Come! Enter a banquet hall of the early Middle Ages and sit down to enjoy some dinner. At one end of the table is a whole spit-roasted pig, which seems to be looking at you funny. At the other end are a few game birds, their feathers still intact. Your dining companions sniff at the platters and snort in approval.
The host carves up the meat and passes it down. Each man holds a knife (his only utensil) in one hand and grabs a piece of meat with his other, stuffing it in his face and chewing with his mouth open. After gnawing and sampling the piece for a bit, if he doesn’t find it to his liking, he returns the cut to the platter for someone else to try.
Soup is passed around in a communal bowl, and you can either drink it right from the vessel or use the single spoon available to slurp it up. A communal goblet of wine is also passed around which you’re welcome to sip on when it’s your turn.
The dining companion on your right occasionally pauses from eating and passing you food to blow his nose in his fingers and wipe his greasy, snotty hands on his shirt. The man to your left periodically spits across the table. The hall is filled with many noises — not only the snorting, slurping, spitting, blowing, and chewing — but also the sound of numerous and uninhibited belches and farts.
Bones and gristle are tossed on the floor, which has been covered in clay and a layer of rush plants. The rushes are supposed to be changed out regularly, but most, like this host, don’t keep up with it and mixed into the plants are a fine patina of food scraps, vomit, spit, and dog urine. Human urine is scattered here and there as well — the host prefers you’d do your business outside the hall, but it’s not a big deal to relieve yourself in a dark corner.
In the modern day, we’re apt to see such a scene as a little embarrassing if not objectively disgusting.
By why exactly? What changed over the centuries in the West to make eating like that unthinkable?
You might initially think it has to do with a greater understanding of hygiene. But table manners began changing even during the Middle Ages, and much of what we consider modern dining etiquette was established by the time of the Renaissance — well before the connection between germs and disease was really understood. Indeed, hygiene would not be forwarded as a rationale for table manners until the 18th century; by then it was simply used as a retrospective justification that bolstered the validity of a set of already adopted manners.
If one actually thinks about how we dine in the modern age, much of the hygiene argument falls apart; even though we eat most solid foods like meat with a fork, we still grab other foods, like rolls, with our fingers. Had table manners developed primarily to cut down on the exchange of germs, we’d be hitting our cupcakes with a knife and fork and eating tortilla chips with tiny tongs.
The truth is that we now simply find things like grabbing meat with your hands, or chewing with your mouth open or farting at the table, distasteful. Such behaviors feel gross to you and look gross to other people.
And the question again is why. Why do we find certain things gross that our medieval counterparts didn’t bat an eye at?
What was it that created what sociologist Norbert Elias called “an advance in the threshold of repugnance and the frontier of shame”?
You’ve likely never stopped to think about it — it seems like an inevitability that manners would become more refined as a society advanced economically, scientifically, and politically.
Yet the development of manners wasn’t simply a byproduct of these advancements but was, in fact, an essential and necessary prerequisite to them.
In many ways, manners made the world.
As roaming, armed bands conquered more fiefdoms, consolidated their territory, and settled in to rule their holdings, the power came to reside in the courts of kings and local magnates. Warriors became courtiers, and status was earned less through physical combat than the shrewd navigation of the court’s social landscape. Words took the place of weapons, as the nobility sought to curry the king’s favor, form alliances, ward off would-be rivals, and rise in the royal household.
Doing so demanded a new kind of orientation to the world and to others; the courts could be full of intrigues, backstabbing, and cutthroat manipulations, and a courtier needed to closely monitor his own behavior and the behavior of others, interpreting people’s motives and anticipating the consequences of making certain moves. He had to maintain constant awareness of his status relative to others — whether he was up or down, what his fellow nobles thought of him, and how much influence he did or did not have. A single misstep — saying the wrong thing, giving the wrong look, allying with the wrong person — could bring down his value. A courtier had to be sensitive to the needs and inclinations of others and careful to react properly and not offend; deft social conduct was his greatest asset.
It is from aristocratic court life that we get the pithy, surprisingly modern maxims on behavior offered by French nobleman Francois de la Rochefoucauld and the Jesuit priest Baltasar Gracian. It’s also where we get our word courtesy — which basically meant “the manners of the court” or “how to behave at court.”
Courtesy was not only a code of behavior that helped the landed aristocracy gain and maintain status and influence, it was a way of distinguishing their whole class from the bourgeoisie and the peasants below them. Nobility, who didn’t have to work to earn a living, had the time to refine their taste and manners, and the way they talked, walked, dressed, and ate, separated them as the elite and gave them a special identity. Their refinement set them apart from all that was “vulgar” — i.e., common. (continue reading)