Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Medieval Gems for Writers: Manners in the Middle Ages

One of the more common myths about the middle ages was that people had no manners.  To illustrate, several years ago my wife and I attended a medieval style banquet at The Excalibur, in Las Vegas.  We ate whole chickens with our hands.  For drink I had a large tankard of root-beer.  We were told to throw our garbage on the floor or leave it on the tables.  It was fun, but it left me wondering how much of it was true.

Did people in the middle ages really eat like pigs?

Well it turns out that they didn’t, and there’s ample proof, too.  The diligent scholar can find lists of manners and customs from many different ages.  Apparently books on courtesy were popular during the later middle ages (I can just imagine being invited to the prince’s ball, or somesuch, and having to read up on how to behave myself).

The first two quotes in this blog post come from a book I ran across several years ago, online.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I’ve managed to find it again.  The book’s title is fairly long.  It starts out: Early English Meals and Mananers: John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, etc, etc, etc.  It’s a compilation of several works from a much earlier date.

If you’re feeling bold, you can find the book here.

The first section that I’ll quote is titled, The Boke of Curtasye.  It was printed circa 1460, at the height of the high Middle Ages (this is the time-period that most fantasy writers are interested in).  Both Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci would have been alive.  


The whole thing was written in Middle English, in the form of a poem, and was typeset in black-letter making it very difficult to read for anyone but the serious scholar. The text that I’ve quoted below is from a modern English translation, which can be found in the margins. Here are the first few lines, roughly translated:
Who so will of courtesy learn
In this book he may it here!
If thou be gentleman, yeoman, or knave,
Thou needs nurture for to have.
Not sure what any of that means. Apparently people have struggled more than 500 years to come up with good rhymes. Here is the margin translation:
On reaching a Lord's gate, give the Porter your weapon, and ask leave to go in.
If the master is of low degree, he will come to you; if of high, the Porter will take you to him.
At the Hall-door, take off your hood and gloves.
If the first meal is beginning, greet the Steward, bow to the Gentlemen on each side of the hall, both right and left; notice the yeomen, than stand before the screen till the Marshal or Usher leads you to the table.
Be sedate and courteous if you are set with the gentleman.
Cut your loaf in two, the top from the bottom; cut the top crust in 4, and the bottom in 3.
Put your trencher before you, and don't eat or drink till your Mess is brought from the kitchen, lest you be thought starved or a glutton.
Have your nails clean.
Don't bite your bread, but break it.
Don't quarrel at table, or make grimaces.
Don't cram your cheeks out with food like an ape, for if any one should speak to you, you can't answer, but must wait.
Don't eat on both sides of your mouth.
Don't laugh with your mouth full, or sup up your potage noisily.
Don't leave your spoon in the dish or on its side, but clean your spoon.
Let no dirt off your fingers soil the cloth.
Don't put into the dish bread that you have once bitten.
Dry your mouth before you drink.
Don't call for a dish once removed, or spit on the table: that's rude.
Don't scratch your dog.
If you blow your nose, clean your hand; wipe it with your skirt or put it through your tippet.
Don't pick your teeth at meals, or drink with food in your mouth, as you may get choked, or killed, by its stopping your wind.
Tell no tale to harm or shame your companions.
Don't stroke the cat or dog.
Don't dirty the table cloth with your knife.
Don't blow on your food, or put your knife in your mouth, or wipe your teeth or eyes with the table cloth.
If you sit by a good man, don't put your knee under his thigh.
Don't hand your cup to any one with your back towards him.
Don't lean on your elbow, or dip your thumb into your drink, or your food into the salt cellar: Thant is a vice.
Don't spit in the basin you wash in or loosely(?) before a man of God.
This list is amazing. Don’t cram your mouth like an ape. Don’t double-dip. Don’t pick your teeth. Don’t get the table cloth dirty. You can’t even put your elbows on the table (makes sense if you’ve ever been crammed in next to someone who does). My favorite is, don’t put your knee under someone else’s thigh—that would make anyone uncomfortable.

The second list that I’ll quote comes from the same compilation. This section is titled, On Rising, Diet, and Going to Bed (from Sir John Darington’s ‘Schoole of Salerne,’ The Perserbation of Health, or a Dyet for the Healthfull Man). It is dated 1624, which places it in that grey area between the high middle ages and the renaissance.
On rising, empty your bladder and belly, nose and lungs.
Cleanse your whole body.
Say your Prayers.
Walk gently, go to stool.
Work in the forenoon.
Always wear a precious stone in a ring; hold a crystal in your mouth; for the virtue of precious stones is great.
Eat only twice a day.
Don't drink between dinner and supper.
Don't have one fixed hour for your meals.
In Winter eat in hot, well-aired places.
Fast for a day now and then.
Eat more at supper than dinner.
After meals, wash your face, and clean your teeth, chat and walk soberly.
Don't sit up late.
Before bed, rub your body gently.
Undress by a fire in Winter, and warm your garments well.
Put off your cares with your clothes, and take them up again in the morning.
Finally, I have to mention The Babees’ Book or A Little Report of How Young People Should Behave. This work dates to about 1475. It is several pages long, and written in a patronizing style as if the reader were a young child (a “babee”, as it were). I’ll include a portion of it here, so you get the idea:
Now must I tell you shortly what you shall do at noon when your lord goes to his meat. Be ready to fetch him clear water, and some of you hold the towel for him until he has done, and leave not until he be set down, and ye have heard grace said. Stand before him until he bids you sit, and be always ready to serve him with clean hands.
When ye be set, keep your own knife clean and sharp, that so ye may carve honestly your own meat.
Let courtesy and silence dwell with you, and tell no foul tales to another.
Cut your bread with your knife and break it not. Lay a clean trencher before you, and when your pottage is brought, take your spoon and eat quietly; and do not leave your spoon in the dish, I pray you.
Look ye be not caught leaning on the table, and keep clear of soiling the cloth.
Do not hang your head over your dish, or in any wise drink with full mouth.
Keep from picking your nose, your teeth, your nails at meal-time so we are taught.
Advise you against taking so much meat into your mouth but that ye may right well answer when men speak to you.
When ye shall drink, wipe your mouth clean with a cloth, and your hands also, so that you shall not in any way soil the cup, for then shall none of your companions be loath to drink with you.
Likewise, do not touch the salt in the salt-cellar with any meat; but lay salt honestly on your trencher, for that is courtesy.
Do not carry your knife to your mouth with food, or hold the meat with your hands in any wise; and also if divers good meats are brought to you, look that with all courtesy ye assay of each; and if your dish be taken away with its meat and another brought, courtesy demands that ye shall let it go and not ask for it back again.
And if strangers be set at table with you, and savoury meat be brought or sent to you, make them good cheer with part of it, for certainly it is not polite when others be present at meat with you, to keep all that is brought you, and like churls vouchsafe nothing to others.
Do not cut your meat like field-men who have such an appetite that they reck [sic] not in what wise, where or when or how ungoodly they hack at their meat; but, sweet children, have always your delight in courtesy and in gentleness, and eschew boisterousness with all your might.
When cheese is brought, have a clean trencher, on which with a clean knife ye may cut it; and in your feeding look ye appear goodly, and keep your tongue from jangling, for so indeed shall ye deserve a name for gentleness and good governance, and always advance yourself in virtue.
When the end of the meal is come, clean your knives, and look you put them up where they ought to be, and keep your seat until you have washed, for so wills honesty.
When ye have done, look then that ye rise up without laughter or joking or boisterous word, and go to your lord s table, and there stand, and pass not from him until grace be said and brought to an end.

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