Social Conduct Literature
Found in varying forms throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, social conduct literature aimed to mold the moral and domestic, as well as the social lives of its readers. In Great Britain, such books were published as early as 1475, but came into their own by the 1570s with the growth of literacy and the print trade. Although most social conduct literature was aimed at young women of marriagable age, such books were also written for men, children, and the aristocracy.
The writers of social conduct books addressed issues that concerned their times, hoping to guide their audiences to what they considered virtuous and happy lives. Most social conduct books were written by men, on topics such as: how to act and dress at court, how to behave in social situations, how to run a household, how to marry a good husband, and how to be a good wife and mother.
By the late seventeenth century, a variation on formal social conduct books emerged in Great Britain: periodicals targeted primarily at a female audience. Like social conduct books and manuals, these publications endeavored to shape and guide female behavior, still promoting their “improvement” and “virtue.” As was not the case with social conduct books, however, women played a more active role in these publications.
Social conduct books and magazines have continued to be published in the twentieth century. Modern day equivalents can be found in women's magazines and books such as The Rules, a 1990s guide to dating for women. By looking at the history of social conduct books, readers can see how society has defined itself and its values over time.