In the modern era, since the discovery of the New World
and its riches, the wealth of the English elite became too vast to hope to ever display it all in one place. Though they still built large and opulent houses, dressed sumptuously and had the best of everything, most of it was either in banks or hidden from view in the form of plantations, mines and factories abroad. Ostentation
, being now impossible, slowly fell out of favour and began to be looked down on as vulgar. In medieval times, however, it was considered the right and proper thing to show off all of one's possessions and riches as much as possible, as a tangible declaration of might and influence. This, incidentally, is why Elizabeth I
had herself painted in those astonishingly rich gowns - vain though she undoubtedly was, she also understood that the monarch
's riches are a mainstream form of political propaganda.
To the modern eye, then, medieval high life was impossibly chock-a-block with pageantry, display, ceremony and general showing off. To my mind, though I admit I am biased by my interest in the history of food, this was nowhere so apparent as in the management of formal meals.
Although it was not unknown for even the most powerful to eat in a small family circle, it is fair to generalise by saying that medieval mealtimes among the rich were long and sumptuous affairs, full of pomp and elaborate etiquette. In medieval times, the manners and rituals of the formal dinner were very different from our own. People tended to eat in much larger crowds (in direct opposition, for example, to the now-fashionable and expensive custom of hiring private rooms at expensive restaurants for special occasions), and the main room of any large house or castle, the Hall, was used as much as dining room as throne room. It is interesting to reflect that as late as the 18th century mealtimes were an opportunity for the monarch to be seen; in pre-revolutionary France it was the right of every citizen to watch the King and Queen have their highly formal and ritualised dinner.
When the guests arrive
In our times, it is considered polite to have the table fully set when the guests are seated - wine, bread and all plates and cutlery in place. In medieval times it was pretty much the reverse: guests were shown in to sit at tables that were covered with white linen cloths, with a salt cellar at the top of the table and perhaps napkins and cups at each place setting, but that was it.
One was always expected to use one's own eating knife, and in some households, especially during the earlier medieval period, one's own cup, spoon and napkin too. So one would be sitting down to a basically empty table. The only other thing that was sometimes present (although, again, in some cases this would be done right after the guests sat down) are strewing herbs, aromatic herbs such as rosemary or mint scattered on the table to create a pleasant smell.
I've never seen an explanation of this order of doing things, but my theory is that it served a double purpose: it prolonged the formalities of the meal and made it more ceremonial, and also gave the host an opportunity to show off the number of servants he can muster to wait on a large number of people all at once.
The first service performed for the guests after they were seated was that servants went among them with scented water and clean towels and helped them wash their hands. This, as everything else in a medieval hall, was done according to a strict order of precedence. As people ate with their hands until well into the Renaissance in England (the fork was not unknown, but considered vulgar), and especially since they often shared dishes with other guests, this was not just a formal flourish but a vital part of a healthy and pleasant meal. You find what are to us hilarious admonitions in contemporary style manuals for guests not to pick their nose with the hand they use to take things from the communal dish and that sort of thing, so obviously hand washing was not just a nicety.
Next came the bread waiter, a specially trained man who presented the trencher bread (see node), cut it up in a special way and then, no doubt helped by an army of waiters, distributed them to the diners (again, by order of precedence).
Much like in good restaurants today, the wine waiter was an important functionary in the medieval hall. He was called the Butler, and the modern important post of butler as manager of the household in stately homes derives from this ancient profession. The butler decanted the wine, which was an important and skilled task as the bottling of wine was not invented until much later. Drawing it out of the barrel without residue or murkiness was therefore a tricky task.
Only the high-ranking guests at a medieval table were served wine, but everybody was served pitchers of ale and sometimes cider or mead as well. Water was never drunk at table in medieval times. Although doubtless some people could not afford anything else, it was a mark of extreme poverty not to have at least the cheapest – and weakest - ale. This was in part a health measure: streams and wells were almost always polluted and only the clearest spring water was safe to drink (alcohol being of course the antiseptic that got rid of the parasites that survived the ale-cooking process).
All the above ceremonies having been gone through, the food was now served by a multitude of waiters. However, even here there was added a note of formality by the carver (who, doubtless, in some smaller households was the same as the trencher man and the butler) having the larger dishes like whole roast animals in the centre of the table and proceeding to expertly carve the meat off the carcass with a very sharp knife. The pieces were then served to the diners.
As mentioned above, all the proceedings in the medieval hall were governed by strict order of precedence. In conjunction with their love of clear physical demonstrations of social principles, this led to a special geometry in the hall during meal times. The owner of the house - from the king right down to you middle class country squire - and his guests sat at a long table which stood at the top of the oblong hall, often on a raised dais.
Perpendicular to that there was another, even longer table (sometimes two if there were very many people), at ground level, which sat everyone else. Your position in the household hierarchy was clearly visible by how far from the high table you sat. If you'll remember, Ivanhoe, on coming home in disguise, has to take a seat at the very bottom of the table, with the beggars and vagabonds. This really would have been an unthinkable and unforgivable humiliation. The expression “to sit below the salt” also comes from medieval times, and the custom of having the large, elaborate and often precious salt cellar placed on the high table. All those who sat down the table from it - below it – were of secondary social status.
Who ate what
Who you were, and where you sat, also determined to a large degree what you ate. The people at the lower table were never served the same food as the people at the high table. Although some dishes were doubtless shared, the distinction of rank was always marked by the higher parts of the table receiving some dishes that the hoi polloi will never taste. This could be a very exotic roast fowl like peacock or swan, but can also be something as simple as white bread, made from wheat which was expensive both to grow and to mill.
Food was served on long trestle tables which were folded away out of mealtimes and which were normally covered with white linen cloths, although on special occasions they could be spread with rich tapestries or embroidered fabrics. The Hall where the meals took place would also normally have been the formal reception room in the household, and so it would serve as the showcase for the owners’ display of plate (i.e. plates and dishes made from precious metals; these represented the fiscal wealth of the household, as they would be melted down and minted into the owner's coins when necessary), rich tapestries and fine chairs.
Chairs in fact were few and far between in medieval times and before – from where the significance of the throne, often the only backed chair in a household. Meals were eaten on long benches without backs; one can only feel for our poor ancestors’ aching lower lumbar regions. Most other furniture was also sparse. Closets and cupboards were virtually unknown. Large chests that doubled as seats were the main form of storage, but those would not have been kept in the main Hall. Between meals, the halls of medieval castles and keeps would have been rather barren affairs with rush-strewn floors and not much else.
For festive occasions or in honour of special guests, though, the Hall would be decked out with garlands of flowers or greenery, lit with many torches, oil lamps or candles and hung with a full complement of tapestries. New rushes would be strewn on the floor and mixed with aromatic herbs such as rosemary and lavender to fragrance the air. Precious goblets, platters and wine containers would be set out for the use of the feasters and the atmosphere in general would have been warm, colourful and almost overwhelming for the person used only to the drab stone walls and russet clothing of medieval times.