A courtesy book or book of manners was a book dealing with issues of etiquette, behaviour and morals, with a particular focus on the life at princely courts. Courtesy literature can be traced back to 13th century German and Italian writers.
Courtesy books formed part of the didactic literature of the Middle Ages, covering topics from religion and ethics to social awareness and social conduct. While firmly normative in their bent, they also showed an awareness of the human realities that did not fit neatly under the rubric of their precepts. Such books appealed both to an aristocratic readership and to aspiring urban middle classes.
The oldest known courtesy book from Italy around 1215/16 is the Der Wälsche Gast by Thomasin von Zirclaere, speaking to a German audience.
The Renaissance saw the re-emergence of urban civilisation in the Italian city-states, drawing on the earlier urban civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, but developing new ideals of manners and courtesy. Three sixteenth century Italian texts on courtly manners and morals – Baldassarre Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (1528); Giovanni della Casa's Il Galateo (1558) and Stefano Guazzo's La Civil Conversazione (1574) in four volumes – had an especially wide influence both south and north of the Alps. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, apparently had at his bedside three books: the Bible, Nicolò Machiavelli's The Prince, and Il Cortegiano (The Courtier ). Through Castiglione's writings, the Italian ideals of Neo-Platonism, beauty and symmetry, and the amateur author, reached a wide humanist audience, as did the new Italianate emphasis on the self in society and the importance of social appearances.
English translations and developments
In 1561, Thomas Hoby published The Courtyer, his translation of Il Cortegiano, (although he had made the translation a decade earlier). The work was read widely and influenced the writings of Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson. Robert Peterson's translation of Il Galateo appeared in 1576. George Pettie translated the first three books of Guazzo's work into The Civil Conversation in 1581; the fourth and last volume from La Civil Conversazione appeared five years later in a translation by Bartholomew Yonge.
Courtesy books continued to be written into the 1700s, the last traditional English one being Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son – memorably described by Samuel Johnson as teaching "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master". However they took on a new form in the fiction of the time, much of it (like the work of Sir Charles Grandison) filling a similar normative role.
- "courtesy literature", Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2008.
- D. T. Kline ed., Medieval Literature for Children (2012) p. 83-94
- D. T. Kline ed., Medieval Literature for Children (2012) p. 98
- K. M. Ashley/M. D. Johnston eds., Medieval Conduct Books (2009) p. xxxii
- Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (1969) p. 111
- B. Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) pp. 23, 91, and 131
- K. A. Wolberg, "All Possible Art" (2008) p. 101
- Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1971) p. 72
- See the articles "Courtesy Literature" and "Hoby" in Drabble, Margaret, ed. (1985), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University Press.
- I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 212
- James Boswell, Life of Johnson (Penguin 1984) p. 77
- S. K. Marks, Sir Charles Grandison (1986) p. 14