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Item 8, Dame Courtesy: Introduction


1 See, for example, Hartman, Household and the Making of History, pp. 48–57. The foundations of Hartman’s arguments appear in two articles by John Hajnal: “European Marriage Pat­terns in Perspec­tive” and “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System.”

2 On the connections between Ashmole 61 and the “Heege MS,” see the General Introduction.

3 Blanchfield provides a table of these similarities in her dissertation (“Idiosyncratic Scribe,” p.194).

Origin, Genre, and Themes

This courtesy text, another description of conduct and table manners like the text that precedes it (Stans Puer ad Mensam), was likely written in the fifteenth century. Though its opening resembles another poem known as Lytylle Children, Dame Courtesy is unique to Ashmole 61 and may have been composed by Rate. Much of the advice appears in other conduct literature, and no single source has been identified. If Rate was not the author, the text was likely written earlier in the fifteenth century, when the demand for courtesy books produced an outpouring of similar texts.

The closing of the poem imagines an audience of children who do not stay long at school, a category that may not be as specific as it sounds. By the late fifteenth century, ed­ucational opportunities for children had expanded considerably, so that schooling was no longer the preserve of nobility who planned clerical careers for their sons. But oppor­tunities were still very limited, and few children would have more than a few years of formal study. The household remained a crucial venue for instruction, especially for the large numbers of adolescents serving its needs. Historians, anthropologists, and demo­graphers have recently begun to emphasize this unusual custom of sending adolescents — both boys and girls — out into service in other households, noting that this practice distinguishes northwestern Europe from nearly every other documented preindustrial society.1 Estimates vary, but perhaps fifty to sixty percent of all young men and women worked in other households as apprentices, agricultural laborers, and domestic servants before marrying in their mid-twenties. Thus Dame Courtesy might be directed at a very wide class of children and adolescents: all those who served, or hoped to serve, in a household, with the possible exception of those who had been raised in grandiose households from the start (who might not need such instruction).

As with the preceding conduct literature in Ashmole 61, Dame Courtesy advises regular church attendance, hard work, the fulfillment of promises, and excellent table manners. The result is a combination of bourgeois industriousness with aristocratic elegance, held together by an insistence on humility. Humility was one of the virtues that tied secular courtesy to religious devotion, a bond fostered by words such as “clennes,” which in Middle English can refer to both hygienic cleanliness and pure living.

Dame Courtesy emphasizes the power of words and gestures. Dozens of common Middle English proverbs concern speaking appropriately and only at appropriate times. Sophis­ticated Latin texts adopted similar stances for elite audiences, and Albertanus of Brescia’s De arte loquendi et tacendi (On the Art of Speaking and Being Silent) circulated widely. But Dame Courtesy is not only concerned with polite language or proper restraint, but with ritualized speech. The poem suggests that saying blessings, graces, and customary greetings at the start of each new action will bring spiritual benefits, protection, and prosperity. Like modern self-help books, Dame Courtesy promises both social recognition and future wealth to those willing to organize their lives according to strict rules; speaking the right words at the right times can ward off failure.

Gesture involves the discipline of the body and an awareness of the gaze of others. Like Stans Puer ad Mensam, Dame Courtesy describes a continual give-and-take of looking and being looked at. The young pupil must constantly watch his or her betters for social cues, such as an invitation to sit down or to drink, and must also act as if he or she is under constant surveill­ance, without recourse to scratching, nose-picking, or any other submission to the body’s baser needs. The regime prescribed by Dame Courtesy may seem somewhat overan­xious, but this may be only further evidence that the medieval household was not simply a space for privacy and intimacy, but a forum for education, social control, and studied performance.

Manuscript Context

Dame Courtesy closely resembles the preceding item, Stans Puer ad Mensam, and shares many connections with How the Wise Man Taught His Son and How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, as well as the Ten Commandments (items 3, 4, and 6). The emphasis on regular church atten­dance and prayer can be connected to the prayers at morning and night, as well as the prayers to Mary and at the Levation of the Host in the Mass (items 12, 13, 15, and 17). Other con­nections might include the theme of instruction, shared by the Stimulus Consciencie Minor (item 33), and, by contrast, the importance of labor in The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools (item 16).


Rate’s text departs considerably from the related version of this poem known as Lytelle Children, preserved in six other manuscripts and several early prints, so much so that it must be considered an entirely independent text. Only lines 5–10, in which the invention of cour­tesy is attributed to the Archangel Gabriel, appear in both Rate’s poem and Lytelle Children. Since Lytelle Children and the more common version of Stans Puer ad Mensam appear in the “Heege MS” (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1), a manu­script that shares several other items with Ashmole 61 and that was copied in the same region in the same period, it seems possible that Rate had some form of access to an exemplar that contained these texts.2 But whether or not Rate was working from some lost source or com­posing an entirely new work on his own, he has certainly included similar phrases and advice from his revision of Stans Puer ad Mensam, not always to the benefit of the text’s overall organ­ization or coherence.3

Printed Editions

Furnivall, F. J., ed. The Babees Book. Pp. 17–25. [Ashmole 61’s unique text, printed in parallel with a text of Lytylle Children.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 4127
MWME, 3377

See also Breul, Burrow, W. Evans, Hanawalt (1993), Hardman, McRee, Moran, and Orme (1990 and 2001) in the bibliography.

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