|At the head table, the most important people sat in the middle, at center stage as it were, and the lesser people toward either end.|
In Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, at great formal banquets, both the diners and the dinner were the show. The host and his special guests would sit along one side of the table set at the head of the great hall of the castle. This allowed the other diners to view the actions of the great and powerful. At the head table, the most important people sat in the middle, at center stage as it were, and the lesser people toward either end. At some point down the table were placed great salt holders, or salt cellars. This evolved into a natural delineation of status among the diners at the head table. One was either above the salt, that is, close to the important people, or below the salt, with the "hoi polloi."
|The French made Burghley Nef salt cellar, circa 1527-1528. It is nautilus shell with parcel-gilt silver mounts, raised, chased, engraved and cast, and pearls, and is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The proximity to which the nef as a salt cellar was placed next to a guest was indicative of their status. Some nefs held not only salt, but expensive spices and even napkins. Nefs were a tour de force for silversmiths and consequently, highly desirable objects for royal and noble households.|
In accounts of medieval dinners a great deal of attention is paid to who sat where. The host sat in the middle of the "high table," so called because it was often placed on a platform. The table was set up on the stage so that the others could watch what their "betters" were doing and how they behaved. This custom is still followed today in some of the old college dining rooms at Cambridge University, England, and at public banquets.
The tables for the other diners were often placed at right angles to the main table. These diners were so far off the social scale, they did not merit being ranked as above or below the salt. Women were even further off the social scale. At first, the wives of the nobles when not even allowed at great banquets and were relegated to a spectators' gallery. Later, they were allowed to sit at the table in a group well below the salt.
Entertainments were given between the "mets," a medieval term for main course of the dinner. The entertainment might be short plays, songs by troubadours, animal acts, dancing, jesters, or juggling. Many dinners were for political show, and on really special occasions, pageants were performed. Several of these were so noteworthy that they are mentioned in some history books. One such dinner was the Banquet of the Vow of the Pheasant, given by the Duke of Burgundy in 1453.
Footman brought out a pheasant for each knight in attendance and placed before him. Each knight vowed by the pheasant and before God to abstain from whatever action his imagination conjured up-- to sleep in a bed, to change his clothes, and so on-- until Constantinople had been reconquered from the Ottoman Turks, who had captured it that year.
The vow created a sensation as Constantinople had been thought to be impregnable, and all Christians were humiliated and terrified of the idea of the city in Muslim hands.
Unfortunately for Christendom, the knights came to their senses in the days following the meal and did not try to take back Constantinople.
Guests were given light tidbits to eat while watching the shows. In time, such dishes came to be called "entremets," literally meaning "between the Mets." The dinner itself was full of pageantry to entertain and impress those in attendance. The food was brought in in a procession, often with flute players leading the way. The less important foods, called "entrees" came in and were laid out first, building up to the presentation of the piece de resistance, which might be a full roasted ox or a roasted pheasant with its skin and feathers still attached.
|A pheasant in flight, as opposed to on one's table.|
In time, kings and other nobility found it rather wearisome to be on display. They just wanted to eat with other important people, their friends and allies, in privacy. These intimate meals moved from the great hall to the lord's private living areas. The table changed from a long, relatively narrow strip of wood with seating on only one side, to a square or oblong table where people could sit on all sides. Status was still gained, however, by sitting close to the lord or other notables, and the women were grouped either at another table or the end of the table away from the host.
The wider tables allowed more food to be put on the table itself. This in turn permitted far greater displays of food. The table would almost crack under the weight of joints of meat, fish, fouls, and side dishes. With diners on all sides of the table, however, it was not possible to bring each dish in after people sat down. The table had to be largely set before the diners arrived, which meant that the food would get cold while the diners filed in to take their places. Essentially, the nobles gained the ability to talk and dine intimately with their companions at the expense of hot meals. This was not as great a loss as it might appear to us today.
|17th century Dutch, steel-bladed knife and steel-tined fork, with carved ivory handles.|
Up until the 19th century, the cooking area was always set well away from the main part of the house lest a cooking fire get out of control and burn everything down. Thus the food lost a good bit of heat while being carried to the dining room.
Over time, what it started out a small private meals grew into pageants in their own right. This came about in the 17th century, when absolute monarchs ruled most of Europe.
In keeping with the ethos of the era, every aspect of the king's life was made a display. Vast an elaborate meals were one way to assert power, wealth, and status, and they once again moved back into public view. But, this time, women fully participated as the bold innovation of alternating men and women at the dinner table took hold. This practice arrived in England from Holland in the 1600s and was known as the Dutch style of seating. The practice of alternating men and women at the dinner table, arrived in England from Holland in the 1600s and was known as the "Dutch" style of seating.
The last ingredient in the evolution of formal Victorian dining came about the early 1800's, as the combined weight of England and Russia was defeating the military genius of Napoleon. Ironically, even as the French were losing on the battlefield, they were about to emerge victorious on the culinary front. They developed a highly sophisticated culinary style, drawing in large part upon what they learned from the Italians.
|Catherine de Medici of Florence, the great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, married the future King of France, Henry II in 1533.|
Italian cooks and courtiers came to France in 1533 when fourteen year old Catherine de Medici of Florence, great granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, married the future King of France, Henry II. Their arrival helped transform French cooking and manners. New tastes and flavors were introduced, along with new dishes, such as sweetbreads, truffles, and artichoke hearts. Prior to this, the Italians had looked down on the French. It has been said that before Catherine's arrival, "all the French had was raw military power. Afterward, they were on their way to haute cuisine."
Some of this text and information comes from the book "Forgotten Elegance: The Art, Artifacts, and Peculiar History of Victorian and Edwardian Entertaining in America"