Manners Maketh the Man — or do they?

Anne here, asking the question, how do you hold your knife and fork? Because the way you do tells people a little about who you are.  And while it's not all that important these days, in the past, the manner in which you ate (among other things) revealed your origin, class, and upbringing. This was especially important in the Regency and Victorian eras.

Those eras saw a great many social changes. The agricultural and industrial revolution, the growth of England’s trading empire, revolution and war on the continent, to name just a few factors, were throwing up new ways of living and behaving and perceiving. No longer did wealth accrue primarily to the upper classes — people from almost any background could acquire a fortune — and horror of horrors!— think themselves as good as their betters (ie. the aristocracy) because of it.

There are many unflattering terms for it in Regency slang; "mushroom," (think of it; a mushroom grows up out of nowhere and has no roots), "cit" (short for citizen, according to Partridge, a pejorative term for tradesmen, or non-aristocratic townsmen born and bred — ie no country estate), and "smells of the shop" (meaning they earned their fortune from trade.) And remember, 'exclusive' is regarded as a desirable quality — yes? But it means to exclude.

DrinkingTeaAristocrats had no dislike of money —far from it— but it was preferable to have "old money" and to derive one's main income from one's estate, decently inherited from one's forbears, and by owning property, mines, and through investments —not through manufacturing or selling things down the high street oneself. And if one had none, one married it.

But how to tell proper upper class people — "people like us" —from the pushy nouveau riche who could buy anything they wanted to "ape their betters" ?There were many ways to distinguish them — accents, attitudes, behavior, breeding. (Breeding in this sense does not refer to the bloodline, as in horses: it means upbringing. A well-bred person is one who has been brought up correctly to know his manners.)

One of the methods for telling an upstart from a gentleman (or lady) was the way he or she ate at table. Did he carve up his meal then shovel it in? Did he hold his fork in his right hand or left? The "correct" way to eat, of course, depended on where you were placed in society. Anyone different was an outsider and in the wrong. It was always thus.

For centuries in Europe, it was considered proper to use the right hand to eat, and forks were not commonly used at table. Knives and spoons were the go. Forks were used in the kitchen. 

When Maria Argyropoulina, the Greek-born niece of the Byzantine emperor came to Venice in the 11th century to marry the son of the Doge, she brought with her the Byzantine habit of using a fork — gold, two pronged ones. "Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned [not] to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth."

Instead of being praised for her delicacy and good manners, she was roundly condemned by the church, not simply for decadent foreign habits, but for insulting God. “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” When Maria died of the plague, not two years later, it was felt to be a divine judgement on her for her vain and sinful fork-wielding habits.

CoryateEngland was one of the last countries to adopt the fork — strange, finicky, foreign unmanly instrument that it was! In the 17th century Englishman Thomas Coryate returned from his Grand Tour and wrote about this fork thing; “The Italian, and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies, at their meales use a little forke when they cut the meate . . . The reason of this their curiosity, is because the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myselfe thought good to imitate the Italian fashion by this forked cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and oftentimes in England, since I came home.” For his enthusiasm for this "effeminate" and "affected" foreign habit the poor fellow was widely mocked. (Probably not unlike the Seinfeld episode where George at the mars bar with a knife and fork.)

With the growth of a new middle class — a wealthy merchant class — in Regency England, table manners became more and more complicated — more exclusive. The fork as we know it was by now commonplace on most English tables, but as we move into the Victorian era, more and more specialist implements were introduced, a dozen different kinds of forks for different purposes — cutlery (flatware) of all kinds, and woe betide the social climber who didn't know which fork and knife to use for which course. (And if you want to find out why Americans use their forks in their right hand, read the comments.)

The Victorian era saw the growth and proliferation of etiquette manuals, and children of the nouveau riche being trained by poverty-stricken, well bred ladies who taught them to fit in to the upper class, because marriage was the other way of changing your social status. Many of the small habits and rituals of the upper classes are subtle and telling, and are ruthlessly observed by those who care, to expose those who are not "people like us." 

But that doesn't always work. I suspect that in the Victorian era the middle class were far stricter about such things than the upper classes. Aristocrats may know the correct way to behave, but that doesn't mean they always behave correctly. In fact aristocrats have often been famed for their bad manners — being aristocrats, they don't need 'em. They set the standard. But they were bad manners of a particular sort — aristocratic bad manners, so even in the way they were rude, their class is revealed.

I never buy the happy ending when, in a novel, some servant girl or a gypsy girl or some simple farmer's daughter is snapped up by some handsome lord, entranced by her natural beauty. I always think the poor girl's life is going to be a nightmare of "getting it wrong" and struggling to get it right, and in an everyday sense, fitting in is as important as love. There would be nothing more lonely or miserable than being a perpetual outsider in the class you've married into, and suffering slights (subtle or blatant) and superior looks would be her daily fare for the rest of her life, unless she got every little thing right. And what a shocking stress that would be.

So what about you? Do you think manners still matter? Have you ever felt out of step with the company you were in? What foreign manners intrigue or surprise you? What modern manners bug you?