Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the Middle Ages? (Medieval Mondays #2c)

Dinner scene from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1320-1340, Lincolnshire, England)

Dinner scene from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1320-1340, Lincolnshire, England)

I first began this series on medieval food by questioning what sort of experience one would have if transported back in time to a 13th century dinner table.

The time has now come to take a seat at said table and finish finding out.

The very first point of difference one might encounter relates to the time of day “dinner” was actually served.  One might expect that turning up anywhere between 6:00 and 8:00pm as is common for modern dinners (particularly in North America) would also apply to the 13th century.

Not so, for “dinner” in both England and France was the midday meal.  Time-wise, medieval dinner corresponds better with modern lunch, for all that it started much earlier, around 10am.

That said, menu-wise, medieval dinner was more like modern dinner, for it was a rather grand, sumptuous, two-hour affair – according to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century,

[N]ot only the main meal but also the great social occasion of the day. (p. 120).

Meals took place in the great hall (the large, open, high-ceilinged room with the dais and the lord and lady’s thrones), which would be set up with benches and trestle tables that were dismantled between meals.

One table (the high table) was placed horizontally atop the dais, perpendicular to the various lower tables situated on the floor.  The high table is where the lord, lady, and family of the household took meals; it was also where important guests – which noble houses almost always hosted – would be seated.

(Just how important a particular guest was could be marked by the number of spaces removed his/her chair was from that of the lord’s.)

Regardless of where one sat, however, certain mealtime customs remained the same.  All tables would be spread with clean tablecloths and set with spoons, salt cellars (containers that held salt), cups, and shallow, silver-rimmed wooden bowls called mazers (although the dishes at the high table would likely be more expensive – silver compared to wood and earthenware of the lower tables – as a mark of wealth and prestige).

Sharing and caring

According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,

Meals were announced by a horn blown to signal time for washing hands.  Servants with ewers, basins, and towels attended the guests. (p.114).

Servants than brought out various entrees on platters or in bowls, however diners ate not from plates but a trencher (also called a manchet), which was a thick slice of day-old bread.

Modern rendering of medieval Polish trencher bread

Modern rendering of medieval Polish trencher bread

Each person did not get their own trencher; rather, one was shared between two people.  Custom dictated that the lower-ranked, younger, and/or male of each pair assisted the higher-ranked, older, and/or female throughout the entire meal by breaking the bread, cutting the meat, and passing the cup of wine or ale that was also shared.

Dishes were served first to the high table before being distributed among the lesser diners, it being a sign of particular favour to receive one of the lord’s dishes specifically sent one’s way.

Soup was eaten by spooning the solid parts and slurping the broth.  Meat was cut up with a knife (everyone carried their own, which hung sheathed from one’s girdle (i.e. belt) when not in use) and eaten with the fingers.

“[I]n light of finger-eating and dish-sharing,” write the Gieses,

Stress was laid on keeping hands and nails scrupulously clean, wiping spoon and knife after use, wiping the mouth before drinking, and not dipping meat in the salt dish. (p.116).

Equally frowned upon were the following:

  • Leaving one’s spoon in a dish
  • Sucking from one’s spoon
  • Elbows on the table
  • Belching
  • Talking with food in one’s mouth
  • Taking overly large helpings
  • Starting fights at the table

Beyond these rather basic and surprisingly modern injunctions, rules and ceremony marked every other part of meals as well, including the laying of the tablecloths, the cutting of trenchers, the carving of meat, the holding and passing of a shared cup, what one should do upon spotting dirt or flies in the food (answer: say nothing), and the expected behaviour of all diners (answer: according to Labarge, “pleasant and gay” (p.124), particularly the lord of the castle).

Dinner usually comprised two or three courses, each containing several different dishes that all repeated the same type of food save the very last course – often called the issue – which consisted of fruit, nuts, and sweetmeats (i.e. confections).

Supper, on the other hand – which took place after the work day had ended, between about 4:00 and 6:00pm – was a much more casual meal and included only a few light dishes and then cheese.

Breakfast (usually bread and ale or watered wine consumed after morning mass) was not a meal for which the whole household gathered together.  Nor were informal “rere suppers” – late-night second suppers – which moralists condemned as promoting gluttony, lechery, and waste.

Entertainment and espionage

During dinner, while still eating, diners also enjoyed entertainment, both the sotelties (the edible, between-course diversions discussed in the previous medieval food post) and whatever minstrels or jesters the lord had in employ to provide music, stories and/or jokes.

After the meal was complete and the leftover food removed (much of which, particularly the trenchers, would be given to the poor), everyone washed their hands again, the tables and benches were cleared away, and the entertainment usually continued.

The Gieses write:

When the meal was over, one of the guests might regale the company with a song; many a knight and baron composed songs in the tradition of the trouvères[.]  They might be accompanied by the harp, the lute, or the viele, ancestor of the violin. (p. 118).

The viele

The viele

Other entertainments comprised any of the following,

  • Round dancing
  • Plays
  • Parlour games, such as dice, backgammon, and chess
  • Gambling and betting on games
  • Bowls
  • Horseplay (e.g. wrestling)

Because food isn’t particularly relevant to the plot of my WIP, and because my main character, Aline, suffers from both impatience and ongoing anxiety that prevents her being a hearty eater, it is this after-dinner time that features most prominently in the story.

With all the tables cleared away, I envision this joyful time following the meal to be a form of organized chaos in the great hall, with knots of half-drunk people standing around or sitting on what few seats permanently reside to take in music, stories, games, news, gossip, and/or flirtation.

For reasons I’ll discuss in a future post on castle architecture, 13th century castles had little to offer in the name of privacy to have secret conversations (among other things).

So I use after dinner as the time when Aline does a lot of the underhanded work associated with helping her lord overcome his enemies – the time that she has clandestine discussions, listens to rumours, spreads rumours, observes people who don’t realize they’re being watched, curries favour with some nobles, and foments ill-will between others, all while hiding her actions in plain sight.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1#2, and #3)

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4 thoughts on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the Middle Ages? (Medieval Mondays #2c)

  1. I’m often scolded at my mother-in-laws house for the elbow on the table sin 😉
    I also didn’t realise that ‘dinner’ was ‘lunch’ when I met my parents’ in law for the first time. They still hold on to this old idea – but now I’m used to it. We either invite them (or go to their house) for ‘dinner’ or ‘supper’. Next time I’ll be “pleasant and gay” and see if that impresses them.
    It’s amazing to see how civilized we became purely through adapting the manners of our ancestors (apart from saying nothing after spotting dirt or flies in the food) 😉

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    • I was surprised at how modern all of those table manners were, including the one about the dirt and flies: honestly, if I were at a friend’s house and they served me something that a fly had gotten into, I probably wouldn’t say anything either, instead secretly scooping it into my napkin and then just eating around that spot. All part of keeping the meal “pleasant and gay”.

      Some parts of Canada (mostly rural, it seems) still use “dinner” as “lunch” sometimes – a colonial, Commonwealth holdover, I guess.

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  2. How interesting Janna. Certainly I think, especially further north in Britain, many still refer to the early afternoon meal as ‘dinner’. It sounds as if the working day was either shorter, or started earlier?
    Interesting about post-evening meal entertainment and conversation, especially if it was difficult to break out into separate groups. There must have been many a code word or signal, or veiled meanings. Shakespeare made great play of the latter in his works.

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    • In parts of Nova Scotia where I’m originally from folk still use “dinner” instead of “lunch” as well.

      The workday started at sunrise. Folk would have their quickie breakfast of bread and wine or ale and work straight through until dinner. After those two hours (although I reckon only in noble households was the meal this long; peasants probably took way less time), work would resume until supper from 4-6pm. People wouldn’t stay up too long past nightfall or get up too long before sunrise because lighting was expensive, so the workday would be shorter during winter (fewer hours of daylight) but in summer, I imagine hours of work were pretty comparable to today.

      I know that during the Victorian era, the use of different types of flowers in one’s personal dress carried secret meanings; no doubt the medieval times had similar types of codes as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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