NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Dissemination of Manners Was a Civilizing Factor

May 7, 2003

In 1939 Norbert Elias published a book called "On the Civilizing Process," with a strange and unlikely thesis: that the gradual introduction of courtly manners -- from eating with a knife and fork and using a handkerchief to not spitting or urinating in public -- had played a major part in transforming a violent medieval society into a more peaceful modern one.

Counting indictments and comparing them with estimated population levels, historians on the Continent and in England found that murder was much more common in the Middle Ages than it is now and that it dropped precipitately in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

That the decrease in crime appears to have happened independently of industrialization or economic growth seemed to suggest that an internal, psychological shift had taken place in attitudes toward crime:

  • With the expansion of the state in many parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, violent and unruly behavior came to be seen as an affront to the prince or king.
  • Manuals and proverbs about proper behavior proliferated, and townsfolk and merchants did their best to imitate the courtesy of court life.
  • Other scholars agree that the emphasis on self-control increased but think that it may have stemmed not only from the diffusion of courtly manners.

"Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation put a lot of emphasis on individual conscience," says Tom Cohen, a history professor at York University in Toronto. "The conscience becomes the internal gyroscope. There is the growth of introspection -- the diary, the novel, the personal essay. Along with the kind of personal self-control that Norbert Elias describes."

Source: Alexander Stille, "Did Knives and Forks Cut Murders?" New York Times, May 3, 2003.


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