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Manners and the Civilizing Process

Digital History TOPIC ID 66

How did our way of blowing our noses change during the past few hundreds of years? How about our way of eating and sleeping? Changes in manners and etiquette are not mere curiosities; they reflect changes in peoples' psychic make-up.

Today, we expect even young children to exhibit a degree of self-control that no adult was expected to have 400 years ago. We expect children to sit quietly in school, to eat neatly with a fork and spoon, to carefully wipe and wash themselves after going to the bathroom.

If you were to be transported back to the Middle Ages, you would be startled by how uncivilized most people were. During the Middle Ages, members of royal courts had very elementary standards of manners. There were no forks or spoons; instead, people ate with their fingers or with their knives. There were also no plates; instead, people dipped their greasy paws into a common dish. Nor were there cups. Everyone, from the king and queen down, drank out of a common goblet.

During the early 1500s, however, standards of etiquette began to rise. The first book of manners appeared in 1526. By our standards the advice was primitive. People could eat with their fingers, but they should only use three fingers, not their whole hand. You should wipe your spoon before passing it to a neighbor. You shouldn't drink when your mouth is full, lick the dish, blow your nose on the table cloth, or put half-eaten food back on your plate. One should not fart loudly but instead cough gently so as to conceal the sound.

The author of the first advice book was the famous Renaissance humanist Erasmus, and he had a much higher threshold of shame than ours is today. He felt no inhibitions about discussing matters that would become too delicate to mention, for example, that there should be no snot on the nostrils. Much of the advice is embarrassing to us today: "If you cannot swallow a piece of food, turn round discreetly and throw it somewhere." If you must urinate, you should stand against a wall, and face away from other people. When we read Erasmus, we enter societies where emotions were expressed more violently and directly, with fewer psychological inhibitions than we have today.

What we would find striking about the medieval world is that the invisible boundaries that separate people from one another had not yet been fully formed. There were no arm chairs or separate beds. Not until in the 17th and 18th centuries did such eating implements as the spoon, the fork, glasses, cups, saucers, and napkins appear. These implements enabled people to distance themselves from the eating process. They were now to avoid manual contact with food.

The history of manners measures a significant transformation in human feelings and attitudes. Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, a new emphasis was placed on delicacy and refinement. Delicacy was to be shown in many ways. It now became disgusting to serve large chunks of identifiable animal. It also became inappropriate to eat with a knife or with one's fingers. Similarly, it became unrefined not to sleep in pajamas or special nightclothes.

Or take our attitudes toward violence. In Paris in the 16th century, there was a public event that involved burning several dozen cats alive. The populace would assemble, solemn music was played, and the cats were placed on a scaffold. When the cats fell into the fire, the crowd cheered. Since the 17th century, however, the joy of killing and destruction was suppressed. Much of our experience of violence takes place vicariously, through popular culture and sports. Boxing, team sports, movies, and television allow us to fantasize about violence and channel our aggressive impulses. Yet our technology means that when our aggressive impulses are not repressed, we are much more likely to kill than our ancestors. Even the most violent American cities 150 years ago had only 2 to 4 murders a year.

One result of the development of modern manners was to distance people from their bodily functions. Spontaneous impulses were to be checked by new inhibitions. These inhibitions performed an essential social function. They distinguished the upper and middle classes from their social inferiors.

During the late 20th century there was been a revolt against the civilizing process. There has been a heightened emphasis on informality and permissiveness and a growing rejection of inhibition and shame. And yet, we shouldn't exaggerate this revolt. Today, we are much more obsessed than our ancestors with with personal hygiene. This is perhaps most evident in the New Puritanism, the new stress on restricting smoking and drinking.

While we think of ourselves as liberated, in fact we surround our behavior with all kinds of taboos. We condition children from birth to subject their instinctual life to strict control. We admonish them not to pick their noses or to speak with a full mouth or sprawl across the table. A child who fails to behave properly is labeled as immature. Psychologists diagnose such children as suffering from Attention Deficit disorder and prescribe ritalin or some other drug as a way to alter their behavior. In short, we have little tolerance for instinctual, impulsive forms of behavior. We regard this as sick or pathological.

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