Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Biological Background of the Dining-Room Deportment

            Politeness is a qualification; it reassures other members of a group that you are not a threat to the status quo. By performing politely, you display to others that you can be trusted in their company, that your behaviour will conform to the accepted mores, that you are also a member of the group. Politeness is a badge that lets us know that you are one of us, that you belong here, that we all know our places. 

Some of our Cousins

Many millennia ago, our simian ancestors needed such assurances from other members of the clan, but also from strangers and outsiders, they needed to know that everyone was aware of their place in the pecking order and acknowledged that place. We crave order, we look for patterns, we like the expected and the normal; disorder, chaos and the abnormal starts our survival instinct bells ringing, it puts us on edge, it raises our suspicions, it makes us uneasy. We like things to be right. We don’t like it when things go wrong. We are at our most vulnerable when we sleep and when we eat – try this little experiment. 

True Humility - The Curate's Egg - Punch - 1895

Watch others when they are dining in public. Groups of people are usually at ease, they interact with each other; they talk and joke and frequently look at each other, ignoring what is going on around their group. Now look at a lone diner. Unless they are in a familiar place that they know to be safe, they will constantly look around; they may even not look at the food as they put it into their mouth, but will continue to scan the room, in order to identify any potential threat as they feed. 

Dinner is Scared

Think of animals out on the savannah – the herds have plenty of eyes that will spot an approaching lion long before it gets too near; the individual creature is jumpy, ready to run for it, they snatch a mouthful of food and then raise their head and look around for the unexpected, the unusual or the threatening. We continue to respond to the same instinct that lies deep in our consciousness. So, when we stopped living on the plains of Africa and started living in houses and stopped expecting lions or leopards to interrupt our feeding patterns, we sublimated our instinctual urges and table manners were born. 

Table Manners

That’s why the early courtesy books were so big on table manners – if you’re going to fit in, you need to know how to behave when you’re eating with the rest of us. Here’s some sound advice from Caxton’s The Boke of Curtesye (1477):

William Caxton - The Boke of Curtesye - 1477

Touche not with your mete salt in the saler
Lest folk apoynte you of vnconnyngnesse
Dresse it aparte vpon a clene trencher
Farse not your mouth to ful for wantonesse
Lene not vpon tbe table for that rude is
And yf I shal to you playnly saye
Ouer the table ye shal not spetel conueye

Touch not with meat salt in the cellar,
Lest folk appoint you with uncunningness [ignorance]
Dress it apart, upon a clean trencher [plate]
Force not your mouth too full for wantonness [greed]
Lean not upon the table, for that is rude
And if I shall to you plainly say,
Over the table you shall not spit convey.

Contemporaneously with Caxton’s work is The Boke of Nurture by John Russell, which is a guide for serving men although it covers the manners expected by all in the dining room.

John Russell - The Boke of Nature c.1470

Wrye not youre nek a doyle as hit were a dawe;
Put not youre handes in youre hosen youre codware for to clawe,
Nor pikynge, nor trifelynge ne shiukkynge as thau ye wold sawe;
Yowr hondes frote ne rub brydelynge with brest vppon yowr crawe;
With youre eris pike not ner be ye slow of herynge;
Areche, ne spitt to ferre, ne haue lowd laughynge.

Do not twist you neck awry like a jackdaw,
Do not put your hands in your hose, your cods [testicles] to scratch,
Do not pick, trifle or shrug as if you are sawing {wood},
Do not scratch or rub your hands, or puff out your chest,
Or pick your ears nor be too slow of hearing,
Or retch, nor spit too far, nor laugh too loudly.

Dear Oh Dear ...

So, now you know. And if you think this is all frightfully amusing and how terrible those mediaeval chappies were, here are a few tips from Etiquette and Service of the Table from 1920;
The proper attitude at the table is an erect one. One should not slide down in the chair, rest one's arm on the table, crowd, or discommode one's neighbour. One should eat slowly and quietly, never talking while food is in the mouth.
Salt should never be put upon the table-cloth but on the side of a dish—preferably the bread-and-butter plate—unless individual salts are provided.
Toothpicks, like toothbrushes, should be used only inside of one's room.
Soiled hands, negligee dress, shirt-sleeves and dishevelled hair are inexcusable.
No hot drink should be poured from the cup into the saucer.

Plus ca Change ...

Hardly all that different at all, really.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Conventional Customs of the Mannerly Modes

               I’ll chuck my hat into the ring and add to the list of ‘what is it that oils the wheels of society’ by saying that, in my opinion, manners provide that necessary lubricant. Wait a minute though, you would say that, you might counter, you’re an Englishman after all and what else would you say? However, unlike the language of flowers, or the acrostics of gemstones, manners are another code that you can’t really opt out of, (well, you can, but if you’re English, that’s only going to lead to someone, sometime, tutting at you – maybe, just maybe, when you are still in the room). 


People may call it etiquette, and have done so for over 250 years, but before we stole a French word for it, we called it courtesy (and, yes, I know that comes from Old French roots, but that’s because after 1066, and for the next three hundred years or so, the French were running the show on this side of the Channel). We called it that because it was the sort of proper behaviour that you’d expect to find in a royal court, pretty much in that same way that chivalry is the behaviour you’d expect from a chevalier, or knight. If everyone knows the rules, and sticks to them, then everything turns along nicely, thank you very much, and there are no nasty surprises. Incidentally, in the sixteenth century, that short medial ‘e’ in the word was often elided, and the word was pronounced as Court’sy, from which we get the name of something that you’d often see at court – a curtsey

Caxton - The Boke of Curtasye - 1477

One of the earliest books ever printed in the English language is William Caxton’s The Boke of Curtasye, (1477), showing that back in the fifteenth century there was a ready market for a guide to social behaviour and manners. Caxton’s pointers still sit well today – comb your hair, keep your ears clean, don’t pick your nose and so forth, and he has a long section on table manners, which were obviously an area where people needed a bit of instruction, and he concludes his advice with a section on which authors should be read by a well-bred young fellow (hardly surprising that, from a publisher who printed most of the works he recommends). 

Richard Braithwaite - The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman - 1631 (3rd Ed. 1641)

By 1631, Richard Braithwaite had expanded the field with his The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman, which advocated an entire philosophy of life, encompassing disposition, apparel, education, recreations, honour and fancy, rather than telling you not to blow your nose on the tablecloth, and as a practical guide to manners leaves much to be desired. 

William Darrell - The Gentleman Instructed - 1704 (10th Ed. 1732)

In a like manner, William Darrell’s The Gentleman Instructed (1704), which takes the form of a dialogue between Neander, a young man seeking instruction, and Eusebius, his tutor in matters worldly, concerns itself largely with the moral and spiritual education of its protagonist and its practical advice is limited to don’t get drunk, don’t gamble, don’t hang around with mucky women or atheists, don’t go to the theatre and live in fear of eternal damnation, God’s wrath and your dangly bits falling off. 

William Darrell - The Gentleman Instructed - 1704 (10th Ed. 1732)

The point of the early courtesy books was to prepare young middle- and upper-class boys for life at the royal courts. Excluded from trade and other jobs, in times of peace there were only three realistic routes open to these boys; the Law, the Church or the Court, (as for girls, their only future lay in a good marriage). It was the custom of wealthy and powerful men to take a number of boys into their household, to be raised as pages, cup-bearers or ‘henchmen’ (originally, a henchman, or hengestman, was a groom, from Old English hengesta stallion, horse or gelding). These boys were expected to learn table manners, riding, fencing, music, languages and ‘casting accounts’ (basic household finance), and were given extra instruction from works like Erasmus’s Pietas Puerilis (1530), which is a curious blend of Classical maxims and courtesy book (more of the ‘don’t pick your teeth, don’t chew with your mouth open and don’t peer into your hankie when you’ve blown your nose’ stuff). 

Richard Braithwaite - The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman - 1631 (3rd Ed. 1641)

The real change came when social mobility took off following the Industrial Revolution, when it became possible for the base-born to make fortunes in manufacturing or trade. These parvenus, arrivistes and the nouveau riche had not received the graces needed to allow them to take their places alongside those born into rank and privilege, and crash courses were needed to bring them up to snuff, (and, as you see by the French terms used to describe them, there was also a language barrier to contend with, too). The problem was, in using manners as a tool for social exclusion, those responsible were guilty of being bad mannered themselves, as snobbery is just as socially unacceptable as spitting in the street, queue jumping or buying the Daily Mail.