Elizabethan Manners


Where to find the information

The Elizabethan era is a rich one for printed source materials. It was an age in which the up-and-coming bourgeoisie felt a need to acquire some social polish. Beginning with the explosive growth of printing in the 15th century, printers were eager to supply the public with how-to manuals on every subject. Besides books of manners, books on dancing also have hints about deportment. It can be gleaned from literature of the time period, such as the works of Shakespeare and the meditations of Montaigne. This presentation is not even close to exhaustive, but it should help get you started.

How to Approach a Prince

The kind of court experience that we have in the SCA is not a particularly common one for people of the time period, even noble people. Sovereigns did "hold court" when people were theoretically free to approach them, usually with petitions of some kind or other. This usually required running a gauntlet of bureaucrats who would manage access to the sovereign. However, the medieval concept of kingship meant that the king was supposed to be the ultimate provider of justice to all the people, and as kings concentrated power, they also became the chief provider of patronage. If you wanted social advancement, you would end up having to go to court at some point. Often times, however, this access to the king was achieved while he was walking around, eating dinner, or engaging in other daily business. The formal court setting we see in the SCA was something that typically only happened on special occasions.

I've chosen to draw on Fabritio Caroso's "Nobilita di Dame" (1600) in his Dialog Between a Disciple and His Master, on the Conduct Required of Gentlemen and Ladies at a Ball and Elsewhere for some pointers on how to behave in court.


For Gentlemen

Here is his description for a gentleman's comportment with a king:

You need to know, then, that should a prince or gentleman be required to approach a great king to kiss his hand, the sides of his cape or mantle (whichever it is) should be of equal length, for aside from the fact that [any unevenness] looks quite ugly, it is also necessary that he reveal the front of his body, and keep his hands down, holding both ends of his cape or riding cloak with them, so that the king will have no reason whatsoever to suspect him of carrying something beneath them that could harm him (as we have seen occur in our own day, and not too many years since). It is good, therefore, to reveal your hands and to wear your cape or riding cloak as I have said above. Moreover, you should doff your bonnet (or hat) as I have taught in the rule for doffing the bonnet; you should doff it with your right hand, changing it to your left hand as soon as you have removed it, and turning the inside of your bonnet toward the thigh corresponding to the hand in which you hold it. Upon appearing in the hall (or room) where the king is, immediately make a grave Reverence; then take four or six steps forward, and make another [Reverence]; and when you are a short distance from His Majesty, make the last one very low, so as almost to touch the floor with your knee, pretending to kiss the king's knee. Then look up and and kiss your petition, accompanying this act with another Reverence, and presenting it to him. After this, having achieved your purpose or a suitable answer from His Majesty, take leave of him, once again pretending to kiss his knee. You ought to know that in making the last Reverence you should not face His Majesty, but [should face] a little to the side, so that the king is on your right; if the king is seated, however, and you are standing, face him directly. Should the king walk along with you, stay a step behind him at all times. In turning, follow the commendable Spanish fashion of falling back three steps, always keeping His Majesty on your right. When taking your leave, make a Reverence by bowing so low that your knee almost touches the ground (as I have said above); and upon rising, retire by making three more Reverences without ever turning your back upon the king. Now I have nothing more to tell you about this.

This excerpt illustrates some important aspects of masculine behavior. In Caroso's book, he gives a great deal of attention to the correct way to wear a cape or cloak. Unless it is a short "butt-scraper," the cloak should be over the left shoulder, wrapped around one's body and tucked under the left arm, keeping the sword hilt clear. . (Among the unfortunate consequences of covering the sword with the cloak is "that the swords are so obstructed that if they should be needed, they could not be [got at], thereby endangering their lives, which is a bad and perilous habit.)" The tactic above of keeping the cloak open and showing your hands is the period equivalent of people disarming themselves when they come into court. A gentleman never removes his sword if he can help it.

Elsewhere Caroso offers advice on sword wearing, another essential social skill of a gentleman: "When a gentleman wears a sword while dancing these lively dances, he should hold it with his left hand, so that it will not wave around wildly; also if he find himself dancing in a very samll space, he should hold it [still] with his left hand, turning it a bit by that hand so that the point will hang forward in order to avoid offsense to those seated behind him. If you have space, however, allow it to move as usual. Be careful not to push down on yoru sword hilt to such an extent that the tip points skyward, for if you do so, you will resemble a Spanish Captain playing his part in the Commedia, and you will be mocked at and ridiculed, rather than appreciated by any onlookers. After you have taken leave of your lady and as you return to your seat, pay due respect to thoseenear where you will be sitting with a small salutation; and with your hat in your right hand, and your left hand turning your sword toward the front."

Removing the hat in the presence of a social superior is a custom all over Europe. Montaigne makes comments about people removing their hats if the king is anywhere in the area, as a sign of people being overly pretentious in their manners. There is a funny story about Henry de Navarre and a charcoal burner that illustrates the hat concept (ask Yevsha to tell it to you). Caroso is fastidious in his recommendation about how to take off your hat. He begins his "rules for dancing" with a treatise on how to take off your hat before beginning a dance with a lady:

Among those accomplishment of the utmost importance, my dear Son, which occur at the beginning of dances (wherein one practieses beautiful and courtly manners), the doffing of your bonnet (or hat) holds first place, for this is the means mankind has devised to honor and revere one another, even when [we are] not dancing.

Here Caroso lists a number of bad behaviors, such has holding your hat as if to beg for alms, or the reprehensible practice of letting people see your sweaty hatband. He summarises with the correct method:

For a gentleman, then, to doff his bonnet (or hat) and hold it in his hand with that utter grace and beauty which may render him elegant, he shall do best to take his bonnet (or hat) gently by its rim (or his hat by its brim), doffing it and dropping his right arm straight down. Note, however, that once it is doffed, he should not pretend to kiss his bonnet or to bring it toward the one for whom he has doffed it, for, as I told you before, this appears disgusting both to the person for whom he has doffed it, and to any other observers. Instead he should hold his bonnet (or hat) with the inside facing the same leg which corresponds to the side on which he removed it , and he should pretend to kiss his own left hand. For since this is the hand belonging to the heart, he thus performs an act of cordiality; consider also that by this behavior he will not only appear attractive and gracious to all observers, but will also escape any appearance of imperfection which could be associated with any of the [other] methods mentioned above.

Concerning the Reverence -- one of the social skills that the nouveau riche tried hard to acquire was bowing. Just as there were dancing masters and fencing masters to teach the important social skills, so also were there bowing masters. The depth of bow is a crucial part of the social language of acknowledging someone else's social status.

Kissing -- we don't currently make use of this gesture as the sign of respect it was intended to be. Again, Montaigne complains about pretentious people getting carried away with kissing their hands whenever they meet anyone. No one actually makes any contact with anyone or anything when performing this kissing gesture.

Keeping the king to your right -- the right hand is the side of honor, and the left hand is a lower status position. When seated, you should give the right hand seat to someone you wish to honor, and when a guest, you should insist on the left hand seat so as to honor your host.

When walking, it may involve a certain amount of flexibility to stay a step or two behind the king. If he wants to make a left turn, you need to actually step backward so you can stay in your inferior position.

Never turn your back until you are out of offical range -- another universal custom.


For a Lady

Now as soon as a lady espies a princess or noblewoman (whichever the case), she should step out and go toward her; and before approaching her, she should make a half Reverence (that is, a little bow), and when she has come close she should kiss her own right hand (without, however, bringing it near her mouth, but holding it at some distance), bending it a little, and not holding it so rigidly that it appears to be crippled. While moving this way, she should make a grave Reverence, as indeed I showed you, prentending to kiss the princess's right hand. If she is not the equal of that particular princess or great lady, however, she should pretend to kiss the [princess's] knee. Then the princess should make a Reverence, making the same [gestures] as if she were her equal; if [she is] not she should pretend to raise her with her [own] hands, taking the visitors's left hand in her right hand. This is even more appropriate if she is her equal, for anyone who is paid a visit should always receive the caller most warmly and affectionately. Should the hostess wish to put the caller on her own right to honour her, however, the visitor should never permit it.

It is interesting to note that it is assumed that public business will be conducted by men, and that women engage in purely social behavior with other women. There aren't directions about how a woman should behave in a court situation with a prince. The contexts in which men and women interact are actually quite limited, dancing being one of the major ones, and one reason why deportment is so important a part of dance instruction. Caroso's guidance on how a lady should invite a gentleman to dance provide interesting insight into behavior between the genders:

[Sometimes] during a dance, some new brides and other ladies cast their eyes so low that the gentlemen cannot tell which one of them has been invited [to dance], so that one rises to his feet rather than the other. Or sometimes, in their great eagerness to dance, they [all] give her their hands, with the result that she does not know which one to take. It would be better, then, for a lady to keep her eyes level, and when she chooses to invite some gentleman, to look at him [directly], so that those sitting near to or behind him will not need to rise, thus avoiding any ensuing scandal. Now as he rises, the gentleman whom she has invited should remove his right glove (if he is wearing it) at the same time as she makes a Reverence to him, and she should pretend to adjust her dress, making it sway, strutting slightly, and turning a bit sideways toward the one she has just invited. On occasion a gentleman may wear his gloves so tightly that removing his right glove takes longer than saying an 'Ave Maria', as I have said above. It is not proper, however, for the lady to remain directly facing [the gentlemn], for it would look as if they were making love; therefore gentlemen should wear their gloves a little loose rather than tight.

This is interesting because it describes the polite way for women to interact with men -- not too direct, but not so modest as to cause social confusion. The bit about not facing the gentleman for too long a time is worth noting. Before the late 20th century, the phrase 'making love' referred to romantic conversation. Being truly lady-like by the standards of the time is a difficult task!


Meeting and Greeting

Many of the guidelines outlined above apply in normal social. Gentlemen still have to deal with their hats, their cloaks, their swords. They doff their hands, may kiss their own hand, and bow. Typically, a gentleman removes his hat with his right hand and kisses his left hand. If he needs to present his right hand (for example, to take a ladies hand for a dance or to offer a gift), he may change his hat to his left hand and kiss his right hand or the gift in his right hand. How intensely a man goes through these operations is part of the social language of status. The hat doffing is more pronounced, the bow deeper, the higher up the social scale the other person is. Between equals, the shorthand might be more of a gesture to touch the hat without taking it off completely. You can overdo it: "You need to be aware that unnecessary, empty and precious courtesies are scarce-hidden flatteries; on the contrary, [they are] so clear and obvious to all that those who make too many Reverences (by sliding their feet, kissing their hands or doffing their bonnets while bowing and scraping before their favorite ladies) lose just as much [favor in the eyes of others] as they think to gain, for their blandishments only displease and bore them.

Historically, women's roles are more private and less public. They make Reverences (curtsey) as part of social introductions, but don't have swords and capes and removable hats. If she is wearing one, a lady never removes her cap. Hand kissing seems to be an activity between ladies. I have not seen women described as kissing their hands when introduced to men. It is the man's responsibility to kiss his hand, since he is the one being honored by the lady.


Behaving At Table

For table manners there are rich period sources on how to behave. Books of courtesy, books of kerving, books for children, and the like began appearing in the 15th century in some abundance. There are also household manuals where great lords described the procedures that they wanted followed in their homes.

A meal began with setting the table by the servants. The best tables were covered with turkey carpets or velvet cloths. These would in turn be covered with linen table cloths. Very often these cloths are layered, and there are three of them -- one that is folded to produce the pleats visible in many illuminations and hanging down on the outside, one that hangs to the inside where the guests are sitting, and one that goes across the top to hang down on the sides -- often the most decorative one.

After the cloth is laid, the great salt goes on it. This is the primary ornament of the table. Next, other salts and pepper boxes are set down the tables as required. Each diner got a table setting of a trencher, bread, a napkin, and a knife and spoon . It was still possible that a guest might bring his own knife and spoon. The knife is to the right of the plate, the bread to the left, the napkin usually folded on top. By the end of the 16th century in middle class homes, the "trencher" was a pewter plate. One of the signs of the economic prosperity of the century was the increase in pewter dishes across society.

Guests were led into the dining chamber in order of precedence. In a great hall, seats were usually laid out in a U-shape, with the lord at the base of the U. The most honored position was to the right of the lord, and the lowest at the bottom of the tables to the left of the lord.

It was important to wash hands before a meal. This might be done on the way into the hall, at a ewery board. Servants might also bring a ewer and basin around to the guests to wash their hands. The servants themselves, particularly the carver and sewer, visibly washed their hands as well. The ritual hand-washing in the dining chamber was more symbolic than thorough, but guests were definitely expected to have washed well beforehand. Grace was then said before the meal was served.

Next, the dishes were brought in and laid in a very precise order on the table, presentation being very important. Dishes were brought first to the high table, and then to the rest of the diners. Dishes requiring carving might be carried to a sideboard for carving. There were typically vast numbers of different dishes, but unlike modern feasts where everyone is expected to get a serving of every dish in a meal, not every dish would be within reach of every diner. Diners were expect to pick the things they liked best from the "messe" that was within reach of them. A messe is a set of dishes usually shared between 2-4 people.

Typically, the further from the high table that you were, the fewer choices you would have. Lancelot Casteau describes the Bishop of Liege as having 40 dishes at his Entrée, the table of the Prince having five dishes, the second table six, and the third table three. This means that of the 40 different dishes served at his feast, the bishop got five to choose from personally at his table, the next-highest ranking table (which presumably had more people) got six per messe, and so on down to three per messe.

Vessels of wine and cups to drink it were kept on a cupboard and served to diners on request. No one had an individual cup. After a diner had drunk he handed the cup back to the servant, who rinsed it and put it back. Cups and vessels would often be kept cool in a tub of water.

After a course, the serving plates were removed, the broken bread, crumbs, etc.., beginning at the lowest end of the table and working toward the high table. There might be entertainments, entremets, between the courses. Then the next course would begin.

After the meal, everyone washed their hands again and Grace was said again. The servants took up the dishes, the linens, and removed the boards from the trestles, and put the tables away.

Actually eating the food was a fairly simple process. The manners of the 15th century still applied. Works like the Babees Boke and various Bokes of Nurture tell a consistent story:

Food was taken from the serving dish using the tip of your knife to spear it and place it in your trencher, where you would eat it with your hands. Knives of the time period had very sharp tips for this purpose. People were constantly being told not to put the knife in their mouths and not to eat the food off the knife (which of course means they did that constantly).

Spoons were used to eat soft foods and broth out of the common dish, which is why it was rude to leave your spoon in the dish when you had eaten your share. Individuals did not have their own bowls to eat soupy dishes.

You were expected to put bread in your pottage. These should be small pieces, not great hunks of bread. The bread soaks up the soup. You can pour pottage over bread in your trencher.

Forks existed, but these were generally two-tined forks used for carving meat, and not for individual dining. Delicate little forks might be used to eat sticky suckets in the fruit or banquetting course, but this is a very high-class affectation. Use of forks at court was a sign of depravity mentioned in political satires against Henri III.

All this eating with your hands means that they need frequent cleaning (it is bad manners to lick them). Napkins are heavily used. We have an excellent illustration of the Sir Henry Unton wedding feast, and all the gentlemen are wearing napkins over their left shoulder. Ladies must have put them in their laps as they are not visible. Napkins are not always available -- the medieval approach was to take the long table-cloth hanging down on the side facing the guests, put it in your lap and use it to clean your hands. Eating without some kind of tablecloth is Not Done.


Fabritio Caroso, Courtly Dance of the Renaissance, a New Translation and Edition of the Nobilta di Dame (1600), trans. Julia Sutton, Dover Publications, NY.

Lancelot de Casteau, Ouverture de Cuisine, Liege, 1604.

Baldassarre Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. George Bull, Penguin, 1976.

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Frederick J. Furnivall, editor, The Babees Book, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde's Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Courtasye, Seager's School of Vertue, & c. &c. with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England, London, 1868.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works of Montaigne, Donald Frame, translator and editor, Stanford University Press, 1971.

Kristen B. Neuschel, Word of Honor, Interpreting Noble Culture in Sixteenth Century France, Cornell University Press, 1989.

Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining, A History of Cooking and Eating, The National Trust, Great Britian, 1999.

William Leon Wiley, The Gentleman of Renaissance France, Harvard University Press, 1954.