In around 1475, a writer translated from Latin a ‘lytil reporte’ on how they believed that good little children, or ‘babees’, should behave. These paragons of youthful good conduct come bouncing (or, rather, meekly creeping) off of the page as one reads. As I recently found this verse in a manuscript that I have been working on as part of my job as a Research Associate for the Digital Index of Middle English Verse and found it enthralling, I decided to bring it to your screens in this blog post.
It should be mentioned that the ‘babees’ whom are addressed in the poem are not really ‘babies’ at all, but rather children, who are just beginning to learn how to speak, behave, and interact with others. And these fifteenth-century children are not just any children, but the creme de la creme: ‘with blood Royalle’ – probably young men at court, with of good breeding and fortune, who were brought up to serve those of even greater breeding and fortune. ‘Serving’ in the middle ages did not have the connotations that it had in the Victorian or Edwardian periods. The men who stood at the tables of kings, aristocrats, and other members of the gentry were men who had their own fortunes and their own estates. Whilst in service, these young men would receive a stellar education in manners and ‘curtesie’. Education in ‘curtesie’ was ranked much higher than any other form of education for such a man: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Squire of The Canterbury Tales is praised, above all, for his ability to carve his meat with the skill befitting a gentleman: the narrator admires that he can ‘carf beforn his fadur at the table’ .
If a young gentleman were to receive an education of this kind, he would leave his parents and go into another household to learn. So, it is unsurprising that this poem exists: it is a poem that spells out exactly how such a young man should conduct himself within this new household, and how he should act in front of the great lord who would have taken him under his wings to learn and serve. The poem opens with an evocative plea that these young men should take heed of the advice, so that their natural breeding and beauty might become strengthened with virtue – which can only be learned.
I will not quote the poem at length, but merely offer my favourite stanza, which gives some advice for the elegant eating of food at the table. I give the Middle English, and my own translation into modern English below:
“Oute ouere youre dysshe your heede ye nat hynge
And withe fulle mouthe drynke in no wyse.
Your nose, your teethe, youre naylles from pykynge,
Kepe at your mete for so techis the wyse.
Eke or ye take in youre mouth yow avyse
So mekyl mete but that yee rihte welle mowe
Answere, And speke whenne men speke to yow”
(edited text from Furnivall, ed., The Babees Book )
Do not hang your head over your dish,
And do not drink whilst your mouth is full.
Keep away from picking your nose, your teeth or your nails
whilst at your meat, for so teaches the wise.
Also do not take into your mouth
so much meat that you cannot well make
answer, and speak when men speak to you.
Good table manners, I think, even for us modern day babees!