Last Man Standing

In certain circles of high etiquette, gentlemen are expected to stand whenever a woman leaves or approaches a dining table, or when she enters or exits a room.  It is a rarely witnessed gesture in our modern everyday life, but how exactly did the practice originate, and what does it signify?

Standing when a superior or new person enters the office is common in business life, and most people, depending on the occasion and circumstance, would extend this courtesy more or less without thinking.  It is, in effect, ‘standing to attention’ to await instructions or to greet a stranger with a handshake (in itself, the only acceptable way of touching another person with whom we are not on familiar terms.)  But at the dining table in the presence of women, a different set of forces are at work.  Women already at the table when a new lady arrives or leaves may remain seated if they choose, a gesture signifying equal rank, but men are always expected to rise from their chairs.  It is considered to be a chivalrous act, and that alone would locate its origin in the Late Middle Ages and the development of courtly manners (from which the word courtesy is derived.)  Some think the practice developed during the era of voluminous frocks when a woman might have needed assistance to be seated or rise from the table, but those experts in correct form, Debrett’s of London, suggest that it is simply a matter of politeness and not practicality. 

But returning to the matter of courtesy, various dissertations known as ‘courtesy books’ were produced throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but the first English courtesy book is believed to be The Book of the Civilized Man by Daniel of Beccles dating from the early 13th century.  A member of King Henry II’s court, he dealt at length with the practice of standing in the presence of one’s feudal lord, and he also advised us to always look up at the ceiling when belching, to never attack an enemy when he is at his toilet, and to not mount your horse in the hallway.  It is from this work that we first received the instructions not to place our elbows on the dining table and “while food is hidden in your mouth, let not your tongue minister to words.”  

In The Lady’s Companion: or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex (1743) we are assured that good manners between the sexes would end all wars and bring humanity closer to God.  To be fair, the unknown author may well have had a point.  According to Maud Cooke in Social Life or, The Manners and Customs of Polite Society (1896) the act of rising now confers respect but once was a display of homage in the sense that he who stands is pledging himself to the service of the other.  George Washington in his Rules of Civility supports that view, and Sarah Annie Frost in her Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869) traces the custom to the more ancient Roman practice of salutatio, a morning ritual in which a patron would receive his clients.  While the boss man remained seated, his clients would stand before him and pledge their services and loyalty.

So the act of rising from one’s chair began as an ancient practice illustrating servility but which has now mutated into a signal of equal rank in the presence of women; that she is not inferior in status because the men have remained seated.  The gesture retains its core meaning of ‘at your service’, but it also confers a sense of ‘for your protection’ as the man stands ready to intervene should she encounter danger.

Feature image:  James Bond (Daniel Craig) stands while Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) leaves the table in Casino Royale (2006).

An interesting compendium of later courtesy books can be found here.


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