Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Way We Used to be in the Middle Ages

... is described in a quotation from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature (2011).

Pinker quotes the late Medieval/Early Modern scholar and humanist (and all round nice guy) Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536). Erasmus wrote a work called De civilitate morum puerilium (On Civility and Good Manners in Youth). The word puerilium, though it can refer to children, can also mean “youths”. Once gets the sense that the book was directed not just at teenagers but at young men – knights and other youth who were entering royal courts and polite society at this period.

Erasmus’s sage advice for these gallant young knights:
“Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or other filth. • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers. • Don’t slide back and forth on your chair as if you’re trying to pass gas. • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. • Don’t make noise when you pass gas. • Don’t undo your clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up afterwards. • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don’t lie so close to him that you touch him, and don’t put your legs between his. • If you come across something disgusting in the sheet, don’t turn to your companion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other to smell and say ‘I should like to know how much that stinks.’” (Pinker 2011: 69)
OK, if you haven’t burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter by now … well, I’m disappointed.


Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.


  1. Oh dear... I hope Pinker hasn't used this quote to make a serious point about life in the Middle Ages. Erasmus was in part a satirist. Many key intellectual figures prior to Enlightenment were -- Swift, Voltaire, Montaigne and so on. After Enlightenment intellectuals began to take themselves more (too?) seriously and banished the dimension of humour from their work (with a few notable exceptions: Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan etc.).

    So, yeah... Erasmus is joking. That's why its funny. When you laugh, you're not laughing because Erasmus lived in a primitive age -- but because he was a funny guy.

    A friend of mine who is an historian of ideas and I often talk about how long it will take for historians and other academics to actually recognise humour in what are known to be "serious" authors. We've concluded: never. The two discourses were separated in the Enlightenment era when thought began to become synonymous with power. It's a terrible pity and leads to an awful lot of misreadings, fantasies about the past and, ironically: bad scholarship.

    1. He may have been joking or not, or mockingly pointing to real behaviour. After all, this is manual of etiquette.

      But, yes, this post is not serious, obviously.

    2. I'm almost 100% sure that this is a joke. Erasmus has included it to get a giggle out of the people who he expects will read his tract on etiquette (adolescent boys). It's typically characteristic of humour prior to Enlightenment. Today the equivalent would be sex-based jokes.

      Prior to the 19th century toilet and bodily functions were far less, erm, private. And satirists would regularly poke fun at the embarrassment they would cause. Today we in the West don't do this as much and generally see it as childish (Mediterranean people, not so much). Instead we poke fun at embarrassing sexual situations as if this is somehow more mature.

      And yes, I know the post is a joke. But don't think you're laughing AT Erasmus. He's in on the joke. You're laughing WITH him. As I said, this point is so often lost on historians it really is tragic.

      Sometimes it leads to people actually thinking that historical figures were talking in the way Erasmus is above without any self-consciousness of the absurdity. This leads to some very strange portraits of various eras as being completely alien to our own. They're not. It's just that we don't "get it". We can be sure that historians in 2500AD will look at our comedy and misinterpret it thinking that this is seriously what we thought. Kind of funny really.

  2. sententiae pueriles was a category of educational materials common from the Middle Ages right through the American Revolution. Erasmus is famous for writing one of the most extensive collections used (the Adagia). He may have been parodying his own ultra famous textbook.

    You would do well to hunt down the set of sentences George Washington was given to copy out as penmanship exercises -- the book used to be famous and I have found copies in university libraries to this day. The exercises were given to him by 'Hobby' -- a transported criminal hired to be his tutor. They derive from material common in London in the late 17th century.

    The topic of Sententiae Pueriles as a textbook form is, in and of itself, a very interesting one.