The Book of the Courtier Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga, asks the gentlemen of the court to choose a topic of conversation for the evening’s entertainment. They settle on “what belongeth to the perfection of Courtiership.” The resulting conversation, with digressions, addresses that topic. Lewis, count of Canossa, begins the discussion.

His ideal courtier must be, he says, nobly born, with a pleasant disposition, wit, and “a comely shape of person and countenance.” Since his chief profession is to be a soldier, he needs training in all the skills that will make him an able warrior for his prince: riding, handling weapons of all sorts, wrestling, swimming, and other sports that increase strength and agility. The courtier also needs certain social talents, easy conversation, wit, the ability to dance, and, above all, a certain grace that makes all his activities seem effortless and unconscious.

The conversation turns to language, a burning issue in the Renaissance, when the vernaculars are struggling with Latin for supremacy. The count recommends that the courtier avoid using antiquated or unfamiliar words and that he take his vocabulary from those familiar Italian words “that have some grace in pronunciation.” Sir Frederick Fregoso argues that the count depends too much on custom; the courtier should shun “vices of speech,” even if they have been adopted by the multitude. The count concludes the argument by stating that it is the courtier’s knowledge, rather than his diction, that will ultimately be important. The first evening’s conversation ends with a brief consideration of the importance of a courtier’s having some skills in music and art.

On the second night Sir Frederick Fregoso is instructed to discuss the proper times and places for the courtier to exercise those virtues that are essential for him. Frederick points out that most of all an ideal gentleman needs discretion to determine when to speak, when to be silent, and how to act so as to win praise and avoid envy. Fregoso recommends “little speaking, much doing, and not praising a man’s own self in commendable deeds.” He cites as a bad example an uncouth courtier who on one occasion entertains a lady with a description of his prowess with a two-handed sword and terrifies her with a demonstration of various strokes.

All courtiers are expected to be able to entertain ladies gracefully, and the ability to sing is a particularly valuable accomplishment. Sir Frederick notes that a gentleman needs the wisdom to recognize that time in his life when his age makes it ludicrous for him to perform in public; if such a man must sing, let him do it privately.

This point leads to a general consideration of the proper demeanor for the young and the old. Fregoso praises mildness, deference, and hesitancy on the part of the fledgling courtier, but he suggests that the more restrained older man should strive for a little liveliness. A golden mean is the ideal.

After a serious discussion of the value of friendship with loyal, honorable men, Sir Frederick turns, at the request of the cynical Lord Gaspar Pallavicin, to a consideration of court entertainments. In this area, too, Fregoso pleads for moderation; too great a concern with dice or cards can become a vice, and a man could waste the better part of his days in becoming a brilliant chess player. The best entertainment comes...

(The entire section is 1387 words.)