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Manners For The Well-bred Medieval Woman

Medieval manners

Manners were a very important part of a medieval woman's life. The common misconception of a rough and rude society with little polish is a widely-mistaken belief.

It is true that medieval life could be violent and dangerous but people from all walks of life were bound to adhere to a certain amount of daily courtesy. To fail to do so was social peril and could cost a person their life for an insult, whether real or perceived, against a person of higher social standing.

The late medieval poem, How The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter gives motherly advice for general deportment in public:

And when thou goest on thy way,
Go thou not too fast,
Brandish not with thy head,
Nor with thy shoulders cast,
Have not too many words,
From swearing keep aloof.
For all such manners
Come to an evil proof.

Social etiquette for the well-bred woman
Social standing and ones place in society was everything in the medieval world. One might hope to advance through material gains but had little hope to do so without the correct courtesy and manners.

A woman was always expected to be the epitome of good manners no matter what her status in life and the higher a woman was born, the more essential it was for her to act appropriately.

Conversation and speech
Manners which were appropriate for a man were not always appropriate for a woman. Indeed, it was completely unseemly that a woman swear for any reason whatsoever. Common women might, but generally, it wasn't good breeding. It would bring great shame upon her father or husband.

The medieval writer, Robert of Blois, admitted that ladies needed to know how to behave, but that it was difficult for women-

If she speaks, someone says it is too much. If she is silent, she is reproached for not knowing how to greet people. If she is friendly and courteous, someone pretends it is for love. If on the other hand, she does not put on a bright face, she passes for being too proud.

A woman who entered a conversation with a stranger would only gain herself a bad reputation and to accept a kiss from a male friend or acquaintance or from a man who is not related by blood or marriage, even on the cheek, would have had tongues wagging and have ruined a woman's reputation.

In the middle ages, a woman's reputation was everything.

One must never address a social superior first, especially if one was a woman, and an appropriate greeting must be given. It was considered the height of rudeness to avert your gaze to a man or woman who ranked higher than oneself. Honesty was judged by the directness in the eyes and to hide ones face was interpreted as dishonesty and ill-intent.

It was also unthinkable for a woman to turn her back on a social superior. She should wait for the person to pass or have removed herself from the room backwards.

When introducing a person, should there have been no man to do it for her, convention dictated that a woman must introduce the highest rank to the lowest and then vice versa. This is still true for introductions today.

An error in the order of introduction could have been a grave insult indeed. Should a woman have found herself in the company of important people and another important one arrive, she must bow and move away to permit the newcomer the privilege of standing closer.

When a woman entered the house or room of a person of equal standing, a woman ought bow. If of higher standing, she must kneel on the right knee. Should she have been presented to the Queen, she knelt at the door, entered only halfway and knelt again. Only if she was motioned further might she have gone closer.

It was always better to err on the side of caution in this regard as it was better to appear humble and meek than ill-mannered and rude.

Women were instructed to be gracious in their deporture and not wriggle their shoulders, looking straight ahead with a tranquil and measured air. When out in society, is was important that a woman's hands not be touched by a man who is not of her family. Hand-holding was quite inappropriate.

Robert de Blois also wrote that

Ladies should walk erect, with dignity, neither trotting nor running, nor dallying either, with their eyes fixed on the ground ahead of them. They were to be particularly careful that they do not regard men as the sparrowhawk does the lark.

When traveling outside the home, it was acceptable for any woman to walk arm in arm with her female companion or a male member of her family. A woman of good breeding did not venture out alone. A working woman or a mother in a small peasant household may have cause to go out alone, but only when unavoidable.

Where possible, she would send a son on an errand on her behalf or seek the security of another woman's company when going to the bakehouse or to the creek for washing.

Dressing appropriately
Hair was almost certainly to be covered in one of the latest fashions outside the house.

For a great deal of the medieval period, to go out with a bare head when one was not a child, could have a woman marked as a prostitute or a women of dubious morals.

Unless one was a washerwoman or a engaged in manual labour, arms were never bare. If a gown with wide sleeves was worn, then another with close fitted sleeves was worn under it to prevent this happening.

At certain times, the fashion for lower cut gowns were popular. Of course, one who wore her dress too, low-cut was marked for comment and gossip. It was assertained that a woman's neckline may be low, as low as her armpits, but no lower.

It was extrememly important that her chemise not show, until the renaissance and Italian fashions took hold.

A good general rule of thumb was that the under layer was covered by the next: the chemise was covered by the kitrle, the kirtle by the surcote. One would not expect to find a visible kirtle neckline under a surcote.

Chemise sleeves were never seen in public. Only if the pin-on sleeves had been removed for manusal tasks might they be visible, but a women never left the house or would recieve company without first covering them. The exception might be farm workers with short-sleeved kirtles on a hot summer's day, as seen in the image at the right, from the Tres Huers du Duk du Berry, early 15th century.

Accepting gifts from men
The Medieval Art of Love by Michael Camille tells us a little about love's gifts, what may and may not be freely given to a lady without being inappropriate.

He tells us of a text by Andreas Capellanus which states-

A lover may freely accept from her beloved these things- a handkerchief, a hairband, a circlet of gold or silver, a brooch for the breast, a mirror, a belt, a purse, a lace for clothes, a comb, cuffs, gloves, a ring, a little box of scent, a portrait, toiletries, little vases, trays, a standard as a keepsake of the lover, and so to speak more generally, a woman may accept from her love whatever gift may be useful in the care of her person, or may look charming, or may remind her of her lover, providing, however, that in accepting the gift it is clear that she is acting quite without avarice.

This also gives us an insight into what kinds of items were freely available at that time.

Medieval Table Manners
Medieval people were very religious and prayer was an integral part of the day. A prayer would certainly always be said before any meal even when eating at home.

Hands were always washed both before and after a meal. Even people with little in the way of tableware were conscious of basic hygiene and good manners. Mothers have, after all, changed very little over the course of time and always sought to instill the best manners she can in her offspring. There is little hope of social improvement with no manners and should one be called upon to serve a person of higher rank, and it was imperative that offense not be given, even unintentionally.

A feast would begin by less important people washing their hands before going to the table. To fail to do so was the height of rudeness. The upper class and guests of honour would be seated by a servant. A washing bowl would be delivered to them at the high table.

The chaplain would say a prayer before any of the food is brought to the tables. Communal plates were usual and meant to serve four people at once. The guests at the high table, however, only had to share with one other person.

The image at right shows a scene from the Duk du Berry's Tres Riches Heures, illuminated 1412-1416. Food and fine clothing show a standard of living above the average man.

The Roman de la Rose, a famous French poem from the 13th century, gives advice to a woman in her table manners:

She ought also to behave properly at table. She must be very careful not to dip her fingers in the sauce up to the knuckles, nor to smear her lips with soup or garlic or fat meat, nor to take too many pieces or too large a piece and put them in her mouth.

She must hold the morsel with the tips of her fingers and dip it into the sauce, whether it be thick, thin, or clear, then convey the mouthful with care, so that no drop of soup or sauce or pepper falls on to her chest.

When drinking, she should exercise such care that not a drop is spilled upon her, for anyone who saw that happen might think her very rude and coarse. And she must be sure never to touch her goblet when there is anything in her mouth. Let her wipe her mouth so clean that no grease is allowed to remain upon it, at least not upon her upper lip, for when grease is left on the upper lip, globules appear in the wine, which is neither pretty nor nice.

Medieval manners for the table

- Persons of lower rank stand upon the head of the house and important guests entering or leaving the room
- One uses one's own knife which was brought with oneself.
- Forks were cooking utensils. Never eat with them.
- Food is picked up by stabbing with the knife but NEVER did the knife go to the mouth.
- The food must be removed fromt he knife with the fingertips to eat.
- Do not make many selections and gather them to your plate.
- Keep your elbows off the table while eating.
- Do not belch or spit at the table.
- Do not stuff your mouth full.
- Do not dip meat or fingers directly into the salt bowl. Use the knife tip.
- Do not leave a spoon in a dish when you were finished.
- Do not use the knife to pick your teeth.
- Do not take all the choicest morsels for yourself.
- Meat should be cut from the joint.
- Bread should be cut, not broken and the upper crust offered to the guest.
- It is acceptable to select fruits, tarts and morsels with one's fingers.
- A spoon should be used for broth. Do not lift the plate to your mouth.
- Under no circumstances eat the trencher (plate of stale bread).
- Napkins to be placed over the left shoulder or left wrist and used.
- Do not wipe your mouth on your sleeve- use a napkin.
- Take a cup with both hands to drink if it is shared.
- Wipe your mouth on a napkin before drinking from a shared vessel.
- If you are offered a drink from the host's cup, do not pass the cup around.

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