Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Throw Down The Gauntlet

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 9, 2014

When someone throws down the gauntlet, they’re challenging someone to defend a belief, a comment, a principle, or another person. The expression exists to this day even though few people seem to know what a gauntlet is.  The word gauntlet is from the Old French word gantelet which means glove.

On October 3, 2014 the Guardian newspaper reported on the Conservative Party in Britain’s threat to no longer be a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention. If the happens, this could complicate life for those living in Britain who wish to file human rights complaints against their government. The article was titled, “Tory Plans for European Human Rights Convention Will Take UK Back 50 Years” and the second paragraph in the news story read:

The Conservative plans, outlined in an eight-page paper, throw down the gauntlet to the Council of Europe, the 47-country body that enforces the convention. Either the council accepts that the policy is a legitimate way of applying the convention, or the UK will withdraw from it.

In the 1902 and 1906 editions of “A Thesaurus Dictionary of the English Language Designed to Suggest Immediately Any Desired Word Needed To Express Exactly A Given Idea” compiled by Francis Andrew March, LL.D., L.H.D., D.C.L., Litt.D., and his son, Francis Andrew March, Jr., A.M., Ph.D., the idiom was listed both as throw down the gauntlet and fling down the gauntlet.

Their resource book, however, was based on the 1852 edition of the “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in An Composition” by British physician, natural theologian, and lexicographer, Peter Mark Roget (18 January 1779 – 12 September 1869). He published his thesaurus in 1852, and for generations afterwards, students and scholars have reached for their “Roget’s Thesaurus” to help them find the right word when writing.

Back in 1850, in the book by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870), “David Copperfield,” the author used the expression in Chapter 28 titled, “Mr. Micawber’s Gauntlet.”

‘And here is Mr. Micawber without any suitable position or employment. Where does that responsibility rest? Clearly on society. Then I would make a fact so disgraceful known, and boldly challenge society to set it right. It appears to me, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ said Mrs. Micawber, forcibly, ‘that what Mr. Micawber has to do, is to throw down the gauntlet to society, and say, in effect, “Show me who will take that up. Let the party immediately step forward.”‘

I ventured to ask Mrs. Micawber how this was to be done.

‘By advertising,’ said Mrs. Micawber – ‘in all the papers. It appears to me, that what Mr. Micawber has to do, in justice to himself, in justice to his family, and I will even go so far as to say in justice to society, by which he has been hitherto overlooked, is to advertise in all the papers; to describe himself plainly as so-and-so, with such and such qualifications and to put it thus: “Now employ me, on remunerative terms, and address, post-paid, to W. M., Post Office, Camden Town.”‘

The idiom was indeed well-known in the years leading up to “David Copperfield” being published and can be found in a Letter to the Editor of the London Magazine (also known as the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer) written and published in Volume 51 in December 1782. The author of the letter took issue with parallels that had been drawn between Hume and Bolingbroke, in the September edition article, “Hume and Bolingbroke, A Parallel.” Perhaps the author objected to this comparison:

Bolingbroke’s genius was bold, picturesque, splendid, and oratorical, that of Hume seemed more acute, concise, and penetrating. The one is distinguished by a lofty and daring imagination, by an inexhaustible brilliancy of ideas, and by a diction peculiarily full, expressive, and tropical, the other by a clear and subtile understanding, by deep and accurate thinking, and by a stile uniformly emphatical and elegant.” 

In his Letter to the Editor, the author wrote:

We here throw down the gauntlet, and bid defiance to his most credulous and most admiring flatterers, to produce a theory, a dissertation, or even a single thought, which we cannot trace to the source, and refer to the original owner. To invent and to embellish; to create and to clothe; are very different operations. The ranks of the master and of the scholar are never to be confused.

The idiom was also in use in the early 1700s as shown in the book “Sermons Upon Several Occasions” by John Scott, published in 1704.   This sermon was preached before the Artillery Company of London at St. Mary Le Bow on September 15, 1680.  In Sermon III — based on Proverbs 28 — the following can be read.

Reason to love, not to desire any thing but what he hath fair hope to enjoy, not to delight in any thing but what is in his Power to possess and keep, it being, I saw, in his Power to be effected as he pleases, and to regulate his own Motions according as he thinks fit and reasonable; he may chose whether he will be a Coward or no, and should the grimmest Danger stare him in the Face, yet supposing him to have such a Command of himself, as not to desire what he cannot have, not to dread what he cannot prevent, not to grieve and vex at what he cannot avoid; he may throw down the Gauntlet to it, and defy it to do its worst.

Now some sources claim that the phrase originated as a result of something William de Haverford is said to have done in 1462. However, the only person by that name who may qualify for having been the person in the claim was approved by Henry III as Prior of Carmarthen back in 1253. It’s doubtful that nearly 200 years later, that Sir William de Haverford was having a wage dispute with Geoffrey Clare. And yet, perhaps the story was accurate with only the name of the person throwing down the gauntlet being incorrectly identified. Except that Geoffrey Clare was born in 953 and died in 1015, calling the story with the 1462 date into question unless it refers to another William de Haverford who was in the employ of another Geoffrey Clare.

Equally interesting is the fact that the spelling of the word gauntlet wasn’t always with the “u” included, and can be found in documents from the 1540s as gantlet.  The use of the “u” when spelling the word gauntlet first appeared in the book “A Brief History of the War With the Indians in New-England” by Reverend Increase Mather (1639 – 1723) which was published in 1676. His book presented his interpretation of the fighting between the English colonists in New England (and their Indigenous allies) and the Wampanoag, Naragansett, and other Indian nations of the region … a war that began in 1675.

What is known is that during Medieval times, full plate armor was in use by the end of the 14th century, with single plate protection for joints and shins worn over full chainmail armor being fashionable in the late 13th century. In fact, gauntlets were worn by knights in armor during the late 13th century and the gauntlet was used as a token to signify the knight’s personality and reputation. It was not uncommon, in French terms for a knight to “tender son gantelet” which means to present his gauntelet representing his word, his honor, and his reputation.

It was 15th century German fencing master, Hans Talhoffer (1410 – 1482), who wrote in his manuscript published in 1459 entitled, “Ms.Thott.290.2º “ that despite the fact that the Church disapproved of duels as a way to resolve conflicts between two parties. During the Renaissance, from the 14th to the 17th century, were increasingly accepted as the manner in which respectable gentlemen resolved disputes.  Respectable gentlemen, however, did not wear armor on a day-to-day basis.  They did, however, carry gloves, and with that a man’s word, honor, and reputation was transferred to his gloves.

With this information, Idiomation believes that the figurative act of throwing down the gauntlet dates back to the mid-1400s, and the literal meaning came into play in the early 1500s based on documentation from the 1550s that describes throwing down the gauntlet to defend one’s honor and reputation.

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