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Don’t Pick Your Nose, 15th-Century Manners Book Warns

The taboo on booger hunting stretches back centuries, reveals a book recently digitized by the British Library

A scanned page from The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, a 15th-century courtesy book of table manners and etiquette for kids (© The British Library)
smithsonianmag.com

Nowadays, parents make up all kinds of nonsense to keep their kids’ fingers out of their nostrils. A quick internet roundup reveals a multitude of lies: The consequences of nose-picking range from stuck fingers to supersized schnozzes, missed gifts from Santa and violent visits from an enraged snot monster.

Five hundred years ago, admonishments were a little more cut and dried—a trend evidenced by The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, a 15th-century book on manners newly digitized by the British Library. “Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys,” it exhorts. (We’ll save you the Middle English to modern American English Google Translate search: “Don’t pick your ears or nostrils.”)

One of many so-called courtesy books—a genre popular in Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries—the manuscript proffers advice on table manners and etiquette, ironically offering modern readers a glimpse into the mischief of medieval children, reports Stephanie Pappas for Live Science.

Originally published in 1480, the Lytil Boke certainly contains advice that has since gone obsolete. Medieval children, it sternly explained, should never use knives to pick at their teeth (“Pyke not thi tothe with thy knyff”). When handed a beverage, they should wait to imbibe until their lords had taken a first sip (“And yf thy lorde drynke at that tyde, / Dry[n]ke thou not, but hym abyde”). And under no circumstances should they engage in the monstrosities of excessive laughter, grinning or talking—transgressions that threaten to reveal a child’s natural buoyancy or joy (“Loke thou laughe not, nor grenne / And with moche speche thou mayste do synne”).

Some of the book’s advice still holds up and would be particularly pertinent in the context of a typical kindergarten classroom’s lunchtime shenanigans: Don’t spit over the table (“Spette not ovyr thy tabylle”), don’t burp as if you have a bean in your throat (“Bulle not as a bene were in thi throote”), and don’t be a glutton when they bring out the cheese (“And chesse cum by fore the, be not to redy”).

“These older collection items allow young people to examine the past close up,” Anna Lobbenberg, lead producer on the British Library’s digital learning program, tells Alison Flood at the Guardian. “Some of these sources will seem fascinatingly remote, while others may seem uncannily familiar despite being created hundreds of years ago.”

For a book centered on propriety, Lytil Boke has its fair share of quirks, including spelling inconsistencies apparent even in its title. (“Lytille” and “lytil” are both variations on “little,” a relic of a time before English spelling was standardized.) And it’s easy to imagine how the most badly behaved children might have reacted to being forced to read instructions out of a pedantic book of dos and don’ts. (Tellingly, someone named Maria, the likely once-owner of this particular copy of the Lytil Boke, apparently had the audacity to doodle her name on one of its pages.)

The British Library holds two other copies of the Lytil Boke in its collections; at least three more have been described elsewhere. But these and other courtesy books finally fell out of fashion in the 1700s, when writers began to craft cautionary tales that illustrated the perils of bad behavior through colorful narratives, according to the British Library’s Andy Stanton and M.O. Grenby.

The digitized Lytil Boke lives on as one of many “treasures from children’s literature” featured on the British Library’s new website, Discovering Children’s Books. Etiquette, the manuscript explains, isn’t just a social obligation, but a religious one, too: “Courtesy” comes directly from “heaven.”

Something for medieval children to ponder, perhaps, whenever they felt the urge to dig for gold in the Ole Nostril Pass.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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