Three major themes present themselves through the genres of courtesy, spiritual and guiding literature: the true gentleman, the search for inner peace and outer harmony and the elusive, ever-changing idea of happiness. Unsurprisingly, these central subjects have formed the basis for a number of large studies over the years. However, as individual concepts, their definition defies easy categorization and transcends not only the history of behaviour and comportment, but also the much more challenging realms of personal happiness, fulfilment and reflection. What is presented by these volumes is not just a cross-section of individual musings on these personal matters, but also interpretations of institutional stances, whether from the court or the church, on concerns of outer conduct and inner conscience.

Questions of salvation, of virtue, of man’s place in society and of the purpose of his existence troubled all types of writers, and were popular avenues of exploration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the lesser-known works included in this exhibition to the best-selling essays of Michel de Montaigne, writers searched within themselves and examined the projection of the self in the wider world with an increasing intensity. The certainty of religious practice and reward had been irrevocably undermined in the sixteenth century and, for writers of the late sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, this instability of belief was played out not just in the mind, but on the battlefield, in the court and in society at large.