Sunday, May 20, 2007

Etiquette Quiz: From when comes the Salute!

When I put this question in last Wednesday's quiz, I thought I knew the definitive answer. I had always heard that in medieval days, it was sometimes difficult for a traveling knight in armor to tell if another knight in armor was a threat or if he was merely a passer-by.

Therefore, if one knight met another upon the road and he wished to demonstrate peaceful intentions, he would raise the visor of his helmet to show his eyes. By using his right arm for this motion, he was also simultaneously taking his hand away from his weapon. Since this made it harder for him to draw his sword quickly, he was expressing a certain amount of trust and vulnerability.

Even today, we read a lot of information about a person from the look in their eyes. Have you ever felt uncomfortable when a stranger did not take off dark sunglasses when talking to you? Or, have you ever had a miscommunication via email or the phone which you were able to solve more quickly in person? There's something about being able to see someone eye to eye that helps us trust each other more deeply. A face to face conversation helps us connect in ways that no other form of communication can.

In most cases, our ability to see another's eyes is not a matter of life and death in today's world. But, for a medieval knight who was traveling through strange country, it was vital that he be able to size up the intentions of another knight. A knight who refused to raise his visor was probably hiding something. A knight who was willing to raise his visor was more likely to pass by peacefully, and he likely displayed an open and friendly countenance.

But, even if a knight who was spoiling for a fight raised his visor, his eyes were an important clue to his state of mind. He signaled through his eyes, "Be on your guard." He at least paid enough respect to his opponent to let his face be seen.

If a knight was in the presence of a superior, such as a powerful nobleman or even a king, he might be expected to raise his visor and show his eyes. Or, he might even be required to remove his helmet completely.

Thus, the raising of a knight's visor came to be associated with trust, loyalty, and respect. At some point, knights and soldiers stopped wearing the type of armor we associate with the middle ages. Even so, the movement of the hand to the face has continued on into our day as the salute.

In the military and in some police and fire departments, extending and placing the hand just above eye level conveys loyalty, respect, and in some cases, a tribute to heroism. American soldiers salute with the hand perpendicular to the head; British soldiers characteristically salute with the hand held parallel to the head. You can see that either hand motion is similar to the motion it would have taken to raise a visor.

This visor theory makes total sense to me. However, in doing some research, I have found that there are a couple of other theories around.

One theory also ties into the days of knights in armor. During that same period, free men in Europe were allowed to carry arms. Unlike serfs, they were also allowed to look directly at an overlord without averting their eyes. So, if a freeman met another freeman or even a nobleman, he lifted his arm as a sign of friendliness. Again, his action showed that he did not intend to use his hand to draw a weapon. He also gazed directly at the other freeman or even the nobleman, rather than ducking and cringing. Thus, the freeman was showing respect for another -- even for someone superior to him in status -- without denying his own honor as a freeman.

According to this theory, this is true of the salute today. As with the knights and freemen of old, the saluting soldier stands erect, with his gaze directly upon his superior. He does not cringe or duck his head. Thus, he conveys respect for, loyalty to, and submission to a higher authority without becoming servile or debased.

On a different twist, others say that all soldiers in what is now the UK were required to remove their entire headgear in the presence of a superior officer. It is alleged that starting with the famous Coldstream Guards in the 1700's, all military force in what is now the UK eventually switched over to a salute. This was considered to be far easier than taking off a helmet or a hat.

Still others say that the salute goes back even further than the middle ages, to very ancient times. If that is true and I believe that it might well be, the gesture is still rooted in the same idea: One man raised his arm to another to demonstrate either 1) he was not armed and, thus, was not a threat or 2) he was armed, but he did not intend to attack.

So, how does all of this tie in with etiquette? If you are in the armed forces or are married to someone who is, you probably know that there is a distinct military protocol surrounding the salute.

For the rest of us, this is an example of how a custom can evolve over time. Like many etiquette rules, the salute has origins that were rooted in history but live on in symbolic form today. Even though the gesture is now symbolic, we all still appreciate the sense of honor, loyalty and respect conveyed by the salute.


1 comment:

Buffy said...

That was an interesting post. You may be interested to know that in the British navy they salute the same way as the American armed forces. This is supposed to be because the crews' hands would be dirty and it was considered disrespectful to the officer to reveal them in a salute.