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A Civilizing Process

Though the Middle Ages in Europe witnessed the harnessing of knights to a code of chivalry and the flourishing of a romance troubadour culture demanding particular rules of conduct, it was the Renaissance that brought social codes and conventions to new heights of importance. Courts now served elites and sycophants as thriving centers of power, requiring the ability to fashion one's identity and climb the social ladder in a frequently precarious, if not treacherous, milieu. With the development of the printing press, courtesy books such as Giovanni della Casa's Il Galateo (1560) flourished to meet a growing demand, but it was Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528) that most brilliantly epitomized the rules by which the perfect courtier—urbane, witty, sporty, educated, and discrete—should live. In a world dependent upon networks of patronage and the dispensing of favors, right manners at the table or on the playing field were an essential aspect of self-projection along the trajectory of personal and professional advancement.

Manners preoccupied early modern intellectuals as well, most notably Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536), whose De civilitate morum puerilium (1530; On civility in boys) was one of the most influential and best-selling treatises of the sixteenth century. Underneath Erasmus' injunctions that boys not eat with their mouths open or cast sidelong glances at others were deeper issues concerning self-regulation and emerging notions of shame that centered upon the body. It was the sociologist and social historian Norbert Elias who most seminally examined this shift from the Middle Ages in individual self-restraint and bodily control and labeled it a "civilizing process"; according to Elias, the emergence in the early modern period of the state, with its monopoly over physical force and its growing social interdependencies, resulted in a transformation of human relationships and with it "corresponding changes in men's manners [and] in their personality structure, the provisional result of which is our form of 'civilized' conduct and sentiment." The theory, while not without its critics—who declared it Eurocentric, misrepresentative of history, or overly teleological—nevertheless witnessed from the 1970s onward a resurgence of interest among anthropologists and historians, who found in it a guiding framework in understanding the history of the body, power relations, social and gender relations, the history of private life, and the larger connection between historical currents and social and psychological processes.

Elias paid particular attention to the relationship between manners and the rise of the absolutist state, and certainly Louis XIV's seventeenth-century court at Versailles constituted another defining moment in the history of etiquette and the French notion of civilité. According to the court observer Saint-Simon, the king cast a watchful eye over his realm of co-opted noblemen, projecting his royal aura through material ostentation, expecting flattery even from his preachers, and spending equal time on cookery as on politics. Knowing "how to make the most of a word, a smile, even … a glance," Louis, by addressing another with some trifling remark, could cause "all eyes [to turn] on the person so honored," just as he could with equal frivolity "ruin … many men in all ranks of life." The emphasis on protocol and display and on competing for the king's favor also served to reinforce a larger centralization of power, since, as Saint-Simon puts it, the king "compelled his courtiers to live beyond their income, and gradually reduced them to depend on his bounty for means of subsistence."

As notable figures at court, women could also play a significant role in determining the tone of conduct that would prevail; the highly educated and needlepointing (though occasionally crude) Elizabeth I (1533–1603), for example, oversaw such well-bred, neochivalric luminaries as Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh. Women, however, were more frequently the intended audience for courtesy book writers, who sought to instill values of proper wifeliness, including compliance, modesty, and, according to one seventeenth-century English guidebook, protectiveness (or "extreme … tender[ness]") toward the husband's reputation. Civility in this respect represented the confluence of manners with morals as well as the assertion of social control and structures of domination—all of which would continue through the proliferating etiquette and domestic-life books of the nineteenth century.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEtiquette - A Civilizing Process, Manners In Modern Times, Bibliography