Renaissance Table Etiquette and the Origins of Manners

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Art and culture flourished throughout Europe during the Renaissance. It was the period when Michelangelo wielded his chisel, Galileo defied preconceived notions about the universe and William Shakespeare penned some of the most enduring dramatic works. It was also a period that saw the evolution of manners, as the article "Mind Your Manners" in the Spring 2011 issue of Folger magazine will attest. Manners were a response to the violence and crude behaviors run rampant in burgeoning cities and a means of reinforcing social order and distinguishing the privileged class from everyone else. A first generation of Miss Manners-es—typically men—took up the quill. And the newly defined codes of conduct were especially important at the dinner table.

Italy more or less led the cultural revolution, table manners included. Italian poet Giovanni della Casa advised in "Galateo," his 1558 book on manners: "One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public... The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others, even if you do not need to wash them at all, so that whoever dips into the same bowl as you will be certain of your cleanliness." To the modern reader, these attitudes toward public displays of personal cleanliness might seem a little over the top; however, considering that one's hands were also one's dining utensils, this sort of advice was of utmost importance. In his study on the social customs of this period, sociologist Norbert Elias noted that "In good society one does not put both hands into the dish. It is most refined to use only three fingers of the hand. ... Forks scarcely exist, or at most for taking meat from the dish."

That's right: no forks. They were initially viewed as excessively refined or, in the case of men, a sign of effeminacy. The newfangled fork custom began in Italy and was a hit, but forks were slow to catch on in Northern Europe. The use of forks to get food from plate to mouth didn't didn't gain wide acceptance until the 17th century—and even then, only the well-to-do could afford them.

Utensils such as spoons were communally used—making the etiquette of eating soups a delicate matter. "If what is given is rather fluid," Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam writes, "take it on a spoon for tasting and return the spoon after wiping it on a napkin."

But in spite of trying to polish social customs, some human behaviors were deemed permissible at the dinner table. On farting, Erasmus writes, "If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound." Slick, no? However, lest you follow this example, modern manners maven Miss Conduct says that "civilized folk will protect others from any sounds or smells that may be displeasing."

This is not to say that all Renaissance manners are outdated. On respecting fellow diners' personal space, Giovanni Della Casa says, "It is also an unsuitable habit to put one's nose over someone else's glass of wine or food to smell it." And again, from Erasmus: "It is rude to offer someone what you have half eaten yourself; it is boorish to redip half-eaten bread into the soup." Anyone remember the "did you just double dip that chip" episode of Seinfeld? George Costanza was definitely a couple hundred years behind the etiquette curve. Even modern science shows that re-dipping partially-eaten foods is a great means of spreading bacteria. It certainly gives you an idea of what Renaissance society was trying to improve upon—and how far we've come since.

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