Examples: Advice on how to blow one's nose (Elias, 1978:143-52)

It is worth trying to imagine from these examples what people's everyday interactions were like. Remember that from these examples some people were being told, for the first time, how not to behave in `polite' society, a form of society that had previously been beyond their comprehension, and, indeed, had perhaps never even existed. The point to keep in mind is that what people are is when and where they live.

Here is an example of the kind of advice you would be given because you needed it in the thirteenth century:

Precept for Gentlemen: When you blow your nose or cough, turn round so nothing falls on the table.

You need to remember that the usual mode of blowing your nose at this time was to close one nostril with a finger, while exhaling forcibly through the other one, thus ejecting the contents of, and thereby clearing, one half of your nose. I find it hard to imagine doing this, let alone actually doing it during a meal with other people, especially not so that the stuff landed on the table.

By the fifteenth century the idea of a handkerchief appears to have been incipient. From Ein spruch der ze tische Kert:

It is unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth.

It is unclear exactly what `into' means here. There is little evidence as to when tablecloths came into use, so this proscription may only relate to those activities being warned against two centuries earlier. But alternative interpretations are possible, although I confess I find it as difficult to imagine picking up the tablecloth so as to blow my nose into it as doing it the first way (the tablecloth as incipient handkerchief). In the sixteenth century a much more `refined' mode of clearing your snot was being railed against, and knowledge of a much more modern mode being presupposed. From De civilitate morum puerilium, by Erasmus, Chapter 1:

To blow your nose on your hat or clothing is rustic, and to do so with the arm or elbow befits a tradesman; nor is it much more polite to use the hand, if you immediately smear the snot on your garment. It is proper to wipe the nostrils with a handkerchief, and to do this while turning away if more honourable people are present.

If anything falls to the ground when blowing the nose with two fingers, it should immediately be trodden away.

Note here how social status is being brought into the arena. Not all contexts are proscribed: it would not be `rude' to indulge in the presence of certain others. Similar situational nuances hold today in relation to most bodily functions. It is, for example, often regarded as all right to fart in the marital bed, but not in a restaurant. If you had attained the level of possessing a handkerchief, you needed to know how and now not to use it. From Galateo, by Della Casa, 1558:

Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have falled out of your head.

Seventeenth-century advice reveals the game having been taken a stage further. Now, the act of blowing your nose with a handkerchief, not just the blowing of it, needs to be controlled. From Courtin, Nouveau traite de civilite:

[At table] to blow your nose openly into your handkerchief, without concealing yourself with your serviette, and to wipe away your sweat with it . . . one filthy habit fit to make everyone's gorge rise.

In addition, it is apparent that what your audience finds distasteful has changed. Two hundred years earlier, openly blowing your nose into a handkerchief would have been the height of refinement. All these elements can be seen to culminate in the advice offered in the eighteenth century. From La Salle, Les Regles de la bienseance et de la civilite chretienne (Rouen, 1729), in a chapter called 'On the Nose, and the Manner of blowing the Nose and Sneezing' (p. 23):

It is very impolite to keep poking your finger into your nostrils, and still more insupportable to put what you have pulled from your nose into your mouth .... It is vile to wipe your nose with your bare hand, or to blow it on your sleeve or your clothes. It is very contrary to decency to blow your nose with two fingers and then to throw the filth onto the ground and wipe your fingers on your clothes. It is well known how improper it is to see such uncleanliness on clothes, which should always be very clean, no matter how poor they may be.

There are some who put a finger on one nostril and by blowing through their nose cast onto the ground the filth inside; those who act thus are people who do not know what decency is.
You should always use your handkerchief to blow your nose, and never anything else, and in doing so usually hide your face with your hat. [A particularly clear example of the dissemination of courtly customs through this work].

You should avoid making a noise when blowing your nose .... Before blowing it, it is impolite to spend a long time taking out your handkerchief. It shows lack of respect towards the people you are with to unfold it in different places to see where you are to use it. You should take your handkerchief from your pocket and use it quickly in such a way that you are scarcely noticed by others.

After blowing your nose you should take care not to look into your handkerchief. It is correct to fold it immediately and replace it in your pocket .

home Return to original paper