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.