Kenelm Henry Digby

Kenelm Henry Digby

Kenelm Henry Digby (c1800-1880) was an Anglo-Irish writer born at Clonfert in Ireland, though he certainly did not regard himself as Irish. His reputation rests chiefly on his earliest publication, "The Broad-Stone of Honour, or Rules for the Gentlemen of England" (1822), which contains an exhaustive survey of medieval customs. The work was subsequently enlarged and issued (1828-29) in four volumes entitled: "Godefridus, Tancredus, Morus "and" Orlandus". Digby's exposure to Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" novels as a youth encouraged him to romanticize the Middle Ages. "Broad-Stone" contributed to the Young England movement’s feudalist ideology and influenced many of Digby's Cambridge contemporaries. The book inculcated readers with ideas of chivalry and staunch Catholicism and stressed the importance of the heart’s knowledge over intellectual learning by presenting historical figures as role models. Digby's revival of medieval principles helped young men of his day construct their idea of what being a "gentleman" means.

In 1812, when Digby was 15, his father died, and he moved to England to attend Petersham High School near London. From 1816–1819, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where the some members of the university advocated reform and even republicanism; Digby, however, favoured a strong monarchy, the Church, and chivalry. While at university he read Tennyson and Hallam; his close friends there were George Darby, Julius Hare, William Whewell, and Adam Sedgwick.

The Middle Ages were a constant interest throughout Digby's time at university. Edward Fitzgerald, who had seen him there but did not know him, wrote later that he was a big, cheerful man who looked like a knight. Digby tried to practice chivalry in his own life; while at Cambridge, he and his best friend Darby held mock tournaments astride ponies, carrying wooden hop-poles. Once, Digby sneaked into the King’s College chapel and held vigil there until morning, like a squire the night before he was knighted. Another time, Digby rescued a young woman from an unsavoury character on the road and escorted her back to her home like an honourable knight-errant.

In summer, Digby traveled all over Europe sketching old castles and writing. Ehrenbreitstein, a massive mediaeval fortress in Germany, gave him the title The Broad-Stone of Honour. He published the book in a single volume in 1822, and the beliefs he explored while writing it seem to have contributed to his conversion to Catholicism in 1825. After that, he rewrote and expanded the one volume into four, published in 1828-29: "Godfridus", containing a general introduction (named after Godfrey of Boulogne, a Crusade hero); "Tancredus", discussing chivalry’s discipline and applauding Christianity (for Tancred de Hautville, another Crusade hero); "Morus", bashing the Reformation as the death of chivalry and religion (after Sir Thomas More); and "Orlandus", which detailed Digby’s idea of chivalric behaviour (after Ariosto’s "Orlando Furioso").

See "Memoir of Kenelm Digby" by Bernard Holland, first published 1919; paperback, Fisher Press, 1992 ISBN 1 874037 05 1

External links

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