Whoever said Medieval people had no manners?

This extract from a fifteenth century book of instruction ‘John Russell’s Book of Nurture’ gives some rather interesting tips about acceptable conduct at the table. I am not entirely sure about the context, but it demonstrates I think that Medieval people cared about manners and were not so uncouth as some may think. This passage might make you laugh too….

Symple Condicions

“Simple conditions of a person that is not taught I will you eschew, for evermore they be nought.Do not claw you head or back as though you seek a flea. Not strike nor prick your hair to remove a louse See your eyes are not glowing nor blinking nor too heavy of cheer, Watery, winking nor dripping but clear of sight, Don’t pike your nose, not let clear pearls drip, Neither sniff nor blow your nose so that you sovereign hears it.

Table manners seem to have been important in the Middle Ages

Twist not your neck askew like a jackdaw. Put not your hands in your stockings your codware to scratch not picking, nor fiddling, not rubbing as though you would saw, Do not rub nor wipe your hands nor beat your chest. Do not pick your ears even if you are slow of hearing. Don’t retch, spit too far or laugh too loudly. Speak not loudly, beware asserting or scorning. Be no liar with your mouth, neither boastful nor dribbling. Don’t squirt or spout with your mouth. Don’t gape, eat with your mouth open or pout. Don’t lick the dish with your tongue to get the last crumb.

It is advised not to ‘twist your neck askew like a jackdaw’.

Don’t be rash nor reckless, its not worth a clout. Don’t sigh deeply, cough or breathe loudly in front of your sovereign. No more hiccupping, belching nor groaning. Don’t stamp your feet or sit with your legs apart. Don’t scratch your body or keep opening and shutting your legs. Good son, don’t pick, grind or gnash your teeth, don’t breathe stinking breath on your sovereign. No puffing nor blowing, whether full or fasting and watch that your hinder part does not blast off. Short clothes that expose your codware are an ungodly style…”

From John Russell’s Book of Nurture a Medieval Manual containing guidance for the Marshall, the Chamberlain… and the lad at the table.


7 thoughts on “Whoever said Medieval people had no manners?

    1. I know, its so funny, but it us also rather useful and enlightening because of what it shows about manners and conventions in those days, and indeed a lot of these could still apply today.
      I love the part about the jackdaw.

  1. A great post! Very nice. Can you tell me when was this “John Russels Book of Nurture” written? Where and to what use exactly?

    It reminds me of the Parzival by Wofram von Eschenbachen, in wich the young Parzival, who was not raised for the courtly life, is being taught all sorts of fine manners by a lord who recognizes him as a nobleman. Many of those good manners are similar to the ones described in this Book of Nurture in your post, like the idea that picking ones teeth, or scratching ones head is representing bad table manners. Many are still in use, like the idea that it is not acceptable to put your knife into your mouth. Some are a bit more arcane, like the idea that when a knight is visiting a castle, it is polite of him to go wash the rust (from the helm) of his face before attending dinner. Parzival is from the mid 13th century and the chivalry of those days preferred the great helm, wich is basicly a steel bucket on the knights head and understandably will rust from the inside because of sweat, causing the wearer to get rust on his face.

    I personally think that the idea in Parzival was not only to tell the story of someone being taught good manners, but to also teach the readers and listeners of the story some manners.

    1. I have not read Parzival, but I have heard of it, sounds like it might be interesting. We still teach children good manners today, so I suppose these things might still be relevant in that sense.
      I might have to find out more about the book and get back to you, I know it also contains advice for the ‘Marshal’ who seems to have got things ready for meals, and the ‘Chamberlain’ who seems to have attended to the Lord personally in his bedroom- something like a manservant perhaps?

      What is interesting though is that both these titles seem to have belonged to High Officials in later Medieval England like the Earl Marshal, and High Chamberlain. Perhaps they had humble beginnings?

  2. If you ever read Parzival, I recommend you take a look at the Codex manesse paintings. One of them depicts Wolfram von Eschenbach and I think that the older pictures (there are both pics from 13th century and some later additions, possibly from the early 14th century, or at least judging by the changes in fashion and weapons, but if you look carefully, you can make the distinction in style) in the codex give especially good idea, how the contemporaries saw the world.

  3. Oh, the Codex Manesse is a completely different book, it only happens to have a painting of the author of Parzival Wolfram von Eschenbach in it. I meant, that because it is from the same time and cultural base, the pictures give a nice touch to the reading of Parzival.
    There are lots of other “celebs” of the time depicted there too, you might recognice. Like Ulrich von Lichtenstein dressed up in his famous “Goddes of Love” outfit ready for tournament, and Walther von der Vogelweide and such. Here:


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