Thursday, May 31, 2012

manners unfaulted

I recently finished reading Hilary Mantel's new book, Bring Up the Bodies, and I liked it, every page. She's a marvelous writer, so good that it's difficult to pin down what she's doing that's so much better than anyone else does. Putting her work into the "historical fiction" warehouse doesn't make sense; it isn't genre, it's simply literature.

My affection for the book comes partly from my interest in the lives of early modern Englishmen who did not receive a university education. I've been studying one of them, the mathematician John Collins, and Mantel's subject, Thomas Cromwell, is another. The lives of the two men were very different. Cromwell lived a full century and a half before Collins and achieved wealth and power as an able politician and chief minister to a king (Henry VIII). Collins attained neither wealth nor power. He was a clerk, teacher, author, accountant, and, on the side, an "Ingenious Obstetrix of the Press promoting the laudable Design of getting Learned Men to impart their Labours to be Printed; and exciting others to encourage the same, as being of singular Use and advantage to the Republick of Learning; through the want whereof many Learned Mens Works of much worth have been lost, suppressed or long delayed."[1]

Nonetheless they were in some ways similar. Both were born "of low estate," Cromwell as son of a blacksmith and small businessman and Collins as son of a poor clergyman who was barred from preaching in any church. Both left England while young and, while on the Continent, gained knowledge and skills that served them well on their return home. Both were largely self-taught, learning more by experience than education. On returning to England both attracted the notice of high-placed men and used these contacts to advance themselves. Both married only once and were devoted to their wives and families.

I don't mark up books I'm reading, or turn down corners -- none of that. But I do occasionally write out something -- a phrase, line, paragraph, or page -- that seems especially meaningful and this I chose to scribble into my Moleskine from Bring Up the Bodies. In it we see Cromwell's thoughts about his son:
Gregory is a good boy, though all the Latin he has learned, all the sonorous periods of the great authors, have rolled through his head and out again, like stones. Still, you think of Thomas More’s boy: offspring of a scholar all Europe admired, and poor young John can barely stumble through his Pater Noster. Gregory is a fine archer, a fine horseman, a shining star in the tilt yard, and his manners cannot be faulted. He speaks reverently to his superiors, not scuffling his feet or standing on one leg, and he is mild and polite with those below him. He knows how to bow to foreign diplomats in the manner of their own countries, sits at table without fidgeting or feeding spaniels, can neatly carve and joint any fowl if requested to serve his elders. He doesn't slouch around with his jacket off one shoulder, or look in windows to admire himself, or stare around in church, or interrupt old men, or finish their stories for them. If anyone sneezes, he says, “Christ help you!”
I was able to copy and paste this quote, rather than key it, because a reviewer chose to quote it as well. Writing in the New Yorker on May 7, James Wood uses the paragraph to show how Mantel uses a "cunning universalism" to link Cromwell with modern parents, indeed any parents, whose concern about their children leads them to catalog their strengths and weaknesses.

I did not see this aspect of the quote. For me it shows in glorious detail some of the main attributes of the "gently-" as against the "meanly-" born young men of early modern England. Cromwell and Collins were "of mean birth" and by their attainments came to be known as gentlemen. As adults they mastered the forms of address, techniques of polite conversation, and deportment sufficiently well to be accepted among the gently born. By contrast Cromwell's son Gregory, as Mantel presents him, was raised from childhood to be "courteous" in the original sense of the word.[2]

Spenser gives this sense of "courtesie" in the Faerie Queene.
Of Court, it seemes, men Courtesie doe call
For that it there most useth to abound :
And well beseemeth that in Prince's hall
That vertue should be plentifully found
Which of all goodly manners is the ground.
And roote of civill conversation.
-- Spenser, Faerie Queene, VI, i, i.
It's implied that Gregory knows how to behave in Court, that is the chambers where royals and nobles gather. He knows how to restrain any of his impulses which might be considered impolite, he shows deference to his betters, and possesses a confident demeanor which frees him from distasteful arrogance. His manners are easy and graceful. This ease and grace is the basis of what Spenser calls "civill conversation."[3]

Mantel puts most of Gregory's courtly achievements as negative virtues — bad habits he has had to overcome — and this is typical of the many books of polite manners that appeared in the centuries after the invention of the printing press. She and they take it as given that people are born with unsocial impulses which must be restrained if they are to get along well with each other. It's also implicit that those belonging to the courtly classes have advantages which others lack — chiefly wealth (or at least credit) and leisure. To them being industrious is not a virtue, and, although many of the gently born do work hard, they are encouraged not to make a show of it. Their leisure is not one of idleness, ideally, but their energy should be expended in sport (tilting or hunting) and social engagements (such as riding and dancing) rather than any effort that would appear busy.

Gregory is not literally "gently born." Writers of courtesy books divided pretty much evenly over those who equated gentility with good breeding and those who said it could be acquired as well as bred, but they all acknowledged that people were accepted as gentles either way. They also implicitly or explicitly accepted that this characterization — gently born — applied pretty much equally to all those who belonged in the upper classes, from the lowest of gentry through to the highest of nobles and royals. The gap between people of mean birth and those of gentle birth was, in this instance at any rate, more significant than the gap between a poor but well mannered landowner and a duke or earl. Men like Cromwell and Collins breached the first sort of gap, but they did not do so easily and their hold on their new status was tenuous. I suspect they hoped their sons would, as men, be able to accept gentility with unselfconscious ease.

{Cromwell by Holbein from the Frick Collection; source: wikipedia}


Some sources:

The ideal of a gentleman; or, A mirror for gentlefolks, a portrayal in literature from the earliest times by Abram Smythe Palmer (Routledge; New York, Dutton)

"The English Gentleman," by Sir George Sitwell in The Ancestor, No. I (Westminster, April 1902)

Peacham's Comple'at Gentleman (1634), with an introduction by G. S. Gordon (Oxford, 1906)

Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature by Jennifer Richards (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003)

From Civilitas to Civility: Codes of Manners in Medieval and Early Modern England by John Gillingham, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Vol. 12 (2002), pp. 267-289. Stable URL:

Invitation to a Beheading, The Thomas Cromwell novels of Hilary Mantel, a review by James Wood in The New Yorker, May 7, 2012.



[1] ... -- The sphere of Marcus Manilius [by Marcus Manilius], made an English poem with annotations and an astronomical appendix by Edward Sherburne, squire (1675).

Sherburne says:
We should be injurious to him, if we did not farther inlarge, by telling the World how much it is obliged for his Pains in exciting the Learned to publish their Works, and in acting the Part of an Ingenious Obstetrix at the Press, in correcting and in drawing of Schemes; So that he hath been Instrumental in furnishing the World with the many learned Mathematical Books here lately published (for which, his chief Reward hitherto hath been to obtain from the Learned the Title of Mersennus Anglicanus) and many more may be expected, if moderate Encouragements towards Printing such Works, and Leisure for such an Affair be not impeded through the necessary Avocations for a livelyhood, and though it be besides my Design, yet I cannot but digress in giving him and others like minded (which are very rare to be found) their due commendations, in promoting the laudable Design of getting Learned Men to impart their Labours to be Printed; and exciting others to encourage the same, as being of singular Use and advantage to the Republick of Learning; through the want whereof many Learned Mens Works of much worth have been lost, suppressed or long delayed.

a Barnabas among those mathematical apostles, his tact and
devotion in calming the headstrong and drawing out the reticent
being above all praise.

[2] "Courteous" comes from the 14th-century French word curteis and it then meant "having courtly bearing or manners." The phrases I put in quotes were common in early modern England. In the 16th and 17th centuries a literature, quite a large literature, grew up giving instructions on courtesy.

[3] As one source says, Spenser took the term "civill conversation" from an Italian work of 1574 in which gentles are shown as harmoniously intermingling with an unselfconscious grace. (The Spenser Encyclopedia by Albert Charles Hamilton (Taylor & Francis, 1990)).

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