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Advice and Etiquette Books


ADVICE AND ETIQUETTE BOOKS. Advice and etiquette books have many names: courtesy books, books of conduct, books of manners, and books that teach "civility." They are different from practical "how to" books of advice, the manuals that taught Europeans how to cook, how to duel, and how to conceive a male child. Advice and etiquette books had other goals. They set forth the inherent or acquired qualities which the gentleman or gentlewoman must possess. They described the education, interests, and amusements that formed the ideal gentleman and gentlewoman. They discussed social conduct, what the individual should and should not do in the society of others. And the manuals emphasized moderation: nothing should be done in excess. The golden rule was to follow the mean. Advice and etiquette books also had a moral dimension and a high tone. The authors believed that individuals who followed their advice would grow in moral probity with benefits for all of society.

Advice and etiquette books were written and read throughout Europe. The most popular works were quickly translated from Latin into vernacular languages, or from one vernacular language to another, and widely sold and read. Many were written for both men and women but focused primarily on the behavior of men and boys. A growing number of works intended exclusively for women appeared over time, especially in eighteenth-century England.

The Renaissance was the golden age of advice books. It produced many, including the three most influential works of the period 1500 to 1800. The first was Il cortegiano (1528; The book of the courtier) of Baldassare Castiglione (14781529). It is far more than a courtesy book. It is a rounded, subtle, evocative, idealized but also equivocal picture of the high-ranking men and women who comprised the court of the small north Italian Renaissance princedom of Urbino between 1506 and 1508. It delves into profound philosophical issues and has some off-color humor, which later editors sometimes expurgated. It is a beautifully written classic of Italian literature.

But later readers viewed it as an advice and etiquette manual describing the qualities that a successful courtier should have in order to get ahead. These included a sound education to be worn lightly, many social accomplishments such as dancing and swordsmanship, and the ability to engage in graceful conversation. Above all, the courtier had to perform with grace and without seeming effort, with what Castiglione called sprezzatura. The book's appearance at a propitious moment in the evolution of European politics ensured popular success. The city-state republican government, in which a range of citizens from merchant and professional ranks participated, was giving way to a Europe of princedoms and monarchies, in which winning favor from those higher in politics and society was all-important. Castiglione's book seemed to offer the ideal training for getting ahead in this new world of the courts of princes and kings. Later editors and translators stressed this aspect. By the seventeenth century, The Book of the Courtier was increasingly seen as a guide to civilized behavior for Europe's noble classes and those who wanted to join them. The original Italian text and translations into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Latin reached a total of 150 editions by 1750, and it had many imitations.

In 1530 Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) published a short work called De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (On good manners for boys). While addressed to boys, it told parents and tutors what they should strive to achieve in their sons and pupils. The book dealt with proper appearance, posture, table manners, dress, behavior in church and at banquets, ways of meeting people respectfully, appropriate games, and admonitions to pardon the shortcomings of others. It was a manual of external behavior for boys based on the belief that the molded boy would become the polished man. It did not deal with the complex issues found in Castiglione's classic. The third Renaissance manual of deportment with wide influence was Il Galateo (published 1558) of Giovanni Della Casa (15031556). The subtitle announced that it was a treatise of manners, customs, and the uses of conversation. It dealt with manners in the limited meaning of table manners and external social behavior. It described how one might to get along and rise in a world of superiors and inferiors. An adroit combination of education and social graces would help the individual survive the buffets of fortune. These two works also had many printings, translations, and imitations.

Advice and etiquette books in the next twoand-one-half centuries echoed, refined, and modified the advice found in the earlier works without challenging their basic principles. The new ones summarized or expanded the material and adapted it to social circumstances. Many had a more overt moralizing tone. Some new manuals were specifically directed to those who would serve monarchs and princes.

In France treatises on l'honnête homme, the gentleman who was well bred, courteous, honorable, civil, polite, and moderate, and knew how to please at court, began to appear in the middle of the seventeenth century. Sometimes the advice was reduced to pithy epigrams. For example, the Spanish Jesuit priest Baltasar Gracián (16011658) published his Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (Oracle manual and the art of prudence) in 1647. It summarized correct behavior in epigrams such as "Avoid victories over your superior. . . . Conceal your pur pose. . . . Know how to be all things to all men." While it conveyed much of the same advice as other advice and etiquette books, its tone was darker. It also was translated into English, French, Italian, Latin, and Hungarian and had considerable influence.

Books of advice and etiquette intended for women, especially gentlewomen, were particularly numerous in eighteenth-century England. These books wanted women to have a broad but not deep education, including French, drawing, sewing, and the ability to sing or play a musical instrument. Women should know how to dance. The books emphasized the importance of a polite tongue to be employed in useful and pleasing conversation. Laughter and wit were encouraged, but should not be so loud as to give offense or so sharp as to hurt others. Women should avoid vanity, behave modestly, and guard their chastity. Above all, good character led to good deportment and manners. Good manners reflected an inner good nature, which was a mix of good will and pleasant behavior incorporating refined taste and discrimination. The heroines of the novels of Jane Austen (17751817) almost always embodied the ideals of eighteenth-century English courtesy books for women. Fortunately, Austen's heroines displayed far more wit, humor, and perception, along with proper behavior, than did the manuals.

Advice and etiquette books were extraordinarily popular throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries because they met a need. Men and women wanted advice about how to behave well and how to maintain self-respect while climbing the ladder of success or holding to high rungs. Advice and etiquette books seldom dealt with the unpleasant tradeoffs between success and honor.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Castiglione, Baldassare ; Court and Courtiers ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Gentleman .


Primary Sources

Castiglione, Baldessare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Garden City, N.Y., 1959, plus many reprints.

Della Casa, Giovanni. Galateo. Translated with introduction and notes by Konrad Eisenbichler and Kenneth R. Bartlett. Toronto, 1986.

Erasmus, Desiderius. De civilitate morum puerilium. In Erasmus: Literary and Educational Writings, 3. Edited by J. K. Sowards. Translated by Brian McGregor.

. Collected Works of Erasmus, 25. Toronto, Buffalo, and London, 1985. English translation on pp. 269289.

Secondary Sources

Burke, Peter. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione's Cortegiano. University Park, Pa., 1996.

Fritzer, Penelope Joan. Jane Austen and Eighteenth-Century Courtesy Books. Westport, Conn., and London, 1997.

Paul F. Grendler

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