The Book of the Courtier: Afterthoughts

The Book of the Courtier
Baldesar Castiglione
189 pages (269 with afterword and references)



For a book that’s only 189 pages long, it took a really, really long time to get through this one. Partly because it’s very dense, and partly because it was originally written in the early 1500’s, so much of the book drags in elegant language that tends to lose my twenty-first century attention span. It picked up in the middle where the dialogue gets heated, but it still took me close to two hours to get through twenty pages. In short, it’s not a book that lends itself well to casual reading.

the book of the courtierI’d say that I’m about to spoil this for you, if I was 100% sure that I understood it all.

To begin with, I liked The Prince better, if only because Machiavelli actually gives advice on how to be a good ruler, where The Book of the Courtier only goes as deep as “One ought to be good and fair”. How does one be good and fair? By doing good and fair things, obviously. It’s not very helpful in a lot of respects, but I suppose there aren’t many people these days who need to know how to be a good courtier or an effective prince.

The Book of the Courtier is a courtesy book, which is to say, a book meant to teach the reader about manners. What it has ended up being for modern scholars and historians is a great look into the life and times of the Italian court in the early Renaissance. Castiglione wrote the book as an extended letter, in four parts with each part representing a different night on which these dialogues supposedly took place. Now, apparently the people in the book are all real, however the dialogues themselves are fictional. The edition I read (pictured above) helpfully lists the characters in the beginning of the book. They are as follows:

Elisabeth Gonzaga: Duchess of Urbino, hostess of the dialogues.
Emilia Pia: Elisabeth’s friend, court agitator.
Ludovico da Conossa: Count, relative of Castiglione; another court agitator.
Giuliano de’ Medici (Magnifico): exile from Florance; highly suspected of participating in the dialogues to get laid.
Ottaviano Fregoso: suspected mysogynist.
Peitro Bembo: very much a poet; possibly also in this to get laid.
Cesare Gonzaga: relative of Elisabeth; possessor of good sense.
Gaspar Pallavicino: Count; most definitely a mysogynist.
Lots of other men and women who didn’t impress me enough to mention.

The dialogues begin when the courtiers present get tired of dancing and singing and music playing and all come together to play a game, which in this case means, ‘let’s sit together and nettle each other under the pretense of a debate’, which is pretty much how I watch movies with friends. The more things change. For a while the courtiers can’t decide what the heck it is that they want to talk about, all topics apparently having been exhausted, or being too exhausting. The Duchess puts the decision of what the night’s entertainment is to be to her companion Emilia, who immediately becomes drunk on power and takes cheap shots at the men as they give their suggestions. Finally–and with some exasperation–it is suggested that they talk about what the perfect courtier might look like, and Emilia jumps on the suggestion, and puts to task the poor man who suggests it. Honestly, I didn’t really like Emilia until Gaspar opened his mouth, which is kind of like disliking cabbage moths in your garden until you discover the wasp nest in your attic.

The first part of The Book of the Courtier is rather short and mostly deals with what the perfect courtier ought to be skilled in, which is pretty much everything. I mean, these are the first things you’d think of when putting together the perfect man: he’s got to be athletic in all the popular sports, given to masculinity over femininity, though he must also be sensitive and courteous, and well learned and well read, intelligent and prudent, likable and generous, skilled in the arts etc. etc. Draw up your vision of Prince Charming and that’s pretty much the beginning part of this book.

The second part of the book slides into the topic of how a courtier ought to speak to the various people in his life. This ends up becoming a very long (very long) discussion on what humor is, and all the different kinds of humor. And it wouldn’t be a good discussion if they didn’t include examples of each kind of humor, from puns to practical jokes. I’m sure the jokes were hilarious (actually no, a great deal of this chapter was very, very unfunny) except that the punch lines were in Italian, and so all the humor was lost on me. The chapter ends with the courtiers regaling each other with all the times they behaved like asshats at the expense of someone else. This, too, is apparently incredibly funny. However, Gaspar then decides to bring the entire mood of the evening down by suggesting that it’s totally unfair that women can play practical jokes on men, but men can’t play practical jokes on women. At which point a few of the other courtiers point out that it’s not really fair to play those kinds of jokes on women, seeing that men don’t lose much in the joking, but women stand to lose their honor, which, let’s face it guys, is all that women have of worth. But Gaspar has had his sudden woman rage ignited and won’t let this issue go, so he keeps railing on how unfairly women treat men, until finally Elisabeth says, “Since Gaspar can’t seem to find anything nice to say about women, one of you guys needs to step up and tell us what the perfect court lady is like.” (I paraphrase, of course.) This causes the assembled men of court to collectively pale and shit their pants, and request that the discussion be held off until the next night. Elisabeth and Emilia agree, and the evening is called to a close. One assumes that Gaspar is later given a swirly in a chamber pot by all the other men for getting them involved in his bullshit.

Part three is probably the most amusing portion of the book. It’s certainly the part I was most awake for. Emilia opens the conversation requesting that someone defend the honor of women from their enemies (Gaspar and Ottaviano, who takes his side). Throughout this, Gaspar continues to insist that he’s not an enemy of women, and that, in fact, he’s doing them a favor by telling them how truly inferior and wretched they are, instead of heaping on ‘false’ praises. At this point, the eyebrows of everyone in the court are raised at him and Ottaviano in an expression of Really, dude? Finally, the Magnifico has enough of Gaspar’s unfettered mysogyny, and takes it upon himself to give example after example after historical, literary and courtly example of how women are at least as accomplished, capable, intelligent and ruthless as men are. Apparently no one ever told Magnifico not to argue with the trolls. Predictably, Gaspar meets each of Magnifico’s examples with a host of logical fallacies and goal post shifting. Gaspar says women are weak; Magnifico gives him examples of women being strong; Gaspar says women are overly passionate; Magnifico gives him examples of women’s temperance; Gaspar says women are too cold; Magnifico gives him examples of women who have gone to incredible lengths for love; Gaspar says women are naturally inferior, and onward ad infinitum. Here are a few of my favorite moments from part three, again paraphrased:

Duchess: Ok, we’ve spent two nights talking about the perfect courtier. Since Gaspar wants to be an ass about it, you all have to talk about what the perfect court lady is like.
Courtiers: *pale* We…. we couldn’t presume to–
Duchess: I’m waiting.
Courtiers: But–
Duchess: Are you unable to?
Courtiers: Well, no, but–I mean… we could describe the perfect woman, but she would be a queen, not a court lady.
Gaspar: She doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a perfect woman, because they’re all incompetent and stupid.
Emilia: So, which of you fine and noble gentlemen is going to defend us against our enemy here?
Gaspar: Hey, I’m not your enemy.
Magnifico: *steps in to give 30 pages of examples of worthy women in history*
Gaspar: Like all women, they do things in extremes. You’d never find a man doing things in extremes. Also, current stories or they never happened.
Duchess: I notice, Gaspar, that over the previous two nights you never once raised an objection that all these fine and noble traits of our phantom courtier can’t be actually all be found in one man today, yet when Magnifico gives up examples of what a perfect lady might be, you’re quick to jab in “No such lady exists today.”
Frisio: I’ve never heard of any of the women you’re talking about, Magnifico, so your evidence is invalid.
Magnifico: You’re all retarded.
Gaspar: Women are stupid, imperfect defects of nature.
Duchess: Gaspar, I’m sitting right here.
Gaspar: I beg your pardon, my lady, but it’s true.
Magnifico: Dude, you seriously hate women.
Gaspar: No I don’t.
Magnifico: You totally do. You can’t say a single line about them without laying on the hate.
Gaspar: Look, it’s true that women are imperfect, and stupid, and without good reason or judgement, but they can’t help it, nature made them that way, thus, I accept that, and respect them for their natural deficiencies.
Magnifico: You are such a mysogynist.
Gaspar: I’m not, I’m just telling the truth, unlike you who unkindly flatter them.
Duchess: Still sitting right here, Gaspar.
Gaspar: Women will never be as perfect as men.
Magnifico: Are you serious? Here’s ten pages on how you’re wrong.
Gaspar: And here’s a paragraph on how husbands are abused by their wives.
Magnifico: Are you F***ING kidding me?! We’ve institutionalized women into a weaker role than men and you villainize them for occupying the role WE put them in?
Gaspar: Women are stupid, imperfect defects of nature.
Magnifico: ARGH!  I’m tired of talking about this. My Lady Duchess, can I stop debating with idiots now?
Gaspar: He only wants to stop because he can’t think of anything else good to say about women.
Magnifico: I could do this all night, Gaspar. You wanna take this outside?!

Gaspar: The greatest virtue of a woman is her chastity, without which no one could be certain where his children came from. That’s why women aren’t permitted loose living as men are.
Magnifico: I have no argument there, Gaspar, but tell me, why is it that we only say that women ought not to live loosely? Surely if men were as perfect as you say they are they should find it easy to live chastely as well. See, the thing is, we men make the rules, and we make them in such a way as to make ourselves blameless of everything we do, while sitting in a position to cast blame on women, as you do now, who are unable to defend themselves.

Frisio: You speak in generalities, give us some specific examples of virtuous women.
Cesare: *Gives several specific examples of virtuous women*
Frisio: Just because one woman is virtuous, doesn’t make all of them virtuous.
Cesare & Magnifico: =__=;

Cesare: You guys keep railing on women, saying that their appetites are so much stronger than men so that we have to put a bridle on them to keep them pure and chaste, yet ignore all the countless ways that men then attempt to lure women away from their chastity; with flattery, guile, threats, entreats, and violence even!
Gaspar: *Opens his mouth to retort*
Ottoviano: Oh, for the love of God, just let him have this argument, Gaspar! You’re not doing yourself any favors. All the women and most of the men already look ready to knife you in your sleep.
Gaspar: Hey, they should be thanking me! If I hadn’t goaded Magnifico and Cesare so much they’d never have heard all the praises and flattery of women.

So, yeah. Part three is a full of all the mysogyny and arguments for equality that we still see today. The more things change, am I right? By the end of this bickering between Gaspar and Magnifico, everyone is pretty exhausted, so they leave off on their chosen topic for the night again, tasking Ottaviano to speak finally on how a courtier ought to behave in regard to his prince, and how he must behave in love–both in youth and in old age. Ottaviano ends up arriving so late to the party that everyone figures he’s chickened out on the thing and prepares to just dance the night away. When he finally does arrive (likely hoping that everyone has forgotten all about his topic) the court immediately sits again to resume their conversation. Ottaviano pretty much describes that the courtier’s job in relation to his prince is to instruct him in all ways to be a good leader, which is fine and dandy until Magnifico points out that in doing so, he makes himself greater than the prince, which is unbecoming. A few conversation tangents later and they’re discussing the spiritual nature of beauty, and how (bizarrely) all beautiful people are automatically good and all ugly people are automatically evil. Unsurprisingly, Gaspar leaps in with some more mysogynistic comments, but is told to sit down and shut it, because everyone has heard enough out of him. Peitro has a sort of religious experience while describing beauty, and becomes so overcome by his own words that he turns it into a sermon (small wonder he later becomes a cardinal), and has everyone else so transfixed that they want to hear more, but he says the spirit that moved him has gone, and that is the end of the dialogues. Except that Gaspar tries to throw in a few more jabs at women, and Elisabeth warns him he’s on thin ice.

The Book of the Courtier was interesting from a historical point of view, and in a small way for picking up some cues for voice when writing nobility, but as a pleasure read it was dull and dragged in too many places to get through easily. It’s a good book for academics, not so good for anyone who wants to read an actual story.

The next book on my reading list is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/Aug guest edited by C.C. Finlay.


8 thoughts on “The Book of the Courtier: Afterthoughts

  1. “One assumes that Gaspar is later given a swirly in a chamber pot by all the other men for getting them involved in his bullshit.” XDDD

    Another hilarious review. You make it sound so interesting I can’t believe it only got three stars….

    • Research. My current WIP has some significant scenes in a fictional noble court. I read it to get an idea of how I should frame the voice. It wasn’t very helpful. 😛

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