It is a common misconception that people in the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance meals were hedonistic, violent, and with no sense of cleanliness or manners.
In truth, etiquette guidelines were complex and exacting. These rules, however, varied from country to country. In England, meals remained fairly bawdy even when the rest of Europe was seriously reigning in the ribaldry.
For example, an Italian guest at the royal table reported that Henry VIII would thrust “gobbits” of food into one cheek then the next. But In the rest of Europe, more refined manners had been adopted by the time Henry VIII reigned in England.
The authority on etiquette was mainly guided by Giovanni della Casa’s book, Galateo: Oero de ‘costume, (The Rules of Polite Behavior). It included how to dress well, develop witty conversation, and how to behave at table.
In his book, he admonished:
- It is not polite, while at the table, to scratch your head or somewhere else. A man should also, as much as possible, avoid spitting, but if he must, he should do it discreetly.
- One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public. The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others, even if you do not need to wash them at all, so that whoever dips into the same bowl as you will be certain of your cleanliness.
- Nor should one gnaw or chew such that you hear the sound or noises, since there is a difference between the eating of men and pigs. We must also be careful not to gobble up our food and occasion a hiccup or some other unpleasant result, as happens with people who hurry and so gasp for air or breathe so heavily that they annoy their companions.
- It is inappropriate, I do believe, to offer something from one’s own plate, unless the person who is presenting it is of a much more exalted rank, whereby the person receiving it will consider this an honor. Between men of equal rank, it will seem the person offering somehow or other holds himself superior to the one receiving, and sometimes the guest may not even like to eat what was offered.
- Also inappropriate is the habit of putting one’s nose over the glass of wine someone else is drinking or on top of the food others must eat, so as to smell it. Besides, I would not want someone to sniff even what he himself has to drink or to eat; the reason is that from his nose could fall those things that men find disgusting, even though this is perhaps unlikely.
- Nor would I recommend that you offer your glass of wine to someone after you have had your lips to it and sipped, unless it were to someone more intimate than a friend.
Additional admonitions from other authors and authorities of the time give us a peek into what meals were like before Giovanni della Cassa.
It was considered bad manners to:
- put your fingers in your ears.
- put your hands on your head.
- blow your nose with your hands.
- wipe off sweat with your napkin.
- put bones back on a platter after eating off the meat. They should be thrown to the floor.
It was also considered bad manners to put both hands into the food bowl, dish, trencher, or coffin (a thick pastry shell to hold stews and such). These dishes were often shared with more than one diner, especially if you were of lower rank. The polite way to procure food at the table was by plucking it out with three fingers.
In the 16thCentury Italians re-introduced forks into mealtime cutlery. However, they were slow to catch on. Until the 17thcentury, forks were especially avoided by men because using them was considered overly refined and effeminate. Even after this pronged utensil became socially acceptable, only the rich could afford them. Fingers, knives, and spoons held their starring role in utensils until the 18thcentury.
Weapons at Mealtime
Despite the many Hollywood depictions of sword fights during a Medieval or Renaissance meal, weapons were generally forbidden at the table. Swords, daggers, and any other dangerous instruments had to be left behind.
One etiquette rule from the period that has remained throughout the centuries is keeping our hands above the table (not resting on our laps). This showed that you didn’t have any hidden weapons. The only time it was all right for your hands to be below the table was when tossing scraps to the dogs.
I hope you enjoyed this little trip back in time. Remember, now. Never pick your nose at the table and be kind to the dogs.
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