Chapter 3 : Manners Maketh the Man
In the mediaeval period, dining, like everything else, was a communal affair. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York frequently dined in public in the Great Hall, surrounded by the Court. However, Henry VIII preferred to dine in his Presence Chamber – a half public, half private space - and frequently took supper in his private rooms with a few friends and his current wife. Elizabeth I followed this example, and, unless she was entertaining foreign dignitaries or was on progress, usually dined and supped alone.
At dinner in the Great Hall, whether in one of the royal palaces, or the castle of a nobleman, the highest-ranking people sat at the top table, raised on a dais, with other tables arranged at right angles. A strict order of hierarchy was kept with the higher-ranking people sitting at the table to the right hand of the top table, on both sides, moving down to the lowest ranking present at the furthest end of the table to the left of the top table. To make sure everyone was seated correctly, books of etiquette gave elaborate orders of precedence, even including instructions for the seating of the Pope’s foster-parents and woe betide the hostess whose steward got it wrong!
Dining furniture consisted of trestles, which were stored when not in use. The highest ranking person had a chair, but everyone else sat on benches. The table was covered with a cloth and it was considered very poor manners to spill. The cost of clothes and the difficulty of laundering also added to the need to eat carefully.
Food was shared in a “mess”, a portion of each dish. At the top table, there was a mess between two (except the King and Queen, who each had their own), but the lower ranks shared between four, two on either side of the table. Following her proxy marriage to James IV of Scotland, Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, shared a mess with her mother, Elizabeth of York, to demonstrate her new rank as a fellow queen. The highest ranking person helped himself first.
With eating being communal, it was important to follow the strict rules of etiquette which were elaborate, yet practical, as they prevented anyone touching food that would be eaten by someone else. Everyone brought his own knife and spoon to the meal – forks being considered a fancy, foreign notion. The requirement for a personal spoon is behind the custom of giving one as a christening gift. The place setting was a trencher – made of silver, or even gold, for the king, then of lesser value material through to the standard ash, or, for the poorest, bread; together with a cup, a loaf of bread of appropriate quality (fine white for the lord, and coarse brown for lesser mortals). Among the upper classes, a linen napkin was provided which was draped over the left shoulder. Salt, being costly, was often only on the top table.
For soft foods, the diner would spoon some of the serving onto his trencher, being careful not to leave his spoon in the dish. Before taking a helping of anything else, he would wipe his spoon clean with bread. He would eat the food by dipping his bread into it, rather than spooning it up, so none of his saliva could enter the communal bowl. For meat, he would grasp the piece he wanted with the thumb and two fingers of his left hand, then sever it from the joint, using his knife in his right hand, again ensuring his fingers touched only his own portion. The food was lifted to the mouth in the thumb and fingers.
Dinner in larger households was in relays. Once the master, family and guests had dined, the servants ate what was left. At Court, after the King and Queen and courtiers had finished, the senior servants would take their places, followed by the junior servants, before the tables were dismantled and stored for the next meal. If any food were left, it was given to the poor.
This article was first published on 8 December 2014 on the BBC History website