The Well and the Shallows/A Grammar of Knighthood

Free texts and images.
Jump to: navigation, search
Shocking the Modernists The Well and the Shallows
A Grammar of Knighthood
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Reflections on a Rotten Apple

I think it very likely that many have never even heard of The Broadstone of Honour, the manual of chivalry written by Kenelm Digby early in the nineteenth century; unless they remember one contemptuous reference to it in Macaulay's Essays. The reference is not much of a criticism on the Broadstone of Honour, but it is a very damaging criticism of Macaulay's Essays. It illustrates, not only his spirited superficiality, but that considerable element of ignorance that went along with his remarkable reputation for omniscience. Just as his celebrated sneer at Spenser shows that he had not read Spenser, so his less famous sneer at Kenelm Digby shows that he had not read Kenelm Digby. He set himself to belittle certain old tales of courtesy, which is the wedding of humility with dignity. He scoffed at such stories as that of the Black Prince waiting like a servant on his helpless captive; and he thought he could not scoff at them more effectively than by saying they would be suitable to Kenelm Digby; or, as he put it, to "those who think, like the author of The Broadstone of Honour, that God made the world for the use of gentlemen." One is tempted to reply, in some moods, that there will always be enough bounders, even among the learned, to redress the balance.

Now Kenelm Henry Digby was, as his name implies, a member of an old Catholic family, established in Ireland; and, as with the other branches of such old families established in England, it would not be very unnatural if he did attach some importance to being a gentleman. If the weakness has sometimes been too apparent in the old Catholics of England, it is at least pardonable and rather pathetic. When you are an honest and perfectly patriotic squire, and all your countrymen regard you as a liar, a traitor, a poisoner and a devil-worshipper, it must be something of a sentimental comfort to you that they cannot deny you are a gentleman. Poor human nature being what it is, you may be excused if you come to think a little too much of it. And Kenelm Digby might have been excused if he really had thought too much of it; and talked nonsense about gentlemen, as if God had made the world for them. But as a simple fact, it was not Digby who talked nonsense about gentlemen, but Macaulay who talked nonsense about Digby.

What would Macaulay have said if after writing his epigram about a universe created for the gentry, he had made the bold experiment of opening the book at random, as I did, and reading a paragraph like this:

"The noble Italian Arnigio shows how truly generous and heroic peasants and men of the lowest rank of life may become." "The glorious nativity of the Redeemer of the world," he observes, "was revealed to shepherds, as to men pure, just and vigilant. When our adorable Saviour was to be born blessed Mary and the devout Joseph were so little possessed of worldly grandeur that the stable of an inn was their only place of refuge. For mark, says a holy man, the evangelists do not say that there was no room in the inn, but there was no room for them. Oh what a noble school is poverty! What a temple of sovereign honour! Pope Urban IV was so little ashamed of being the son of a shoemaker that he ordered the pulpit of the church of St. Urban, at Troyes, his native city, to be adorned on great festivals with tapestry representing his father's stall. There is even an example of legislation, on the principles of the romances, which places Chivalry before nobility, for the state of Pistoja, in the thirteenth century ennobled men as a punishment for their crimes."

Do you think that perhaps even Macaulay would have felt slightly ashamed of himself?

Anyhow the author of The Broadstone of Honour did not think the world was made only for gentlemen He thought in his simplicity that it was made for man; and he could not escape from a prejudice in favour of brave men and honest men and (I am so antiquated as to add) men who felt a special consideration for women. The book has some of the faults of its type and time; in that sense it is now rather dated; nearly as much dated as Macaulay. We must read it, or at least parts of it, rather as we read a song of Tom Moore or a patriotic poem of Thomas Davis, or all that rather rhetorical yet very red-blooded tradition ot talking and writing that derived from the mishty melodrama of Byron or was sympathetically satirised in Micawber. But when we have allowed for variations in the taste for purple patches, a matter entirely relative in our taste as in his, the book is sustained from first to last by what can only be called a sustained energy of virtue. It does anybody good to meet a man so little ashamed of an enthusiasm for mere goodness. Many of his gestures are as noble as any of those that make the decisive moments in the Chansons de Geste. Many of his concessions are as graceful as any that he himself praises in the chronicles of the tournament or the tented field. But he was very far from being merely an amiable old antiquary haunting Melrose by moonlight; or even a dazed Don Quixote with his head hidden in folios about Arthur and Amadis of Gaul. I cannot resist making another quotation which will serve to show that Kenelm Digby was not by any means unconscious of what was going on in his own time--and, I will add, is still going on in ours.

After speaking of St. Francis and of many knights who would feed the poor and eat with them and carry their coffins, he says, "Oh! is it for the rich of the nineteenth century to talk of the inhumanity of the Middle Ages? To give alms, with them, is to encourage idleness. He is hungry, he is naked? Let him work. But he is old? There are employments for all. But he is a child? Do not teach him to beg. It is the mother of a large family? Perhaps she does not tell the truth. We have institutions on a new system. Yes truly, and woe to the unhappy ones who are doomed to receive relief from them! In order that the children of pleasure may not be incommoded by the sight of poverty the poor are shut up within high walls and condemned to confinement for the crime of being poor and miserable. When they are thus secluded from the enjoyment of nature an odious Board of Governors takes care that they should be provided with what is sufficient to support life. And then they have to endure the countenances of ferocious barbarians who are the officers to administer this horrible humanity."

That is the testimony of Digby, as it is the testimony of Dickens, who did not presumably labour under the illusion that God made the world only for gentlemen. That is also the testimony of Cobbett, of Carlyle, of Hood, of Ruskin, of everybody who actually watched the modern industrial movement with his eyes open; but the fact that Digby wrote that paragraph may alone be my apology for writing this note on his neglected name.