The origins of etiquette the conventional rules of behaviour and ceremonies observed in polite society are complex. One of them is respect for authority. From the most primitive times, subjects showed respect for their ruler by bowing, prostrating themselves on the ground, not speaking until spoken to, and never turning their backs to the throne. Some monarchs developed rules to stress even further the respect due to them. The emperors of Byzantium expected their subjects to kiss their feet. When an ambassador from abroad was introduced, he had to ouch the ground before the throne with his forehead. Meanwhile the throne itself was raised in the air so that, on looking up, the ambassador saw the ruler far above him, haughty and remote.
Absolute rulers have, as a rule, make etiquette more complicated rather than simpler. The purpose is not only to make the ruler seem almost god–like, but also to protect him from familiarity, for without some such protection his life, lived inevitably in the public eye, would be intolerable. The court of Louis XIV of France provided an excellent example of a very highly developed system of etiquette. Because the king and his family were considered to belong to France, they were almost continually on show among their courtiers. They woke, prayed, washed and dressed before crowds of courtiers. Even larger crowds watched them eat their meals, and access to their palaces was free to all their subjects.
Yet this public life was organized so minutely, with such a refinement of ceremonial, that the authority of the King and the respect in which he was held grew steadily throughout his lifetime. A crowd watched him dress, but only the Duke who was his first valet de chamber was allowed to hold out the right sleeve of his shirt, only the Prince who was his Grand Chamberlain could relieve him of his dressing gown, and lnly the Master of the Wardrobe might help him pull up his breeches. These were not familiarities, nor merely duties, but highly coveted privileges. Napoleon recognized the value of ceremony to a ruler. When he became Emperor, he discarded the Revolutionary custom of calling everyone ‘citizen’, restored much of the Court ceremonial that the Revolution had destroyed, and recalled members of the nobility to instruct his new court in the old formal manners.
Rules of etiquette may prevent embarrassment and even serious disputes. The general rule of social precedence is that people of greater importance precede those of lesser importance. Before the rules of diplomatic precedence were worked out in the early sixteenth century, rival ambassadors often fought for the most honourable seating position at a function. Before the principle was established that ambassadors of various countries should sign treaties in order of seniority, disputes arose as to who should sign first. The establishment of rules for such matters prevented uncertainty and disagreement, as do rules for less important occasions. For example, t an English wedding, the mother of the bridegroom should sit in the first pew or bench on the right–hand side of the church. The result is dignity and order.
Outside palace circles, the main concern of etiquette has been to make harmonious the behaviour of equals, but sometimes social classes have used etiquette as a weapon against intruders, refining their manners in order to mark themselves off from the lower class.
In sixteenth–century Italy and eighteenth–century France, waning prosperity and increasing social unrest fed the ruling families to try to preserve their superiority by withdrawing from the lower and middle classes behind barriers of etiquette. In a prosperous community, on the other hand, polite society soon absorbs the newly rich, and in England there has never been any shortage of books on etiquette for teaching them the manners appropriate to their new way of life.
Every code of etiquette has contained three elements: basic moral duties; practical rules which promote efficiency ; and artificial, optional graces such as formal compliments to, say, women on their beauty or superiors on their generosity and importance.
In the first category are consideration for the weak and respect for age. Among the ancient Egyptians the young always stood in the presence of older people. Among the Mponguwe of Tanzania, the young men bow as they pass the huts of the elders. In England, until about a century ago, young children did not sit in their parents’ presence without asking permission.
Practical rules are helpful in such ordinary occurrences of social life as making proper introductions at parties or other functions so that people can be brought to know each other. Before the invention of the fork, etiquette directed that the fingers should be kept as clean as possible; before the handkerchief came into common use, etiquette suggested that, after spitting, a person should rub the spit inconspicuously underfoot.
Extremely refined behaviour, however, cultivated as an art of gracious living, has been characteristic only of societies with wealth and leisure, which admitted women as the social equals of men. After the fall of Rome, the first European society to regulate behaviour in private life in accordance with a complicated code of etiquette was twelfth–century Provence, in France.
Provence had become wealthy. The lards had returned to their castles from the crusades, and there the ideals of chivalry grew up, which emphasized the virtue and gentleness of women and demanded that a knight should profess a pure and dedicated love to a lady who would be his inspiration, and to whom he would dedicate his valiant deeds, though he would never come physically close to her. This was the introduction of the concept of romantic love, which was to influence literature for many hundreds of years and which still lives on in a debased form in simple popular songs and cheap novels today.
In Renaissance Italy too, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a wealthy and leisured society developed an extremely complex code of manners, but the rules of behaviour of fashionable society had little influence on the daily life of the lower classes. Indeed many of the rules, such as how to enter a banquet room, or how to use a sword or handkerchief for ceremonial purposes, were irrelevant to the way of life of the average working man, who spent most of his life outdoors or in his own poor hut and most probably did not have a handkerchief, certainly not a sword, to his name.
Yet the essential basis of all good manners does not vary. Consideration for the old and weak and the avoidance of harming or giving unnecessary offence to others is a feature of all societies everywhere and at all levels from the highest to the lowest. You can easily think of dozens of examples of customs and habits in your own daily life which under this heading.