Honor and Shame

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Robert A. Nye

Honor and shame have been typically yoked together in a binary form by ethnologists, anthropologists, and other students of so-called "honor cultures" in which much of public behavior is determined by considerations of personal or collective honor. In modern usage shame is a sentiment one feels following disgrace, while honor is a distinction that is conferred on individuals for actions that bring renown or that somehow adheres to groups as a kind of pride in collective achievements. Although it might thus appear that shame is the opposite or inverse of honor, in fact the old French etymology reveals that honor (honneur) and shame (honte) come from the same root, a usage preserved in the motto of the Order of the Garter, "honi soit qui mal y pense" (shame on him who thinks badly of it).


Even in the Mediterranean cultures, where honor flourished as nowhere else, shame has become detached discursively and practically from its connection to honor. One might feel shame, or attribute it to persons, in instances where honor never appeared to be in question: financial embarrassment, a bad case of acne, an unkempt lawn, or a tastelessly dressed relative. But we should not be encouraged by the apparent atrophying of honor in modern social practice and usage to forget the original and historic connections of honor and shame in Western societies. In these societies, honor and shame were essentially different sentiments or social assessments made about action (or inaction) in particular instances relating to kin, marriage, wealth, military reputation, and precedence in public life. Such judgments and feelings were made and felt on the same continuum: shame was not so much the opposite of honor as its lack.

Shame, therefore, was the experience, or the fate, of someone who had suffered dishonor by failing adequately to protect honor. For the social historian or the anthropologist, it is of far greater interest to investigate the behavior and the values that motivated the quest for honor. The effort to attain and retain honor was invariably a salient and persistent aspect of masculine comportment; while shaming rituals are sometimes poignant, dramatic, or violent, the shamed individual experiences the full weight of his shame in relative isolation. Ironically, though honor has no ontological status apart from the unceasing efforts to retain it, in honor cultures shame exists as a menacingly permanent threat.

In the earliest definitions of honor, a man's honor consisted of his land, possessions, and family. In western Europe in the early medieval period, only aristocratic men met these criteria. Eventually, as land and goods were held by a larger and more diverse population, honor became a quality that inhered in individuals. Honorability became a quality of persons that was natural to them but that required continuous assertion and demonstration; ultimately, no man of honor could rest on his laurels without danger of derogation. Moral goodness or other forms of virtue like chastity, asceticism, or a reputation for wisdom might maintain themselves in the absence of action. Honor, however, was born within a military service class that lived in an atmosphere of constant warfare where demonstrations of personal courage or bravery possessed a certain selective advantage for the group. Honor was therefore also a collective ethos of groups of fighting men for whom honorability was a judgment about the reliability and the skill of fellow warriors. From the beginning of its long history, honor was thus both individual and corporate.

The close association with the military virtues of loyalty, prowess in weaponry, and physical courage did not mean that honor lacked a spiritual dimension. Indeed, though it has always had a certain intangible quality, honor has been asserted as an ideal, which, depending on the time and the place, has assumed various mythic forms. The examples of certain "mirrors of chivalry," such as King Arthur or Richard the Lionheart, or the heroic behavior of particular battle units whose valor "won the day" have always served to encourage emulation and sacrifice. There is a sense, in other words, in which the discourses of honor may become collective representations against which honorable actions are measured in all matters great and small.

In historical investigations of the role of honor in society, the social historian must not expect to find the discourses of honor inscribed openly as rules or easily to identify the honorable standards to which individuals were held. The effort to attain and retain honor may be traced in social practices of various sorts, but such transactions were not calculated with some preconceived ideal in mind. One of the foremost students of honor, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, has likened the pursuit of honor to the accumulation of symbolic capital that is measured only approximately by individuals and their peers. Honor, he says, is a game played by players with a tacit "feel" for the game that allows them to build their own capital and assess the capital of others. Indeed, the metaphor of the game is appropriate for the history of honor in that games have no transcendent aim except winning or performance but may evolve into rule-bound activities in which an officious legalism replaces creative spontaneity.

Bourdieu also suggests that the participants in the game of honor do not precisely calculate their behavior so much as strategize in choosing among a range of possibilities. In his work on marital and kinship strategies in the Béarn region of France and among the Kabyle people in North Africa, Bourdieu studied the way in which matrimonial strategies could be understood as part of the larger game of the accumulation of honor. An individual hoped to add to his assets by marrying well, endowing his children, and thus "reproducing" himself transgenerationally, handing down his wealth and honor to his heirs. In making particular decisions (whom to marry, how many children to have, how to endow them), the patriarch certainly made calculations, but always as part of a larger, more tacit "feel" for how honor might best be gained and preserved for himself and his family.

Historically, honor is essentially a masculine phenomenon. Even outside the West only men could win and defend their honor or that of their family or group. The sphere of a man's honor included the minors, women, or dependents who were under his protection. Women and children thus possessed no honor of their own, though they could share the shame of a dishonor that befell the kinship unit. Women did have a kind of sexual honor that consisted of their purity or their sexual loyalty to the patriarch; they forfeited it as a result of both rape and consensual relations and were powerless to regain it. Only the patriarch, through an act of vengeance or confrontation in a point d'honneur (point of honor), could remove the stain. In the classical systems of honor, women and children were like pawns in chess games played by patriarchs, assets that could be lost or gained, sacrificed or "crowned" in strategies of honor. A wife who produced another man's bastard exposed a man to outside claims on his property; a wayward daughter was damaged goods as a player in her father's strategies for marital alliances; a son's indiscretions might dishonor his father and call into question his own ability as a future manager of the family's assets.

In attempting to understand the role honor and shame have played in certain historical societies, the historian must consider various social practices. These can be grouped into four categories: marriage and inheritance strategies; class and the evolution of honor; the duel and the point d'honneur; and honor and sociability. There is nothing sacred about these categories; they illuminate the terrain of honor unusually well but are by no means exhaustive.


Marriage and the production of children was the only way a man could be assured that the assets he himself had inherited and defended would survive him. His honor was subsumed both in his property and his children and in his actions as a manager of these assets. A man's marriage was the foundation of his own stake in the game of honor. The number and sex of his children and his marital strategies for them could either augment or disperse his fortune. Customs respecting exogamy and endogamy, and other issues of time, place, and circumstance are the things that a man had to consider before beginning marriage negotiations for a male or female child. Local dowry customs and the liquidity of land and other forms of family property had to be considered, and these decisions were always made after considering the number and sex of children who had survived the first five years of life.

Inheritance laws and customs varied widely throughout Europe. The partitive inheritance that settled a man's wealth proportionately on all his children prevailed in much of northern Europe; it required strategies that minimized fragmentation of his resources such as a child's voluntary disinheritance and celibacy. In the parts of Europe governed by Roman law, and in Britain, primogeniture was the rule, giving title and most assets typically to the eldest son. There were threats to the honor and wealth of the patriarch in both systems, but he could minimize them by managing the size of his family and exercising as much control as possible over the education and movements of his children, even from the grave. It seems likely that child-rearing practices, courtship practices, and family history in general were marked by these strategic considerations of patriarchal honor in Europe and elsewhere until relatively recent times.

In light of the way the patriarch attempted to control all his assets, it is easy to see how the techniques and restraints he and his wife initiated to control the number of births became incorporated into the domain of honor and shame. Much less is known about what those techniques actually were, but it seems logical to assume that if a large number of children would fragment the inheritance while giving none of them an adequate start in life, couples might employ various forms of birth control, resort to abortion, or practice celibacy. Having children out of wedlock, or having too many in wedlock, could possibly be regarded as a shameful surrender to lust; popular attitudes toward birth control might thus have been favorable. By contrast, in certain parts of Europe until modern times, pregnancy constituted a definitive proof of fertility that brought many a girl to the altar, fostering a relaxed attitude toward premarital sex in general. The threshold of shame with respect to pregnancy, abortion, contraception, and the frequenting of prostitutes has certainly varied depending on inheritance customs, family size, and ages of marriage and conception.


One of the most fruitful and largely unexplored aspects of the history of honor and shame cultures concerns the way they differ according to class. We know more about honor within the aristocracy than in any other class. As we have seen, the rituals and values of honor cultures evolved first in noble milieus. However, there is reason to think that wherever forms of individual landownership developed, or where there were strong bonds of corporate loyalty in urban craft guilds or in military fellowships such as the Knights of Malta, mechanisms arose in which the use of masculine and family honor bore a definite resemblance to the principal forms of noble honor. In addition to the independent genesis of honor cultures, social mimesis became an increasingly important explanation for the spread of honor and shame to aristocratizing bourgeois engaged in upward mobility, especially after the seventeenth century.

For the European aristocracy, honor was synonymous with personal courage and reputation for valor. Social derogation for cowardice—the avoidance of military service or evasiveness on the point d'honneur—was ruthless, devaluing a man's property and reputation simultaneously. The slightest suspicion that a nobleman was hiding behind his wife's skirts, some higher moral or religious injunction, or even a monarch's ban on dueling was enough to taint his reputation. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the public comportment of noblemen was attuned to a verbal culture where insults, vows of loyalty, oaths, and other forms of personal alliance provided an unstable foundation for political life. In the absence of specific contractual agreements, appearances, assertions, bluff, and counter-bluff were the chief elements of political discourse.

In England, Spain, and France, state-building monarchs followed a strategy of reducing the fractiousness of honor-hungry noblemen by reducing their independence, tying them closer to court culture, and transforming the sometimes violent and disruptive rituals of shame avoidance into brilliant competitive rituals of courtiership. Demonstrations of rage or prowess at weapons were converted into spectacles of style, wit, and elegance without, after all, abandoning an ultimate resort to the point of honor. As Norbert Elias has theorized in his great study of the civilizing process, the phrase "shame at his estate" originates in a court culture that had substituted censorious standards of refinement for the crude ruses of combat.

In the parts of western Europe where economic development had produced a wealthy and ambitious bourgeoisie, a strategy of marital alliances with aristocratic families and the purchase of offices and titles testified to a widespread middle-class desire to assimilate the most attractive aspects of the noble ethos, including the wearing of the sword and the right to engage in the point d'honneur. But middle-class men had also cultivated forms of honor and honorability that were unique to them, particularly forms of behavior that had ensured the survival or prosperity of their ancestors. These included the virtues of thrift and financial independence, sexual self-restraint, and the capacity to work productively, all of which stood apart from noble values. Like the noble traits of courage, loyalty, and prowess at arms, which were naturalized as qualities innate to the noble man of honor, sexual "respectability" and the drive to work and save became natural qualities of bourgeois honorability. A middle-class man felt shame at the prospect of financial failure or at accusations of sexual impropriety and strove to live his life honorably according to the values of his class.

It is accepted that the forms of upper-class honor that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century throughout Europe were a synthesis of noble and bourgeois varieties. Aristocratic men found they could serve bourgeois regimes as administrators or diplomats without dishonor, and middle-class men assimilated the reflexive temerity and the readiness to defend a reputation for courage that had once been a wholly noble trait. On the frontiers of Europe, cultural and social cleavages other than those of class determined which men would be stimulated to action from a dread of shame. In Ireland, Protestant gentlemen enthusiastically embraced the ethos of the duel as a way of asserting their identity as a political and religious elite. The usual distinctions between noble and commoner were overlooked in a development that expressed its solidarity behind a screen of chivalric querulousness. Likewise, in the course of the Napoleonic Wars and subsequent military occupations, French, Italian, German, and Russian officers were moved by national cleavages far more than by class distinctions in a veritable epidemic of nationalistic affairs of honor.

Scholars have shown that important forms of honor and honorability were also a part of rural and urban milieus in the old regime. The forms and usages of honor were different, but it seems certain that honor and shame worked in similar ways in nonelite strata of society. In parts of the rural southern Mediterranean, affronts to a man's honor might range from physical confrontation, to insults to or even attacks on his womenfolk, to simple rudeness. Rich peasants, small-town merchants, or other local notables might find it suddenly necessary to defend their honor with force. This was often done by direct violence against the offender or his family, for which the genteel rituals of upper-class duels provided no inspiration whatever. On the contrary, there was a tendency for such affairs of honor to enlist all the members of a clan and for bitterness to carry on for more than a generation.

In late-eighteenth-century Paris, skilled craftsmen might be provoked by other members of the popular classes to defend the honor of their guild or that of their family. In some of these conflicts, brawls broke out almost immediately after an insult was delivered, and bottles, fists, or whatever came to hand were used in self-defense. Occasionally more refined forms were followed that at least resembled upper-class duels. In such cases an interval was observed to allow tempers to cool, and the subsequent fight observed an equality of weaponry and conditions. Conflicts of this sort almost invariably occurred in public places, most generally in cafes or places of recreation, and arose from direct verbal exchange involving real or imagined slights. It is likely that the notorious rivalries that existed between urban guilds throughout Europe were, in their essence, expressions of corporate honor and solidarity in which men felt obliged to defend the territory or the reputation of their craft.

Other historians have found compelling evidence for the existence of honor conflicts among the popular classes in early modern and modern cities. We know that in both Amsterdam and Rome knife fighting enjoyed a ritual status as a way of resolving conflicts between lower-class men. Most men carried knives, and these became the weapon of choice when fights resulted from barroom arguments. There was a standard pattern to such encounters. The men left the premises and fought outside in the presence of their friends, who did not intervene. The conflict usually ended when one of the combatants was disabled, though death was the occasional result. Men prided themselves on their scars or fighting reputations, and especially skilled knife fighters were given a wide berth. Certainly the masculinity of these men, if not some more refined sense of honor, was at stake in such conflicts. Middle-class men in Amsterdam did not carry knives and would not "duel" with men from the popular classes, thinking this beneath them. Instead they wielded sticks or clubs in self-defense, testifying to a desire to indicate that their antagonist did not possess the quality of honor of a man of their stamp.

A class analysis of honor reveals that individuals and groups from all levels of society possessed some rudimentary notion of honor and were capable of experiencing shame at its loss. The constituent elements of honor varied according to class: reputations for courage, generosity, financial probity, sexual respectability, physical strength, or corporate or clan loyalty were central features of class conceptions of honor. These differential values appear to have evolved within classes and met the sense of pride or reputation particular to the group. At the same time, at least at the upper levels of honor cultures, there appears to have been a percolation of honor downward that was the product of social diversification and mobility. By the end of the nineteenth century, the values of an eclectic upper-class system of honor had spread throughout middle-class society, qualifying a man of property or education to participate in affairs of honor and to feel himself slighted or insulted as a result of a number of potential offenses against his person, his family, or his group.


The duel evolved from various medieval forms of knightly encounters and from the judicial duel that determined, until the fifteenth century, certain cases of guilt or innocence. At some point in the sixteenth century the duel became a private matter to be decided between two gentlemen and their friends. The private duel flourished throughout early modern Europe, despite the efforts of state-building monarchs to outlaw it. Although the events that precipitated an affair of honor might have seemed trivial or incidental, differences between men of honor were always potentially dangerous because the courage and determination of each man was immediately engaged and put in question. A man or his friends could make a disproportionately vigorous effort to resolve these differences at the risk of appearing afraid to risk his life. In the long and hoary traditions of the point d'honneur, life without honor was not worth living; a public retreat from an affair of honor was usually an instantaneous sentence of social death.

The point d'honneur was thus the final court of appeal in a series of potential differences that could erupt between men. In the largely verbal culture of early modern Europe, a gentleman could react to even mildly worded insults or accusations by "giving the lie" to his antagonist, accusing him in effect of lying, which was an imputation on his personal honor and a casus belli for a duel. The man so accused had the right to choose weapons and conditions in the subsequent duel. By the late eighteenth century, higher rates of literacy among gentlemen of honor meant that written insults, slanders, or simply unfriendly characterizations could appear in print and serve as grounds for duels. These occasions were greatly magnified in the course of the nineteenth century with the rise of a mass newspaper culture, modern political culture, and a genuine public sphere.

It is difficult to generalize beyond this point. National and regional variations in the sensitivity to the point d'honneur varied from place to place and over time; the national and temporal variations of the duel and its rituals provide an anatomy of honor that is more accurate and more revealing than any other documentary source. It is a public record of the depth and the limits of private and personal sentiments and the judgments made about them. These sentiments were probably not experienced by the principals in every affair of honor until the event actually transpired. Dueling narratives may be found in personal memoirs, in the transcripts of trials, in compendia of duels gathered by enthusiasts of the practice, and particularly in newspaper accounts published from the summaries of witnesses. These latter accounts are likely at least to contain no grave exaggerations owing to the fact that they were drawn up by each man's seconds in a version agreed upon by all.

The variations are worth summarizing briefly. The duel was violent though infrequent in Great Britain and consisted mostly of pistol duels, usually by members of the gentry who had military experience or a sporting familiarity with weapons; serious wounds and even death were frequent. However, the duel disappeared rather suddenly in the 1850s thanks to initiatives from the crown, a refusal to pay pension benefits to the widows of military men deceased in a duel, and the existence of libel and slander laws with some teeth.

In France the duel was far more frequent, more bourgeois and civilian in nature, and since the preferred weapon was the épée (rapier), wounds and death were far less frequent. The duel increased in popularity in France throughout the 1870s and 1880s, cresting with the political turmoil of the Boulanger affair in the late 1880s and the Dreyfus affair between 1894 and 1899 and subsiding only slightly thereafter. There may have been as many as three hundred duels in any year at the high-water mark of the practice. Although the duel ebbed and flowed with the conflicts of political life, attracting politicians and journalists in particular, personal and family honor were also frequent causes of affairs. It was common for a cuckold to attempt to repair his wounded vanity (and perhaps exact some revenge) by issuing a challenge to his rival; fathers, sons, and brothers regularly called out men who had insulted their womenfolk or other relatives, living or dead, who could not defend themselves. The duel was discouraged by the police but was not illegal in France, and weak slander laws often obliged men to obtain satisfaction in person that they could not obtain at law or did not want to publicly reveal.

The Italian duel was probably more frequent than anywhere else, though, as in France, not particularly dangerous. The journalist Iacopo Gelli chronicled most of the duels that took place between the 1860s until after World War I. He found evidence of over 3,500 duels for the period 1879–1894 alone; if one considers the many duels that were not reported for reasons of privacy, there may have been as many as nine hundred duels in some years prior to 1914. Unlike the French version, the Italian duel was heavily influenced by military forms and participation. The saber was the overwhelming weapon of choice, and even men with no prior experience were obliged to learn the appropriate techniques of the saber duel. The duel in Austria-Hungary was also overwhelmingly military in participation and form, though far less frequent and somewhat more dangerous. Widespread political and journalistic participation was common to both the French and the Italian duel; the latter was driven in greater measure by matters of personal (read sexual) honor.

The German duel was unique in its deadliness. German duelers favored the dueling pistol, a smoothbore version of the old single-shot flintlock, and particularly dangerous conditions of combat: in a "barrier" duel two men approached one another until they reached a barrier at murderously close range, at which point they both discharged their pistols. Bourgeois men who had passed as reserve officers through the regular army felt themselves the equals of even exalted Junker officers and therefore satisfaktionfähig (capable of giving satisfaction). Thus in a large number of interclass duels both bourgeois and aristocratic participants had something particular to prove about the quality of their honor and the extent of their courage. Since the German duel was illegal (despite a high level of official tolerance), it was often conducted in private; duels that came to trial often did so because one of the participants was either seriously wounded or killed, so that the legal record is replete with evidence of the seriousness of Teutonic affairs of honor. Historians of the German duel differ as to whether this surviving relic of the medieval past is an instance of the continuing influence of the old military aristocracy in German life or, given the widespread evidence of nonaristocratic duelers, confirms the similarity of Germany to the other western European powers.

In Europe as a whole, the duel, despite its illegality and its ultimately violent nature, reflected the complexities of masculine honor to a degree that was in fact sometimes excruciatingly legalistic. A case reported by Ute Frevert in her Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (pp. 182–183) from Germany in 1904 illustrates this point. A married army officer, Captain Levetzow, had a brief affair with an unmarried young woman that ended with her subsequent marriage. The affair was discovered soon after, and both her brother and her husband considered their honor to have been affronted. The brother's sense of family honor was outraged by the theft of his sister's virginity by a man who had no intention of marrying her, and the personal honor of the husband was affronted by the fact that the woman who became his wife had been seduced by a third party. Because the liaison took place before the marriage, only after which the husband assumed responsibility for her conduct, it was the brother who ultimately demanded satisfaction. This incident also points to how the honor system refused to women (and minors and other outsiders) the possibility of full and independent participation in public life. If someone could not defend with force a conviction they expressed in public, how could they demonstrate the sincerity or defend the accuracy of their remarks?

Excepting brief efflorescences in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the duel died in the bloody trench fighting of World War I. The high mortality rates and the grievous injuries of many of the survivors made the relatively safer risks of the duel seem absurd and empty. After such a war who was not satisfaktionfähig? Dueling techniques live on in the German fraternity Mensur, a highly stylized ritual whose aim is to scar but not hurt and where courage but no longer honor is at stake.


In the modern era honor and shame assumed gentler forms. Corporate or collective honor had provided an important part of the solidarity of craft guilds and the liberal professions from the late Middle Ages. The motto "All for one and one for all" ensured such groups' independence, trade secrets, and reputation for integrity. Good intracorporate relations were assured among men if they managed to observe a common unwritten code of frank intercourse that respected individual sensibilities and yet allowed each man to express his independence. Differences sometimes arose between colleagues, and these could erupt into full-scale affairs of honor, to the shame of the individuals involved and the collective reputation of the group. In the course of the modern period, forms of politeness gradually evolved that permitted guilds and professional groups and later clubs and voluntary organizations of all sorts to police their members and assure their good order and reputation.

The forms of etiquette or civility that evolved to maintain good relations between men were modeled in their essence on the elaborate dueling handbooks that had circulated in gentlemanly society since the seventeenth century. These forms defined in a progressively legalistic way levels of offense, modes of negotiation and reconciliation, and, by the mid-nineteenth century, "honor courts" that heard and decided on differences between members. It is important to understand that even in scientific and scholarly societies, the personal reputations of individuals counted heavily in discussions about the facts or interpretations they advanced. An honorable man could be assured that the sincerity if not the truth of his utterances would be taken seriously; a man whose honor was in doubt could expect contradiction and resistance at every step. In these settings, as in other public venues in the nineteenth century, the use of arms was still the court of last resort for a man whose honor or integrity was openly doubted.

The wholly masculine nature of club, professional, and political life persisted into the late twentieth century. The social, cultural, or religious exclusiveness of such groups has been due in no small part to the effort to keep out the "wrong kind of man," whether Catholics, Jews, or ethnic or racial minorities who were not believed to possess by nature or breeding the requisite qualities of honor. Although not designed to exclude women in particular, the honor test effectively excluded women for decades from professional, civic, or social groups for which they were in every other way fully qualified. The wholly masculine nature of the culture, discourse, and modes of conflict resolutions in such groups seemed alien to female pioneers on these social frontiers, who often decided to form all-female auxiliary organizations instead.

The gender integration of public life has meant the progressive dismantling of the masculine honor culture that once served as the chief guarantor of civility in the public sphere. It is an open question whether historians will find evidence of forms of honor particular to women and to female sociability over the last few hundred years that have served to guide and regulate social interaction. Women's gossip networks, labor organizations, and clubs might have been guided by rules of conduct that differed from parallel groups of men in important ways. The same might be said for women who fought in national and civil wars or were prominent in resistance movements, particularly in the twentieth century. It may be, in other words, that women took their cues from a distinctly female form of honor that transcended the mere safeguarding of their sexual honor, which was their sole duty under the aegis of masculine honorability.

The decline of honor has followed apace the gender integration of all-male organizations in the late twentieth century: the military, clubs, the professions, sports teams, government agencies, and the diplomatic corps. Though it is still possible to speak of a "man of honor" in public life, or for a former German chancellor to defend secret financial arrangements according to a personal honor code, these forms of discourse are increasingly infrequent in modern societies. All-male bastions still persist in various places, and, where women have colonized occupations and activities formerly reserved for men, they occasionally make use of the masculine forms of honorific titles and procedures. Laws punishing personal and corporate insult—modeled on affronts to honor—are still on the books in France, Germany, and other European countries, but are seldom enforced.

See alsoSocial Class; The Military (volume 3);Men and Masculinity; Gestures; Manners (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


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