Wednesday, 7 November 2012

"If you Want to Belch, be Mindful to Look at the Ceiling": Walter Map's Unruly Servants

Serving the table in the Lutrell Psalter (c. 1320)

Medieval conduct books are full of advice for children starting out as servants. Unlike the advice found in early modern household manuals, the instructions are often practical to the point of absurdity. Daniel of Beccles, in his Urbanus Magnus  or The Civilised Man (c.1200), offers these sage guidelines:

-          “Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property”
-          “If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling”
-          “Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the  patron”

(Translations found here ).

Such behavioural guides “flourished in courts and elite households” from the thirteenth century onwards “as manuscripts were passed among family members and new books were composed and conveyed through the generations” (1).  Reading them, we might image medieval servants as belching, flea-ridden, badly-behaved infants. But the advice is designed to transform these ragged infants into well-mannered courtiers and to turn dinner-times into synchronised routines. Harmonious and disciplined households would surely follow.

This transformation did not occur, however, in the household of poor Walter Map. Map, supposedly of Welsh origins, was a courtier for Henry II, and he describes his home life in his De Nugis Curialium or Trifles of Courtiers. In this text his naughty servants run rings around him, eating and drinking their fill and working together to undermine their employer. Map laments his own inefficiency; he cannot “hold the reins” of his “little team” and “[i]f I bring a just charge against any of them, he denies it and finds others to back him” (2).

A downtrodden Walter then goes on to narrate an instance of particularly bad behaviour which “was really hard on me”. His servants, he explains, were fond of spreading rumours about him and making him believe that they and the locals disliked him. One nasty rumour accused him of being “stingy”, so his servants devise a plan which, they say, will prove his generosity.  His servants began to:

go into the streets and lanes and say I had sent them to compel travellers to come in. The servants in the house received the guests with the greatest respect, said that I was most anxious to see them, and hoped they would come often. Then they would run into me and announce that guests had arrived, men of good position, and made me welcome them in.

Of course, this impromptu welcoming of strange ‘guests’ had nothing to do with  making Walter look good, but was instead a means of making “meat and drink fly”  in the guise of hospitality. The wily servants then “gorged themselves to any extent in my presence” which, Walter adds “they knew I hated” – somewhat proving his servant’s point about his stinginess.

Now, we have no means of knowing how much this was true and De Nugis is full of scurrilous court gossip. But either way, Map’s image of the unruly household opposes the kind of world conduct books tried to cultivate. Map’s servants are not deferential, orderly and moderate in their customs and habits. They run around stuffing themselves with food, inviting people into the home with no thought for material or personal safety. In fact – unlike Walter – they sound like a hoot.

(1). Roberta L. Kreuger, "Teach your Children Well: Medieval Conduct Guides for Youths," in Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English Translations, ed. Mark D. Johnston (U. of Toronto Press, 2009), ix-xxxi. ix.

(2) Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans. M.R.James (OUP, 1983).

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