The dos and don’ts of spitting

No spittingJust to bring things back down to earth with a bump after the elegant, spare prose of St Augustine, here’s a post about spitting.

I’m currently working through Norman Davies’ magnum opus, Europe: A History. As well as the main narrative, stretching over 1,000 pages, Davies includes around 300 “mini-essays” on specific topics, which he calls “capsules”. One of these is on “Mores” (pp.346f.), and looks at how social etiquette has varied over the years.

Davies opens with the story of a Byzantine princess who arrived in Venice in the late 11th century to marry the Doge, and was reprimanded for her “anti-social” use of a fork to eat her food:

People in the medieval West took meat with their fingers from a common dish. The fork only came into general use during the Renaissance, and only for lifting morsels to one’s own plate. The table set of knife, fork, and spoon was an eighteenth-century innovation.

He goes on to describe the equally dramatic reversal that has occurred in the etiquette of spitting. Quoting the German writer Norbert Elias, he sets out injunctions on spitting from various etiquette guides over the centuries:

  • Do not spit over or on the table. (English, c.1463)
  • Do not spit across the table as hunters do. (German, 15th cent.)
  • Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls to the ground, it should be trodden upon. (Erasmus, 1530)
  • You should abstain from spitting at table, if possible. (Italian, 1558)
  • Formerly. it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank. … Today, that is an indecency. (French. 1572)
  • Frequent spitting is disagreeable. At important houses, one spits into one’s handkerchief … Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to stamp on it. (Liege, 1714)
  • It is very ill-mannered to swallow what should be spat … After spitting into your handkerchief, you should fold it once, without looking at it, and put it in your pocket. (La Salle, 1729)
  • It is unpardonably gross for children to spit in the faces of their playmates. (La Salle, 1774)
  • Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. Besides being coarse and atrocious, it is very bad for the health. (English, 1859)
  • Have you noticed that today we [hide] what our fathers did not hesitate to display openly? … The spittoon is a piece of furniture no longer found in modern households. (Cabanes, 1910)

As the quotations above suggest, spitting’s social acceptability declined rapidly in the nineteenth century, possibly due to fears about tuberculosis. However, as late as the 1960s, Davies recalls, London buses still considered it necessary to display signs saying “NO SPITTING”.

Just in case you find yourself transported back to medieval times and wish to avoid any social faux pas, here are some other examples which Davies quotes (again from Elias) of the etiquette of the time:

  • It is bad manners … to wear a helmet when serving ladies.
  • Don’t blow your nose with the fingers you hold the meat with.
  • If you have to scrape [the back of] your throat, do so politely with your coat.
  • Farts may be concealed by coughing.
  • Before you sit down, make sure that your seat has not been fouled.
  • It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.

The last item on the list, though, is one that today’s wealthy guzzlers might also consider adopting:

  • When you eat, do not forget the poor. God will reward you.
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