Quietly does it from the Age of Chivalry

“Quietly he shook his head.”

I was reading an old Western paper-back which was lying around the place recently when that sentence threw me as if my horse had put his foot in a gopher hole.

So, I reasoned, if our hero shook his head quietly on this occasion, it must follow that he could, if he chose, shake it quietly whenever he wanted to.

What baffled me was how he managed to do it.

There are sentences where the use of “quietly” may seem odd at first, but a little thought will provide a satisfactory explanation.

For instance: “Quietly, Lorna sat down”.

Well, perhaps that day Lorna wasn’t wearing one of those voluminous starched petticoats which normally make a noisy atmospheric-type crackling sound every time she sits down.

Or again. “Quietly, Archibald smiled.”

I suppose if Archibald had a loose set of dentures he could, if he wished, accompany his smile with an audible click or series of clicks – perhaps to emphasise pleasure, approval or appreciation.

But “quietly he shook his head” remains a hard nut to crack. I pondered the problem and hit on what I think can be the only explanation. for this particular one.

It has to go back to medieval days when gentlemen went round dressed in full armour. When a man’s head was enclosed in a helmet, he would have no difficulty at all in shaking it noisily.

In fact, the trick would be to shake it quietly with no clanking. This is a trick that many a knight must have had to master.

What follows is a picture of the kind of incident which would make it essential.

Sir Belvedere, a formidable figure in full armour, is about to set out from his castle for a spot of jousting at Camelot.

In the courtyard, six of his varlets have managed to hoist him on to his charger, who is in a filthy temper on two counts: one, he has been dragged away from his well-filled manger, and two, the prospect of carrying Sir Belvedere’s 100kg body plus half a ton of iron all the way to Camelot doesn’t seem all that attractive.

With his mount in this mood, Sir Belvedere has his work cut out to stop him bolting back to the stable.

It is just as Sir Belvedere he gets him pointed to the drawbridge that his wife leans out of a casement window and reminds him to bring home three yards of ermine for trimming her wimple. Only three ducats a yard.

“No,” shouts Sir Belvedere, who shakes his head furiously to indicate that he will be hung, drawn and quartered before he forks out nine ducats for ermine fripperies.

The resultant clanking of his helmet echoes from the battlements and the charger, seizing his chance to sabotage the whole expedition, pretends to take fright.

He rears up, hooves paws in the air and almost before Sir Belvedere has hit the cobbled courtyard with a crash like a ton of scrap metal, the horse bolts for his stable.

During his long convalescence, Sir Belvedere no doubt summoned his armourer and told him to make him a helmet in which he would be able to shake his head quietly.

I imagine the armourer managed it by fitting the base of the helmet with ball-bearings and keeping them well oiled, with rancid butter so that Sir Belvedere could swivel it on his shoulders without a sound.

The device was no doubt subsequently adopted by all the other knights.

Hence the expression: “Quietly he shook his head”.

So when you come upon it in modern novels, you will know that what we have here, is a fossil survivor from the Age of Chivalry.


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