The Politeness of Princes

by Imogen Corrigan

On 9th March 2016 we were addressed by Imogen Corrigan, a mediaeval historian and former member of the army, on the subject of “Politeness of Princes” – the etiquette of the middle ages. While not covering chivalry and the etiquette of the battlefield or of courtly love, Imogen spoke about the manners of the household and particularly dining.

Drawing on pictures, carvings and literature from the period, Imogen sought to demonstrate that, far from the popular Hollywood depiction of raucous, rowdy and ill-mannered behaviour, the reality was of a much more orderly and polite situation. And people were keen to learn and apply good manners.

In big houses, a typical dinner would be served on large trestle tables (which could easily be cleared away to create a large space), covered with a tablecloth. The table would not be laid in the way that would now be the case, as the guests would bring their own knife and spoon (forks did not come in until later). The diners would sit on one side of the table and the food would be served from the “open” side. The servants would often be from the same social class as the diners – they would be young people who had joined the household as children and were learning the manners of “gentlemen”. At some stage they would move to the other side of the table and themselves be served by the new trainees.

Although cutlery was used, some food would be eaten by hand. Personal cleanliness was therefore important and there would be plenty of opportunity to wash hands as ewers (aquamaniles) with scented water would be brought round for the purpose.

At this time, plates were not regularly in use, but instead they used “trenchers” which were the bottom part of stale loaves of bread. There would be one trencher between two people, and the food would be eaten off these, but the diners would not eat the trenchers (or lick them) as, when finished, the used trenchers would be taken out and given to the poor at the gate. The top part of the loaves, when fresh, (the upper crust) would be given to the principal guests.

The fear of poisoning was a concern, and one of the servants would have a unicorn horn (the tusk of a narwhal), which would, apparently, turn black if there was any poison around. Four people would share a drinking chalice, so if that were poisoned, it could result in a mass casualty!

Feasts would sometimes be huge, both in the number of guests and in the amount consumed (with eye-watering numbers of oxen, sheep, fowl, fish etc. on the menu) – but these would be eaten over several days.

Books on courtesy and behavior (called moralia – sort of “Teach Yourself” books) describe the ways one should behave at table – and most of the rules would not be out of place today:

Don’t spit at the table                                       Don’t bite the food and pass it on

Don’t whisper (a fear of plotting!)                     Don’t scratch yourself – or a dog

Don’t stroke your neighbour’s hair                   Don’t pick your nose or teeth

Don’t blow on the food                                     Don’t drink with a mouthful

Don’t wipe your mouth or hands on the tablecloth

Etc. etc. – but you can throw your bones on the floor!

This was an interesting talk, which was able to dispel many incorrect misconceptions. Our mediaeval forebears were really quite polite after all!

Mike Goolden March 2016