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This article considers the intersection between polite manners and company in eighteenth-century England. Through the laughter of gentlemen, it makes a case for a concept of occasional politeness, which is intended to emphasize that polite comportment was only necessary on certain occasions. In particular, it was the level of familiarity shared by a company that determined what was considered appropriate. There was unease with laughter in polite sociability, yet contemporaries understood that polite prudence could be waived when men met together in friendly homosocial encounters. In these circumstances, there existed a tacit acceptance of looser manners that might be called ‘intimate bawdiness’, which had its origins in a renaissance humanist train of thought that valorized wit as the centrepiece of male sociability. This argument tempers the importance of politeness by stressing the social contexts for which it was – and was not – a guiding principle. Ultimately, it suggests that the category of company might be one way of rethinking eighteenth-century sociability in a more pluralistic fashion, which allows for contradictory practices to co-exist. As such, it moves towards breaking down the binary oppositions of polite and impolite, elite and popular, and theory and practice that have been imposed on the period.

Corresponding author
University of Sheffield, Jessop West, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield, S3
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This article was written with the support of the Wolfson Foundation.  I would also like to thank Phil Withington and the anonymous readers of the Historical Journal for their comments on earlier drafts.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Phil Withington , ‘Company and sociability in early modern England’, Social History, 32 (2007), pp. 291307

Barbara H. Rosenwein , ‘Worrying about emotions in history’, American Historical Review, 107 (2002), pp. 821–45

Anna Bryson , From courtesy to civility: changing codes of conduct in early modern England (Oxford, 1998)

Peter Burke , ‘A civil tongue: language and politeness in early modern Europe’, in Peter Burke and Brian Harrison , eds., Civil histories: essays presented in honour of Keith Thomas (Oxford, 2000), pp. 3148

Lawrence E. Klein , Shaftesbury and the culture of politeness (Cambridge, 1994)

Robert Scribner , ‘Is a history of popular culture possible?’, History of European Ideas, 10 (1989), pp. 175–91

Lyndal Roper in ‘Beyond discourse theory’, Women's History Review, 19 (2010), pp. 307–19

Lawrence E. Klein , ‘Gender and the public/private distinction in the eighteenth century: some questions about evidence and analytic procedure’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29 (1995), pp. 97109

William Frost , ‘Dryden and satire’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature, 1500–1900, 11 (1971), pp. 401–16

Alexandra Shepard , ‘“Swil-bols and tos-pots”: drink culture and male bonding in England, c. 1560–1640’, in Laura Gowing , Michael Hunter , and Miri Rubin , eds., Love, friendship and faith in Europe, 1300–1800 (Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 110–30

Paul Kléber Monod , ‘Are you getting enough culture? Moving from social to cultural history in eighteenth-century Britain’, History Compass, 6 (2008), pp. 91108

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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