“It never helps historians to say too much about their working methods,” wrote Keith Thomas in a Diary piece for the London Review of Books. “For just as the conjuror’s magic disappears if the audience knows how the trick is done, so the credibility of scholars can be sharply diminished if readers learn everything about how exactly their books came to be written.” It’s a case, in other words, of history and the decline of magic.
There is, however, no trickery in the working methods of Thomas, the ethnographical historian of early modern England, who produces a vast book on a vast subject every ten years. The original cut-and-paste machine, Thomas’s procedure is to read everything ever written during the period in question, and to write his notes and quotations on sheets of paper, which he then slices up with a pair of scissors. The accumulated strips pile on to his desk and the surrounding floor until, eventually, he “files them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic… The envelopes run into thousands”. It is hard, from this description, not to imagine him as a modern-day Casaubon, compiling his Key to all Mythologies.
Thomas gets “cross” when reviewers complain that he simply empties his envelopes on to the page, but this is precisely how In Pursuit of Civility reads. Every paragraph is loaded with quotations from Cicero to Benjamin Franklin, and while 20 years ago erudition of this type suggested omniscience, it looks now as if the author has run a Google search and included all 42,000 entries. Discussing, for example, breeding and politeness, Thomas collates the contradictory views of William Godwin (“much true politeness may often be found in a cottage”), Lord Chesterfield (“what is good breeding at St James’s would pass for foppery or banter in a remote village”), Abraham Tucker (for whom polite behaviour was a way of proving your breeding rather than pleasing the company), James Fenimore Cooper (who divided “deportment” into “that which, by marking refinement and polish, is termed ‘breeding’; and that which… is usually termed ‘manners’”), Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Addison, and two unknown 17th-century figures referred to simply as “an observer” and “a writer”.
So dependent is his method on the authority of quotation that, in his LRB piece, Thomas quotes from another authority in order to explain the quantity of quotations: “In GM Young’s famous words, my aim is to go on reading until I can hear the people talking.” What is striking about the talk we hear in In Pursuit of Civility, is how very like our own talk it all sounds.
When I discovered Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) as an A level student I went on reading until I could hear nothing but Keith Thomas and his cacophony of commentators. This was history as crowd management, anthropology and time travel: I was airlifted out of the Eighties and into a bustling world of witches, fairies, alchemy and highly articulate observers. I liked these jabbering people who spoke this crazily different English but expressed fears that were so familiar to our own; I liked the fact that Thomas relied – indeed, shaped his work on – the power of vox pop, and best of all I liked his authorial invisibility: the fact that he turned the historian into a blend of interviewer and continuity announcer. In his dry and understated manner, Thomas opened up the minds of our grandparents and revealed the terrors that festered therein: the effect was like being plugged into the National Grid.
The only book whose atmosphere and energy came close to that of Religion and the Decline of Magic was The Civilizing Process (1939), Norbert Elias’s account of how the restraint of our bodily and emotional impulses allowed us to live together in a relatively ordered fashion. This, for me, was a great technicolour movie of a book, a wild and soaring achievement, but Thomas disagreed. In his 1978 review of The Civilizing Process, Thomas described it as badly organised and inelegantly written. “For all its wealth of insights and suggestions,” he wrote, “the argument is complex, back-tracking, repetitive, and occasionally elusive.” But since “no more detailed history of manners and bodily propriety has yet been written”, Norbert Elias would have to do. It would take a future historian – himself, in fact – to “fully develop” Elias’s project, and include “the many closely associated topics” that had been overlooked, such as “laughter and weeping, clothes, and the treatment of body hair”.
If Elias, as Sellar and Yeatman said of the Cavaliers in 1066 and All That, was “Wrong but Wromantic”, it does not mean that Thomas, like the Roundheads, is “Right but Repulsive”, although definitions of repulsion are at the core of his argument. In Pursuit of Civility develops Elias’s project but without his sense of wonder, and still omitting the discussion of body hair. Thomas’s argument is just as complex, back-tracking, repetitive, badly organised and inelegantly expressed. A 450-page book simply cannot contain a subject this vast: it’s like trying to put the Atlantic ocean in a cupboard. A comprehensive history of civility in the early modern period would need to be as long as the Arabian Nights, which, according to legend, is impossible to read to the end.
There is a thrill, however, in the sheer impossibility of the task, and in watching Thomas spill his envelopes. What was it, he asks, “that the people of early modern England regarded as distinctive and superior about their way of living”? The question is both specific and vague. By “the people” he means all levels of life, from peasant to parvenu, but mainly the men; by “early modern” he means, loosely, the time between the early 16th century and the French Revolution (although he ranges far beyond); and by “civility” he means that “slippery” and “unstable” term defined by Dr Johnson as both “politeness” and “the state of being civilised”, but which otherwise means whatever you want it to mean, from the use of napkins to the disobedience of the Irish.
To broaden Elias’s perspective, Thomas includes theories of civility in Classical antiquity, and European encounters with the manners of the Chinese, the Ottomans, and the New World. He also corrects Elias’s various “misunderstandings” of the past, such as his denial of the civilising effects of religion, and his belief that the Middle Ages were a time of unrestrained violence in which urinating and defecating in public were “invested only slightly with feelings of shame or repugnance”. Medieval bodily functions, Thomas counters, were in fact “surrounded by a huge range of euphemisms” – the term “privy” speaks for itself – and what Elias saw as the anger of medieval kings was only “a stylised form of behaviour regarded as appropriate to their status”. The protocols of Anglo-Saxon monarchs were equally formal, making the mead hall as culturally complex as the court of Charles II.
Manners were not, as Elias suggests, a 16th-century invention. There has never been, says Thomas, a society without its own conventions of bodily comportment, emotional restraint and social interaction. In other words, there has never been a linear “civilising process” at all, and the job of the historian is to uncover what Thomas calls “the story of how different patterns of conventional restraint have succeeded each other”. To tell this story he rounds up his witnesses, chief of whom is the French political philosopher Montesquieu. “The more people there are in a nation”, he wrote in 1748, “who need to deal with each other and not cause displeasure, the more politeness there is.” The spread of civility, Thomas argues, is due to the increase of human interdependence.
Civility has not been hard to pursue in his own way of living. A Welshman who has always “approached the English people in the way an anthropologist approaches the inhabitants of an unfamiliar society”, Thomas has spent six decades as, variously, a fellow of All Souls College, president of Corpus Christi, and pro-vice-chancellor of Oxford University. But the university was not always the home of good manners. For the gentleman of quality, Thomas explains, the Grand Tour was considered the polite alternative to an Oxford education because it bypassed the influence of the “clownish”, “rude” and “ill-bred” dons. These days, Thomas laments, Oxford colleges promote themselves as “friendly and informal”.
For civility to be maintained, barbarism must be eradicated – whatever barbarism is agreed to be. In 5th-century Athens, a barbarian was a man who couldn’t speak Greek, but “barbaric” has been equally applied to Quakers (who refused to “bow their bodies” and “wag their hats” in the presence of “superiors”), smokers (a habit learned, said James I, from the “wild, godless and slavish Indians”), effeminate men, beer drinkers, the act of burying the dead in churches, the denying of education to women, the mistreatment of dogs, and the keeping of slaves. Also barbaric is wiping your nose on your sleeve in the presence of the king, blowing your nose on the table cloth, and blowing your nose into your hand and then wiping that hand on your sleeve, or the tablecloth.
The whole history of barbarism has been played out at the dinner table: until the mid-17th century not even those in polite society used separate cutlery, and less polite society had to wait another century before it was fashionable to have your own fork. Until then it was considered barbarian to plunge your entire hand, rather than three fingers, into the pot when serving yourself at supper, or to pass the goblet around the table without first wiping your spittle off the rim.
So what did politeness mean to those who were considered barbarian, who lived beneath thatch and slept on straw, who knew nothing about literature, art, music, travel, or garden design, who had never seen a town or worn a gown? Civility for the rustic meant honesty, sexual propriety, deference to superiors, not pushing in a crowd and maintaining peaceable relations with friends and neighbours. Without its own code of manners, Thomas says, any social group would dissolve into anarchy. But while the lower orders were expected to imitate the upper orders, the upper orders might also have looked to the lower orders. The 17th-century philosopher Bernard Mandeville thought that “plain, untaught people” were more honest and less deceitful than their superiors, a view endorsed by Wordsworth in 1798 when he endowed leech gatherers, mad mothers and idiot boys with poetic dignity in his Lyrical Ballads.
Meanwhile, the fops and dandies were always in danger of being emasculated by the strong and hardy workers. The Puritan soldier Colonel John Hutchinson hated nothing more “than an insignificant gallant that could only make his legs and preen himself” and had “not bravery enough” to behave like a plain and downright man. Cleanliness was important across the scale: Thomas cites the 18th-century criminal who chose to be pressed to death rather than “hanged in a dirty shirt and ragged coat”. Literacy was, of course, essential to civility, which means that early modern England was “only half-civilised”, since by the 18th century only half the men and a quarter of the women could sign their names.
Thomas finds civility in unlikely places. Duelling, he suggests, was thought to be civilising because the risk of being challenged prevented men from behaving like coxcombs. The Jacobean enclosure of royal forests brought about civil and religious order, the enclosure of fields in the 18th century rooted out the indolence and vagrancy associated with common land, and property-ownership was considered, by Lord Clarendon, the foundation of civilised society.
For an early settler in New England, “a civilised commonwealth” would result from the use of salt to preserve fish, thus allowing the Native Americans a diet that included more than insects and reptiles. While dancing was “U” (upper class), in Nancy Mitford’s distinction, dancing masters were non-U. Lord Chesterfield’s famous instructions to his son, said Dr Johnson, taught him “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master”. Such manners included crossing your legs, splaying your feet, and leading people by the hand – gestures Sir Joshua Reynolds banned in his studio.
In his final chapter, Thomas reflects on today’s world, in which civility means the recognition of equality, the right to self-expression, and the tolerance of difference. The new barbarians, in my view, are those who conduct phone conversations on trains and take selfies outside Auschwitz. But these actions are not, insists Thomas, signs of a “decivilising process”, because they do not threaten the internal order. I disagree, but then civility, to quote Barack Obama, is about disagreeing without being disagreeable.
Frances Wilson’s books include “Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Bloomsbury)
In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England
Yale University Press, 457pp, £25
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis