from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A gentleman in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough , 1782

The term gentleman describes a man who is socially distinguished due to his birth, his character, his education and his decency. The expression was coined in England and was always considered by higher circles as a special expression of British national character.


The term is made up of the English words gentle ("lovable, kind, gentle") and man ("man"). Gentle in turn goes back to the old French gentil ("well-born") and thus ultimately to the Latin gentilis ("belonging to the same family, race or nationality"). Etymological affinities also exist to the English term gentry , which in a broader sense denotes the nobility . There are parallel terms in French with gentilhomme , in Spanish with gentilhombre and in Italian with gentiluomo . Gentleman is most likely to be translated into German as Ehrenmann or Kavalier .


The term “gentleman” is relatively vague and without contours: a binding characterization is hardly possible. The following were named as necessary, sometimes also sufficient prerequisites:

Belonging to the nobility

In older times, the relevant criterion was the belonging of the person concerned to the nobility. John Selden, for example, in Titles of Honor of 1614 , equates the terms “gentleman” and “nobilis”. Daniel Defoe writes in his Compleat English Gentleman of 1729 that a gentleman must in any case be a "descendant of a well-known and venerable family". According to William Harrison , those gentlemen should be named who are generally considered to be noble because of their blood or their descent (...).

In some cases it was also argued that the gentlemen were a class of their own that had developed between the actual nobility and the common people by the 15th century at the latest. A landowner register from 1431 lists the class of gentlemen in addition to Knights , Esquires , Yeomen and Husbandmen ( i.e. heads of household) .

In this respect, the authorization to carry a coat of arms was of great importance . Sometimes this was even considered to be the sole determining factor. In this respect, a scene from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (Act II, 1) is instructive:

Petruchio: "I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again."
Catharina: “So may you lose your arms: If you strike me, you are no gentleman;
And if no gentleman, why then no arms. "

Translation by Schlegel / Tieck:

Petruchio: "My 'Seel', you will get one if you hit again!"
Katharina: "So you might lose your faucet: If you hit me, you wouldn't be a nobleman,
Wouldn't be armored and therefore without arms. "


Christian Adolph Overbeck , Lübeck mayor, diplomat, poet and enlightener - "the model of a gentleman" (portrait of Rudolph Suhrlandt , 1818)

In the opinion of the Elizabethan nobleman Richard Mulcaster , a gentleman is characterized by the fact that he “can read, write, draw, sing, speak foreign languages, be a scholar and also know about theology and jurisprudence”. His contemporary Kempf called for an "education in grammar, logic and mathematics". According to William Harrison , in Shakespeare's time, among other things, those men were regarded as gentlemen “who studied law, stayed at university and occupied themselves with books, science and art”.

It was precisely this criterion that was in fact often not shared by the most influential and influential circles in England. Scholarship, language skills and legal studies were considered "not worthy of a gentleman" and were at best viewed as employment for later-born noble sons who had no claim to their father's inheritance and therefore had to find their way around the world elsewhere. A similar view can also be found in the American writer Lewis Mumford , who demands a "humanistic upbringing" from a gentleman, but regards in-depth detailed knowledge as rather harmful; the ideal gentleman is more the generalist who knows something about everything but nothing too much.

Sometimes the focus was less on the scope and type of knowledge than on the place where it was acquired: A gentleman should simply be someone who was educated at the famous public schools of Eton , Rugby , Winchester, etc.


A certain behavior that meets certain ethical and moral standards has often been mentioned as a characteristic of a gentleman:

Chaucer, for example, writes in Meliboeus (approx. 1386) that no one should be called a “gentil man” who does not exercise care and prudence to defend his good name. In The Wife of Bath's Tale , however, he focuses on virtue ("vertuous"), withdrawnness ("prive") and the striving to do good. In a dialogue in 1525, John Rastel put into the mouth of a peasant that a gentleman is portraying “ humility , patience, charity , generosity, celibacy, honesty and chastity ” - which is why he himself is the true gentleman and not his interlocutor of higher rank. According to Steele ( Tatler , 1714), the vocation to be a gentleman in no way depends on the living conditions of the person concerned, but rather on the behavior he shows in the face of them. Defoe expressed himself similarly, who in this respect relativized the aristocratic-blood-based principle he represented. Even William Harrison cites as criteria in addition to o. G. Education that they showed the dignity and demeanor of a gentleman.

In this context, mention should also be made of the anecdote from the days of King Jacob II , according to which the monarch is said to have replied to the request of a lady to make her son a “gentleman” that he was at best able to make him a “nobleman " close. The creation of a gentleman is, however, reserved for the Almighty.

According to Lewis Mumford , a gentleman is characterized by "embodied masculinity", "an example of perfect behavior, decisive in all actions, stoic in suffering, self-controlled, considerate, physically up to date and with a humanistic upbringing". Of Cardinal Newman , the definition is, a gentleman was "inflicts pain to anyone, (...) and makes no fuss from the favors that he turns the other" a man. Henry James regards those as a gentleman who “behave well in insignificant moments”. In the film Eve and the Last Gentleman , the gentleman is characterized as a man "who always tries to show the greatest possible benevolence to the people around him."


Central attention was also paid to the question of how the person concerned earns his living. The strictest view demands that a gentleman must be able to do this without any work of his own - which essentially narrowed the circle to aristocratic landowners.

More moderate views make it sufficient that the person does not do any physical work ( e.g. Harrison and Mulcaster ). In any case, this interpretation allows the inclusion of academic professions such as doctors , lawyers or theologians - which leads to an overlap with the above. "Education" criterion leads. However, it was often disputed to what extent members of the merchant class (“tradesmen”) should be included. While in the 15th century the merchants were generally still held in high esteem and members of the royal family were involved in trade and money lending, this professional group fell into disrepute at the latest when the Stuarts took office in 1603, as pure pursuit of gainful employment was increasingly viewed as not worthy of a gentleman.

Harrison also classifies certain activities in the field of politics and the military as “gentlemanlike”, such as performing military service on the command staff or advising government agencies in peacetime. According to Robert von Ranke-Graves , an officer's license, a diploma from Oxford or Cambridge and a spiritual benefice from the Church of England automatically make their owners gentlemen.


“A true gentleman is someone who leaves nothing to chance. It is not enough that one dresses impeccably and that everything is immaculately looked after. The whole appearance must be perfect. [...] Are the fingernails well manicured? Is the hat at right angles? Is the umbrella rolled as tight as it should be? A gentleman has to ask himself all these questions as soon as he has finished breakfast. "

- Nick Yapp in Bernhard Roetzel : The Gentleman. Handbook of classic men's fashion, 1999, p. 8.

This quote expresses a view that is widespread today, which primarily wants to recognize a gentleman by external appearances such as a well-groomed appearance in the style of classic men's fashion.

Art of living

A completely different contemporary approach can be found in the book “The Gentleman. Plea for an art of living ” by journalist Martin Scherer. The thesis of his book is: "Behind the gentleman there is - whether pronounced or not - a certain art of living in which reflection and experience, proud loneliness and social culture are concentrated in a special way."

Scherer elaborates this form of art of living in seven chapters with the headings courtesy , understatement , balance, composure , irony and charm . He defines the gentleman by his character in the style of a modern doctrine of virtues .

Development history of the term

“The concept of the gentleman has always played a special role in philosophy because it belongs, as it were, to the Greek conception of the ideal man, because the virtue of contemplation has been confirmed by theology and academic life has been ennobled by the ideal of unselfish truth . The gentleman must be portrayed as a member of a society of equals who live from slave labor or at least from the work of people whose subordinate position is beyond question. "

- Bertrand Russell : "Philosophy of the West", chapter "Pythagoras"

Again and again, modifications or new formations of the term “gentleman” were created in order to be able to include circles which, according to the respective standards of the speaker, do not even meet the requirements of the term gentleman. As gentlemen new as were about love deserved and called successful merchants, gentlemen by nature simpler relatives stalls, which are characterized by special merits of character. The men who were appointed to the rank of officers to a large extent, especially in times of war, who lacked the birth and educational requirements for gentleman status, were sometimes called temporary gentlemen .

From around the 19th century, the term began to decline in general. At best, it is a term for a particularly friendly or polite gentleman - especially to women. Often, however, it is simply used as a synonym for "man", as is expressed in the form of address "Dear ladies and gentlemen". In this respect, the labeling of British toilet doors with the word Gents or the use of the word in compositions such as gentlemen's club , which is often enough a euphemistic name for brothels, hour hotels or the like, is also indicative. In its original meaning it lives on in combinations such as gentlemen's agreement or gentlemanlike .

See also


  • Arnold Bender: The English . Frankfurt 1983, ISBN 3-59621-905-1 , pp. 103-113
  • Daniel Defoe: The compleat English gentleman . London 1890 (Reprint, edited by Karl D. Bülbring: Folcroft 1972)
  • Eduard Maria Oettinger : Short letters to my long cousin, or, instructions on how to become a perfect gentleman in twenty-four hours . Leipzig 1847 ( digitized version )
  • Bernhard Roetzel: The gentleman. Manual of Classic Men's Fashion , 2012. ISBN 978-3-8480-0197-2
  • Martin Scherer: The gentleman. Plea for an Art of Living , 2004. ISBN 3-42320-649-7
  • Abram Smythe Palmer: The Ideal of a Gentleman: Or, A Mirror for Gentlefolks, a Portrayal in Literature from the Earliest Times , 1586 - ( digitized version )

Individual evidence

  1. J. Beavington Atkinson: Overbeck , London 1882, p 5
  2. Martin Scherer: The Gentleman. Plea for an art of living, p. 9.