The Courtier Pays a Call

Last evening I visited some good friends after work for a couple of hours, having a drink outside on their balcony and enjoying both the conversation and summer-like weather.  One of the benefits of getting older is realizing how often such evenings are infinitely more pleasurable, memorable, and even educational than ones spent either surrounded by a great deal of noise and activity, or entirely on one’s own.  The reason I suspect this is the case is something that Count Castiglione himself understood very well, for in fact it forms the framework for his “Book of the Courtier”, from which this blog takes its inspiration, and that is the importance of actual conversation between human beings, and what that conversation does to examine and to build up our society.

Back before the Western world turned in on itself in selfishness and the worship of fleeting images projected onto flat screens, people of all social classes used to engage in what was collectively referred to as “paying calls.”  This involved physically going to visit a neighbor, friend, or relative, in order to discuss how everyone was doing, the news and events of the day, and so on.  The manner and timing of the visit would vary according both to personal desire and local practice.  In one part of the world for example, it might be customary to pay calls after church on Sunday; in another, it might be that one visited one’s neighbor only in the cool of the evening after chores were finished for the day.

When calling upon others was considered standard practice, the “people from the manor” visited their neighbors and friends, and received visitors in turn, just as the farm laborers working in their fields did in their own cottages.  The merchants in the towns and cities engaged in it, as did their customers.  Please note that in observing this fact, I am not making reference to some dreamy fantasy of what life might have been like in the days before television and the internet: it was simply a fact of life that unless you were desperately poor – and even the poor would visit one another to bring comfort and solace in their commiseration – you had a duty to behave this way if you were to be considered civilized. Ask your grandparents about what life was like when they were younger, and chances are they will tell you about paying calls, or whatever the practice may have been referred to where they lived, where the adults relished the opportunity to sit and talk with other adults.

We can see just how essential this practice was, for paying calls takes place among all classes of society throughout the canon of Western literature.  It is recounted throughout centuries of fiction: without even having to go look up the actual passages, I can think of such scenes in the work of writers such as Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, Eudora Welty, James Boswell, Bailey White, Arnold Bennett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Joyce, and countless others.  It was such a common practice, with so many local varieties, that sometimes the rules surrounding this practice could become quite rigid – even comically so.

Take the beautiful BBC miniseries “Cranford”, for example, based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell.  The spinster sisters Miss Deborah and Miss Mattie Jenkins inform their recently-arrived houseguest from the metropolis of Manchester, Miss Mary Smith, of all the multiple protocols adopted locally over the years, as to when and where and how such visits are to take place.  These unwritten commandments on paying calls provide a seemingly endless source of amusement for the  viewer, as the maid repeatedly errs in how she announces visitors, or the visitors themselves stay too long, or raise subjects that are not supposed to be addressed during such get-togethers.

Yet comedy aside, the important thing to note from the practice of visiting and holding conversation on a regular basis in the home, was that it held families and communities together.  When we started building Western civilization through working together, these practices helped to both create and give life to society, and to thereafter keep that society going.  And this marvelous feat of not actually slaughtering each other in the street was accomplished by bringing people face to face within a framework of behaving with respect in someone else’s home, however grand or humble that home might be.

As I wrote about earlier this week, with the coming of shorter days and colder temperatures, many of us are going to become more isolated, turning to television and the internet for company, and we need to make an effort to reach out to those who might be isolated because of the change of seasons.  However I would also suggest that regardless of the time of year, for the larger health of our society, paying calls on a regular basis with those in our community is something we ought to consider reviving.  Perhaps not in as formal a way as it was practiced previously, but we can use technology to make such meetings easier to arrange.  And once we do meet, then the technology can be switched off or ignored, and the type of conversations which led to the building up of Western civilization can once again take place.

“Rev. Thomson paying a call on Mr. and Mrs. Harris in their home”
Life Magazine

6 thoughts on “The Courtier Pays a Call

  1. As you may very well know, this in Catalan is “passar conversa” and my in-laws are big into the whole ritual: a drink, some olives and lots of conversation. I love Friday afternoons for this reason. Lately we actively include my son (Cacaolat is his drink of choice) . I think this is one social grace that is slowly disappearing everywhere and I want him to at least have memories of wonderful conversations with family and friends.


  2. This is a practice I’ve been neglecting as of late. I would really love to call on friends and neighbors, even going so far as to make tea or read aloud to an elderly neighbor if someone were to visit or want me to visit them, but as you mention, work gets in the way and we get wrapped into our own worlds selfishly. How do you begin though? In truth, I’d actually love a scene like Cranford, reading by candlelight, gossiping and setting up couples, but can such things even happen anymore in today’s world? You post really got me thinking. Great work. Thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks for reading! As I pointed out in the piece, I think we can actually use technology to make it happen. We don’t have to be as formal as our great-grandparents, just email or text a couple of friends and say, why don’t you two come over after work tomorrow before or after dinner and we’ll have a drink and chat, and make it a semi-regular thing? It doesn’t have to be anything planned like a meal or a party, just a regular get-together.


      • Yes of course, but somehow it doesn’t seem as special as a calling card and face to face meeting. Perhaps that’s why Evites were invented, still it’s not quite the same. What I really miss about the classical “calling on” someone thing is the playing of music or cards and the putting on of small shows for small groups in the evening before there was TV. I’ve thought about a virtual open mic night (because all of my friends span the country), but I don’t know if it would have that same intimate feel. Anyway, great post and thank you for your reply!


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