The Magazine

To Manners Born

The English version of civility.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By SARA LODGE
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Two truths tend to strike people around middle age: Money buys less than it once did, and manners are in decline. 

A New York production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (2011)

A New York production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (2011)

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Everyone has a personal bugbear. What is yours? For many, it is the inconsiderate leaching of private noise into public space: the tinny beat of rock music on someone’s else’s iPod, the marital row conducted via cellphone, the muffled “bling” of a neighbor’s text message interrupting a crucial moment of dramatic tension in the movie theater. For others, it is the offhand, even offensive, treatment by those who should show more respect: waiters, salespersons, teenagers. When manners fail to smooth the path of social intercourse, the result can stink. I recently walked along an alley in London where a furious resident had chalked a circle on the pavement and a message to a repeat offender: “Stop your dog shitting here!”

As Henry Hitchings’s Sorry! demonstrates, the complaint that rudeness is on the rise is as old as society itself. And though throughout history new forms of sociability breed new codes of conduct, our core concerns about others’ unacceptable behavior remain remarkably consistent. Manners “shield us from aggression, insults, contact with other people’s bodily fluids (and those of their pets), exposure to others’ rubbish, unpleasant details of their lives, and also often the truth.” It is this last aspect that makes the study of manners so fascinating. It is a history of what we prefer not to see and hear, and thus also a history of what really gets—and lies—under our skin.

Hitchings’s book is broadly chronological in structure. It explores the history of conventions regarding polite behavior in England from the Middle Ages to the present, while also raising the philosophical question of how manners relate to morality, what distinguishes English decorum from that of other nations, and what place etiquette might have in modern life. This is a very broad remit, and the result is a rather rambling inquiry that is frequently sidetracked and does not pursue any of its lines of argument as thoroughly as one might wish. It contains, however, many entertaining facts and anecdotes of the kind that tempt one to annoy one’s spouse by saying, “listen to this, darling,” when he or she is in the middle of watching the news.

Medieval life, Hitchings argues, was marked by a need to contain and regulate violence. Thus, customs evolved that we still observe, such as placing an honored guest to one’s right—towards which the host can draw his sword, should the need arise—and polite conventions such as not attacking an enemy while he is “at stool” (defecating). Since there was no real distinction between private and public space, boundaries and hierarchies were maintained largely through “the symbolic effects of gesture.” Crossing one’s legs or closing one’s eyes in company could be interpreted as a deliberate insult. Looking skyward when belching was considered polite. Going down on one knee (rather than both knees) demonstrated partial submission while preserving one’s personal honor: Gentlemen proposing marriage still unconsciously practice this subtle social negotiation.

As Renaissance society increasingly promoted a culture of courtiers rather than feudal warriors, the study of “courtesy” (courtly behavior) gathered pace. Costume books, providing models for imitation, began to circulate in the 1560s, and the 16th century saw English translations of Castiglione’s suave Book of the Courtier, which emphasized how nobility could be performed through charm, affability, modesty, and talent. There were also home-grown guides to self-improvement, like Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour: a text that aimed to equip Tudor men for positions of authority. Elyot’s recommendation that prospective power-brokers learn chess, avoid games involving dice, and refresh themselves with music still seems fair enough; his less fortunate later advice to avoid all fruits, as they often cause “putrid fevers,” may be partially responsible for the want of fiber in English political life.

Embarrassments still arose, of course, despite the efforts of courtesy counselors to prevent them. Famously, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, let off a loud fart when making a deep bow to Queen Elizabeth I. He was so ashamed that he left the country for several years. Allegedly, on his return, Elizabeth greeted him with the double-edged assurance: “My lord, I had forgot the fart.”