Civility as a concept, or an ideal, didn’t take hold in England until the 16th century – when the national mood, insofar as we can speak of one, was a mixture of bravado and temerity. Eyeing the cultural achievements of France and Italy, and uneasily measuring themselves against the Romans and Greeks, early modern English thinkers worried that their customs, society and language were ruder and less polished than those of their Continental counterparts. The translator Thomas Hoby called for writers to translate important works in order to enrich their own language, so that ‘we alone of the worlde maye not bee styll counted barbarous in our tunge, as in time out of minde we have bene in our maners’. For Hoby and his contemporaries, civility could be a matter of the way people interacted, the ‘civil conversation’ prized by Stefano Guazzo, author of an influential book on manners and behaviour translated into English in the 1580s.
In this sense, civility was a Continental import: England’s readers, travellers and theorists were eager to follow the behavioural precepts already mastered by their neighbours. Translations of works such as Guazzo’s Civil Conversation (first published in 1574), Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo (1558) and Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528) were extremely popular in later 16th-century England. In the 17th century, the model of civility was increasingly France, with popular texts including Antoine de Courtin’s Rules of Civility, or Certain Ways of Deportment Observed in France, amongst All Persons of Quality, upon several occasions (translated in 1671). The literature on civility developed over time, offering new ways of handling awkward or challenging social situations. By the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu could write of the Duchess of Marlborough: ‘We continue to see one another, like two people that are resolved to hate with civility.’
Civil behaviour involved a mastery of both deference and superiority, the ability to please people across the social spectrum while maintaining one’s own status and dignity. ‘The definition of Civility may be thus understood,’ one 17th-century commentator wrote: ‘it is a science for the right understanding [of] our selves, and true instructing how to dispose all our words and actions in their proper and due places.’ It would ‘conciliate and procure the applause and affection of all sorts of people’. One could speak with a civil tongue, or in a language deemed civil (Italian was good; English was improving; Welsh was out). At least in theory, codes of civility helped people conduct debates about theological or political matters without descending into conflict. It was even possible – or so it was thought – to wage war in a civil manner. Civility, Keith Thomas argues, ‘could mean everyday politeness’, but it could also refer to ‘the most desirable condition of organised human society, what would come to be called “civilisation”, the opposite of barbarism’. This curiously elastic term came to occupy a central place in discussions about politics, religion, warfare, trade and empire. Somewhere between the Reformation and the Enlightenment it became central to English conceptions of their nation and its relation to the wider world. As Teresa Bejan showed in Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (2017), we moderns are still wrestling with the implications of these 17th-century debates.
For Thomas, when early modern people invoked civility, ‘they were implicitly articulating what it was that they valued about their own way of life’; to explore what they meant by it is ‘to probe their fundamental assumptions about how society should be organised and how life should be lived’. The language of civility (and its opposites: rudeness, savagery, barbarity) became a powerful tool for categorising people, places and practices. In Pursuit of Civility puts courtesy books and polite letters in conversation with archival records of bad behaviour, like that of the Jacobean villager who responded to his neighbours’ admonitions by ‘casting up his leg and laying his hand on his tail, making a mouth in a very contemptuous manner’.
In The Civilising Process, first published in 1939, the sociologist Norbert Elias argued that between the 13th and the 18th centuries an increasing repugnance was felt about certain bodily functions. Elias reckoned that attitudes to things like spitting, shitting or wiping one’s nose told a bigger story about changes in ‘affective structures’ and the emergence of the modern nation-state. In the 1630s, as Thomas mentions, George Herbert could write that ‘My friend may spit upon my curious floor’; by the end of the period, it was the spitting rather than the floor that would seem curious. Urination could still be public or semi-public, within limits. In the first decade of the 17th century, the English traveller Fynes Moryson noted with wonder that, in the presence chamber at Dublin Castle, ‘the wives of great men … make water as they stood talking with men … and … do openly the most secret necessities of the body.’ The transition to bodily inhibition took place quite slowly, however: Anthony Wood complained that when Charles II’s courtiers left Oxford, they also left ‘their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal-houses, cellars’.
True civility was the property of the city. ‘Since classical times,’ Thomas writes, ‘“rusticity” (rusticitas) and good manners had always been polar opposites, for civility was essentially urban, the ethic of civic communities.’ Speaking well was essential, and what were thought to be ‘correct’ varieties of English speech were ever more strictly defined. As civility came to seem more important – and, not coincidentally, as state formation progressed and authority was increasingly centralised – provincial speech came to be seen as rude, barbarous and uncivil. George Puttenham, author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), complained of the ‘strange accents or ill-shapen sounds, and false orthography’ of those from ‘uplandish villages and corners of the realm, where there was no resort but of poor, rustical or uncivil people’. Then as now, appeals to civility could be a means of silencing unwanted voices. Everyday language was a battleground: in the 17th century, Quakers refused to abide by the codes of speech that governed English society. They abhorred titles, insisted on addressing everyone with the informal ‘thou’ rather than the more formal ‘you’, and rejected ‘those flattering words, commonly called compliments’. Others tied themselves in knots with circumlocutions aimed at avoiding the use of elaborate civilities; Claudius Hollyband’s Italian Schoole-maister (1597) had one exasperated speaker exclaim: ‘Let us leave I pray such ceremonies unto Courtiers, for they become us not.’ These tussles were expressions of weightier questions of language, ritual and Englishness.
Civility could be communicated through language, but codes of behaviour were also written on the body. One reason dancing masters were so in demand in the 17th and 18th centuries was that they promised to teach deportment – the proper carriage of the body even after the music stopped. Some lapses from bodily decorum were permitted. Tears, for instance, might be acceptable – even from men – at moments of political rupture and calamity, or in the face of suffering: Sir Edward Coke, a Jacobean judge, ‘never pronounced a sentence of death without weeping’. The Quaker refusal to remove or doff hats as a sign of respect provoked intense opposition – though formal greetings could also be used in an uncivil manner. Thomas notes that in 1620, ‘Anne Lea, walking through Nantwich churchyard, passed Anne Lewis, a former servant whom she had dismissed; Anne acknowledged her by making “a curtsy in a scornful and deriding manner”.’
Anne Lewis’s churchyard performance encourages us to ask how civility was understood and enacted outside the wealthy, educated, male elite. Thomas argues persuasively that civility as a concept had meaning for people at all levels of the social scale. The English lower orders, he writes, ‘had their own codes of manners and civil behaviour. Some were derived from the teaching and example of their superiors. Some were a prudential response on the part of those dependent on the goodwill of others for their subsistence. Others stemmed from the demands imposed by life in small groups and communities.’ In spite of the scepticism of their betters – John Locke thought that ‘a middle-aged plough-man’ could ‘scarce ever be brought to the carriage … of a gentleman, though his body be as well proportioned, and his joints as supple’ – it’s clear to anyone who’s read the words of the ‘lesser sort’ that many were familiar with the language of civility and used it themselves. Thomas shows that labouring people defined ‘civility’ as ‘honesty, industry and sobriety’, giving the example of a Lancashire applicant for poor relief who described himself as having been ‘a very civil, painful and laborious workman’, someone who had ‘civilly demeaned himself against his neighbours’. It’s an argument that might have been pushed further: in recent years, the close attention paid by the historians Alexandra Shepard, Eleanor Hubbard and Amy Erickson, among others, to the ways people described themselves to authority figures has revealed much about the proletarian understanding of manners.
Civility was a different matter for women too. They learned to speak softly and how to act in company. As time went on, women’s company was increasingly thought to exercise ‘a softening and civilising influence’ on male manners. William Alexander argued in his History of Women (1779) that
the rank … and condition in which we find women in any country mark out to us with the greatest precision the exact point in the scale of civil society to which the people of such country have arrived; and were their history entirely silent on every other subject, and only mentioned the manner in which they treated their women, we would, from thence, be enabled to form a tolerable judgment of the barbarity or culture of their manners.
Pushing back against a notion of feminine civility that prized inoffensive accomplishments, Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, complained in 1664 that women of her class were taught ‘only to dance, sing and fiddle, to write complimental letters, to read romances, to speak some language that is not their native: which education is an education of the body, and not of the mind’.
Some bodies were thought to be innately uncivil. The traveller John Ledyard thought that there were ‘few uncivilised people who were not brown or black’. Civility held sway at a moment in European history when categories of racial difference were being invented. Distinctions between the civil and the savage or barbarous were made from the moment European encounters with the Americas began, and they underpinned imperial structures of thought. In an expanding English world, civility was rapidly weaponised as a colonial concept. Indigenous peoples were labelled primitive or cruel – myopically, many English writers maintained that no nation could be called civil while it practised acts of cruelty. The American Declaration of Independence accused George III of having recruited help from ‘merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions’. Some argued that Native Americans had their own codes of civility: Roger Williams wrote that the Algonquian people with whom he had lived were ‘of two sorts (as the English are)’, some ‘rude and clownish’, but most having ‘a savour of civility and courtesy … both amongst themselves and towards strangers’. Having learned English and converted to Christianity, the woman known as Pocahontas was deemed to have become ‘very formal and civil, after our English manner’. But most believed that indigenous peoples were resistant to civility.
The English, it was increasingly agreed, should be congratulated for their ascent to civility: ‘Implicit in the notion of civility was a model of social development, the process of becoming civil, of being “civilised” … Civilised peoples were assumed to have a history in a way that barbarians did not.’ Edmund Spenser – who advocated ethnic cleansing in Ireland – wrote that Anglo-Saxon Britain had been ‘very like to Ireland as it now stands’. England owed its high position on the historical escalator to a range of factors. The establishment of towns and cities had helped polish a formerly savage people, but much of the credit was due to the civilising power of trade. And if it had worked for the English, why not for others? The Elizabethan merchant adventurer and colonial cheerleader George Peckham wrote that ‘savages’, ‘so soon as they shall begin but a little to taste of civility will take marvellous delight in any garment, be it never so simple, as a shirt, a blue, yellow, red or green cotton cassock, a cap or such-like, and will take incredible pains for such a trifle’. Daniel Defoe agreed that other nations might be taught ‘clothing with decency, not shameless and naked; feeding with humanity, and not in a manner brutal; dwelling in towns and cities, with economy and government, and not like savages’. But these changes might take generations: better, some thought – English planters in the West Indies among them – to wipe out the ‘barbarous savages’ who stood in the way of their economic ambitions. Thomas shows the way the language of civility was used to justify slavery: some considered slavery as ‘a necessary civilising stage through which barbarians had to pass’. ‘Paradoxically,’ Thomas writes, ‘the English were deeply involved in the slave trade at a time when their enthusiasm for personal liberty had never been greater.’ Whether this is really a paradox might depend on what you understand English liberty to mean.
In Pursuit of Civility is vintage Thomas in its prodigious range of reference. He reads like an early modern reader, a writing implement – and sometimes a blade – in hand. A few years ago, he described his methods of research in the LRB (10 June 2010):
When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors … These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic … I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.
When a fat envelope is disgorged, ‘a pattern usually forms.’ Themes emerge, ideas are refined, and out of the envelopes come whole books and essays (a favourite essay of mine, and of my students, is a short disquisition on the fart in 17th-century England). ‘I still get cross when reviewers say that all that I have done is to tip my index cards onto the page,’ Thomas writes, and he has reason to be cross. He practises a kind of argument by accumulation, a method which made Religion and the Decline of Magic a classic that endures for academics as well as the general public nearly five decades after its original publication. It’s not a fashionable way of doing history, and nowadays it can draw sneers, though when done well – for instance, in Adam Fox’s Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (2002) – it can pose a whole set of new questions and set a research agenda in a way that more tightly defined studies can’t. Hilary Mantel wrote of Religion and the Decline of Magic that ‘the author has no grand thesis to sell us. The joy of his dry and witty book is in its accumulation of fine detail, and also in its broad humanity.’ In Thomas’s latest, the same effect is in evidence.
In Pursuit of Civility also shows some of the shortcomings of the Thomas method. Most noticeable is that, leaping across centuries in its treatment of individual themes, it risks obscuring or eliding change over time. Thomas pays due tribute to Anna Bryson’s From Courtesy to Civility (1998), describing it as ‘a work so nuanced and assured as to deter anyone from attempting to follow in her footsteps’. Bryson’s book offers a challenge to Norbert Elias’s ‘civilising process’ thesis, and is so effective in large part because she is critically sensitive to shifts in the languages of courtesy and civility across the early modern period. This sensitivity is less apparent in Thomas’s broad-brush telling. One area where this becomes clear is in his use of the terms ‘polite’ and ‘politeness’. Historians have paid close attention to the development of a language and ideology of ‘politeness’ in the later 17th and early 18th century, carefully tracing its links to England’s changing political situation between the rise of party politics and the event known to some as the Glorious Revolution. Gentlemen – particularly city-dwelling Whigs – were central to the development of a new, exclusive kind of sociability and behaviour that reflected England’s altered and still shifting politics. ‘Politeness’ could simply mean good manners, but it was also a term (and a form of behaviour) that could speak volumes about political allegiance. Thomas does discuss politeness as ‘a form of social distinction and self-advertisement’, as well as the late 17th-century ‘ethic of urbane sociability’, which ‘stood for what was smooth and polished, conducive to social harmony and supportive of the established order’. But as presented here it’s a politeness with the politics taken out – an adjunct or corollary of civility, an aesthetic rather than an ethic of behaviour. In Pursuit of Civility tracks the codes that governed social behaviour in early modern England, but privileges the static over the dynamic.
Civility gives us a language in which to talk about eating with a knife and fork as well as about keeping our cool in a debate. We can deploy it when calling for calm, but also to shut down voices deemed too loud or unruly. Civility had this flexibility for early modern people too. Thomas accepts that their uses of words like ‘civil’ and ‘barbarous’ were essentially rhetorical, ‘carrying a high emotional charge, but distinctly protean and often lacking any universally agreed content. They were used polemically to justify or to oppose some particular attitude or course of action, and their meaning shifted over time and varied according to the context.’ Civility took on many meanings: it was used to call for better behaviour, promote the ‘civilising’ of the wild Irish or American ‘savages’ and to fight ‘our uncivil, civil wars’. Whatever it meant, civility became the foundation for ‘civilisation’, the process and the product. As Thomas Smith wrote in A Discourse of the Commonweal (1581), ‘among all nations of the world, they that be politic and civil do master the rest.’