Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Manners of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

The book of domestic maxims is most curious and instructive, from the details which it contains respecting the manners and customs, mode of conduct, and fashions of the nobility of the period. 

At the end of the fourteenth century there lived a much-respected noble of Anjou, named Geoffroy de Latour-Landry, who had three daughters. In his old age, he resolved that, considering the dangers which might surround them in consequence of their inexperience and beauty, he would compose for their use a code of admonitions which might guide them in the various circumstances of life.

This book of domestic maxims is most curious and instructive, from the details which it contains respecting the manners and customs, mode of conduct, and fashions of the nobility of the period. The author mostly illustrates each of his precepts by examples from the life of contemporary personages. 

The first advice the knight gives his daughters is, to begin the day with prayer; and, in order to give greater weight to his counsel, he relates the following anecdote: 

"A noble had two daughters; the one was pious, always saying her prayers with devotion, and regularly attending the services of the church; she married an honest man, and was most happy. The other, on the contrary, was satisfied with hearing low mass, and hurrying once or twice through the Lord's Prayer, after which she went off to indulge herself with sweetmeats. She complained of headaches, and required careful diet. 
She married a most excellent knight; but, one evening, taking advantage of her husband being asleep, she shut herself up in one of the rooms of the palace, and in company with the people of the household began eating and drinking in the most riotous and excessive manner. The knight awoke; and, surprised not to find his wife by his side, got up, and, armed with a stick, betook himself to the scene of festivity. He struck one of the domestics with such force that he broke his stick in pieces, and one of the fragments flew into the lady's eye and put it out. This caused her husband to take a dislike to her, and he soon placed his affections elsewhere."
"My pretty daughters," the moralising parent proceeds, "be courteous and meek, for nothing is more beautiful, nothing so secures the favour of God and the love of others. Be then courteous to great and small; speak gently with them.... I have seen a great lady take off her cap and bow to a simple ironmonger. One of her followers seemed astonished. 'I prefer,' she said, 'to have been too courteous towards that man, than to have been guilty of the least incivility to a knight.'"

Latour-Landry also advised his daughters to avoid outrageous fashions in dress. "Do not be hasty in copying the dress of foreign women. I will relate a story on this subject respecting a bourgeoise of Guyenne and the Sire de Beaumanoir. The lady said to him, 'Cousin, I come from Brittany, where I saw my fine cousin, your wife, who was not so well dressed as the ladies of Guyenne and many other places. The borders of her dress and of her bonnet are not in fashion.' The Sire answered, 'Since you find fault with the dress and cap of my wife, and as they do not suit you, I shall take care in future that they are changed; but I shall be careful not to choose them similar to yours.... Understand, madam, that I wish her to be dressed according to the fashion of the good ladies of France and this country, and not like those of England. It was these last who first introduced into Brittany the large borders, the bodices opened on the hips, and the hanging sleeves. I remember the time, and saw it myself, and I have little respect for women who adopt these fashions.'"

Respecting the high head-dresses "which cause women to resemble stags who are obliged to lower their heads to enter a wood," the knight relates what took place in 1392 at the fête of St. Marguerite. "There was a young and pretty woman there, quite differently dressed from the others; every one stared at her as if she had been a wild beast. One respectable lady approached her and said, 'My friend, what do you call that fashion?' She answered, 'It is called the "gibbet dress."' 'Indeed; but that is not a fine name!' answered the old lady. Very soon the name of 'gibbet dress' got known all round the room, and every one laughed at the foolish creature who was thus bedecked." This head-dress did in fact owe its name to its summit, which resembled a gibbet.

These extracts from the work of this honest knight, suffice to prove that the customs of French society had, as early as the end of the fourteenth century, taken a decided character which was to remain subject only to modifications introduced at various historical periods.

Amongst the customs which contributed most to the softening and elegance of the feudal class, we must cite that of sending into the service of the sovereign for some years all the youths of both sexes, under the names of varlets, pages, squires, and maids of honour. No noble, of whatever wealth or power, ever thought of depriving his family of this apprenticeship and its accompanying chivalric education.  From Paul La Croix's, 1876 “Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period”


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