By Jonathan Leece
The Forum: Cal Poly’s Journal of History, Vol.3:1 (2011)
Introduction: The best-selling book of the entire sixteenth century was not a historical text on the glory of the Roman Empire, or a translation of the work of some great ancient philosopher, or even the Bible itself. That honor belongs to a simple treatise published in 1530, by a Dutch clergyman, on the education of noblemen’s sons in manners. Translated into twenty-two languages within the first decade of publication, On Civility in Children was the cultural phenomenon of the day; it was read by thousands—a seeming contradiction since the book was intended for the nobility, Europe’s minority class. By looking at the changing class structure of Renaissance Europe through the lens of Thorstein Veblen’s theory of the “leisure class,” one can see that there is no contradiction. Instead, the treatise was a logical best seller because the rising merchant class viewed manners as a way to emulate the practices of the ruling class during the early sixteenth century without sacrificing what had provided them with their wealth.
During the late twentieth century, scholarship began to shift towards examining the changing social structure of the Renaissance and exploring the ways classes were distinguished from one another. This is exemplified in Norbert Elias’s work The Civilizing Process: the History of Manners where he claims a major accomplishment of Erasmus’s On Civility in Children was the development of the concept of civilité. He describes how the immense popularity of On Civility in Children caused much of the importance attributed to the idea today. Norbert’s assertion was a shift from the works of mid-twentieth century scholars, such as Ferdinand Schevil, who claimed the development of individualism, which came from the economic realm, defined the Renaissance. His argument could not pick out differences between the upper classes, since it treated political leaders and the emerging merchant class as the same. However, through careful examination of Erasmus’s work, Elias found differences between the classes of the period. He pointed to Erasmus’s advice to the nobility not to immediately put one’s hands into the food as soon as they are seated, describing it as the actions of “wolves or gluttons.” In addition, Elias made the important insight that Erasmus’s target audience for the treatise was noble boys and the sons of princes.