Manners makyth man was the motto of William Wykeham, a man who lived in the 14th century, and although that period isn’t a shining example of civilized behaviour, what with its beheadings, floggings, dungeons, brawls and general brutishness, his motto drew attention to a politer way to live.
Although people’s behaviour continued to be violent, it was at least accompanied by please and thank you, due to William. The aristocracy in particular began to abide by rules of etiquette and would often present a wonderfully formal banquet to the king, before stabbing him to death. And instead of a prisoner being told, “Get yer head on that block,” a much pleasanter, “If you could just lay your head down on that block, please,” made proceedings much more courteous.
By Victorian times genteel behaviour had got out of hand: people required an encyclopaedic knowledge of cutlery items and how to use them, not to mention knowing when and where certain garments should be worn and how often they should be changed. The slightest deviation from the social code could spell disaster. Decorum was everything. I include, below, an excerpt from the poem, “The Lady Languishes,” as an illustration.
The Lady Languishes (an excerpt)
While others trip the polka gay
She grips her throat in anguish,
And calls a footman to prepare
A couch on which to languish.
The party strikes a merry note,
The host is gaily feted,
While she in desperation seeks
Oil that is camphorated.
Ah! What pale lily gilds her cheek?
Her breathing rattles so!
Alas, she has no handkerchief
On which her nose to blow.
And out her dainty nostril drips
A liquid pale as water –
Her heart beats fast and so she grasps
Something she didn’t oughta.
The fine white tablecloth she takes,
And bows her head down close…
And thinking no one sees the sin,
She quickly wipes her nose.
Those of you familiar with the poem will know she is spotted committing the faux pas and is exiled from polite society for the rest of her days.
Today, thankfully, manners have moved on, and polite society is less burdened with dos and don’ts, but it is still useful to know a few basics to ensure smooth social interactions. And this is why my next series of articles will be a guide to modern etiquette.