H is for Honor Code

From Romeo & Juliet’s royal ballet at the London Opera house on Youtube.

The Honor code in the Renaissance was a major driver of personal behavior. However, the code was a shift in attitude from the medieval times. Where once humility and charity had reigned, the new code rested more heavily on public image. That meant far more men would be far more sensitive to public insult, and you know where that leads, if you have swords. As Benevolio says in Romeo and Juliet:

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

How did men go from bending knee and expressing honor quietly to brandishing epees and prancing about? Change in attitude and little help from the influencers of the day.

The Chivalric Code

In the code of chivalry, with knights and ladies, knights were expected to portray brotherhood, humility, and charity. Chivalry meant being courteous, just, generous, sticking up for the weak, especially ladies, and treating the resulting positive outcome as it’s own reward. Women were supposed to be prudent, chaste, and righteous as well.

Honor derived from acting like a knight and doing good deeds. It was internal. Above all, piety and keeping Christian ideas uppermost in your mind at all times. Of course, most people weren’t knights and ladies, but the stories were told of the song of Roland and King Arthur, so even the peasants and household servants on the baron’s staff would know how to behave.

A Shift in Tone: Courtiers and Analysis

In the Renaissance, there was a shift in attitude. Part of the reason for an increase in the nobility was the expansion of commerce. All of a sudden there were a lot of wealthy people, and since Italy and elsewhere were small city-states, there were a lot of dukes and counts and their courts.

Two influencers of the day–Machiavelli and Castiglione–wrote self–help books that contributed to a change in focus. Machiavelli’s The Prince gave advice to Lorenzo di Medici, and the advice was very practical. Hereditary rulers who take power have it easier than those who take power because people never find the new ruler does exactly what they want. If a prince takes new territory, he should go live in the new place or he’ll never get them to submit. And so on. Much of the tactical advice is about appearing strict and benevolent. There’s little about how you should feel and much about how you should act.

Similarly, Castiglione wrote The Courtier, which is advice dispensed to all the people who wanted to surround these new princes, dukes, and counts. Now, significant time is spent on explaining the value of physical prowess, rank, knowledge of the classics, and a pleasant physique. Now, it’s key to wrap yourself in modest trappings, and appear humble, whether you are or not. It’s far more about public image than about internal self-worth.

Honor now becomes about one’s good opinion in the world rather than intrinsic goodness. If you really wanted to seal the deal to raise other’s good opinion of you, plus prove your “piety,” then you built and funded stuff–religious stuff.

Also Build Churches and Fund Artwork

So, if you’re one of those many counts and dukes who have money are in the nobility, you can put some money into the family church. Then, get one of the local painters, say Piero della Francesca, to paint you and your family into the scene. Here’s the Duke of Montefeltro, kneeling on the right, honoring Mary and the Christ Child, who look surprisingly like his wife and baby son.

The altarpiece for the church at Montefeltro, starring the Montefeltro family. Painted by Piero della Francesca.

The Contradictory Honor Code

If public image becomes all-important, then preserving that image is critical–in public. Thus, it was acceptable to fight duels if someone insults you in public.

This might seem contradictory to the rules underlying Christianity, where sacrifice and humility were supposed to hold sway. That salvation of Christianity helped with interpretation. Fight the duel, then go to confession and do penance. All good here.

Honor urged vengeance, pride, display, or partisanship.

Cohen & Cohen, Daily Life in the Renaissasnce.

Curiously enough, the increase in all the religious art and newly-written discussions of proper comportment did not reduce the number of fratricides, homicides, and suspicious deaths.

But Mercutio and Juliet could have told you that.

6 Replies to “H is for Honor Code”

  1. There is something good about an honor code, but in many ways it is also certainly outdated. I doubt whether Will Smith was thinking exactly about an honor code with his now infamous slap of Chris Rock, but his action might have had roots in it.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    1. Hadn’t made that connection, that’s right. And shows how maybe the Honor Code needs to be overlaid with other civilized behavior. Now I’m thinking about the Courtiers in the audience, and that would be an interesting analysis. No matter what, you don’t hit the Fool.

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