Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Urbanus Magnus – The Civilised Man

'Coram magnificos manifeste scalpere nolis Torquendo digitos nares (1312-1313)

In front of grandees, do not openly excavate your nostril by twisting your fingers'

Daniel of Beccles

s prosperity grew in12th century England there was a renewed focus on etiquette and manners. This was a time of cultural renewal which was based on classical models. Along with the elaboration of monastic rules of behaviour (‘customaries’) and the development of ‘household ordinances and serving manuals’, there also appeared a series of Anglo-Latin courtesy poems which gave advice to young men on appropriate aristocratic and Christian behaviour.

One of these ‘books of manners’ was a 3,000 line work called ‘Urbanus Magnus’. This was written by a Danielis Becclesiensis,(today translated as Daniel of Beccles) and was intended to advise men and boys on how to improve their status in a rapidly changing society. Daniel was described by the Tudor chronicler John Bale as having been in the household of King Henry II for over 30 years. His poem covers such subjects as hierarchy, table manners and sex, with a dizzying array of jumps between topics.

The elegy begins:

To be adorned with morals and manners, if you desire, reader, to be venerated, to be noble among lords and lead a civilized life, to be a provident overseer in administering your own property, read and re-read often and keep for ever in your mind these verses which I have decided to write, clad in the lightness of common language, for boy-clerks.

Daniel’s advice starts with a man’s duty to God. He should obey the law and the Commandments; he should be wary of vices and pursue virtues. He should endeavour to perform pious works, love learning and behave in church. He should think of the inevitability of death, the joys of Heaven and the terrors of Hell.

Sex, Marriage and Children

On sexual practice Daniel of Beccles gives detailed advice and displays a somewhat misogynistic attitude towards women. The civilised man, Daniel opines, should not have sex with holy women, his godmothers or relatives; he should flee from masturbators and those who have sex with animals and boys. As a young lad he should not practice homosexuality:

‘as a boy, don’t become another foul Ganymede the boy who slipped filthily, grown old savours filth’.

He also gives somewhat cheerless advice on visiting prostitutes:

‘If you are overcome with erotic desire when you are young and your penis drives you to go to a prostitute, do not go to a common whore; empty your testicles quickly and depart quickly.’

As the poem develops we can see Daniel re-working the Graeco-Roman anti-feminist tradition in warning the reader against lascivious wives and lustful women. Here he may have taken inspiration from the works of Juvenal. One scene of the poem describes a woman lying in bed with her husband, with her thoughts on to her secret lover:

‘The lascivious woman throws herself around the neck of her lover, her fingers give him those secret touches that she denies to her husband in bed; one wicked act with her lover pleases the lascivious adulteress more than a hundred with her husband; women's minds always burn for the forbidden’

Like many of his contemporaries Daniel of Beccles appears convinced that women are naturally sexually voracious. In his words

‘when tempted by sweet words, even a chaste, good, dutiful, devout and kindly woman will resist scarcely anyone’.

He says she is always ready to fornicate "with a cook or a half-wit, a peasant or a ploughman, or a chaplain... what she longs for is a thick, leaping, robust piece of equipment, long, smooth and stiff... such are the things that charm and delight women".

Despite this he says "Whatever your wife does, do not damage your marriage" and he goes on to say "if you are am cuckold, do not whisper a word about it... when you are a cuckold, learn to look up at the ceiling."

He also offers a piece of timeless wisdom when he says:

When there is something you do not want people to know, do not let your wife know it.

Daniel also expertly details how to avoid an awkward and embarrassing situation; a sexual proposition from the lady of the house:

If the wife of your lord turns her eyes on you too often and wantonly looses shameful fires against you, letting you know that she wants to have intercourse with you; if she says, “The whole household and your lord, my husband, shall serve you for ever, you alone shall be my darling, you shall rule everything, everything which belongs to you lord shall be open to you”... consult me, my son; what I counsel is planted in your heart; between two evils, choose the lesser evil; your safer plan is to feign illness, nerve-racking diseases, to go away sensibly and prudently.

Daniel then ends this topic with the subject of children, on whom he seems none too keen:

They cover their clothes with ashes, they make them dirty, they dribble on them; they wipe their noses flowing with filth on their sleeves.

He advises keeping them out of sight when guests are around.

The Household

In the poem Daniel is very concerned with social hierarchy, how one should behave towards ones lord and patron and the way in which you should conduct youself in the household. The first few lines deal with the use of animals:

Let not a brute beast be stabled in the hall, let not a pig or a cat be seen in it; the animals which can be seen in it are the charger and the palfrey, hounds entered to hare, mastiff pups, hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons and merlins.

Daniel then turns to the stabling of horses in the hallway:

When you are about to leave, let your cob be at the door. Do not mount him in the hall.

All dealings with the Lord of the Manor are covered by Daniel, including how you should conduct yourself when he goes to the privy.

“… Eventually, it would be time for the inferior to wait on the lord as he went to bed.... When he sits on the privy in the usual way, take in your hands hay or straw, pick up two bigs wads of hay in your fingers and press them well together. You should prepare to give them to your patron when he wants them. Let the wads be given to him as you stand, not bending the knee. If two together are sitting on a privy, one should not get up while the other is emptying himself."

When the Lord goes to bed, Daniel advises that:

If you are acting as a servant, stand by the bedside; cover your lord’s naked body

Eating and Table Manners

Table manners is another preoccupation of Daniel, in particular the exercise of decorum and delicacy in front of your superiors and guests. Daniel begins

If a fat morsel lies in the dish in front of your companion, do not touch it with your finger, for fear that fingers will be pointed at you as a boor....When your fellow drains his cups, cease eating. Beware of shouting ‘Wassail’ unless you are bidden to do so. While food is visible in your mouth, let your mouth savour no drink; while food is hidden in your mouth, let your tongue not minister to words. The morsel placed in an eater’s mouth should not be so big that he cannot speak properly if he needs to do so. Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus….Sitting at table as a guest, you should not put your elbows on the table. You can put your elbows on your own table but not on someone else’s

Daniel then says that you should not talk with your mouth full of food ('While food is hidden in your mouth, let your tongue not minister to words') and advises against the theft of cutlery:

Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property.

Among his principle concerns is what comes out of the body, as well as what goes into it. He advises:

Do not be a nose-blower at dinner nor a spitter; if a cough attacks you defeat the cough...If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling.… Do not say ‘Drink first’ when the butler offers you drink. If he says ‘Wassail (Weisheil)’, let your response be ‘Drink hail (Drincheil)’. But if by chance you have a girl as butler, you may properly say ‘Drink first to me, taking an equal share’

According to Daniel only the host himself can urinate in the hall after dinner. The rest, it is clear, should go outside. A man who defecates should find a hidden place in a wood or field and face into the wind. He should then use his left hand to wipe himself. Daniel then adds that it is shameful to attack an enemy who was in this position (‘Do not attack your enemy while he is squatting to defecate’). It was generally wrong to fart indoors.

Daniel also advises doing certain bodily activities in private:

Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the patron or in front of the servants in the hall....In front of grandees, do not openly evacuate your nostril by twisting your fingers

The book finally ends by attributing the teachings to ‘old king Henry’ and asking for blessings on the author.

Old Henry first taught people lacking style
These courtly lessons set forth in this book

Here ends the ‘Book of the Urbane Man’ by Daniel of Beccles

Now Strike the Sail! And may God that blesses
Elisha give to Daniel heavenly rest

Although perhaps a little dated, much of Daniel’s advice is applicable today. I would especially advise against stabling a horse in your host’s hallway and defecating in it after dinner; find a nice spot in the woods instead.

Further Reading

Please see this 'Urbanus Magnus' article by A.D Frith on my Dad's local history site
The Beccles and District Museum

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What the hack?! Daniel gave advise on sex? Dirty minded!