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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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1 The journal of Gervase Leveland, 13 Oct. 1764, British Library, Add. MS 19140, fos. 33–9.

2 Ibid.

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

4 Bourdieu, Pierre, Towards a theory of practice, trans. Nice, Richard (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 7887.

5 Rosenwein, Barbara H., ‘Worrying about emotions in history’, American Historical Review, 107 (2002), pp. 821–45, at p. 842.

6 Klein, Lawrence E., ‘Politeness and the interpretation of the British eighteenth-century’, Historical Journal, 45 (2002), pp. 869–98, at p. 881.

7 Heltzel, Virgil B., Chesterfield and the tradition of the ideal gentleman (Chicago, IL, 1925).

8 See, for example, Philip Dormer Stanhope fourth earl of Chesterfield, Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son (London, 1775), and idem, Principles of politeness (London, 1775).

9 See, for example, Dickie, Simon, Cruelty and laughter: forgotten comic literature and the unsentimental eighteenth century (London, 2011), p. 314 n. 131; Evans, Robert, ‘The humour of history and the history of humour’, Oxford Historian: a magazine for the Faculty of History for Oxford Historians, 11 (2011), pp. 4458, at p. 49; Gatrell, Vic, City of laughter: sex and satire in eighteenth-century London (London, 2006), p. 164; Gilhus, Ingvild Saelid, Laughing gods weeping virgins: laughter in the history of religion (London, 1997), p. 101; Skinner, Quentin, ‘Why laughter mattered in the Renaissance’, History of Political Thought, 22 (2001), pp. 418–47, at p. 447.

10 Elias, Norbert, The civilizing process: sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations, trans. Jephcott, Edmund (3 vols., Oxford, 1993), i, The history of manners.

11 Burke, Peter, Popular culture in early modern Europe (London, 1978), p. 271. See also, more recently, Bryson, Anna, From courtesy to civility: changing codes of conduct in early modern England (Oxford, 1998); idem, ‘The rhetoric of status: gesture, demeanour and the image of the gentleman in sixteenth and seventeenth century England’, in Gent, L. and Llewellyn, N., eds., Renaissance bodies (London, 1990), pp. 136–53; Burke, Peter, ‘A civil tongue: language and politeness in early modern Europe’, in Burke, Peter and Harrison, Brian, eds., Civil histories: essays presented in honour of Keith Thomas (Oxford, 2000), pp. 3148.

12 Thomas, Keith, ‘The place of laughter in Tudor and Stuart England’, Times Literary Supplement, 21 Jan. 1977, pp. 7981, at p. 80.

13 Earle, Peter, The making of the English middle class: business, society and family life in London, 1660–1730 (Berkeley, CA, 1989), pp. 512. See also idem, ‘The middling sort in London’, in Barry, Jonathan and Brooks, Christopher, eds., The middling sort of people: culture, society and politics in England, 1550–1800 (Basingstoke, 1994), pp. 141–58; Porter, Roy, Society in the eighteenth century (London 1982).

14 Langford, Paul, A polite and commercial people: England, 1727–1783 (Oxford, 1989).

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

16 On the integration of politeness into political thought, see also Klein, Lawrence E., ‘Liberty, manners and politeness in early eighteenth-century England’, Historical Journal, 32 (1989), pp. 583605; Phillipson, Nicholas, ‘Politics and politeness in the reigns of Anne and the early Hanoverians’, in Pocock, J. G. A., The varieties of British political thought, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 211–45; Pocock, J. G. A., ‘Virtue, rights and manners: a model for historians of political thought’, Political Theory, 9 (1981), pp. 353–68. Markku Peltonen has challenged the established association between politeness and whiggism, arguing that politeness was indeed contested, but not along party lines in ‘Politeness and whiggism, 1688–1732’, Historical Journal, 48 (2005), pp. 391–414.

17 Klein, ‘Politeness’, pp. 874–6.

18 Cohen, Michèle, Fashioning masculinity: national identity and language in the eighteenth century (London, 1996), pp. 42–3.

19 Foyster, Elizabeth, ‘Boys will be boys? Manhood and aggressions, 1660–1800’, in Hitchcock, Tim and Cohen, Michèle eds., English masculinities (London, 1999), pp. 151–66.

20 Peltonen, Markku, The duel in early modern England: politeness, civility and honour (Cambridge, 2003), p. 13.

21 Carter, Philip, Men and the emergence of polite society (Harlow, 2001), p. 1.

22 Shepard, Alexandra, Meanings of masculinity in early modern England (Oxford, 2003), p. 252.

23 Harris, Tim, ‘Introduction’, in Harris, Tim ed., Popular culture in England, 1500–1800 (London, 1995), pp. 126; Scribner, Robert, ‘Is a history of popular culture possible?’, History of European Ideas, 10 (1989), pp. 175–91.

24 Black, Jeremy, Culture in eighteenth-century England: a subject for taste (London, 2005), pp. 130–1.

25 The validity is questioned by Roper, Lyndal in ‘Beyond discourse theory’, Women's History Review, 19 (2010), pp. 307–19; for a defence, see Klein, ‘Politeness’, p. 871.

26 Gatrell, City of laughter.

27 Dickie, Cruelty and laughter, p. 1.

28 Gatrell, City of laughter, pp. 161–5.

29 Shepard, Meanings of manhood, p. 11.

30 Connell, R. W., Masculinities (2nd edn, Cambridge, 1995), pp. 185203.

31 Klein, ‘Politeness’, p. 872; Harvey, Karen, ‘The history of masculinity, c. 1650–1800’, Journal of British Studies, 44 (2005), pp. 296311, at pp. 306–9.

32 Carter, Philip, ‘James Boswell's manliness’, in Hitchcock, and Cohen, , eds., English masculinities, pp. 111–30 at pp. 129–30.

33 Harvey, Karen, ‘Ritual encounters: punch parties and masculinity in the eighteenth century’, Past and Present, 241 (2012), pp. 165203.

34 Ibid., p. 168.

35 Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1780–1850 (London, 1987).

36 Shoemaker, Robert B., Gender in English society, 1650–1850: the emergence of separate spheres? (Harlow, 1998). See also Klein, Lawrence E., ‘Gender and the public/private distinction in the eighteenth century: some questions about evidence and analytic procedure’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29 (1995), pp. 97109; Vickery, Amanda, ‘Golden age to separate spheres?: a review of the categories and chronology of English women's history’, Historical Journal, 36 (1993), pp. 383414.

37 Bryson, From courtesy to civility, pp. 243–75.

38 Ibid., pp. 243–4 and 261.

39 Ibid., pp. 246 and 255.

40 Ibid., pp. 252–3.

41 Jones, Colin, ‘French crossings II: laughing over boundaries’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 21 (2011), pp. 138.

42 Borsay, Peter, The English urban renaissance: culture and society in the provincial town 1660–1770 (Oxford, 1989), p. 272 and passim.

43 de Sivry, Louis Poinsinet, Traité des causes physiques et morales du rire relativement à l'art de l'exciter (Amsterdam, 1768), trans. Anon., Essay on laughter, wherein are displayed, its natural and moral causes, with the arts of exciting it (London, 1769), p. 25.

44 Hutcheson, Francis, Reflections upon laughter (Glasgow, 1750), p. 27.

45 Olla Podrida, 26 May 1787.

46 See also Withington, Phil, ‘The sociable self’, in Society in early modern England: the vernacular origins of some powerful ideas (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 171201.

47 Samuel Johnson (1763), quoted in Boswell, James, The life of Samuel Johnson (2 vols., London, 1791), i, p. 244.

48 Man, no. 6, 17 Feb. 1755, p. 4.

49 Cureau de la Chambre, Marin, Les caractères des passions (Paris, 1640), quoted in Poinsinet de Sivry, Traité des causes … du rire, pp. 38–40.

50 Brownsword, William, Laugh upon laugh; or laughter ridicul'd (London, 1740), pp. 33–4.

51 Stephens, John Calhoun, ed., ‘The Guardian’ (Lexington, KY, 1982), no. 29, 14 Apr. 1713, p. 127.  See also Gatrell, City of laughter, p. 170.

52 Skinner, Quentin, ‘Thomas Hobbes and the social control of unsociability’, in Martinich, A. P. and Hoekstra, Kinch, eds., The Oxford handbook of Hobbes (Oxford, forthcoming, 2015). I am grateful to Quentin Skinner for permission to read and cite this chapter.

53 Johnson, Samuel, A dictionary of the English language (London, 1755).

54 Hobbes, Thomas, Humane nature, or, the fundamental elements of policy (London, 1684), pp. 54–5. For Hobbes and the classical tradition, see Skinner, ‘Why laughing mattered in the Renaissance’, pp. 422–44, and idem, ‘Hobbes and the classical theory of laughter’, in Visions of Politics (3 vols., Cambridge 2002), iii, pp. 142–76; idem, ‘Thomas Hobbes and the social control of unsociability’.

55 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London, 1651), p. 27. See also Billig, Michael, Laughter and ridicule (London, 2005), pp. 50–6; Roeckelein, J., The psychology of humor: a reference guide and bibliography (Westport, CT, 2002), pp. 143–7.

56 Johnson, Dictionary.

57 Screech, M. A., Laughter at the foot of the cross (London, 1997), pp. xix, 17, and 24.

58 Hutcheson, Reflections upon laughter, p. 34.

59 Elkin, P. K., The Augustan defence of satire (Oxford, 1973); see also, Billig, Laughter and ridicule, pp. 57–75; Griffin, Dustin, Satire: a critical reintroduction (Lexington, KY, 1994), pp. 24–7; Sanders, Barry, Sudden glory: laughter as subversive history (Boston, MA, 1995), pp. 234–43; Koppenfels, Werner Von, ‘“Nothing is ridiculous but what is deformed”: laughter as a test of truth in Enlightenment satire’, in Pfister, Manfred (ed.), A history of English laughter: laughter from Beowulf to Beckett and beyond (New York, 2002), pp. 5767.

60 Dryden, John, A discourse on the nature and progress of satire (London, 1693). For eighteenth-century assertions of the value of satire, see, for example, Anon., An essay on satyr and panegyric (London, 1764); Anon. The satirist: a poem (London, 1771); W. Combe, The justification (1778); Walwyn, B., Essay on comedy (London, 1782); Whitehead, William, An essay on ridicule (London, 1743).  See also Frost, William, ‘Dryden and satire’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature, 1500–1900, 11 (1971), pp. 401–16.

61 Grose, Francis, A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue (London, 1785).

62 Swift, Jonathan, A treatise on polite conversation (London, 1738), p. xxv.

63 Meier, Georg Friedrich, Gedanken von scherzen (Hemmerde, 1744), trans. Anon, The merry philosopher; or, thoughts on jesting (London, 1765), p. 10.

64 Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of men, manners, opinions, times (3 vols. London, 1711), i, pp. 64 and 128.

65 Connoisseur, 2 May 1754.  For the ‘cruel artillery’ of the ‘giggle in the corner’, see Olla Podrida, 26 May 1787.

66 Bate, J., Bullitt, John M., and Powell, L. F., eds., The Yale edition of the works of Samuel Johnson (23 vols., London, 1963), ii, Idler, no. 64, p. 199; also quoted in Gatrell, City of laughter, p. 159.

67 Swift, On polite conversation, p. v.

68 Stephens, ed., Guardian, no. 29, 14 Apr. 1713, p. 128.

69 Dobrée, Bonamy, ed., The letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope 4th earl of Chesterfield (6 vols., London, 1932), iii, pp. 1114–18 : to his son, 9 Mar. 1748.

70 Ibid., iv, pp. 1379–82: to his son, 10 Aug. 1749.

71 Chesterfield to Waldegrave, Hague, 12 Oct. 1728, Chewton papers, published in Black, Jeremy, ‘Anglo-Dutch relations (1728–1732): the Chesterfield–Waldegrave correspondence’, Nederlandse Historische Bronnen, 10 (1992), pp. 132–62, at pp. 140–1. With thanks to Jeremy Black for drawing my attention to this source.

72 Ibid.

73 Baker, Robert, The merry jester (London, 1773), p. 81.

74 Meier, The merry philosopher, p. 100.

75 Dickie, Cruelty and laughter, pp. 20–33.

76 Anon., Lord Chesterfield's Witticisms (London, 1773), pp. 1 and 4.

77 Ibid., pp. 24, 27, 29, and 68.

78 Anon., The German Spy: or, familiar letters from a gentleman on his travels thro’ Germany to his friend in England (London, 1740), pp. 293–4.

79 Ibid., 295.

80 ‘is as well acquainted with horses as with women, he could not fail to be well-equipped’, quoted in Black, Jeremy, An illustrated history of eighteenth-century Britain, 1688–1793 (Manchester, 1996), p. 68.

81 Carter, Men and the emergence of polite society, pp. 163–208 and 210.

82 Dickie, Cruelty and laughter, pp. 2–3; Gatrell, City of laughter, pp. 176–7.

83 Bourdieu, Theory of practice, p. 72. This question is also asked in Klein, ‘Gender and the public/private distinction’, p. 101.

84 O'Callaghan, Michelle, The English wits: literature and sociability in early modern England (Cambridge, 2007); see also Zucker, Adam, The places of wit in early modern English comedy (Cambridge, 2011).

85 Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 27. Hobbes was quoted in the Spectator, no. 47, 24 Apr. 1711, which itself became an authority and was still being reprinted towards the end of the century, see for example, Melmoth, William Henry, Modern universal story-teller; or a new picture of human life (London, 1780); Public Advertiser, 9 Sept. 1789.

86 Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 33–4; see also Withington, Phil, ‘Intoxicants and society in early modern England’, Historical Journal, 54 (2011), pp. 631–57, at pp. 651–2; idem, ‘“Tumbl'd into the dirt”: wit and incivility in early modern England’, Journal of Historical Pragmatics, 12 (2011), pp. 157–77, at pp. 156–63.

87 Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 34; Withington, ‘Intoxicants’, p. 652.

88 Bryson, From courtesy to civility, pp. 86, 96, and 104.

89 Abercrombie, David, A discourse of wit (London, 1685), pp. 3 and 7.

90 Ibid., p. 24

91 See for example Armstrong, Archie, A choice banquet of witty jests, rare fancies, and pleasant novels (London, 1665); Mennes, John, Recreation for ingenious head-peeces [sic], or, a pleasant grove for their wits to walke in: of epigrams 700, epitaphs 200, fancies a number, fantasticks abundance (London, 1650); Miege, Guy, Delight and pastime, or, pleasant diversion for both sexes consisting of good history and morality, witty jests, smart repartees, and pleasant fancies (London, 1697).

92 Flecknoe, Richard, A treatise on the sports of wit (London, 1675), p. 5.

93 Hope, John (The Leveller), ‘His defence of laughter, against Lord Chesterfield's unwarrantable attack’, Westminster Magazine, Jan. 1775, p. 107.

94 Ibid., 107.

95 Haywood, Eliza, Female spectator (4 vols., Dublin, 1746), ii, p. 116.

96 Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, ii, p. 256.

97 Meier, The merry philosopher, p. 101.

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

99 See for example, Hyland, Paul, ed., The London spy: Ned Ward's classic account of underworld life in eighteenth-century London (East Lansing, MI, 1993), pp. 1314, 65–7, and 91–3.

100 Ward, Ned, Wine and wisdom: or, the tippling philosophers (London, 1710), preface.

101 Licensed victuallers register, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), MR/LV/03/003.

102 Jacob, Giles, The poetical register: or, the lives and characters of all the English poets, with an account of their writings (2 vols., London, 1723), ii, pp. 225–6.

103 Licensed victuallers register, LMA, MR/LV/05/022; Ward, Ned, To the Right Honourable Sir Humphrey Parsons lord mayor of the City of London (London, 1730), preface.

104 Register of baptisms and burials, 1558–1770, Parish of St Andrew Undershaft, LMA, P69/AND4/A/001 item 2.

105 Jacob, The poetical register, ii, pp. 87–8.

106 Sherburne, George, ed., The correspondence of Alexander Pope (5 vols., Oxford, 1956), i, p. 373 : Nov. 1716.

107 Miscellanies over claret (London, 1697), preface.

108 The diverting muse; or the universal medley (London, 1707).

109 de Sallengre, Albert Henri, Eloge de l'yvresse (Leide, 1715), trans. de Monte Fiascone, Boniface Oinophilus, Ebriatatis encomium: or, the praise of drunkenness (London, 1745), pp. 36–7, 47, and 163–4.

110 Helen Williams, ‘The Good Humour Club’, British Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference (7 Jan. 2014).

111 Minute book, p. 24: 27 Dec. 1744, (accessed 21 June 2013).

112 Ibid., p. 25: 22 Jan. 1745.

113 Ibid., p. 122: 8 May 1755.

114 Klein, ‘Politeness’, pp. 879–81.

115 Monod, Paul Kléber, ‘Are you getting enough culture? Moving from social to cultural history in eighteenth-century Britain’, History Compass, 6 (2008), pp. 91108. See also Harvey, Karen and Shepard, Alexandra, ‘What have historians done with masculinity?’, Journal of British Studies, 44 (2005), pp. 274–80, at p. 276.

* 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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