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 Renaissance saw the re-emergence of an urban civilisation in the Italian city-states, drawing on the earlier urban civilizations of Greece and Rome, and developing new ideals of manners and courtesy accordingly. 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) - had an especially wide influence both south and north of the Alps: Emperor Charles V had as his three bedside books the Bible, Machiavelli's 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
Thomas Hoby published The Courtyer, his version of Il Cortegiano, in 1561 (although he had made the translation a decade earlier). The work was read widely and influenced the writings of Shakespeare, Spenser and Ben Jonson. Robert Peterson’s translation of Il Galateo appeared in 1576. George Pettie published The Civil Conversation, his translation of the first three books of Guazzo’s text, in 1581; the fourth and final book appeared five years later in a translation by Bartholomew Yonge. A well-known English example of the genre is Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman of 1622.
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 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