Manners Maketh Man

Adrian Woodbridge in The Economist‘s 1843 magazine:

In his new book, In Pursuit of Civility, British historian Keith Thomas tells the story of the most benign developments of the past 500 years: the spread of civilised manners. In the 16th and 17th centuries many people behaved like barbarians. They delighted in public hangings and torture. They stank to high heaven. Samuel Pepys defecated in a chimney. Josiah Pullen, vice-principal of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, urinated while showing a lady around his college, “still holding the lady fast by the hand”. It took centuries of painstaking effort – sermons, etiquette manuals and stern lectures – to convert them into civilised human beings.

Reading Thomas’s book on a train recently I was gripped by a terrible realisation: everything our forebears worked so hard to achieve is now reversing. A process that took centuries has been undone in just a few decades.

There is no better place to observe the collapse of manners than on mass transport. The most basic move in the civilising process was to make a distinction between the public and the private: persuading people to defecate in lavatories rather than chimneys and eat at regular times in designated places, not whenever or wherever the mood took them. Yet today city streets reek of urine and trains smell of fast food. I recently had the misfortune to sit next to a quivering man-mountain on a train who proceeded to slurp a Coke, demolish a Big Mac, munch fries and spill ketchup onto his beard while giggling at a film on his super-sized iPad. His only concession to the fact that he wasn’t in his own sitting room was to wear headphones.

Read the whole thing. Article title is a reference to a famous book on the subject.

And Third Prize is You’re Fired!

After the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (link NSFW), I can’t hear the words “steak knives” without smiling. So I was amused to discover this interesting article on Popular Mechanics:

The Secret History of Steak Knives

Sharp knives disappeared from the dining room table, only to return, centuries later, in steak knife form. Kings, cardinals, and factories are involved.

By Ernie Smith
Sep 28, 2017

Obviously, knives, with their sharp blades for cutting through things, have been around forever—they’re a key ingredient of any horror film, slasher flick, or murder mystery that’s ever been created.

But here’s a question that I don’t think a lot of people have pondered, mainly because they aren’t expected to, like I am: Why do steaks get their own dedicated knives, and why do we shove them into giant blocks of wood for storage? And what about butter knives? What’s up with them?

It turns out that it’s a story with a lot of edges—some sharp, some dull.

Before there was the steak knife, there was the table knife, or the butter knife. As blade designs go, it’s pretty weak-sauce, and intentionally so.

The reason for this goes back nearly 400 years, and involves an annoyed French clergyman. Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, the Duke of Richelieu and Fronsac—or Cardinal Richelieu for short—became annoyed by table manners of those eating with pointed knives, which were used as a way of picking teeth.

He had his knife edges rounded, the legend goes, in an effort to discourage bad behavior by his guests.

This broke tradition around knife use. See, knife blades were long the primary way that people ate food—unlike napkins, which weren’t always a given, they were always a key element of the meal. Often, medieval cultures would eat meals using a single knife—their own, which they brought with them to dinner—and their hands. The introduction of the fork into European culture changed the way we interacted with knives, just as it did with napkins.

Cardinal Richelieu was a powerful, influential man, and his knife-dulling approach gained enough currency that in 1669, 27 years after he died, King Louis XIV issued a decree making pointed knives illegal in France, whether inside the home or out in public. Suddenly, a lot of sharp knives got pretty dull.

Read the whole thing.