Elbows off the table! Medieval Table Manners
Medieval feast etiquette, and how to serve at table,
along with divers instructions on courtesy, cleanliness, and good comportment
Mistress Brighid ni Chiarain, OL
Barony of Settmour Swamp, East Kingdom
MKA Robin Carroll-Mann
The Order of Feast
v The table is wiped, and laid with a clean white linen cloth
v The table is set with bread, salt, and trenchers
v Cups and spoons may also be supplied
v Grace is said
v The lord washes his hands
v The lord breaks bread
v Food is served, first to the lord, and then to the guests in order of rank
v At the end of each course, voiders are emptied, and trenchers replaced, if necessary
v At the end of the meal, the lord washes his hands and Grace is said
Seating by rank
v Pope |
v Emperor |
v King |
v Cardinal | All these dine alone
v Prince |
v Archbishop |
v Royal Duke |
v Bishop, Marquis, Earl
v Viscount, Baron, Mitred Abbot, Three Chief Justices, Mayor of London
v Cathedral Prior, Knight Bachelor, Dean, Archdeacon, Master of the Rolls. Clerk of the Crown, Mayor of Calais, Doctor of Divinity, Prothonotary, Papal Legate
v Doctor of Laws, former Mayor of London, Sergeant of Law, Masters of the Chancery, Preacher, Masters of Arts, Parsons and Vicars, Parish Priests, City Bailiffs, Sergeant at Arms, Heralds, Merchants, Gentlemen, Gentlewomen
Compiled from John Russells Boke of Nurture (c. 1460)
Courtesy at table
v Elbows off the table!
v Don't spit on the table or over it
v Don't laugh or talk with your mouth full
v Don't throw your bones on the floor
v Avoid getting drunk, because "drunken folk no secrets keep"
v Ladies should especially avoid drunkeness, for a woman is defenceless when she is drunk
v Don't fall asleep at the table; you might fall and be injured
v Don't belch or snort
v If you have to break wind, do it quietly
v Don't blow on your food
v Don't bite your meat; cut it neatly
v Don't drink when your mouth is full of food
v Think about the poor and hungry before you begin to eat
v Let those of higher rank take their food first
v Don't sit until the master of the house bids you to sit
v Don't drink until your lord drinks first
v Don't interrupt anyone
v Don't eat until after Grace is said
v Don't pick your nose or your ears
v Make sure your hands and nails are clean
v Don't lick your fingers
v Wipe your mouth before you drink from a cup if your mouth is greasy
v Don't put your meat in the salt-dish, but put a little salt on your trencher
v Don't wipe your nose with your hand
v Don't stroke the dog or the cat while you are at table
v Clean your knife on a piece of bread; don't wipe it on the cloth or on the edge of your plate
v Don't dip your fingers in the sauce past the first joint
v Don't spill food or drink on your clothing
A Good Example
At table she had been well taught withal,
And never from her lips let morsels fall,
Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce, but ate
With so much care the food upon her plate
That never driblet fell upon her breast.
In courtesy she had delight and zest.
Her upper lip was always wiped so clean
That in her cup was no iota seen
Of grease, when she had drunk her draught of wine.
Becomingly she reached for meat to dine.
The description of the Prioress, from the General Prologue to Chaucers Cnaterbury Tales. Modern English translation by J.U. Nicolson, c. 1934
A Bad Example
Sometime thinking thereby to bee subtill witted and ful of jestes, in the presence of honourable women, yea, and often times to them themselves, they thrust out filthie and most dishonest woordes: and the more they see them blush at it, the better Courtiers they recken themselves, and styll they laugh at it, and rejoyce emong themselves at thys goodlie vertue they thinke thei have gotten them. But they practise this beastlinesse for none other cause, but to bee counted good felowes. This is the name alone whiche they deeme woorthie praise, and whiche they bragg more of, then of anye thing elles, and to gete it them, thei speak the foulest and shamefullest villainies in the world. Many times they shoulder one another downe the stayers, and hurle billettes and brickes, one at an others head. They hurle handfulles of dust in mens eyes. Thei cast horse and man into ditches, or downe on the side of some hill. Then at table, potage, sauce, gelies, and what ever commeth to hande, into the face it goith. And afterwarde laughe: and whoso can doe most of these trickes, he counteth himselfe the best and galantest Courtyer, and supposeth that he hath wonne great glorye.
From The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, English translation by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561
On the Mode and Manner in Which One Must Offer
Water for Washing the Hands
The servitor must give the hand-washing to his lord in this manner. Put a pitcher full of water upon a font or a large silver platter, and some very well folded towels upon the said pitcher which extend to the edges or brim of the font. And the steward goes before with a towel on his shoulder. Arriving in front of the lord's table, and making his reverence, the steward takes the towel which is upon the font, and spreads it upon the table in front of the lord, and sets the font down upon the towels. And with the font beneath, into which the water goes, he gives hand-washing to his lord. And when [the lord] has washed, [the servitor] then lifts the fonts, putting one upon the other, and the steward spreads upon the lord's hands the towel which hangs from his shoulder, and removes the others which were spread upon the table for the fonts.
And similarly the cupbearer can give the hand-washing, holding up a font or a wide-brimmed plate in his right hand, and the towel over the edge of the font or plate and upon the right shoulder, and the pitcher of water in the left hand. And the steward and the cupbearer, arriving at the table and making their reverences, do as is said above; this is understood to be for persons who are not of very high rank.
Service to royalty, who are of very high rank, must be made in this manner. The cupbearer must kneel, who carries the fonts one upon another, and in them the water which will suffice to wash the lord's hands. And uncover the fonts, first kissing the towel, and stretching it out upon the table before the lord. And cast a little water on the edge of the upper font. And the tasting is done, first by the cupbearer, and the steward afterwards. And put the font before the lord, and with the font below, where the water comes, cast water in the midst of the font which is upon the table. And after the lord has washed, the cupbearer lifts the fonts, as has been said; setting one font upon the other; he makes his reverence. After the steward has spread the towel upon the lord's hands, the cupbearer and the steward must always find out if the fonts contain water, and not to neglect that, because sometimes they are empty, and arrive at the table, and the steward and the cupbearer and the lord are mocked. And each time the steward gives the towel to his lord he should kiss it before he spreads it over the hands, and should also kiss the other which is spread upon the table at the time when it is placed, and he kneeling.
From: Ruperto de Nola, Libro de Guisados (Spanish, 1529) Translation by Mistress Brighid ni Chiarain
Note: The phrase that I have translated as of very high rank is tener salva. The literal translation is to have safety. One of the archaic meanings of salva is tasting food and drink for poison. A noble who has salva is of high enough rank to be entitled to have his food, drink, and wash-water tasted for poison.
...and marke if your Mayster vse to wash at the table, or standing: if he be at the table, cast a clean Towell on your table cloth, and set downe your bason and Ewer before your soueraigne, and take the ewer in your hand, and gyue them water. Then voyd your Basen and Ewer, and fold the bord cloth together with your towell therin, and so take them of the boord. And when your soueraygne shall wash, set your towell on the lefte hand of him, and the water before your soueraygne at dinner or supper...
From Hugh Rhodes BOKE OF NURTURE (London, 1577)
Taken from Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., THE BABEES BOOK ... (London: EETS, 1868).
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Flanders, Bruges, XVth century
Biblioteque National de France, Paris
Also halfe an oure or şe lorde go to mete or souper şe marshall shall take şe Rodde in his hande and commonde şe panter and ewer to couer and make redy for şe lorde and for şe housold; and assone as it is made redy şe marshall shall commond the sewer to awayte when şe cokes be redye; and şen shall şe sewer go to şe ewry and take a towell vppon his shulder and şe marshall and he to go togeder and shewe afore the lorde, so şat he may knowe şer by when his mete is redy. And when it lyketh şe lorde to axe water şen shall şe esquyres and şe marshall and sewer goo by and by next şe lordis basyn and evyn at şe lorde; şe sewer shall delyuer şe towell to şe worthyeste şat bethe aboute hym and go streight to şe kechyn with all şe men şat shall serue. The marshall şen shall uncouer şe basyn yf it be coueryd and holde it in his handes also vnto şe lord haue wesshe, and şen make a salutacoun and take it to şe squyre şat brought it theder, and he to bere it to şe ewry, and anone commonde water for all şem şat shall sytte at şe lordes borde...
From: A Generall Rule to teche euery man that is willynge for to lerne, to serve a lorde or mayster in euery thyng to his plesure, a 15th century manuscript, reprinted in Fifteenth-century courtesy book ... and Two fifteenth-century franciscan rules (EETS, 1914)
How to give drinks to lords
You must take the goblet or cup, well washed, in your right hand with the best air and grace that you are capable of. You must keep your hand higher than your nostrils; and this is because you could sneeze, and in sneezing, something would fall into the cup or goblet. And talking is the same. This why he who brings drink to his lord should be excused, because he should not talk, even if he is questioned. And the jar should be carried in your left hand. And making a reverence with the best grace you can, give the goblet to your lord. And pour the water over it, moving the jar to your right hand. And after pouring the water, return the jar to your left hand; although some do not move the jar, but pour the water in the goblet with the left hand. And after you have taken the goblet to your lord, make another reverence.
And this manner of service is according to the common custom. And so as not to be prolix, I have spoken lightly of this serving of the goblet. And now I will speak of service to royalty, of the great lords of rank [who have tasters]. And the serving of goblets to the great cannot be done well unless it is served by two people: one who brings the goblet and the cup for tasting. And the other carries the jar of water. And this one uncovers the goblet and pours the water over it, and then pours into the taster a little of the watered wine, and drinks from it, after giving the goblet to the lord, but before he drinks from it. And spills out that which remains in the taster. And he passes it to his right hand, putting it beneath the goblet, so that the wine that falls from it will be caught in the taster, which is before his lord drinks. He return the taster to his left hand, and takes the goblet with a very gentle and deep reverence, and he who accompanies the cupbearer covers it again with the cup-cover. And this is after making the reverence.
He who serves the goblet can also carry the jar of water in his left hand, and the taster, and the other removes the cup-cover. And if it is a plain cup that is served, the cupbearer can then bring the jar of water, and the taster in his left hand. And taking that which the lord had in his cup, the cupbearer passes the taster to his right hand, and pours water in the lord's cup, and puts the taster underneath to catch that which spills from the cup. And the cupbearer drinks from the taster before the lord begins to drink. And he should have one knee on the floor until the lord finishes drinking. And upon taking the cup, he stands up, and makes his deepest reverence.
From: Ruperto de Nola, Libro de Guisados (Spanish, 1529)
Translation by Mistress Brighid ni Chiarain
Note: See Page 5 for an explanation of the meaning of high rank.
Also at euery tyme şat şe lorde commondyth drynke, şe marshall or vssher shall warne esquyres or yemen to awayte şeron, and şey shall goo wyth hym and commonde it at euery office; and In case şer be so many lordes and strangers şat şere shall nede pottes wyth wyne, şen shall şe marshall call euery lordes squyre or assigne oşer squyres of his owne lordes for hem, and şen delyuer coppis to şe seyd squy[r]es for şe seyd lordes, coueryd or vncoueryd, as şat şe case requeryth at şe seler dore; and he hym selfe shall take as many coppis voyde eche wythin oşer by twix his handes wyth his rodde as he supposythe to serue şe remnant of şe howse, and so shall he goo afore; all şe oşer coppis, voyde save şe chef lordes, folow hym, and laste of all şe boteler wyth şe copborde clothe on his shulder and pottes of wyne in his handes; and when şey come into şe place şer as şe lordes be, şe marshall, kerver, copberers shall make a salutacoun and go streight to a bay wyndowe, a forme or copborde at şe lower ende of şe house yef ony be şer, and stond şer in order lyke as şey were delyuerd at şe seler dore, till şe coppis be fillid. Then shall şe butler lay downe his copborde clothe and sette şe pottes şeron, and şe marshall all şe coppis şat he berythe in lyke wyse. Then shall şe marshall call şe squyres wyth the coppis, and do fell hem by order aftur şer esstates, and when all şe coppis be fillid he shall commonde hem to goo forthe to şe lordes, and forthe wyth he shall call oşer Ientilmen or yemen of şe chambre or awayters and delyuer hem coppis suche as he brought, as many as he supposyth will serue şe house and tell hem where şey shall serue; and when şey haue all dronken şe marshall shall take ayen all şe coppis şat he brought hym selfe, puttyng şe wyne lefte in şem, yef ony be, in a voyde potte of suche as şe botteler brought. And when he hathe ayen all şe seyd coppis, he shall take hem in lyke wyse as he brought hem, and şe boteler caste his clothe ayen vppon his shulder and take şe pottes in his handes, and forthwyth şe marshall shall geve awarnyng to şe kerver and copberers and all togeder shall make a salutacoun and şerwyth departe, şe keruer first, şe copberers next, şe marshall wyth şe coppis aftur şem, and laste of alle şe bottele wyth the pottes of wyne.
From: A Generall Rule to teche euery man that is willynge for to lerne, to serve a lorde or mayster in euery thyng to his plesure
Aresty, Esther. (1970). The Best Behavior: the Course of Good Mannersfrom Antiquity to the Presentas Seen through Courtesy and Etiquette Books. New York: Simon and Schuster.
A survey of the development of manners and etiquette from ancient Egypt to 20th century America.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. (1976). Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, Inc.
A good source for medieval illustrations of feasting. The first half of the book is an interesting, well-documented look at medieval cooking and dining practices. The recipe section in the second half is not recommended.
Furnivall, F.J. (2002). The Babees Book: Early English Meals and Manners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A volume from the Early English Text Society series. Facsimile reprint of 1868 edition. A collection of material from manuscripts & early printed works relating to manners (mainly table manners) and medieval food. Includes the Modus Cenandi The Way of Dining, the Bokes of Nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Wordes Boke of Kervinge, The Boke of Curtasye and others. Some recipes. Includes a modern English transcription alongside the various texts.
Henisch, Bridget Ann. (1976). Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, Pennsyvlania: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Excellent overview of food and feasting in the middle ages. Includes
information on on cooking, serving, table manners, dinnerware, and the role of
The Babees' Book Medieval Manners for the Young translated by Edith Rickert and LJ
Naylor. Medieval conduct books translated into modern English.
Professor Martha Carlins website contains links to online excerpts from medieval conduct and household manuals.
Text of an English translation of Castigliones The Book of the Courtier