Ian Donaldson reviews 'In Pursuit Of Civility: Manners and civilization in early modern England' by Keith Thomas

Ian Donaldson reviews 'In Pursuit Of Civility: Manners and civilization in early modern England' by Keith Thomas

In Pursuit Of Civility: Manners and civilization in early modern England

by Keith Thomas

Yale University Press (Footprint), $59.99 hb, 457 pp, 9780300235777

‘Civilization’, a seemingly tranquil notion, has always somehow managed to start quarrels and divide the room. In the classical world, where the concept was largely shaped, it managed, more startlingly, to divide the human race itself. On the one hand, so the notion appeared to imply, were people whose speech you could more or less understand, whose customs and habits roughly resembled your own, who seemed capable of ‘civility’ – of living peaceably within what the Romans knew as the civitas – and thus of aspiring to higher things. Then, regrettably, there was that other mob, whose jabbering talk as they passed by you on the streets defied comprehension, though their grosser defects – crudity, cruelty, savagery – could readily be imagined. These the Greeks chose to describe as barbarians, people who couldn’t speak properly: stutterers. They came from nobody knew where and were doomed to remain perpetual outsiders.

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Ian Donaldson

Ian Donaldson

Ian Donaldson is an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is General Editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (2012), and author of Ben Jonson: A Life (2011). He was the Oxford theatre reviewer for The Guardian (London) for a decade.

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