Thursday, February 25, 2010
Suppose you went to a wedding reception, and the guest seated beside you picked his teeth with his knife after his meal. Eww. Gross. There were rules about table etiquette during the medieval period too. Most people get their information about medieval times from Hollywood, but as in other cases, Hollywood didn’t get things exactly right.
Let’s start with the place where the wedding feast was held. It was probably the great hall in a castle. Castle floors didn’t have carpet, but rushes were often laid to keep the cold out. It’s a good thing they didn’t have carpet. People spit on the floor and tossed food to the dogs so the carpet would have gotten pretty nasty. Lighting in the castle was provided by candles, rush lights or flares, and of course the fireplace itself. Rush lights were made of wax or melted animal fat that was impaled on vertical spikes to iron candlesticks. The candlesticks were fastened to the wall with brackets.
Decorations in the great halls usually consisted of bows and arrows mounted on the walls and elaborate tapestries or perhaps banners hung from the walls or ceiling. The banners might be the great lord’s coat of arms. At a wedding feast banners from both families would be displayed, and perhaps a banner combining both families’ coat of arms would be created.
There was a dais in the great hall reserved for the most honored of guests, usually the king. If no royalty came to the feast the lord’s family would sit there.
Before entering the great hall for the feast the lesser ranking guests would line up to wash their hands. Higher ranking guests would wash their hands from a bowl of scented water that was brought to the table. Guests would then be seated in order of rank with the highest rank at the high table. Tables were usually arranged in an inverted U shape with people seated on the outside of the U. The inside was left clear for serving and entertainment. Did you look at the picture? Notice the golden shaped boat. This is a nef or salt bowl. Salt was still a precious commodity in the medieval period. Important people would sit above the salt, and lower ranking folks below the salt. Thus was born our modern terminology ‘above and below the salt.’
More than likely there would be no plates on the table. Guests were served from trenchers, stale bread used as a plate. Only a most honored guest would receive a real plate, but if he had such status the plate might even be made of gold. They didn’t use forks yet either. Guests ate with spoons and eating knives which they often had to bring from home. It was a mark of great respect for a lord to offer a knife to a guest. Didn’t they eat with their hands? Yes, sometimes they did which is the reason they washed their hands. Guests also had to share glasses. Usually they had one glass to two people. Sometimes they had to share a trencher and napkin too. Not being allowed to share was a great humiliation considered a form of ostracism.
The tables were covered with tablecloths, and it was a disgrace to get it dirty. People were also given napkins that they were expected to use. Napkins were placed over the left shoulder or left wrist if each person had their own napkin. And please be careful not to spill anything on your neighbor. That was a big no-no.
Food would be served in courses, and you would wash your hands between courses. Entertainment was provided throughout the meal. The presentation of the food was a part of the entertainment as every servant would be dressed in his best. Other entertainment might be jugglers, dwarfs, freaks, jesters, dancers, music, and costumed courtiers.
Here’s a list of some dos and don’ts as you dined.
1.Don’t blow on the soup. You might have bad breath.
2.Don’t scratch your head at the table. You might dislodge a louse.
3.Don’t wipe your hands on the tablecloth.
4.Don’t lick the dishes.
5.If you must blow your nose wipe your hand on your clothes.
6.Don’t drink from the communal cup with a mouth full of food. Backwash.
7.Never put your elbows on the table.
8.You may throw food to the dogs.
10.Don’t stuff your mouth.
11.You may spit from the table but do it discretely.
12.Don’t dip your meat directly into the salt bowl.
13.Turn your cell phone off. Ha ha. Just checking to see if you’re still awake.
14.Don’t eat the trencher. They save it and give it to the poor.