Atlantic History Honor
Verónica Undurraga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0247


Honor has played a significant role in the Atlantic world, forming part of the value systems that have structured its societies throughout history. At the beginning of the modern era, the Spanish and Portuguese expansion transferred to their colonies the Mediterranean-European notion of honor, to be adapted and redefined according to local cultures. Honor has been a subject of study that has attracted the interest of diverse disciplines since the early 1960s. Over more-recent decades the historiography has collected proposals in social anthropology that outline a “Mediterranean honor,” thus managing to expand the discussion of honor to the Atlantic world. Understood as a complex secular value, its facets were expressed in the most-diverse areas of social, cultural, economic, and political life. This explains why its study has contributed to illuminating diverse areas, such as the family, sexuality, gender identities, forms of violence, national identities, public space, and mechanisms of social control. Honor had ceased to be a static concept, characteristic and exclusive to nobility in a segmented or estate-based society, and was understood as a multifaceted and complex practice that was subjected to diverse social usages. In the course of the modern era, honor ceased to be the heritage of the nobility and depended on the esteem of a community rather than on a sense of self-worth. Along with allowing a better understanding of social hierarchies, the study of honor has contributed to gender history. This has been possible not just through analyzing feminine honor—understood from a perspective of the history of the family, gender relations, and the patriarchal system—but also through the study of masculine honor, relating expansive sexuality and violence. The historiography on the interactions between honor and violence is ample and has been crossed by diverse interpretations. From works that limit the violence of honor to the duels among nobility, to those that postulate the existence of ritual plebeian violence, these have contributed to the history of the body, emotions, and social and gender identities. The power-honor binomial has also been expressed in the Atlantic world’s political culture, through which the structure of the public arena, citizenry, and the state has been studied. The transition from the ancien régime to bourgeois and republican societies was not to bring about the end of honor, but rather a reconfiguration of its meanings and a restructuring of its social definitions. Although the diversity of topics that come under the concept of “honor” makes its study a complex task, it is possible to understand it as a form of mundane sacredness that unites society through a series of beliefs and values, necessary for the forging of ties between individuals.

General Overviews

General overviews on honor in the Atlantic world can be grouped into two categories: the first includes works that study the concept of honor in Western culture, while the second considers historical works that establish dialogue between the ideas and practice of honor in diverse societies. One early-21st-century historical approach to the notion of honor in Western culture is Welsh 2008, which analyzes the ethical dimensions of honor and argues that it continues to be important in modern society in the form of concepts such as “respect,” “self-respect,” and “personal identity.” In a cross-cultural analysis, Stewart 1994 compares the honor of Bedouin communities with that of the West since the Renaissance. A less general and more interdisciplinary perspective characterizes the scholarly work coordinated in Gautheron 1991, which argues that the ethical dimension of honor is degraded by bourgeois society, though the values associated with it do not necessarily disappear. In the second category of analysis, Mantecón Movellán 2012 is a good historiographical approach. On the basis of anthropological, historiographical, and literary works, along with judicial documents, the author discusses the validity of traditional debates on “Mediterranean honor,” analyzed in Anthropology of Honor. However, given the semantic plurality of the concept and the existence of expressions that are openly different from the model, the author proposes using it only as a comparative reference. For a historiography that studies honor as part of a nation’s character, the classic interpretation in Bennassar 1979 is one of the best examples. In the context of the history of mentalities, the author analyzes honor as a “national passion” of the Spanish people, innovating by studying the matter on the basis of judicial and notary sources. Bartolomé Bennassar develops, more analytically, the interpretation in Defourneaux 1979, which states that the “obsession with honor” (p. 34) had characterized Spaniards of the golden age. However, honor was a private and public need for plebeian families from diverse spaces in the Atlantic world during the modern era. Farge 1989 shows this in the case of Paris’s poor, who would forge chains of sociability based on honor. Drévillon and Venturino 2011 presents one of the most recent and complete approaches to studies on the issue. The authors’ thesis is that in the modern era, honor—a form of mundane sacredness that unites society through a series of beliefs and values—was a value with a universal presence and one that was necessary for the forging of ties between individuals.

  • Bennassar, Bartolomé. The Spanish Character: Attitudes and Mentalities from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Benjamin Keen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

    Bennassar shows that honor was also an attribute of the poor. He understood honor to be a peculiar form of pride and a socialized value founded on reputation. At the same time, he highlighted the link between honor and violence. Interesting documents are included at the end of the book.

  • Defourneaux, Marcelin. Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age. Translated by Newton Branch. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.

    Defourneaux’s reflections on the culture of honor are concentrated in chapter 2, “The Conception of Life.”

  • Drévillon, Hervé, and Diego Venturino, eds. Penser et vivre l’honneur à l’époque moderne: Actes du colloque, Metz, du 20 au 22 novembre 2008. Histoire. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011.

    A comparative historical approach within the European sphere is presented. While some chapters study the English, Italian, and Spanish cases, the vast majority are restricted to France. The majority are contributions by historians, though jurists, philosophers, and literati are also included.

  • Farge, Arlette. “The Honor and Secrecy of Families.” In A History of Private Life. Vol. 3, Passions of the Renaissance. Edited by Roger Chartier, 571–607. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1989.

    Original French edition published in 1985 (Paris: Éditions du Seuil). In a society of “equals”—such as the poor of Paris in the modern era—honor allowed one to gain the respect of others.

  • Gautheron, Marie, ed. L’honneur: Image de soi ou don de soi; Un idéal équivoque. Autrement: Série Morales 3. Paris: Éditions Autrement, 1991.

    A collective book comprising brief chapters—essays and interviews—that study the complex configurations of honor in the past and the present, from the perspective of diverse disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, history, literature, and film, among others.

  • Mantecón Movellán, Tomás A. “El honor mediterráneo desde la España moderna: ¿Un traje nuevo del emperador?” Cuadernos de Historia de España 85–86 (2012): 435–458.

    This book uses a bibliography on European, American, and African spaces on diverse aspects related to the culture of honor, such as violence, gender differences, its individual or collective configuration, and class hierarchies. Its discussion reveals a configuration of the phenomenon from an Atlantic perspective.

  • Stewart, Frank Henderson. Honor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    Stewart’s essay seeks to prove that “personal honor” was gradually assimilated into the idea of the right to be respected. He analyzes literary and judicial sources, historical research, and anthropological work. Includes appendixes and bibliography. Useful for undergraduates or the general reader.

  • Welsh, Alexander. What Is Honor? A Question of Moral Imperatives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    Welsh analyzes the meanings of honor in philosophy and literature. He centers his study on the proposals of Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Bernard Mandeville, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith, among others. Useful for undergraduates and graduates.

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