Now that the dreaded comps demon is behind me I have time for nonoptional things, like seeing people, and optional ones, like reading Facebook. And it has come to my attention, in the course of the latter—shall we say—activity, that certain of my friends were having quite a discussion about a certain post in The New York Times entitled “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man.” (Admittedly, this was about a week ago.) For the record, if any representative of the Times stumbles across the post, congratulations: you have succeeded in making a group of highly intelligent people very confused about whether or not this piece was intended as a parody. Perhaps we have found the right wing (by which I really mean, the left wing) answer to Stephen Colbert?
In any case, I don’t mean to argue with the “27 Ways.” Far be it from me, a woman (or girl) of no particular century (we are ageless and unique, to paraphrase Simon de Beauvoir), to suggest whether or not these are in fact representative ways of being manly in the twenty-first century. I wouldn’t know, and I’m not sure my husband the medieval philosopher would be much help.
But—probably because I have been so completely immersed in preparation for my exams—it struck me in reading the Times piece that this list sounded familiar. The author was definitely going for a particular overall impression—a man who is strong, sensitive, knowledgeable, and intelligent. A family man, but suave. A gunless man, equipped with melon ballers. You get the picture.
It—not the actual picture, but the carefully poised contrasts—reminded me of something, possibly in a negative way. Of Sir Thomas More. Of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano as translated by Hoby. Of sprezzatura which is (in the imperfect English) “the true perfection” of a courtier, “a grace” which “ought to accompany all his doings, gestures, demeanors, … [and] motions”; “a sauce to everything, without the which all his other properties and good conditions were little worth,” which is above all bound up in the avoiding of that “sharp and dangerous rock, Affectation or curiosity,” and demands that its possessor
use in everything a certain Recklessness, to cover art withal, and seem whatsoever he doeth and sayeth to do it without pain, and (as it were) not minding it. … Therefore that may be said to be a very art that appeareth not to be art …
The Courtier, as this English translation was called, became the veritable Bible of the English gentleman: the perfect picture of the Renaissance Man—the original Renaissance Man. (Similar things were happening in Italy, France, and Spain, but we didn’t take comps in those literatures, so why bother? No word yet on whether or not China invented the Renaissance Man first.)
But this is all rather cold and academic compared to the personal examples and musings of Mr. Lombardi (himself clearly an Italian American—and with that name, possibly a distant relative of Castiglione’s, since the latter was born in Lombardy?). So I propose, rather than elaborating on Castiglione/Hoby’s ”Courtier” at greater abstract length, to give you a portrait of a real early modern man of the courtier class who surely, like Sir Philip Sidney, “never stirred abroad without The Courtier in his pocket.”
27 Ways to Be an Early Modern Man
Early Modern Manhood demands the same virtues we English practiced in the days of Chaucer: namely, cleaving to whatever monarch seems most like to a true king, and one not prone to betraying one’s family in the process. Verily doth fashion alter, and the sciences improve; nor are our manners and mode of discourse unchanged. But the early modern man, imbued with both the wisdom of the ancients and the truths of Revelation, and bucklered with the New Learning, is as it were a Renaissance to himself, a little world reflecting back the great one.
1. When the early modern man fits shoes for his future spouse, he speaks in pidgin Dutch. That way he can hide from her relatives, who are seeking to discover their secret love affair.
2. The early modern man’s confidence does not sink. He one-ups Aeneas. In fact, he has probably translated the Aeneid, in case his acquaintances needed any light vernacular reading. All in his spare time, of course.
3. The early modern man is considerate. At the theater, he finds his ladies a seat above the stage, where everyone can see them.
4. The early modern man eats meat. He does not have heart attacks or cancer, and knows how to get out of town when the plague is in. Pleurisy, however, may be a real concern.
5. The early modern man knows how to hire and keep a good horse boy.
6. Before the early modern man retires, he makes sure that his wife and children have blown out the candles. There’s nothing like a good fire to get one’s family up before the end of first sleep, and cleaning up the ash really cuts into second sleep.
7. The early modern man drinks beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, just like Queen Elizabeth. Preferably double double brew, until it was outlawed, also by Queen Elizabeth. Maybe even after that.
8. The early modern man uses the proper names for things. He will never import a French or Latin term where the Anglo-Saxon one will do.
9. Having a daughter die makes the early modern man write a poem. Having a son die has the same effect. Surprisingly, the early modern man likes his children, even when they die.
10. The early modern man wipes his dishes with crusts, and eats them, so as not to waste any food.
11. The early modern man would not be caught dead publishing his work—unless an error-ridden edition just so happened to be prereleased by his enemies, in which case it is clearly his duty, as admonished by his friends, to publish a corrected copy, which will sell out multiple editions and protect his honor.
12. The early modern man has lots of clean linen, and changes it every time a miasma arises.
13. The early modern man writes his own lute melodies, and probably plays them, but only for his closest friends and family.
14. The early modern man buys and sells horses and property. Everything else is his steward’s business.
15. The early modern man keeps clean rushes on the floor. The children love playing down there, and it takes longer to notice when one of the dogs forgets itself.
16. The early modern man sleeps with his wife so that she won’t freeze to death on cold winter nights. He doesn’t need to worry about the door, because even his enemies know that they will DIE if they think about attacking his family, because he will defend his chamber exactly like Lancelot did.
17. The early modern man’s kitchen definitely contains a waffle iron, a deep fryer, twig whisks, scales, and a cheese grater—how else did you think he was able to pull off stuffed grouse, fully refeathered? But he doesn’t know about any of this, because his cook takes care of things, and won’t stand interference in the kitchen.
18. The early modern man has seriously bought two shoehorns. Shoes are too expensive not to take care of.
19. The early modern man makes sure his wife always has a nosegay to ward off disease, especially when she is pregnant, which is often.
20. On occasion, the early modern man writes tormented love lyrics. No one is ever sure whether or not to take them literally, but that’s all part of the mystique. His wife doesn’t seem to mind. He’s also translated most of the psalms, from the original Hebrew. In his spare time, again.
21. The early modern man admonishes his children for minor mistakes only if he thinks it will aid in their moral and intellectual development. Usually it will.
22. The early modern man knows from whom to get the court gossip, and to whom not to tell it. He is good at writing letters, and at destroying them. He has friends in the Tower, and friends who used to be in the Tower, and probably friends who took a short walk in the Tower.
23. The early modern man has read everything by Petrarch.
24. The early modern man fells no need to check his points.
25. The early modern man has no use for villainous saltpeter. A sword is far more deadly, provided one knows how to use it (and he does), and hunting is more safely and sportingly done with the primitive weapons of his ancestors.
26. The early modern man associates tears with women, except when male friends are saying goodbye to each other forever, like when one of them gets married.
27. People aren’t sure if the early modern man is really a player or not. Then he has the nerve to advise the Queen on her marriage prospects, gets himself kicked out of court, goes to fight the Spanish oversees, gives his armor to an unequipped man immediately before battle, is wounded in the thigh as a result, and—lying on the field of battle—passes his water on to another wounded man, observing that “Thy necessity is greater than mine.” After about a month, he dies of gangrene at the age of thirty-one. Let the legends begin.