By Danièle Cybulskie
When we think about medieval people eating together, it seems we invariably conjure up an image of a great hall, filled with people sitting at long tables. While we do need to keep in mind that this is an image of people eating in a castle, not a cottage or a city, it is an image worth taking a look at, since many of these formal eating traditions still have echoes today.
Our English word “lord” comes from the Old English word hlaford, which literally translates to “loaf ward” (halfweard), or someone who is a food guardian or protector. This speaks to the major responsibilities a lord owed his peasants: that is, to make sure they were fed and protected in return for their work. Because of this, a castle full of people would be fed together, although not every day would have been a banquet day.
If the medieval meal you’re imagining looks a little bit like a modern wedding, you’re not too far off. The tables used would have been trestle tables: long boards set on top of supports which resembled modern sawhorses. Having tables which could be set up and taken down relatively quickly meant that the hall in which people ate could be used for other purposes throughout the day.
The most important people would have been seated at one end of the hall on a raised platform, or dais. Because of this, we still often call the most important table at a banquet “the high table”. The VIPs at the high table would be seated next to each other, facing the hall, not across from each other. The lord would have seated himself at the middle of the high table, and the rest of the people at the table would have been seated in order of importance – just like at a modern wedding.
Seating arrangements were a tricky business, and where you were seated told the story of both your relationship to your lord, and your place in society. Because salt was an expensive commodity at the time, the most important people would have been seated where they could reach the salt cellar, or “above the salt”, while everyone else would have been seated “below the salt”. Seating arrangements were also important because people shared dishes of food; it would not have been appropriate for one of high birth to share dishes with one of low birth.
If you were a very important person, seated at the high table, it’s possible you might be given a chair; however, most people would have been seated on benches. In fact, our word “banquet” is derived from the Old French word for “bench”.
At the table, you would have seen goblets or cups and pitchers; bowls, if there was a soup or stew; spoons for soup or stew; and trenchers (the equivalent of plates) made of either stale bread, wood, or metal, depending on the wealth of the household. Dishes like cups, pitchers, and bowls would have been made of horn, wood, leather, metal, or possibly glass, again, depending on the wealth of the household. Serving dishes would be placed on the table (by servants) from which people got (or were served) their portions. Cups and trenchers were shared, and people ate with their fingers, or with the eating knives they carried on their belts.
While Hollywood often makes medieval eating seem raucous and ill-mannered, it is important to remember that our ancestors were actually quite concerned with etiquette. John of Garland in Morale Scholarium (written in the 13th century) advises that students hold their goblets by the stem to avoid leaving fingerprints, and to make sure clean towels are at the ready. Other advice, such as that from Les Contenances de Table, includes keeping your elbows off the table, and wiping your mouth before you take a drink from the shared cup. Picking your teeth or scratching yourself at the table was likewise frowned upon. Polite behaviour would have included making sure your dining partner got the choicest pieces of food, and not drinking all the wine.
Next time you find yourself at a wedding or formal function, you may want to spend five minutes considering the medieval origins of our formal eating traditions. Or, even better, sharing your knowledge of medieval dining, even if you no longer have to share your dishes.
If you want to know more about being on your best behaviour during the Middle Ages, check out my upcoming book Chivalry and Courtesy: Medieval Manners for Modern Life.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.
Top Image: British Library MS Harley 4979 fol. 17v