1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gentleman

GENTLEMAN (from Lat. gentilis, “belonging to a race or gens,” and “man”; Fr. gentilhomme, Span, gentil hombre, Ital. gentil huomo), in its original and strict signification, a term denoting a man of good family, the Lat. generosus (its invariable translation in English-Latin documents). In this sense it is the equivalent of the Fr. gentilhomme, “nobleman,” which latter term has in Great Britain been long confined to the peerage (see Nobility); and the term “gentry” (“gentrice” from O. Fr. genterise for gentelise) has much of the significance of the Fr. noblesse or the Ger. Adel. This was what was meant by the rebels under John Ball in the 14th century when they repeated:

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

Selden (Titles of Honor, 1672), discussing the title “gentleman,” speaks of “our English use of it” as “convertible with nobilis,” and describes in connexion with it the forms of ennobling in various European countries. 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.”[1]

In this way Shakespeare himself was turned, by the grant of his coat of arms, from a “vagabond” into a gentleman.

The fundamental idea of “gentry,” symbolized in this grant of coat-armour, had come to be that of the essential superiority of the fighting man; and, as Selden points out (p. 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 is, however, of comparatively late growth, 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 (Ency. Brit. xvii. p. 540 b, 9th ed.) 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;[2] 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 gives a lucid explanation of this development, the incidents of which are instructive and occasionally amusing. 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 organization 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. According to Sir George Sitwell (p. 76), “the premier gentleman of England, as the matter now stands, is ‘Robert Erdeswyke of Stafford, gentilman,’” who had served among the men-at-arms of Lord Talbot at Agincourt (ib. note). He is typical of his class. “Fortunately—for the gentle reader will no doubt be anxious to follow in his footsteps—some 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 connexion with some similar disreputable proceedings.[3]

From these unpromising beginnings the separate order of “gentlemen” was very slowly evolved. The first “gentleman” commemorated on an existing monument was John Daundelyon of Margate (d. c. 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 connexion 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. 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 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.[4] 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 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 Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the 5th edition (1815) “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 Bill of 1832 has done its work; the “middle classes” have come into their own; and the word “gentleman” has come 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.” Chaucer in the Meliboeus (c. 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 (c. 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 the 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 connexion, too, may be quoted the old story, told by some—very improbably—of 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 Gentilis 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 standard at least as high as that involved in the phrase “noblesse oblige.” In this sense of a person of culture, character and good manners the word “gentleman” has supplied a gap in more than one foreign language.

The evolution of this meaning of “gentleman” reflects very accurately that of English society; and there are not wanting signs that the process of evolution, in the one as in the other, is not complete. The indefinableness of the word mirrors the indefinite character of “society” in England; and the use by “the masses” of “gentleman” as a mere synonym for “man” has spread pari passu with the growth of democracy. It is a protest against implied inferiority, and is cherished as the modern French bourgeois cherishes his right of duelling with swords, under the ancien régime a prerogative of the noblesse. Nor is there much justification for the denunciation by purists of the “vulgarization” and “abuse” of the “grand old name of gentleman.” Its strict meaning has now fallen completely obsolete. Its current meaning varies with every class of society that uses it. But it always implies some sort of excellency of manners or morals. It may by courtesy be over-loosely applied by one common man to another; but the common man would understand the reproach conveyed in “You’re no gentleman.”

Authorities.—Selden, Titles of Honor (London, 1672); William Harrison, Description of England, ed. G. F. J. Furnivall for the New Shakspere Soc. (London, 1877–1878); Sir George Sitwell, “The English Gentleman,” in the Ancestor, No. 1 (Westminster, April 1902); Peacham’s Compleat Gentleman (1634), with an introduction by G. S. Gordon (Oxford, 1906); A. Smythe-Palmer, D.D., The Ideal of a Gentleman, or a Mirror for Gentlefolk: A Portrayal in Literature from the Earliest Times (London, 1908), a very exhaustive collection of extracts from authors so wide apart as Ptah-hotep (3300 B.C.) and William Watson, arranged under headings: “The Historical Idea of a Gentleman,” “The Herald’s Gentleman,” “The Poet’s Gentleman,” &c.  (W. A. P.) 

  1. Description of England, bk. ii. ch. v. p. 128. Henry Peacham, in his Compleat Gentleman (1634), takes this matter more seriously. “Neither must we honour or esteem,” he writes, “those ennobled, or made gentle in blood, who by mechanic and base means have raked up a mass of wealth ... or have purchased an ill coat (of arms) at a good rate; no more than a player upon the stage, for wearing a lord’s cast suit: since nobility hangeth not upon the airy esteem of vulgar opinion, but is indeed of itself essential and absolute” (Reprint, p. 3). Elsewhere (p. 161) he deplores the abuse of heraldry, which had even in his day produced “all the world over such a medley of coats” that, but for the commendable activity of the earls marshals, he feared that yeomen would soon be “as rare in England as they are in France.” See also an amusing instance from the time of Henry VIII., given in “The Gentility of Richard Barker,” by Oswald Barron, in the Ancestor, vol. ii. (July 1902).
  2. Even this classification would seem to need modifying. For certain of the great patrician families of the cities were certainly nobiles.
  3. The designation “gentilman” is, indeed, found some two centuries earlier. In the Inquisitio maneriorum Ecclesiae S. Pauli Londin. of A.D. 1222 (W.A. Hale, Domesday of St Paul’s, Camden Soc., 1858, p. 80) occurs the entry: Adam gentilmā diḿ acrā, p’ iii. d. This is probably the earliest record of the “grand old name of gentleman”; but Adam, who held half an acre at a rent of three pence—less by half than that held by “Ralph the bondsman” (Rad’ le bunde) in the same list—was certainly not a “gentleman.” “Gentilman” here was a nickname, perhaps suggested by Adam’s name, and thus in some sort anticipating the wit of the famous couplet repeated by John Ball’s rebels.
  4. 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 of “at” (so de la Pole for Atte Poole, cf. such names as Attwood, Attwater). In English this “of” was in the 15th century dropped; e.g. 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.