Why we say: ‘throw down the gauntlet’

We may no longer use actual gauntlets but in the heat of an argument, we still throw down a figurative one to issue a challenge...

Why we say: ‘throw down the gauntlet’

Gauntlets are a type of protective glove, mostly used today in gardening or sports such as falconry or fencing. The type of glove we’re interested in, however, comes from the medieval period – the time of knights.

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An important feature of the thick, heavy armour worn by knights was the gauntlet, as covering the hands and forearms was crucial in medieval hand-to-hand combat. But as well as keeping a knight safe during a fight, a gauntlet could be used to start one.

When an argument arose between two knights, one noble could throw their armoured glove to the floor as a way of challenging the other to a duel. To accept the challenge the second would pick up the gauntlet – hence the other well-known phrase, ‘take up the gauntlet’.

RUNNING THE GAUNTLET

The word ‘gauntlet’ appears in a third expression, although the origin of this one has nothing to do with gloves. To ‘run the gauntlet’ – meaning to undergo a difficult or trying ordeal – is still a part of military history.

A standard form of punishment in the Swedish military in the early 17th century was to make the offending soldier walk between two lines of his comrades armed with a stretch of rope or a baton. They would then beat him as they passed. The punishment either ended when the culprit reached the end of the passageway, ‘gantlope’ in Swedish, or when he died.

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During the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, the English military adopted the brutal penalty and gantlope transformed into gauntlet, maybe due to the gauntlet’s existing association with fighting.