Gentlemen, whatever they say, is not an endangered species at all. On the contrary, it is surprisingly resilient, because gentlemen existed both in the Middle Ages and in the New Age, and in the 21st century they have a place. Another question is that at different times this word had its own meaning, which means that the right to be called a gentleman had to be earned in different ways.
Who were the very first gentlemen
Gentlemen were especially talked about in Europe in the 19th century, and then this image was formed – a decent and worthy person, carefully guarding his reputation, with impeccable manners and a strict code of honor. But in general, the term “gentleman” was used by the British much earlier, back in the Middle Ages – and then a different meaning was put into it.
The word itself is the result of a mixture of French and English concepts; gentil, from the Latin gentilis, means “well-born”, and man – “man”. Once upon a time, all men of noble birth, representatives of the aristocracy, were called gentlemen. A gentleman of the 14th century and later period of history is a nobleman who has the opportunity not to work and does not work.
English society once consisted of four categories: the first included artisans and peasants, the second – small landowners-yeomanry, the third was represented by townspeople, and the fourth – gentlemen, that is, aristocrats.
Later, in the 15th century, speaking of gentlemen, they most often meant younger sons and their descendants – that is, those who, according to the rules of the majorate, were deprived of their title, and with it their fortune: according to British standards, the inheritance was not divided, but passed to the eldest of sons, he also took the title. The younger brother in such cases arranged his life on his own, for example, becoming a priest and getting a church parish in control, or entering into a profitable marriage. These were gentlemen – people of noble birth, who did not have a specific title.
The gentry were associated with the gentlemen, representatives of the small estate nobility, also without titles, but with the opportunity to boast of their generosity. Gentlemen were a level above the yeomen – they worked on their plots of land, and for a gentleman in those centuries, physical labor was unacceptable.
From noble birth to nobility of manners
The word was used quite actively in the kingdom, “gentlemen” performed a number of court duties: gentlemen-at-arms, for example, were the royal ceremonial life guard, and gentleman-at-large was a person at court without clearly defined duties. The gentlemen-commoners, the noble students of Oxford and Cambridge universities, were treated in these educational institutions in a special way, they enjoyed some privileges, for example, in terms of the duration of study.
If physical labor for gentlemen remained a taboo, then in social, political life they considered it obligatory for themselves to take a direct part, hence the love of the British for all sorts of societies and clubs. One such place was nothing less than the House of Commons of the British Parliament.
A little more time passed, the gentleman was increasingly called the one who demonstrated decency and good upbringing by his behavior, despite the absence of eminent ancestors or his own family coat of arms. This approach became especially popular in the 19th century, when the emphasis was shifted from the circumstances of a person’s life to his own behavior in these circumstances.
Gentlemen were no longer only those who were of noble birth, but also men who had earned the ability to maintain a certain reputation, social capital.
But with regard to the inadmissibility of manual, physical labor for a gentleman, the taboo remained until the 20th century; Of course, no one was forbidden to choose such a profession, but one who began to work with his hands – including, by the way, a surgeon – ceased to be a gentleman in the then generally recognized sense of the word.
In general, the image of a gentleman was not associated with compulsory labor, rather, he was an amateur who chooses his occupation, not guided by the desire to earn a piece of bread and in general to receive any kind of reward. That is why one of the classic gentlemen of the 19th century – Sherlock Holmes – seems so convincing in the image of a bored and at the same time impeccably behaving gentleman, he is an amateur detective.