MANNERS AND ETIQUET IN RICHARD’S TIME
So, let us say you find that time machine and go back to Richard III’s era, and you are going to dine with him. How do people act? What should you expect? In old 1950’s movies we see neat and tidy castles and perfectly coiffed people cavorting merrily between trestle tables and dancing in stately manner; while in more recent movies, where directors believe they are going for ‘gritty realism,’ you see grubby, roaring crowds wolfing down food, snatching it from plates and causing a general ruckus.
In reality, although neither of these scenarios is completely correct, the so-called more ‘realistic’ modern one is probably the less authentic of the two. Certainly, there was a stringent set of table manners in existence that were very precise, even if certain aspects of hygiene seem a little strange to us today. Some rules, however, will be immediately recognisable to modern people and they form the basis for modern manners.
On a regular day, before the nobles dined, the household servants would eat approximately an hour before their masters. Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, normally ate around 11 am and then again at 5 pm (by Richard’s time most people down to the rank of squires had a breakfast as well, often after morning Mass.) The squires themselves had been taught by the master of the henchmen how to drink and eat in a mannerly fashion, and there were books available to give advice on the correct procedures.
For a feast, the attendees would eat off trestle tables covered by a cloth. The feasters would sit on benches, while the lord (we’ll call him Richard from now onwards, because you have that time machine, remember?) and any special guests might sit in chairs of estate padded with cushions for comfort. The wealthiest might even have a silk cushion provided.
Trenchers would be set out before Richard and the rest of the attendees. These were often made of thick bread, though wooden trenchers were growing increasingly common by the 1500’s. The bread trenchers were cut carefully with a knife, and in the house of a very great lord, tested for poison. Then the first trencher would be presented to Richard without ever being touched by the server’s hand or the tip of the knife.
After the trencher was presented, the salt cellar would arrive. It would stand on the table either before Richard or just to the side of him. Cellars were high status symbols, and frequently of elaborate design, including dogs, lions, castle towers, and ships. Some even had wheels and could be rolled into the hall.
Cutlery, a knife and a spoon, wrapped in clean napkins would be placed before Richard on the table. Sometimes only the lord would have a knife laid out for him, while the guests were expected to bring their own. Forks were rare in Richard’s day except when used for eating sweetmeats or to help carve the meat.
No one started the meal before hand washing commenced. A towel known as the surnape was laid on the table, while a bowl of water was brought forward and tasted for poison. This ritual done, the water (which could be warm, hot or scented) would be then either poured over Richard’s hands from above, or the he could immerse his hands in the bowl as he chose.
The towel on the table was taken away and Grace said. The carver then presented the first dish to the revellers. Not only the carver’s hands, but his knives were to be clean and held correctly.
While Richard and his guests ate, scraps of discarded food would be swept from tables and trenchers by the butler and thrown into a bin called the ‘voyder,’ which was frequently taken out and emptied. Far from being a dirty mess of spilt food, the table was expected to remain as tidy as possible throughout the entire meal.
When the feast was done, Richard would again wash his hands or at least his fingers, before drying them on a specially provided towel.
Behaviour was regulated. Richard would sit down first, before all others; once he was comfortable, his guests would follow suit. No one ate until he was ready to begin. No one dared tuck in until the course was fully served. You were not to cut your fingernails with your knife, nor did wipe them all over the tablecloth. Toying with the cloth itself was ‘bad form.’ Filling the soup with your bread was crass and seen as wasteful. You did not blow on the soup, in case you contaminated it with bad breath, and noisy eating was rude. As today, speaking with your mouth full was the height of bad manners, and spitting was not considered proper, although if you had to, the floor was the only place, not on the table or into any bowl. Once you had finished your soup, the spoon was not to be left lying in the dish but neatly wiped and placed beside the trencher. Eating with fingers was perfectly acceptable as long as you did not tear off huge chunks and make a mess.
Behaviour at dinner had some rules too. You must not belch near another’s face nor spit across the table. Picking teeth with the knife was considered inelegant; there were implements that served as toothpicks which should be used instead. Blowing your nose in the napkin was also thought highly ill-mannered. If you were unfortunate to attend your Richard’s banquet with a cold and had not brought a handkerchief, you were expected to wipe your hands on your clothes after sneezing, rather than sully the napkin or tablecloth. Food stealing off other guests was a no-no, and you never licked a dish clean no matter how good it tasted. You sat up straight and acted with courtesy and politeness, which included not criticising the food or whispering. Nose-picking was out, as was scratching fleabites, rubbing at your scalp or just staring at the other people in the room. (So no staring at his Grace, no matter how tempting, remember?!)
So if you should indeed find that time machine, bon appetit…and please don’t spit over the table.
Sources- Fast and Feast—Bridget Henisch
Food and Feast in Medieval England by Peter Hammond
The Babee’s Book, trans Edith Rickett