To be ‘civil’ denoted the opposite of all that was ‘savage’, stemming from the Latin civilitas, which carried meanings pertaining to the art of government and to behaviour or decorum. It also related to civitas, a commonwealth’s body of free citizens who worked towards the common good [see ‘Citizen’]. In both senses, ‘civil’ contained the implication that those who lived in organised urban communities were better behaved and better suited for political participation than those beyond them. The language of civility also involved theories of historical progression. The privy councillor and humanist Thomas Wilson wrote in 1553 that in the beginning of time, ‘al thinges waxed savage’, while language and civil conversation transformed wild men into articulate beings, capable of rule and endowed with the eloquence needed to persuade others to virtue. ‘The realme’, Wilson wrote, ‘declares the nature of the people’, so that towns ‘helpeth somewhat, towardes the encrease of honour: As it is much better, to be borne … in London, then in Lincolne. For that … the people [are] more civil’.
Manuals on civil conversation or the ‘art’ of civility, often translated from Italian, proliferated in Elizabethan and Stuart England. These included George Pettie’s translation of Stefano Guazzo’s The civile conversation (1581), Lodowick Bryskett’s A discourse of civill life (1606), and Francis Bacon’s ‘Short Notes for Civil Conversation’, appearing in a 1648 collection of his works. Such manuals demonstrated that civility contained both a social and political aspect, where personal behaviour and decorum were related to political access and authority. It was not enough to look virtuous, or to rest on the virtue of one’s social status, wrote Bryskett. Better to be deformed but civil in conversation than ‘a goodly body to be nought else but a gay vessell filled with vice … [those] being beautifull of body, [but] lewd and vitious, deserve to be driven from the conversation of civil men; yea chased out of the world’.
The understanding of civility as progress contained profound implications for those who travelled to Ireland or America, seeking to justify their actions through the desire to ‘civilise’. Andrew Trollope wrote from Ireland in 1581 that the Irish living outside of walled towns were ‘not christyans, cyvell, or humane creatours, but … savage, and brute bestes’. Bryskett, author of A discourse of civill life, drew on his experience serving Sir Henry Sidney in his Irish campaigns when he articulated the necessity of framing ‘a gentleman for civil conversation’ to avoid degeneration abroad. Thomas Smith, a clerk in Elizabeth’s privy council, believed the English had a duty to educate the Irish ‘in vertuous labour and in justice, and to teach them our English lawes and civilitie’ so that they would ‘leave robbyng and stealing and killyng’. Sixteenth and seventeenth century ethnographic sources often described indigenous peoples in the Atlantic as childlike or underdeveloped. George Best, recounting Martin Frobisher’s voyage to Newfoundland in the 1570s, wrote that the English were able to ‘allure those brutish and uncivill people’ with ‘toyes, as belles, and knives, wherein their specially delight’. Thomas Hariot, while depicting a nuanced account of Native American life, nonetheless promoted the need to transform Algonquians into English subjects: ‘Whereby may be hoped if meanes of good government bee used, that they may in short time be brought to civilitie, and the imbracing of true religioun’. The Algonquian Pocahontas only gained esteem amongst courtly English society after she became ‘civill after our English manner’ and ‘well instructed in Christianitie’ after her conversion in 1614.
The economic and military power of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, as well as their religious diversity, shaped seventeenth-century English perceptions of eastern civility. James I’s ambassador to the Timurid court, Sir Thomas Roe, considered the Mughal diplomatic and courtly practices as ‘affronts and slavish customes’ that undermined the function and status of an ambassador. Roe presented the Mughal emperor Jahangir as an Islamic ruler who contradicted English and European notion of civility, being ‘most earnest in his Superstition, a hater of all Christians, proud, subtill, false, and barbarously tyrannous’. In his observation of Ottoman lands, the English traveller George Sandys similarly complained that Islamic rulers had ‘rooted out all civility’ by allowing ‘glorious temples’ to be ‘subverted and prostituted to impiety’, with ‘the true religion … discounted and oppressed’. Despite their own cultural expectations and preconceptions, observers also showed levels of admiration for the behaviour of Mughal and Ottoman individuals. Roe’s commentary was shaped by his own successes and failures at navigating and accessing Mughal spheres of power, and at times Roe praised the ‘extraordinary civilitie’ of certain governors or kings. Roe’s chaplain, Edward Terry, was also impressed with Mughal deference and decorum. In spite of the Islamic and Hindu elements that composed Mughal society, Terry regarded the subjects of the Great Mughal as a truly civil people, comparable or even superior to the English. Terry narrated an episode in which one of the English cooks of Roe’s entourage, under the influence of alcohol, tried to assault the brother of the governor of Surat. Though calling him a ‘[h]eathen dog’, the Mughal ‘replyed civilly’ to the abuse, leading Terry to question English notions of Christian civility: ‘who was the Heathen dog at this time, whether the debaucht drunken Cook who call'd himself a Christian, or that sober and temperate Mahometan who was thus affronted[?]’. In his account of his travels through the Ottoman Empire, Henry Blount, like Terry, compared the English unfavourably to those he encountered abroad. Upon encouraging a Turkish mariner, Blount declared ‘their incredible civilitie’, claiming he ‘had often proved the Barbarisme of other Nations at Sea, and above all others, of our owne, supposed my selfe amongst Beares’, believing the Ottomans to have ‘such a patience, so sweet, and gentle a way’. Like Terry in the Mughal Empire, Blount reasoned that although ‘the Turkish way appeare absolutely barbarous’ it was in fact ‘another kind of civilitie’, going on to pointedly remark, ‘different from ours, but no lesse pretending’.
Though the monarch and the court represented the paragon of civility, the political charge of the word ‘civil’ in Latin came largely from its relation to citizens, and notions of civility existed in different but converging ways among different social groups and corporations. The celebrations for James’ coronation in London presented a world in which all citizens participated through civil behaviour, fulfilling their roles as collective members of society. Throughout the opulent pageant, in which figures like Justice and Temperance banished factious Envy, ‘a goodly and civil order was observed’ in the city despite the large crowds that gathered. The celebrations required enormous amounts of preparation and involved the backing of aristocratic families as well as literary contributions by Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton, and the participation of local craftsmen and guilds to build the arches and scenes that appeared on the procession route. Civility was not confined to the aristocracy, then, but became a pervasive ideal. Studies on early modern state formation by Michael Braddick and Steve Hindle note that members of parliament, country justices, clergymen, and merchants all placed significant weight on ideas of civility in their articulations of godly order and control. Interested in how citizens ‘on the ground’ employed ideas of civility beyond conduct books and court culture, Martin Ingram argues that ‘far from civility being an exclusively elite commodity … versions of the content had resonance much further down the social scale and had a hard moral edge’. The Christian ethics propounded by humanist churchmen were wrapped up in notions of civility, with self-restraint part of a larger awareness of shame and impropriety. The rare mention of ‘civil’ or ‘civility’ in court records in the sixteenth century became ‘widely current’ by the 1620s, even in rural locations, indicating its pervasiveness in everyday life. Lists and responsibilities for vestrymen, for example, depicted the ideal parish office-holder as ‘an honest and civil man’ who would therefore labour ‘for the commonweal’.
Defining perfect civility relied on antithesis and the suppression of impulse, meaning discussion of civility often invoked the rude, the ‘savage’, or the disordered. Thomas Paynell’s 1560 translation of Erasmus’ The civilitie of childehode promised to instruct individuals from their youth to exhibit ‘all good civilitie and pure manners’, in prescriptions that included when one should or should not laugh, what to do at the dinner table, moderating consumption, and refraining from swearing or loud noises, for even the smallest actions could reveal ‘a cyvyll thing’. The early seventeenth century saw the publication of satirical texts like The schoole of slovenrie (1605) or Thomas Dekker’s Gulls horne-booke (1609) that minutely described boorish behaviour that gentlemen should emulate. The table of contents to The schoole of slovenrie included ‘looking into other mennes letters’, ‘the use of papers and bookes, entertaining friends, and other such like civilities’, and ‘[o]f devouring, laughing, vomiting at the table, and other such like civilities’. In ridiculing the uncivil — where unwashed riding boots, foolish orations, unbridled appetite, and a lack of social graces were ultimately intended to be scoffed at — such satires put the unlearned or inexperienced individual outside the refined spheres occupied by their social superiors, in ways that placed uncivil or degenerate Englishmen, at least rhetorically, in the same categories of exclusion as other ethnographic peoples. In his thundering invective against long hair and other sartorial fashions, the puritan William Prynne declared that ‘for men to weare long Haire … in any Christian, or civill Common-wealth (as ours is)’ turned them into ‘Barbarous, Uncivill, and Lascivious Pagans’. Yet the conduct manuals read by members of the elite, including mock-conduct manuals, were an ingrained part of their concepts of wit and social refinement. Truly ‘uncivel pleasures’ were not the same as the license and merrymaking encompassed in gentlemanly social interactions, for ‘pleasant and scholler-like urbanitie … was admitted amonge the Grecians, and commended in Cicero’.
The widespread use of the concept of civility in a variety of early modern contexts was inextricable from ideas of polity, society, and authority, while accusations of incivility or savagery constantly threatened to subvert notions of civil behaviour. At the same time, competing notions existed over how the civil life might be articulated. ‘My trust is’, James I wrote to his son Prince Henry, ‘that God hath ordained you for moe [sic] Kingdomes then this … allure piece by piece, the rest of your kingdomes, to follow the fashions of that kingdome of yours, that yell finde most civill’. For James, civility was a unifying ideal, one that would ‘allure’ the less civil to embrace monarchical authority. However, trade and global exchange complicated traditional ideas of civility. Whereas James, for example, detested his tobacco, his subjects were unwilling to eschew smoking despite the King’s repeated insistence on its power to turn his subjects into ‘savages’. Instead, gentlemen widely adopted smoking, often using it as a means of promoting their own imperial aims. Tobacco smokers, physicians argued, could in fact be ‘very learned … moderate, sweete, [and] civill’. Coffee drinkers from the later seventeenth century, too, advocated the commodity as serving a civilizing function. Above the ‘Physical Vertues of the Liquor’, coffee houses themselves provided ‘civil places of Resort and Ingenious Conversation’. ‘Exotic’ commodities and the pursuit of luxury consumption created new markets, and new spaces, where individuals might enact their social and political ideals and carry conversation. Desirable commodities but ‘uncivil’ inhabitants provided tensions between the attraction of the Chesapeake or the Ottoman empire, and the dangers of moral, spiritual, and physical degeneration. This continued to be a concern until the English stopped believing civility could be universally learned. By the later seventeenth century, the rise of slavery as an institution, colonization, and expanding trade, led to the belief that it was an individual’s intrinsic nature - not the nurturing of virtue - that that determined who was civil, and who was not.