Table Manners Politeness, a 19th century moving depiction of an 18th century couple bowing and curtsying. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Manners: What Are They?

And how do we mind them?


“Mind your manners!” This used to be a familiar reprimand. If encountered today, would the reprimanded know exactly what it is they are expected to mind? Manners: what are they? How do you mind them? A link might justifiably be made, by even the contemporary clueless, between manners and behavior. Something I am doing is not appreciated, even wrong. But to what that arcane reference is made may no longer exist. What is my transgression? Perhaps it is not as bad as all that. In the end the proper answer to “Manners, what are they?” may be “If you have to ask…”

Manners, let’s establish right off, are not mannerisms. Mannerisms are exaggerated, even precious, gestures and behavior. These might prove more recognizable today than manners. Some may even think that observing certain rules of manners may indeed fit the definition of mannerisms — exaggerated gestures.

Also worth bringing into the discussion is that Mannerism, in art, is a historical period generally accepted to have begun during the late high Renaissance, ending with the emergence of the Baroque style that dates from the end of the 16th century. The term comes from the Italian manierismo (from maniera, meaning manner or style).

Mannerist art is characterized by an artificiality, a self-conscious or self-referential cultivation of elegance and technical facility, and by an occasional indulgence that, at least to contemporary observation, bordered on the bizarre. The figures in Mannerist works frequently have graceful but elongated limbs, compressed heads, and stylized facial features, and might be posed in difficult, contrived, uncomfortable configurations.

This was a departure, a distortion of the strict perspective, of the precise accuracy of their historical predecessors. Mannerists sought to diminish, to obscure the figural aspects into decorative arrangements of forms presented against flattened backgrounds of indeterminate spatial dimensions.

This digression is worth the excursion if we draw a parallel between manners as they evolved and Mannerism. Manners and Mannerism both seek to draw attention in a self-conscious way to the endowed or skilled possessor. Manners and Mannerism are born of artificiality: an artificiality that does not wish to pass as a part of a pre-existing organic whole, but as a deliberate application of strictures and structures outside of the currently accepted expectation. It is not too far a stretch (pardon the expression) to consider the distortions of the Mannerists as a metaphor for the contortions that manners may occasionally require.

Manners were (and are) like most things an invention, one with an evolving sense of protocol in an evolving civilization (Western European for our purposes). Manners, as they evolved, may be thought of as the rules of civility.


From Our deportment; or, The manners, conduct and dress of the most refined society; including forms for letters, invitations, etc., etc. Also, valuable suggestions on home culture and training (1885) by John H. Young (via Wikimedia Commons)

It is a fortunate coincidence then that Baldassare Castiglione began writing The Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano) in 1508 and saw it published in 1528, just prior to his demise. A Spanish edition was published in 1534, French in 1537 and in English in 1561 and was enormously influential from those Renaissance days to these. The Book of the Courtier is written as a dialogue, a popular form of the day, that included conversation, drama, essay, and philosophy — in short, an opportunity for a facile thinker and writer to display his formidable abilities. It also presented an opportunity for Castiglione (who was a member of the court of the Duke of Urbino) to provide a picture of that moment in time as well as to offer a guide to courtly behavior.

A successful member of the Renaissance court, as described in The Book of the Courtier, should exhibit a calm, reasonable mind, have a trained voice (“sonorous, clear, sweet and well sounding”), be a skilled orator with a range of elegant words — words beautiful and brave. The successful courtier, it goes on, will exhibit proper bearing and impeccable gestures and manners. The courtier should also possess a warrior spirit, be athletic, and yet also have a complete knowledge of the humanities and of the classics (so fundamental to the essence of the Renaissance), and be an appreciator of the diversity of the fine arts. A very tall order. The book is divided into four evenings of discussions between members of court as they attempt to describe the perfect gentleman. In the process they discourse on the nature of nobility, on humor, on women (of course), and on love (without doubt).

The most significant attribute of the courtier, that which on all else depends, is what in Italian is called sprezzatura. A term of such significance is not the easiest to define. Cultural historian Peter Burke describes sprezzatura in The Fortunes of the Courtier as “nonchalance,” “careful negligence,” “effortless and ease” (Burke 1996). The ideal courtier is someone who “conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought.” A fully realized courtier must be able to accomplish the long list of requirements and simultaneously maintain an attitude of nonchalance.

The would-be courtier is encouraged to develop and engage in sprezzatura, in all activities, as a way of life. In Book I, it is admitted, “Accordingly we may affirm that to be true art is what does not appear to be art; nor to anything must we give greater care than to conceal art, for if it is discovered, it quite destroys our credit and brings us into small esteem.” (Castiglione 1.26). Being, not seeing.

Manners then should be so completely inculcated into one’s being, so deeply absorbed, that they do not call attention to themselves. This is not in contradiction to the manners/Mannerism association. Sprezzatura; an enhanced reality.


The opposite of sprezzatura. By Karen via Flickr (Creative Commons)

There were “manuals” for behavior that preceded Castiglione. In 1265, Brunetto Latini, Dante’s guardian and teacher, published Tesoretto. The Babees Booke: Medieval Manners for The Young, an aggregation of treatises compiled by Frederick James Furnivall, came out in 1908, translated from Middle English. As with The Courtier, these were treatises meant for the upper classes, mostly written for boys, and were full of fundamental modes, methods, and expectations.

Perhaps the best known was published in 1530, by Disederius Erasmus. De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus, written for an 11-year-old of noble birth, but addressed to “all young people.” How to do the right thing in a variety of circumstances had everything to do with projecting the proper image through behavior. Sections from The Eyes, The Nose, The Face, Private Parts, Behavior in Church, Table Manners, and The Bedroom are included. As one may surmise there were more notable don’ts than dos: Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve, don’t bray when you laugh, turn away from others when you sneeze, bless others when they sneeze (since the time of the ancient Greeks a sneeze was thought to be ominous), do cough to cover a fart (he does not address the lingering malodorous evidence). Facial expressions, speech punctuated by coughing, and stroking one’s face when speaking all put Erasmus in the forefront of nonverbal communication. He imparted worthy advice useful even today: “If a friend does something wrong without realizing it, and it seems important, then it is polite to inform him of it gently, and in private” (A Handbook of Good Manners for Children). “Young bodies are like tender plants,” claimed the Dutch Renaissance Humanist and theologian, “which grow and become hardened into whatever shape you’ve trained them.” Interestingly, Erasmus also takes to task some courtiers, “who think everything they do is charming.”


Company shocked at a lady getting up to ring the bell by James Gillray. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division (via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a good time to introduce the concept of “polite.” That “polite” and “courteous” are often co-joined and are part of courtly behavior is not without interest. The adjective, courteous, is from the Old French curteis: having courtly bearing (and all that implies). Polite and the loan word politesse also derive from Old French, meaning cleanness; in a polished state. They got it from the Italian politezza, or smooth; polished, which is from the Latin polire: the verb to polish. The earliest documented use of politesse in English is in 1683 — right on time. Seems like the usual progression. What is considered polite and courteous has everything to manners and etiquette. How, and by whom this polished state is achieved is linked to their social ranking — often an accident of birth.

William Godwin, father of Mary (Godwin) Shelly, may have been on to something when he wrote in 1797 that manners were exclusionary, an artificial construct (what isn’t) meant “to stand between the heart and the external behavior.” The minister and utilitarian political philosopher contended that they were “a set of rules, founded in no just reason, and practiced by those who are familiar with them” to keep at a distance those who because of an “accident of birth or fortune are ignorant of them” (Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature). Pierre Bourdieu, 190 years later, would consider these as part of “the rules of the game” in his concept of Habitus. Manners, knowing them or not, can inexorably define one’s social status. Not knowing them can easily isolate one to a limited, confining, social strata.

Manners and mannerisms may be close relatives. Both, in essence, are artificial representations of the human condition. Both distort reality, often along socially distinct lines. Both are intent on communication. In whatever era they occur, manners (and etiquette) are an essential two-way communication. The display of a gesture, a behavior, a signal by one, and the clear understanding by a receiver is a mutual contract. A social contract.

Because manners, and their popular subset etiquette, are fluid and evolving, some long-lived conventions are still with us and some are lost, some irrelevant, and some useless. Others, however, persist, although are not universally employed. Of the barely surviving manners the most often recognized (or not) are table manners. Table manners are the first that come to mind when etiquette is spoken of, and the first when the reprimand is annunciated — mind your manners.

We will take up the intricacies of etiquette in part two. •


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