Renaissance Man

When you see this old, beardy man, you probably don’t really think he’s anything ‘ideal’.

And yet if you put him on a checklist of what’s ideal, he’d tick a lot of boxes.

All this comes back to ‘Renaissance Man’ – of which the old, beardy man above is arguably the best example. I guess it depends on your notion of ideal, though.

First, you want someone academic. Someone clever. Someone who’s an all-round A*. Someone good at Maths, good at Science, good at Geography, good at History, good at Languages and good at Art.

But you don’t just want some dusty old boffin. You want someone who’s physically fit as well. Someone who can hold his own in a sword fight. Modern-day Renaissance Man would need to be the striker on the football team, or the full-back on the rugby team. We’re not just talking about some sporty jock here. We want a jock with brains.

But he needs to have a sensitive and intelligent side too. He’d need to appreciate and play music. He’d need to be good at poetry.

And he needs to be able to socialise and behave impeccably. We’re actually talking about some kind of modern man who’s at home in the spy world, speaks several languages and who people trust.

So, some kind of super-intelligent James Bond then, with a more arty and creative and romantic side.

You might be forgiven for thinking that old beardy, Leonardo da Vinci, might not tick so many of those boxes. And that’s where you’d be wrong. Engineer, artist, poet, sculptor, musician, architect and inventor. And painter of the world’s most famous painting.

Because being a true Renaissance man means being well-rounded. You’re supposed to be the peak of civilisation. All those years of evolving from cave-painting-hunters has led us to the pinnacle. The peak.

And excuse me if I’m not finding it easy to find another great example. David Beckham? Okay, he fits the sporty criteria. But is he blessed with brains and the ability to write poetry? Boris Johnson? Scientist and Inventor? Not sure about that one. And I’m not sure if his bicycle-riding qualifies as appropriately sporty. Bill Gates? Brains and invention, sure, but does he speak eight languages? Can he wrestle?

However, just because they were few and far between does not mean that people gave up on striving to be one.

All of this Renaissance Man business is essentially about being one thing: the best you can be, in virtually everything there is to be good at. All things civilised, at the very least. It’s not enough to have a broad knowledge, but you have to be good at things too.

He is, in fact, based very much on the idea of the knight at home. You come back from battling and saving holy cities, you put up your feet and you knock out a great painting. You play the lute, polish up your Latin and Ancient Greek, get involved with a little international diplomacy. You came back to court and put aside your blood-stained armour and your sword and went about the noble business of being civilised.

Now, this is where it starts to get interesting, because a lot of being a knight on leave was about hanging around with the king or the dukes, and so you’d need to have some manners. Also, a man home from long battles might want to take himself a wife, and a well-rounded man would be more eligible for the ladies.

Now, that’s a problem. After a war, the male population is decidedly depleted. There are lots of girls who haven’t been fighting and who have waited patiently at home, so there are lots of women a man might want to choose from. Give it a few years and it’s a little more balanced.

But girls are a problem. Think of the marriage ceremony. In it, a man gives away his daughter. He passes her on. A girl, unfortunately, is little more than a burden. You’ll never find talk of ‘Renaissance Woman’ for example. As a man with a castle, you want sons, so you can pass your castle on to the next generation. If you have no sons, your castle goes to the nearest male relative. Much of this is why Henry VIII ended up with six wives. He wanted a son. Even though girls could inherit a throne, they couldn’t inherit a castle or a Dukedom. And even though they could inherit the throne, the throne would still go to younger brothers instead of them.

Think of it like this. Our current Queen, Elizabeth II, has four children. Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward. Charles is oldest, therefore the throne is his first. The next bit is complicated. Imagine for a minute that Charles had no children. William and Henry don’t exist. You’d expect, in modern Britain, that if Charles died, Anne, his next sibling, would get the throne first.


That would be her brother, Andrew, then her youngest brother Edward. Anne only gets the throne if Charles, Andrew and Edward, and all of their children, die.

Not exactly fair, I know.

So how do we end up with a Queen?

It’s just when there’s no-one in the direct line to inherit the throne other than a girl.

Next is easy. Charles has two sons. William and Harry. If William has a child, the child will inherit the throne. If he doesn’t, Harry will.

Men are all-important.

As a man, you wanted a son. You wanted more than one son, in fact, because it was pretty likely one of your sons would die. You worked on the theory of three or more sons. One would be your next-in-line. One you’d send off to be a soldier and work for the country, and one would go to be a priest. If he’s a priest, you don’t have to look after him and pay for him any more, the church will do that. A soldier’s also got places to be. He’s going to be paid for by the state.

A girl has got nothing. She’s practically worthless. She costs you money to keep, doesn’t pass on your family name and to top it all off, the church says she’s responsible for all the sin in the world. We’d all still be in Eden if it were not for a woman.

The only way a girl has any use is if you marry her off and she makes a good alliance. You could marry her into someone else’s family, have some powerful in-laws and you’ve set yourself up so you’ve got a bit of power on your side.

But of course, if you’re a man of wealth and fame and talent, you’ve got several other blokes who want you to marry their daughter so that they can count you as part of their family. And if you’re a man of wealth and fame and talent, you want the best marriage possible. You want her to be pretty and kind of clever (but not so clever she shows you up) and most of all, you want her to be faithful. Above everything else.

In fact, Game of Thrones is a great example of what happens when it all goes wrong. Young, handsome, rich king fresh from war has the pick of the nation’s girls and alliances. He chooses a beautiful blonde. She gets pregnant, has three children in succession, including two fine boys. You’re a happy king.

Or not.

Because as it turns out, the devious Queen has been cheating on you (with her brother, no less!) and your children aren’t yours at all. As soon as you’re dead, your inheritance, everything you’ve worked for, goes to her children who are nothing to do with you. This little cuckoo in the nest can inherit everything. There was no Jeremy Kyle with a DNA test.  So you needed a woman you could trust, otherwise all your friends and family will be laughing their arses off that you got cheated out of your own kingdom.

So, you need a faithful, polite, virginal, trustworthy innocent young gem who isn’t going to embarrass you or show you up. Sounds a little like the young Princess Diana to me.

And, just to make it clear, there are still conspiracy theories about whether Harry is Charles’ son or not. And it’s not even as if it’s important any more. (And, in this age of DNA testing, can you imagine any scenario in which Harry isn’t Charles’ son? I’m with reason and logic on this one….)

Many fathers went to extreme lengths to ensure their daughters remained marketable. If she’s pretty, you might want to lock her in a tower. You might want to keep her out of public view. You want to keep her away from any man who might ruin her.

So, men held all the cards, especially these talented, well-rounded, educated, charming courteous Renaissance-Man-wannabes. And girls had nothing. If you don’t believe me, read how desperate Katherina’s father gets in The Taming of the Shrew. He’s all set out to sell her off to the highest bidder. Poor man, with two daughters and nothing else. He will lose everything and not only that, he’s burdened with an unreasonable daughter to boot.

Which reminds me of another thing… the dowry. A dowry was basically a sum of money a girl’s dad would give to the husband in order to take her off his hands.


Katherina even asks her father: “I pray you, sir, is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates?”

A stale is a prostitute. She’s basically asking her own dad if it’s really his plan to pimp her out to the highest bidder. And yes, it is his plan.

But even though he’s offering a large dowry, she’s too rough, she’s not gentle or mild or maidenly. In fact, when a man sees Bianca, the younger sister, she says nothing and he falls in love with her because she’s so meek and mild.

So you can see, a woman’s lot was a tough one.

One woman was responsible for a big change in attitude though. You can read about her in the next blog, which will be on courtly love, popularised by the effervescent king-maker, Aelienor of Aquitaine, a right royal feminist who gave women a little bit of power.


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