The Matter of Manners – In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas

Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier


In Pursuit of Civility – Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas, Yale: New Haven and London, hb., 457 pages

Among the Bodleian Library’s celebrated Douce Collection of arcana,  incunabula and later works is an instructional manuscript of circa 1350, which contains the first-known written English expression of what was almost certainly already a cliché – ‘Maner makys man’. Maybe William of Wykeham, Chancellor of England to both Edward III and Richard II, read this very manuscript – because when he founded Winchester College and New College, Oxford, in the 1370s he chose ‘Manners makyth man’ as motto for both. But what did ‘manners’ mean in fourteenth century England, and what do they mean now? How are they made – and how do they make? How can we decode these complex ciphers – so changeable, inconsistent, irrational, ludicrous, oppressive, petty, self-serving – and so essential, persistent, salutary, and uplifting? 

Keith Thomas has approached this almost limitless subject with the same thoroughness with which he tackled Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (1983), and The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009) – and with which doubtless he chairs the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He has brought a fully-examined life’s reading to bear on this book, erudition so exhaustive that at times it almost overwhelms his text as he indefatigably adds counter-reference to reference, in a torrent of well-contextualised quotations revealing the infinite complexities and contradictions of early modern English behaviour. 

There are almost one hundred pages of notes, authorities balanced finely against each other – an oddly hypnotic catalogue raisonée of a huge and mostly forgotten exhortatory literature. His treatment is likely to prove unsurpassable as summation of this cajoling corpus, which over so many centuries has done so much to reflect, refract and shape England’s essence. The study of English manners is the most rewarding of all such ethnologies, because here social manners are so central a preoccupation – burgeoning even in the Iron Age, throwing out luxuriant shoots under Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, medieval and early modern cultivators, before being transplanted worldwide. 

Not content with comprehensiveness, Sir Keith aspires also to objectivity –

As a Welshman, and therefore something of an outsider, I have tried to study the English people in the way an anthropologist approaches the inhabitants of an unfamiliar society. 

His ‘outsider’ status extends farther, because he is also an undogmatic humanist, who can view ancient and modern Christianity (once the source and long a motive force of English manners) with coolness, acknowledging its instrumentality as well as its inadequacies.  

‘Manners’ is sometimes narrowly understood as meaning the everyday, taken-for-granted rituals we observe in order to live more easily with each other. But even the smallest observances, like saying ‘please’, are not as simple as they may seem. Behind the minutiae of manners, Pierre Bourdieu asserted, one can glimpse ‘a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy’. This sounds like overstatement, but these things do arouse strong emotions, those who omit them at hazard of being thought arrogant, boorish, crass, impertinent, or sociopathic. If, as Georg Simmel had earlier argued, gratitude is ‘the moral memory of mankind’, those who fail to give thanks, or who give them in the wrong way or at the wrong time, can be seen as moral malefactors, and worthy of condign chastisement. Similarly, those who dress ‘indecently’, or fail to wash, or are unkind to animals or children, or have the wrong faith, or tastes, or views, have always faced social sanctions, from sniggering and snubbing via public insult and legal action to mob or state violence.

Manners are about whole attitudes and modes of living – civilisation as opposed to primitivism, nurture as opposed to nature, urbanity as opposed to rusticity. They may be promulgated in polemics, or lampooned in comedies of manners – and are often seen as outward signs of inner worth. To be ‘polished’ or polite is to be advanced, considerate, educated, sophisticated, superior in some sense. To be rude, churlish or ‘clownish’ is to be deficient, gauche, provincial, retrograde, sometimes verging on semi-human. Sometimes top-down condescension is repaid by recipients, the upper classes portrayed as epicene and ridiculous, like Colley Cibber’s Lord Foppington, or the ‘Frenchified’ dandy pictured in a 1770 engraving in this book, facing fisticuffs from a John Bullish butcher while a prostitute pulls his greased queue. 

Ideas of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour appear to be immemorial and ubiquitous. Probably every society had or has taboos surrounding bodily functions, cleanliness, religious belief and sexual intercourse, and ideas of ‘correct’ conduct have probably always been coterminous with politics, religion, self-definition and self-esteem. In fifth century BC Athens, those who could not speak Greek were dubbed barbaroi (barbarians) – at first neutrally, but increasingly pejoratively. Xenophobic dismissiveness helped codify Greek corporate identity, portraying geopolitical competitors as not just enemies of Greeks, but of civilisation itself. Scythians, many Hellenes held, were cruel, ignorant, nomadic, and unlettered – while even worse human/subhuman horrors awaited in the wind-blasted wastes of northwestern Europe, or the endless sun-punished deserts behind the Greek colonies of the African and Asian coasts. The Persians – grudgingly admitted to be quite cultured in their way – were nevertheless still barbaric, because they were ‘decadent’ and tolerated despotic government. The Romans would also sometimes be ridiculed as vulgar cultural counter-jumpers. Naturally, the Scythians, Persians and Romans had ideas of their own on these matters – but tendencies to distinguish and separate seem as old as the species.

The Dark Ages added more means of differentiation and stratification, as new nations warred within themselves and against each other. But always there are recurring themes – elites versus masses, the educated versus the uncultivated, the court versus the country, the old versus the young, community members versus outsiders, believers versus non-believers – and laws and manners to manage the constant ebbing and flowing of class, dynastic, economic, ethnic, political and religious fortunes. ‘History can be seen’ says the author, ‘as the story of how different patterns of conventional restraint have succeeded each other’. There were always leading lights like Boethius entreating everyone to be more virtuous, countless Scripturally-inspired didacticists and natural philosophers promulgating ideals of agreeableness, bearing, mildness, modesty, restraint, suavity, and wit.

Early Christian and Scholastic notions of ‘virtue’ and ‘nurture’ evolved into ‘chivalry’, exemplified by knights fighting Christianity’s wars from Lithuania to Jerusalem. Chaucer’s fourteenth century paragon has fought gallantly, but is also ‘meeke as is a mayde…a verray, parfit gentil knight’. In 1516’s Orlando Furioso, Bradamant is told her grandson will ‘defend Holy Church against the barbarians’. Now, it was not non-Greeks but non-Christians who were backwards, even beast-like – which permitted treating them with utmost severity. The chivalric ‘Decalogue’ outlined by chivalry’s great nineteenth century interpreter Léon Gautier prescribed ‘unceasing and merciless war against the infidel’ – although this was supposed only to apply on the battlefield. Edmund Spenser saw no discrepancy between his fantastical ‘Gentle Knight pricking on the plaine’ and his day job as Lord Deputy of Ireland putting down the natives with their ‘savage brutishness and loathsome filthiness’.

Chivalry commingled with ‘courtesy’, examples of decorum, dress, education, language, morality and even posture filtering down constantly from courts largely through writers like Baldassare Castiglione, whose 1528 Book of the Courtier was translated into English in 1561. As Christianity split, Catholics and Protestants differentiated their societies and themselves from the mistaken (or diabolical) denominational Other. Divergences over doctrine overlapped with old animosities and stereotypes, and spawned countless day-to-day divergences  – Catholics seen by Protestants as shiftless, superstitious and untrustworthy, Protestants seen by Catholics as ill-educated, plebeian, and uptight. Dissenters often saw social rituals like bowing or being complimentary as akin to genuflection in church. Anglicans often viewed public religious discussions as vulgar, because likely to lead to dinner-table awkwardness – not to mention the undermining of the entire Elizabethan settlement. 

Renaissance humanists revisiting classical antiquity also entreated Europeans to become more civilised, with Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerilium of 1530 translated into English in 1532 as A Lytell Booke of Good Maners for Chyldren. Christianity started to be augmented as civilisation-signifier by co-existing, contradicting ideas of both Europe’s oldness and its Prometheanism. A ready-made foil for sixteenth century theorists of civilization and difference lay close at hand, in the expansionist, ‘infidel’ Ottomans (our humanist author would eschew such ‘Islamophobia’, let alone their still resounding ideas of a ‘clash of civilisations’.) The navigators of Portugal, England, France, Spain, Holland and Venice were also opening up huge new fields of imaginative play, as they brought home accounts of the exotic indigenes of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Emerging information on non-European societies encouraged some to see Europe as ineffably, obviously superior – because non-Europeans looked so different, spoke incomprehensible tongues, worshipped odd gods, had few (or no) European-style governments, ate strange things, wore peculiar (or too few) clothes. Bodily comportment and emotional restraint had long been thought of as ‘outwards signs of the inner dispositions of the soul’, so loincloths or sarongs suggested loose morals to Europeans who saw nothing incongruous in doublets, farthingales or stove-pipe hats. (We can only speculate what Castiglione, Erasmus or Hobbes – or even early cultural relativists – would have made of some twenty-first century Europeans’ obesity, states of undress, swearing and tattoos.)  

Manners were weaponised to aim outwards as well as in – intercontinental behaviour missiles used by utterly sincere Christians to excuse African, Asian and American exploitations, expropriations, expulsions, and slavery. There were ancient admonitory precedents; Aristotle had advocated honestas and humanitas between Greeks, but he also said barbarians were born to be slaves. There were also plenty of early modern colonialists who saw no contradiction between private goodness, even kindliness – and policies permitting chattels and ethnic cleansing. What we now call ‘international law’, often cited to undercut national and Western sovereignties, was born in Salamanca, and added to by the Dutch jurist Grotius and the German natural lawyer Pufendorf, and naturally reflected sixteenth-seventeenth century European assumptions. It also contained elements now usually uninvoked by international lawyer-activists, such as Grotius’ view that victors of battles were entitled to slaughter prisoners unless their own states forbade this distinctly unchivalrous practice.

One of the author’s principal aims is to show that anti-colonialism, cultural pluralism and relativism long predate our era, and he cites Ovid, Saint Paul (I. Corinthians, XIV, 11 – ‘If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’), Spanish Dominicans, Montaigne, Smith, Diderot, and many others.  These chapters could betoken a descent into P.C. hectoring – 2018’s ritual obeisances – but the author is too careful. He qualifies his approval of old open-mindedness by reminding us, for example, that some American Colonial-era accounts praising the Indians as friendly and welcoming were knowingly misleading, written to gull more English into coming. As another example of nascent New World sensitivities, the author asks twice why, if the English settlers really believed Indians childishly unknowing of private property rights and incapable of self-government, they so often insisted on paying them for the land they were taking? It’s an interesting question – although the answer may simply be that even the most greedily obtuse among Albion’s seed nursed vestigial guilt about theft. 

In the dawning, deist Age of Reason, manners drifted yet farther from their moral underpinnings, and their apparent ethical emptiness was often noted. The ultra-urbane Lord Chesterfield’s 1744 Letters to his (illegitimate) son were vilified by Dr. Johnson as combining ‘the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’. Johnson was being unjust, because Chesterfield’s emphasis on external appearances did not preclude internal goodness  – but the Great Cham was giving voice to an old English (and Protestant) detestation of ‘coxcombery’ and ‘mummery’, over-civility seen as servility. This bluff ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was itself something of an affectation – yet even now, the North of England holds out an ideal of itself as gruff but good, Philistine but plain-spoken, more substantive than the smooth South.

Intellectuals on all social sides vied constantly to preserve privileges, or assert rights. Adhering to the majority faith, having a particular accent, wearing certain clothes, going to certain schools, or using a fork for eating, were often moral imperatives – but they were also tactics used to put an ‘inferior’ in his place, or show a ‘superior’ you were as good as he. These daily de rigeurs changed constantly, and as soon as any rules changed they would be enforced in a million subtle and unsubtle ways. In Pursuit of Civility is predictably rich in contemptuous or indignant animadversions about the ‘incivility’ or ‘rudeness’ of entire classes or countries (one curious omission is Frances Trollope’s wonderfully withering 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans). It is also rich in their opposites – generous, gushing, pluralistic, or relativistic remarks about entire classes or countries, and others’ cultures. For every Smollett, travelling through France and Italy and hating almost everything he finds, there seems to be a Sterne making a Sentimental Journey.

Tendencies and counter-tendencies are always ironically equipoised. Elizabethan and Jacobean administrations permitted torture in special circumstances (even though torture was banned under Common Law) – so long as the torturers were ‘gentle and merciful’ and used the rack ‘in as charitable a manner as such a thing might be’. 

The Commonwealth Solicitor-General John Cook, who led the state’s case against Charles I, may have been a regicide, but he also called courtesy 

the most precious pearl that any man in authority may wear, for it buyeth men’s hearts. 

The English Civil Wars really were relatively ‘civil’ when compared with contemporaneous conflicts, because ‘the contending parties shared a common culture and were linked by ties of kinship and friendship’. Atrocities were, however, committed in Ireland, whose largely Catholic and clannish – and poorer – people were widely regarded as inferior and outdated. Allegations of being outdated and so uncivilised would come to be levelled with increasing force as the economic forces of the Industrial Revolution were joined and justified by Darwinism, imperialism, and race science. 

Restoration, Queen Anne and Georgian England also contained modish multitudes –  

Later seventeenth century England saw both growing politeness and the birth of pornography…good breeding in the eighteenth century was accompanied by sexual libertinism, heavy drinking, brutal sports, bawdy and scatological humour and scurrilous gossip.

It is startling to learn that as late as 1763, the visiting Casanova saw people defecating openly in city streets, albeit with their faces turned to the wall to maintain their ‘modesty’. 

Slowly, somehow, between the recalcitrant earthiness of a few and the expostulations of uplifters, Chesterfield’s ideal of ceremonious sociability transmuted into nineteenth and twentieth century etiquette, which Thomas derides as ‘purely arbitrary prescriptions, peculiar to a particular social milieu and lacking any mental or moral foundation.’ There was – and still is – acute anxiety born of social uncertainty – about elocution, whether to say ‘lavatory’ or ‘toilet’, whether to leave the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone (as Edward VII exampled –  he was too portly to do it up), or how to address anyone from the Queen or the sons of Scottish clan chiefs to RAF officers or surgeons. The countless ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ considerations and ‘refining’ accretions of 1800-1968 were always being challenged and mocked, but each has left its trace, and even now they wait in England’s anthropological anteroom, neither in demand nor finally dismissible.  

Chivalry likewise lingers sadly in the West, an unhorsed knight with a battered helm and notched sword fighting many foes – vague ideals of forbearance and honour, and practices like holding doors open for women (such sexist politesse is sometimes seen as ‘unacceptable’ by modern moralists). Aristocracies may have been upturned, and Christian and pre-1960s Western sensibilities downgraded, but courtly trace-elements tinge ‘humanitarianism’ – ideas of old decencies now skewed to unman the no longer world-straddling West. Thomas adjudges wryly,

It is common for people today to declare portentously that “the hallmark of a civilised society” is the way it treats animals, say, or children, or the universities, or refugees…Sometimes such assertions reflect a considered view as to what an ideal form of society would look like. More often, they are just bids for sympathy.

Many moderns pride themselves on being ‘above’ old protocols and punctilio, and on their freedom from socially conservative shibboleths and stereotypes. We are certainly less formal and obviously hierarchical than often before (although maybe old hierarchies have simply been replaced by new ones). In any case, In Pursuit shows there have always been some who fled from rather than pursued the à la mode, and others who were left outside The Pale through no choice of their own. Today’s narcissists were prefigured by the Cynics, nostalgie de la boue, and aristocrats pretending to be plebeian – while old racial and social caricatures have simply been replaced. Yesterday’s ‘boors’, ‘churls’ and ‘clowns’ are today’s football fans, Trump voters and Brexit-supporters. Former ‘savages’ are now ‘unspoilt’ – and the ‘barbarous Moors’ of yore are now tolerant multiculturalists. Once world-beating ‘European civilisation’ is now picked up in morality’s tweezers for sniffy examination, before being resigned as ideological invention designed for exploitative and hateful purposes. Autre temps, autres mœurs.

In 1748, Montesquieu wrote – ‘the more people there are in a nation…who need to deal with each other and not cause displeasure, the more politeness there is.’ It follows that the more these more plentiful people diverge in culture and outlook, the more complex and forced the forms of the new politeness – increasingly literally forced by governments. Montesquieu was righter than he realised when he referred to civilised nations as un peuple policé. Countless painfully-won semi-consensuses about civility, morality and society are now being cast up constantly into the stratosphere in a mania of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. But rather than being liberated, we may instead be becoming excessively refined.

This review first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

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