February 18, 2004

On the History of Nose-Blowing

There are certain things one doesn't particularly want to read about while fighting off the flu, and today I came across one of them: Norbert Elias's thoughts on the history of nose-blowing.

For those of you who don't know, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was a German historical sociologist who theorized about the relationship between the spread of modern manners and the process of state centralization in medieval Europe. In Part Two of his best-known work, The Civilizing Process, Elias comments on a series of quotations about nose-blowing from early-modern and modern Europe. The gems he discusses include "When you blow your nose or cough, turn round so that nothing falls on the table" (13th-century Italy) and "Some years ago people made an art of blowing the nose. One imitated the sound of the trumpet, another the screech of a cat. Perfection lay in making neither too much noise or too little" (18th-century France).

Elias's commentary also includes its share of fun tidbits: did you know that Louis XIV was the first king of France to have "an abundant supply of handkerchiefs"? Elias begins his commentary in the following way:

In medieval society people generally blew their noses into their hands, just as they ate with their hands. That necessitated special precepts for nose-blowing at table. Politeness, courtoisie, required that one blow one's nose with the left hand if one took meat with the right. But this precept was in fact restricted to the table. It arose solely out of consideration for others. The distasteful feeling frequently aroused today by the mere thought of soiling the fingers in this way was at first entirely absent.

Fun stuff, huh? (And I haven't even discussed the main argument of Elias's work!) Elias isn't a historian, and I sometimes wished that he'd provided more historical evidence; nevertheless, his argument is fascinating and interesting to think about. I sometimes wonder about people who completely write off the role of theoretical works in history as "boring." My own work isn't the most theoretical in nature, but how can you read the work of someone like Foucault or Elias and not be intrigued--even if you have major doubts about whether they're good models for historical work?

Posted by Ed at February 18, 2004 05:07 PM

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