Defending one’s honour, giving one’s word of honour, losing one’s honour and a host of other evocative expressions call to mind a vanishing world. What remains, today, of honour? The word features a demanding history, dating back to ancient Rome and then revived in the age of the feudal system and chivalry, when it attained the rank of a grand, fundamental and immaterial value, comprising complex hierarchies and varying subtly according to caste, socio-economic status, age and gender. Today those meanings may be a source of amusement for us, but honour persists as a flexible, changing concept interacting with our contemporary vocabulary and imagination: it is enough to mention parallel notions, such as dignity and respect. Perhaps we still feel the need for honour in order to make sense of our present and our uncertain future.
Franco Cardini is professor emeritus of Medieval History at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, research director at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and a fellow at Harvard University.