The pioneering sociologist Norbert Elias published The Civilizing Process in 1939 with the aim of tracing how Europeans came to imagine what it meant to be “civilized.” In the book, he argues that increasing interdependence in society—in which difference social classes began to mix—combined with the increasing centralization of power in the modern state to place a new emphasis on control over one’s self and one’s body. “Civilization” was thus not some objectively enlightened state of being, but the result of certain social and historical accidents. (Indeed, in 1939, the world was about to witness the monstrous inhumanity of which “civilization” was capable.)
His method in the book is to begin with chronologically listed excepts from various guides to good manners. In the excepts on spitting, for example, there are few restrictions on public spitting in the middle ages (spit whenever and anywhere you like, just not over or on the table or in the basin where you wash your hands); by the end of the 19th century, it is completely condemned:
From Stans puer in mensam:
Do not spit over or on the table.
Do not spit into the bowl when washing your hands.
From a Contenence de table:
Do not spit on the table.
Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands, but beside it.
From The Book of Curtesye:
If thou spitt over the borde, or elles opon,
thou schalle be holden an uncurtayse mon.
After mete when thou shall wasshe,
spitt not in basyn, ne water thou dasshe.
From Zarncke, Der deutsche Cato, p. 137:
Do not spit across the table in the manner of hunters.
From De civilitate morum puerilium, by Erasmus:
Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls to the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone. If you are not at liberty to do this, catch the sputum in a small cloth. It is unmannerly to suck back saliva, as equally are those whom we see spitting at every third word not from necessity but from habit.
From Galateo, by Della Casa, quoted from the five-language edition (Geneva, 1609), p. 570:
It is also unseemly for someone sitting at table to scratch himself. At such a time and place you should also abstain as far as possible from spitting, and if it cannot be completely avoided it should be done politely and unnoticed.
I have often heard that whole peoples have sometimes lived so moderately and conducted themselves so honorably that they found spitting quite unnecessary. Why, therefore, should not we too be able to refrain from it just for a short time? [That is, during meals; the restriction on the habit applied only to mealtimes.]
From Courtin, Nouveau traité de civilité, p. 273:
The custom we have just mentioned does not mean that most laws of this kind are immutable. And just as there are many that have already changed, I have no doubt that many of these will likewise change in the future.
Formerly, for example, it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank, and was sufficient to put one’s foot on the sputum. Today that is an indecency.
In the old days you could yawn, provided you did not speak while doing so; today, a person of rank would be shocked by this.
From an anonymous Civilité française (Liège, 1714), pp. 67, 41:
Frequent spitting is disagreeable. When it is necessary you should conceal it as much as possible, and avoid soiling either persons or their clothes, no matter who they are, nor even the embers beside the fire. And wherever you spit, you should put your foot on the saliva.
At the houses of the great, one spits into one’s handkerchief. …
It ill becomes you to spit out of the window or onto the fire.
Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it.
From La Salle, Les Règles de la bienséance et de la civilité chrétienne (Rouen, 1729), p. 35:
You should not abstain from spitting, and it is very ill-mannered to swallow what should be spat. This can nauseate others.
Nevertheless, you should not become accustomed to spitting too often, and without need. This is not only unmannerly, but disgusts and annoys everyone. When you are with well-born people, and when you are in places that are kept clean, it is polite to spit into your handkerchief while turning slightly aside.
It is even good manners for everyone to get used to spitting into a handkerchief when in the houses of the great and in all places with waxed or parquet floors. But it is far more necessary to acquire the habit of doing so when in church, as far as is possible. . . . It often happens, however, that no kitchen or even stable floor is dirtier … than that of the church.
After spitting into your handkerchief, you should fold it at once, without looking at it, and put it into your pocket. You should take great care never to spit on your clothes, or those of others. . . . If you notice saliva on the ground, you should immediately put your foot adroitly on it. If you notice any on someone’s coat, it is not polite to make it known; you should instruct a servant to remove it. If no servant is present, you should remove it yourself without being noticed. For good breeding consists in not bringing to people’s attention anything that might offend or confuse them.
From La Salle, Les Règles de la bienséance et de la civilité chrétienne (1774 ed.), p. 20. In this edition the chapter “On Yawning, Spitting, and Coughing,” which covers four pages in the earlier editions, has shrunk to one page:
In church, in the houses of the great, and in all places where cleanliness reigns, you should spit into your handkerchief. It is an unpardonably gross habit of children to spit in the faces of their playmates. Such bad manners cannot be punished too severely; nor are those who spit out of windows, on walls and on furniture to be excused…
From The Habits of Good Society, p. 256:
Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. I need say nothing more than— never indulge in it. Besides being coarse and atrocious, it is very bad for the health.
From Cabanès, Moeurs intimes, p. 264:
Have you noticed that today we relegate to some discreet corner what our fathers did not hesitate to display quite openly?
Thus a certain intimate article of furniture had a place of honor . . . no one thought of concealing it from view.
The same is true of another piece of furniture no longer found in modern households, whose disappearance some will perhaps regret in this age of “bacillophobia”: I am referring to the spittoon.
Image: photo by Daniel Bowen (source)