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Manners for Boys

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 4/18/2000

Manners for Boys Transcript

Boys and manners? It’s not as oxymoronic as it sounds, as Rita Smith informs us in her Rediscovery for today.

It has always been important to pass on correct manners from one generation to the next. One of the earliest texts on manners and behavior in English which was addressed to children was called The Boy Standing at the Table.

The English manuscript, translated and adapted from a Latin text, was written about 1430 and attributed to John Lydgate, since he took credit within the text for any mistakes. It was the custom in England in medieval times to send aristocratic boys of seven or eight years of age away from their parents’ house to another lord’s household or to court to learn virtue and manners. An Italian visitor to England, concluded uncharitably that the real reason was, the English had but small affection for their children and liked to keep all their comforts to themselves, and moreover knew that they would be “better served by strangers than by their own children. But the fact remains that the loss of home life and parental tenderness was balanced by gain in discipline, education, social opportunity, and the opening up of careers of service.”(1)

The boys served the lord at his table and were supervised by a tutor, who taught the them proper manners as well as reading, music, and hunting skills. Many little books appeared to help them learn their duties properly. They were usually written in verse for easy memorization. In reading these old texts is appears that the fundamental bases of good manners have altered very little over the centuries. Of course, the importance of staying in one’s place and the rigid rules of precedence, which were a very important part of English manners four hundred years ago, have lost their importance, but personal cleanliness, self-respect, and consideration for one’s neighbor seem to have been then, as they are now, the foundations of good behavior and acceptable conduct.(3)

Here are some excerpts from a mid nineteenth century translation of the early 15th century text, The Boy Standing at the Table: 

Afore thy sovereign, standing at the table,
Be simple of cheer, cast not thy look aside,
Against the post let not thy back abide,
Pare clean thy nails, and wash thy hands also,
Before thy meat and when thou dost arise;
Sit in that place thou art assigned to,
Be not too hasty upon thy bread to bite.
Grinning and making faces at the table eschew;
To stuff thy jaws with bread it is not due;
Keep clean thy lips from fat of flesh or fish;
Wipe fair thy spoon nor leave it in thy dish.
Thy teeth at table pick not with no knife.
Beware that at the meat thou begin no strife.(4)

(1)Rickert, Edith, The Babee’s Book: Medieval Manners for the Young, Done into Modern English from Dr. Furnivall’s Texts, p. xxi-xxii.
(2)Ibid., p. xxxii.
(4)”Stans Puer ad Mensam,” in Rickert, Edith. Babee’s Book: Medieval Manners or the Young, p. 26-31.

Bingham, Jane and Grayce Scholt. Fifteen Centuries of Children’s Literature: An Annotated Chronology of British and American Works in Historical Context. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Rickert, Edith. The Babee’s Book: Medieval Manners for the Young, Done into Modern English from Dr. Furnivall’s Texts. London: Chatto & Windus, 1923.

Posted in Culture, Education