Manners and the 21st Century

Manners Are Taught

Many people today will claim that manners are a thing of the past. With few families sitting down together for meals are manners a lost cause?

The use of good manners started as a way to express the honor of eating with the host. At one time in history, manners were considered a way to distinguish between educated and uneducated people. With the 21st century and the rise in fast –food restaurants manners have gone the way of dinosaurs. It is easy to pinpoint when etiquette started its fade out but how did culture introduce the need for manners?

Prehistoric man with the need for survival probably did not expend much energy on manners. But around 9000 B.C., as early man evolved from hunter to farmer, a need for table manners appeared to come into play. This was especially apparent when food became plentiful and was shared communally.

The Instructions of Ptahhotep

The first code of correct behavior based on historical evidence is The Instructions of Ptahhotep. It was written about 2500 B.C. and now resides in a Paris antiquities collection. The document, known as “Prisse papyrus” is where the term “prissy” originates. This paper precedes the Bible by two thousand years.

The papyrus includes several different etiquette lessons. Many references dictate refraining from talking and “laughing when the host laughs”. By the time the Bible was assembled the instructions in the Ptahhotep were well circulated. Many religious scholars can point to strong echoes of “The Instructions” throughout the Bible especially in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, especially regarding the preparation and eating of food.

As barbarian tribes from the north raided and sacked the civilized worlds of Southern Europe manners were the last thing on people’s minds. After this time formal codes of civility fell into disuse for hundreds of years. It was the popularity of the Crusades from the eleventh-century that reawakened an interest in manners and etiquette. The prestige of knighthood and chivalry brought the need of good manners to the attention of the masses.

Bizarre Manner Traditions

This rebirth of strict codes is historically documented by etiquette books that began showing up in thirteenth-century Europe. As the upper class expanded and more people had access to court, knowing how to behave became important.

Some of the early books from this time that gave advice for good manners come across as bizarre, if read now. However it is important to realize that if people were being warned against it , the action was probably the norm. Some laughable examples are:

13th Century: “A number of people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish- this is a serious offense.”

“Do not spit over or on the table in the manner of hunters.’

14th century: “You should not poke your teeth with your knife, as some do; it is a bad habit.”

“I hear that some eat unwashed. May their fingers be palsied”

15th Century

“Do not put back on your plate what has been in your mouth.”

“It is bad manners to dip food into the salt.”

Many of the books of this time gave much advice on the proper way of blowing ones’ nose. Tissue had not been invented and handkerchiefs were not very popular. Blowing into the tablecloth or coat sleeve was frowned upon and the accepted practice was blowing into the fingers.

Thomas Jefferson and the Loss of Manners

While many historians agree that this century has seen the decline of table manners, many others can document the deterioration of formal manners to ironically Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson had a great hatred of false civility and a love of equality. While Thomas, himself, had impeccable manners himself, he would often downplay them. During his presidency he tried several time to ease the rules of protocol in the capital because he felt they imposed artificial distinctions among people.

In 1530 a book was published that is credited with ushering manners out of an age of coarseness and into one of refinement. The author was Erasmus of Rotterdam (Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536) a Christian philosopher and educator. His book was how to instill manners in young people. His book entitled “On Civility in Children.” Was reprinted into the eighteenth century and spawned a multitude of translations, imitations, and sequels. It was a schoolbook used in classrooms throughout Europe.

The name most associated with manners in America is Emily Post. In 1922 Emily Post published her first book entitled, “Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage.”

The book zoomed to the top of the nonfiction best-seller list. So many people read the book that it was common to hear people questioning “What would Emily Post say?” The Emily Post Institute is still available today for answers to etiquette questions.

While manners seem to be on the decline it is important to realize they still give people a sense of class and dignity and are appreciated by people of all ages.