Whether a large-scale affair, or a small but formal meal, mediaeval dining followed a strict regime, and class and rank were very important. Everyone ate together, but people could not sit anywhere and eat exactly want they wanted and food was not shared equally.
Before dinner was served, the dining area had to be prepared. Most of this work was done by some of lowest-ranking lads who worked hard fetching and carrying. They cut the thick sliced of rough bread to make trencher plates. They would wash, clean and polish cutlery and other tableware ready for the main meal of the day. Those that worked well may have gone on to become servers, carvers, or even butlers. Important men such as knights and other ‘henchmen’ were looked after and fed by the Court Commissariat.
Trestle tables were laid out (we still say we are laying the table day) and covered with a tablecloth and dressed with cutlery and other tableware. When William I dined, he would sit at his chair so the table could be laid over him and then dressed. He obviously liked it snug.
Mediaeval mealtimes as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry
One task was to remove the cups and other drinking vessels from their lidded storage box. The lid was removed and the cleaned cups were arranged on it, the lid was then placed back on top of the box so they could easily be distributed. This was known as the cup board.
When the room was ready, diners would first wash their hands and then seat themselves appropriately. Typically there were three types of table. The lord and lady would sit with the most important people at the top table, then middle ranking tables for the middle class, and then the lowest junior tables for remainder of the people. Once seated, Grace would be heard and the food would be brought in, but no one could eat until the lord took a pinch of salt from his ceremonial salt cellar.
The first course contained the most substantial dishes such as meat and pies, and following that in the second course, there would be sweet tarts, comfits, small songbirds and other delicate dishes. We kept this tradition in general, except for the birds (though if the fancy takes you, see this snipe post).
Large banquets would have had impressive roasts, but day-to-day this did not happen. For example the mother of Edward IV, Princess Cecill generally served up rather austere boiled beef with the odd roast here and there. On Saturdays, she had fresh and salt fish and butter.
Everyone got some of the first course, but it was not a free-for-all. The top table got a choice of around six, the middle rankers four and the juniors two, and less of it; the lord may have got a whole chicken to himself, but the middle-rankers may just have a quarter to share between several. The lads that were still working hard got some bread and cheese as respite.
Once the meal got going, one might imagine a boisterous scene, but folk were expected to be polite, chatting in a restrained manner with no shouting, burping or farting. All quite sedate, except for the big feasts such as Christmas where tables were set up everywhere to accommodate the extra guests, even in sheds. Those lucky enough to be away from the prying eyes in the main hall could get very merry indeed.
Lovely picture of some Mediaeval dining, showing intricate use of the knife (if anyone knows where this picture is from, please let me know!)
It’s worth mentioning that the types of foods people were eating in England in 1400 didn’t really change that much up right until Tudor times. Many dishes stayed the same, as did the ingredients, although many were easier to get hold of by then. There are some dishes recognisable to us today, at least in name, such as blancer mange and gingerbread.
Setting the Table
Some Mediaeval cutlery (from All About History)
As mentioned above, folk sat at a trestle table covered with a tablecloth that was changed between courses. In front of you there would be a large rectangular piece of very hard bread used a plate called a trencher. There would also be a wooden bowl, used for the more sloppy and messy foods. However you did have to share this bowl between four.
By way of cutlery, only a spoon and knife were available. You usually brought your own personal cutlery. Forks, by the way, were work of the devil. Knives could be used to stab large pieces of meat so it could be torn by the incisors. This tearing of food meant that top incisors wore away so that the they met perfectly in middle, unlike we modern Westerners who all have overbites because most of our food is cut up!
Richard III’s exhumed skull clearly showing how Mediaeval teeth ‘fit’ much better than today (pic: University of Leicester)
If you got into a bit of a mess with all this wrenching of food with your gnashers, you would have to wipe your mouth on the tablecloth because napkins were not invented until the late fourteenth century! When they were introduced, they were large folded pieces of cloth laid over one shoulder.
At the end of the meal, the bowls, trenchers and other unwanted foods were redistributed to the poor by the almoner.