On Pronouns, and Blowing Your Nose

Back in the Middle Ages--according to J.S. Mill--it was possible to be an individual. Not. Any. More.

As Mill argued in his On Liberty (1859):
In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendent power among mankind. 
In ancient history, in the middle ages, and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time, the individual was a power in himself; and if he had either great talents or a high social position, he was a considerable power. 
At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses.
Mill’s contemporary Jacob Burckhardt begged to disagree. Publishing his Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien the very next year (1860), Burckhardt insisted that nobody in the Middle Ages had had any sense of individuality. Rather, everyone thought of himself (not to mention herself) in terms of race, party, family, or guild:
In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness--that which was turned within as that which was turned without--lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation--only through some general category. 
In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognised himself as such. In the same way the Greek had once distinguished himself from the barbarian, and the Arabian had felt himself an individual at a time when other Asiatics knew themselves only as members of a race. It will not be difficult to show that this result was owing above all to the political circumstances of Italy.
Pop quiz: Are we living in the Middle Ages or Modernity? Or have we always been post-Modern?


The Canadian Parliament has passed Bill C-16 into law, making it in effect illegal to refuse to talk about people using pronouns other than those which each individual claims as his or her--or eir or hus or peh’s or per or thons or vis or xyr or hir or zer or zir or zes or zhir--own. (Blogger’s autocorrect gave me grief with every single one of those alternative pronouns. Just sayin’.) In Canadian public institutions under the jurisdiction of the federal government, language, specifically the language of gender and sex, is no longer a matter of custom, but privilege, a private law unto each. Or is it rather a matter of faith?

According to its defenders, this amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code was necessary to protect certain marginalized groups from discrimination, specifically those whose gender identity or gender expression does not fit into the masculine and feminine stereotypes traditionally associated with male and female human beings and by which, according to linguistic and social custom, we talk about each other in the third person when we do not know each other well. It was--they argue--necessary because otherwise protection of individuals belonging to such groups from harassment and unfair discrimination was insufficient in law and could not be otherwise guaranteed.

At this rate, it is going to be illegal to wish someone, “Have a nice day,” lest we offend the chronically depressed. “Good-bye”--contracted from “God be with you”--is going to be classified as a hate crime against atheists. I gave up years ago saying, “Bless you,” when people sneeze. No, I am not making light of how hard it is to be transgendered. I am deadly serious, however, about how hard it is to be civilized.


Take my favorite example, blowing your nose. 

Back in the thirteenth century (a.k.a. The Real Middle Ages), if you were sitting at board it was considered the height of courtliness to turn your head to one side and blow your snot out onto the ground. Which would have been covered with rushes if you were indoors, so that was okay.

By the fifteenth century, it was considered unseemly to blow your nose on the tablecloth--suggesting that by this time there were tablecloths--or to use the same hand with which you were eating your meat.

By the sixteenth century, it was considered rustic (i.e. peasant-like) to blow your nose into your hat or on your clothes; only tradesmen blew their noses into their elbows. It was no better to blow your nose into your hand, even if you wiped it on your garment. Rather, it was proper to use a handkerchief--all the cool kids had one--and to turn one’s head if “more honorable” people were present (i.e. “more honorable” than you--status was everything). You could use two fingers, but if anything fell on the ground, you should shove it away with your foot immediately. There were also rules about handkerchiefs: you should only offer yours if it has been recently washed. And you should not look into it after wiping your nose so as to “peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head.”

By the seventeenth century, the courtesy manuals had really come into their own. “At table,” Antoine de Courtin explained in his Nouveau traite de civilité (1672), 
to blow your nose openly into your handkerchief, without concealing yourself with your serviette, and to wipe away your sweat with it...are filthy habits fit to make everyone’s gorge rise.... You should avoid yawning, blowing your nose, and spitting. If you are obliged to do so in places that are kept clean, do it in your handkerchief, while turning your face away and shielding yourself with your left hand, and do not look into your handkerchief afterwards.
So important had it become by the early eighteenth century to know how to behave, La Salle’s Les Règles de la bienséance et de la civilité chrétienne (first published in 1729) gave elaborate instructions on how to blow one’s nose like a Christian:
It is very impolite to keep poking your finger into your nostrils, and still more insupportable to put what you have pulled from your nose into your mouth…. It is vile to wipe your nose with your bare hand, or to blow it on your sleeve or your clothes. It is very contrary to decency to blow your nose with two fingers and then to throw the filth onto the ground and wipe your fingers on your clothes. It is well known how improper it is to see such uncleanliness on clothes, which should always be very clean, no matter how poor they may be. There are some who put a finger on one nostril and by blowing through their nose cast onto the ground the filth inside; those who act thus are people who do not know what decency is. You should always use your handkerchief to blow your nose, and never anything else, and in doing so usually hide your face with your hat. You should avoid making a noise when blowing your nose… Before blowing it, it is impolite to spend a long time taking out your handkerchief. It shows a lack of respect toward the people you are with to unfold it in different places to see where you are to use it. You should take your handkerchief from your pocket and use it quickly in such a way that you are scarcely noticed by others. After blowing your nose you should take care not to look into your handkerchief. It is correct to fold it immediately and replace it in your pocket.
By the end of the eighteenth century, however, something amazing had happened. Per the 1774 edition edition of La Salle’s Les Règles, the first rule of Blowing Your Nose had become Not To Talk About It:
Every voluntary movement of the nose, whether caused by the hand or otherwise, is impolite and puerile. To put your fingers into your nose is a revolting impropriety, and from touching it too often discomforts may arise which are felt for a long time. Children are sufficiently in the habit of committing this lapse; parents should correct them carefully. You should observe, in blowing your nose, all the rules of propriety and cleanliness.
Pop quiz: When was the last time you ate your boogers in public? Bonus question: How do you know that it is wrong?


We live in interesting times. On the one hand, there are those insisting that it is the height of compassion to stand screaming at a speaker whose words they do not want to hear and whom they say allowing to speak will cause, if not themselves, then others whom they purport to want to protect irreparable harm. On the other, there are those begging their fellow citizens to behave with civility when discussing difficult issues in the public square. The former insist that there is no point in behaving politely while others are suffering. The latter insist that screaming and poo-flinging will only make matters worse.

You would think we would have learned something about manners, not being medieval anymore.

On the etiquette of blowing your nose: Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners (1939), translated by Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). For Elias, it was manners that transformed the individuals of the Middle Ages into the polite citizens of the modern age. Perhaps we need to bring the floor rushes back, now that we are all individuals again.

Troll picking his nose: Wil Huygen, The Complete Gnomes, illustrated by Rien Poortvliet (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).

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