By Kathryn Walton
Today, many parents are deeply invested in teaching their children to mind their manners. Did medieval parents care about manners?
Contemporary popular culture tends to depict people in the Middle Ages as very ill-mannered. At the very idea of a medieval dining experience, my pop-culture infused brain immediately brings forth an image of a medieval hall with diners sprawled along benches eating ravenously with their knives, their hands, and their faces, throwing food to the dogs, belching, guzzling their drinks, and spitting on the floor and the table. Children, if they are present at all, run wild grabbing and eating what they please with no attention paid to their conduct.
But this image of ill-mannered chaos is much more of a contemporary invention than one true to the Middle Ages. Of course, attitudes towards proper conduct were different than they are today, but, overall, in the Middle Ages, manners mattered.
In fact, manners mattered deeply. Parents wanted to teach their children how to behave themselves well at home and in society so that they could find the best possible positions in life. Manners were so important that an entire genre of literature was developed to teach children how to mind their manners. This genre is known as the courtesy book, and it shows just how much manners mattered in the Middle Ages.
Courtesy books were little books or short treaties that essentially laid out in clear straightforward language how a child should behave in every facet of their lives: from dressing, to walking, to reading, to playing, to eating. They explained the mode of correct behaviour in clear, plain, didactic language, and made no attempt to bury the message in fun or fancy poems. They taught children how to behave: that was it.
We don’t really have a contemporary equivalent to this today. Didactic texts on manners today tend to appear in entertaining rhymes. As a child, for example, I was taught a poem by Gelett Burgess about a family with very poor manners. It goes…
“The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth–
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!”
You can read the full thing here.
Today, and ever since the Victorian period, parents and authors tend to hide didactic messages in entertaining rhymes. In the Middle Ages, however, authors and parents didn’t rely on entertaining rhymes to teach manners to children. Instead, they laid the rules of good behaviour and proper conduct in clear, straightforward treatises.
The Development of Courtesy Books
While ideas about proper conduct and good behaviour have always been prominent in literature in all kinds of different cultures from around the world, it wasn’t until the 12th century that these courtesy books began to appear in Europe.
In From Childhood to Chivalry Nicholas Orme suggests that this literature of manners came out of a growing interest in the 12th century in ideas of “courtesy” and “courtliness.” Romance narratives were becoming popular at this time; these stories depicted an idealized courtly world within which well-mannered knights and ladies went on adventures. The good characters in these texts are always extraordinarily courteous. They abide by a certain code of chivalry, which, in addition to dictating proper conduct in battle, also insists on a certain kind of behaviour.
These ideas made their way into attitudes towards child-rearing, and soon parents wanted their children to be as courteous as a knight or lady of romance. And so, a literary form developed to teach this kind of behaviour. Some early examples were written in Latin by members of the clergy. One such text is De Institutione Noviciorum, and it was written by Hugh of St Victor sometime before 1141. It taught the novices of his abbey how to dress, speak, behave, and eat in an appropriate manner.
These books quickly became extremely popular and spread across Europe. They initially circulated in Latin, but by the thirteenth century examples circulated in French and then in English by the late fourteenth century. The transition from Latin (which was read almost exclusively by clergy and members of the aristocracy) to French and English (which were read by a much wider range of people) show that the genre soon took on wide appeal outside of just courtly circles. It quickly became popular and remained that way well into the early modern period.
So what kind of things did these courtesy books teach?
The Book of Courtesy
One of the most illustrative and popular examples of the genre is The Book of Courtesy, which was composed sometime after 1452 and printed by William Caxton in 1477. It gives some great insights into the kind of behaviour expected of medieval children.
The Book of Courtesy is addressed to a “little John” who is still in his tender infancy. This child is instructed to remove himself from vice and attend only to virtue. The author then says that he will teach “little John” in plain language suitable for a child how to behave properly. Here is a summary of what the author says the child should do:
When you awake in the morning, attend first to your prayers. Then, comb your hair, clean your ears, clean your face, and purge your nose of the “vile matter” inside. Be sure not to do this with your hand (i.e. pick your nose) because that is a foul and uncourteous thing to do. You should then wash your hands and cut your nails if they need it. Then dress yourself stylishly with hood, gown, hose, and shoes.
When you leave the house do so with a pleasant expression on your face. Speak nicely to any you see and walk slowly and demurely. Don’t run off and throw stones or sticks or wrestle with dogs. Walk along quietly and politely so that all who see you say, “there passes a good child.”
When you go to church abide by the regulations stipulated there and be silent and do what you are supposed to do. The whole time you are in church maintain a humble and obedient expression.
When you speak to others look them directly in the face, maintain a pleasant expression, and do not cast your eyes about for that will be taken as “wanton inconstance.”
When you serve at the table of your master or sovereign be very serviceable so that no fault may be found in you. Be attentive at the table, don’t sit off in a corner by yourself, and be sure to look at your master or sovereign to make sure he is pleased. Mostly maintain silence, but if you do speak be sure to mind what you say, where you are, to whom you are speaking, and of whom you are speaking.
When you are at your own meal, be sure to be companionable no matter who you are with. Don’t disparage others – that’s a nasty thing to do. Speak little so as not to annoy others, and when you do speak, speak with only good intent. Don’t be greedy over the food. Sit for a time before you start eating to show your temperance and eat only what you need. Keep your cup clean and when you drink wipe your lips. Don’t blow in your drink or on your food. Don’t touch your face or head while you are eating and keep your knife away from your face. Don’t loosen your belt sitting at the table for that is most uncourteous. Don’t burp or fart. Don’t dip your meat in the salt seller. Don’t lean on the table or spit on it. Share your delicacies with your fellow diners so as to be seen as kind and generous and don’t complain if your serving is small. Don’t chew on bones because that is what dogs do. Instead, use your knife to cut off the meat. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t pare your nails or pick your teeth at the table. And wash your hands so cleanly when you are done that you leave no dirt on the towel.
At play, be sure to play only proper, honest games. For mirth and joy learn the harp or the lute or to sing and dance. Practice reading eloquent books in which you find both education and entertainment. Be sure to read the work of great authors like Gower, Chaucer, Lydgate, and others who will benefit you greatly.
The author finishes by telling the child to let go of all poor behaviour and do only what is good. He tells little John that if he abides by this code of behaviour, he will find honour in his life. You can read the complete book here.
Medieval Manners: Modern Manners
As you can see, many of the different codes of behaviour that we try to teach children today can be found in this book. Medieval manners are remarkably similar to modern manners. If anything, there was a greater focus on proper behaviour in children in the Middle Ages than there is today. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it does dispel a prominent misconception about the Middle Ages and medieval childhood.
Manners mattered deeply to parents in the Middle Ages. Children were taught to mind their manners in all kinds of different ways and to be incredibly polite in all aspects of their lives. The existence of an entire genre of literature on the subject reinforces just how much weight politeness and courtesy carried in medieval culture. Chaos did not reign in the medieval child’s world. Their behaviour was carefully monitored, and great attention was paid to teaching them to mind their manners.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Smith-Lesouëf 70, fol. 19v.