Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Medieval Table manners

That somewhat curious question and answer site Quora has a rather entertaining as well as informative post about medieval table manners by Alberto Yargos, which I am reproducing unedited other than correcting occasional typos.

It does indicate that there was a concern for proper behaviour and decorum on the occasion of feasts and people eating together rather than the modern popular perception of a rough and ready event. The writers of manuals on conduct were perhaps aware that they were striving against bad behaviour, but they certainly made the effort, and I strongly suspect that in such a hierarchical society good behaviour was indeed effectively inculcated.

Even so the article does also suggest that there were some interesting meals in the past, ones which, perhaps, go even beyond occasional antics one has witnessed or heard of in Oxford college halls and restaurants...


Medieval decorum

Image: Le Moulin de Chere

At the start of the meal, guests would clean their hands with water with aromatic herbs. At the end of the meal they would also clean their hands.

That was very important because for all the Middle Ages they didn’t use forks (although they existed since middle 14th century), so people ate a lot with their fingers and with the help of bread. That’s why it was considered good manners not putting ones fingers in one’s mouth or in the sauces. Spices had to be grabbed with the knife.

It was usual for married couples but also for friends to share the same dish and it was considered impolite to cut yourself a very big portion or serving yourself too often (leaving your partner without food).

Since they could also share the cups, good manners said that before drinking one had to wipe one’s mouth with the napkin.

It was impolite to throw the bones and other remains to the floor (although it seems that it was quite usual).

According to the writers, if you had to spit or clear your nose, you should do it at your behind and never between your legs (I don’t want to think why they had to say this). Also if you had to yawn, they recommended to cover your mouth with the napkin.

It was considered bad manners to touch the dogs or feed your pets at the table even when you had them with you (people went to dinners with ferrets on their shoulders, it’s so… dirty).
Latrines had to be used at the end of the meal.

Leonardo da Vinci, who organized some wedding banquets, wrote some little books about manners in the table that are full of humour and irony but also have some true advices:
  • No guest must sit over the table, or with the back to the table, or on the lap of any other guest.
  • You should not put your head on the plate to eat.
  • You must not put pieces of your own food, even less if it is half-chewed, in the plates of your neighbour without asking him first.
  • It is not polite to wipe away your knife in the clothes of your neighbour.
  • You must not bite a fruit and then return it to the dish it came from.
  • You should not spit over the table.
  • You should not pinch or hit your neighbor. Or make eyes or horrible faces.
  • You must not put your finger on your nose or ear while eating.
  • You should not sculpt the food, light it on fire or practice your knots on the table (unless my lord requests so).
  • You should not let loose your birds on the table. Nor your snakes or beetles [A bit of fun about people who really brought their pets].
  • You should not play the lute or any other instrument that could annoy your neighbour (unless my lord requires so).
  • You should not sing or make obscene jokes if you are sitting next to a lady.
  • You should not make lewd suggestions to the pages of my lord or caress their bodies. Or set on fire your companion while on the table.
  • You must not hit the servants (unless in self-defence).
  • And if you have to puke, then you must leave the table.

Herewith I will add an illustration of a feast where things did get out of hand...

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