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.
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.
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.