The oldest poem in our Western tradition opens with a quarrel about honor. The Greeks, who had spent several years besieging Troy, took some time off to sack a neighboring city. Among the plunder, a girl, the daughter of the priest of Apollo, had been allocated to the Greek commander, Agamemnon, king of kings. When the girl’s father comes to plead for her return, Agamemnon refuses the rich ransom that the father offers. So Apollo sends a plague among the Greeks, Agamemnon is forced to hand over the girl and, to save face, he confiscates another captive maiden who had been bestowed upon Achilles, the fightingest man among the Greeks. Achilles has a big ego and a quick temper, but he cannot resist, because Agamemnon has more men than anyone else; so he does the next best thing. He drops out of the siege and goes to sulk, while the rest of the Greeks get walloped.
I know that many of you have read the book or seen the movie, but the function of this tragedy, as of many others, is to glorify and heroicize ugly motives and ugly deeds. So look again, without the respect owed to a classic, and you will discover that the Iliad, chapter I, presents two gang-leading thugs, Achilles and Agamemnon, facing each other down, trading threats and insults over loot and women; and the whole poem turns about plunder and pride and the sport of killing, the struggle for preeminence and face.
Similar sentiments move another heroic figure, Roland — a reckless young fool who accepts combat at odds of ten to one, who refuses to call for help when only reinforcements can avoid annihilation, who sacrifices his men, his friends, himself, and endangers the interests of his lord and his country, in order to satisfy an ideal that even his best friend does not accept. And yet, The Song of Roland depicts what its age considered particularly honorable; and Roland’s values were widely admired. It was of Roland that the minstrel sang to the troops of William the Conqueror before the battle of Hastings; and it was to Roland that the Crusaders looked for inspiration, even as late as Pizzaro’s men in early-16th century Peru.
In actual practice, the real campaign that Charles the Great conducted south of the Pyrenees in 778, when Roland lost his life in a mountain ambush set by more or less Christian Basques, was waged to support one Muslim prince against another; and Charles and Roland’s Franks destroyed not Muslim Saragossa but Christian Pamplona. The Song of Roland is no more a handbook of what we would call chivalry than the Iliad was. It shows no sense of sportsmanship, or fair play, or chivalrous treatment of opponents vanquished in combat, who are demeaned and vilified.1 Roland gloats about previous victims, he brags of what he’s done, he boasts of what he’s going to do, he taunts his victim when he’s done it, just as Achilles drags the corpse of Hector through the dust. It brings to mind the bumptious dances that football players execute after sacking a quarterback. They are exhilarated, and they show it in their uncouth prancing.
Something that Aristotle said about young people provides a clue to Roland at Roncevaux as to some football players: “They are passionate, hot-tempered, and carried away by impulse,” said Aristotle, “and unable to control their passion; for owing to their ambition they cannot endure to be slighted, and they become indignant when they think they are being wronged. They are ambitious of honor, but more of victory; for youth desires superiority, and victory is a kind of superiority.”2 Hope of fame and fear of shame, passion for victory, for superiority, apprehension of the shame of defeat, drive Roland, who is interested in public displays of courage because he wants to impress other people, because his honor depends on what other people think. And Roland is not alone.
In 1961, one of the great film epics of the Kennedy era presented Charlton Heston playing one more hero — El Cid — as the embodiment of nobility: brave, Christian, patriotic, battling fanatical Muslims who had come over from North Africa. In historical fact, Rodrigo Diaz, an 11th-century figure, was first called Sidi (which means “lord” or “boss”) by his Arabic-speaking friends, and he was no more Christian than his Muslim allies. Diaz was a condottiere: a hard, harsh man who pillaged churches, despoiled women and children, broke promises, and hampered his king, Alfonso VI of Castile, in the war against Muslims because he, Rodrigo Diaz, had to avenge the loss of honor inflicted on him by one of the king’s great vassals. So Rodrigo ravaged the lands of his foes, he vindicated his honor, and he helped to shame the Christian king.3
Yet Rodrigo Diaz, the Cid, was a virtuous knight, because virtue meant manliness, not righteousness or moral worth but effective action. The closest we can get to this sense of the term “virtu” is power, strength, better still force, as in “May the Force be with you!” And the virtuous Rodrigo, like the virtuous Roland, is fier, which does not just mean proud but, in that time, fierce, ferocious, as in Fierabras, the hero of a medieval romance well known for his frightful strength, who could kill a man with one blow of his bare fist, just as Roland could cleave a pagan and his saddle in half with one blow of his sword.
In the heroic world where manly might is all, mercy is a sign of weakness, ruthlessness is the concomitant of force,
and the terror they inspire is mixed with admiration. This comes out well if you look at the German word Ehrfurcht: a compound of honor and fear, which we might translate as “respect” in the Mafia sense, but which the dictionary translates as reverence or awe.
So honor in the sense that lasted for many centuries is power, and the glory that comes from power, and the fama or fame that reflects your reputation for power. Infamy is the loss of public esteem that goes with losing power and reputation; and with infamy goes ignominy, literally losing your name — a good name that is important to you, but also to your lineage, to your clan.
Name, fame, stand for personality regarded as property in the most concrete sense. Which is why actors, who were not what they seemed, who had no stable personal identity, had no honor; why the Code of Justinian marked them with infamy; and why Rousseau denounced the actor’s art as counterfeiting. Honorable men had integrity: that is, they assumed their birth, their kin, their personality, their role, and took the consequences. This comes out in the story of the Christian martyr Genesius (and the name is important, because it reflects on his birth!), who was playing the part of a Christian before the Emperor Diocletian when he was suddenly converted to Christ. Genesius proclaimed his conversion, he was put to torture, he refused to recant, he had his head struck off, and his honorable feast is celebrated on August 25. But usually honor was reserved for the well-born.
Roland calls the traitor, Ganelon, “culvert, malvais hom de put aire,” and this is revealing because culvert, from colibertus, a freedman, becomes our coward — which is what you would expect from a low-born fellow. Archbishop Turpin, on the other hand, is a “chevaler de bon aire” — a knight of good family, hence debonair. Turpin is a gentilzhom — a gentleman, and the term derives directly from the Latin genitus, born, implying well born, of good stock, hence strong, handsome (the ill-born are ugly), and generosus, same root, same sense, because the well-born are generous. Pride may be a vice, but it keeps you from meaner virtues. The vulgar are stingy, they are miserable (another term deriving from Latin), and so they are miserly where the rich (a word related to kingship and abundance) are powerful. Or vice versa. Lack of wealth means lack of virtu. The poor was weak, shiftless, cowardly, literally a loser to be scorned.4 The wealthy was strong enough to take from others, and to have a large following attracted by success and largesse. As when Achilles and Agamemnon clash, the one with more and better soldiers has the upper hand. How do you get more and better soldiers? You pay them more and better. The very term soldier originally meant a mercenary paid a solde, a wage, in Roman gold coins called solidi — from which the English coin, the shilling, derives. The allegiance of your soldiers, of your following, depends on your generosity. The Franks loved Roland because he gave them lots of gold and silver and mules and clothes; and Roland spurred his men on with promises of further booty. That is what war was really about, and often still is today, in Bosnia and Somalia and Liberia; because, as the Spanish used to say before they started to lose their wars, warfare is a quicker and more honorable way to wealth than trade, because trade takes time and patience, whereas warfare was about pillage, robbery, and ideally fighting those who could not fight back, those whose spoils would subsidize yet another form of honorable
behavior: magnanimity — greatheartedness, meaning the openhandedness that attracted valiant followers.
So honor is renown, glory, riches, power; but these have to be won and preserved by valiance, valor, bravery. And the temerity of Roland goes with stoutheartedness. The Latin for temerity, estultie, becomes confused with the Latin word for folly, stultitia. But the original popular sense of both terms survives in the Spanish loco/crazy, used as a term of praise or self-praise for gangland heroes like the Parisian Pierrot-le-Fou, as it survives also in the sobriquet of a famous Western gunfighter, James Butler Hickok, whom we remember as Wild Bill Hickok because of his admirably impetuous actions and reactions.
The Song of Roland shows little respect for moderation, much for recklessness. Oliver counsels moderation, but Roland is the hero of the Song. In the Middle Ages, in the Wild West, or in the gangland jungle of American (and other) cities, prowess must be proved over and over. Reckless bravado is characteristic of Western shootists as it was of knights, and indeed the typical Western walkdown that we thrill through in films like High Noon looks much like a modern counterpart of the knightly joust.
There have always been societies, and there are societies today, that respect and reward Roland’s kind of honor. Nor is the reason for this mere romanticism and foolishness. When insecurity reigns, a temper that is short and ferocious is an asset, security rests on the capacity to make yourself feared, and a man who demonstrates readiness to repay a slight or injury (real or imagined) is feared, appreciated, honored.5 That is what historians of early modern society tell us, and that is what an American sociologist, Ruth Horowitz, tells us in a recent essay on “Honor and Gang Violence,” which makes very clear that gangs and their members function on the ideology of honor, just as the Mafia does.
Status, explains Horowitz, “is achieved in part through the deference and appreciation others show a person about his fighting skills.”6 And another sociologist remarks that “the hard invincible young black male who has no chinks in his armor, who is always ready for battle, grandly refusing most forms of emotional vulnerability, is an asset in today’s urban zones.”7 The world of honor is calibrated, comparative, hence competitive, as each champion, whether Achilles or Roland or a gangster in the ‘Hood, strives to outdo the others. Gang history, like ancient and less ancient history, is a litany of competitive aggression that challenges, confirms or alters authority and status, which represent a precarious pecking order that we call social (or international) hierarchy.
So none of this is new. In the Volsung Saga, a Viking kills a king in battle, and the bard tells us that “Helgi now saw his status increase considerably by having killed so powerful a king.”8 And status pays off. “Praise” and “price” have the same Latin root —pretium — which means value or wages or reward, and could, in Middle French and English, mean all these things as well as esteem and honor. All of which makes sense: high reputation earned high wages, high rewards.
The 12th-century romance of Fulk Fitzwarin has Fulk and his brothers “cross the sea to seek honor and distinction.” About the same time as the fictional Fitzwarins, in spring 1177, a couple of young men from the household of King Henry II of England (the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine) went into partnership to attend every tournament they could and share the profits. They crossed the sea as Fulk had done, and in the next ten months they captured and put to ransom 103 knights.9 So they made money. Even more important, their record caught the eye of powerful patrons who could provide pensions and preferment. So that when, in 1180, one of the two young champions, William Marshal, Guillaume le Maréchal, fell out of favor with his Angevin king, he got offers of employment from two of the greatest lords of the age: the Count of Flanders and the Duke of Burgundy. But he resisted temptation, and he died Earl of Pembroke, wealthy and honored as Wyatt Earp was going to die in Los Angeles seven hundred years later, “in comfort and calm with loyal Sadie by his side and their affectionate cat dozing the hours away… in Earp’s capacious lap.”
So martial prowess is good for the gallant knight, the preux; and prouesse, the prowess which evokes the respect made up of honor and fear, also means utility and profit. Preux derives from the Latin prodesse — being serviceable or useful. And prowess is both: prowess is profitable. It also (and this is important) helps to economize on effort, because a reputation for prowess keeps people off your back, protects your person, your property, your power. As Hobbes pointed out, “Honor consists only in the opinion of power” — meaning the opinion that other people have of your power and of you. Which is why honte/shame follows defeat; and being bested in a contest that is more than sport hurts your honor.
Roland explains that if he does not fight he will be honi, which means both defeated and scorned, because defeat brings scorn. There is no honor in losing, losers reap only ignominy, and the heroine in Corneille’s Le Cid is perfectly reasonable to point out that, however brilliant her lover’s glory, when people hear he is dead they will believe he lost: “Dans quelque éclat que Rodrigue a vécu, quand on le saura mort on le croira vaincu.”
Le Cid was staged in 1637, but this view of honor had begun to change in the late Middle Ages, because ransom became increasingly important, hence morally acceptable to both winners and losers. The emblematic date for a process that had been going on at least since the Hundred Years’ War is 1525, when Francis I, King of France, defeated and captured at Pavia, writes back to his mother not “All is lost save honor” (Tout est perdu fors l’honneur) but, more significantly, “Of all things, all that I have left is honor, and my life which is safe.” So now you could keep your honor and your life, if you could afford it. And if surviving defeat no longer meant infamy, that was because several processes had been at work to rationalize the transition.
The Christian Church had always argued that honor was associated with the sin of pride and, thus, unchristian. But this never got very far, even among churchmen: witness Archbishop Turpin, and even Cardinal Richelieu. On the other hand, princes trying to impose order and discipline on unruly subjects had been working to discriminate between legitimate violence and illegitimate, illicit use of force — with the former strictly in their hands and those of their agents. The pursuit of personal honor challenged the ruler’s power; threatened the welfare of the realm, as in the nobles’ impetuous charge at Agincourt; and destabilized the law and order of both prince and state. That’s what The Three Musketeers is about. It was important to harness the hero to the interests of the patria, the fatherland, to the interests of the crown; and when Corneille staged Le Cid in the days of Louis XIII and of Richelieu, he enlisted Rodrigo’s unruly passion in a more patriotic task: defending Spain against her enemies.
As for the king’s honor itself, it learned to answer to “higher” standards that also put the State first. That is why princes could break treaties when honorable men could not break their word. That is why Francis first gave Charles V his word of honor as a knight and king to carry out the treaty of Madrid, then he broke his word, and finally eluded Charles’s challenge to a duel. Not the sort of record that would be appreciated by the man who had dubbed Francis a knight ten years before Pavia, after the victory at Marignan. Bayard, who died shortly before his king was captured, was, as you know, the Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche (without fear and without reproach). Reproche in the Chanson de Roland is used in the sense of the blame or shame that followed upon cowardice, or defaulting on a promised ransom, or otherwise breaking the word you have pledged. And Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, makes a point of letting us know that his parfit gentle knight is very keen on keeping his word. By this standard, Francis could not have taken part in a tourney or belonged to a noble order of chivalry or mixed as an equal with his peers.
But meanwhile lawyers had argued that princes must operate by different standards than those affecting other men, and humanists had related honor to moral considerations rather than to manly and worldly virtues. And Montaigne suggested that honor lay not necessarily in winning, but in fighting a good fight — a little like Pierre de Coubertin. No matter if you won or lost, but how you played the game. Those who won still wrote the rules but, by the 16th century, even more by the 17th, kings could allegedly place national interest above reproche, and intellectuals like Montaigne helped to rationalize their efforts by shifting honor from public regard to personal self-esteem.
To these changes there was yet one more strand, and it concerns people long considered less than honorable. The cascade of contempt between social groups was endless. There was no honor for servants and actors and hangmen and Jews, of course; nor for the physically disadvantaged or those belonging to the wrong religious persuasion. But there was none either for laborers and carters, carriers and linen-weavers, washerwomen, jugglers, bailiffs and constables. German master artisans who sought admission to a Guild had to swear that they descended from honorable parents, free men not serfs, who were not the offspring of priests or bastards or executioners, nor of millers, barbers, bath attendants, minstrels, skinners or tanners. Some of these exclusions are mysterious to me, some less so. Bailiffs and millers appear in this list too because they are associated with mean and crooked tricks, bath attendants because stews double as brothels, skinners, tanners and barbers belong to unclean professions, as do executioners (and washerwomen). Finally, some oaths mention not being descended from Wends, a native tribe of the German-Polish borderlands, which would be like swearing that one has no Indian blood. So you could be despised by your betters as an artisan and derive satisfaction from despising inferiors even less honorable than yourself.
Courts of justice which recognize honor as an essential value refuse to consider it in contests between persons of low extraction. But ambition brooks no birth, and as early as the 14th century, Piers Plowman sneers that “Soap-sellers and their sons/for silver are made knights.” This, of course, continues to be true today, witness the career of Sir William Hesketh Lever, who founded Lever Brothers, today’s Unilever, on soaps and detergents, and ended up Lord Leverhulme. But by the 17th century already this promotion process had provoked the express approval of that relentlessly rational philosopher, Thomas Hobbes: “Riches are honorable because they are power. Poverty, dishonorable.”11
So now what used to be an adjunct of honor could become a title to honor, bourgeois and tradesman aspired to the honorability hitherto ascribed only to warriors and the well-born: The Perfect Tradesman of the 17th century refers to honor (and to honoring bills of exchange), a German-Jewish tradeswoman of the same century seeks “wealth and honor” for herself and her children, and so do the liberal professions, especially men of law who insist that for their services they receive not pay, which is demeaning, but honoraries. In 1671, the Prince of Condé, the cousin of Louis XIV and one of his great captains, offers his king a splendid dinner in his castle of Chantlily. Condé’s steward and chef, Vatel, is shamed because the roast is short at a couple of tables and, worse, because the fresh fish, the marée, has not arrived in time, and no banquet is complete without a fish course. “I have lost my honor. This is a disgrace that I shall not survive.” He goes to his room, props his sword against the door, and skewers himself three times. Condé comes to cry over his corpse, and the name of Vatel joins the roll of honor of French cooks, even to the Petit Larousse Illustrée.
This is when the word virtue begins its evolution towards what it means today, and when honesty, which in Middle English and early modern French was equivalent to honor (it had the same Latin root), turns towards the banal bourgeois meaning that we accept today. In this view, honorability becomes respectability, and a reputation for fair dealing, keeping your contracts, paying your debts. It can now be described, as Jeremy Bentham described it, as “a kind of fictitious object of property.” No wonder that, in a Balzac novel, bankruptcy is presented as “the most dishonorable action of all those that can dishonor a man.”12 Those were the days!
But this business or bourgeois version of honor, however important, never attracted the attention, let alone the sympathy, of intellectuals or opinion makers. The values of The Three Musketeers continued more popular than the values of The Perfect Tradesman, and, in the age of Enlightened Despots, Montesquieu’s man of honor, like Homer’s, placed his personal honor higher than the interests of his country or his prince.
Then come the prophets of the new age, like Rousseau and Robespierre, who would allow no disagreement between society and its members that could not be resolved by society in its own favor. Licit violence would be a monopoly of the state. Forcing men to be free meant forcing them also to be free from archaic traditions. Which is why the Revolution tried to eliminate what Robespierre dismissed as feudal extravagance, including duels as affairs of honor. As it turned out, though, the Revolution was also about obtaining access to feudal extravagance; the wars of the Revolution and Napoleon confirmed the old ideas about heroism and swash-buckling and honor; and the equalitarian principles of a Revolution that allowed everybody access to what had been aristocratic privilege meant that all Frenchmen now had the right to duel.
Englishmen, who had long asserted the free man’s right to honor, hence to duel, were turning against what was increasingly denounced as crude, murderous, ruffian activities; and English schools encouraged boxing as “an innocent mode of settling disputes” that yet preserved “the sense of honor and spirit and gallantry.13 But the English were pretty isolated. Frenchmen went into duelling the way Americans have gone into jogging: with the editorial staffs of Monarchist and Republican newspapers challenging each other en masse, with George Sand calling out Alexandre Dumas over the chastity of the Duchesse de Berri, and with an apparently sane bourgeois like Victor Schoelcher, the man most responsible for the abolition of slavery in French colonies, who, when serving in his father’s shop, “used to challenge customers who perversely carped at the price of his wares.”
Duelling in this new era was a form of conspicuous consumption and of course a way of showing off, which meant that it could be replaced by other self-promoting activities. Honor, so long concerned with serious things — survival, social status, significant rewards — was relegated to trivial encounters, frivolous, immaterial, where serious interests were seldom at stake. While duelling declined only slowly (one of the last encounters in France was fought in 1958 between the dancer Serge Lifar and the Marquis de Cuévas over a ballet), it became increasingly inconsequential and pretty much disappeared after the 1960s. And so, on the whole, did considerations of honor and dishonor. The legal profession, for example, which had been much concerned with the nobility of its calling, found other fish to fry. In 1908, the American Bar Association’s Canon of Professional Ethics had bound lawyers to use only “fair and honorable means.” In 1969, the ABA junked the Canons because they were “designed for an earlier era” and full of “quaint expressions of theest.” One of the quaint expressions that they dropped was honor.
The same thing happened to public functions, which had been described as “honors” since late Roman times. Members of Parliament had been called “honorable,” as our Congressmen are today; and the French had taken over the English usage. The French have sensibly dropped this, and in English-speaking countries we attach no meaning to the usage. We know that, as Montesquieu warned, honor is easily placed in contradiction with honors, and that one can be covered in infamies and dignities at the same time.
So the intermediate or civil notion of honor seems to have run its course. Evidence and public belief both suggest that it has gone out of date. What is coming back is the original, violent, practical model that a lot of reasonable law-abiding people had come to consider as obsolete as chastity.
Which attests to the brevity of the period during which a few Western societies managed to persuade themselves that their security was assured as long as law and order was guaranteed by that ideal monopolist of violence: the State. That fancy did not last, in part because of the geographical and social mobility we enjoy, which helps devalue birth and reputation because mobility affords escape from the consequences of your acts, the fama or infamia of your clan.17
In mass societies the wood hides the trees; in cities anonymity conceals individuals and their status. But honor goes with recognition, whether of birth or fame. The Latin nobilis originally meant known, well-known, hence necessarily recognizable. Nobles are easy to know, and so are the ignoble. In localized cultures and societies, the famous and infamous were recognized as such. No longer. Inevitably, as Ben Jonson made one of his characters declare, “Contempt of fame begets contempt of virtue” — meaning, we know, of honor.18 True in Ben Jonson’s 17th century, this is still true today, especially in certain areas well-known to people who read newspapers and watch TV. These days, over growing patches of what had slowly, painfully, older, precariously, become a civilized world, more primitive conditions are returning. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the authority of what we call authorities is questioned or ignored, bodies and institutions supposed to secure security contribute to insecurity, either by their failure to act or by their actions in places like Mexico where lines between criminals and police are practically erased.
That is where the codes and the mentality of old-fashioned honor reemerge to dictate principles of conduct. Experience teaches that if you give way, more people push you, because they can or think they can push you around with impunity. The logic of violence is crude but simple. Violent reaction against transgression deters others who might follow suit. And there’s no evidence that litigation affords a better chance of justice or satisfaction than forcefully direct action does.
As in the late Roman Empire, existing political, legal, economic structures, when not inoperative, ignore you or betray you. Where authority is absent or alien and oppressive, who can redress your grievances? The only safeguard for property, for self, for self-respect, lies in yourself, in your protective associations, or in the patronage of some powerful figure.
The language that we work with can mislead us. We talk of norms, but where the norms of civilization are abnormal, adapting to them has to be counterproductive. You can see this in Giovanni di Lampedusa’s 19th-century Sicily, where the cultivated nobleman is fated for extinction, and the future rests with the Mafioso man of honor, dismissed as “one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc.”19 But cretins capable of havoc are feared and respected. The thugs, whom psychiatrists and social workers patronize as ill-adjusted, have adjusted to realities far from textbook rules. The New York Times quotes a parole officer about a juvenile offender: “He would always act first and think about his actions later.”20 But in the offender’s world, where danger lurks along with rival thugs to whom life is nothing, impulsiveness is sound instinct.
You may remember how Wilbur Cash described white men in the unreconstructed South (and perhaps later) as “fiercely self-assertive and sensitive and inordinately resentful of slights and snubs… full of the chip-on-the-shoulder swagger and brag of a boy who would knock hell out of whoever dared to cross him.21 That fits the boys in the ‘Hood as it fits the boys around Troy. Virtue consists of action, and the reward of action, provided you survive, is the honor, the Ehrfurcht, that continues to acknowledge effective terror.
We are back in the realm of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Roland, a realm of small communities and face-to-face relations in a hostile world, where men prey and plunder as much for prestige as for material gain, where bands of young warriors (see Tacitus’s Germania) — gangs held together by interest in booty, hope of fame and fear of shame — gather around a leader selected or self-selected by enterprise and ferocity. Material conditions, appropriate ideological codes, shortage of alternatives, explained it then and explain it now.
What goes around comes around. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats wrote this after the First World War and after the Irish Civil War, but his words apply to other dark ages when other barbarian gangs destabilized decaying civilizations; and they apply as well to the many centuries of convalescence from chaos, when expedients were being turned into rules once more.
Now the rules seem to have seeped out again, and a new kind of honor, which looks disturbingly like the old kind of honor, is seeping in again. Even when definitions change, we don’t seem able to do without honor. It is a moving target, but one that no number of pot shots seems able to bring down.
1. G.G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama (Cambridge, 1945), 243, presents Peter of Blois, Archdeacon of Bath and a contemporary of John of Salisbury, complaining about the bad manners of twelfth century knights: “I cannot bear the vaunting and vainglory of the knights your nephews. … The Order of Knighthood, in these days of ours, is mere disorder. For he whose mouth is defiled with the foulest words… that man nowadays is reputed bravest and most renowned of the knightly band.” The worse your curses, the higher your reputation.
2. Quoted in George Fenwick Jones, The Ethos of the Song of Roland (Baltimore,1963), 35. My essay owes a great deal to the work of Professor Jones.
3. Significantly, medieval Spanish treatments of the legend focus first on Ximena’s problem in preserving her patrimony from the warrior who threatened to seize it by right of conquest. It was only later that Ximena/Chimene came to figure as the love interest of the tale. The most informative work I have found is Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (New York,1990).
4. For Virgil (Aenead, IV,3), fear was clear evidence of low birth; for Montaigne (Essais,“De la peur”), humble people have a propensity to fear; and Froissart (Chroniques, X) speaks of meschans gens, meaning peasants and other folk of low estate, but also wicked.
5. Yves Castan, Honnêteté et relations sociales en Lanquedoc, 1715-1780 (Paris,1974),183: “Everyone wants to know the art of ‘making himself feared’ for it is on this that, in the absence of peaceful guarantees, the true security of the strong rests.”
6. Ruth Horowitz, Honor and the American Dream (New Brunswick,1985) 89.
7. Trica Rose in Thelma Golden ed., Black (New York, 1994), 155.
8. Jesse Byock, translator, Saga of the Volsunqs (Berkeley, 1990), 48. For crucially utilitarian aspects of honor see Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley, 1982).
9. Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven,1984),89; and Georges Duby, Guillaume le Marechal (Paris,1984),137.
10. Which should remind us that ethnic identification and ethnic friction were nothing new in thirteenth century Germany, any more than they were for Biblical Jews, Greeks, Franks, or their descendants.
11. Leviathan, X. See Racine, Les Plaideurs (1668), I, I: “Mais sans l’argent l’honneur n’est qu’une maladie.”
12. Eugenie Grandet (1834). The aged Gustave Flaubert ruined himself to save the family name from the shame of his nephew-in-law’s bankruptcy.
13. V.G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History (Oxford,1986), 214-15.
14. The problem was that a right accessible to all loses value. Alceste, in Moliere’s Misanthrope, I,i, is aware of this: “C’est n’estimer rien qu’estimer tout le monde. … Je veux qu’on me distingue.” And III,vi: “Eh! Madame, l’on loue aujourd’hui tout le monde… Ce n’est plus un honneur que de se voir loue.”
15. David Mellinkoff, The Conscience of a Lawyer (St.Paul, 1973), 171-181 passim, 215, 236-37. Also Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society (London, 1795), I, 335: Even those barristers upon whom religion has little hold will in general be refrained by the principle of honor.
16. Americo Castro, Le Drame de l’honneur dans la vie et la litterature espagnole du XVIe siecle (Paris,1965), 86, quotes an early-seventeenth century Dominican, Agustin Salucio, writing on the problems that mobility and nonentity posed to maintaining limpieza di sangre: “Jews, being all obscure folk and able to hide their origins by moving from one place to another,” could easily deceive their Christian neighbors.
17. And recognition affects infamy as well. Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor (Chicago,1994),119 ff., speaks of defamatory texts and pictures designed to publicize the dishonor of individuals defaulting after pledging their honor in sixteenth century Germany, Poland, France, Bohemia and Moravia.
18. Ben Jonson, Sejanus (1605). La Bruyere’s Caracteres (1688/94,“Des Grands”) applies this view to common soldiers: “The soldier does not feel that he is known; he dies obscure, part of the crowd… and this is one cause of lack of courage among those of base and servile condition.”
19. Giovanni di Lampedusa, The Leopard (London,1960) ch.5.
20. New York Times, Sept.3,1996, A12. As Aristotle thought, “Virtue consists in action, and the reward of action is honor.”
21. W.J.Cash, The Mind of the South (New York,1941), 52, 58.
*Originally delivered as the Sixteenth Flora Levy Lecture in the Humanities, October 15, 1996.
April 9, 1925 – September 2, 2002