How table manners became polite
If you think sitting up straight and keeping your elbows off the table is a bother, be grateful you weren't a child of America's early settlers. Back then, children didn't even get to sit at the table. They stood behind the adults and ate whatever was handed to them.
Later, children were allowed to sit at the table, but they couldn't speak unless an adult spoke to them. They couldn't ask for a dish, either. They had to wait until a grownup offered it to them. It was also considered rude to fidget, sing, or look at someone else who was eating.
Table manners are even older than tables. About 9,000 years ago, people cooked soups in pots. They dipped spoons of wood or bone into the cooking pot to eat. The first rules about eating determined who could dip into the pot first. Today some Inuit families in the Arctic still follow the tradition of eating from a common pot. Men get to dip in first, then women and children. Sometimes they don't use spoons. They just pick out pieces of meat with their fingers.
Eating with the fingers is a common custom. For about a thousand years, Romans and Greeks ate while lying on their sides on couches, with their heads pointed toward the table. One hand propped them up, the other handled the food. The Roman Empire finally fell in AD 476, and reclining dining customs disappeared as well.
Eating with the fingers never disappeared. Some Arab families still follow this custom. They use only the first three fingers of the right hand. In northern India, some diners use only the fingertips of the right hand, but in the south both hands are OK. In fact, far more people eat with fingers or chopsticks than use forks and spoons. But everyone has rules about eating politely.
Table manners became quite important in Europe in the 1100s. That's when people developed the idea of courtesy - how to behave in court. Soon these rules began appearing in written texts.
The rules about eating were meant to make the experience pleasant, thoughtful, and tidy. Early texts instructed diners to keep their elbows down and not to speak with their mouths full. Polite diners were not to pick their teeth with their knives or be greedy.
In 1530, a Dutchman named Erasmus wrote a book on manners titled "On Civility in Children." Erasmus told people not to blow their noses or spit at the table, and never to put chewed bones back on their plates. (The polite thing then was to throw bones on the floor. That gave the dogs something to eat.)
In those days, people didn't have regular dining tables. At mealtimes, boards were laid across trestles and covered with cloth. (That's where "setting the table" comes from.) At banquets, no individual plates were used, only large serving platters. Two people shared each soup bowl and used squares of stale bread as plates. The edible plates were called trenchers. After the meal, they were given to the poor.
During the Crusades, between AD 1000 and 1300, even knights had to learn manners. They were often paired with a lady at dinner, sharing food and drinking glasses. Knights learned not to lick their fingers, but to wipe them on the tablecloth. They were also told not to smack their lips, snort, or put their faces in their food.
In the 1300s, the Renaissance arrived. So did the fork. And new table customs evolved. People ate from plates, and everyone had his own cup. Fingers were to be wiped on napkins, not tablecloths. Bones were not to be thrown on the floor, but left on the plate. Manners kept moving toward cleanliness and order.
In 1669, King Louis XIV of France ordered that all table knives have rounded ends. This made eating with knives a little less dangerous for the diner and anyone with whom he or she might become angry. Louis XIV was the first person in Europe to offer guests a place setting with forks, knives, and spoons.
Table manners continued to evolve. People debated how to eat peas. They were difficult to spear with a fork and hard to balance on a knife. As more families bought tableware, more guides were needed for how to use it. Some were written especially for children. In "Goops and How To Be Them" (1900), Gelett Burgess used horribly ill-mannered creatures called Goops as bad examples. He wrote:
The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth -
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I'm glad that I
Am not a Goop - are you?
You probably use many simple table manners without thinking. You probably say "please" and "thank you," and ask for food to be passed to you, rather than reaching over everyone for it.
Other rules come into play in more formal settings, like parties, where you're supposed to use the right fork and dispose of olive pits properly. If you're ever a guest somewhere and aren't sure you've got all the rules down, just watch the host or hostess. Do what they do. Even if you use the wrong fork, you'll be following the basic principle of table manners: Think about others and make dining as pleasant as possible.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society