England was the clear winner of the latter half of the 16th century. Flourishing under the reign of their industrious and stylish monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, it was between 1558 and 1603 that England emerged as the world’s first real superpower.
Elizabethan England also saw the birth of a cultural and courtly movement that makes even the most stringent and alien ritualized historical decorum look like totally reasonable practices. Sure, England was winning history at the time, but some of the rules of aristocratic etiquette they and the rest of the world operated under were straight up bananas. Their social decorum and crazy Elizabethan manners belied the growing strength of Elizabeth’s England. It’s almost as though the monarch needed an outlet for silliness just to keep her head on straight while she was busy taking over the rest of the world.
In Elizabethan England, proper manners were more than just how you addressed higher classes or how you picked up your fork. “Manners” were the sum total of a person’s social actions, taste in fashion, and sense of refinement. Even the skill with which someone danced could be lumped in with the perception of their manners.
In Elizabethan society, when people were praised for good manners it was the highest compliment that could be paid. If word got around you had bad manners, it meant being ostracized from “proper” society, a fate that brought not only shame but real social and economic consequences.
While day-to-day manners were practiced most rigidly by the upper class, even the poorest children were introduced to the importance of proper social behavior at an early age. From the ages five to seven, most English boys were enrolled in local petty schools.
It was in this initial introduction to education that proper manners were taught alongside basic language skills and “good Christian” values. Those skills were (horrifyingly) reinforced by a rigorous 12 to 13 hour day as well as liberally applied beatings. This early, intense indoctrination to basic Elizabethan values was intended to help the young not only conform to society, but also respect the rigid formula of manners to which the nobility adhered.
When you sat down to dinner at a fancy party in Elizabethan England, the odds were good the uninitiated were going to screw up. When in doubt, though, just keep in mind that the general rule of thumb is to avoid comfort and fun at all costs.
Keep your elbows off the table. Make sure your hands and nails are clean before sitting down. Absolutely wear tails, and make sure they’re an even length. Don’t blow on your food. Take your hat off. Resist the temptation to stroke any dogs or cats that pass by. Don’t scratch yourself.
Perhaps because eating is the most slovenly thing that we all do in public, table manners were extremely important in Elizabethan England. The sheer volume of books, periodicals, and children's literature focusing on table manners is one clear sign that they were invaluable in Elizabethan society.
There were piles of rules governing the ways in which men could interact with other men. There were even more that told men how to lead a meeting with a woman. Indeed, there were also a ton of rules informing women how they could speak to and act around other women. However, there were no rules to guide women in how to converse or communicate with a man in public, presumably due to the assumption that proper women need only interact with other women.
In the best case scenario, this lack of regulation made the rare time that men and women were allowed to interact kind of awkward. Worst case scenario, Elizabethan society implicitly put the power largely in the hands of the gentleman. After all, for upper class women, there were written rules of conduct for any conceivable situation, except meeting a dude. So what to do when there’s no guide? You could either let the man play out his script, or risk being shunned because of your bad manners.