Magazine article The Spectator

A 16th-Century Book on Manners Still Makes Sense Today

Magazine article The Spectator

A 16th-Century Book on Manners Still Makes Sense Today

Article excerpt

Can you imagine a male teenager today copying out, by hand and of his own choice, 110 rules about good manners? Yet that is exactly what the young George Washington did towards the middle of the 18th century. The particular set of maxims he chose to improve himself had a long history. They were first compiled in 1595 by French Jesuits who specialised in educating upperclass males. A translation appeared in England in 1640, on the eve of the Civil War, and went through innumerable editions and updatings. A copy fell into Washington's hands under the title The Rules of Civility. Not only did he copy them out, but he seems to have followed them, pretty well exactly, all his life. At all events he was always cited, in the early American republic, as a model of good manners and presidential dignity. It may be that the little book played a critical part in his success in guiding a revolutionary country through its first steps in self-government. A new edition of this text, with an introduction by the Washington scholar Richard Brookhiser (Free Press, $16), has now reached my hands. So, is it any use today?

The answer is, yes. It is true that much of the advice belongs to a ruder age, or at least one hopes so. Thus: `Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks etc. in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle, put your foot dextrously upon it.' There is a lot about not spitting, especially into the fire. Men spat a lot in the 18th century and Americans continued this disgusting habit until well into the l9th century -- it was one of the things Mrs Fanny Trollope in her Domestic Manners of the Americans condemned most severely. But if people no longer spit, they still do a lot of the things which the Rules of Civility forbid: 'Bedew no man's face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.' That is still good advice, as is: `Shift not yourself in sight of others nor gnaw your nails.'

The Rules also stress delicacy and modesty in physical habits: `Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half-drest.' And they make a point which the young, especially, need to note today: `When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.' A lot of the rules stress: `Keep your distance.' Moving too close to people, crowding them, was considered wrong. Never `lean on people' nor `look them full in the face', and try to `keep a full pace from them'. Again: `Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them, unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked.' Also: 'Look not nigh when another is writing a letter.' It was also forbidden to read in company or, if it was necessary, permission had to be secured. `Turn not your back on others' was another rule, and, `Jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes.' You must not shake your head, feet or legs, or `roll your eyes', or `lift one eyebrow higher than the other', and 'wry not the mouth ... Do not puff up the cheeks and loll not out the tongue.'

The idea seems to have been not to pull faces and to try to look fairly serious. Tony Blair, with his grins, would not have rated high marks. `Do not laugh too loud or too much'; `Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave'; `In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise or drum with your fingers or feet' - well said. …

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