This chapter will be concerned with table manners, those sets of codes and conventions, both written and unwritten, which govern the forms of social and physical conduct expected of us when we eat. In Debrett's Etiquette and Modern Manners, the most prominent text in the British market currently purporting to provide a definitive guide to the codes of etiquette, we find the following aphorism from a fifteenth-century book of manners:
In halle, in chamber, ore where thou gon,
Nurtur and good manners makyth man.
(Burch Donald, 1990:8)
Our status as human beings is confirmed, the aphorism suggests, through our display of 'good manners'. What is more, it is bound up with our social position (our upbringing or 'nurtur'). And while the word 'man' is arguably used in this context to refer to human beings generally, its gendered quality also raises questions about the relationship between gender and etiquette. The aphorism thus neatly identifies the principal concerns of this chapter. If systems of etiquette have come to function as an index of civilized behaviour, how have such systems arisen historically? Further, how have such systems responded to, or reaffirmed, distinctions around class and gender? We shall begin to explore these questions by turning to the work of two theorists, Mikhail Bakhtin and Norbert Elias, each of whom offers a theoretical account of the history of table manners. We will then consider the role and social function of table manners within contemporary society.
Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian cultural theorist whose work has been widely deployed within cultural studies, particularly his analysis of the