Etiquette of the Middle Ages


Etiquette (derived from a Greek word meaning "custom") is a set of rules relating to the visual manifestations of attitude towards people, namely behavior in public places, forms of address and greetings, manners and dress code.

Though etiquette has been known since ancient times, it acquired its classic form in the Middle Ages. Most researchers dealing with history of culture attribute the appearance of etiquette as a regulatory system to those times. Moreover, good books on the rules of etiquette appeared exactly in the Middle Ages.

The most interesting and important in this respect are the last two stages of the Middle Ages, namely the Golden Age of the period (XI - XV cc.) and Late Middle Ages (XVI - first half of the XVII c.), the period of the decay of feudalism and emergence of the bourgeois society.

The official ideology of the Middle Ages dramatically contrasted spiritual matters with material ones. An openly proclaimed discrimination between mind and body, sacred and secular, God and man, the discrimination brought to the level of confrontation in the teachings of St. Augustine, defined a new system of spiritual values, new relationship between good and evil were presented as a confrontation between God and the Devil. St. Augustine had a doctrine about "City of God." Two kinds of love, firstly demonstrated by of Cain and Abel - "earthly love of yourself, driven to contempt for God, and heavenly love of God, driven to self-contempt. Wisdom and courage are manifestations of sinful pride, while the true virtues are humility, faith in God, love for him and the hope for salvation. The only form of earthly activity of man, worthy of approval, is a religious asceticism (austerity and fight against heretics).

The medieval society of Western Europe was strictly hierarchical. The public consciousness of the period represented it consisting of three categories: "praying, fighting and working" people. But gradually the class of feudal lords began to expand due to warriors who didn’t belong to nobility (knights). By the XIth century a special class of people, namely knighthood, was formed in Western Europe, which reached its peak in the XII - XVth centuries. The knights considered themselves "the pick of the world", the highest layer of the society that created its own lifestyle, code of ethics and morals. They formed special norms and values that allowed them to separate from the common people. The XIV - XVth centuries are called age of chivalry, and there are real reason for that, because at the time the knighthood finally turned into a special class, special lifestyle, and a special kind of mentality and culture.

It was during this period the final image of the ideal knight and the code of honor was formed. Ideal behavior and lifestyle was the one showing maximum approximation to this model of personality. So, who was the "knight without fear and without reproach" and what qualities did he have to possess?

Let’s turn to the book "Knight and the bourgeoisie" by M. Ossovskaya. In principle, - writes M. Ossovskaya, - a knight was supposed to come of good stock... "In principle", because sometimes a person could be knighted for exceptional military exploits. In addition, this privilege could be bought and it happened more and more often with the expansion of towns and cities and increasing of their significance."

One of the main indications of nobility among secular lords was a long genealogy, which was carried on the paternal side and was called lineage. This led to the desire of every knight to praise the real, but more often imaginary virtues and heroic deeds of their ancestors in any way possible, and at every opportunity.

The core of knightly code of honor was loyalty to his lord. Betrayal and treachery were considered the greatest sins for a knight and were punished by the exclusion of the military-aristocratic class, called knighthood.

The focus of the chivalrous culture on visual manifestations meant that beauty and attractiveness were considered as knightly virtues. Hence, the gloss of culture of chivalry, a special attention to the rituals, attributes, symbolism of colors, objects, manners. Expensive clothes, richly decorated with gold and precious stones were to emphasize the beauty of a knight. The clothes pointed to the social category and the position of the wearer. If a person wore the wrong clothing that did not fit a man of his rank, it meant he committed the sin of pride or, conversely, degradation. A particular attention was paid to accessories, namely gloves and head gear that indicated the ranks accurately.

A knight had to be courteous, able to write or at least to read poetry, play a musical instrument. He had to be in a good physical form, because he constantly needed a lot of physical strength to wear armor that weighed 60 - 80 kg. A distinctive feature of any knight was an unconditional loyalty to his obligations concerning people equal to him, that’s why different knightly vows, oaths, agreements, which were accompanied by certain gestures, were popular. Chivalrous oaths and vows were public.

Initially, feudal lords especially respected military valours and physical strength. Courage, boldness, contempt for death, military loyalty and luck are the qualities that were glorified in the folk tales about knights, such as "Song of Roland," "Legend of the Side," "Tale of Igor's Campaign". A secular French feudal knight had to have seven knight’s 'virtues': his own spear, fencing, hunting, riding, swimming skills, as well as ability to play chess and compose verses for his beloved lady. These qualities were glorified by the European moralizing literature of XII-XIV centuries.

The code of knightly honor was the basis of court etiquette of a later period, which, in turn, had a significant influence on the formation of the today’s etiquette.

The development of etiquette in Western Europe was greatly influenced by national traditions and customs of different countries, ethical standards of various classes of society, religious rituals, superstitions and prejudices. The history of etiquette, its development and transformation that took place over time can be traced via literary and cultural monuments. It is important to know the history of etiquette, because many of the modern rules of behavior have their origins in the distant past, and often initially had a different meaning. Some etiquette rules of the past have changed almost beyond recognition, while the others simply disappeared along with the conditions under which they were formed, but after all, all the rituals adopted in the society left their mark on the development of Western culture.

In the period of consolidation of absolute monarchy, when, instead of hundreds of small principalities big states began to emerge and grow up in Europe, the court life changed. There were no "drinking knights’ drinking bouts" of the times of King Arthur, which were simply rough and artless. A strictly canonized, magnificent, prim ceremoniousness came instead.

There was a saying in the Middle Ages, namely "Ceremonious, as a Spaniard," and it is not accidentally. The palm of supremacy concerning the rules of behavior belonged to the Spaniards. The first treatise on the rules of behavior was written in 1204 by a Spanish priest Pedro Alfonso, and was called "Disciplina clericalis." It was used as the basis for all the subsequent books on etiquette. The treatise contained the rules of table manners, taught how to talk, receive visitors, and the like.

Despite the fact that the population of medieval Spain was illiterate (with almost no exceptions), including the noblest people, and the book could be read by very, very few, Pedro Alfonso created such a code of court etiquette, which cannot be excelled by anyone even now. It described in detail how food had to be served at the royal table, who of the court people had bring the royal person a part of the attire, and even how many weeks and in what castle (out of many ones in possession) the royal family could spend.

After that, etiquette is perceived not just as a standard of behavior, but as a certain ritual of communication, especially with people of a higher rank. But even people equal to each other in ranks, had to comply thousands of conventions, or they simply were to be crushed by the public contempt. In the early and middle Medieval Ages etiquette was created by the Church, and in the Late Middle Ages the royal courts of Paris, London and other European countries formed it.

Various books on etiquette, which had become so complex that the courts needed special people who knew all the subtleties and ensured their observance, appeared at this time. Those people were called masters of ceremonies and their only occupation was to keep in mind the numerous details of court etiquette, starting from the number and style of buckles on shoes and bows in hairstyles up to the ceremony of guests reception. Because even the kings had no right to violate the requirements of court etiquette, no matter how strict they were, but the kings themselves could not remember a great variety of all sorts of "mandatory" small things.

A little bit later, a sharp criticism of the "idiocy of court life" started. "Imagine a man ignorant of laws, and who is almost a direct enemy of the public good, pursuing only his personal benefits, who is a voluptuousness devotee, hates learning, truth and freedom", - wrote Erasmus Roterodamus.

The words, gestures, new patterns of behavior, views on the relationship between equals and subordinates that were common for the chivalry, gradually entered the other classes of society. A special type of social relations that are still characteristic of European society was formed. Today, despite huge changes in this sphere, a bright distinctive feature of European civilization are the traditions inherited from the courtly love.

At that historical period, valor and virtue were not that you had to be a moral person, harmonious, unique and different from others, but to the contrary, you had to correspond to strict patterns, standards, authorities, subordinate your individuality to typical, and personal behavior to the strict rules of etiquette and customs, which became more formalized.

One of the features of this stage of cultural development, which caused significant changes in the norms of human behavior, was the fact that the culture not only proposed good material life basis for the ruling class, but the wealth and luxury as a condition of the court idle life. This life focused on the feasting and entertainment, and objectively needed changes in the system of norms regulating the morals of the court.

Undoubtedly, many of the rules of behavior, were changed and adapted to emerging conditions, they continued to exist. A new social institution of people who were dependent on a powerful person appeared in the Middle Ages. Knights, court artists, diplomats had their own social status and followed strict rules and codes of conduct. The court etiquette is interesting, in particular, because the established rules and regulations of the gallant behavior of those times were preserved and used as the basis of our etiquette.

The court demanded, above all, special models of personality, since professional knowledge of a person had to be hidden. Everything had to be done easily, naturally, as though accidentally. The only decent thing to do for a court man of the Early Middle Ages was considered to be a knight, but at the same time, the knight had to be able to do well everything he might deal with. A court person was assessed by his contribution to the court culture, with its focus on feasting and entertainment. Tournaments, competitions, hunting, filled the morning hours, and masquerades and balls took place in the evening. The main incentive was the desire to show off, to look pompous.

There was only one rule that was impossible to broken by a nobleman, namely an oath of honor (though, in case the oath was broken, the honor could be restored via a duel). There was only one debt, which required a mandatory payment, namely the gambling debt, called the debt of honor, and all other debts could remain unpaid, since it had no influence on knightly honor.

At the same time, the sense of honor was so keen that a breach of etiquette was considered a deadly insult. However, the affected honor could be easily restored. To do this, the code of knightly honor provided a range of options described in the book by Schopenhauer "Aphorisms of worldly wisdom."

First, a public insult could be publicly withdrawn. You could apologize, after that it was considered there had been made no insult and the honor of a gentleman did not suffer (regardless whether apologies were sincere or not).

Second, the most reliable and radical means was a duel. With it, you could quickly and fully restore your honor. If the offender did not belong to the class of society following the code of knightly honor, in case of oral insult or assault and battery you had to resort to drastic means: to kill him on the spot if you had a weapon, or no later than one hour after and you honor could be saved.

Third, if a duel was difficult or undesirable for the insulted person due to some reasons, then there was another way: if the offender was rude to him, he had to be even ruder to him, "if abuse is not enough, beat him; to save the honor in such cases, there are several means: slap in the face can be paid back with a blow delivered by a stick, a blow delivered by a stick can be paid back with a whip blow; to pay back a whip blow some recommended a spit in the face."

Thus, the basic principle of the core of the code of knightly honor was the principle of "fist law" ("a person who is coarser or stronger is the right one"). "Regular duelist, - explains P. Merimee via words of his characters, is a man impeccably secular, a man who fights, if someone touches his cloak, spits not far from him, and on every other similarly important occasion, and the reputation of a lady is the better, the more people have died because of her."

The severity of the laws of honor explain the insistence on the nobility to follow the formalities of etiquette everywhere and in everything, which often turned into a kind of competition on the comity: sometimes it happened people argued over a quarter of an hour about who had to be the first. And the longer the participants of the argument refused the priority, the greater satisfaction got those present.

Here is an example: "On the eve of the Battle of Crecy, four French knights went to reconnoitre the fighting formation of the British troops. The king rode slowly across the field, eagerly awaiting their return. Seeing them from afar, he stopped. They approached the king. "What news do you have, gentlemen?" - asked the king. At first they looked at each other without saying a word, because no one wanted to speak earlier than any of his companions, and then began to address one another, saying: "Sir, I beg you, tell the king, I do not want to speak before you." They argued for some time, and no one wanted to be the first «par honneur» (“out of respect"). Until finally, the king chose one of the knights and ordered him to speak."

The answer to these social needs was etiquette, that organized the behavior of the court in such a way as to glorify a monarch and consolidate the courtly hierarchy.

The purpose of etiquette was focused on a limited circle of people belonging to the upper class society in the Middle Ages. Etiquette set the standards and canons of not only behavior, but the entire lifestyle of the nobility, bringing them to a "common denominator": it was necessary "to behave like all other people", and "to live like them" and so on. Etiquette regulated all the spheres of life of the upper class, even the minor things of the court’s everyday life. Members of the monarch’s family had to get up at a certain hour. It was stated who had to be present at the dressing of the monarch, who had to hold and give him the clothing, toiletries, etc. It was determined in advance who had to accompany the monarch, how the ceremonies, audiences, dinners, walks, dances had to be conducted. A court woman, who had to leave the royal person, had to move with her back turned to the door, casting away the train of dress with her foot not to get entangled in it. Etiquette regulated what court ladies had to walk hand in hand, stated the number and configuration of the lines that had to be drawn by the court ladies while making a curtsy. Etiquette had the character of the law and had a very strong influence on the high society. Violation of the rules of etiquette was regarded as a crime. And in their circles the courtiers had to comply strictly with the notions of honor. But the court norms, according to Montesquieu, were an expression of interest to your personality in the eyes of others (rather than internal demand). And a person must tell the truth just because "a man accustomed to telling the truth seems brave and free," and to be polite not because he could not violate the norms, but because politeness shows that we are of not a low rank.