The German historian of manners Norbert Elias begins his book The Civilizing Process by asking how the “modes of behaviour considered typical of people who are civilized in a Western way” came about. Through a survey of etiquette books and other documents dealing with topics like table manners, blowing one’s nose, spitting, the deportment of the body, facial expressions, and the control of bodily functions, Elias argues that Westerners went through a gradual and uneven affective transformation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the end of the process, behaviors considered normal in the Middle Ages had been ruled “barbarous.” This civilized separation from barbarity signaled major changes in feelings of delicacy, shame, refinement, and repugnance.
Erasmus’s highly popular treatise De civilitate morum puerilium (1530) stands at the threshold of this development. On the one hand, Erasmus deals with bodily functions with a medieval candor that would make later generations blanch. He states his disagreement with those who recommend repressing gas pains “by compressing the belly,” warning that such a practice is unhealthy and criticizing “fools who value civility more than health” by suppressing natural sounds. If gas can be expelled without sound, Erasmus writes, “that is best. But it is better that it be emitted with a noise than that it be held back.” Vomit, further, is not disgusting; what is disgusting is “holding the vomit in your throat.” Yet, at the same time, Erasmus was seeking to inculcate something of “modern” civilite . One’s step should be “neither too slow nor too quick,” for either extreme is vulgar. Erasmus’ book was part of a trend that increasingly turned away in disgust at forms of behavior that appear to have been normal among medievals.
Etiquette books inculcated a new style of living, deliberately distanced from the earthy rusticity of medieval manners and from the lower, peasant classes: “Modes of behaviour which in the Middle Ages were not felt to be in the least distasteful have increasingly become surrounded by feelings of distaste. The standard of delicacy finds expression in corresponding social prohibition. These taboos, so far as can be ascertained, are nothing other than ritualized or institutionalized feelings of displeasure, distaste, disgust, fear or shame, feelings which have been socially nurtured under quite specific conditions and which are constantly reproduced, not solely but mainly because they have become institutionally firmly embedded in a particular ritual, in particular forms of conduct.â
According to Elias, such changes in manners and behavior were central to the early modern formation of a courtly class and the extension of central courts’ power throughout European societies. Medieval noblemen expressed themselves with a swashbuckling freedom: An insulted knight struck out violently in defense of his honor. As victors emerged from the competition among well-armed medieval nobles, royal courts increasingly monopolized violent force, and nobles were increasingly dependent upon kings, and on other nobles and even bourgeois tradesman and bureaucrats, for their own social standing and power. To get near the centers of power, one had to adopt a particular regimen of behavior, a regimen that held violent passions in check and maintained an air of politeness. Warriors were transformed into courtiers as competitive politeness replaced the old military competition. If one wanted to be acceptable in court society, one needed to move, gesture, and speak with civility, restrain emotional outbursts, and control one’s body. Anyone interested in moving upward in the social hierarchy could not afford to be excluded from court society. The transformation of manners is, for Elias, part of the story of the political centralization of Western states, and their monopolization of force, during the early modern period.
Elias’s account not only provides what he calls a “sociogenesis” of mannered, civilized behavior, but also describes a social form of what T. S. Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility.” As court society became more refined, more controlled, more Apollonian, court and its associated institutions became the locus of high art and intellect, separated from sensuous perception and the body. “Civilized” standards of behavior, and refinement of thought and conversation, became badges of inclusion in court society. Dionysian vigor, the body, energy, and life became associated with barbaric, uncivilized behavior. The formation of courtly society through the civilizing process created not only the early modern form of social hierarchy in the West; it produced a rift in the Western imagination.
A similar rift is evident in the history of Christian worship. Medieval liturgies were of course highly structured, but there are regular accounts of a surprising liturgical playfulness. A priest of Auxerre writing in the early Middle Ages recorded that during the Easter celebration, the dean or some other cathedral office would chant the Easter antiphon holding a leather ball, then dance through a maze as the ball was passed from hand to hand: “There was sport, and the meter of the dance was set by the organ. Following the dance, the singing of the sequence and the jumping having concluded, the chorus proceeded to a meal.” Dancers costumed as angels danced in Corpus Christi processions in Spain, and by the late fourteenth century in England, the Corpus Christi festival had taken on some of the atmosphere of a popular carnival, complete with edifying but also amusing theater.
For several centuries, the Church has been divided between those who worship in a “courtly” manner and those who worship “barbarously,” a distinction that cuts across Protestant-Catholic boundaries and is as fundamental as doctrinal differences. Liturgical jumping, if the tradition continues at all, would be confined to the “low church” worship of charismatics. High-church lectionaries often discretely skip the appalling sexual imagery of Ezekiel 16, while Leviticus with its blood and flesh and bodily fluids is barely read at all. Effete, passionless, orotund sermons echo through cathedrals, while the Baptist minister on the other side of town preaches himself into a lather in a clapboard pillbox. The jazzy rhythms of Reformation hymnody were smoothed by the Reformers’ heirs, and only charismatics clapped or swayed as they sang. As Elias would lead us to expect, this liturgical divide has often also been a class division, as the upper classes gravitate to the civilized Episcopalian Church, while working stiffs find spiritual solace in a raucous Pentecostal atmosphere.
There is some hope. Free-church evangelicals are rediscovering the riches of historic liturgies, and the grassroots ecumenism spreading through the American church puts courtly and barbaric Christians face-to-face in a way they have not been for some time. In the southern hemisphere, Anglicanism combines a biblicist traditionalism and respect for the Anglican liturgical with a visceral vitality unknown in English and American Anglicanism. These are hopeful signs for the future of Christian worship. They are equally signs that there is yet hope to mend a breach in the western soul.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible .