The term gentleman (from Latin gentilis, belonging to a race or gens, and "man", cognate with the French word gentilhomme, the Spanish gentilhombre, and the Italian gentil uomo), in its original and strict signification, denoted a man of good family, the Latin generosus (its invariable translation in English-Latin documents). In this sense the word equates with the French gentilhomme (nobleman), which latter term was in Great Britain long confined to the peerage. The term gentry (from the Old French genterise for gentelise) has much of the significance of the French noblesse or of the German Adel. This was what the rebels under John Ball in the 14th century meant when they repeated:
- When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the Gentleman?
Are you Gentleman?
John Selden in Titles of Honour, (1614), discussing the title "gentleman", speaks of "our English use of it" as "convertible with nobilis" and describes in connection with it the forms of ennobling in various European countries.
To a degree, gentleman signified a man who did not need to work, and could not claim nobility or even the rank of esquire. It was at times applied genuinely or ironically to all men who did not work, leading to the phrase "gentleman of leisure" to mean "unemployed". Widening further, it became a politeness for all men, as in the phrase "Ladies and Gentlemen,..." and this was then used (often with the abbreviation Gents) to indicate where men could find a water closet, toilet, lavatory, bathroom, or restroom without the need to indicate precisely what was being described.
Gentleman by conduct
Chaucer in the Meliboeus (circa 1386) says: "Certes he sholde not be called a gentil man, that ... ne dooth his diligence and bisynesse, to kepen his good name"; and in The Wife of Bath's Tale:
- Loke who that is most vertuous alway
- Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay
- To do the gentil dedes that he can
- And take him for the gretest gentilman
And in the Romance of the Rose (circa 1400) we find: "he is gentil bycause he doth as longeth to a gentilman".
This use develops through the centuries, until in 1714 we have Steele, in Tatler (No. 207), laying down that "the appellation of Gentleman is never to be affixed to a man's circumstances, but to his Behaviour in them", a limitation over-narrow even for the present day. In this connection, too, one may quote the old story, told by somevery improbablyof James II, of the monarch who replied to a lady petitioning him to make her son a gentleman, "I could make him a nobleman, but God Almighty could not make him a gentleman".
Selden, however, in referring to similar stories "that no Charter can make a Gentleman, which is cited as out of the mouth of some great Princes that have said it", adds that "they without question understood Gentleman for Generosus in the antient sense, or as if it came from Genii/is in that sense, as Gentilis denotes one of a noble Family, or indeed for a Gentleman by birth". For "no creation could make a man of another blood than he is".
The word "gentleman", used in the wide sense with which birth and circumstances have nothing to do, is necessarily incapable of strict definition. For "to behave like a gentleman" may mean little or much, according to the person by whom the phrase is used; "to spend money like a gentleman" may even be no great praise; but "to conduct a business like a gentleman" implies a high standard.
William Harrison, writing a century earlier, says "gentlemen be those whom their race and blood, or at the least their virtues, do make noble and known". But for the complete gentleman the possession of a coat of arms was in his time considered necessary; and Harrison gives the following account of how gentlemen were made in Shakespeare's day:
- Gentlemen whose ancestors are not known to come in with William duke of Normandy (for of the Saxon races yet remaining we now make none accompt, much less of the British issue) do take their beginning in England after this manner in our times. Who soever studieth the laws of the realm, who so abideth in the university, giving his mind to his book, or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or beside his service in the room of a captain in the wars, or good counsel given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same do of custom pretend antiquity and service, and many gay things) and thereunto being made so good cheap be called master, which is the title that men give to esquires and gentlemen, and reputed for a gentleman ever after. Which is so much the less to be disallowed of, for that the prince doth lose nothing by it, the gentleman being so much subject to taxes and public payments as is the yeoman or husbandman, which he likewise doth bear the gladlier for the saving of his reputation. Being called also to the wars (for with the government of the commonwealth he medleth little) what soever it cost him, he will both array and arm himself accordingly, and show the more manly courage, and all the tokens of the person which he representeth. No man hath hurt by it but himself, who peradventure will go in wider buskins than his legs will bear, or as our proverb saith, now and then bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.
In this way Shakespeare himself was turned, by the grant of his coat of arms, from a "vagabond" into a gentleman. The inseparability of arms and gentility is shown by two of his characters:
- Petruchio: I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again.
- Katharine: So may you lose your arms: If you strike me, you are no gentleman;
- And if no gentleman, why then no arms.
- (The Taming of the Shrew, Act II Scene i.)
Superiority of the fighting man
The fundamental idea of "gentry", symbolised in this grant of coat-armour, had come to be that of the essential superiority of the fighting man; and, as Selden points out (page 707), the fiction was usually maintained in the granting of arms "to an ennobled person though of the long Robe wherein he hath little use of them as they mean a shield".
At the last the wearing of a sword on all occasions was the outward and visible sign of a "gentleman"; and the custom survives in the sword worn with "court dress".
This idea that a gentleman must have a coat of arms (and that no-one is a "gentleman" without one) came about, however, comparatively late in history, the outcome of the natural desire of the heralds to magnify their office and collect fees for registering coats; and the same is true of the conception of gentlemen as a separate class.
That a distinct order of "gentry" existed in England very early has, indeed, been often assumed, and is supported by weighty authorities. Thus the late Professor Freeman (in Encyclopedia Britannica xvii. page 540 b, 9th edition) said: "Early in the 11th century the order of 'gentlemen' as a separate class seems to be forming as something new. By the time of the conquest of England the distinction seems to have been fully established". Stubbs (Const. Hist., ed. 1878, iii. 544, 548) takes the same view. Sir George Sitwell, however, has conclusively proved that this opinion is based on a wrong conception of the conditions of medieval society, and that it is wholly opposed to the documentary evidence.
The fundamental social cleavage in the middle ages was between the nobiles, i.e. the tenants in chivalry, whether earls, barons, knights, esquires or franklins, and the ignobiles, i.e. the villeins, citizens and burgesses; and between the most powerful noble and the humblest franklin there was, until the 15th century, no "separate class of gentlemen". Even so late as 1400 the word "gentleman" still only had the sense of generosus, and could not be used as a personal description denoting rank or quality, or as the title of a class. Yet after 1413 we find it increasingly so used; and the list of landowners in 1431, printed in Feudal Aids, contains, besides knights, esquires, yeomen and husbandmen (i.e. householders), a fair number who are classed as "gentilman".
Sir George Sitwell
Sir George Sitwell gives a lucid, instructive and occasionally amusing explanation of this development. The immediate cause was the statute I Henry V. cap. v. of 1413, which laid down that in all original writs of action, personal appeals and indictments, in which process of outlawry lies, the "estate degree or mystery" of the defendant must be stated, as well as his present or former domicile. Now the Black Death (1349) had put the traditional social organisation out of gear. Before that the younger sons of the nobiles had received their share of the farm stock, bought or hired land, and settled down as agriculturists in their native villages. Under the new conditions this became increasingly impossible, and they were forced to seek their fortunes abroad in the French wars, or at home as hangers-on of the great nobles. These men, under the old system, had no definite status; but they were generosi, men of birth, and, being now forced to describe themselves, they disdained to be classed with franklins (now sinking in the social scale), still more with yeomen or husbandmen; they chose, therefore, to be described as "gentlemen".
On the character of these earliest "gentlemen" the records throw a lurid light. Sir George Sitwell (p. 76), describes a man typical of his class, one who had served among the men-at-arms of Lord Talbot at the Agincourt:
- the premier gentleman of England, as the matter now stands, is 'Robert Ercleswyke of Stafford, gentilman' ...
- Fortunatelyfor the gentle reader will no doubt be anxious to follow in his footstepssome particulars of his life may be gleaned from the public records. He was charged at the Staffordshire Assizes with housebreaking, wounding with intent to kill, and procuring the murder of one Thomas Page, who was cut to pieces while on his knees begging for his life.
If any earlier claimant to the title of "gentleman" be discovered, Sir George Sitwell predicts that it will be within the same year (1414) and in connection with some similar disreputable proceedings.
From these unpromising beginnings the separate order of "gentlemen" evolved very slowly. The first "gentleman" commemorated on an existing monument was John Daundelyon of Margate (died circa 1445); the first gentleman to enter the House of Commons, hitherto composed mainly of "valets", was William Weston, "gentylman"; but even in the latter half of the 15th century the order was not clearly established. As to the connection of gentilesse with the official grant or recognition of coat-armour, that is a profitable fiction invented and upheld by the heralds; for coat-armour was but the badge assumed by gentlemen to distinguish them in battle, and many gentlemen of long descent never had occasion to assume it, and never did.
Further decline of standards
This fiction, however, had its effect; and by the 16th century, as has been already pointed out, the official view had become clearly established that "gentlemen" constituted a distinct order, and that the badge of this distinction was the heralds' recognition of the right to bear arms. It is unfortunate that this view, which is quite unhistorical and contradicted by the present practice of many undoubtedly "gentle" families of long descent, has of late years been given a wide currency in popular manuals of heraldry.
In this narrow sense, however, the word "gentleman" has long since become obsolete. The idea of "gentry" in the continental sense of noblesse is extinct in England, and is likely to remain so, in spite of the efforts of certain enthusiasts to revive it (see A. C. Fox-Davies, Armorial Families, Edinburgh, 1895). That it once existed has been sufficiently shown; but the whole spirit and tendency of English constitutional and social development tended to its early destruction. The comparative good order of England was not favourable to the continuance of a class developed during the foreign and civil wars of the 14th and 15th centuries, for whom fighting was the sole honourable occupation. The younger sons of noble families became apprentices in the cities, and there grew up a new aristocracy of trade. Merchants are still "citizens" to William Harrison; but he adds "they often change estate with gentlemen, as gentlemen do with them, by a mutual conversion of the one into the other".
A line between classes
A frontier line between classes so indefinite could not be maintained, especially as in England there was never a "nobiliary prefix" to stamp a person as a gentleman by his surname, as in France or Germany. The process was hastened, moreover, by the corruption of the Heralds' College and by the ease with which coats of arms could be assumed without a shadow of claim; which tended to bring the science of armory into contempt.
The prefix "de" attached to some English names is in no sense "nobiliary". In Latin documents de was the equivalent of the English "of", as de la for "at" (so de la Pole for "Atte Poole"; compare such names as "Attwood" or "Attwater"). In English this "of" disappeared during the 15th century: for example the grandson of Johannes de Stoke (John of Stoke) in a 14th-century document becomes "John Stoke". In modern times, under the influence of romanticism, the prefix "de" has been in some cases "revived" under a misconception, e.g. "de Trafford", "de Hoghton". Very rarely it is correctly retained as derived from a foreign place-name, e.g. "de Grey".
The word "gentleman" as an index of rank had already become of doubtful value before the great political and social changes of the 19th century gave to it a wider and essentially higher significance. The change is well illustrated in the definitions given in the successive editions of the Encyclopadia Britannica. In the 5th edition (1Sf 5) "a gentleman is one, who without any title, bears a coat of arms, or whose ancestors have been freemen". In the 7th edition (1845) it still implies a definite social status: "All above the rank of yeomen". In the 8th edition (1856) this is still its "most extended sense"; "in a more limited sense" it is defined in the same words as those quoted above from the 5th edition; but the writer adds, "By courtesy this title is generally accorded to all persons above the rank of common tradesmen when their manners are indicative of a certain amount of refinement and intelligence".
The Reform Act 1832 did its work; the "middle classes" came into their own; and the word "gentleman" came in common use to signify not a distinction of blood, but a distinction of position, education and manners.
The test is no longer good birth, or the right to bear arms, but the capacity to mingle on equal terms in good society.
In its best use, moreover, "gentleman" involves a certain superior standard of conduct, due, to quote the 8th edition once more, to "that self-respect and intellectual refinement which manifest themselves in unrestrained yet delicate manners". The word "gentle", originally implying a certain social status, had very early come to be associated with the standard of manners expected from that status. Thus by a sort of punning process the "gentleman" becomes a "gentle-man".
In Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein described being a gentlemen as part of the (slowly) emerging realization in the human consciousness of motives higher than simple self-service.