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Early Origin Of Manners

HERBERT SPENCER declares the earliest kind of government to be that of ceremonial institutions. Ceremonial control precedes religious and political control, and he finds an ingenious argument in favor of this hypothesis in the conduct of savage tribes. " Daily intercourse among the lowest savages, whose small, loose groups, scarcely to be called social, are without political or religious regulation, is under a considerable amount of ceremonial regulation."

In other words, ceremonies, manners, whatever you please to call them, are necessarily the first law which binds man, because they are personal and concrete. The earliest necessity for a savage is to show his fellow that he does not mean to fight him, but intends rather to. live peaceably with him and give him his dues. Hence certain peaceful observances and signs are early established, such as salutations, doing homage, etc., and perhaps are the first tokens of order that appear out of the primeval chaos of warfare and destruction.

The first bondage then, is that of manners, and the last bondage is of manners also, and from it we need neither wish nor hope to be set free. If we live among civilized men, we surely cannot be free from it; if we flee to savage nations, we must still observe their code of manners. Our only hope of escape is to live the life of a hermit, and even Robinson Crusoe was polite to his cat and his parrot! And why should we wish to escape from this easy-fitting yoke, which surely protects far more than it hampers us? Manners are, or should be, defensive, not offensive. They have undergone vast changes during all these ages, and the customs of the savage resemble little enough the polished ways of the highly civilized man of the twentieth century. But in this one point they must ever remble each other, that they protect and defend the man who uses them. Emerson says of manners, " Their vast convenience I must always admire. The perfect defence and isolation which they effect makes an in-superable protection." And some one else has said, " Etiquette is the barrier which society draws around itself as a protection against offences the ` law' can-not touch; it is a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent"

But what a vast difference between the old slavish customs wherein the inferior tremblingly deprecated the wrath of his superior, and the manners of today, with which equal greets equal! The fear of personal violence, or even of death, made unfortunate wretches grovel in the earth, and place dirt upon their heads, as a sign of their entire submission, a plea of humility; whereas, with the liberty we of the Western world now enjoy, we need not " crook the pregnant hinges of the knee " to any man; and though we still use manners as a defence, it is only to guard those innermost citadels of privacy, the mind and heart, from unwarranted intrusion.

The history of manners is the history of civilization, and in their study the wise man finds his account. It is only the fool who despises them, because he has not taken the time and trouble to come at their real meaning and significance, and therefore begs the whole question by declaring that they have none.

It is a significant fact that manners, in old English, meant much the same thing as what we now call morals, — thus showing the ethical importance which our ancestors attached to a decent behavior. " Evil communications corrupt good manners," saith the Scripture, and the word is used elsewhere in the Bible in the same sense. In Shakespeare's " As You Like It," Touchstone makes a delightful pun on the word.

Touch. Wast ever in court, shepherd? Cor. No, truly.

Touch. Then thou art damned.

Cor. For not being at court? Your reason.

Touch. Why, if thou never wast at court thou never sawest good manners; if thou never sawest good manners, then thy manners must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is dam-nation. Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd."

The word " morals " was not used by the old writers; but here again we have a proof of the identity, in the opinion of our forefathers at least, of morals and good manners. Politeness they considered as an essential element of good behavior, — a branch certainly of good morals. The word "moral" is derived from the Latin word mos, plural mores, meaning manners or customs; and while the English word is seldom used with the original Lain meaning, the French word moeurs (manners), derived from the same Latin root, is still used in the old sense.

Rev. Brooke Herford, in one of his sermons, called attention to the rigorous adherence to good manners, the use of a prescribed form of speech even under most trying and exciting circumstances, of which we find evidence in the Bible. Thus the Shunammite woman, hastening to Elisha, and full of anguish at the death of her only son, still answers, " It is well," when asked whether it is well with her child, although she has come to announce his death to the prophet. And the messenger who brought King David the tidings of that dreadful battle in which his beloved son Absalom was slain, prefaced his deadly message with the usual phrase, " All is well," though he knew that the dearest treasure of the king's heart, his favorite son, was lying dead on the bloody plain. The fear of seeming to doubt or deny in some way the providence of the Al-mighty, was perhaps one reason for the use of this phrase, as the preacher suggested.

As the state of society changes from one age to an-other, manners must necessarily change with it, otherwise they cease to be the true exponents of the thought and feeling of the time. Having once been fitting symbols, they become only dead letters when the thought, they represented passes away, — mere empty forms, savoring of hypocrisy, and surviving their use-fulness on account of the conservative nature of man, which tends to make him do always what he has done once.

Thus the phrase your worship " no doubt had originally a more or less sincere meaning, in the time when inferiors were so low in the scale of civilization that they did in some sort worship those who were so high above them. When men really believed that a king could do no wrong, that he was a king by Divine right, and that his very touch could heal the diseases of ordinary mankind, — in such a time it would not be wonderful that one man should consider another as worthy even of worship. In the extremely enlightened and unbelieving state of mind of the present day, we can scarcely believe that such superstitions as these ever existed; but it was only in the reign of Queen Anne that the royal touch for th้ king's evil was used for the last time, while the worship of heroes is not only as old as our race, but has not yet died out.

We do not worship them precisely as the old Greeks and Romans did, but rather after the fashion of medievalism. We carefully preserve buttons from their coats, locks of their hair, the chairs in which they sat, and curious characters which they traced with a pointed instrument dipped in black fluid, upon a material made of bleached and pounded rags, — what we call autographs. And yet we think it strange that the unlettered men of the Middle Ages should have treasured the bones of saints, and held as sacred, fragments of their garments! Verily the nature of man is ever the same, with all his boasted progress!

When customs no longer have a real meaning, when they become mere shams and pretences, then they will gradually disappear of themselves; and then the reformer is justified if he inveighs against them, although if he is a wise man he knows that customs " die hard," and will not expect to see them rapidly disappear. What a grand time they had in the French Revolution, when the whole order of society was changed, and the titles even of the old heathen months were taken away from them, as savoring too much of ancient superstition! But somehow people did not take even to such sensible names as " Snowy," " Rainy," " Fo They clamored for the old names, and would have them back again; not because they cared for Janus or Maia, or even for Julius Car, but because they were used to January and May and July, and liked the old non-sense better than the new sense.

Nay, it is to be feared that we have not quite out-grown a belief in the old nonsense yet; for while no living being now worships Maia, there are plenty of people who consider it unlucky to be married in May, — a superstition which existed in the days of Ovid, and no one knows how long before. Its origin is a curious one. The Romans believed in good and evil spirits, and called the latter Lemures. These ancient ghosts were of a restless disposition, tormenting the good and haunting the wicked. With that common sense which ever distinguished the old Romans, they celebrated festivals in honor of the Lemures, which they called Lemuria, and held in the month of May. The solemnities lasted for three nights, during which marriages were prohibited, and the temples of the gods were shut. The populace burned black beans to drive away these bad spirits, and also beat on kettles and drums. It is said that Romulus first instituted the Lemuria or Lemuralia, to appease the shade of Remus, and the word became corrupted from Remuria to Lemu

These manners peculiar to certain states of society pass away with them, and despite the lamentations of some lovers of the past, it is best that it should be so. Though we may sometimes fall a Iittle in the scale of our behavior, on the whole there is an improvement in the manners of the civilized world from one age to another.

Take for instance the beginning of the eighteenth century. Little as Thackeray liked the manners of his own day, and ruthlessly as he showed up their follies and foibles, he liked still less the manners of this older time, of which he made an especial study, to his great disgust, In his essay on Steele, he says: We can't tell — you would not bear to be told the whole truth regarding those men and manners. You could no more suffer in a British drawing-room, under the reign of Queen Victoria, a fine gentleman or fine lady of Queen Anne's time, or hear what they heard and said, than you would receive an ancient Briton. It is as one reads about savages, that one contemplates the wild ways, the barbarous feasts, the terrific pastimes of the men of pleasure pf that age."

He then describes the career of a very rapid noble-man, who died while perpetrating his third murder, and a little farther on he continues in the same vein: " But things were done in that society, and names were named, which would make you shudder now. What would be the sensation of a polite youth of the present day, if at a ball he saw the object of his affections taking a box out of her pocket and a pinch of snuff; or if at dinner, by the charmer's side, she deliberately put her knife into her mouth? . . . Fancy the moral condition of that society in which a lady of fashion joked with a footman, and carved a sirloin, and provided besides a great shoulder of veal, a goose, hare, rabbit, chickens, partridges, black puddings, and a ham, for a dinner of eight Christians! What-- what could have been the condition of that polite world in which people openly ate goose after almond-pudding, and took their soup in the middle of dinner? Fancy a Colonel in the Guards putting his hand into a dish of beignets d'abricot, and helping his neighbor, a young lady du monde ! Fancy a noble lord calling out to the servants, before the ladies at his table, 'Hang expense, bring us a ha'porth of cheese! ' "

Mankind do not change their manners from one epoch to another, as a snake sheds his skin; the transition is a very gradual one, and men cling so fondly to their old ways that they always incline to keep them, where it is possible to do so, changing the old form a little, to suit it to its new meaning. Thus when heathen nations first become Christianized, their religious practices are a very queer jumble of the old and the new forms of worship. The history of Europe is full of records of these curious mixtures, some of which are very familiar to us all.

The old Scandinavians had no intention of giving up the custom so congenial to their tastes, that of drinking the " minne " (that is, love, memory and the thought of the absent) of the objects of their worship; so upon their conversion to Christianity they arranged the matter very simply by abandoning their old favorites, Thor, Odin and Freya, and drinking the " minne " of Mary and of Christ. " Minnying " or " mynde " days, on which the memory of the dead was celebrated by services or banquets, survived for a long time in England.

Many customs which now seem to us foolish and absurd, had once their serious meaning; but in the course of long years, and perhaps of wanderings from far countries, that meaning has been utterly lost from sight. Again, we can often see plainly what significance certain observances once had, but we no longer believe in them. We still say " Bless you from force of habit, when some one sneezes, but we have ceased to attach the slightest importance to the remark. It is rather curious to find that the ancient Greeks and Romans saluted one another in the same way, and two thousand years ago Pliny asked, " Why do we salute those who sneeze? "

When Guachoga, a native chief, came to pay a visit to Hernando de Soto, the former happened to sneeze; whereupon " The gentlemen who had come with him, and were lining the walls of the hall among the Spaniards there, all at once bowing their heads, opening their arms and closing them again, and making other gestures of great veneration and respect, saluted him with different words, all directed to one end, saying, ` The Sun guard thee, etc., " upon which the Spanish governor concluded that " All the world was one."

The petty superstitions of every-day life, which cultivated people laugh at and the uneducated still believe in, were once no doubt features of a serious though childish religious belief. All the superstitions about the moon point plainly in this direction, while those about Friday are of Christian origin, at least in some cases. Many servants firmly believe that it is unlucky to engage or take service on Saturday, al-though they cannot tell you why they think so. I have often seen women of this class entreat a child to get up, if it happened to be Iying in their path on the stairs or elsewhere, saying, " If I step over you, you will never grow, you know!

For every superstition and every exploded belief there is, or has been, some argument in its favor, some train of reasoning more or less ingenious and well carried out. We smile at the Curious scientific theories of Plato, for instance, although he presents arguments in their favor that are as good as many modem reasons. In the same way there is no small point of etiquette which has not its raison d'๊tre, although the train of logic which brought it into being may be quite forgotten by living men.

It is with the law of etiquette as with the common law; both contain many absurdities, but nevertheless these very absurdities have all been carefully reasoned out. As the common law concerned the lives and safety of all men, its sayings were carefully preserved and accurately written down by learned men; but the law of etiquette has had comparatively few expounders to keep careful record of its vagaries. It certainly, however, contains no greater follies than those of its prototype, which gravely declared that a mother was not of kin to her own child, and proceeded to prove the same!

Despite its many imperfections, the common law surprises us with its accumulation of sound views and its exposition of true principles, the result of the combined wisdom of many great minds during long centuries. In the same way the laws that govern manners contain many true and unchanging principles mingled with much that is untrue, unimportant and transitory.

But this subject cannot well be treated of at the end of a chapter, and demands a new one for itself.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Early Origin Of Manners

Permanent And Transient Institutions In Society

Uses Of Society

Frankness Of Modern Manners

Visiting Cards And Their Uses

Invitations

Dinners, And How To Give Them

Dinners - Service And Arrangements Of The Table

Etiquette Of The Table

Family Dinner Table - Its Furniture And Equipment

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