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Dining Etiquette in the Renaissance

Dining Etiquette in the Renaissance

A very brief overview by Ulfgar the Unspeakable

When asked to describe a medieval feast, your average mundane - and quite a few medievalist who should know better, will gleefully launch into a Hollywoodesque tale of gluttony and debauchery involving fur clad barbarians tearing at huge joints of meat with their teeth, drinking mead by the gallon until the entire hall descends into a drunken brawl. A sword fight on the tables is generally included. The tale is seldom complete without buxom serving wenches included at some stage.

The reality could not be more different

In many ways, medieval Society revolved around the manners of the individual. Instruction in proper courtly behaviour was as important for young children as learning to read or write. Many ‘courtesy books’ were written as a guide for both manners and behaviour during the renaissance. From them we can get a very real idea of what a feast must have looked like. It is interesting to note that few modern diners would meet the standards set. So much for fur clad barbarians. Before I continue please understand that this is intended as an overview only. In an attempt to describe dining habits over the course of centuries, inconsistencies will appear as what is acceptable in one period may be forbidden in the next. To achieve true accuracy you should choose not only a single time period of a century or less but also a single country. After all, the Italians considered German manners atrocious and vice versa. You will need to do further research.

The feast or banquet, as opposed to dining at home, was something of a grand event for you average medieval man, assuming he was of high enough rank to be included as a guest. The feast was a confirmation of rank and social status. You might say it was a very public way of firmly establishing the pecking order. Guests would be seated in order of rank, the highest ranked at the high table and descending to the lowest rant at the farthest end of the hall. The tables were usually set up in an inverted ‘U’ with diners seated on the outer side only leaving an empty centre. This allowed for easy serving as well as allowing a central area for entertainment and ceremony. It left no confusion as to the relative importance of each diner. Rank also had advantages in that higher ranks were given more variety in the dishes presented. It was not usual for everyone to have access to each dish. The highest ranks also had access to the nef, often a gilded model of a boat containing salt. It was also known as ‘the’ salt from where we get the term ‘to sit below the salt’ meaning those below the lords table. Despite the saying, most diners at the feast appear to have had access to salt by the renaissance.

Dining utensils generally consisted of a spoon and an eating knife. These were usually supplied by the diner. It was considered a great mark of respect if the host offered a guest a knife. Food was usually eaten off trenchers - a square or round section of heavy beard. Sometimes bread trenchers were replaced by wooden plates, also called trenchers. Only the very highly ranked of honoured guest ate off a silver or even gold pate. It is quite usual to see every diner including the lord eating off bread trenchers. Drinking cups and their manner of use varied widely. Earlier period feast sometimes had only one cup apparently shared between all diners, whereas later there was one cup supplied for each pair of diners. Sharing cups was hardly unusual as sharing was very much the essence of the medieval feast. The word companion derives from this literally meaning the one with whom you share bread. Diners usually sat at a ‘cover’ meaning that they shared both cup, napkin and trencher. Not being allowed to share was a great humiliation and occasionally used as a punishment - a form of ostracism from Society. Obviously, when dining under such situations, manners became very important.

Table manners are well defined in the courtesy books written during the renaissance. Some of the injunctions would not surprise us today, such as elbows on the table or speaking while chewing. Others are aimed at courtesy to your companion such as making sure you have clean hands, you may be touching the food your companion eats, and wipe your mouth before drinking so as not to foul the cup. I have included one courtesy book with this article, ‘The Fifty Courtesies for the Table’ by Fra Bonvesino. As it contains some fifty courtesies, I will not go into them here but will leave it to the reader to digest at will.

For the more practical application of dining, after applying oneself to the courtesies in Fra Bonvesino’s book, the diner should use the knife in the left hand and eat with the right hand. The food should be handled delicately with the fingertips and not mauled in a fist. It is acceptable to put your hand into a dish to deliver food to your trencher or hold the joint with your fingers when cutting as long as care is taken to keep your hands and knife clean, both from dirt and the juices of other dishes. Never dip a morsel into the salt, instead use the cleaned tip or your knife or else take a pinch with clean fingers. (It has been suggested that a raised fifth finger, made so famous by well bred Victorian ladies when drinking tea, oriented form the practice of keeping this finger dry to pick up salt in medieval times. However, I have yet to find even one source to support this.) It is important not to make a mess. To this end, use your napkin frequently to clean your fingers, especially before touching anything that is not your food. The spoon is used to puck up any brayed or finely chopped dish too fine or liquid for fingers. Liquids such as meat sauces should be sopped up with bread in preference to using a spoon. Do not tear your bread but rather cut it with your knife into morsels for dipping.

Forks are a kitchen implement and should never be used for eating with! There were occasional uses of forks, more as a fad, during the later renaissance. They only really caught on in Italy and even then were the exception rather than the norm.

I hope this article is of use when you attend your nest feast. For further reading, I recommend ‘The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages’ by Terence Sculy.

Bibliography

  • SCULLY, Terence: ‘The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages’
  • De WORDE, Wynkyn: ‘Boke of Kruynge’
  • GILBERT, Sir Humphrey: ‘The Book of Precedence’