How to make your mark at a banquet without leaving a stain!
Popular culture has done medieval dining a great disservice. A feast was a communal ritual which was governed by a precise etiquette. Gnawing on steaming haunches of boar and throwing the bones over your shoulder is best left to bad Hollywood movies.
A banquet is an opportunity to eat, drink and enjoy and if you follow the advice in this short guide you can do so in a way that shows your superiority over those sitting at the other…lesser… tables.
Give me my robe, put on my crown
I should state at this point that this guide is mostly for gentlemen; the ladies do not need my advice on fashion nor manners.
So what’s in for the late Middle Ages? Hats are in for gentlemen, you can go bareheaded, but hats (without horns) do make a fine statement. Luxurious fur trims are always fashionable, provided of course they have been removed from the animal. Swords are simply passé at dinner as it proclaims that you don’t have a body of armed retainers outside the hall awaiting your call. All you need know is for your valet to lay out your tightest hose and finest robes for the big event.
To dine in a truly civilized manner you of course need servants, if however you are travelling light you will require the following: a spoon (gold, silver, base metal or horn), a knife (sharp), a bowl or two (clean), a napkin (white linen)] a goblet, glass or other suitable drinking vessel . These items can be used individually, sequentially or in combination with each other; but preferably not all at once. A generous host, such as the Abbey, will provide you with all that is necessary for enjoying the evening’s repast.
Upon arrival at a feast it is customary to be offered a bowl of scented water to freshen up from your journey. This is used for washing your hands; no plunge bathing.
Spoons are employed for eating soups, pottages etc. When not in use they are placed in your bowl, not in your hat or your neighbour’s lap when not in use. The napkin is for wiping of your fingers, mouth and utensils (eating).
The knife is used for cutting dainty morsels (gobbets) to pick up in your fingers and eat. The knife should be not used to hew and hack at food in the serving dish, nor should it be employed to intimidate fellow diners in standoffs over the last brie tart. On no account use your knife to carve your name into the furniture, most of us know someone who can read and are not easily impressed.
Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast, but twelve persons there.
The sharing of a meal was a ritual that central to medieval culture. This was referred to as messing together. A feast will generally consist of a few courses and is often served onto central platters from which everyone helps themselves. Solid foods are transferred from the platter onto your trencher, which is a plate made from bread. Do not eat the trencher, this is an insult to the host, feed it to the dogs or even give it to the poor- but don’t pick at it! Otherwise you are hinting that your hosts are so miserly that you had to eat the table setting to ward off famine.
Etiquette also demands you do not attempt to place a whole roast porpoise on your plate; take the opportunity to mess with the people around you (don’t think it).
Food will be served by the Abbey volunteers, do not call them wench or peasant as it displays a lack of breeding and suggests that you may be one of those unfortunates who have not have inherited your own servants.
Should you need to season your food you wipe the tip of your knife (napkin, not sleeve or neighbour) and use it to gather salt from the open salt cellar and sprinkle it on you food. Spices are taken with the tip of the little finger, so it is good manners to keep your little finger ‘cocked’ whilst eating to avoid getting grease in the spice dish.
Whilst some folk might stab their food and take it from the point of a knife, they generally are not the sort of people you would wish to socialise with, unless of course you get a kick out of dining out the back of the stables. Do not tear at food with your teeth, cut it into small pieces and pop it into you mouth. Surprise your neighbours by presenting them with a choice gobbet (see above)
Use the occasion as an opportunity to display your rapier/mace like wit and entertain your companions, though not whilst chewing your food.
I would give all of my fame for a pot of ale
It is very good form to share drinks, especially if it is an aged mead or fine wine of Gascony. Conversely if you are drinking cheap Lambrusco, it is good form to keep to yourself. If you are offering someone your cup, wipe the mouth of the goblet before passing it to someone else, they should then wipe their mouth before drinking [napkin not sleeve], drink and then wipe the mouth of the goblet (not gobbet) and pass it back. If you are drinking ale, the new hopped beer or some other heady drink it may be better to not share a cup but offer them a cup of their own.
A banquet is a celebration and should be enjoyed. However it is advisable to temper your celebrations as you don’t want to wake up the next day and be informed that you have promised to loan money/go on Crusade/fight a duel/enter a monastery or marry someone’s ugly daughter.
Remember no better statement of largesse and breeding can be made than to select some of your finest vintages and present them to a writer on medieval etiquette at the next tournament !
Appologies to Shakespeare…….again