MEDIEVAL BANQUETS. Banquets during the European Middle Ages were often given on such important ecclesiastical feast days as New Year and Pentecost. But the greatest ones for which we have records were given for weddings and the coronation of kings or installation of bishops. There were also banquets for funerals, the coming of age (or knighting) of a son, or such lesser occasions as a harvest, the feast day of the patron saint of the local parish guild, various civic occasions, or even a tournament. Who was invited depended on the circumstances; wedding guests were apt to be family and close friends, as today, but many people of quite humble status would be included in festivities at a manor house.
This is not to say that banquets were frequent: they were very special occasions. Of the twenty-seven menus given in the fourteenth-century Menagier de Paris, a work compiled by an elderly Parisian for his young wife, only three are banquet menus: two for weddings and one for a civic event (Brereton and Ferrier, Le Menagier de Paris, pp. 175–190). The fifteenth-century English manor house of Dame Alice de Bryene, for which we have complete records of meals served over a period of a year (28 September 1412–28 September 1413), had only one major banquet that year, serving dinner to 160 people on New Year's Day. But it also provided fairly lavish meals to many of those involved in gathering the harvest in August, with several dinners for from forty to sixty guests, about twice the number usually present at Dame Alice's table.
The food served was quite different in quantity, and in some respects nature, from everyday meals, which for most people were apt to start with (or, for the poor, consist of) vegetable pottages (soups or stews). For a banquet, vegetables, if any—in England, they rarely appear on feast menus—were vastly outnumbered by a parade of roasts or fish of all kinds, and more elaborate dishes. Even the pottages were usually ones considered as special treats, such as frumenty (a wheat or barley pottage) with venison, or a blancmange of chicken or fish in spiced almond milk, usually also containing rice.
What is most striking to the modern eye about the menus for important banquets is the number of dishes served. An extreme example is the banquet celebrating George Neville's installation as Archbishop of York in 1465, which had a first course containing seventeen dishes, a second with twenty, and a third with twenty-three—not counting the "subtleties," discussed below. Three was the normal number of courses for the high (head) table at an English banquet, two for lesser guests. At the coronation feast of Richard III, there were three courses for high table, two for the lords and ladies, and one for commoners—who included the Lord Mayor of London!
Usually the dishes given to those not at high table were a selection of those in the three-course menu, including the most basic dishes. A feature of the (fictional) thirteenth-century banquet of Walter of Bibbesworth (Hieatt and Butler, Curye on Inglysche, pp. 2–3) is that there was enough venison and frumenty for the "whole household," clearly suggesting that not everyone got a taste of all the goodies that followed.
Manuscript 279 in the British Library's Harleian collection gives two-course menus for "the lower part of the hall" for the banquets celebrating the installation of John Stafford, Bishop of Wells, and the wedding of the Earl of Devonshire (Austin, pp. 63–64). In the first case, the two-course menu is a selection of seventeen of the forty-seven dishes on the three-course menu, but the wedding banquet has less overlap, substituting several dishes not found on the three-course menu. These are not all humbler dishes: they include Caudel Ferry, a dish of sweetened wine thickened with eggs, resembling a modern zabaglione, and doucetys, custard tarts.
Distribution of Dishes
Those lower in rank not only got fewer courses but also were served smaller portions. Only the host and any exceptionally high-ranking guest got an individual serving; other high-ranking guests shared dishes (messes), usually two to a mess. If there were lower-ranking guests, as there would have been at a manor house, they were more apt to dine three or four to a mess. Sometimes those of higher rank were so served, to judge by a German banquet scene showing a number of crowned ladies at the side tables being served four to a mess.
This does not mean that those at high table ate all they were offered. The lord (or lady) of the house was expected to give some of the choice dishes to others. The thirteenth-century "household rules" for the Countess of Lincoln, attributed to Bishop Robert Grosseteste, advise that her "dish be so refilled and heaped up, especially with the delicacies, that you may courteously give from your dish to right and left to all at high table and to whom else it pleases you." The fifteenth-century Latin poem Modus Cenandi tells us empty plates are to be brought to the host so that he may distribute delicacies to others, and many recipes tell us to allow a whole chicken for a lord but only a quarter for commoners ("The Way of Dining," Furnivall, pp. 231–257).
If the Countess of Lincoln was to offer food from her dish to others at high table, clearly even those honored guests were not served everything on the menu. Just how many they had to choose from in each course probably varied according to the wealth and generosity of the host. The fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes lavishness that is highly unlikely in real life when it states that the members of King Arthur's court at a New Year's feast had so many dishes that it was hard to find room on the table for them: "Every two had twelve dishes / Good beer and bright wine both" (translation of lines 128–129).
Order of Service
Generally there was soup or other pottage to start with, followed by meats (on a meat day), with the more commonplace boiled or roasted meat and fowl first; on a fish day, there would be salt fish. More "delicate" items, such as roasted wild birds and fresh fish, came next, along with other dishes, then sweet or richer foods including tarts and fritters. This order is already apparent in that banquet described by Walter of Bibbesworth, although there the pottages follow rather than precede substantial meats. But some fifteenth-century menus for grand occasions were so expanded that each course might run the gamut from soup to fritters.
The basic order is spelled out in Modus Cenandi, which calls for pottage to be followed by meat of large animals and fowls, then smaller ones, and finally "better dishes" (fercula dant meliora). This "natural rule" is also claimed in the Liber Cure Cocorum—that for a feast featuring fowl, the larger ones come first, then "bakyn mete" (mainly pies), with more dainty foods at the end. A similar order is found in continental banquet menus, with a few differences.
French banquet menus varied in the number of courses, but the basic model seems to consist of four courses. The first course was much like an English first course, except that it excluded roasts. Roasts, with some accompaniments, came in the second course, and more elaborate dishes (entremets) in the third. Any or all of these courses might consist of only one or two dishes, as is the case with one of the Menagier's menus for wedding feasts. As in England, the French last course (dessert) usually included sweet dishes and/or fruit, although it might also contain meat or fish dishes we would not consider dessert today.
Italian banquets ran to more courses: eight, ten, and sometimes twenty or more courses, generally with two or more dishes in each. Sometimes they began with pasta dishes, but otherwise the order was much like the French: soups and meats in sauces preceded roasts. German banquets also ran to a good many courses, but most of them consisted of a single dish.
Setting and Protocol of the Banquet
The menu order, however, does not give the complete order of the banquet. The first thing given to all diners was water and a towel for washing hands, usually before they were seated at the table. They were seated strictly according to rank at tables which, for a large banquet, were arranged in a U-shape. The host and especially honored guests sat at the head (high) table, and the others at the side tables. The nearer a guest was placed to the host, the greater the honor. The principal salt cellar, often a very elaborate affair, was placed at the host's right hand: hence the saying that others sat "below the salt." Salt for general use was distributed in piles on pieces of bread that served as individual salt cellars.
On the table, guests would find bread, and often a knife, a spoon, and a napkin, but not a fork: fingers or pieces of bread were used to pick up food not eaten with a spoon. "Trenchers" of coarse bread were cut and placed in front of each diner to receive pieces of meat or fish. Wine and/or ale would soon be poured, but before the meal was served, grace was said. Food was brought from the (often distant) kitchen; the German banquet scene referred to above shows a servant bringing a pile of covered dishes, much like those used in restaurants today to keep food warm. Roasts were carved and served in the hall.
French banquets usually started with an aperitif, or assiette de table (as against the première assiette, first course). Grenache, a fairly sweet wine (compare modern French aperitifs), seems to have been usual, with such accompaniments as fresh fruits, butter, salad, or small meat or fish pastries. While English banquet menus do not mention aperitifs, John Russell's Boke of Nurture (Furnivall, The Babees Book, p. 122) advises serving soft fruits before dinner, and they would seem to be the same fruits recommended for the aperitif course in France.
It is thus possible that aperitifs may have sometimes preceded the first course in England. The English menus often omit mention of how the meal ended, although we know the custom was the same as in France: a sweetened, spiced wine was usually served with wafers, fruit and cheese being an alternative way to end the banquet. After grace and the final handwashing, the table was cleared (or removed) and more wine and candied spices followed, at least for the higher-ranking diners.
Anyone who has seen medieval pictures of banqueting scenes will have noticed musicians almost invariably present, blowing fanfares to herald the beginning of a course or playing to entertain the diners while they eat. Other entertainers might include minstrels, jugglers, mummers, or players putting on a pageant or interlude, a form of theatrical entertainment referred to in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem is also one of many sources of evidence that the guests themselves did a lot of singing and dancing. Since the banqueting in the poem takes place in the Christmas season, much of the singing and dancing consists of carols. But a major source of entertainment at a medieval banquet was apt to be culinary in nature, at least in part. This was what was known in England as a subtlety, usually a creation of sugar, marzipan, or pastry depicting one or more birds, beasts, or people, brought out at the end of every course. At the coronation feast of Henry V, the subtlety at the end of the first course was a (confectionery?) swan surrounded by cygnets, all of whom carried messages in their bills that were lines of verse. But that was not enough. Twenty-four more swans followed, each one carrying the last line of the poem. Some subtleties were considerably simpler, including foods decorated with a motto or appropriate symbol, such as a coat of arms.
In France, subtleties were known as entremets, indicating their placement between courses. But the situation is complicated by the fact that entremets were originally just interesting dishes brought out between courses: the Menagier considers any elaborate dish to be in this category, including jellies and frumenty. This explains why frumenty with venison, which invariably appears at or near the beginning of the first course in England, occurs in the third or fourth course in France.
Still, the French also prepared elaborate entremets that are certainly in the category of subtleties. One of the manuscripts of the Viandier de Taillevent contains a number of these, some of which are edible: for example, the "helmeted cocks" for which roasted chickens are mounted on roasted piglets, with paper helmets and lances, probably wooden but covered with foil. But the Viandier's "painted entremets" are strictly decorations, made of wood and other inedible materials, depicting such subjects as a knight in a swan boat, sailing on a cloth sea.
See also Christianity: Western Christianity ; Middle Ages, European; Renaissance Banquets.
Brereton, Georgine E., and Janet M. Ferrier, eds. Le Menagier de Paris. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
Dale, M. K., trans., and Vincent B. Redstone, ed. The Household Book of Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, September 1412–September 1413. Ipswich, U.K.: Suffolk Institute of Archeology and History, 1984.
Furnivall, Frederick J., ed. The Babees' Book: Medieval Manners for the Young. Early English Text Society, 1868. Reprint, New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. Includes the "Bokes of Nurture" of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde's "Boke of Kervyng," courtesy books, related poems.
Hammond, P. W. Food and Feast in Medieval England. Stroud, Gloucestershire, U. K.: Sutton, 1993.
Hieatt, Constance B., and Sharon Butler, eds. Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Curye). Early English Text Society. London: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Hieatt, Constance B., Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
Morris, Richard, ed. Liber Cure Cocorum. Berlin and London: Asher, 1862.
Pichon, Jerome, and Georges Vicaire, eds. Le Viandier de Taillevent. Paris: Techener, 1892. Reprint, Luzarches, France: Daniel Morcrette, n.d. Those needing English translations may prefer the 1988 edition edited by Terence Scully, but it does not include the 15th-century menus.
Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Wood-bridge, Suffolk, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 1998.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and R. V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925. Numerous translations are available.
Constance B. Hieatt