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.

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