Literature Word of the Week – Courtesy

26 Weeks to a Better Understanding of Literature

I’m aiming to improve my knowledge around all things English literature, and to help me do this I thought I’d start by learning a new literary word every week,  A-Z.  Although knowing me it might not be in any alphabetic order.  I might treat this more like a list on random shuffle.

So, I find a word that relates to literature and research the following on it:

  • How does it sound?
  • What does it mean?
  • Who invented it (if known)
  • When did the word come about?
  • Example to be used in a sentence (preferable in spoken form).


Week 13:

Courtesy Literature

Another surprising word that you wouldn’t expect to see.  I use the word myself regularly on my blog when giving credit to cover photo’s but I don’t actually know it’s history.

As a distinct literary genre teaching courtiers and others good manner and morals, was imported into England through works such as Il Cortegiano of Castiglione, amongst others.  One of the most popular native examples of this type of writing was H. Peachman’s The Compleat Gentleman (1622) – Oxford Companion to English Literature

I wonder if this is where us British get our stiff upper lip from?

Seriously though I love guide books on how to behave, so I couldn’t resist delving further into The Complete Gentleman but alas I couldn’t find any online resources for it.  Just some details about the book which basically told gentlemen which artists, philosophers, composers and writers they should specifically be educating themselves about.  A bit like The Times Sunday review really when you think about it.

I went to have a look for another explanation about the word courtesy and found this on the Encyclopedia Britannica:

courtesy literature, literature comprising courtesy books and similar pieces. Though it was essentially a book of etiquette, the typical courtesy book was in fact much more than a guide to manners. It concerned the establishment of a philosophy of life, a code of principles and ethical behaviour by which to live.

The earliest courtesy literature was written in Italian and German in the 13th century. By the end of the 17th century, much courtesy literature had begun to evolve into the literature of proper behaviour and was designed more to produce the veneer of civility than to educate the whole person.

It’s fascinating to think how much influence European works had over here in Britain, although it obviously took us a while to catch on to the idea.

Courtesy literature is still very popular today but usually under the guide of either spiritual or personal development titles and I would imagine the wording today is much softer in it’s appearance than back in the 1600’s.  One great online example of courtesy literature today would be a website called The Art of Manliness.  Obviously, not being a man, it’s not targeted towards me but I like the way it structures it’s articles to show the skills, dress and virtues men should aspire to in becoming ‘great men’.

Going back to the original Courtesy guide books I did manage to track down an Italian except called The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione.  It was published in 1528.

Now my history isn’t all that good so I can’t imagine what life was like in the 1500’s but it’s probably safe to assume that class played an important factor and the divide between those who served and those being served was huge.  I would also imagine that at that time more people than not lived in rural areas.  There probably wasn’t a lot of indoor plumbing, nor soft furnishing other than for those that could afford to buy them.  And I would also suspect illness and disease meant living beyond the age of 40 was quite unexpected.

A typical except from the guide book states the following:



TO be well borne and of a good stocke.
To be of a meane stature, rather with the least then to high, and well made to his proportion.
To be portly and amiable in countenance unto whoso beehouldeth him.
Not to be womanish in his sayinges or doinges.
Not to praise himself unshamefully and out of reason.
Not to crake and boast of his actes and good qualities.
To shon Affectation or curiosity above al thing in al things.
To do his feates with a slight, as though they were rather naturally in him, then learned with studye: and use a Reckelesness to cover art, without minding greatly what he hath in hand, to a mans seeminge.
Not to carie about tales and triflinge newis.
Not to be overseene in speaking wordes otherwhile that may offende where he ment it not.
Not to be stubborne, wilful nor full of contention: nor to contrary and overthwart men after a spiteful sort.
Not to be a babbler, brauler, or chatter, nor lavish of his tunge.
Not to be given to vanitie and lightnesse, not to have a fantasticall head.
No lyer.
No fonde flatterer.
To be well spoken and faire languaged.
To be wise and well seene in discourses upon states.

And that’s just 1 3/4 of the of the list.  It goes on, and on, and on!  A lot of them sounds like very direct orders while others are merely fancies.

Then just when I thought us ladies had escaped any courtesy ideals it would seem that Castiglione had other ideas and went on to publish the following list:


TO be well born and of a good house.
To flee affectation or curiositie.
To have a good grace in all her doinges.
To be of good condicions and wel brought up.
To be wittie and foreseing, not heady and of a renning witt.
Not to be haughtie, envious, yltunged, lyght, contentious nor untowardlye.
To win and keepe her in her Ladies favour and all others.
To do the exercises meete for women, comlye and with a good grace.
To take hede that give none accasion to bee yll reported of.
To commit no vice, nor yet to be had in suspition of any vice.
To have the vertues of the minde, as wisdome, justice, noblenesse of courage, temperance, strength of the mide, continency, sobermoode, etc.
to be good and discreete.
To have the understandinge beinge maried, how to ordre her husbandes substance, her house and children, and to play the good huswyef.
To have a sweetenesse in language and a good uttrance to entertein all kinde of men with communication woorth the hearing, honest, applyed to time and place and to the degree and dispostion of the person which is her principall profession.
To accompany sober and quiet maners and honesty with a livelie quicknesse of wit.
To be esteamed no lesse chast, wise and courteious, then pleasant, feat conceited and sober.
Not to make wise to abhorr companie and talke, though somewhat of the wantonnest, to arrise and forsake them for it.
To geve the hearing of such kinde of talke with blushing and bashfulnesse.
Not to speake woordes of dishonestye and baudrye to showe her self pleasant, free and a good felowe.
Not to use over much familyaritie without measure and bridle.
Not willinglie to give eare to suche as report ill of other women.

Both lists are clearly beginning to force the ‘expected’ ideals in both sexes and yet I wonder if this was borne out of a need for society to progress?  Either way it feel like there would be a lot of pressure to meet that expectation for either man or woman.

It seems to be a lot of effort for the sake of appearing posh 😉

What do you think?  Do we need to be told how to behave?  Would following this list today make us any better as men and women?


4 responses to “Literature Word of the Week – Courtesy

  1. What a difference five centuries make! Castiglione’s courtier, advised “Not to praise himself unshamefully and out of reason. Not to crake and boast of his actes and good qualities.” wouldn’t make the grade these days when today’s gurus constantly exhort us not to hide our merest attributes and attainments! 🙂

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