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 eating habits and gave rise to medieval banquets.
Medieval banquets and medieval feasts were very similar celebrations and both involved plenty of eating, drinking, and celebration, however, medieval banquets were generally considered to be more formal, important meetings of large groups of important people that marked very significant events.
Feasts where more common informal celebrations of lesser events such as birthdays, with the emphasis on eating and drinking and having a good time!
Banquets were elaborate and formal meals for many people and were commonly celebrations of important occasions. Commonly held to celebrate important events and were usually formal affairs that followed a set protocol.
Banquets were commonly given in honour of a special occasion such as an important ecclesiastical feast day, like the Christian holiday of Pentecost which is celebrated on the 50th day from Easter Sunday, and New Year which is celebrated at the end of each year.
Other Important events such as the coronation of a newly crowned king, the visitation of a very important foreign dignitary, the celebration of a newly knighted Squire, or following an important tournament were also worthy reasons for a medieval banquet to be arranged
In the upper classes of medieval society, it became a norm to arrange grand banquets with an extensive choice of foods available, it was customary to have as much variety as possible on the table.
During medieval times, medieval food and dining habits were considered a symbol of social class and one of the aspects that distinguished the upper classes from the lowers ones.
Thus it was customary for nobles to dine on fresh meats such as game which was seasoned with exotic spices that were out of the reach of the common people.
The main difference between the food of the lower classes and that of royalty and nobility was the amount of meat that the upper classes ate compared to the lower classes, these included pork, beef and duck, pigeons, and other wild birds such as partridges and pheasants and sometimes very unusual birds such as swan, more exotic meats could also be sourced from abroad.
Royalty and Nobility were fond of hunting for their own food on the vast areas of land belonging to them, using trained hunting dogs and falcons in their hunt for wild animals such as boar, rabbit, and hares.
Etiquette was an important part of medieval banquets since manners were one of the most important things that bore the mark of the social classes and raised them above the common folk.
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.
The operation of the kitchen preparing for a medieval banquet was quite elaborate, the head cook of the kitchen was 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 the feast was generally conducted in the Great Hall of the castle. Food after being prepared was placed on dressers 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 the highest ranks such as the King and other important nobles.
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 were particularly elaborate and magnificent amongst royalty, with the royal feasts acting as a symbol of the 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 bread as plates.
These plates were called a trencher and, at the end of the banquets, were given as alms (gifts 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 honor if the king sometimes chose to give out food to a guest from his plate.
Tablecloths of elaborately embroidered linen and plates and cups of gold and silver were also used. Important elements of the food served in medieval banquets included game birds, fish, turbot, and venison during this period of Norman rule.
During the late medieval times, when Edward IV ruled Britain, the manners of medieval banquets and royal feasts became more elaborate. Servants who exclusively served the king during these banquets were called servants of honor and were more 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 honored ones sitting on the right-hand side 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 each stage of the service.
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 is decribed as including:
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.
During 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, the medieval period structure was of course governed by the feudal system.