Etiquette in early modern England (part 1)

Folger Shakespeare Library. ART Vol. c91, no. 8c
Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART Vol. c91, no. 8c

“Manners maketh man” was the motto of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. More than simply the social niceties, as portrayed (and sometimes mocked) in the period’s satiric comedies, courtesy and civility were the very glue that held society together. They were, as scholar Anna Bryson notes, “central to Tudor and Stuart assumptions and fears about the social and political order.”

In Days of Yore

Manners, however, did not suddenly spring to life in the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, it was knightly virtue that set the chivalrous standards for comportment. Because eating and drinking were central to medieval social life, many of these dicta took the form of poems designed to teach table manners. Presented as easy-to-remember rhymes, these rules became part of an oral tradition in days when books were scarce and expensive and literacy was low.

Writings from this time often pass along the common wisdom, as in this excerpt from a popular thirteenth-century poem about table manners for boys:

With soup, do not use bread to sop it up,
Or suck it loudly – that is to transgress,
Or put your dirty mouth to a clean cup,
Or pass drinks while your hands are in a mess,
Or stain your napkin out of carelessness.
Also, beware at meals of causing strife,
And do not make a tooth-pick of your knife.

For adults, guidelines frequently drew contrasts between the feudal lords of the court and the lower classes. “A man of refinement should not slurp with his spoon when in company,” admonishes one author of a book on manners, while another warms, “If a man wipes his nose on his hand at table because he knows no better, then he is a fool, believe me.” Others frowned upon putting a gnawed bone back in the dish (“this is a serious offense”), blowing your nose on the tablecloth, “fall[ing] upon the dishes like swine,” or putting your fingers in the salt or mustard.

A New Order

Such rules set the expectations for behavior in Medieval courts, but whether such advice “took” among the lower strata of society was not a big concern. According to historian Norbert Elias, “[People in the Middle Ages] were told, do this and not that; but by and large a great deal was let pass.” In the Renaissance, however, things changed. “Individuals of different social origins are thrown together,” with the result that a new social order was created. In this new hierarchy, behavior among the upper class was still looked to as exemplary, but enforcement relied more on peer pressure than on a set of proscribed rules. “People forced to live with one another in a new way become more sensitive to the impulses of others,” writes Elias about life at court and in cities, “[and] the degree of consideration expected of others becomes greater.”

The social imperative not to offend informed much of the writing on manners during this period. Probably the most seminal of these was a 1530 work by Erasmus, De civilitate morum puerilium (On Civility in Children), which became a veritable bestseller. Straddling the Middle Ages and the early modern era, Erasmus drew on traditional concepts of courtesy from prior works, but he also included keen observations on the social transitions of his time. He laid out a new standard in De civilitate, which is dedicated to a young prince: “Let others paint lions, eagles, and other creatures on their coats of arms. More true nobility is possessed by those who can inscribe on their shields all that they have achieved through the cultivations of the arts and sciences.”

Down and Dirty

Despite his elevated tone, Erasmus did not neglect the nitty-gritty business of manners. Concern with bodily propriety loomed large and he and his contemporaries did not shrink from addressing matters which today are seldom discussed outside commercials for digestive aids. He cautioned, for example, against moving about in your chair while sitting at the table, “lyke a man that letteth a blast or is about it.” Even Erasmus bowed to nature, however, noting that “it is not pleasing, while striving to appear urbane, to contract an illness.” Should the necessity arise, he advised either withdrawing or, if that was not possible, to “let a cough hide the explosive sound.” “Replace farts with coughs,” was his final word on the subject.

Part 2 of this blog post will publish on Friday, Nov. 10.

This article was first published in the Spring 2011 issue of Folger Magazine.