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Medievl-Feasts-art - 2/24/05


"The Medieval Feast - An Event, Not Food" by Mistress Willow de Wisp, Lion of Ansteorra.


NOTE: See also the files: high-table-msg, p-Coronat-fst-art, p-menus-msg, table-manners-msg, Handwashing-art, French-Tbl-Srv-art, feast-decor-msg, feast-serving-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



The Medieval Feast

An Event, Not Food


By Willow de Wisp


            When we think about the medieval times two kinds of events stand out, the tournament and the feast.  Many people in the SCA have investigated the historical tournament and a fair number of us understand the nature of the tourney, but the feast is often misrepresented in the SCA.  The first thing to remember is, if your "feast" is simply a meal it is not a Feast.  The Feast in middle ages was an event not food. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton brings up some interesting points in her book "Savoring the Past".  She states, "Medieval banquets were exceptional events, the realizations of aesthetic and social ideals.  Contemporary Chronicles do not speak of individual dishes; they do not even give menus. They describe appearances, not flavors, the sequence of events, not the dishes."  Olivier de la Marche helped to plan two of the most famous feasts of the fifteenth century, the Feast of the Pheasant in 1453 and the festivities accompanying the marriage of Charles the Bold.  When he talks about these events in his memoirs he describes the clothes, jousts, music, and decorations but he does not talk about what was eaten.  He says the food was "rich and Copious," "very richly served," "rich and stately...with a multiplicity of dishes and of foods."  He does not seem concerned about the meal but rather the activities that revolved about the meal.  The feast in medieval time often came after a time of fasting and produced in the people of those times strong emotional and spiritual responses. If the major feasts held in the SCA do not echo these feelings in our populace then we have failed to recreate a pre-17th century event.  I realize that not every time we feed people are we planning to hold a feast, but if the event is supposed to be a medieval celebration then we should try to put the elements of a medieval feast into it.


What were the elements of a medieval feast?  It was an event full of pageantry and ceremony. I am going to outline a typical festival feast.                    


We come into the banquet hall elegantly dressed. The hall itself is decorated with banners and garlands and wall hangings. By the 16th-century special banqueting houses were built.  They were designed to be a shell that could be redecorated each time it was needed for some important occasion.  Novelty was an important part of royal entertainment and new decorations were being created all the time. ("Food and Feast in Tudor England", Alison Sim)  The best tapestries would be hung behind the head table. ("The English Medieval Feast", William Edward Mead.)  Well-dressed young servants would direct us to our tables.  Everyone was seated according to his or her social rank.  People where afraid to take a seat until they were shown their place for fear they would be asked to move which would be a great embarrassment. The noblest guests would be seated at the high table with individual chairs.  The highest ranked person would be seated under a fancy canopy called a baldaquin, which marked the place of honor.  The table was set with great care.  White cloth was greatly prized.  Queen Elizabeth had "twelve fine tablecloths of Damask and Diaper". ("Christmas in Shakespeareıs England")  The tables were covered with the tablecloths with great solemnity and ceremony. ("The Babees Book") Napkins were also used to protect the tablecloths from dirty fingers.  At the high table wax candles lit the gold and silver vessels.  In other parts of the hall torches lighted the feast.  Ordinarily the dinner hour was in the middle of the day so feast would end before sunset.  Dancing that lasted until the early hours often followed feasts that began in the evening.


The Surveyor of Ceremonies, or the Marshal, is responsible for the preparation of the hall.  He sees that the hangings and other decorations are set up and that the trestle tables are properly placed.  He greets the guest and seats them.  According to Madeleine Cosman the Surveyor of Ceremonies wears a big gold key and greets the guest with a song or shouts "Wassail, wassail, leavu freond! Welcome, Welcome! Good cheer, dear friends!"  The Bulter, the Panter, and the cooks are under the supervision of the Surveyor of Ceremonies.  The duties of those officers are described in the "Boke of Curtasye".  Following the Marshal or Surveyorıs duties the ceremonies of dinner start.


The Surveyor or Marshal presents the Salt to the guests at the head table.  Everyone used salt so there was one on every table.  The lesser tables used one fashioned out of bread but the principal saltcellar was very fancy.  It was brought in with great ceremony and was set directly in front of the masterıs seat.  The term "below the salt" comes from this custom because the salt marked the seat of honor and the center of the feast.  Saltcellars were always on display and were intended to delight the eye.  They were made of costly materials and decorated elaborately.  Salts took many shapes.  Sometimes they were lions or dragons or machines that moved down the table, but the most common salt was a nef.  A nef was a fancy ship. (for more information and illustrations see Charles Oman, "Medieval Silver Nefs")  Sometimes they were made of metal and sometimes they were made of sugar. ("Fast and Feast", p. 164)  The 1329 inventory of the English Royal Plate lists "a silver nef with four wheels and gilt head of a dragon at either end of said ship." ("Fast and Feast", Bridget Ann Henisch.)


After the Surveyor presents the salt, he waves his key and summons the Pantler.  This is the officer in charge of the bread.  He wears a long, fringed fabric on his shoulder, called a portpayne, for carrying loaves. ("Medieval Holidays and Festivals", Cosman p.5)  The Pantler enters with many bows and tastes the bread and salt.  In John Russellıs "Book of Nurture" printed in 1460 we learn that not everyone has his food and salt tasted.  Tasting should be done for those of royal blood, as a pope, emperor, empress, cardinal, king, queen, prince, archbishop, duke or earl but no one else.  After the Pantler tastes the salt he then cuts the bread into trenchers.  These are square pieces of bread cut from four-day-old loaves. They were used as plates. The master of the house would have four and others less.  The upper crust of the bread was used for the most honored guest.  This custom gives rise to the term "upper crust".  The bread trenchers were often given to the poor after the feast.


The Surveyor now calls the Laverer.  The Laverer brings in water and towels.  Lower ranking guests wash at an ewery at the lower end of the hall.  Perfumed water is brought to the head table. ("Tales of the Table", Barbara Norman p. 81)  The water and the towel that the lord of the feast is to use are "kissed" to avoid suspicion of poison. Sometimes the guests are formally conducted to an adjoining lavatory accompanied by the music of a minstrel, but ordinarily they remain in the hall and received from ewers warm water, perfumed with rose leaves, thyme, lavender, sage, camomile, marjoram, or orange peels, one or all.  Washing is done in order of social standing and it was esteemed a special honour to serve a king or a great noble when he is washing. ("The English Medieval Feast", p.152)  Special vessels were used for this activity called aquamanile.  These vessels were sometimes of gold and silver but were most often brass, copper and bronze.  Albertus Magus pointed out in the thirteenth century that if wine or any other liquid was put in the brass, bronze and copper vessels for any time it was spoilt so care had to be taken to fill the aquamaniles just before using them.  These vessels were often wonderful pieces of art taking fanciful shapes. Even if the washing vessels were simple basins and jugs they were made of the best material and richly decorated. It was even considered elegant to have your tablecloths and towels match.  


After the guests are seated and before the blessing is given, the musical fanfare announces the beginning of the feast. There are a few more customs that must be observed.  People in the middle ages were very afraid of poisons so the wine was now tasted.  This test was called credence, and is performed by tasting or a chemical test.  People in the middle ages believed that a stone called a bezoar could be dropped into wine and the fluid would change color it was poisoned.  They also used a "serpentıs tongue" - really a sharkıs tooth or a "unicorn horn" – really a narwhalıs horn to protect themselves from poison. ("The English Medieval Feast", p. 152 and "Medieval Holidays and Festivals", p.8)  After the credence test is done the Marshal or Surveyor calls out "Wassail, wassail! Drink well! To your health.²  The feasters respond, Wassail, wassail!"  The priest says the blessings and the horns, trumpets, cornettes, shaums, drums, and bells play the fanfare signaling the beginning of the feast.


The steward, bearing his wand of offices, enters the hall followed by the servants carrying covered dishes, which are given to the guests in order of their importance.  In France the food remained covered. ("The English Medieval Feast", p.153.)  As a rule courses are ill defended and ill arranged.  The "Modus Cenandi" gives an order of courses but there is no discernible system.  Fried dishes are put into the last course, followed by wafers, spices, fruits and light cakes.  Even in France little attention was given to the order of food.  Olivier de la Marche in the 1400ıs does state that the soup was to be served first followed by the eggs, the fish and the meat.  Each course would have many dishes.  At the coronation banquet for King Henry IV there were three courses.  The first course had eleven dishes and included meat, boar, capon, heron, sturgeon and ended in a subtlety..


After the dishes came in, the carver starts to work. Carving was a skill of the gentleman.  A skilled carver not only had dexterity but considerable strength.  The carver was supposed to be as graceful as a dancer.  There were special bladed and handled knives that were supposed to be used for specific cuttings.  There were even special bows and foot positions for the various flourishing of the knives.  Books were written on the subject. Wynkyn de Worde wrote a book in 1513 called the "Book of Carving". As in todayıs Japanese restaurants the carver was part of the entertainment.


At the end of a course or at the beginning of the course there were subtleties.  These special dishes were often illusion food. Sometimes they were paraded through the hall to "warn" guests that an important course was coming.  The creators and the subtleties were sometimes called "warners". ("Medieval Holidays and Festivals", p.11)  Subtleties were often very fancy. Castles, swans, eagles, Kings and numerous other things were the themes for subtleties.  At the Feast of Pleasant in Burgundy the subtleties were put on display before the feast and paraded through the feast hall during the feast.  Ms. Cosman has the parade of subtleties at the end of the feast so they can be carved and eaten.  


A Feast in period was not only a time of eating and drinking but was a time for varied entertainment.  Beside the musicians, who sat in the gallery, away from sight, there were other performers.  The Court fool, professional dancers, acrobats, and tellers of tales and romances were some of the entertainers but there were other things.  At the Feast of the Pheasant a dragon flew across the hall, a great whale bought jousters and an elephant with a woman representing Jerusalem were all part of the entertainment.  Jugglers or acrobats were sometime served in enormous puddings and leapt out to amaze the guests.  Wild men would show up to shock and delight the noble feasters. ("Fabulous Feast", p.33)  The Surveyor made sure that there was ample entertainment during each course.  In the Elizabethan court there was a special "Master of Revel" that assured the quality of entertainment.  Feasts were a delight to the eye and ear as well as the tongue.

After the feast, the Surveyor announces the dancing, if there is to be dancing.  The servants come in and take down the tables. Sometimes the feasters would go into another room for desserts.  If there were no dancing, the Surveyor would call in the wine and spices.  If dancing took place the wine and spices were held until the end of the dancing.  Serving the wine and spices was an indication that the event was over.

While feasts differed with the time of year and a little to the country, in general, feasts kept to this format. Each noble would try to outdo the others. They were a time of good food, good cheer and great entertainment. The beauty of the hall and the ceremonies all worked together to create the distinctive thing known as the Medieval Feast.


Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, "Fabulous Feast. Medieval Cookery and Ceremony",  George Braziller, New York, 1976

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, "Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A calendar of celebrations", Charles Scribnerıs Sons, New York, 1981

Hammond, P.W., "Food and Feast, in Medieval England", Wrens Park Publishing, Gloucestershire, 1993

Henisch, Bridget Ann, "Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society", The University of Pennsylvania Press,1976

Hubert, Maria, "Christmas in Shakespeareıs England", Sutton Publishing, Great Britain,1998

Mead, William Edward, "The English Medieval Feast", Barnes & Noble, Inc, New York, 1967

Norman, Barbara, "Tales of the Table: A History of Western Cuisine", Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972

Rickert, Edith, "The Babeesı Book: Medieval manners for the Young: Done into modern English from Dr, Furnivallıs texts", Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., New York, 1966

Sim, Alison, "Food and Feast, in Tudor England", Sutton Publishing, Great Britain,1997

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham, "Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789",  The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983



Copyright 2004 by Lanpheir Taylor, 1831 Edna, Arlington, TX. 76010. <willowdewisp at juno.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org