From Courtesy to Urbanity in Late Medieval England

By Foster, Michael | Parergon, January 2012 | Go to article overview

From Courtesy to Urbanity in Late Medieval England

Foster, Michael, Parergon

The medieval courtesy book is most immediately recognizable as the precursor to modern books on etiquette and self-improvement, (1) yet its impact on our society goes much deeper: the principle of 'common courtesy' often found in Western cultures is now a quotidian manifestation of a medieval ethos that has developed over centuries. While its roots are widely recognized, the similarities between medieval courtesy and modern common courtesy have been under-appreciated because medieval courtly codes of conduct are associated with a noble class that is largely anachronistic today. However, both courtesies of the medieval and modern worlds are similarly expressions of social relationships and performances of an individual's sociocultural and socioeconomic identity. In this article, I would like, firstly, to argue that the use of courtesy to perform and determine one's socioeconomic identity dominated the Middle English courtesy poems of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It did so by examining an attitude commonly found in these texts: namely, that manners, although associated with the nobility, were available to people of non-noble social classes as a means of social mobility and advancement. Secondly, I would like to argue that this spread of courtesy from royal and noble courts to the middle classes in fifteenth-century England is a consequence of the country's increasingly urban nature, as cities and large towns became cultural centres in their own right.

The paradox of courtesy poetry outside the courts is both a result of and a response to the quickly shifting class identities of the period. As Kathleen M. Ashley notes, aristocrats of the middle ages used courtly codes 'to maintain social identities at a time of blurring boundaries between upper and "middle" classes'; at the same time, 'the wealthy bourgeoisie and other upwardly mobile groups subverted the boundaries as they increasingly adopted aristocratic codes to define their new sense of worth and place in medieval society'. (2) The practice of courtesy was adopted by aristocratic and middle classes to define their own class identities, even as those identities were oftentimes at odds with one another and overlapping. To make matters more complicated, the lower gentry class, often business owners in their own right, found themselves faced with both the need to assert their new worth in the growing capital marketplace and their traditional noble status as earls, dukes, barons, and knights. Distinctions between these social classes are at best confusing and at worst meaningless, because of the frequency of newly acquired knighthoods and titular endowments, as well as mercantile investments among the nobility, land investments among the emerging middle classes, and intermarriage between the gentry and untitled wealthy. (3)

It is thus no surprise that many courtesy poems fail to distinguish between these social classes. Instead, they relied upon a much clearer class distinction that has gone ignored in modern studies of medieval courtesy poetry: the contrast between middle and noble classes in urban spaces on the one hand and the agrarian poor on the other. The lack of acculturation of the agrarian poor rendered them an undesirable subculture to anyone with money or status in late medieval England. This attitude was ingrained in the indefinable medieval demographic of children and young adults who were targeted by courtesy poetry. (4) The didacticism of class-consciousness in these texts demonstrates courtesy writers' contempt for the agrarian classes and their reliance on this contempt when addressing younger readers. At the same time, the courtesy poems encourage readers to see literature and courtesy as class markers that are both socioeconomically liminal and intensely interrelated. (5)

To understand the shift in emphasis from court to city in medieval courtesy poetry we need first to recognize that these texts were read at almost all levels of English society throughout the fifteenth century. …

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