Table wisdom of the Middle Ages

Table wisdom of the Middle Ages

Imagine that a guest has come to you, who during the meal eats with his right hand and at the same time blows his nose to the left. It is unlikely that there would be owners who suffered such behavior at the table, and yet only five hundred years ago, such behavior was a sign of a person’s excellent upbringing ...2_thumb [18]

Meals in the Middle Ages consisted of meat, game, fish, bread, various pastries, as well as wine. Medieval cuisine was hardly digestible for us. She was too rough and hotly flavored. Despite the high cost of spices, they were used in excessive quantities and illegible.

In the early Middle Ages they had no idea about tablecloths, did not know plates, forks, even spoons. Heavy oak tables had on the smooth surface of the grooves, in which food was laid out.

The knights ate at the table, while the women ate in separate rooms. Accordingly, table manners were also rude: they ate immoderately and excessively, and drank even more.The killings at the table were not uncommon. And only in the XI century, when the cult of the woman arose and the customs of the table began to become inviting to the table. It became obligatory to wash hands twice - before the start of the feast and after its completion.


A feast in the house of Job, a Byzantine miniature of the 14th century

With regard to the society of 11-13 centuries, it is already possible to talk about the rules of behavior at the table and certain etiquette provisions. They feasted at the elongated table, at the head of which the owner sat, or more often at the tables in the form of letters T or P, where the small “main” table was intended for the host and special guests. The guest's rank was determined by the proximity to the place of the host, who was served first in a sign that the food was not poisoned.

When all the seats at the table turned out to be occupied, the main steward appeared and led the boys — the pages — who were carrying food from the kitchen on huge plates. The main carver butchered the roast for portions using a thin knife with a richly inlaid handle.

Each knight sat next to his lady, and they ate from the same bowl and drank from one glass. Food was ceremoniously taken with three fingers.The most noble and sophisticated men sticking out with the ring finger and little finger to the side. This was considered a sign of good tone until the XVI century.

Soups and sauces were drunk directly from the pot with handles on the sides for convenience, as they began to use the spoon only by the end of the Middle Ages, and at first only to bring candy to his mouth.

Spoons were made of individual specimens of precious metals, decorated with precious stones, and often guests brought with them expensive spoons. At the time of the minnesingers, they still didn’t know napkins, but around the table the linen fabric gathered around the edge was fastened and wiped with mouth and greasy hands. In the XIII century began to use table towels.


Individual cutlery as such was not yet there: men and women sat in pairs, drank from one glass and ate from the same plate, and if not, they put food on flat slices of bread, which they used as a plate throughout the dinner, then threw the dogs. The meat was cut off with its knife.

Tablecloths and napkins were widespread, often stitched from expensive fabrics and richly embroidered, but not quite used,as we used to: they often wiped their hands on a tablecloth, and napkins could be used, for example, to wrap food and carry it away, which was not considered a bad form.

By this time, table etiquette had become more refined. It was already considered indecent at the table to stare intently at faces, sniff, make loud noises when eating, lean back (lean against the wall), put the gnawed bones in a common dish, lick the mouth before drinking or drink with a full mouth.

Ladies should have a hearty meal in the ladies' room before the banquet, so that at the table they would treat their cavaliers, serving them the best pieces. Ladies were indecent to laugh out loud and too greedy and drink a lot. It was considered inadmissible to discuss the taste and quality of dishes.

Clowns and entertainers entertained the guests, later real musical concerts were given with drums, horns and other instruments and choral singing. After the feast, the tables were removed and removed from the hall.


The first rules of table behavior appeared in Europe not earlier than the 15th century, and many of these recommendations would seem wild to us.

The educated guest should not have offered his fellow servant a piece that he began to eat himself, he was forbidden to itch or examine the contents of his nose with the same hand with which he takes the food.A representative of the high society should not have put his piece back on a common dish, picking a knife in his teeth or greedily pounce on food.

To modern man, these rules seem to be signs that medieval society was extremely ill-mannered, but, on the contrary, they improved the culture of behavior at the table, taking into account the characteristics of the meal.

The concept of an individual device appears only by the end of the 15th century. At this time, when setting the table, they began to bring each plate, spoon, knife (they could bring the spoon before), but everyone except the soup was still eating with their hands, wiping them on clothes or a tablecloth.

In rich homes, rinsing cups were served, sometimes after each meal change. The drinking vessels did not serve each guest individually for a long time, but they switched from one to the other.

It was accepted the abundance of changes of various dishes, as a rule, from different types of meat and game, but at the same time different types of food were mixed in large common dishes. The number of changes at dinners nobility could reach 15-20, wine was also served in abundance, but the art of cooking could hardly be said, and the amount of food was considered a sign of a refined table.


In noble and wealthy homes, whole bull, boar, deer carcasses stuffed with game and vegetables were served on the table.
However, even in the absence of basic cutlery, the concept of good manners during meals existed.

It was considered indecent to grab the best pieces from the general dish, you should carefully take the nearest piece, wipe your hands not with clothes, but with a napkin or tablecloth, wipe your lips before you drink.

The use of a knife and fork for food (in order to prepare food or take it from a dish was known before) dates back to the 16th century and is the greatest progress in European table etiquette.

In the 16th century, they only ate with a fork in Italy, while the rest of the European countries were in no hurry to accept this innovation: Anna of Austria took the meat stew with her hands; at the brilliant court of her son Louis XIV, the use of forks was not welcomed and was even explicitly forbidden by the king himself, who preferred to see his court with their hands, like himself.

Montaigne did not use the fork, admitting that he often eats so fast that he bites his fingers.


Fork. Silver, rhinestone, engraving, gilding. OK. 1500 Germany.

Wipes and cups for washing hands were extremely common, but apparently it didn’t make the table manners more sophisticated then if in the 17th century it was recommended not to lick your fingers, not to blow your nose into the tablecloth, not to throw bones under the table.

In the Middle Ages, the servants of noblemen were given certain powers. Thus, the butler was assigned responsibility for the household owned by a nobleman. The butler, in turn, obeyed the Chief Master of Ceremonies, the main steward of the dinner. Lower rank were servants.

The meal began when the barman brought bread wrapped in a napkin, trenchers, and tableware — a spoon and special knives, salt shaker. These items were intended for the owner. Everything was laid out on the main table in front of the master's place. Then the barman checked the rest of the tables.

The hall was filled with guests, but at that moment only the owner was allowed to sit at the table. The major domo, the cupbearer and the carver, outweighing the towels over the shoulder, led the guests into the room for washing their hands.

The carver, bowing three times, went to his master, knelt before him,removed the lid from the salt shaker and pushed the salt shaker to his master. Then the carver freed the bread from the napkin, cut it off from the trench and from the bread by a small tube - took a sample.


At this time, the serving tables were already filled with dishes, from which the butler and the head cook were sampled, in order to eliminate the danger of the poisoning of the lord. This procedure was strictly followed by the major domo.

In the Middle Ages, for the decoration and cutting of meat and poultry, there were many complicated instructions, and the skill of the meat carver was to master the work in the shortest possible time, skillfully and quickly.

Drinks were also tasting. After that, ale (and for special guests of honor - wine) was served on the tables, and without fail so that their supply coincided with the supply of the first meat dish. Sample dishes were filmed by senior servants. They were also instructed to monitor the feast: it was not allowed that one of the invited persons was poorly served. When the meal was over, the servants were cleared from the table.

Since the 15th century, an increasingly complex ceremonial of royal courts has had an increasing influence on the development of Western European etiquette.At first Spanish and Burgundian rituals had a certain influence, then with the development of absolutism, France began to play the main role.

At this time, there are numerous manuals on etiquette, which becomes so complex that a special post of master of ceremonies appears at the courtyards, which monitors the implementation of all its subtleties and strictly regulates the whole palace life.

The family members of the monarch and the courtiers had to get up at a certain hour, it was precisely indicated who should have been present when the monarch was dressed, to hand in his toilet items, accompany him during the walk, etc.


It was determined exactly how the ceremonies of the audience, solemn exits, walks, dinners, balls took place. For example, at the court of Burgundy, the duke gave public audiences two or three times a week, where everyone could hand him a petition.

All the courtiers were to be present, placed according to rank on both sides of the throne, and beside him were kneeling officials who read and considered petitions. Magnificent rites accompanied birth, marriage and death at the royal court.

The higher the rank, the more difficult the ritual was.For example, the Queen of France during the year did not leave the chambers, where she was informed of the death of her spouse, and for princesses this period was limited to six weeks. The rooms were curtained and cleaned in black, and the princess, dressed in mourning, had to spend the six weeks in bed.

The rooms for the stay of a noble lady after birth were cleaned with green silk, and all the objects in these rooms served certain ceremonial purposes.

The right of primacy in court etiquette becomes decisive. The question of the advantage of someone often becomes a matter of life and death, since it was considered an unforgivable insult to engage in an activity, even unintentionally, of someone else’s place or entering a room before a person of a higher rank. It mattered who was sitting on what, who was rendering this or that service to the king.

A court or ambassador of a foreign state who was awarded a better place was considered to have a higher rank, which even led to international conflicts, as the ambassador, whose coach on the royal walk was overtaken by another, could consider this a humiliation of his country and her court.

Therefore, all behavioral norms were carefully formalized.At the court of Burgundy, it was precisely prescribed to which court ladies could walk hand in hand and whether (and in what way) each other should be encouraged to such closeness.

Costumes of 15th century France

There are cases when strict adherence to etiquette led to the sacrifice of human lives.

At the Spanish court of Philip II, the queen once fell off her horse, sticking her foot in the stirrup. The horse dragged the queen behind him, but no one ventured to help her, so as not to offend her majesty by touching her foot. When the two courtiers nevertheless decided to save the half-dead queen, they immediately hurried away from the king's anger for gross violation of the rules of etiquette.

This system reached its apogee in the 17th century at the court of Louis XIV, where every little thing was ritualized by the efforts of the Sun King. The ceremonies of that time raised the king to the level of an inaccessible deity. In the morning, when the king awakened, he was put on a robe and the chief guardian of the bedchamber and several courtiers, and it was written not only who provided which service, but also their movements.

Then the doors of the bedchamber opened, and the king could contemplate the higher ranks of the court, bowed in a deep bow.The king said a prayer and went to another room where he dressed, while he was served again by representatives of the highest nobility, while the main courtiers who had the right to do this saw the process standing at a distance in respectful silence.

Then the king retired to the chapel at the head of the procession, and dignitaries stood in his way, not receiving an audience, repeating their petitions in the hope that, passing by, Louis XIV would hear them and even, maybe, say: "I will think about it."

During the royal meal, all the courtiers had to stand, observing complete silence. The king sat in the chair. The queen and princes, if they were present, had the right to sit on chairs, and other members of the royal family - on stools. The king could give the greatest honor to a noble lady, allowing her to sit on a stool; men had no such privilege, but they all aspired to her for the sake of their wives.


It is clear that in such conditions fundamental importance was attached to the issues of primacy, and no one no longer conceded, as in the Middle Ages, their privileges and rights to another. The one who was honored with a special honor (for example, to carry a candle in the royal bedchamber) could receive additional social and, last but not least, material advantages over others.

Ranks, favors, money, estates - everything was mined just at the court, in the crowd of courtiers, subject to this very strict hierarchy. The courtiers had to stand daily for long hours of waiting, endure the boredom of the royal meal and the humiliating duties of the servants in order to be noticed by the king. The years spent in this way had a detrimental effect on their character and intelligence, but they brought tangible material benefits.

Obviously, court obligations demanded certain qualities from a nobleman. Guides on the behavior of that time have been preserved, of which one of the most famous is the treatise of Count Castiglione “On the Court”. According to him, the courtier must be courteous and attentive, avoid gossip, abuses and lies.

His manners had to look natural without awkwardness, he had to speak good in several languages, be able to play cards, ignore monetary losses, sing, draw, dance, play musical instruments, practice fashionable sports at that time, but by no means a game of the common people.

During the war he was recommended to avoid unnecessary risk if he was out of the field commander.His politeness should have increased depending on the rank of the interlocutor, and in relation to the king, his manners should resemble the servant’s behavior before the lord. It is clear that not all of these norms were implemented in practice, but the rules of conduct towards the king had to be strictly followed.

Feasts were also popular in the Middle Ages, about which modern historians know much more than about simple dinners. All the feasts were organized in accordance with the existing order, the tables were served in a special way, the guests were accommodated at the table in a special way. Many of the information about how the medieval feasts took place reached our days.


In the long hall placed tables - along the walls and in the center. At the end of the hall stood the platform where the owner, his family members and some of the guests occupied the place. They sat down along the long table, facing the center of the room and the gallery near the opposite wall, where the musicians played.

So, the guests arrived and went to a huge table, set in the center of the great hall of the castle. Against each place for the guest were the instruments: a spoon, a cup (gold or silver) and a knife.Meals were served on metal wide dishes. In addition, each cutlery was put on a piece of bread.

Guests seated at the table and then washed their hands. For this, servants brought in water jugs and towels. Only after that those present began to eat. Serving dishes to the table and serving the guests to servants and squires. A person who closely followed the change of dishes and the work of servants, was a specially appointed manager. He first tasted intended for serving to the table.

On the host’s right hand was a table intended for the guests of honor. On this table were served the same dishes as for the hosts. Another table was located opposite. Less honored guests at large feasts could even be placed in other rooms, while representatives of wealthy nobles feasted in the main hall.

Behind the gallery one could find the doors that led to the kitchen, the cellar, the pantry and the pantry room where the serving tables were located. In the same room (or in the next) was kept dishes, tablecloths and napkins.

Meat was served as a first course meal at a grand dinner in medieval Europe.This could be, for example, roasted deer, pieces of which were previously laid out on a large dish and poured over a spicy sauce. Roasted peacocks and swans could also be served to the table.

Sánchez_Coello_Royal_feast_ (detail)

Servants and squires immediately poured flavored wines into guests' cups. Among other dishes, the medieval baron treated his guests with such foods as deer meat stew, capon sausages, roasted lamb legs with saffron, boar meat with plums and raisins, fried rabbit meat and hare, and poultry meat.

Next to the table brought pies and dessert. Dessert could consist of fruit (dates, apples) and pastries. After the dessert, the guests were again taken for meat dishes seasoned with lots of spices: pepper, crushed nutmeg, ginger and cloves.

In the Middle Ages in Europe already existed the rules of behavior at the table, which each of those present at the feast had to fulfill. For example, the set of norms said that guests should not eat food with their hands and talk with their mouth full. It was also forbidden to ask a neighbor to lend a cup if your own is not empty. In addition, those invited to dinner should have been modest and satisfied with the dishes that the host offered them ..

Usually, invited guests were invited to the guests of honor - the clergy. And for them prepared in advance a special menu.

In general terms, any menu - regardless of the status of those for whom it was intended, consisted of two changes, each of which included several dishes of fish, meat or poultry, and was supplemented with 2-3 sweet dishes. For special guests, dessert dishes were served separately.

The servants offered dishes to those who sat at the main table. For the rest of those present, the dishes were exhibited on separate tables, from which the guests themselves laid food on the plates. Each dish was divided into portions in advance, and I must say that one portion was calculated for two (and sometimes even four!) People.

Sometimes the feast consisted of three dishes and special treats. So, after each change came the turn of special delicacies, one of which was a carved sugar sculpture - "sotelte". You could even taste it.

Sometimes, before the second turn, a special group of people brought in a decorated swan or peacock to a festive hall. Toward the end of the evening, the host handed out to the main guests pre-cooked gifts, after which came the turn of entertainment and drinks.

However, a grand dinner, for example. in the castle of a medieval European baron was reduced not only to the absorption of food. Usually, he was accompanied by a game of wandering musicians and singing of singers, which were then replaced by acrobats, surprising the guests with their dexterity and plasticity of the body. At that time, musicians had at their disposal various musical instruments: harp, harp, lute.

After dinner, the guests got up from the table, washed their hands and dispersed through the halls of the castle. In the evening, the host called in guests and cordially invited those present to go to the dining room to listen to the artist of historical songs. His songs were dedicated to the glorious feats of the legendary knights and saints. After the performance, the servants brought candles into the hall and laid the table again, but for the main dinner.

Only after the end of dinner some of the guests left the castle of the hospitable baron. According to the rules of etiquette, the owner should be carried out to the horse or carriage of each of the guests. They drank a cup of wine and said goodbye. Those invited, who for some reason did not want to leave, could spend the night in one of the chambers' chambers.

The development of etiquette in the countries of Western Europe was greatly influenced by the national customs and traditions of different countries, the ethical norms of various sectors of society, religious rites, superstitions and prejudices. The history of etiquette, its development and transformation over time can be traced through the monuments of literature and culture.


Knowledge of the history of etiquette is important for our time, since many modern rules of behavior originate in the distant past and often initially had a completely different meaning. Some etiquette norms of the past changed almost beyond recognition, while others simply disappeared along with the conditions that gave rise to them, but somehow all the accepted rituals of behavior left their mark on the development of Western European culture.

An integral part of any dinner was a table conversation, which also complied with the requirements of etiquette. Even in the Middle Ages, it became customary to plant men and women together, and then the custom of eating and drinking from a common device naturally led to a conversation between neighbors, who often did not want to be heard.

Later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was common for noble houses to extend the custom for the owner and honored guests to dine separately in a small living room, treating the rest in the common room adjacent to it,table talk rules continue to evolve.

It was not customary to speak at the table for too serious conversations concerning politics, religion and other topics that could cause controversy. The style of long monologues was not welcomed: everyone should have the opportunity and time to speak.

At all times, it was believed that young people should have been more silent, listening to the words of their elders. For a young man of the 15th and 16th centuries it was considered indecent to chew when addressed to him. At the same time, a rule emerged that one should not whisper at the common table and give preference to anyone in a conversation, and also laugh so that no one could take it personally.

The owner had to be modest and in no way say anything that could be perceived as self-glorification. In the 18th century, it was already considered a bad form to speak too loudly, attracting undue attention to yourself, and also to talk a lot about yourself and stubbornly insist on their point of view.


In general, disputes were never welcomed in the table talk, and they were supposed to be avoided. Ideal in the 18-19 centuries was considered a situation where all those invited could freely engage in conversation without burdening them with their monologues.

In those days, behavior at the table was governed by the rules of etiquette, which were covered in detail in medieval publications for the young generation. Most of the rules concerned the cleanliness of a person, his behavior during a joint meal. (This refers to the situation when the portion was common and was intended not for one person.)

Many of these rules have survived to the present, others have long been forgotten, but the general principles of communication between people at the same table have been preserved and in our time - the conversation should be more or less general and not cause displeasure to any of the invitees.

Politeness and neatness was given great attention: they were considered to be the fundamental good manners. It must be said that etiquette in the Middle Ages had such a serious meaning - such that many notable people carefully copied the rules of noble behavior by hand in order to later pass on to their descendants.

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