Food Facts & Lore, Table Manners

Mind Your Manners

Manners: a person’s way of behaving toward others, well-bred social behavior.

Time and again, scholars and lovers of good conversation have debated the idea of manners over a good, long meal. Virtue and reverence may have been subtitles to these philosophical explorations. Can one have manners without virtue and reverence? If virtue and reverence are innate, can we assume that manners are as well? Clearly, they are not. So, when did we learn good manners?

Pull up a chair, we’re going to take a brief look at the origin of manners, long before the proverbial, “Don’t put your elbows on the table.”

Sociologists observe that the promotion of rules of good conduct played a defining role in establishing social order and reducing violence in ever more crowded cities. On a more personal level, manners distinguished social classes, singling out the privileged over everyone else. To have good manners was a sign of good breeding.

And this is where our dinner time scholar friends may diverge in their views, one group arguing that manners are learned and therefor more likely in the homes of high-standing citizens, while the other may point out that reverence, which can naturally lead to good manners, is innate in people of all classes. “However,” points out Lord Henry between two bites, “a man of good breeding can show proper manners by standing to greet his host, and then sit down and slurp his soup.” Everyone laughs in agreement and this, of course, maintains the civility of the conversation.

Manners as we understand the term today, as a set of rules of conduct everyone understands to be civil, kind and respectful even if they choose to disregard said rules, date back to 11th-century Europe, a time when life as a king’s courtier became infused with romanticism, damsels and knights in shining armor. Most of the tales of the court we recount today are myths, but the society and values they depict are real.

In fact, the idea of courtesy (you can see the derivation) predates the concept of good manners even as it encouraged similar values and ideas. It did not go as far as the table though. This setting remained rather uncivilized for a few more centuries.

By the 17th century, one could not attend court ceremonies without an admission ticket. Each of these listed the proper rules of conduct for securing and preserving one’s privilege. And this is how the word “etiquette” came to refer to one’s social conduct.

Good manners are said to have caused a veritable cultural revolution, one that began about a century prior to courtiers and admission tickets. Italy is at the center of this revolution, marking the shift by recording a clear concern for social behavior in the form of a book on manners published in 1558. In one passage, it states, “One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public… The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others…” (Giovanni della Casa, Galateo).

Rules of good manner were rather extravagant at first. The focus on “smaller niceties” of the table appear in the 18th century, at the same time as the use of cutlery (as opposed to eating with ones’ hands and hunting knife) enters everyday life. New dishes were invented, along with the proper way of serving and consuming them.

Our novels and television fictions lead us to believe that women were the great influencers of the good manners movement. In Europe, where the “manners movement” begins, men were the instigators, more specifically those wealthy enough to be known as “gentlemen of leisure.” This makes perfect sense once we consider the rather different circumstances in early America. Here, men were fully engaged in building their new nation. Here, women were the source of wisdom and guidance in manners of good conduct.

There is one exception and it is worthy of notice. It would seem that our first President, George Washington, had an innate inclination to set forth a personal constitution. At the age of 16, he recorded no fewer than 110 rules in a document titled, “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”

Curious? Read George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation HERE.