My new story “Change of Address” features some terrible table manners and that inspired me to research the whole concept of manners and how they change. So for the rest of the month, Living History will feature articles on bad manners, starting with the medieval banquet.
Just how realistic is the classic depiction of a medieval banquet where burly men sit at the table belching, scratching themselves in rude places and throwing bones to the dogs on the floor? Probably pretty accurate if you subscribe to the theory that society doesn’t come up with a prohibition until someone’s already done the thing being prohibited —and gotten away with it. A wildly popular etiquette manual published in 1530 admonishes those sitting at a banquet to “not throw bones or similar left-overs under the table to litter the floor, or toss them onto the table cloth, or replace them in the serving dish.” If you have to tell people not to do it, someone was doing it. The next sentence in the manual, which is entitled “On Good Manners for Boys,” by the Dutch theologian and teacher Desiderius Erasmus, tells the reader that it is in poor taste to offer food from the table to the dogs and even worse to pet the animals while at the table. So the dogs were there, just as hopeful as mine are today when they park themselves on the floor under the dining room table waiting for food to descend from above.
The medieval banquets we’re discussing of course did not take place at a dining room table because such tables had not yet been invented, and neither had dining rooms or even dining as we know it. Banquets were laid out on trestle tables that were essentially long boards set on supports and which were taken down after the meal. More permanent tables appeared in the 17th Century when European rulers began to copy and improve on the long tables used by monks in monastic refectories. But even after nobles embraced the concept of using a long fancy table for special meals, it took a couple hundred more years until they set aside a specific room in the house for the use of that table. And though the word “dine” first came into use around the year 1300, the concept as we know it with ritual rules of place settings and behaviors really doesn’t come into being until the court of Louis XIV in the mid 1600s.
The fact that etiquette manuals such as the one penned by Eramus existed and that they went through so many printings (On Good Manners for Boys was reprinted twelve times in its first year of publication and translated into four different languages) tells us that times were changing. Men might have still been throwing bones on the floor and scratching their crotches during dinner, but some of them were beginning to think that maybe they shouldn’t be. One of the first rules in an early 16th Century guide to courtly behavior (a list that George Washington copied in his youth to further his education as a gentleman) was “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.” Oh, the agony! And not only could revelers no longer scratch the parts of the body “not usually discovered,” they weren’t supposed to scratch at all. “Being Set at meat,” Washington’s guide continues, “Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there’s a Necessity for it.” In case a banquet attendee wondered about the appropriate way to blow the nose, Eramus devotes a couple of a paragraphs to nostril maintenance in his manual.
So let’s return to the banquet table and take a look at the manners. We’ve already seen that “setting the table” refers to literally setting it up, putting the boards on trestles. Erasmus makes no mention of the newly invented fork in his place setting, but says it is proper to put the cup and “small eating knife” on the right and the bread on the left (he mentions “spoonfuls of soup” elsewhere in the manual, but does not tell us where to put the spoon!) Is there a plate? I’ve read some sources claiming that at this time guests shared wooden platters called “trenchers” and ate directly from them. Others say that people used their bread like a plate. Erasmus tells his readers they should cut their meat into small pieces “on the plate” and add some bread, so presumably the dinner guests had something nearby on which to cut, whether it was a wooden trencher or something else. Europeans did not begin making ceramic plates until the 18th Century, so in the 16th Century, plates as we think of them would have been imported from the Orient and extremely costly, and probably only used by royalty.
Back to my original vision of the banquet table. We’ve proven the likelihood of men sitting at the table scratching themselves and throwing bones to the dogs. What about the belching? Neither of the guidelines I examined either condemns or condones the behavior. Does that mean it wasn’t happening? I will let any of you who have dined with members of the male sex make that determination for yourselves. I can only assume it was not yet considered an undesirable behavior.
What else then was considered undesirable? How do you properly pick your nose or teeth without giving offense? The answers to these and other riveting questions will be revealed in the second part of this article, “More Really Bad Table Manners.”
Thanks for reading!
And remember, no scratching.
A shorter version of this article first appeared on the Romance Bandits Blog on October 24, 2012.