My eight-year-old, Katie, has many wonderful qualities, but I wouldn’t list good table manners among them. So I was interested when I saw a book called The School of Manners, or Rules for Children’s Behaviour, in a shop at Colonial Williamsburg.
According to the online Norton Anthology of English Literature, “conduct books” like The School of Manners, which was written by John Garretson and published in London in 1701, had been around since the Middle Ages but became hugely popular with the growth of the middle classes in the 18th century. They offered readers “a way to recognize class distinctions, as well as the hope that they might improve their own station in life through imitating the behavior of their ‘betters.'”
There are rules for church, home, in company, at school, abroad, and more, but the ones for “at the Table” interest me most. I often tell my daughter how much stricter my mother was about table manners, and my grandparents even more so. But 18th century rules were draconian by comparison. Here are some excerpts from The School of Manners, Chapter IV, “Of Behaviour at the Table,” followed by my observations:
Rule 2: Sit not down till thou art bidden by thy Parents or Superiors.
This one’s not too unreasonable. But in many colonial households, children didn’t sit at all — they had to stand behind the adults and have food handed back to them!
Rule 6: Find not fault with any thing that is given thee.
Nice. I want my daughter and my husband to follow this rule.
Rule 9: Speak not at the Table; if thy Superiors be discoursing, meddle not with the matter.
I don’t really agree with this rule — I think this is a case where the 21st century has improved on the 18th. Children should be seen and heard.
Rule 11: Eat not too fast, or greedily.
Uh oh, guilty. All three of us…
Rule 15: Stare not in the face of any one (especially thy Superior) at the Table.
Now here’s a rule that doesn’t seem to apply in our age, when making eye contact is considered more polite, at least in this country.
Rule 21: Lean not thy Elbow on the Table, or on the back of thy Chair.
My mother was strict about this — and I think she’s right, but for some reason I still forget not to do it.
Rule 22: Stuff not thy mouth so as to foll [sic] thy Cheeks; be content with smaller Mouthfulls.
Katie has trouble with this one. She considers it a great achievement when she stuffs a lot of food in her mouth.
Rule 30: Lift not up thine eyes, nor roll them about, while thou art drinking.
“Who rolls their eyes when they drink?” asks my daughter.
Rule 41: Frown not, nor murmur if there be any thing at the Table which thy Parents or Strangers with them eat of, while thou thy self hast none given thee.
I love this one.
Rule 43: When thou riseth from Table, take away thy Plate, and having made a bow at the side of the Table where thou satest, withdraw, removing also thy Seat.
Katie’s pretty good about taking away her plate. But when I tried asking her to bow to us tonight, she did, then said, “I have to say I think this book is rubbish.” So much for Chapter I, rule 19: Restrain thy tongue.
And now maybe I’ll go read the 21st century equivalent to The School of Manners, Judith Martin’s Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children. I bought it with high hopes a few years ago but think I only made it partway through the first chapter. But who wants perfect children, really?