Etiquette in early modern England (part 2)

Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.311
Thomas Fella. A booke of diverse devices. Manuscript, ca. 1585-1622. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. Read Part 1.

“Behave yourself!” is one of the first lessons children learn—or, as some arbiters of societal mores these days would have it, fail to learn. Those who decry the current lack of civility, however, would do well to hearken to the past, when even adults had to be told not to wipe their noses on the tablecloth or “snort disgustingly over the dishes like swine,” and keeping your fingers out of the mustard pot was considered a sign of refinement.

Books on manners became so popular during the Elizabethan period that it was only a matter of time before someone satirized them. In The Gull’s Hornbook (1609), Elizabethan dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker delivered a mock treatise on proper behavior disguised as the most egregious examples of boorishness. In an ordinary [restaurant], for example, he advised patrons to “discourse as loud as you can, no matter to what purpose” and to “eat as impudently as can be, for that’s most gentlemanlike.” He was especially instructive about what to do should nature call during a meal:

You may rise in dinner-time to ask for a close-stool, protesting to all the gentlemen that it costs you a hundred pound a year in physic besides the annual pension which your wife allows her doctor. And if you please you may, as your great French lord doth, invite some special friend of yours from the table to hold discourse with you as you sit in that withdrawing-chamber; from whence being returned again to the board, you shall sharpen the wits of all the eating gallants about you, and do them great pleasure, to ask what pamphlets or poems a man might think fittest to wipe his tail with (marry, this talk will be somewhat foul if you carry not a strong perfume about you)…

Renaissance manners sought both to elevate humans from animal-like behavior (boorish eaters were frequently compared to pigs) and, by introducing the concept of consideration toward others, to delineate class distinctions (the disgusting practice of wiping your nose on your sleeve was best left to fishmongers). Early modern courtesy manuals reflected these two aspects of civility, describing both a set of behaviors that distinguished man from beast, and a more variable civil code that defined a person’s place within a given society. These more subtle directives help a society define itself and, in some ways, define the notion of civilization itself.

As historian Norbert Elias points out, however, the terms “civilized” and “uncivilized” should not be equated with “good” and “bad.” Instead, they represent stages in an evolving process of development. “It may well happen,” he writes, “that our stage of civilization, our behavior, will arouse in our descendants feelings of embarrassment similar to those we sometimes feel concerning the behavior of our ancestors.” If that’s the case, we would do well to heed the words of Erasmus, who advised, “Be lenient toward the offenses of others. This is the chief value of civilitas, of courtesy. A companion ought not to be less dear to you because he has worse manners. There are people who make up for the awkwardness of their behavior by other gifts.”

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