In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas review – manners in early modern England

From terrible table manners to defecating in public to ideals of civilisation as a class weapon … a brilliant work by a consummate historian

We’re all appalled when we witness signs of the decline of civilisation. Whether it is the spread of casual xenophobia, the pollution of the oceans or the ubiquity of texting in restaurants, each of us carries around a mental picture of what an ideal society ought to look like, and an instinctive antipathy towards behaviours that don’t measure up. “That’s so uncivilised,” we think, contemplating Donald Trump, or an ugly facial tattoo, or someone noisily consuming smelly food on a crowded train.

In truth, of course, standards of civility are changeable. As Keith Thomas points out in his wonderfully entertaining history, according to Giovanni della Casa, the 16th-century authority on polite behaviour, it was perfectly proper for the master of a household to relieve himself ...