From Civilitas to Civility: Codes of Manners in Medieval and Early Modern England
By John Gillingham
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol.12 (2002)
Abstract: Argues that to see the contrasts between late medieval ‘courtesy books’ and early modern manuals of manners as markers of changing ideas of social conduct in England is an interpretation too narrowly based on works written in English. Examination of Latin and Anglo-Norman literature shows that the ideal of the urbane gentleman can be traced at least as far back as the twelfth-century Liber Urbani of Daniel of Beccles, and was itself underpinned by the commonplace secular morality of the much older Distichs of Cato.
Introduction: Ever since the pioneering cultural history of Norbert Elias, the emergence of the words ‘civil’ and ‘civility’ in Western European languages, English included, in senses pertaining to refined and polished manners, has been taken to mark a highly significant shift between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in the styles and tastes of the upper classes, a shift neatly encapsulated in the title of Anna Bryson’s book: From Courtesy to Civility. It remains generally agreed that the concept of civility developed first in Italy, where its association with ‘city’ meant a great deal, and that as it spread throughout Europe, so the terms ‘civil’ and ‘civility’ changed their meanings, gradually displacing ‘courteous’ and ‘courtesy’ as the fashionable terms denoting approved conduct.
Bryson, while acknowledging that ‘nothing in the courtesy literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries supports the notion that “civility” represents a bourgeois standard of behaviour at odds with the previously established aristocratic ideals of “courtesy”, none the less elaborates Elias’s view that the new term meant a new concept, a new ‘way of seeing’ social conduct and social life.