Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Biological Background of the Dining-Room Deportment

            Politeness is a qualification; it reassures other members of a group that you are not a threat to the status quo. By performing politely, you display to others that you can be trusted in their company, that your behaviour will conform to the accepted mores, that you are also a member of the group. Politeness is a badge that lets us know that you are one of us, that you belong here, that we all know our places. 

Some of our Cousins

Many millennia ago, our simian ancestors needed such assurances from other members of the clan, but also from strangers and outsiders, they needed to know that everyone was aware of their place in the pecking order and acknowledged that place. We crave order, we look for patterns, we like the expected and the normal; disorder, chaos and the abnormal starts our survival instinct bells ringing, it puts us on edge, it raises our suspicions, it makes us uneasy. We like things to be right. We don’t like it when things go wrong. We are at our most vulnerable when we sleep and when we eat – try this little experiment. 

True Humility - The Curate's Egg - Punch - 1895

Watch others when they are dining in public. Groups of people are usually at ease, they interact with each other; they talk and joke and frequently look at each other, ignoring what is going on around their group. Now look at a lone diner. Unless they are in a familiar place that they know to be safe, they will constantly look around; they may even not look at the food as they put it into their mouth, but will continue to scan the room, in order to identify any potential threat as they feed. 

Dinner is Scared

Think of animals out on the savannah – the herds have plenty of eyes that will spot an approaching lion long before it gets too near; the individual creature is jumpy, ready to run for it, they snatch a mouthful of food and then raise their head and look around for the unexpected, the unusual or the threatening. We continue to respond to the same instinct that lies deep in our consciousness. So, when we stopped living on the plains of Africa and started living in houses and stopped expecting lions or leopards to interrupt our feeding patterns, we sublimated our instinctual urges and table manners were born. 

Table Manners

That’s why the early courtesy books were so big on table manners – if you’re going to fit in, you need to know how to behave when you’re eating with the rest of us. Here’s some sound advice from Caxton’s The Boke of Curtesye (1477):

William Caxton - The Boke of Curtesye - 1477

Touche not with your mete salt in the saler
Lest folk apoynte you of vnconnyngnesse
Dresse it aparte vpon a clene trencher
Farse not your mouth to ful for wantonesse
Lene not vpon tbe table for that rude is
And yf I shal to you playnly saye
Ouer the table ye shal not spetel conueye

Touch not with meat salt in the cellar,
Lest folk appoint you with uncunningness [ignorance]
Dress it apart, upon a clean trencher [plate]
Force not your mouth too full for wantonness [greed]
Lean not upon the table, for that is rude
And if I shall to you plainly say,
Over the table you shall not spit convey.

Contemporaneously with Caxton’s work is The Boke of Nurture by John Russell, which is a guide for serving men although it covers the manners expected by all in the dining room.

John Russell - The Boke of Nature c.1470

Wrye not youre nek a doyle as hit were a dawe;
Put not youre handes in youre hosen youre codware for to clawe,
Nor pikynge, nor trifelynge ne shiukkynge as thau ye wold sawe;
Yowr hondes frote ne rub brydelynge with brest vppon yowr crawe;
With youre eris pike not ner be ye slow of herynge;
Areche, ne spitt to ferre, ne haue lowd laughynge.

Do not twist you neck awry like a jackdaw,
Do not put your hands in your hose, your cods [testicles] to scratch,
Do not pick, trifle or shrug as if you are sawing {wood},
Do not scratch or rub your hands, or puff out your chest,
Or pick your ears nor be too slow of hearing,
Or retch, nor spit too far, nor laugh too loudly.

Dear Oh Dear ...

So, now you know. And if you think this is all frightfully amusing and how terrible those mediaeval chappies were, here are a few tips from Etiquette and Service of the Table from 1920;
The proper attitude at the table is an erect one. One should not slide down in the chair, rest one's arm on the table, crowd, or discommode one's neighbour. One should eat slowly and quietly, never talking while food is in the mouth.
Salt should never be put upon the table-cloth but on the side of a dish—preferably the bread-and-butter plate—unless individual salts are provided.
Toothpicks, like toothbrushes, should be used only inside of one's room.
Soiled hands, negligee dress, shirt-sleeves and dishevelled hair are inexcusable.
No hot drink should be poured from the cup into the saucer.

Plus ca Change ...

Hardly all that different at all, really.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Conventional Customs of the Mannerly Modes

               I’ll chuck my hat into the ring and add to the list of ‘what is it that oils the wheels of society’ by saying that, in my opinion, manners provide that necessary lubricant. Wait a minute though, you would say that, you might counter, you’re an Englishman after all and what else would you say? However, unlike the language of flowers, or the acrostics of gemstones, manners are another code that you can’t really opt out of, (well, you can, but if you’re English, that’s only going to lead to someone, sometime, tutting at you – maybe, just maybe, when you are still in the room). 


People may call it etiquette, and have done so for over 250 years, but before we stole a French word for it, we called it courtesy (and, yes, I know that comes from Old French roots, but that’s because after 1066, and for the next three hundred years or so, the French were running the show on this side of the Channel). We called it that because it was the sort of proper behaviour that you’d expect to find in a royal court, pretty much in that same way that chivalry is the behaviour you’d expect from a chevalier, or knight. If everyone knows the rules, and sticks to them, then everything turns along nicely, thank you very much, and there are no nasty surprises. Incidentally, in the sixteenth century, that short medial ‘e’ in the word was often elided, and the word was pronounced as Court’sy, from which we get the name of something that you’d often see at court – a curtsey

Caxton - The Boke of Curtasye - 1477

One of the earliest books ever printed in the English language is William Caxton’s The Boke of Curtasye, (1477), showing that back in the fifteenth century there was a ready market for a guide to social behaviour and manners. Caxton’s pointers still sit well today – comb your hair, keep your ears clean, don’t pick your nose and so forth, and he has a long section on table manners, which were obviously an area where people needed a bit of instruction, and he concludes his advice with a section on which authors should be read by a well-bred young fellow (hardly surprising that, from a publisher who printed most of the works he recommends). 

Richard Braithwaite - The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman - 1631 (3rd Ed. 1641)

By 1631, Richard Braithwaite had expanded the field with his The English Gentleman and The English Gentlewoman, which advocated an entire philosophy of life, encompassing disposition, apparel, education, recreations, honour and fancy, rather than telling you not to blow your nose on the tablecloth, and as a practical guide to manners leaves much to be desired. 

William Darrell - The Gentleman Instructed - 1704 (10th Ed. 1732)

In a like manner, William Darrell’s The Gentleman Instructed (1704), which takes the form of a dialogue between Neander, a young man seeking instruction, and Eusebius, his tutor in matters worldly, concerns itself largely with the moral and spiritual education of its protagonist and its practical advice is limited to don’t get drunk, don’t gamble, don’t hang around with mucky women or atheists, don’t go to the theatre and live in fear of eternal damnation, God’s wrath and your dangly bits falling off. 

William Darrell - The Gentleman Instructed - 1704 (10th Ed. 1732)

The point of the early courtesy books was to prepare young middle- and upper-class boys for life at the royal courts. Excluded from trade and other jobs, in times of peace there were only three realistic routes open to these boys; the Law, the Church or the Court, (as for girls, their only future lay in a good marriage). It was the custom of wealthy and powerful men to take a number of boys into their household, to be raised as pages, cup-bearers or ‘henchmen’ (originally, a henchman, or hengestman, was a groom, from Old English hengesta stallion, horse or gelding). These boys were expected to learn table manners, riding, fencing, music, languages and ‘casting accounts’ (basic household finance), and were given extra instruction from works like Erasmus’s Pietas Puerilis (1530), which is a curious blend of Classical maxims and courtesy book (more of the ‘don’t pick your teeth, don’t chew with your mouth open and don’t peer into your hankie when you’ve blown your nose’ stuff). 

Richard Braithwaite - The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman - 1631 (3rd Ed. 1641)

The real change came when social mobility took off following the Industrial Revolution, when it became possible for the base-born to make fortunes in manufacturing or trade. These parvenus, arrivistes and the nouveau riche had not received the graces needed to allow them to take their places alongside those born into rank and privilege, and crash courses were needed to bring them up to snuff, (and, as you see by the French terms used to describe them, there was also a language barrier to contend with, too). The problem was, in using manners as a tool for social exclusion, those responsible were guilty of being bad mannered themselves, as snobbery is just as socially unacceptable as spitting in the street, queue jumping or buying the Daily Mail.

Friday, 31 May 2013

The Floral Furtiveness of the Perplexing Posies

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance;
Pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. That's for thoughts.
There's fennel for you, and columbines:
There's rue for you; and here's some for me:
We may call it herb-grace o' Sundays:
O you must wear your rue with a difference.
There's a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV Scene V

             Ophelia knew of what she spoke, even in her madness. Symbolic meanings have long been attached to flowers, but it was not until Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Aubry de La Mottraye introduced floriography into England and Sweden respectively, in the early eighteenth century from Ottoman Turkey, that the practice took hold in the popular European imagination, as part of the new craze for all things Orientalist. 

Robert Tyas - The Language of Flowers

Before long, the scant descriptions of Montagu and La Mottraye were added to by a long series of writers, from Louise Cortambert’s Le Language des Fleurs (1819), through Henry Phillips’ Floral Emblems (1825), Frederic Shoberl’s Language of Flowers (1834) and Robert Tyas’ Sentiment of Flowers (1836), with an immensely popular edition published by Routledge and illustrated by Kate Greenaway in 1884. 

Language of Flowers - illustrated by Kate Greenaway

A popular method of describing the meanings of individual flowers was the weekly or monthly columns published in magazines and newspapers, which could run over several years without repeating themselves. With such an immense field, there were bound to be conflicting interpretations of the plants and flowers, although in time a general consensus of opinion emerged. 

Frederic Shoberl - The Language of Flowers - 1835

The strength of the medium lay in the ability to use the various individual blooms and plants in combination, thereby producing a ‘phrase’ derived from the meanings of the separate flowers, with the whole being greater than the individual parts. 

Page from Greenaway's Language of Flowers

Thus it was possible to send very subtle and precise messages within a single bouquet, declaring nuances of love and devotion, friendship and sympathy, joy, piety, hope, despair, through to outright animosity and hatred. Fresh flowers betrayed the immediacy of the message, and news and thoughts could be conveyed without inking one’s fingers. 

Crown Imperial, Turk's cap Lily and Lily of the Valley

This illustration, from Flora’s Lexicon by Catharine H Waterman (1855), show a combination of a Crown Imperial, Turk’s Cap Lily and Lily of the Valley, which carries the meaning, ‘You have the power to restore me to happiness’. 

Forget-me-not, Hawthorn and Lily of the Valley

Another example, from Robert Tyas’s The Language of Flowers or Floral Emblems (1869), has Hawthorn, Forget-me-not and Lily of the Valley combined to give the sentiment to a departing loved one, ‘Forget-me-not! in that rests my hope for the return of happiness.’ 

Lilacs, Marvel of Peru and Spiderwort

From the same work, a plate showing Lilacs (Purple and White), Marvel of Peru and Spiderwort illustrates fear and hope alternating in the mind of a youthful aspirant to beauty's favour, ‘Youthful love is timid, and yields but transient pleasure'. 

Even the presentation of the flowers within the bouquet carried meaning; a rosebud or other thorny stem presented bearing both leaves and thorns meant ‘I fear but I hope’, if both leaves and thorns were removed, it became a warning, ‘neither to fear nor hope’, whereas taking away the thorns meant, ‘there is nothing to fear’, but removing the leaves and keeping only the thorns said, ‘there is everything to fear’. 

Rose, Ivy, Myrtle - To Beauty, Friendship and Love

And within the bouquet itself, there was meaning. A flower presented with its leaves intact meant a positive affirmation of its meaning, but taking off the leaves meant that the negative sentiment was intended; in flowerless plants, cutting off the tops of the leaves carried the same intent. When a flower is inclined to the left, the pronoun ‘I’ is intended, when it inclines to the right, ‘thou’ is meant; when tying a ribbon or silk band to a stem, a knot to left as you look at it means ‘I’ or ‘me’, a knot to the front means ‘thou’ or ‘thee’. If an answer to a question is being sent, a flower placed on the right replies in the affirmative, on the left means a negative answer. 

Henry Phillips - Floral Emblems - 1825

When worn on the body, a flower placed on the head means ‘caution’, on the breast it means ‘remembrance’ or ‘friendship’, and over the heart means ‘love’. To modern tastes, some of the meanings seem reasonable enough – beauty by the full-blown rose, oblivion by a poppy, glory by the laurel and peace by the olive, but others seem odd, to say the least. How about sending your love a cabbage (profit), a potato (benevolence) or a pineapple (you are perfect)? 

Page from Greenaway's Language of Flowers

Of course, if the messages were as well known now as they were then, it would not seem in the least bit strange and everything would be tickety-boo and, let’s face, it is a all little bit more inventive and romantic than a dozen red roses on St Valentine’s Day or a mixed bunch of scrawny dahlias, leggy carnations and an unidentifiable stalk of greenery snatched at the last minute from a late-night filling station when you’ve forgotten her birthday. Again.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Cryptic Communications of the Fluttering Fans

                Using jewels as a means of conveying covert messages was but one way of sending secret signals employed by our forbears. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a secret language developed that made use of a ubiquitous fashion accessory – the fan. 

An Autograph Fan

Fans were used for far more than simply keeping cool or swatting away the odd flying insect; there were mourning fans, fortune telling fans, autograph fans, riddle fans, political fans, programme fans and many, many more. 

French Fan c.1750

Opera and theatre fans may have been decorated with bars of music, lyrics or scenes from a play. Game fans bore the rules of a game, with a coloured border of playing cards. Fans were produced to celebrate royal births or marriages. Fans featuring portraits of favourite preachers, and verses and illustrations from the Bible enlivened Church services. 

Heavenly Fans

There were fans of starched lace, feathered fans, silk and taffeta fans, jewelled fans, kid leather fans, painted fans and printed fans, gold and silver fans, plain fans, fancy fans, paper fans, folding fans, fluttering fans; in short, fans of every sort, for every occasion, were everywhere. 

Cherubs and Fan

The fan could be used simply as a means of showing support for a cause, faction or party, just through the colours or an illustration, rather like those used today to display one’s support for a sports team or popular band, but there was another way that depended on how the fan was held and used. 

Frank Brangwyn - The Blue Fan - Silk

At its simplest, this could be something as obvious as holding a closed fan to the right cheek, conveying assent or ‘Yes’, and the reverse message, ‘No’ was sent by holding the closed fan to the left cheek. 

This Lady says Yes

Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator of June 27th 1711, says, 
Women are armed with Fans as men with Swords—and sometimes do more execution with them . . . There is an infinite variety of motions to be made use of in the flutter of a Fan. There is the angry Flutter, the modest Flutter, the timorous Flutter, the confused Flutter, the merry Flutter, and the amorous Flutter … I need not add that a Fan is either a Prude or Coquette according to the nature of the person who bears it!” 

Joseph Addison

As may be expected, this language quickly grew, with specific gestures used to send specific messages. A closed fan placed near the heart meant, ‘You have won my love’, a closed fan resting on the right eye meant, ‘When may I see you?’, the number of sticks folded out from the fan indicated the hour. Drawing a fan across the cheek said, ‘I love you’, drawing a closed fan through the hand said, ‘I hate you’. Clasping the hands beneath an open fan, ‘Please forgive me’; covering the left ear with an open fan, ‘Do not betray our secret.’ 

The Ubiquitous Fan

Closing the fan whilst fanning oneself slowly meant, ‘I am married’, doing the same whilst fanning oneself quickly meant, ‘I am engaged’, closing the fan quickly and impetuously meant, ‘I am impatient’, slowly and deliberately closing a fully opened fan meant, ‘I promise to marry you’. Dropping the fan, ‘I belong to you’, pressing a half-opened fan to the lips, ‘You may kiss me’, pressing a fully-opened fan to the lips, ‘I don’t trust you’, twirling the fan in the right hand, ‘I love another’, twirling the fan in the left hand, ‘We are being watched’. 

Fan Flirtation

The famous Parisian fan-maker, Maison Duvelleroy, even went so far as to present the purchasers of their new fans with a little printed card that gave a brief outline of the code. Which, of course, meant that everyone who bought a fan was in on the secret, and as Duvelleroy’s sold hundreds of thousands of fans, so hundreds of thousands of people made the secret code something less than secret. It was a gimmick, a selling point, and buyers love to believe that they are members of a small group of cognoscenti, belonging to an elite, select minority. 

Dutch Theatre Fan c.1730

Now if the whole of Europe is busy fluttering its fans, flapping and twirling and dropping the things across the continent, there will be occasions when a message got through, under the radar, so to speak, of an inattentive chaperon, but all in all, it was a bit of fun and not really meant to be taken seriously. It was not unlike modern B1ff or 1337-speak (again, LEET derives from ‘elite’, also a manifestation of a secret coding in-crowd), which can be impenetrable to teh n00bs, but is plain when U R pwnage & AYB. 


There were other fan-messaging languages that were used, the simplest of which had the letters of the alphabet printed onto the folds of the fan and all that needed to be done was to spell out words by displaying the individual letters, something which is, again, hardly secret when flashed across a crowded salon. It also implies a remarkably high level of eyesight in the gentlemen of old. 

The Parts of a Fan

A more contrived method is more akin to semaphore signalling, as the alphabet is split into five groups of five letters (‘J’ was omitted), with five movements within each of the five subdivisions – ABCDE FGHIK LMNOP QRSTU VWXYZ. These five movements were: 1 with the left hand to the right arm, 2 with the right hand to the left arm, 3 to the bosom, 4 to the lips and 5 to the forehead. Let’s say you wanted to send the word DEAR, so to begin, the fan is moved onto the right arm, signifying the first group of five letters (ABCDE), and then to the lips, signifying the fourth letter within that group. 

Try doing this with a fan ...

To make ‘E’, the fan is move back to the right arm, then to the forehead, signifying the fifth letter in the first group. ‘A’ is next, again in the first group, so it’s onto the right arm again, and the gesture is repeated to indicate the first letter of the group. Finally, ‘R’ is made by signalling the fourth group of letters, so the lips are touched with the fan, and then moving the fan onto the left arm indicates the second letter of that group. When the whole word has been spelled out, the fan is opened fully, to signal that the word has been completed. 

Ancient Greek Fan

Personally, I’d say a little written note, passed surreptitiously from hand to hand, would be far less bother than all this rigmarole, and far less open to misinterpretation, but then again, that lacks the underlying frisson of the forbidden.


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Surreptitious Signifiers of the Covert Communiques

                 It is a tale they narrate, saying the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to men, bringing them warmth and light, and Zeus punished him for his presumption, chaining him to Mount Caucasus and sending each day an eagle to peck out Prometheus’s liver, only for it to grow back overnight, ready to be eaten again the following day. In time, Zeus relented and freed Prometheus, but in order to fulfil his vow that the Titan would forever be tied to the mountain, he forced Prometheus to wear an iron ring, into which was set a fragment of stone taken from Caucasus, on his finger forevermore. Thus, decorated rings came into the world. 

Prometheus Pecked

Out of the realm of myth, the earliest rings were simple ornaments amongst ancient peoples, often just simple bands of metal, but sometimes decorated, either directly into the metal or with inlaid stones. In Ancient Egypt, it was common practice to seal personal possessions with an inscribed seal-stone, and a convenient method of keeping the seal readily available was to drill a hole through it, pass a wire through the hole and twist it around a finger. Over time, these developed into the familiar signet ring; the modern ‘wedding ring’ was originally a seal-ring, given by a husband to his new wife, so that she might seal her stores of provisions and food with his mark. 

Ancient Egyptian sealing a pot

In Egypt, doors were secured with a cord, and a seal attached, so that it was immediately apparent if the door had been opened by any unauthorised person; over time, as locks were developed, a key served a similar purpose, and although key-rings were once used, these were unwieldy and separate keys for separate locks became the norm. 

Egyptian seals and rings

Alongside signet rings, rings inscribed with a variety of messages were made. The French antiquarian, the Comte de Caylus, in his masterwork, Recueil d'antiquités Égyptiennes, Étrusques, Greques, Romaines et Gauloises (1752-5), includes an illustration of a Greek ring bearing the inscription KIPIA KAΛH, ‘Beautiful Ciria’, and another of a triple ring inscribed ZHCAIC, ‘Mayest thou live.’ 

 Caylus - Greek KIPIA KAΛH ring

Caylus writes that this type of ring was extremely popular with the Greeks and Romans, and all manner of messages were included on them. Later, in early nineteenth century France, a different kind of message ring emerged, it is said from the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, jeweller to Marie Antoinette and the Empress Josephine. Mellerio set his rings with precious and semi-precious stones, the initial letters of their names spelling out an acrostic word or message. 

Jean-Baptiste Mellerio

Thus, if he set a ring with a jacinth, an amethyst, a diamond, an opal, a ruby and an emerald, the first letters of these stones spell out J’ADORE – ‘I love you’. Although the name of your sweetheart might be picked out in this manner, by far the most popular messages were Souvenir and Amitié (Remembrance and Friendship); let’s face it, some amours do not last as long as a precious stone and having to have a ring reset can be pricey. 

Elle Vous Va - It Fits You (think Cinderella - if it fits, you're the one!)

Although England was then at war with France, the fashion spread over the Channel, and acrostic jewellery became very popular, sometimes retaining words or messages in French, sometimes in English. The most popular words were REGARD (Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby and Diamond) and DEAREST (Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire and Topaz). 


This fashion grew throughout the Regency period, reached a peak during Victoria’s reign and continued well into the twentieth century; in 1863, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), presented his bride to be, Princess Alexandria, with a ring set with a beryl, an emerald, a ruby, a turquoise, a jacinth and another emerald, thus spelling the name by which he was most commonly known – Bertie – (the jacinth was used for the ‘i’, as i’s and j’s are classically interchangeable). This devotional sort of jewellery was fine if you had fallen for an Anne, a Beth or a Colin, but if your beloved was a Catherine, a Bartholomew or an Alexandrina, you would have to use a little imagination. Bracelet, brooches, necklaces were obvious solutions, but lockets or snuff boxes could also be set with the correct stones to spell out a longer name. 

Caylus - Greek ZHCAIC ring

In addition to messages of love and devotion, political acrostics were also employed, to surreptitiously indicate one’s espousal to a cause or faction. Wearing a ring set with a ruby, an emerald, a pearl, an emerald, an amethyst and a lapis lazuli, showed that a person was a supporter of the repeal of the Corn Laws.

If you’d like to try it out for yourself, here is a list of possible stones that you could use  - there is no definitive list, and in keeping with the origin of the practice, names are given in French.

A. Amethiste. Aigue-marine.
B. Brilliant cut Diamond.
C. Chrisolithe. Carnaline. Chrisophrase.
D. Diamant.
E. Emeraude.
F. No Stone
G. Grenat.
H. Hiacinthe.
I. Iris.
J. Jasper.
K. No Stone.
L. Lapis lazuli.
M. Malachite.
N. Natralithe.
O. Onix. Opale.
P. Perle. Peridot. Purpurine.
Q. No Stone
R. Rubis. Rose diamant.
S. Saphir. Sardoine.
T. Turquoise. Topaze.
U. Uraine.
V. Vermeille (especially yellow garnet)
X. Xepherine.
Y. Z. No Stones.

Anne of Cleves - with a thumb and two finger rings

As ‘k’ and ‘w’ are not used in French (apart from in loan and regional words), and because some letters have no stones, English jewellers might substitute a coloured stone for a missing gem, with the initial letter of the colour standing in for the name of a precious stone. This makes for difficulties in interpreting the meaning on some pieces of jewellery, the meaning of which may only have been known to the jeweller and the owner of a piece. Bear in mind too that stones have different names in different languages – Emerald/Emeraude is fine for the letter ‘e’ in English and French, but it is called Smaragd in German, so would stand instead for an ‘s’.