth century saw this disability removed with the spread of learning among all classes. Service of country became, then, not only leadership in war, but more important than that counsel in peace and dispensing of justice. “A right gentleman oughte to be a man fyt for the warres, and fytte for the peace, mete for the courte and meete for the countrey.” The gentleman then should live not for himself, but for others; to the neglect even of his own interest and of his own inclinations, mindful that from him must come all the felicity or the calamity that befalls his country.

The growth of this broad and stern idea of public duty must be traced not only to the assertion of medieval doctrines regarding the divine sanction of rulers and magistrates and people in authority, but also to the classical ideal of citizenship which the revival of learning had again made familiar, and perhaps in some measure to the outburst of patriotism which, centered about royalty. Plato and Aristotle and the glamor of Elizabeth and her court help to buttress this corollary to the doctrine of the political necessity of inequality that with power and privilege went heavy responsibility.

This then at the end of the sixteenth century is where the nobility of England placed themselves in the general scheme of things. The theory of their group-importance and function in the state to all appearances had been maintained intact. In practice also Elizabeth, though she took care to clip the wings of her most powerful nobles, took care likewise to foster the whole group “as brave half paces between a throne and a people.”/19 Such matters as descent and origin of title aside, the assumption that the nobility were the natural governors of the state was sound for the sixteenth century. Devotion to public affairs demanded the conditions of life which gentility, long held or newly had, presupposed, to use Mulcaster’s summing up “great abilitie to go thorough withall, where the poorer must give over, eare he come to the end: great Leasure to use libertie, where the meaner must labor: all opportunities at will: where the common is restrained.” These conditions were as true for Sir Thomas Gresham-, born to a trade, as for Sir Philip Sidney born to a courtier’s life. That both should be called gentlemen and knighted is typical of the times and significant of the passing of the old order.

For the justification and therefore the existence of any privileged class rests ultimately upon its serviceableness to the community. When the core is gone, though the shell may for long exist intact, the whole body is doomed sooner or later to decay. The core of European nobility as a class that is as a group possessing from generation to generation certain definite privileges went with the passing of the feudal system and the development of strong, central authorities, and national as distinguished from baronial warfare.

The shell, however, was preserved, and the lack of the core concealed through the sixteenth century partly by an adaptation of the old system to new conditions, and partly by the application of old names to new things. The old monopoly of the gentleman, war, was gone; he found new occupations for himself and covered them with the old cloak. Only in our own day have we seen that cloak worn so thin and full of rents that it can no longer conceal the transformation that beneath the surface has been going on since the sixteenth century.

SOURCE: Ruth Kelso’ s Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the 16th Century [Published in Europe to 1625]

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