However much that title sounds like a board book introducing infants to bath time, numbers, or some such, The Babees Book in question is a collection of late Medieval and early Renaissance texts on manners, mores, courtesy, and edifying whatnot. I am drawn to courtesy manuals for their peculiar and particular representation of a period’s ideals. The tone of such manuals varies widely. Some are stridently (sometimes violently) moralizing, others benevolently instructive. Along the way, readers encounter authors driven by everything from cloying paternalism to disinterested superiority. Shifting through the wheat and the chaff of ideal and reality (I leave it to you to assign wheat and chaff as you see fit) makes for some interesting reading.
Aside from the two major texts of The Babees Book–different versions of The Boke of Nurture–editor Frederick J. Furnivall collects a florilegium of instructive little gems. Need to know how to prepare a serve a fest for a bryde? Look no further. Moreover, not only are the elements of the various courses laid out,you also find a sample welcome with which to greet guests. Latin grace blessings, how-to’s on carving meat, and gems like William Vaughan’s Fifteen Directions to preserve Health (Directive 3. “Euacuate your selfe.”) and “Extracts about Fish” from The noble lyfe & natures of man.
Herein lies treasure trove of information you did not know that you needed until now. But wait–there’s more. There are footnotes.
Now, if you do not share my gleeful delight in footnotes, stay the course a moment longer. Admittedly there are any number of writers who have no idea how to wield a footnote properly. Yet, no reader can justly hold the footnote responsible for such clumsiness. That would be like holding the form of an essay responsible for an undergraduate’s inability to craft an interesting thesis statement. Like holding the concept of fermentation responsible for the pungent, reeking disaster that was my first attempted at fermented beets. Nevermind that. The joy of footnotes lies in their revelation of writers’ idiosyncrasies. Footnotes are the place for scholarly winks, nudges, jabs, and the buried reference to martinis in an otherwise entirely scholarly work on hagiography.
If you are one of the dubious, or worse yet one of those people who considers the bottom of the page the domain of page numbers alone (like an acquaintance of mine who reads neither prefaces nor footnotes), don’t listen to me. Listen to Mr. Furnivall, editor of The Babees Book.
I don’t know whether I’m more taken by Furnivall’s honesty about the grunt work of such details, or his wagging his finger at lazy readers who don’t sufficiently appreciate that grunt work. In any case, what coats and trowsers the precise Mr. Furnivall provides.
In discussing the behavior laid down for Henxman as dictated by the booke of urbanitie (who doesn’t want that book?), he adds an explanatory footnote for Henxman:
“Sir H. Nicholas, in his Glossary to his Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII…, says, “No word has been more commented upon than ‘Henchmen’ or Henxman. Without entering into the controversy, it may be sufficient to state, that in the reign of Henry the Eighth it meant the pages of honour.”
If you’re like me, right now you’re thinking, “Wait! What? There’s an etymological controversy and you’re not going to share? SHARE!!!!” Be comforted, dear reader, Mr. Furnivall is not so parsimonious with his information as is the aforementioned Sir Nicholas. The footnote continues with Furnivall’s own summation:
For those of you worried about the unfortunate thurde son, panic not. A sewer (or seuer/seuere) was the attendant who either performed the job of food taster or who carved for his lord. There was no sewage involved.
Setting aside the delights of henxman with all its variant spellings and the etymological implications thereof (and I do encourage you to check out the entries for hengest-man on the Middle English Compendium), look at Mr. Furnivall’s reference to Mr. Way: “He is a most provokingly careful editor. If ever you hit on a plum in your wanderings through other books you are sure to find it afterwards in one of Mr. Way’s notes when you bethink yourself of turning to the Promptorium.”
Reader, are you bethinking what I’m bethinking? Why do we no longer write in this manner? Who doesn’t want to go wandering through the Promptorium, hoping to hit upon a plum? Still, the lure of the Promptorium with its promised plums is ultimately not the point. In wandering through Furnivall’s comprehensively entitled The Babees Book: Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitas, Stans Puer ad Mensam, The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of Vertue, &c. &c., with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England, I have made a discovery: it is possible to fall in love with a man for his footnotes alone. Forget Jonathan Frantzen and his 10 tips for writers. Furnivall is the man to emulate. Any writer who combines devil-may care irony with detailed scholarship is worth his weight in EETS volumes;
especially when one of those filler notes, rather randomly takes up the history of toothpicks, as follows:
Texts with trowsers on, plums, Promptoriums, and Toothpicks. Frederick J. Furnivall, I love you.
 If the preface in question is as whoppingly self-indulgent preface as Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Grammatology, a preface which feels nearly as long as Derrida’s book, I’m not going to throw stones at you for not reading it.
 Did you know that? I did not know that. Clearly, I’m having all the wrong water-cooler conversations!
 Furnivall, Frederick, ed., The Babees Book: Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitas, Stans Puer ad Mensam, The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, The Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Kervynge, The Booke of Demeanor, The Boke of Curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of Vertue, &c. &c., with some French & Latin Poems on like Subjects and some Forewords on Education in Early England. [And yes, that is the complete title.] Greenwood Press, New York, 1969, iin2.
 Sorry, too much Jane Eyre. Just bear with me.
 No really, forget them. If this controversy means nothing to you, and you want to know, go here.
 EETS=Early English Text Society for those of you who don’t hoard up your pennies for these things.