In Europe, from the 12th century onward, numerous written works began to record and codify behaviour at the table. Control over one’s body and gestures, moderation and good hygiene were principles advocated during the Middle Ages and carried through to the Renaissance. Rules multiplied and became stricter in the 19th century. Today, the idea of conviviality prevails and allows for more flexibility.
Treatises on good manners
Good manners also apply to table manners, the formal behaviour of individuals as they learn to master precise eating techniques. Such manners appertain to the moral values which help ensure civility and the cohesion of a society. Table manners in Europe can be traced back to the 12th century, when the first written standards were circulated. The Church wished to ease the moral standards and customs of feudal society and contributed to the codification of table manners, notably by prescribing control over one’s gestures. Courtly literature also played a role, by emphasising the importance of hospitality, the quality and quantity of the dishes, and the beauty of the utensils, clothes and people, all of which were values reflecting moral virtue.
Numerous treatises have been published to date, in different formats depending on the era. The 16th to 18th centuries saw the publication of books on courtesy, aimed at the upper classes in particular. In 1530, Erasmus produced De civilitate morum puerilium (On Civility in Children), which soon left its mark on the whole of Europe (an English version A Little Book of Good Manners for Children by Robert Whittington was published in 1532). Initially written for ‘well-born’ children, the philosopher’s work was aimed at everyone, warning against social danger and offering a real ‘survival strategy’ to avoid common pitfalls. Later, in the 19th century, bourgeois society was educated with books on good manners, in particular with the guide to etiquette Usages du Monde – Règles du Savoir-Vivre dans la Société Moderne by Baroness Staffe (Blanche Soyer, 1843 – 1911), and The Handbook of Etiquette: A Complete Guide to the Usages of Polite Society, by Cassell, Petter and Galpin, published in London in 1860.
Handbooks of etiquette are still being published today. Until the 16th century, inappropriate behaviour was described as bad or shameful, then it became unseemly or rustic, and the 19th century classed it as vulgar. Today, unsuitable behaviour is more likely to be seen as annoying or disruptive.
Common Western rules
Some principles, already evoked in the 16th century, have recurred over the centuries and form the common thread of table manners to this day. Diners must avoid infringing on someone’s personal space, must respect hygiene rules, control their behaviour and gestures, avoid inappropriate noises and eat with restraint and without greed. They must do everything to ensure the meal is a sociable and pleasant occasion.
Various dishes and ways of eating were established alongside these rules. For example, from the 15th century, communal table utensils became individual and increasingly specialised, to ensure respect of one another’s space. Thereafter, everyone used their own napkin, cutlery, glass and plate. In the 19th century, it became one glass for each type of wine, one plate for each course, etc. To avoid any bodily noises, even while chewing, the royal court of the 18th century favoured mousses.
Over the centuries, table manners became increasingly refined and complex, or even rigid or absurd, in particular in the 19th century and the early 20th century. Many rules defined both the gestures as well as table decorum as a whole: how to place a napkin on one’s lap, which cutlery to use, how to peel, cut and eat an apple with a knife and fork, and which subjects of conversation to avoid (politics and religion for example).
Many rules have become fully integrated into our table manners and continue to be shared within the family circle. However, modern-day life, simplified meals, the influence of fast food and exotic cuisine are leading to table manners becoming more relaxed. The rules are now increasingly flexible and adapt to the context. The principle of conviviality seems to prevail, allowing for a certain ‘easing’ of the rules, making propriety less absolute, but not obsolete.
Health above all
A fundamental rule in many parts of Europe in the 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century was to eat every kind of food and to finish one’s plate. While this rule remains, the severity depends on the context of the meal, for example whether it is a business or family meal. Nowadays, medical reasons (such as allergies or diets) are fully accepted and allow such rules to be ignored.
Lebensztejn, Jean-Claude. 2004. Manières de table. Paris : Bayard, 2004.
Raboud-Schüle, Isabelle. 2004. Manger à la main, une perspective culturelle. Manger Mains. Lausanne : Éditions d'en bas, 2004, pp. 13-19.
Rohrer, Denis. 2007. Couverts découverts. Vevey : Alimentarium, 2007.
Romagnoli, Daniela. 1996. Guarda no sii vilan: les bonnes manières à table. In Jean-Louis Flandrin et Massimo Montanari. Histoire de l'alimentation. Paris : Fayard, 1996, pp. 511-524.
Rowley, Anthony. 1994. À table! La fête gastronomique. Paris : Gallimard, 1994.