Manners of children in the Middle Ages

The manners of children in the Middle Ages, despite the modern image in culture, were quite developed and similar to Манеры детей в Средневековье как ели дети в средние века касл мэн castle men

Modern parents pay considerable attention to the upbringing of their children and their manners; what were the manners of children in the Middle Ages?

Thanks to modern cinema, many are inclined to think that the people of the Middle Ages were very ill-mannered: they ate with their hands, threw food from the table to dogs, burped, spat on the floor, etc.

But in reality everything was different, since in the Middle Ages manners mattered. After all, even then, parents wanted to teach their children how to behave well at home and in society so that they could take the best positions in life. Manners were so important that an entire genre of literature was developed to teach children to mind their manners, called politeness books.

Courtesy books were small books or short treatises that laid out in clear and simple language how a child should behave in all aspects of his life, from dressing to walking, reading, playing and eating.

We know that in Western Europe such books appeared only in the 12th century, but in the territory of Ancient Rus’, mentions of such books appear a little later.

It was in the 12th century that romantic narratives became especially popular and stories were circulated that depicted an idealized world in which well-bred knights and ladies went on adventures. The good characters in these stories were always unusually courteous. The main characters adhere to a certain code of chivalry, which, in addition to proper behavior in battle, also requires certain behavior in society. These trends were also reflected in approaches to raising children.

Inspired parents wanted their children to be as well-mannered as the knights and their ladies. Early examples of such creativity were written in Latin by members of the clergy. One such text is De Institutione Noviciorum, which was written by Hugh of Saint-Victor in 1141 (or slightly earlier). In this work, Hugh taught the novices of his abbey how to properly dress, speak, behave and eat.

Such books quickly became extremely popular and spread throughout Europe. Initially they were distributed in Latin, but by the 13th century their examples began to spread in French and other languages. The transition from Latin (which was read almost exclusively by the clergy and members of the aristocracy) to vernacular languages shows that the genre soon gained wide popularity beyond court circles.

So what do these politeness books teach?

Book of Politeness

One of the most representative and popular examples of this genre is the “Book of Politeness,” written in 1452-1477. It gives a good idea of the behavior that was expected of children living in the Middle Ages.

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Манеры детей в Средневековье и средние века касл мэн castle men
The first lines of The Book of Politeness, printed by William Caxton

This book, using language accessible to a child, teaches him how to behave correctly. Here’s a summary of what the author thinks a child should do:

When you wake up in the morning, first of all pay attention to your prayers. Then comb your hair, clean your ears, clear your face and nose of the “muck” inside. But don’t do it with your hand because it’s a dirty and impolite thing to do. You should then wash your hands and trim your nails if necessary. Then get dressed: put on your hood, dress, stockings and shoes.

When leaving the house, do so with a pleasant expression on your face. Speak politely to everyone you see, and walk slowly and modestly. Don’t run away, throw stones or sticks, or fight with dogs. Walk quietly and politely, so that everyone who sees you will say: “A good child is passing by.”

When you go to church, follow the rules established there, remain silent and do what you are supposed to do. Keep a humble and obedient expression on your face the entire time you are in church.

When talking to others, look them straight in the eyes, maintain a pleasant expression, and do not look around, as this will be perceived as “meaningless fickleness.”

When you serve at the table of your master or sovereign, be very obliging so that no guilt is found in you. Be attentive at the table, do not sit alone in the corner and be sure to look at your master or sovereign to make sure that he is satisfied. Remain silent most of the time, but if you do speak, be sure to remember what you are saying, where you are, who you are talking to, and who you are talking about.

When you eat by yourself, be sociable, no matter who you are with. Do not humiliate others – this is an unpleasant act. Speak little so as not to irritate others, and when you speak, speak only with good intentions. Don’t be greedy with food. Sit for a while before eating to practice moderation and eat only what you need. Keep your cup clean and wipe your lips when you drink. Don’t blow on drinks and food. Avoid touching your face or head while eating and keep the knife away from your face. Do not loosen your belt while sitting at the table, it is extremely impolite. Don’t burp or fart. Don’t dip meat in the salt shaker. Don’t lean on the table or spit on it. Share your delicacies with other diners to be seen as kind and generous, and don’t complain if your portion is small. Don’t chew bones because dogs do that. Instead, use a knife to cut the meat. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Don’t cut your nails or pick your teeth at the table. And after finishing your meal, wash your hands so thoroughly that there is no dirt left on the towel.

When playing, be sure to only play proper and fair games. For fun and joy, learn to play the harp or lute, sing and dance. Practice reading eloquent books in which you will find both education and entertainment.

William Caxton, 15th century

Now you see that children’s manners were of great importance to their parents in the Middle Ages. Children were taught to look after themselves in all aspects of life and to be reasonably polite. And the existence of an entire genre of literature on this topic confirms how important politeness and courtesy were in medieval culture.

Additionally, through this link, you can find a wealth of fascinating information about the Middle Ages and medieval castles.