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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Thursday, September 24, 2009
Guest Post With Historical Fiction Author Jeri Westerson
Elbows Off The Table Or It’s Off With Your Head!
As part of my blog tour to promote my new medieval mystery, SERPENT IN THE THORNS;A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir--I’ve been talking about the various myths about the Middle Ages that I’ve encountered through my research. Today I’d like to talk about medieval table manners.
Now I realize the very term—“medieval table manners”—sounds like an oxymoron. Surely we are talking about a violent exchange of knives, food being tossed about, sleeves wiped across mouths and noses—monkeys in a cage sort of thing.
But really, nothing could be further from the truth. At middle class and upper class tables, there were a host of rules and many rituals to follow. You had to know your place. And one of those places might be to know at which table you belonged and how far you were from the salt.
Obviously, you are seated at a place of honor if you were at the high table with the lord of the manor or at that of a rich merchant. But if you are a minor noble you might be sitting at a table slightly lower than the head table. And if you are merely a courtier or hanger-on, you would be at the farthest table from the high table.
The meal was begun with a prayer and the washing of hands. Two servants would be on hand: one with a bowl and another with a jug of water. Fingers would be cleaned because, after all, these were the tools in which you were mostly to partake of your food. Eating knives were also employed, but a servant might cut your meat for you, offering you the best slices from the platter. Forks were not yet in use on the dining table. A fork was a tool to cook with. It would be gauche to have it on the table to eat with. Napkins, too, were not yet part of the table. But you certainly did not wipe your face or nose on your sleeves. What do you think the table cloths were for, you cretin!
Very often, you were sharing a goblet with your neighbor, so it was considered very bad manners indeed to drink with your mouth full. No one likes backwash. And Seinfeld didn’t have the monopoly on accusations of double-dipping—dipping your food or bread in a sauce, taking a bite, and then dipping that piece of food again. That was considered a no-no. A lot of the plates were communal. Decorum had to be maintained.
So where do we get these notions that medievals were crossing knives and swords at the table or that they were particularly violent? Movies and novels have a lot to do with those notions. After all, it might have been that 1933 Charles Laughton film The Private Life of Henry VIII where we get the idea that medievals tossed their gnawed bones over their shoulders, littering their floors with refuse. But eating halls were general use rooms. They were used for all sorts of gatherings, from court trials, to parties, to religious ceremonies. Tables were portable trestle tables, set up when it was time to dine and stored along the walls to get them out of the way. Often servants slept in the halls when the day was done. They certainly didn’t want to live amongst bones and other detritus from meals. Who wanted maggots in their beds? It was simply not done.
Some of the medieval violence was attributed to lead poisoning garnered from the pewter plates they supposedly ate off of. But pewter didn’t become popular for dining until the fifteenth century, and even then it was only for the rich. Prior to that, the rich might eat off of silver plate, but usually use wood or trenchers, rectangular loaves of bread baked specifically as plates. You’d eat your meal, allowing all the juices to soak into the bread. And when you were done, the loaves would be collected by the almoner who would distribute them to the poor.
And by the way, to get the amount of lead out of a pewter plate that you would need for all that violent behavior would mean you would have to actually eat the plates. Not likely.
I remarked earlier about the salt and where you sat in relation to it. Salt and all spices—which includes peppercorns and sugar—were quite expensive. You were part of the privileged class when you sat above the salt. But if you weren’t so lucky, you were seated below the salt.
Everyone knew their place. So the next time you pass the salt, think about where you might have been sitting...and if you might have been sitting at the feast at all!
Jeri likes to feast with words on her blog of history and mystery at www.Getting-Medieval.com. She also has more information about her Crispin Guest novels at www.JeriWesterson.com. And even her character Crispin has his own blog at www.CrispinGuest.com.