Handling the Gross Stuff

In the first article about really bad manners, we learned that you should not throw bones on the floor or scratch yourself in rude places, but no one’s going to throw a fuss if you belch. But is it okay to pick your nose? And what about that flea problem? Have no fear, by the end of this blog you will be steeped in the proper 16th Century etiquette for handling the gross stuff. Kate Dolan tells you how to handle snot in this blog

We’ll start with that nose. The first of our two etiquette teachers, Erasmus, tells his charges that “the nostrils should be free from any filthy collection of mucus, as this is disgusting.” He observes that Socrates was notorious for the collection of mucus under his nose, presumably to make his readers feel like they were in good company when they had a runny nose. He tells us not to wipe our noses on caps or clothing, because is “boorish,” nor can we wipe it on our forearms because only fishmongers do that. “It is not much better to wipe it with one’s hand if you then smear the discharge on your clothing,” he adds. What then should you do? Kleenex will not be invented for hundreds of years and if you wait that long, your filthy collection of mucus would far surpass that of Socrates. Erasmus explains that you are supposed to “catch the matter from the nose in a handkerchief,” as if it were a baseball. “If,” he continues, “in clearing your nose with two fingers, some matter falls on the ground, it should be immediately ground under foot.” This way, you can spread the germs all around your host’s house with a minimum of effort. Picking it up in the handkerchief and perhaps wiping the floor is apparently either boorish or for fishmongers.

Eramsus is not the only teacher who believed that filth is best cleaned by smearing it with your feet and pretending it’s gone. The French court etiquette manual studied by George Washington as a boy says that “if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it.” If you are sufficiently dexterous with the footwork, the dirt and germs just run for cover, or disperse in sheer awe of your physical prowess.

But while the dirt and germs may run away, the fleas, lice and ticks will not. So the French guide orders students that they must “kill no vermin (fleas, lice, ticks etc.) in the Sight of Others.” Others will not mind watching the fleas crawl across your scalp, but heaven forbid that Others should witness insecticide. These were sensitive times, remember. Public hangings could not be conducted on Sundays.

Sensitivity extended to other aspects of human behavior as well. There were some, Erasmus notes, who believed that children should be taught to “refrain from breaking wind” by constricting the buttocks. In other words, do whatever you can to avoid farting in public. However, Erasmus disagrees, suggesting instead that they “cover the sound with a cough.” He says nothing about the smell.

What if you’ve got bits of kidney pie stuck between your teeth? Washington’s etiquette manual tells the reader he must not clean his teeth with the table cloth, napkin, fork or knife. However, “if Others do it let it be done with a Pick Tooth.”

So now we can amend the picture of our banquet somewhat. The men sit at table trying very hard not to scratch at fleas (it might kill them), throwing bones at the center of the table instead of the floor, breaking wind and chewing on “pick tooths.”

Wish I’d been there! Watch for the next lesson on manners where we learn how to control the face.

By the way, all the posts on manners have been written in honor of the release of my new novella, “Change of Address,” which is out in ebook and soon will be released in print as part of the Christmas Surprises anthology.

Image courtesy of www.puff.com.

 

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