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.

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