Monday, September 12, 2011

Not Quite Miss Manners

It’s no mystery that culture and the level of modern civilization have influenced the way people go about the small business of their daily lives. If threats are few, where the fear of attack is non-existent and when people live comfortably in established societies, chances are good the average person is going to be someone who doesn’t insult, disgust or intimidate others. But that’s now. Imagine the conditions of life during the Middle Ages when barbarian tribes raided and sacked one after another of the civilized nations of southern Europe. Social niceties were of small concern under such stress. In an age when evading rape, pillage and likely death was for many the priority of continued existence, it’s no surprise that codes of civility fell into disuse for hundreds of years. A reawakening of interest in manners and etiquette was spurred by the Christian crusades of the eleventh century, by the prestige of knighthood and its code of chivalry. True that the crusades are most often remembered for the savage and bloody actions of the crusaders in foreign lands, but at home their influence was in a gentler direction.

In the thirteenth century etiquette books made an appearance, guidebooks for the expanding upper class who had access to court and desired to know how they should behave. Not much different from the same type of books that accompanied the social phenomenon of upward mobility in the twentieth century. We are all to some degree familiar with the guidelines of these more recent books, but what sort of injunctions were the stuff of those old medieval books of manners?


• A number of people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish—this is a serious offense.

• Refrain from falling upon the dish like a swine while eating, snorting disgustingly and smacking the lips.

• Do not spit on or over the table in the manner of hunters.

• When you blow your nose or cough, turn around so that nothing falls on the table.


• A man who clears his throat when he eats, and one who blows his nose in the tablecloth, are both ill-bred.

• You should not poke your teeth with your knife, as some do; it is a bad habit.

• I hear that some eat unwashed. May their fingers be palsied!


• Do not put back on your plate what has been in your mouth.

• Do not chew anything you have to spit out again.

• It is bad manners to dip food into the salt.

Without tissues and with handkerchiefs not yet in common use, blowing one’s nose presented a problem. Many chose to use the tablecloth or sleeve, but this was frowned upon. The acceptable practice was blowing the nose into the fingers.

The man with the greatest influence on the improvement of manners was the sixteenth century philosopher and educator, Erasmus of Rotterdam. His etiquette book ultimately became a standard school textbook. Some of his advice was…

• If you cannot swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere.

• Do not be afraid of vomiting if you must; for it is not vomiting but holding the vomit in your throat that is foul.

• Do not move back and forth on your chair. Whoever does that gives the impression of constantly breaking or trying to break wind.

• Turn away when spitting lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls on the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone.

• It is not seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head.

• To lick greasy fingers or to wipe them on your coat is impolite. It is better to use the tablecloth or the serviette.

• Some people put their hands in the dishes the moment they have sat down. Wolves do that.

1 comment:

  1. Well I haven't laughed that much in months. People in the office are looking at me. And thank the Lord we have somewhat moved away from needing these instructions. My favorite? "It is not seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head."


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America