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Medieval Travel Guide

Medieval Feast

The hall of the old times was the place of choice for a Medieval Feast.  It was the place where the household gathered together, and the lords and his dependants sat down in social conviviality. It was there that the harp of the minstrel, and the songs of the troubadours exerted their influence in awakening the better feelings of the warlike baron. And it was there that the mimics with grotesque attitudes and grimaces of the lord’s fool excited the laughter and boisterous mirth so characteristic of the festivities of the Middle Ages.

Medieval Feast-Serving The Peacock-15th Century
Serving The Peacock-15th Century

The magnificence of the Medieval Feast is a subject upon which even the chroniclers loved to dilate.  It was a pageant, and the description of it read in the pages of history, like passages from fairy tales. We may form some idea of the vast scale upon which a Medieval Feast was conducted, from the fact that at the marriage feast of Lionel, duke of Clarence, son of Edward III, thirty courses were included in the bill of fare.

The domestics prepared the festive board early in the morning, as the time of dining was usually ten or eleven. The table was covered with a white cloth. The table–cloths were sometimes of silk.

At supper the table was adorned with candlesticks of artistic design. In the houses of nobles they were sometimes of silver. Candles were insufficient to illuminate the spacious hall, and it was therefore lit up with splinters and flambeaux, which were carried about by the attendants.

The platters were usually of pewter, and in houses of a second class, of wood. These were sometimes square in shape. The display of plate was often extensive, and indicated the increase of national wealth. Silver dishes, cups, and saltcellars, wrought in curios devices, glistened upon the board.

The taste displayed in the manufacture of these articles of plate was sometimes both chaste and elegant, proving that the ingenuity and skill of the medieval artisans were far from being exhausted. The nobles prided themselves upon their gold and silver vessels, and made many sacrifices to obtain them.

The huge saltcellar was the chief ornament of the table. It was placed before or on the right hand of the master of the house. It had various shapes: a covered cup, a castellated form, or, at the caprice of the owner, it frequently took the form of a dog, a stag, or another favorite animal. In 14th Century England, there are mentions of vessels of glass. Drinking cups were usually made of wood and horn, those of glass were of extreme rarity.

Medieval Feast-Domesting Carrying The Ship
Domestic Carrying The Ship


One of the most interesting appendages of the dining table of the 14th Century was the ship, or "nef", which was used to contain spices and sweetmeats. Its form was borrowed from the "navette", an ecclesiastical vessel in the form of a ship in which frankincense was kept upon the altar. The French appear to have introduced the nef as an ornament to the dinning table. It was not much in use in England prior to this century.

The mazer bowl was in use among all classes during the 14th Century. This favorite vessel was sometimes adorned with the most costly workmanship, and enameled with the arms of its owner.

When the tables were spread, attendants entered the hall with basins, ewers, and napkins, and carried them round to the company, who washed their hands before they sat down to dinner. The ewers were often made of gold and silver, and also enameled with the owner’s arms. From passages in old romances it appears to have been usual to wash after as well as before meals.

The ewers and napkins were handed to the guests by the squires or pages. The water was sometimes perfumed with aromatics, and on grand occasions the basin was filled with rose water. On some occasions, the guests were summoned to wash in the lavatory before meals by the sound of trumpets.

Medieval Feast-Minstrel
The Medieval Feast was sometimes kept up for many successive days, during which time the minstrels were often handsomely rewarded. The presence of minstrels was almost an universal custom at this period. Every lord retained them in his household, and even the itinerant minstrels were never refused admittance into the hall. The name of minstrel was synonymous with that of musician. It was the duty of the musicians to strike up merrily as the attendants carried the dishes into the hall. Broths, soups, potages, ragouts, and hashes were served. Roasted meat, when served up in joints was usually taken to table on the spit. Spits were sometimes made of silver.

The strictness with which our ancestors observed the Lent and fast-days led to a prodigious consumption of fish. Red herrings, white herrings, sturgeon, stock-fish are accounted as being bought for domestic use. Herring pies were regarded as delicacies even by royalty. But lampreys was the favorite choice for the Medieval Feast, as it was considered a great delicacy, and much preferred by the medieval epicures. The festive boards of the most refined were also graced by delicious morsels of the whale, the porpoise, the grampus, and the sea-wolf. Beef, mutton, and pork were used in abundance. Geese, capons, fowls, ducks garnished the feast tables. The soups and messes were highly seasoned with spice, and during the reign of Edward III, all who made any pretensions to skilful cookery, highly flavored and deeply colored their dishes with saffron.

Even as late as the 14th Century, only knives and spoons were in general use. Forks, although known, were not widely used. One of the gallant inventions of a chivalrous age was the custom of two dinning of the same plate. It was also usual for the lady and her partner at table to drink out of the same vessel.

A blessing was usually asked before and after the meals. In the halls of royalty and nobles, the chaplain fulfilled this duty.

It was an ancient custom among churchmen whilst at meals, to listen to the reading of the Holy Scripture, and several ecclesiastical canons enforce attention to this point. Reading at meals soon became common among laity. But the harpers, the mimics, and the fools were more acceptable to the popular taste. They took a prominent part in ancient festivities, and, on state occasions, they crowded the hall.

For the knights-to-be, the Medieval Feast was the opportunity to render what was called "personal service", which was one of the most important components of the future knights' education. The squire attended upon the knight, and the sons of nobles carved, and did service in the hall as a part of their chivalric education.

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