A very brief guide to Medieval Manners at table aka. Some Do's and Dont's for the Wellmannered Trencherperson
The cardinal rule of medieval manners is this – It is impossible to be too polite: it is especially impossible to be too polite to a lady.
Before the meal
- Do make sure you have with you your eating utensils.
- Do ask for anything you need to borrow from the Autocrats well on advance before the event if possible.
- Do find out as soon as you arrive at the event what the meal arrangements are, if you are to sit in any particular place and where eating things are to be left beforehand.
- Do make sure your guests are supplied with eating things, the best way of doing this is by loaning them yourself.
- Do make sure there is enough room at the table for your whole party elsewise check with the Autocrat to see if you can all move to a larger table.
- Don’t place yourself next to anyone without checking if the seat is reserved for other members of their party.
- Don’t place yourself next to a stranger then ignore them.
- Don’t ever ask to be moved to a higher place yourself. If you feel one of your companions is a person of such distinction that they merit a higher seating mention this quietly and politely to the Autocrat early enough for arrangements to be remade if possible.
- Do not expect to be moved with them. If your Lord or Lady is of higher rank than yourself you may be placed with them as a courtesy, but if there are others with greater claims on the place at Hightable the Autocrat will have to put you elsewhere, and it would be churlish to complain of this. (The solution is to be so distinguished that you are seated at High Table in your own right.)
During the meal
- Do, when called to table, go promptly to your allotted place.
- Do ask a Lady to do you the honour of joining you if you are not already sitting with another.
- Do seat her on your right, make sure she is comfortable and arrange her eating utensils for her.
- Do introduce her to your party and include her in conversation; extravagant compliments, though always welcome, are not necessary.
- Do see to it that the servers serve her first. If the feast is a buffet, take her plate and fill it for her before attending to your own meal.
- Do pay courteous attention to any entertainment. A few quiet comments to the Ladies of your party on the quality of the matter, and an occasional “Bravo” are permissible, but continued conversation is rude.
- Do use a knife to cut bread rather than break it.
- Do wipe your platter with bread between each course, and throw your own and your Lady’s scraps into the voider provided for the purpose.
- Do rinse or wipe your fingers on your napkin between each course and at the end of the meal.
- Do present yourself modestly and gently to the company during a suitable break if you wish to sing or tell a tale, (having checked that such will be acceptable to the Autocrat).
- Don’t ignore any Lady at table. If a Lady addresses you, be she the humblest woman in the room; treat her as respectfully as you would your own lady or your Baroness.
- Don’t assume she will eat from your plate or drink from your cup without asking her first. This is a charming custom and you may certainly ask her if she cares to do so, but it is her privilege to refuse as it is yours to serve her.
- Don’t dip your food into the saltcellar. Instead, take a little out and put it on the side of your plate. Don’t put your knife in your mouth. You may spear food on its tip but only the food should pass your lips.
- Don’t act the glutton. Small portions are the mark of a Lady or Gentleman. It is perfectly in order, indeed many would say more complimentary to the cooks, to ask for more later on.
- Don’t drink excessively at table. In Tudor times it was considered the ultimate mark of low breeding to “ask for the cup” more than twice during a meal. You can drink yourself silly afterwards, but you should always be able to rise steadily to your feet and leave the table first.
- Don’t be rude to servers. Apart from the fact that only inferior persons treat servants badly, they have their own forms of revenge (porray all over your best Italian velvet tunic, scalding soup all over your codpiece).
- Don’t talk too much or too loudly, or interrupt anyone else. Take especial care not to talk during entertainments or toasts.
- Don’t leave your dirty dishes laying on the table. Remove them at once, with those of your Lady and if you do not plan to wash them at once wrap them and put them out of the way. The servers can then clear the tables for the rest of the evening.
- Do make a point of thanking the servers (not just the wenches), the cooks and the Autocrat.
Authored by Heloisa Malett of Wortham when Princess of the Far Isles