A well-run household. [The visitor] must have been met with ceremony on the threshold when he arrived unexpectedly. It would not be easy to take these retainers by surprise. Cadfael asked for the lord Leoric, and was told that he was out[…] but he would be sent for at once, if Brother Cadfael would wait but a quarter of an hour in the solar[…]. An invitation which Cadfael accepted willingly after his ride. His mule had already been led away, doubtless to some equally meticulous hospitality of its own. […]A guest here would be a sacred trust. –from The Devil’s Novice, by Ellis Peters, p91.
When did hospitality change?
This story is set in the England of 1140 C.E. but, in my wide reading of stories set in various centuries, I consistently see hospitality as welcoming attention set carefully apart from the rest of the usual day. The guest is treated to drink and food that was set apart from routine use; the hosting household pauses its routines to make sure the visitor’s wants are catered-to. The heads of household immediately spend time with the guest, for as long as the guest is so inclined.
This is not how I welcome my guests. Nor is it, I gather, the way guests now want their hospitality. The modern way is to absorb guests into the routines, to make them less set apart and more enveloped in the hosts’ daily life. “Please, make yourself at home!”
The opening passage struck me so firmly that I’ve been pondering this change for a full day now. Why would we modern-Western people feel more treasured by less solicitude?
This isn’t completely the random rovings of my mind. The passage fell on fertile (read: worried) ground, because one of my sisters-in-law and her husband arrive tomorrow for a two-week stay. I want them to be comfortable, because two weeks is a tiringly long time to not be comfortable. But the husband and I have a substantial language gap. I don’t know how I’ll provide the hospitality I think appropriate…either modern-style or medieval.
Back to my musing. I think contemporary absorb-you-in hospitality appeals due to our atomized life. Unlike in earlier times, we don’t interact with people unless we engage on purpose. Now that online ordering and delivery have become common for people of even moderate privilege, we really don’t end up spending time with others. So interaction beyond our (very) small daily circles is itself remark-able, set apart. Freakish, to stretch a point. To treat someone with careful courtesy adds strangeness to strangeness.
We now equate appreciation with the fluid ease of trust. Help yourself to coffee when you wake; here’s a housekey so you can come and go at will. Join us for soccer practice if you like, or stay behind and read. You are welcome however you engage.
Though I do think sitting together, in no hurry, listening and talking, remains the best expression of welcome there is. And that practice I still uphold.