What is a Conduct Book?
Put simply, conduct books are texts which tell their readers how to behave. These readers might be royal heirs, gentlewomen, tradesmen, or young girls; the object of regulation might be table manners, the art of complimenting, the formation of Christian subjectivity, or how to secure the best possible husband. Whatever their specific audience or subject of address, the books of interest to the Civility Project are texts which propose norms to which their readers should adhere.
Such instructive literature was popular right from the beginning of printing, and remains so into the twenty-first century. Consider the numerous “self-help” books on offer in most respectable bookshops, or the slew of tutorials available on online platforms like YouTube. The remarkable presence of conduct-oriented discourse, from the earliest works of classical philosophy to today’s saturated media realm(s), attests to the enduring interest in self-improvement across the centuries.
That said, the emergence of early modern books of courtesy and conduct marked an important evolution from classical and medieval attitudes to good conduct. Renaissance conduct literature, in its pronounced emphasis on self-fashioning,is distinctly modern. Books like Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (1530) gave instructions regarding positive behavioural modification, and others such as Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman (1622) showed how these instructions might lead to better social standing. This emphasis reflected and fostered concomitant shifts in philosophical and political thought that continue to undergird how we behave today.
Conduct literature is a notoriously tricky genre to cordon off from other forms of prescriptive literature. Our inclusive use of terms like “conduct,” “courtesy,” “instructional,” “prescriptive,” and "didactic" speaks to the difficulty of clearly defining this expansive pool of texts, especially in a period when "genres" as we have come to know them were still very much in the course of definition. This generic slipperiness poses an interesting challenge for us as we decide which books to include in our project database. What exactly qualifies as a conduct book, and what does not?
Early modern print culture throws up a number of similar genres which clearly fulfil a courtesy or conduct function, but which centre around topics which can be understood as broadly practical in nature. The surprising number of books dedicated to gentlemen’s angling in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries constitutes one example of this kind of sub-genre of conduct literature. Though such books are obviously of a different ilk to Castiglione’s The Courtier or Walter Raleigh’s Instructions to His Son, both their number and their metonymic nature (well-executed angling signifies correct masculinity) make them candidates for generic classification as conduct books. The effusion of sermon-based and devotional literature in the seventeenth century —much of which carries a strong didactic strain — also makes a persuasive claim for inclusion in a database of early modern conduct literature. As we reach the eighteenth century, a similar claim could be made for periodicals, such as Richard Steele and Joseph Addison's Spectator. As our project develops, we hope to hone our definition of conduct and courtesy books further, building on and advancing the foundational work of twentieth-century bibliographers such as Virgil B. Heltzel and Gertrude E. Noyes.
The Discourse of Civility
The word “civility” is introduced – with most of its modern valences – by Erasmus in his sixteenth-century conduct book for children, De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (1530). In Erasmus’s book, “civility” refers to the virtuous manner of conducting oneself and of treating others in social situations. This term crystallizes the kind of self-restraint and accommodation to others that was becoming salient to daily life in the increasingly urban society of early modern Europe, whilst at the same time recalling the roots of the term in Ciceronian conceptions of civil society.
Starting with Erasmus's book, the behaviour embraced under the umbrella of “civility” is broken down into the components of “manners” or “etiquette”, things as seemingly trivial as rules of dress or bodily comportment. However, such minutiae are constitutive of a much larger discourse of civility. As Pierre Bourdieu has argued, if all societies “set such store on the seemingly most insignificant details of dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners, the reason is that, treating the body as a memory, they form the fundamental principles of the arbitrary content of the culture”. As such, the manner in which one handled one’s fork or delivered a compliment began to matter in early modern England, as civil behaviour came to be viewed as imperative to the advancement of individual, social, religious, and political objectives.
One might argue that the advice contained within contemporary courtesy and conduct books can be understood as holding significant symbolic value, as reflecting and contributing to the larger discourse of civility which prevailed at the time. This discourse was not, of course, entirely or even principally textual in early modern England; oral and bodily modes of communication were just as instrumental in promulgating norms of conduct as written texts. Unfortunately for cultural historians, however, these modes of conduct instruction have vanished along with the voices and bodies which conveyed them. What is left are conduct books, which can tell us about the ideals of civility. The imperative to pay more attention to one’s deportment – to how one behaves and seems in the presence of others – indicates a sea-change in historical attitudes toward the self. The rise of conduct-based literature in sixteenth-century Europe suggests a new awareness of the importance of self-fashioning, hence supporting longstanding arguments as to the watershed role of the Renaissance in the development of a distinctly modern form of subjectivity.
Conduct books are therefore dynamic texts which both reflect and shape a discourse aimed at improving the behaviour of their readership. Importantly, the discourse of courtesy and conduct was not limited to books that overtly announced their intention to instruct. Although our Conduct and Courtesy Books Database addresses the conduct book genre more narrowly defined, the wider Civility Project acknowledges that literary and non-literary genres contributed in no small part to the formation and development of the early modern discourse of civility. Several members of our research team are pursuing questions of how Renaissance plays, poems, letters, and prose fictions intervened in the discourse of civility through the early modern period, with an especial interest in parsing these kinds of belles-lettres genres alongside more traditional conduct literature. Taken together, we hope that these two forms of archival material – typically seen as two diametrically-opposed forms of cultural artefact, the imaginative versus the normative – will yield new insights on the Renaissance discourse of civility.
 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, transl. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology 16 (Cambridge, 1977), p. 94.
 See, for example, Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Katherine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theatre in the English Renaissance (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Translation and Cultural Exchange
Though courtesy and conduct-oriented texts predated 1500, it is widely considered that early modern writing on manners “achieve[d] a complexity and sophistication unequalled in the medieval past.” The rise of the courtesy book as a popular European genre was propelled by the symbiotic processes of translation and cultural exchange. There is a clear coincidence between the popularization of courtesy and conduct books, the invention of printing, and the rise of vernacular languages in early modern Europe. The earliest Renaissance courtesy books, even if they were written for specific regional and linguistic audiences, were swiftly translated into numerous European languages. Indeed, such books rapidly travelled beyond the borders of the places in which they were written.
The birthplace of the courtesy book was High-Renaissance Italy, with Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528) the best-known and most enduring of the early courtesy books. This book and its European publishing history bear witness to the prestige accorded to Italian culture in the sixteenth century — a pre-eminence which was further consolidated by the publication of Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo (1558) and Stefano Guazzo’s The Civil Conversation (1574) in the following decades. Together, this triad of Italian courtesy texts travelled the European continent, providing a template for subsequent authors of conduct.
Over the course of the next few centuries, however, the cultural balance would shift. France overtook Italy as the hub of cultural authority in continental Europe by the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century popular English writing in many genres came to be translated into other European languages, often transiting via French translations.
It is our intention to show how conduct and courtesy books participated in these shifting cultural dynamics. Despite the increasingly important role played by state structures in the geopolitical arena, the European translation and dissemination of these books show that it is problematic to link discourse about the (optimal) behaviour of citizens of the elite and middling ranks to questions of national identity per se. One of our aims is therefore to focus on the fraught relation between the emergence and consolidation of national identities and the production, translation, and dissemination of courtesy and conduct books in early modern Europe.
The Example of The Courtier
Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano [The Courtier], widely acknowledged as the first early modern courtesy book, was completed around 1516 and revised up until its publication in 1528. Castiglione himself died just a year later, too soon to see the strong influence of his book on continental literary culture. For The Courtier was a book which travelled, launching the courtesy book tradition both in the Italian and French courts and entering English print culture. As well as English, the book was translated into Spanish (1534), French (1537), German (1565), and Polish (1566). In order to ensure widespread dissemination across European courts and institutions, it was also translated into Latin in 1561. Copies of the book are present in libraries in many countries, including Portugal, Hungary, Sweden, and Switzerland. Within less than forty years of its original publication, Castiglione’s courtesy book had made an indelible mark on Western and Eastern Europe.
Thomas Hoby’s English translation of The Courtier was published in 1561. As with every translation, Hoby’s was not exact. Even the paratextual material of the 1561 edition evinces the differences between continental print culture, and the newly vitalized genre of courtesy literature in England. If we compare Hoby's English title-page to the original Italian, we can see that the paratextual apparatus of the English edition was already marketing The Courtier as a self-help book — an emphasis on autonomous self-fashioning far less visible in the original edition. Highlighting the indispensability of The Courtier as a font of behavioural advice, the title page of Hoby’s English translation describes the book as “Very necessary and profitable for yonge Gentilmen and Gentilwomen abiding in Court, Palaice or Place”.
The year 1588 saw another important development in the book’s history, with the publication of John Wolfe’s trilingual edition of The Courtier. This trilingual edition features a remarkable mise-en-page in which Italian, French, and English are arranged as adjacent columns of text. Wolfe’s edition at once promotes the value of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic exchange, and subtly distinguishes the English vernacular and culture from its Italian or European counterparts. From the High-Renaissance Italy that was heir to Castiglione’s original Il Cortegiano to the trilingual Courtier which shows in graphic terms the English engagement with Continental courtesy discourse, Castiglione’s book is an emblematic example of the mobility and evolution of conduct books in early modern Europe.
 Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England (London: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 15.
 See Peter Burke, The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).
Case Study I: Dorothy Leigh
Dorothy Leigh, The Mothers Blessing (1616)
Dorothy Leigh’s The Mothers Blessing was the single most popular female-authored book of the seventeenth century. First published in 1616 and re-issued some 23 times over the next century, Leigh’s advice book helped to establish the tradition of the seventeenth-century “mother’s legacy” in England. Beginning with Elizabeth Grymeston’s posthumously published Miscelanea. Meditations. Memoratiues (1604), the mother’s legacy genre enjoyed peak popularity until about 1660. Several early modern legacies continued to be published into the Victorian Era, including Elizabeth Jocelin’s The Mother’s Legacie (1624).
In many ways, the mother’s legacy was a genre uniquely suited to the seventeenth century. Legacies appealed to an important readership in early modern England: parents. Following the Reformation, parents were enjoined more than ever before to become the ministers of their own households. Many of the most popular legacies – including Leigh’s – included practical devotional advice and prayer templates targeted at inculcating godly conduct in children. The 1616 edition title page of The Mothers Blessing leaves no doubt as to the nature of Leigh’s intended audience: it contains “many good exhortations, and godly admonitions, profitable for all Parents to leave as a Legacy to their Children, but especially for those, who by reason of their young years stand most in need of instruction.”
Few books in the Courtesy and Conduct database boast the same number of editions as Leigh’s Mothers Blessing. This is all the more striking in view of the author's gender. Male authors greatly outnumbered woman writers in the Renaissance, owing to vastly different educational opportunities, and to cultural discourses which either enabled or restricted attempts at authorial self-fashioning for women. For women writers, conduct-book writing was not only a matter of surmounting the gender-specific challenges of print authorship; it was also about fashioning a stance of culturally palatable authority from whence written advice could reasonably come. The conduct book tradition is defined by institutionally-affiliated, elite, and patriarchal authorities – from Erasmus and Castiglione in continental Europe, to Walter Raleigh and James I in England. Even if in some cases the specific authorial name attached to a conduct book proved dispensable to its success (Castiglione’s The Courtier, for instance, was endlessly reprinted and disseminated without clear reference to its origins), there was a deep correlation between the activity of advice-giving and the male voice.
Intervening in such a formidable tradition as a woman writer necessitated finding a niche space of authority from which to speak. This space was, for the mother’s legacy writer, located at the intersection of maternity and death. The title page of The Mothers Blessing clearly works to carve out this space of authority for “Mrs. Dorothy Leigh”. Leigh’s title page announces three things: that the author of the book is a “gentle-woman”; that she is “not long since deceased”; and that she leaves the legacy “behind her”, like a will, to her children. Our first encounter with the material book thus tells us that the maternal voice found within is a posthumous one, offering her counsel from beyond the grave (see Grant Ferguson). This stance leads to a number of tensions within the mother’s legacy itself, blurring the boundaries between absence and presence. However, it also acts as an assurance of her authority, justifying women’s speech (and writing). As a unique form of affect, the dead mother’s love held real currency in the first half of the seventeenth century, sandwiched as that historical moment was between the Golden Age of Elizabeth I and the rise of the household as a place of Christian ministry during the Civil War. Inside her book, Leigh bolsters her maternal – female and fragile – authority with heavy reference to the Bible, framing her text with marginal allusions to Biblical verses and commandments. One of these citations appears on the title page of Leigh’s legacy, lifted from Proverbs. “My Sonne,” it reads, “heare the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the lawe of thy mother.” A powerful injunction, indeed.
The Material Text
Apart from some minor changes to the subtitle and imprint, the title page of The Mothers Blessing changes very little in terms of format and layout despite being re-issued over twenty times by diverse London printers. Through 100 years of re-issuing, the title page retains the quotation from Proverbs, and stays free of illustration or ornamentation. The paratextual material also stays remarkably similar across the various editions of The Mothers Blessing, perhaps suggesting the continuing relevance of Leigh’s dedication to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (regarded at the time of initial publication as a radical Protestant icon). Moreover, every edition from 1616 to 1728 is in duodecimo (12mo) format. Finally, the text of The Mothers Blessing remains unusually stable through the decades, with the only notable evolution the absorption of marginal notes into the main body of text after 1700.
There is one exception to the otherwise constant book history of The Mothers Blessing, namely the chapbook edition published in 1685. That this strange little chapbook was not reissued indicates that such a condensed and bowdlerized version of Leigh’s popular work did not prove particularly marketable in the late seventeenth-century. Tellingly, there is no reference to Dorothy Leigh as the author of The Mothers Blessing on the title page. Indeed, apart from the appropriated title, the chapbook has very little in common with other editions of Leigh’s work. The contents differ almost entirely from Leigh’s legacy, transforming the latter’s lengthy prose into “An Hundred Godly Lessons” to be digested in illustrated verse. We can only conclude that the printer, like numerous male writers before him (for instance, Nicholas Breton, Gervase Markham, or the mysterious “M.R.” behind The Mothers Counsell ), decided to exploit the popular dying mother trope in order to publish this versified advice-book, perhaps intended directly for a younger audience rather than the reading parent. Despite the fact that the 1685 chapbook version is an anomaly in the line-up, the English Short Title Catalogue [ESTC] still considers it part and parcel of the not-so-chequered book history of Leigh’s Mothers Blessing, placing it squarely in the bibliographical record between the 1674 and 1707 editions.
What can we take from this brief history of the bestselling female-authored conduct book in early modern English history? The Mothers Blessing has been categorized by modern book historians as a “devotional steady-seller”, enjoying consistent commercial success with a Protestant audience over numerous decades (Ian Green qtd. by Folgerpedia). Books like this, Ian Green argues, “are best understood through numbers of editions; and these numbers far outweigh editions of poetry or drama published in the period” (qtd. by Folgerpedia). That Leigh’s legacy proved one of these steady-sellers – an unprecedented feat for a woman writer – perhaps goes some way to explaining the unusual constancy of The Mothers Blessing as a material object and as a text. It also speaks to Leigh’s success in carving out a space of scripturally-inflected maternal authority, a space so firmly defined by its two pillars of maternal zeal and Biblical commandment that it discouraged editorial or graphic meddling on the part of printer-publishers. As a material object and as a constitutive episode in both women’s literary history and in the history of conduct literature, Dorothy Leigh’s Mothers Blessing occupies an important place.
Brown, Sylvia. 1999. Women’s Writing in Stuart England: The Mothers’ Legacies of Dorothy Leigh, Elizabeth Joscelin and Elizabeth Richardson. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.
Grant Ferguson, Alisa. 2017. “‘A dumme thynge’: The Posthumous Voice as Rhetoric in the Mothers’ Legacies of Dorothy Leigh and Elizabeth Joscelin.” In Berit Åström (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead. 91-108. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gray, Catherine. 2001. "Feeding on the Seed of the Woman: Dorothy Leigh and the Figure of Maternal Dissent.” ELH 68.3: 563-592.
Green, Ian. 2000. Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leigh, Dorothy. 1616. The Mothers Blessing. Or the Godly Counsaile of a Gentle-Woman Not Long since Deceased, Left Behind Her for Her Children Containing Many Good Exhortations, and Godly Admonitions, Profitable for all Parents to Leaue as a Legacy to their Children, but especially for those, Who by Reason of their Young Yeeres Stand most in Need of Instruction. by Mris. Dorothy Leigh. London: Printed for John Budge. Available at https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240858488?accountid=17206.
McQuade, Paula. 2018. " Motherhood and Women's Writing in Early Seventeenth-Century England: Legacies, Catechisms, and Popular Polemic.” In Patricia Phillippy (ed.), A History of Early Modern Women’s Writing. 276-91.
“The Mother’s Blessing.” Folgerpedia. <forgerpedia.folger.edu> https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/The_Mothers_Blessing_by_Dorothy_Leigh