Don’t pick your nose. Don’t burp. Wash your hands. Take your elbows off the table. Does this sound familiar? This manuscript is full of rules like these, written more than 500 years ago. The ‘Little Children’s Little Book’ taught children table manners, so that they would know how to behave in noble or royal households. By listing all the many things that medieval children should not do, it also gives us a hint of the mischief they got up to.
What are the rules?
- ‘Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys’: Don’t pick your ears or nose.
- ‘Pyke not thi tothe with thy knyffe’: Don’t pick your teeth with your knife.
- ‘Spette not ovyr thy tabylle’: Don’t spit over your table.
- ‘Bulle not as a bene were in thi throote’: Don’t burp as if you had a bean in your throat.
- ‘Loke thou laughe not, nor grenne / And with moche speche thou mayste do synne’: Don’t laugh, grin or talk too much.
- ‘And yf thy lorde drynke at that tyde, / Dry[n]ke thou not, but hym abyde’: If your lord drinks, don’t drink. Wait until he’s finished.
- ‘And chesse cum by fore the, be not to redy’: Don’t be greedy when they bring out the cheese.
What is a courtesy book?
This kind of guide to behaviour, known as a courtesy book, was popular in parts of Europe from the 13th to 18th century. It was useful for children and families who aspired to join the nobility or find work serving at the royal court. This author links manners to religion as well as social rank, saying that ‘courtesy’ comes directly from ‘heaven’.
What form of English is this?
This copy from around 1480 is written in Middle English, which is distinct from English spoken today. Some words now have new meanings, or have fallen out of use. For example, ‘meat’ was used to mean ‘food’ and ‘thou’ meant ‘you’. At that time, there were no definite rules for English spelling, so one word (such as ‘little’) was written in different ways. Printing had only recently been introduced to England by William Caxton. It would help to fix spellings in the centuries to come.
Different versions of the ‘Little Book’
There are three different copies of the ‘Little Book’ at the British Library, and at least three more in other collections. This copy is part of a larger manuscript, probably meant for children and other household members. The manuscript includes texts on hunting and carving meat, medicine, blood-letting and English kings. On the third page shown here (f. 59v), small sections have been copied out. At the end, there is a doodled letter ‘M’ and the name ‘Maria’.
Sec. Hand. 3 41.. f.210.
[___] J J J
Litylle chyldrynne here may ye lere
Moche curtesy that ys wretyn here
For clerkys that the vij  artys con [kan]
seyth Synne that curtesy from hevyn cam
Whenne Gabryelle once lady grette
And Elezabethe w[i]t[h] mary mette
Alle vertuys ben closyde in curtesy
And alle vysys in velony
Loke that thy hondys benne wasche clene
That no fylthe in thy naylys ben sene
Take noo mete tylle the fyrste gracys ben sayde
And tylle th[o]u see alle thynge a rayde
loke my sone that th[o]u nought sytte
Tylle the ruler of the halle the bytte
Atte the mete in the begynnynge
loke a pon pore men th[e]n thynke
For thy fulle wombe w[i]t[h] owte any faylys
Wotte fulle lytylle what the hungery aylys
Ete not thy mete to hastely
A byde and ete esely
Tylle th[o]u have thy fulle servyse
Touche noo messe in noo wyse
kerne not thy brede to thynne
Ne breke hit not on twynne
The mosselle that th[o]u begynnysse to touche
Cast them not in thy pouche
Put not thy fyngerys on thy dysche
Nothyr in flesche nothyr in fysche
Put not thy mete in to the salte
In to thy Seler that thy salte halte
But lay hyt on thy trenchoure
To fore the and that ys thy honoure
Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys
And th[e]n doo men wylle say th[o]u comyste of Earlys
But whyle thy mete in thy mouthe ys
Dryke th[o]u not for yete not thys
Ete thy mete by smalle morsellys
Fylle not thy mouthe as dothe brothellys
Pyke not thy tothe w[i]t[h] thy knyffe
Whyle th[o]u ettyste by thy lyffe
And whenne th[o]u haste thy potage i done
Oute of the dysche put thy spone
Spette not ovyr thy tabylle
Nor a pon hyt for hyt ys not able
lay not thy elbowe nothyr thy fyste
A pon the tabylle whyle th[o]u este
Bulke not as a bene were in thy throtahe throote
As a karle that comythe owte of a coote
And thy mete be of grete pryce
Be Ware of hyt or th[o]u arte not wyse
Speke noo Worde stylle ne sterke
And honowre and curtesy loke y[o]u kepe
And at the tabylle loke th[o]u make goode chere
loke th[o]u rownde not in nomannys ere
w[i]t[h] thy fyngerys th[o]u towche and taste
Thy mete ~ And loke th[o]u doo noo waste
loke th[o]u laughe not nor grenne
And w[i]t[h] moche speche th[o]u mayste do synns
Mete ne drynke loke th[o]u ne spylle
But sette hit downe fayre and stylle
Kepe thy clothe clene the byforce
And bere the that th[o]u have no schorne
Byte not they mete but cut hit clene
Byte not thy mete but cut hit clene
Be well ware that noo drope be sene Be welle ware
Whenne th[o]u etyste gape not to wyde that noo drope be
That thy mowthe be in everysyde sene
And sone be ware of one thynge C
Blowe th[o]u not in thy mete not drynke
And yf thy lorde drynke at that tyde
Dryke th[o]u not but hym a byde
Be hyt at eve be hit at morowe
A pon they trencher noo fylthe be sene
Hyt ys not honeste as I the tell
Drynke th[o]u not by hynde noo mannys backe
If th[o]u do th[o]u arte to blame
And chesse cum by fore the be not to redy
To cut there of be not to gredye
Caste not thy bonys in to the flore
But lay hem fayre on thy tranchoure
Kepe clene thy clothe be fore alle
And syt th[o]u stylle w[i]t[h] alle
Tylle gracys be sayde unto the ende
And tylle th[o]u have washe w[i]t[h] thy frende
Lete the more worthy theince th[o]u
Wasche by fore the and that ys thy prowe
Spete not on thy bason
And ryse w[i]t[h] hym that sate w[i]t[h] the soylle
And thanke hym fayre and welle
Aftyr jangely not w[i]t[h] jacke ne gylle
But take thy leve of the lorde lowly
And thanke hym w[i]t[h] thy hert hyly
And able to gedye in same
And bere the soo that th[o]u have noo blame
Thenne wylle they sey there aftyr
That a gentylle man was here
He that dyspysythe thys techynge
He ys not worthy w[i]t[h] awt x lesynge
Nevyr at a goode mannys tabylle for to sytte
Nothyr of noo Worshippe to wete
And there fore chlydryn pur charyte
Lernythe thys boke that ys callyd Edyllys be There was a
And pray for hym that made thys man th[a]t hadde [?]
That hym may helpe swete Jhes[us]
To lyve and dy a monge hys frendys
And us grancte in joy to a byde
Say ye alle Amen for charyde in every syde
Here endythe the boke of Curtesy m
that ys fulle necessury unto yonge
chyldryn that muste nedys lerne the Maria The manne
maner of curtesy ~ gods [hed?] off the church
that be in en
There was a man that hadde nought
There came thenys & robbyd hy[m] & toke nought
he ranne owte and cryde nought
Why shulde he crye he loste nought
here ys a tale of ryght noughte
Cronica si peuces si certant Oxonienses
Post paucos menses pugnabu[n]t et angliginentes
[Chronicle if Peuces contend with the men of Oxford.
After a few months they and the Englishmen will fight.] Nota b[e]n[e] q[ui] [__?]
- Full title:
- The boke of curtesy,' beginning, 'Litylle chyldrynne here may y e lere,' f. 58; Miscellaneous historical and other pieces in prose and verse
- 15th century
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Egerton MS 1995
- Article by:
- Andy Stanton, consultant: M O Grenby
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