Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature

Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature

Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature

Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature

Excerpt

Recent years have seen a shift in focus among early modern English and British social historians from the ‘demographic, economic and institutional’ aspects of every day life to the cultural values and mentalité of ‘communities’. An area of study receiving fresh attention is the courtesy literature of 1500–1800 which disseminated new codes of conduct. Mostly, research in this area has established that the preoccupation with manners is an eighteenth-century phenomenon. Social historians of this period have argued that an increasing emphasis on good manners is related to the development of a consumer society, or have found in this century’s conduct books a precursor to the bourgeois etiquette books of the nineteenth. This orientation towards the eighteenth century has inhibited debate about manners and sociability in the earlier period. Yet, as Norbert Elias reminds us in The Civilising Process (1939), and, more recently, Anna Bryson in From Courtesy to Civility (1998), the change in the advice on manners actually begins in the early sixteenth century, with treatises such as Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano, printed in 1528.

The new emphasis on cultural values has the potential to bring social historians into closer contact with literary critics. ‘Literary specialists’, Anna Bryson argues, have for some time ‘been offering a challenge to historians by showing much concern with the cultural codes, value systems and conflicts of value which underlie the productions of high culture’. In response, she urges her colleagues to recognise how an understanding ‘of the traffic between the two definitions of culture’ – culture both in the sense of ‘art’ and in the ‘broader and more anthropological sense of the ways in which a society or group orders and perceives itself – is ‘crucial in the study of the literature of manners’. However, I would argue that literary critics have yet to provide a sustained analysis of the relationship between literary form and manners: that is, a study of how the structuring of courtesy literature might both reflect and inform a particular apprehension of social and political interaction. For, though early modern literary critics have long . . .

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