Manners in Middle Class Early Modern England – Keith Thomas

In this extract from his book, In Pursuit of Civility, Keith Thomas looks at manners, civility and codes of refinement in the professional and commercial middle classes of early modern England.

High-change in Bond Street,—ou—la Politesse du Grande Monde” James Gillray, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether they lived in London or the provinces, the professional and commercial middle classes of early modern England had codes of refinement and polite behaviour that were often independent of those of the court and the gentry, and in some ways exceeded them.[1] Urban traders had always set a high value on courteous, honest and sober dealing, and shopkeepers were noted for their ‘extreme civility’, bordering on obsequiousness.[2] This was not invariably the case, for in 1552 the Privy Council found it necessary to warn the butchers of London that their wives and servants should use gentle and honest language with their customers.[3] Normally, however, ‘obliging behaviour’ and ‘genteel deportment’ were accepted as important qualifications for anyone engaged in commerce. ‘They who would enfavour themselves for the advantage of any business,’ noted a contemporary in 1638, ‘must show themselves affable, smooth and courteous.’ The man who stood behind the counter had to be ‘all courtesy, civility, and good manners’. No discourteous trader, it was claimed, had ever risen to a great fortune; and the economic expansion of eighteenth-century England would have been impossible without a widespread ethic of honesty, courtesy and trustworthiness.[4] When the traveller Richard Pococke visited the pottery towns in 1750, he encountered ‘much civility and obliging behaviour, as they look on all that come among them as customers’.[5] Similarly, a Swiss visitor warned against what he called ‘the dangerous civility’ of the people of Paris, with which they encouraged people to buy more than they had intended.[6]

Bernard Mandeville has left us a fine description of the ingratiating and gentlemanlike manner of a mercer as he sets out to entrap a fine young lady into buying his expensive silks. Anyone who wanted grand ladies as his customers had to be ‘a very polite man, and skilled in all the punctilios of City good- breeding . . . He must dress neatly and affect a court air.’[7] In 1774 the great hosiery manufacturer Jedediah Strutt gave a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his son, urging him to acquire ‘the manners, the air, the genteel address, and polite behaviour of a gentleman’ as they would prove essential when he came to do business in the world.[8]

Eighteenth-century defenders of the commercial interest would argue that trade refined and polished manners, because it encouraged more extensive contact with the rest of the world. Their claim was fully borne out by the behaviour of contemporary merchants, salesmen and innkeepers. To sell goods it was important to have an empathetic feeling for the needs and desires of others. An essential precondition of this polite style, however, was commercial competition. When, as in the case of the ferrymen on the River Severn, the seller had a monopoly, there was no ‘stimulus to ensure civility’; and the ferrymen could be as rude and offensive as they wished.[9] The same was true of porters, wagoners and carriers, who were ‘the rudest and most uncivilized part of the nation’, and of seamen, who were ‘as rough, surly, and ill- natured as the element they live upon’. Customs officers were another occupational group who had nothing to gain by being civil.[10] For rather different reasons, surgeons were noted for ‘a strange kind of rusticity of manners and ill-nature, which they contract by their continued austerity and necessary cruelty to their patients in performing their operations’.[11]

An important civilizing role was played by the thousands of voluntary clubs and societies that sprang up all over the country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[12] They included associations of like- minded friends who met in taverns and eating places to drink, dine and converse. Some of these became aggressively masculine gatherings, bawdy and drunken. Others, such as the Jacobean meetings of poets, lawyers and politicians associated with Ben Jonson and his friends, were self-conscious agents of cultivated sociability. The rules for Jonson’s Apollo Club in the early 1620s pointedly dissociated its members from the aristocratic rowdies of the day:

And let our only emulation be
Not drinking much but talking wittily.
 . . .
To fight and brawl (like Hectors) let none dare,
Glasses or windows break, or hangings tear.[13]

Sailors Carousing” by Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Peaceful conviviality could also be achieved in a domestic context. In the reign of Henry VIII, the historian Polydore Vergil noted that the ‘common sort’ of London citizens were in the habit of inviting their friends to dine or sup in their houses, ‘accounting it a great part of gentleness (humanitas)’. During the ensuing two centuries, the in pursuit of civility 86 middle- class home became better equipped for entertaining visitors. As houses were enlarged, room spaces were differentiated and expenditure increased on tables, linen, cutlery and tableware, domestic eating and drinking became an important aspect of what contemporaries regarded as ‘civility’.[14] The authors of the cookery books of the period took it for granted that their readers would want to entertain at meals ‘their kindred, friends, allies and acquaintances’; and the frequency of such domestic entertaining is confirmed by the diaries of the time.[15] Mild intoxication was accepted as a helpful aid to convivial conversation, though in the eighteenth century the new nonalcoholic drinks of coffee, tea and chocolate also played a central role in public sociability. The tea party became a ubiquitous social ritual, while it was claimed that the coffeehouses attracted such ‘civil’ and ‘intelligent’ company that they could not fail to ‘civilize our manners, enlarge our understandings, refine our language, [and] teach us a generous confidence and handsome mode of address’.[16]

Coffeehouse in London, 17th century
Attribution: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Urban sociability of all kinds was much recommended by the courtesy writers. It was a recognized code of civility among ‘the ordinary civil sort of people’, as one contemporary called them,[17] though not everyone adhered to it. An observant writer explained in 1585 that there were three sorts of men whose manners were to be reprehended: those who neither invited neighbours to dinner nor accepted invitations from them; those who invited them, but declined return invitations; and those who accepted invitations, but never issued any themselves.[18]

It was with good reason that Richard Baxter regarded ‘freeholders and tradesmen’ as ‘the strength of religion and civility in the land’.[19] For they were certainly more civil in their behaviour than many aristocrats, whose conduct in public places was often noisy, boorish and inconsiderate.[20] Most of the middling classes were hostile to aristocratic values; they rejected duelling and the gentleman’s code of honour that went with it; and they preferred diligence and thrift to conspicuous leisure and profligate expenditure.[21] They also exceeded their superiors in personal cleanliness and linguistic propriety. Indeed, their characteristic error was that of excessive refinement. Shakespeare’s Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland, rebukes his wife for saying ‘in good sooth’: ‘You swear like a comfit- maker’s wife . . . Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art, / A good mouth- filling oath, and leave “in sooth” / And such protest of pepper- gingerbread / To velvet guards and Sunday- citizens.’[22] When the politician George Canning, who had been a brilliant scholar at Eton and Christ Church, composed the inscription for the younger Pitt’s monument in the Guildhall, he wrote: ‘He died poor.’ It was an alderman who wanted to substitute: ‘He expired in indigent circumstances.’[23]

For the eighteenth-century middle class, the crucial distinction was between the ‘genteel’ and the ‘vulgar’. This was partly a matter of money: in 1753 a contemporary defined the ‘genteel trades’ as those that, unlike the ‘common trades’, required ‘large capitals’.[24] But differences of manners and taste were also involved. The inevitable outcome was that ‘in dress, furniture, deportment, &c, so also in language, the dread of vulgarity, constantly besetting those who are half conscious that they are in danger of it, drives them into extremes of affected finery’.[25] As a result, the word ‘genteel’, which had long been used to denote the style of life appropriate to gentlefolk, came to acquire its modern connotations of false pretension.

In Pursuit of Civility
Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas


“In this gloriously rich book, Keith Thomas, one of our greatest living historians, explores how the idea of civility, from lavatory habits to table manners, evolved in early modern England.”
—Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

“One of the most entertaining books imaginable.”—Philip Hensher, Spectator

“Our finest living historian gives a dismayingly entertaining survey of what was held to be civilised behaviour and what barbarous in England between 1500 and 1800.”—Claire Tomalin, New Statesman

Find out more about the book


1. Markku Peltonen, Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought (Cambridge, 1995), 60–64; Jonathan Barry, ‘Civility and Civic Culture in Early Modern England’, in Civil Histories, ed. Burke et al.

2. C. W. Brooks, review of Lawrence Stone and Jeanne Fawtier Stone, An Open Elite?, in EHR 101 (1986), 179; John Brewer, ‘Commercialization and Politics’, in Neil McKendrick et al., The Birth of a Consumer Society (1982), 214–15; Helen Berry, ‘Polite Consumption’, TRHS, 6th ser., 12 (2002), 387–89.

3. Philip E. Jones, The Butchers of London (1976), 118–19.

4. John Saltmarsh, The Practice of Policie in a Christian Life (1638), 29; Daniel Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman (1745; Oxford, 1841), vol. 1, 62; Scott, Essay of Drapery, 86; Joseph Collyer, The Parent’s and Guardian’s Directory (1725–27), 45, 110–11, 158, 159; Lawrence E. Klein, ‘Politeness for Plebes’, in The Consumption of Culture 1600–1800, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (1975), 372; Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy (New Haven, CT, 2009), 370–74.

5. Reliquiae Baxterianae, vol. 1, 89; The Travels through England of Dr Richard Pococke, ed.
James Joel Cartwright (Camden Soc., 1888–89), vol. 1, 8.

6. [Béat Louis de Muralt], Letters describing the Character and Customs of the English and
French Nations
(Eng. trans., 1726), 83.

7. Mandeville, Fable of the Bees, vol. 1, 349–52; R. Campbell, The London Tradesman
(1747; Newton Abbot, 1969), 197.

8. R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights 1758–1830
(Manchester, 1958), 145.

9. Richard Warner, A Walk through Wales (Bath, 1798), 9–10, cit. Paul Langford, ‘The
Uses of Eighteenth- Century Politeness’, TRHS, 6th ser., 12 (2002), 320.

10. B[ernard] M[andeville], Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church and National Happiness
(1720), 273; Hutton, History of Birmingham, 398; Paul Langford, Englishness Identified
(Oxford, 2000), 97.

11. CH. ED. [Christian Erndtel], The Relation of a Journey into England and Holland, in
the years 1706, and 1707
(Eng. trans., 1711), 39.

12. Clark, British Clubs and Societies, is the authoritative account.

13. Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford, 1925–1947),
vol. 11, 360. On Jacobean clubs, see Michelle O’Callaghan, The English Wits
(Cambridge, 2007), and the chapters by her and by Stella Achilleos, in A Pleasing
, ed. Adam Smyth (Cambridge, 2004) and in ‘Lords of Wine and Oile’, ed. Ruth
Connolly and Tom Cain (Oxford, 2011).

14. Polydore Vergil’s English History, ed. and trans. Sir Henry Ellis (Camden Soc., 1846), vol. 1, 24; Carew, Survey of Cornwall, fol. 67v; Lorna Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660–1760 (1988), 151–59; Carole Shammas, The Pre- Industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford, 1990), chap. 6; Mark Overton et al., Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600–1750 (2004), 90–98; Robert Applelbaum, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch, Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections (Chicago, IL, 2006), 42, 84, 201, 207.

15. Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food (Oxford, 1985), 92; Fynes Moryson, An Itinerary (Glasgow, 1907–8), vol. 4, 173; Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Thomas C. Faulkner et al. (Oxford, 1989–2000), vol. 2, 26 (2. 2. 1. 2); Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990), chap. 9.

16. Coffee Houses Vindicated (1675), 5, cited by Steve Pincus, ‘“Coffee Politicians Does Create”’, JMH 67 (1995); Jennifer Richards, ‘Health, Intoxication, and Civil Conversation in Renaissance England’, in Cultures of Intoxication, ed. Phil Withington and Angela McShane (P&P, supp. 9, 2014); Jordan Goodman, ‘Excitantia’, and Woodruff D. Smith, ‘From Coffeehouse to Parlour’, in Consuming Passions, ed. Jordan
Goodman et al. (2nd edn, Abingdon, 2007).

17. Hutchinson, Life of Colonel Hutchinson, 70.

18. R[obson], The Choise of Change, sig. Givv.

19. Reliquiae Baxterianae, vol. 1, 89.

20. See, e.g., Henry Fielding, The Covent Garden Journal, ed. Bertrand A. Goldgar (Oxford,
1988), xlii– xliii, 94–95, 174–75.

21. Donna T. Andrew, ‘The Code of Honour and Its Critics’, SocHist 5 (1980); Phil Withington, The Politics of Commonwealth (Cambridge, 2005), 176; Margaret R. Hunt, The Middling Sort (Berkeley, CA, 1996); Hannah Barker, ‘Soul, Purse and Family’, SocHist 33 (2008).

22. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I (ca. 1597), act 3, scene 1, lines 246–55.

23. T. L. Kington Oliphant, The New English (1886), vol. 2, 232.

24. James Nelson, An Essay on the Government of Children (1753), 306; and see Vickery,
Gentleman’s Daughter, chap. 1.

25. Richard Whately, Elements of Rhetoric (2nd edn, Oxford, 1828), 179n–180n.

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