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

In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas
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One evening in 1665, while sleeping at a friend’s house, Samuel Pepys was “mightily troubled by a looseness”. The diarist reached for the chamber pot, but couldn’t find one. “So,” he recorded, “I was forced in this strange house to rise and shit in the chimney twice.” Today, we often complain that manners are in decline, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Nonetheless, it would “be a brave guest who tested his host’s tolerance by defecating in the hearth”. But as Keith Thomas points out in this “hugely rich and impressive” study of civility, Pepys’s actions weren’t unusual by the standards of his own day: early modern England was a place in which people gave little thought to where, and in front of whom, they relieved themselves. In Pursuit of Civility is an account of how this gradually changed. In its pages, “one of Britain’s greatest living historians” explores how, between about 1500 and 1800, the English developed an elaborate code of manners that culminated in the prim propriety of the Victorian era.

The rise of manners was driven by various factors, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. One was the “advent of Protestantism”, which laid greater stress than Catholicism on individual godliness. Another was the printing press, which “made it possible to disseminate the new mores”. (Between 1690 and 1760, around 500 self-help manuals on manners were published.) Civility was partly a question of politeness in speech, dress, comportment and so on, said Emily Jones in the FT. But it also encompassed whole societies. Ideas about what made a “civilised” community – and a “barbarous” one – were applied to new peoples and cultures encountered across the globe. “How, for example, did the native Americans treat women?” Did they have a system of laws? How did they conduct warfare?

When applied at home, the new rules provided a means for those at the top to protect their privilege, while enabling those below them to advance their status, said Philip Hensher in The Spectator. As the codes became “Byzantine” in their complexity, the socially ambitious could demonstrate their superiority in an ever-expanding number of ways: “There is nothing more plebeian than thin bread at dinner,” a 1836 manual advised. With this “magnificent” book, Thomas, now in his 85th year, has produced a “fully realised successor” to earlier classics such as Religion and the Decline of Magicand Man and the Natural World. His own oeuvre is a “convincing statement of what civilisation means”.


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