The Compleat Gentleman: A Compleat Loade of Crape

Who wouldn’t want to be The Compleat Gentleman? (Women: don’t answer that question, it’s rhetorical.) Brad Miner’s book, The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry, claims to be a guide to authentic masculinity–how we’ve lost it in modern American culture, and how we could regain it if we just acted more like people in the Middle Ages.

At first, I thought it was a relatively benign medievally themed self-help book, like Kingdomality or the Six Habits of Highly Effective 13th Century Franciscan Monks. I almost dismissed it as completely uninteresting, until I noticed that the website that I’d found selling it, some sort of off-brand Amazon.com , was offering one of those Buy Both and Save! deals: save 20% by buying The Compleat Gentleman with… Dick Morris’s anti-Hillary screed Rewriting History. [If this were an audio commentary, I’d splice in the sound of a record needle scratching in place of that elipsis.]

What the hell does Hillary Clinton have to do with the Middle Ages? Visiting the site a day later, I found the deal had become a twofer with The Swift Boat Vets’ book. Right now it’s selling with The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Looking it up at Amazon.com, I found that customers who bought this book also bought The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia also by [2nd record scratch] Brad Miner. Suddenly the book jacket blurb made much more sense, breaking up into convenient conservative buzz words (italics and snark mine):

In these days of astonishing confusion about what it means to be a man [damn you Queer Eye, Will, and possibly Grace!], Brad Miner has gone back into the riches of our Western cultural heritage [unlike liberals who hate America] to recover the oldest and best ideal of manhood: the gentleman. In The Compleat Gentleman, he revives a thousand-year tradition of chivalry, honor, and heroism, providing a model for modern masculinity that our fractious culture [rassenfrassen multicultural crap] needs more than ever [If you haven’t noticed, we’re in a cultural war here! Lions and tigers and blue-staters, oh my!].

Don’t get me wrong. I love our Western cultural heritage, and I hate diversity for diversity’s sake. But studying history at all should give you the perspective necessary to realize that we are not now at a uniquely perilous cultural crisis point. Every generation thinks that they are just barely holding back the tides of barbarism and social decay, and if it wasn’t for their worries life as we know it might very well end in the next ten years.* But they can’t all be right, and if so many of them were wrong, what makes you so sure you happen to belong to one of the few generations that are legitimately imperilled?

So, what does Mr. Miner think the Middle Ages has to tell us about modern masculinity? (Keep in mind that I don’t actually read the things I review, just their book jackets and back cover blurbs.) Apparently, there are three masculine archetypes: the knight, the monk, and the lover. Combining these three into one (possibly Voltron-style) creates the Compleat Gentleman. All three of these have their roots in their medieval counterparts according to Miner, but this seems more than a little problematic to me, since in the Middle Ages knights had their estate and monks had theirs, and society only worked smoothly, or so it was said, if all three estates did their own job and didn’t try doing the others. To borrow a common medieval analogy and horribly mangle it, the body needs a head, a stomach, and arms and legs. If the arms get mad at the stomach for eating all the time and stop feeding the stomach, the body will suffer. And if the arms try to combine with the head and stomach into a powerful arm-head-stomach hybrid, the body will suffer, too.

The medieval knight figures heavily in the book, apparently, as several review sites mention how the book explains “elements of the gentlemanly character that would have been obvious to any medieval knight, but which men today must labor to recover.” Now, the medieval knight is not an uncomplicated figure. Surely, there was the reality of the man who kills by vocation, and the ideal of the courtly hero, and the reality and the ideal intermingled and blurred frequently. (Indeed, the ideal probably came about at least in part as an attempt at self-justification by bloody, dangerous knights.) But even in its purest expression, I don’t think we want to be looking to the ideal of the courtly knight as an example for modern behavior. Take Andreas Capellanus, who urged these knights in his courtly guide, On Love, that if a knight desires to sleep with a peasant woman, “praise her and rape her–peasants don’t respond to gentle wooing.”

I expect that Miner’s got his medieval rose colored glasses on, more a RennFest idea of what knights are like than what they really were like. He and the rest of the cultural Chickens Little ought to instead remember the words of the great court poet Billeigh of Joel: “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

*Apparently there’s a weird cultural crossover point between the conservative social politics of hysterical crisis and medieval history. Again at Amazon, I find that people who bought Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths also bought books about the Jewish role in Christian salvation history, the terror of the Culture of Death, and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization**. That last book appears to be a favorite of people who also buy books about Christians as persecuted minority in the United States. What’s more, The Compleat Gentleman is published by Spence Publishing, whose other titles include Seven Myths of Working Mothers and The Supremacists: The Tyranny Of Judges And How To Stop It, among other less savory titles.
**Western Civilization is in constant need of building and/or saving. As you may be already be aware, the Irish had to save it and the Scots had to invent the modern version of it. But did you know that homosexuals saved it, too? As did the Hungarians. And pug dogs?***
***For those of you who hate opening links just for random comedic effect, rest assured. All the links in the joke in footnote one lead to Amazon.com listings for books of the How XXX Saved Western Civilization variety. Really. If it weren’t for the pug dog, today’s Europeans would be speaking Eastern and saluting Godzilla.****
****This leads me to wonder where they hid the book on How King Kong Saved Civilization.

P.S. If you’re reading this and your name is Brad Miner and you’re upset that I reviewed your book without reading it, please see this as an opportunity to use the FBI to find out my address and send me a copy of your book, which I promise I will read as soon as I review last year’s King Arthur movie.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • thecoolestblog

    Cool blog and cool message

  • Derek Bowman

    How XXX Saved Western Civilization?

    That sounds like a behind the scenes featurette on Vin Diesel – or perhaps a treatise on the redeeming social value of porn.

  • Dr. Virago

    Hello. I love your blog and this post in particular made me really, actually LOL. I work on medieval masculinity (in literature) and the whole idea of this book would have made me tear my hair out had your “review” not been so damn funny. I’m especially fond of your nesting footnotes — you’re a historian, aren’t you?

    Btw, I’m surprised you didn’t go after the title. Isn’t “gentleman” a class/’title’/concept that’s post-Middle Ages? The knightly class was “gentil” (as in Chaucer’s “parfit gentil knight”) but not “gentlemen.” In fact, even later, isn’t that a term for the non-courtly gentry? (A quick perusal of the medieval and post-medieval citations in the OED suggests as much.) See — who needs to read the book when even the *title* is crap!

    And btw, where are the merchants and craftsmen in Mr. Miner’s scheme of things? You’d think a conservative would want to give some props to the medieval money-makers! 😉

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    The Coolest Blog — Cool name.

    Derek — Obviously porn figures in this somewhere. This book review was on the internet, and the internet is for porn.

    Tina — I am half-historian on my mother’s side.

    Further, you’re right about the nature of gentlemen and nobility, though, according to the OED, Miner’s intended sense of the word is documentable as far back as Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee, but even there it still has a connotation of nobility.

    From the National Review Book Service’s review:

    “Miner […] insists that a gentleman must belong to an aristocracy not of wealth or birth, but of virtue.”

    Other than that, I don’t know what he says about fatcat burghers. If we take him at face value, it’s clear that the “Compleat” Gentleman doesn’t need to be a worker, a craftsman, or a tradesman. But he probably allows a backdoor where you can “fight the good fight” by being a corporate raider or refusing to sell birth control pills or something.

    Speculating about what he said is much more fun than reading the book, don’t you think?

  • Sharon

    Heh. You should see the 17th-century gentlemen I’m working with in court records right now. Don’t think that’s what Miner’s got in mind either. Drinking, brawling, fornicating, rioting, sedition, litigiousness and abuses of power… except when taking a break to accuse his gentlemanly rivals of drinking, brawling, fornicating, rioting, sedition, litigiousness and abuses of power, of course. All in a day’s work for your 17th-century gent.*

    *Of course, in the interests of fairness I should point out that there were pious gentlemen who disapproved of this sort of behaviour. Spoilsports.

  • Rebecca

    Heh heh. Along the lines of what Sharon said, I’ve been reading a lot lately about early eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen. William Byrd, for example, was rich and well educated (he read in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew every morning), a gentleman of the first order. He also kept a secret diary in which he recorded molesting and raping slave women, forcing slaves to drink their own urine, and occasionally wrote poetry about farts.

    Hey wait a minute. Maybe William Byrd was the inspiration for the commanders at Abu Ghraib??

    Just what we want modern civilization based upon. More William Byrds, I say!

  • Hannah Moore

    I think we need more chivalry , but I agree with the Blogger. >_<

  • Medlock

    The book is excellent. If you ever read it you will find it orth your while. Mr. Miner has anticipated each of your objections and provided reasonable responses.

    Yes, Mr. Miner holds up of the knight’s chivilric code as an ideal of masculinity, and he should. Though he freely admits that the average knight was generally a murdering brigand, the knight in his ideal form was to be cultured, brave, and a defender of the weak. Worthy traits, certainly.

    For Mr. Miner, a compleat gentleman is equal parts scholar, lover, monk, and soldier. He is a seeker of knowledge, he has a spiritual hunger, he opens his heart to another and he is willing to lay down his life for a just cause.

    His book is well researched, his tone is measured, and his assertions well supported. You have painted him as a right-wing reactionary, a backward-looking fool, and he is neither.

    It might surprise you to learn that Mr. Miner supports the right of women to fight alongside men in combat, that he defines chivalry in the 21st century as not standing in a woman’s way, and that he cautions transvestites to disclose their gender before a sexual assignation with an unsuspecting heterosexual man. To do otherwise would be untruthful, and “…any lady who would do that is no gentleman.”

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    It doesn’t surprise me that he upholds the right of women to fight alongside men or of transvestites to… uhm, tell their dates of their birth sex. (I’m sure this last part is relevant somehow, but not having read the book I’m at a disadvantage.)

    If you get to cherry pick your knightly traits, claiming whichever ones you like to be “ideal” and whichever ones you don’t to be “for brigands only” then you can pretty much come up with any picture of knighthood that you want to tack an extra “e” or a superfluous “a” onto and sell.

  • Medlock

    Ah, Moral Equivelancy! Is there no argument you can’t wriggle out of?

    The ideal mother is loving but firm. The ideal orange is sweet and moist. The ideal pencil is sharp. The ideal knight was to be reverent, chaste, kind, intelligent, brave, and a defender of the weak. Medieval literature bears this ideal out. The difference between our age, the Age of Irony, and the Medieval age, is that they were sincere and we are generally not. They lived in a far worse world, with far more violence, injustice, and corruption, and yet they aspired to virtue. We despise the concept of virtue; we think that we know better. We are wronge.

  • Got Medieval

    I’m always amazed when a new comment pops up on a three-year-old post–and a well-written comment to boot!

    Nonetheless, I must take issue with two of your points. First, knights were not expected to be chaste. You’re perhaps thinking of Grailish knights, like those you’ll find towards the middle section of Malory’s Morte. I suppose that these are ideals of a sort, but it’d be like taking Crockett and Tubbs (or Toody and Muldoon, if you dislike the emasculating effects of pastels) to be exemplars of proper police work. Second, and more important, the Medievals loved them some irony. Read the first half of the text that introduced that ideal Grail knight to the world, Chretien’s Perceval, if you don’t believe me. If anyone comes away from my blog secure in the idea that the medievals were generally somber, sober folk, then I have failed. I hate to assign so much reading to someone I’ve never met, but… there are some articles on this site you might want to read involving cheeky monkeys, winged naughty bits, and magical talking babies.

  • Medlock

    First, thanks very much for the compliment, and please tell me if this exchange becomes tedious. I’ll let it go.

    By chastity I meant abstaining from sexual intercourse beyond the bounds of marriage, a meaning supported by my Oxford Dictionary, but your point is taken.

    I followed your suggested reading. Are you referring to Perceval’s misinterpretation of his mother’s advice? Ironic, to be sure, but not in the sense that I intend.

    Here’s what I mean, via a quote by Robert Rosenblatt of Time Magazine:

    “For some 30 years — roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright — the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes — our columnists and pop culture makers — declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. Who but a slobbering bumpkin would think, “I feel your pain”? The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real — apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity — is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.”

    Your original post is dripping with this sort of irony. It’s very well done, by the way. I admire your skill and I’ve enjoyed many of the posts on your blog. The problem with this particular post, though, is that you’re dismissing a book that I love, a book that you have not even read, in a tone that indicates that you know better. You simply don’t.

    Here is a selection of Mr. Miner’s work:

    “…during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there was also a gradual loosening of feudal bonds: Serfs-indentured servants-became peasants and began to have some ownership rights. Increased income led to mobility, and European cities began to expand; artisans and merchants began to thrive Various constraints-legal, ethical, and religious-began to temper the knight’s reckless sense of empowerment.”

    “Some knights back in France and England interpreted the rules of courtly love as justification for adultery and fornication, but the Templars swore to never marry, to never lust, to always be chaste. This all might have been a cultish sham were it not for the fact that in war they were the first into battle and the last to retreat. In business they were both scrupulous and honorable.”

    “Yes, poor old Alonso Quijano, the man of la Mancha, is a comical figure, but he’s a tragic figure as well, not because he tilts at windmills, but because his quest for fidelity, prowess, generosity, courtesy, and honor is undertaken in a materialistic world that has grown indifferent to knightly virtue. As Marshal might have quipped with a sigh, Plus ca change.”

    Reading my last post, I realize that I have overstated my case, but you, I think, have vastly overstated your own. If you give me a mailing address, I will, and I swear to this, send you my personal copy of the book. Read it and return it with your comments, and let’s have a real discussion.

  • Got Medieval

    I must admit that my reading of Perceval has been greatly influenced by a paper I heard recently comparing it the Adam Sandler’s Waterboy. Percy misinterprets nearly everything–his mother’s advice, the words of the knights, Kay’s insults, etc. Chretien has unleashed a complete moron on his Arthurian world. It’s not ironic in an Alanis Morissette kind of way, though, I’ll grant you that.

    If you want to send me a copy of said, book, feel free. Until June, I can be reached through the address listed in this post. But before you head to the post office, let me say, those quotes there don’t really shake my beliefs about the book.

    What about all those recklessly empowered mercenaries that are wandering around Europe calling themselves knights in the 14th and 15th centuries? Why are Templars more knightly than those French and English knights in the same sentence? And why is the 1965 musical The Man of La Mancha relevant at all?

  • Medlock

    You have unshaken beliefs about a book you’ve never read…

    I don’t think that further conversation will profit either of us. Thanks for your time.

  • Kathleen

    Why don't you start your message with the fact that you haven't read the book? Then I'll know when to quit reading your message?

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