Books interview with Keith Thomas: “The world was divided into the ‘civil’ and the ‘barbarous’”

Keith Thomas speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his new book on England's quest for civilisation

Keith Thomas. (Photo by Fran Monks)

This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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What exactly did it mean to be ‘civilised’ in the 16th to 18th centuries?

Civility had a number of different meanings at this time, and we need to separate them out in order to understand them. It could mean an orderly system of government. But it could also mean the forms of behaviour that good citizens were expected to demonstrate. So there were two different notions of civility: firstly, as a non-barbarous form of existence, and secondly, as polite behaviour.

These are fascinating ideas to untangle because they are very revealing about what people’s values were, how they thought social relationships should be and what they believed to be the ideal way of life. ‘Civilisation’ was a purely rhetorical term: it simply meant the state of a society that one person happened to think was best. As such, the criteria for civilisation changed steadily over the centuries. Initially, the emphasis was on having a properly organised state governed by the law, with a monopoly on violence. It then extended to integrate humanity and compassion. In the 18th century, as transportation and imprisonment began to replace corporal and capital punishments, people patted themselves on the back for being more civilised than before. Others saw the progress of the arts, sciences and technology, or how a society treated the poor, as markers of civilisation. Anything could be a test of civilisation, depending on what your social and moral values were.

How did these ideas shape England’s interaction with the rest of the world?

They were crucial. The tendency to divide the world into two categories of people – the ‘civil’ and the ‘barbarous’ – goes back to classical antiquity, and this distinction carried through into the early modern period. The rest of the world was not thought uniformly barbarous, however – there was considerable respect for the great empires of India and China. But Native Americans, most Africans, the inhabitants of the South Seas and to some extent the Irish were all seen as more or less barbarous.

Once you define people as barbarous, a lot of unpleasant consequences follow. Western European laws of war considered it wrong to molest civilians or kill prisoners. But these rules were totally suspended when Europeans encountered these ‘barbarous’ cultures – they were subject to a completely different set of rules. Only civilised countries were deemed deserving of independent status as states and, by the 19th century, lawyers had determined a western standard of civilisation that other nations had to meet to qualify for membership of the international community. If they didn’t qualify, you could do almost anything to them. Slavery, for example, was justified on the grounds that the enslaved Africans were barbarous and would benefit from being brought to plantations run by ‘civilised’ people. Defenders of slavery claimed that, once the Africans had been civilised, they wouldn’t be enslaved anymore.

Was this a cynical ploy to justify slavery and the imperial project?

I don’t think it was done cynically. It certainly worked to Europeans’ advantage, but it was quite sincere. For example, it was believed that if people occupied territory, God intended them to cultivate it, and that if they didn’t cultivate it then they were not entitled to own it. So when early colonists encountered the Native Americans – who hunted and practised very little agriculture – they believed they had no rights to the land.

You suggest this period saw the ‘invention of race’ – how so?

In 1500, the accepted doctrine was that humanity comprised a single race, all descended from Adam and Eve. Only a few sceptics put forward the notion of polygenism – that the human race had a number of different ancestors. That was a very heretical, atheistic thing to say. Racial differences were believed to be a product of environment, climate or lack of education. It was only in the later 17th century that people began to argue that the world consisted of different races that were ethnically and inherently distinct. It was a big jump from saying that people hadn’t been civilised yet to saying that they were intrinsically incapable of being civilised.

What forms did ‘civilised’ behaviour, in the sense of good manners, take?

It meant very different things according to who you were. For the aristocracy, politeness emerged not just in the narrow sense of good manners but as a whole way of life. It meant a cultured way of living and knowing how to behave in polite society, but also included matters of taste: connoisseurship, foreign languages and so on.

In the 18th century, a ‘polite’ person was expected to know how to enter a room, doff his hat, converse in an elegant and amusing way and retire – essentially, how to get in and how to get out. Posture was thought to be a tell-tale sign of who was who. ‘Common’ people were believed to be lumpish and awkward, whereas a young nobleman could be spotted across the room simply from the way he carried himself or positioned his legs. Table manners also developed. Whereas in the 16th century people would eat using only a knife, by the 18th century there was a whole plethora of cutlery, and carving meat had become a very important gentleman’s accomplishment.

Of course, the rules of civility for women were very different from those for men – a huge emphasis was placed on submissiveness and chastity, and women were allowed to indulge their emotions in the way that men were not. Self-control was one of the key features of civility and, while it was a very bad thing for a gentleman to laugh out loud or weep in public, women were thought to have less self-discipline.

Did this polite behaviour reinforce social hierarchies?

In the 18th century, civility was central to the self-definition of the upper classes, who were obsessed by the need to demonstrate their superiority. They set great store on developing manners – which they did not want to be emulated – in order to distinguish themselves from those below them.

It’s also true that manners in this period began as forms of deference to your social superiors, whether that was by bowing or kneeling to your lord or by taking your hat off to your employer. But notions of civility soon affected your relations with all people at all social levels. That didn’t mean you should treat everyone equally, however. You were expected to be deferential and respectful to your superiors, frank to your equals, and condescending, in a decent sort of way, to your inferiors.

What this assumed of course, was that everybody knew exactly who their superiors and inferiors were. There was a great contrast between life in the countryside, where everybody knew their place, and life in the city, where it was becoming increasingly difficult to tell who was who. Compared with their continental counterparts, the English aristocracy developed very informal manners. They began wearing greatcoats and even trousers, which were really rather working class.

How did manners relate to religion?

In principle, manners and religion should have pointed in the same direction. Civility advocated benevolence, compassion, courtesy, decency, honesty and modesty – all of which you might have heard about in sermons. Early theorists of civility said that good behaviour and bodily comportment reflected the healthy condition of your soul. But it didn’t work out that way. The problems began when puritans realised that civility required you to be courteous and friendly to very sinful people and put politeness before their spiritual health. If somebody fell asleep in church for example, waking them up was a very good thing spiritually, but it was very bad manners. The biggest conflict was that being polite often involved falsity – whether it was insincerely complimenting someone, or concealing the hostility you felt towards people to whom you were sucking up.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant spent ages pondering whether it was immoral to tell your servants to say you weren’t at home when really you just didn’t want visitors, or to sign a letter ‘yours faithfully’ when you weren’t really very faithful. The consensus that emerged was that benevolence should take priority over truthfulness. If a terrible author asks: “what did you think of my book?”, you should at least be polite about it.

Was politeness a barrier to intimacy?

Within the family, relationships between parents and children were generally a great deal more formal than they are today. A good child was expected to bow to his parents morning and night, and the father was expected to put his hand on his child’s head and give them his blessing. However, great value was placed on intimate friendships, which were regarded as an ideal to which everyone should aspire. Once you were an intimate friend, formality was largely cast aside, just as today you wouldn’t need to shake hands with your friend every day.

You suggest that the lack of courtesies today isn’t evidence of a ‘decivilising process’, but rather one of ‘informalisation’. What do you mean by that?

Many things are tolerated today that would have been unacceptable in the early modern period. The bowing and scraping has certainly gone out, but that doesn’t mean that we have relaxed into some kind of barbarism. Civility, in the sense of benevolence and respect for others, is as important as ever. The role of manners today is to fill the gaps left by the law. There’s no law against pushing in a queue, or shouting loudly in the street, and that’s where manners come in. Civility is essentially about strangers being able to live side by side in large communities. In the words of Barack Obama, it’s about being able to “disagree without being disagreeable”. Today, when we live in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society, civility is still an essential social cement for keeping the show on the road.

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Sir Keith Thomas is a historian of early modern Britain, and an honorary fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. His best-known works include Religion and the Decline of Magic and Man and the Natural World. His book In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England is out now, published by Yale.