Get your elbows off the table; this is not a horse’s stable. You weren’t born in a barn, so please shut the door. Look a man in the eye and give him a firm handshake. Don’t stab your meat. Mind your manners.
If your parents did a decent job of raising you, you’ve probably heard some of these phrases before. If you have children, you may have uttered them. Although I have no proof that I wasn’t born in a barn, I understand that this was part of my “civilizing” process. Even though I bucked against this process sometimes, the lessons eventually took root — at least to some extent — and made me fit for public presentation.
What most people don’t know is that a good portion of the etiquette we’re taught as children stems from our “barbaric” past. Not so long ago, the likelihood of getting stabbed with a knife during a meal was right up there with someone passing you the peas. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much.
These days, sharp knives are reserved for the cook, and only brought out if you have to cut into a serious piece of meat. Rounded knives (hard to stick someone with) are much less dangerous. In medieval times, people often carried blades around on their person, which could be used for cleaning their fingernails, stabbing at a chuck of food, or impaling someone at the dinner table.
A firm handshake while looking someone in the eye is a modern sign of courtesy and respect. In Ancient Greece and Rome, and also during the Middle Ages, a strong handshake was an excellent way to check for a concealed weapon. (Europeans were much less skittish about carrying arms back then). Better yet, a gentleman should opt for a firm arm clasp, in order to search for a hidden dagger.
The “polite” practice of covering up a sneeze or yawn came into vogue during the Black Death. Even though microbes were an unknown, something about getting sprayed by vaporized mucus and saliva put people off. “God bless you” became a catchphrase because if you were sneezing you were either dying of Bubonic plague, or the Devil was trying to enter your soul.
Books dealing with etiquette, like ‘The Book of the Courtier” by Baldassare Castiglione (also translated by Sir Thomas Hoby) and “La Civil Conversazione” by Stefano Guazzo, became all the rage in the 1500s. These guides taught people how to act in polite society. In simpler terms, refined manners were a kind of window dressing, disguising the fact that everyone was vying for position in order to kiss the asses of the king, the nobility and the upper classes.
The very forward-thinking Erasmus of Rotterdam, a strong supporter of etiquette, published his “A Handbook on Good Manners For Children: De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus” in 1530. Here are a few of his recommendations on how to behave like an enlightened human being:
“If you must urinate, you should stand against a wall, and face away from other people.”
“It’s just as rude to lick greasy fingers as it is to wipe them on your clothing. Use a cloth or napkin instead.”
“It’s pretty poor show to pass off to another something you’ve already bitten into.”
“Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers.”
“If you cannot swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere.”
“To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you’re farting repetitively, or trying to fart.”
This list, while clearly written tongue-in-cheek, demonstrates just how far we’ve come. Steven Pinker, in his fascinating book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” cites Erasmus’s work as an indication of our brutish past. The English philosopher Herbert Spencer and the sociologist Erving Goffman have written about how social etiquette has helped regulate civilization, governance and the organization of the social order, ranging from massive state-like groups to smaller social circles.
Good manners, it seems — even if we rejected them when we were young — help us get along with others, reduce the need for retaliatory violence, and give us a powerful tool as we search for our place in an increasingly complex society.