In Pursuit of Civility Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England Keith Thomas

Publication date:
12 Jun 2018
Yale University Press
480 pages: 235 x 156mm
28 col. illus.

What did it mean to be ‘civilized’ in Early Modern England?  
Keith Thomas's seminal studies Religion and the Decline of Magic, Man and the Natural World, and The Ends of Life, explored the beliefs, values and social practices of the years between 1500 and 1800. In Pursuit of Civility continues this quest by examining what the English people thought it meant to be `civilized' and how that condition differed from being `barbarous' or `savage' .
Thomas shows how the upper ranks of society sought to distinguish themselves from their social inferiors by developing distinctive forms of moving, speaking and comporting themselves - and how the common people in turn developed their own forms of civility.  The belief of the English in their superior civility shaped their relations with the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. By legitimizing international trade, colonialism, slavery, and racial discrimination, it was fundamental to their dealings with the native peoples of North America, India, and Australia. 
Yet not everyone shared this belief in the superiority of Western civilization. In Pursuit of Civility throws light on the early origins of anti-colonialism and cultural relativism, and goes on to examine some of the ways in which the new forms of civility were resisted.  
With all the author’s distinctive authority and brilliance - based as ever on wide reading, abounding in fresh insights, and illustrated by many striking quotations and anecdotes from contemporary sources - In Pursuit of Civility transforms our understanding of the past. In so doing, it raises important questions as to the role of manners in the modern world.

Sir Keith Thomas is an honorary fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a historian of early modern Britain. His classic works include Religion and the Decline of Magic and Man and the Natural World.

“The author of the classic Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas is a national treasure who should be cloned so that future generations can benefit from his intelligence and urbane sensibility. . . His research is impressive, but even more so is his ability to bring the past alive by letting people such as Defoe and Swift tell their stories. This is a very civilised book.”—Gerard DeGroot, The Times

“Thomas is one of Britain’s greatest living historians. . . In the final pages of his hugely rich and impressive book, [he] makes a strong case for the defence. What civility boiled down to, he says, was kindness, decency and cleanliness. And in some ways we have a lot to learn from our forebears.”—Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times