History Of Etiquette
A historical analysis of etiquette.
We all grew up being told to keep our elbows off the table, to cover our mouths when we yawn, to shake hands with people, and to be polite to everyone we meet. Sometimes, we need to salute a superior office, sometimes we need to make a toast to celebrate an event with a friend. We know these things are polite, even expected of us, but what is it about elbows that are so inappropriate at a dinner table?
Most of these courtesies can be traced back to the Middle Ages of history, the age of knights and chivalry, kings and queens. Some of them were created to be courteous, some were meant to be symbolic, some were simply matters of logic.
To start with, we’ll take a look at handshakes. Most people know this one. An empty hand presented forward to another person was the easiest and most recognizable way to show someone that you weren’t holding a weapon. By the other man extending his own empty hand, it showed that he also was unarmed. Therefore, a handshake meant they were going to talk instead of fight.
The salute has similar origins. If you consider a knight in a full suit of armor, you realize he can hardly chat with a friend while wearing a helmet, so if a knight wanted to talk, he had to remove the barrier. The visor on a knight’s helmet was a lot like a visor on a motorcycle helmet: it lifted up. And when a knight lifted his visor, his hand ended up at his forehead, parallel to the ground. A salute, indicated lifting the helmet visor, so that the knight could talk instead of fight.
Making a toast, oddly enough, is a tradition that comes from the other side of the coin; Knights with fighting codes versus poisoning your friends. Making a toast, with the clinking of the glasses together, was originally done so that when the glasses clinked, the drinks sloshed together on impact. This meant that whatever was in one drink (poison, drugs, aphrodisiacs), had now been passed into both glasses. If you were going to drug your friend, you got some as well. This made it in your best interest to not let your friend drink an evil drink.
Covering your mouth when you yawn has two logics to it, both of which are more than sensible. The first was religious. When you yawned, with your mouth wide open, the Devil could reach right in and yank out your soul. No sense losing your soul just because you were sleepy. The second reason, much more practical and understandable, is that in the Middle Ages, cleanliness was next to nothingness. Bathing was considered unhealthy, so most of the peasants and nobility stank. Badly. And when yawning, people had a very real chance of swallowing one of the many flies that swarmed around them. It’s very bad form to choke on a fly at a formal party.
Finally, what about those elbows? Always keep your elbows off the table, it’s rude! But why? First thing to bear in mind; back in the old days, people sat down to dinner differently than we do now. It was more like a high school cafeteria, where people squeezed into a long table that was set into a row. This meant that each person was packed very tightly in between the people on either side of him, and simply didn’t have much maneuvering room to eat. The elbows weren’t allowed on the table because if you had an elbow on the table, the only place for it was in the middle of the next person’s plate. It was a courtesy made out of necessity. If someone had their elbows on the table, someone else couldn’t eat. Simple.
There are a lot of things in our lives we take for granted, without knowing why. Some things we did five hundred years ago because they were safety precautions, or physical requirements, are absurd now, but we do them because they’ve been passed down through the years. I’m sure if you think about it, you know a lot more things that you do without knowing why. Now, you’ll wonder.