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Mind your Manners – a look at late Medieval and Tudor mealtimes and The Banquet

August 28, 2012

Anyone who has ever seen an old film about the late Medieval/Tudor period can be forgiven for coming away with the idea that feasts were riotous chances to eat and drink far too much, as rowdily as possible. It would seem that everyone present tried to cram as much meat into their mouths as possible before hurling their bones at hungry dogs who prowled in the rushes on the floor. In fact, the only bit of this message that holds any truth at all are the rushes on the floor, and by Queen Elizabeth’s day rush matting which could be taken outside and shaken or swept was becoming far more fashionable.

During the Middle Ages (any time from roughly 1200-1450) it was usual for two or four people to share a portion of food, known as a ‘messe’. The shared bowl or trencher would be placed between them, and they would spear up small pieces of meat using the pointed ends of the knives that everyone, men and women, usually carried about them.  Forks were a Renaissance Italian novelty that seem to have made a first appearance during the reign of King Henry VIII. However, everyone, rich or poor, would need a spoon (for pottage and sauces) and a knife to cut their food. Status was clearly indicated by the degree of decoration on these items, and wealthy people carried theirs in a decorated or embroidered pouch called a nef.

It was because of the way food was shared that polite society developed complex and formal rules about how diners should behave together at meal times, starting with the necessity of hand washing before sitting down – or in a ewer brought to the table for the purpose, if you were an important (top table) guest. Both men and women could be noticed for their courtly and genteel manner of eating, or criticised for their poor behaviour. Good table manners could sometimes lead to promotion, so it  was important to learn the right way to behave. Most table manners were practical, concentrating on cleanliness and consideration for others who would be sharing the food.They were thought so important that they were both written down by hand and learned, and later were put into printed instruction books, in rhyming format which made them easier to learn. Below is a brief extract from the ‘Schoole of Vertue and Booke of Goode Nourture for Chyldren’ (published in 1577). Words are spelt as they sound, but the meaning is still fairly clear.

For rudness it is thy pottage to sup,

Or speak to any, his head in his cup.

They knife se be sharpe to cut fayre thy meate;

Thy mouth not to ful when thou dost eat;

Not smakynge thy lyppes,As commonly do hogges,

nor gnawynge the bones As it were dogges;

Such rudenesse abhore, Such beastlynes flie,

At the table behave thyselfe manerly………..

Pyke not thy teeth at the table syttynge,

nor use at thy meate Over muche spytynge;

this rudness of youth is to be abhorde;thy selfe manerly Behave at the borde.

[pottage = stew; meat, fish or vegetables could be included. Thick pottage(standing mortrews) was solid enough to hold a spoon, runny soup needed a spoon. Sup in this context means slurp. Gnawynge =gnawing; spytynge = spitting. Borde = while sitting at the table. They were usually trestle bases with a board over.

Although a meal in a large household might consist of two or three courses, some of which might involve several different dishes, not every guest or diner had everything offered to them. The food was graded according to the status of the diner. Thus, for instance, the top table and the two sides nearest to that might be offered roast venison, but those lower down, most likely members of the household, might be offered ‘umble pie’ made from the internal organs of the same deer. This is what has given us the term ‘eating humble pie’ i.e knowing one’s position or place.The servants and those placed well away from the top table would not expect to be offered the fancy dishes and elaborate spiced sauces made for the lord and his guests.  Some dishes, such as chicken (which was a rare luxury food then) tended to be reserved for visiting clergy, as it was thought to be less likely to inflame their passions than eating red meat. (This belief was based on the belief that the body was composed of four humours). Up till the reign of Queen Mary there were dietary restrictions placed on clergy by the church. Fasting rules also applied to the laity but the wealthy who had money at their disposal found ways to circumvent the restrictions created by Lent, Advent and Friday fasting.

A writer of the time, describing a huge range of food offered at a feast given by the Earl of Northumberland, assures us that the reason for so much was to allow everyone to eat what they enjoyed, as well as ensuring enough food remained for the servants who had waited at table and ate later. Noble households could routinely expect to provide 100 or more meals at dinner time – an indication of the size of the household. Gentlemen ‘did not over eat, but were strictly moderate’ in their diet and habits, although variety and novelty were highly prized. This is why spices were so valued: they were not used, as common myth still supposes, to hide tainted food, but to give variety to an otherwise bland or predictable diet. As a footnote to good table manners, other things that were considered bad behaviour included putting chewed bones back on the shared plate, scratching out head lice, nose picking, ear scratching, blowing noses on the table-cloth (handkerchiefs or ‘muck minders’ were an Elizabethan novelty), and lastly the reminder that guests should always beware of allowing ‘guns blasting from your hinder parts’ which translates readily into modern English!

During the Tudor century many changes took place, but changes to ways of eating reflected all sorts of social change. During the reign of Henry VII lords still dined at a table on a raised platform or dais at the top of the hall while servants scurried backwards and forwards at the other end of the hall along a screens passage to kitchens that were usually some way away to minimise the risk of fire. Portions of food were taken from a shared dish and put on trenchers cut from thick slabs of heavy stale bread. These trenchers were not eaten at table but collected after use into baskets which were then distributed as alms to the poor, by which time the rich meat juices and gravy had soaked into the bread and softened it so that it was edible. During the 16th century wooden trenchers became more generally used – the vast numbers rescued from Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose which sank in the Solent indicate that even common soldiers were using them. These wooden plates sometimes had a second small indentation in one corner which was designed to hold salt. Pottery also gained in popularity, and became proportionately cheaper and more affordable. people started to use individual beakers whereas earlier they would signal if they wanted a drink during a meal, which they took from a communal flagon before handing it back to the server.

Pewter is an alloy of tin, copper and a small amount of lead. It has a relatively low melting point and can easily be used in moulds. Once polished it can resemble silver, and at only 6d or 7d a pound in weight (a working man’s daily wage) it allowed people who were not so wealthy to build up an impressive display of what resembled silver plate. However, since pewter is a soft metal which scratches and damages easily, those who used it routinely would commonly still use a wooden platter in order to cut up meat before eating. The later Tudors took great pride in their mealtimes as it allowed them to show off their wealth and importance, not only in the fancy dishes or ‘kickshaws’ which used an abundance of exotic spices and food colourants, but in the wealth of plate: gold, silver or parcel gilt which was silver plated with gold. All these treasures, from bowls and dishes to candlesticks and toothpicks, were stored in court cupboards when not in use.

The use of an ever-expanding range of dishes meant more clearing away, a tedious and noisy end to mealtimes. Furthermore, many expensive delicacies were becoming more readily available to those who could afford them. Obviously these were not for everyone, so it became increasingly fashionable for those seated at the top table to withdraw at the end of a meal to another room where these luxuries could be enjoyed. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign ever more fanciful banqueting houses, both temporary and permanent, were being built, often on the rooftops of new houses which are now known as ‘prodigy houses’. Sweet oranges were imported from Portugal-their original name was ‘Portingal’. These were a vast improvement on those originally available, which resembled the Seville or bitter  oranges used in marmalade, often rather dry and stringy, whose principle value was as a flavouring for sauces. Apricots, peaches and nectarines all started to be grown in this country during the reign of Henry VIII, who imported both the fruit and a trained gardener from France to look after them. Almonds and dried fruits had been imported into this country during the Middle Ages, but as a wealthy merchant class emerged, these premium imports arrived in ever greater quantities.

Sugar had been known to the Romans who considered that it had a value as a medicine but little culinary value as it sweetened without adding flavour. They preferred honey, and this had been the main means of sweetening since then. However, knights visiting the Middle East during the Crusades rediscovered sugar as it was used in the culinary traditions of the countries through which they travelled. Sugar came back to England with them, and a taste for it slowly grew amongst the wealthy. It was a fantastically expensive luxury during the Middle Ages: even wealthy households might only consume a pound in weight during an entire year. It arrived at the ports in rock hard cones of crystallised sugar which had to be hacked into smaller pieces before being laboriously ground to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Its uses in the Middle Ages were limited, but during the 16th century more and more elaborate means of working sugar were discovered. It became the basis for ‘suckets’ both wet and dry. These were variants on crystallised fruit and fruit pulps. It was discovered that adding gum tragacanth in a rosewater solution to the sugar created a mouldable dough which could be used to make more and more fanciful subtleties or edible models – including one of the Old St. Paul’s church which was presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Nowadays we think of a banquet as a full meal, but when banquets became fashionable during the reign of Elizabeth I the word applied only to a final concluding course of fruit, cakes, biscuits and sticky preserves all of which featured sugar in various degrees. The centrepiece of these sugar banquets would be a fabulous and decorative subtlety , often a marchpane, which was made from sugar, rosewater and almonds, which like the sugar, had to be pounded or ground to a powder before use. (See article ‘Marvellous Marchpane’ for more detailed instructions http://www.livinghistorytoday.com/?p=247 ). Around the same time that banquets became fashionable, forks, first mentioned as sucket forks double ended with spoons in the inventory for King Henry VIII, began to be more widely available. They were ideal for successfully spearing these sticky, sugary delights. However, it took time for them to become widely accepted and used, but as they did, so the need for pointed knives for picking up food waned, and the shape slowly evolved into the rounded end commonly used today. It would be something like 150 more years, however, before people began to expect cutlery to be provided for them. Well into the 17th century and even later, travellers routinely still carried their eating equipment with them.

Another essential item that evolved alongside the banquet was a small flat wooden platter or banqueting plate. These were often made of beech or sycamore which could be cleaned, but left no taint on the delicately flavoured food. They were often served with an intensely decorated side uppermost, containing paintings of flowers, leaves, and  often a  motto or riddle. Since these were designed to compliment a guest’s learning, these were often in Latin or French.Examples of the sort of mottoes written in little scrolls include the following:

‘The rose is red, the leaf is green; God save Elizabeth our Queen’; “Rosa Sans Spina’ (the motto chosen by the unfortunate Queen Catherine Howard, but here a compliment to Queen Elizabeth’s beauty and virtue); or a reminder of mortality such as ‘In life is death and life’, a  simple riddle which reminds the reader that everlasting life awaits after death, making it less morbid than it seems.

It was turned over for actual use, which allowed the sticky plain side to be scrubbed clean afterwards. As the fashion for banquets declined during the 17th century and beyond these little flat plates, about 5 inches in diameter, had no practical use and very few survive. However, there is a complete set on display in the Museum of London, and another one in the kitchen of Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.

As it became more customary than not for those of the top table to retire to a banqueting chamber at the conclusion of a meal, so it was inevitable that the family should increasingly look to enjoy their meals in peace and away from the extended household. New houses, such as that of Hardwick Hall, were built with summer and winter parlours, and the expectation that meals should be taken there whilst the servants ate together elsewhere. The hall became an increasingly formal reception area rather than the heart of the house or castle. After the disruptions of the civil war in the 17th century, new houses built after the restoration of King Charles were on more European lines, culminating in the Palladian styles favoured by the Georgians. Servants still had to mind their manners, but from now on it would be the hierarchy of senior servants that enforced this as they ate in the servants’ hall.

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  1. Marvellous Marchpane (marzipan) | Living History Today

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