During the high medieval times, Europe came into contact with the Islamic East through the Crusades. This contact with alien culture sparked a new interest in exotic and beautiful objects and elegant manners and had a deep impact on the cultural life of Europe.
Just like every other domain of life, the new manners also impacted the eating habits and gave rise to magnificent feasts and medieval banquets. In the upper classes of society, it became a norm to arrange grand banquets with an extensive choice of foods available.
Although only small portions of food were consumed, it was nonetheless customary to have as much variety as possible on the table.
Significance of Medieval Banquets
During the medieval times, food and dining habits were considered a symbol of social class and one of the aspects that distinguished upper classes from the lowers ones.
Thus it was customary for nobles to dine on fresh game which was seasoned with exotic spices out of the reach of the common people. Etiquette were an important part of the medieval banquets since manners were one of the most important things that bore the mark of the social class.
During the early and middle medieval times, large medieval banquets were confined to the nobility and the clergy, that is, the upper classes of society. However, during the late medieval times, as the middle class grew wealthier, they started imitating the manners of the upper classes and the culture of medieval banquets became more widespread.
15th century French medieval banquet
Composition of a Medieval Banquet
The operation of the kitchen preparing for a medieval banquet was quite elaborate. Squires of the kitchen were mainly responsible for procuring the necessary provisions for food.
These provisions were chosen and purchased by an appointed official who worked together with the cooks. The banquet of feast was generally conducted in the Great Hall of the castle.
Food, after being prepared, was placed on the dresses in the kitchen until the time it was to be served. In the Great Hall, the most distinguishing element was the Great Table, which was set on a dais and was generally reserved for people of highest ranks.
It was also customary to wash the hands of the guests at the entrance of the Great Hall, before the start of the medieval banquet.
Medieval Banquets and Buffets
An important element of a medieval banquet, particularly the royal feasts, was the buffet a term that has continued to exist in today’s world, although its connotation has changed to some extent.
During the medieval times, the terms buffets was used for a series of wooden planks that contained a number of stepped shelves. The significance of the shelves was that their number indicated the rank.
Thus wooden planks with more shelves were reserved for people of higher ranks and distinction. These stepped buffets were considered an essential component of medieval banquets and feasts.
It was a norm to use the finest plates of gold and server during the buffets and feasts which, again, signified class distinction and social status.
Medieval Banquets during the Reign of William the Conqueror
Medieval banquets were particularly magnificent and elaborate among the royalty, with the royal feasts acting as a symbol of grand status of the kings.
During the reign of William the Conqueror, from 1066 to 1087, a trestle table was used in royal feasts, although it was reserved for the king. An interesting aspect of these medieval banquets was the use of square shaped stale breads as plates.
These plates were called trencher and, at the end of the banquets, were given as alms to the poor. The top table was reserved for the king and the chosen few who he deemed worthy of sitting beside him.
The King’s food was cooked separately and it was considered a great honour if the king sometimes chose to give out food to a guest from his plate.
Tablecloths had elaborately embroidered linen and plates and cups of gold and silver were used. Important elements of the food served in medieval banquets included game birds, fish, turbot, and venison.
14th century medieval banquet in an English Castle
Medieval Banquets during the Reign of Edward IV
During the late medieval times, when Edward IV ruled Britain, the manners of medieval banquets and royal feasts became more elaborate.
The servants who exclusively served the king during these banquets were called servants of honour and were senior in rank than other servants.
As the custom went, the top table was reserved for the king and his chosen guests, with the most honoured ones sitting on the right of the king. Fine wines were reserved for people of distinction while ale was served to the rest of the guests.
An interesting part of these medieval banquets was dramatic performances which were enacted between the stages of service. The usual time of this medieval banquet was 11am and it could go on for hours.
Medieval Banquets in France
Just like the manners and etiquette on the tables, the kinds of food served during the medieval banquet were also impressive in range and type. There were usually four to six courses during each banquet.
Food included roasted meat, sweet dishes of various forms, wines, and other components.
For instance, the great feast given by Count of Anjou, third son of King Louis II of Sicily, in 1455 contained goat meat, goslings, roasted chickens and pigeons, young rabbits, herons, leveret, red and white jelly, cream covered with fennel seeds, cheese in slices, strawberries, a pig, a row-deer, a sturgeon, and various other dishes.
This was just one example of a grand medieval banquet or feast given by a count which indicates the lavishness of dining habits during the medieval times.
Customs of Medieval Banquets
During the medieval times, the hierarchical nature of society and class distinction was strictly adhered to. Medieval banquets were an essential component of this class consciousness.
In medieval banquets where people from the lower ranks were present among the nobility, they were expected to help the people from the higher ranks.
A peculiar feature of these banquets was that the practice of shared drinking cups was rather common, although not at the high table. People from the nobility often hired professionals to prepare and serve food during the major banquets.