THE BLOG

Dining at Court in the Fifteenth Century

02/14/2015 06:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

I have written before on the clothes worn during the time of my trilogy, the first half of 15th century in France; the tall, conical shaped headdresses worn by the ladies with veils floating from their tips; the little padded pillows under their dresses to give the fashionable "rounded look" to their stomachs; the long pointed sleeves hanging almost to the ground often edged with fur, and the men's "hose" - what we call tights today - often with either leg in a different color. Such courtiers may remind us of Walt Disney's characters living in moated castles with round pointed roofs and shuttered windows - but what did they eat and how?

Forks, we know, came into common usage in the later sixteenth century in France and are wrongly attributed to Catherine de' Medici's arrival from Italy in 1533. They were in use at the court of France during the reign of her third son to become king, Henry III. However, already one hundred years earlier, forks made of gold with carved ivory handles, as well as spoons adorned with precious stones were listed among the possessions of King Charles V of France, also among those of his brother Jean of Berry whose dukedom Chares VII, the King of France in my trilogy, inherited. Although not in regular usage among the aristocracy, it is quite possible that such exquisite items were brought into France by merchants from an Italian court or the Orient.

Jacques Coeur, the great merchant and the subject of the third book in my Anjou Trilogy, most certainly had golden forks and spoons with beautifully carved handled, as well as enamelled and filigree cups at the great mansion he built in Bourges, capital of Berry. During the time of my Anjou Trilogy, the wealthy nobles of the day liked to display inordinate luxury at their high table. Their Great Hall, the largest room in their castle, is where they entertained and the sumptuousness of these feasts is hard to imagine today. At the start of each new reign, sumptuary laws were passed by the monarch in an attempt to curb absurd extravagance but with little success. During the reign of Charles VII's father, the "mad" King Charles VI, the royal court, and especially his Queen Isabeau indulged in what was described as "frenetic prodigality". It was only during the later reign of Louis XIV that nobles left their country estates and came to live at court, principally the court of Versailles. Until that time, the nobility would demonstrate their great wealth in their country châteaux, luxuriously entertaining their numerous guests to weeks of tournaments, hunts, great feasts, dances and entertainments. Such events were announced well in advance for the guests to prepare their own elaborate attire and that of their retinue, and for the host to do the same.

This was still the time of chivalry, and tournaments were an occasion for the host to display splendid organization alongside entertainment. A time for guests to arrive in tremendous style with large retinues and a train of carts bringing their own finery for the duration of several weeks. Local mansions would house the less important guests, but all those invited would be entertained in the principal Great Hall of the host's castle. There the walls would be hung with tapestries featuring scenes from the many known romances of chivalry. There were no carpets on the stone floors - these would be laid neatly with rushes, sometimes woven - and flowers and herbs which would give off fragrant scents when crushed by the feet of guests and servants. Across the centre of the dining hall there would be a large table and opposite, at the other end of the room, an equally large buffet or sideboard, sometimes three in a row. Their purpose was to display the wealth of the host - one for his silver dishes, basins and vases, often chased and enriched with precious stones; a second for his silver-gilt and the third for his vessels of gold. These sideboards often had shelves rising above them for an even greater display of vessels made of precious metals to glitter in the light shining from candelabra standing alongside them placed on stands as tall as a man.

The buffets themselves were made from rare woods and elaborately carved - sometimes hung with cloth of gold. Today these pieces of furniture are called armoire and can still be seen in some parts of the French countryside. Tablecloths were another source of adornment and extravagance, often extending the full length of the table and elaborately embroidered. Each guest would have in front of their place a plate of silver or beautifully enamelled metal and a drinking vessel - richly chased and embossed cups in various sizes, even a small one for liqueur.
Knives with elaborate handles were often rounded at the end to use as a kind of spoon after cutting the meat. Then there was the tradition of the placing of the salt-cellar leading to the expression of being seated "above or below the salt". Since the salt would be placed in front of the host, the proximity of a guest to it denoted his position in the host's esteem. The mustard pot - another item of rich decoration was either handed around by a member of staff or actually wheeled around the table from one guest to another on a small silver or gilt rack or in the shape of a small silver cart.

For light, pages would stand behind the seated guests holding gold or silver candelabra, and some were also placed on the table. At either end of the long table there were more vessels for show, but dishes were presented to each guest to serve themselves. For decoration down the centre of the high table, there would be large fountains from which, at the turn of a tap, wine would pour for drinking, or rose-water or orange-flower water for the delicious scent. These vessels would hold enough wine or scented water to last an entire meal. On top of the fountains there would be vases with flowers. As for wines, Beaune and Mâcon were already well-known and highly regarded, as were the wines of the Loire district but in winter, wines, probably of lesser quality, were often heated and infused with herbs. There was also clarette but this was a simple wine from the Bordeaux region mixed with honey. There was also a sparkling wine called vin d'Arbois which was a favourite. Music accompanied meals - the lute was popular and several wind instruments - even a sort of bag-pipe. To add to the entertainment at meals there was a jester whose profession it was to ensure jollity!

There were usually many different services on offer - several kinds of meat dishes: capons, gammon of bacon; broths and soups; roasted game birds: pheasants, partridges, peacocks, bitterns, herons, bustards, geese, woodcocks, swans, teal and any other that could be caught.
Large game and animals would be roasted at the spit in the kitchens: wild goats, harts, stags, and every kind of venison. Then pies would be served - tarts with a variety of fruit inside and cream or custard to add, as well as confections of every kind. Between these many services there would be a constant stream of entertainments - jugglers, mummers, actors dressed in extraordinary costumes - sometimes as if they were animals, two men making up the front and back of a horse with another on its "back" and jousting with others so dressed. Such feasts would last for hours with the guests dancing between some of the services.

To be the guest of a great lord in his castle was an honor reserved for notable visitors known to the host, but others would arrive with a letter of introduction from the king or queen or a member of their family or friends of the host. Such guests would be placed immediately above the salt and seated guests obliged to move further down. There were occasions when a guest took offense at being demoted below the salt, and should he become insulting, his host would have a herald cut the cloth in front of the guest and overturn his cup and his plate - a clear signal he had to leave! The consequences of insult given or taken could be dramatic and bloody!

Princess Michael is the author of several non-fiction histories and the acclaimed 'Anjou Trilogy', whose second Volume - 'Agnes Sorel, Mistress of Beauty' - is available now on Amazon and in all good bookshops.

On Amazon - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Agnès-Sorel-Princess-Michael-Kent-ebook/dp/B00LX8WCOU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1423952753&sr=8-2&keywords=agnes+sorel

For more information on Princess Michael, her lectures and essays, and The Anjoy Trilogy, see www.princessmichael.com