In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England, by Keith Thomas

Codes that define appropriate human interaction make it possible for people to live together peacefully, observes Ann Hughes

July 12, 2018
Source: Getty
Habits of good manners sought to legitimate hierarchies of social status, age and gender

Reviewing a book on good manners might present a dilemma. As Keith Thomas remarks, civilised social interaction often demands that one is “civilly false” rather than “rudely honest”. Luckily, there is much scope for honest praise in this learned, humane and wide-ranging book, based on a lifetime’s reading in both early modern sources and recent scholarship on English social and cultural history.

From a discussion of the ideal conduct of elite Englishmen between the early 16th and the later 18th centuries, Thomas moves on to discuss broader conceptions of civilised society and definitions of “civilisation” itself. This is no trivial or superficial theme. Thomas insists that “manners” – codes that define appropriate human interaction – are found in all societies, although their specific content varies over time and between different peoples; “civility” makes it possible for people to live peaceably together.

Particular understandings of politeness and civilisation tend to be presented as universal, but Thomas demonstrates that how elite men deported themselves – in their speech, gestures and control of bodily functions – marked them out from their rougher, poorer fellows; consequently, prevailing habits of good manners sought to legitimate hierarchies of social status, age and gender. Similarly, the dominant definitions of civilised polities were essentially idealised versions of 18th-century England, with its free and enterprising people inhabiting a state ruled by law. Thomas’ focus on England is located within broad chronological and geographical frameworks. He dissents from Norbert Elias’ argument for a dramatic transformation through an early modern “civilising process”, offering instead a complex, extended process of change, with its origins in the distinction that the Greeks made between themselves and “barbarians”, and he has perceptive points to make about more recent understandings of good manners.

English notions of civility drew on continental humanists and philosophers, and the Scot David Hume is most frequently quoted, but Thomas stresses the malign external impact of such conceptions. Definitions of manners and civilisation depend on “the innate human disposition to see the world in terms of binary opposites”, so English civility was first constructed against the closest “others”, the Welsh, and especially the Irish, dismissed as uncivilised. A “civilising mission” helped to justify racial hierarchies and the expropriation of peoples who were not included within prevailing definitions of civility.

Despite perceptive sections on women and manners, this is overwhelmingly an account of masculine ideals and practices, and also unashamedly secular, with religion, particularly in its more zealous or enthusiastic forms, seen mostly as a challenge to civility. There are discussions of alternative and dissenting versions of English civility, plebeian, provincial and religious, as well as of opposition to English colonial enterprises and sympathetic attitudes to non-European peoples. We occasionally read that people from “the Islamic world” found the supposedly civilised English filthy and sexually incontinent, but in the main, and inevitably, this is an account of English and Western European views. Thomas’ overall judgements are complex and subtle, and ultimately, I think, optimistic. He refuses to dismiss “manners” as simply self-interested or disingenuous attempts to serve particular interests. Having fully acknowledged the drawbacks, he concludes that a positive vision emerged in the early modern period, of people living together with “restraint, tolerance and mutual understanding”.

Ann Hughes is professor of early modern history, emerita, at Keele University.

In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England
By Keith Thomas
Yale University Press
480pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300235777
Published 12 June 2018

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