Precedence, table manners and courtesy
held together the fabric of society. When you are likely to be present
at court it is vital to know how to doff ones cap and bow to those of
superior status and those of lower. Anyone approaching the king must do
so with a triple set of bows and remain kneeling until bidden to rise.
When you eat without a fork you must come to table with immaculately manicured
fingernails, and those whose lowlier status obliges them to “share
a mess” with one or two fellows must not offend them by the way
he takes and eats his food. As the middle ages give way to the renaissance,
royalty and nobles increasingly take their meals in a private chamber
but for major feasts or important visitors the older tradition of dining
in hall is kept. Here is the “high table” on its raised dais,
highly honoured guests are placed “above” and slightly lesser
ones “below the salt”. If you don’t qualify for the
high table you hope to be seated on the “reward”. Meanwhile
the ewerer will wash hands, the carver must know the proper procedure
and nomenclature for dismembering every kind of flesh, fish or fowl where
an immense variety of meats from peacock to dolphin may appear at table.
The butler provides the wine and ale, the pantler the bread – fine
white manchets with the coveted “upper crust” for the noblest;
wholemeal bread for the rest. Wheaten bread of all kinds is valued: poorer
folk must content themselves with rye or barley bread, oatcakes, even
loaves of milled pulses in hard times. Even in its alfresco picnic mood,
correct etiquette is still observed at all times, not just mealtimes.