Friday, June 6, 2014

At the table in early medieval France

No etiquette books survive from the days of Clovis or Charlemagne and images of social life are rare. Yet scattered references, taken together, do provide some idea of what it was like to sit down at an early medieval table.

Before the reign of the Franks (Francia)

Like everything else in early France, eating customs were drawn from those of both the Germans and the Romans.

As usual, it is Tacitus who tells what little we know of the early Germans, whom he describes as sleeping late, then washing (“mostly in warm water, because the winter is so long”) and then eating at separate tables: “They then betake themselves to their meal, each on a separate seat, and at his own table.” They had no qualms about drinking: “To devote both day and night to deep drinking is a disgrace to no man.” A particularity of their meals, one not noted later, was that they also served as a prelude to councils: “Having finished their repast, they proceed completely armed to the dispatch of business, and frequently to a convivial meeting.” Being drunk was not an obstacle to raising issues, but decisions were saved for the next day: “When warm, they debate; when cool, they decide.”

Otherwise, descriptions of Germanic meals or feasts are rare. Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-489) describes “cauldrons crowned with fragrant garlands” (coronatos redolentia serta lebetas.) at a Frankish wedding. This was a suitably rustic touch in a Gallo-Roman description of Germans, though flowers would be found in Gallo-Roman decoration later as well.

For entertainment, at the least, poems were probably sung or recited. There had certainly been bards among the Gauls; Strabo describes them as a separate class, devoted to composing hymns; though he does not mention them at entertainments. Priscus shows two "barbarians" (probably Goths) singing praises to Attila in 448. Harris and Reichl: “The Greek and Latin references to Continental Germanic poetry leave no doubt that in the earliest traceable period, poetry was frequently sung or at least accompanied by the harp,” Aside from a number of later references (as in Beowulf) to bards singing with harps, their existence is attested by a sixth century, six stringed harp found at Trossingen in 2002.

Wirth (1873) gives interesting details on German music, though without naming his sources:
Already the Goths and Vandals accompanied themselves, in singing their epic poems, with the sound of the harp.... Beside this instrument, the Germans also knew the flute and the horn.... Song was in general usage; all the epic poems were sung; bards were accompanied by choirs accompanied by the people, to which was joined in certain places, it seems the sound of knocks in cadence on shields. Still this type of song was rude and wild; the Italians often complained about the bass voices of the Germans
He also adds: “There were theatrical shows at the courts of the Ostrogoth and Visigoth kings; buffooneries were played during the meals.” He also points out, reasonably, that the Church's later condemnation of pagan revelry shows how lively the latter could be.

Otherwise, Tacitus writes of the Germans that:
They have but one kind of show... at every gathering. Naked lads, who know the game, leap among swords and in front of spears. Practice gives cleverness, and cleverness grace; but it is not a trade or done for hire: however venturesome their sport the only payment is the delight of the crowd.

On the Gallo-Roman side, Apollinaris provides a rare description of a fine Roman table in Gaul – that of a man who held low senatorial rank. This apparently made him more “Roman” than Apollinaris who invites his friend to his own “Gallic” table as if it were rustic compared to that of his guest:
You will not be served fine dishes on tables covered with precious stones; the curved couch will not be covered with Assyrian purple, and I will not pile in the numerous cavities of a rich sideboard heaps of dull silver; you will not be offered a cup in sparkling metal, whose artfully worked handle circles its chiseled surface. The platters have nothing marvelous about them, and they are not even such that their size can make up for the absence of art. The rustic table of your Gallic friend will not offer you breads whose wheat has been gilded in the Syrtes of Libya; you will not drink wine from Gaza, nor Chio, nor Falernus, nor that of Sarepta.
Whatever Apollinaris (who was hardly poor) had to offer, his friend could serve the best imported wines – from Palestine (Gaza), Greece (Chio), Italy (Falernus) and Phoenicia (Sarepta) – and use Libyan wheat for bread.

The “curved couch” here was a sigma, named for its resemblance to that Greek letter, which resembles a C. Apollinaris leaves it understood that he too ate on one, though not as luxuriously decorated. Upscale Gallo-Romans were eating, as one would expect, while reclining, just like other Romans. This usage is said to have come to Rome from the East, but Adam also suggests that Romans had to lie down when dining because they typically came from the baths, where they also exercised. This was not only true in Rome itself, but all over the Empire; Cleary:
Baths were ubiquitous in the Roman world, at sites ranging from great centres such as Rome or Carthage, through almost all the major and minor towns of the empire, to rural villas and agricultural estates, to the fortresses and forts of the army, and to the stopping-points of the imperial communications network (the cursus publicus). Nowhere of any consequence lacked baths...
These had already helped civilize the “shaggy” Gauls:
In a set of baths such as the Forum Baths of Saint-Bertrand, a shaggy Gaul would go in, and out would come an approximation of a Roman, cleaned by the sweating, perfumed by the oils used in bathing, clean-shaven and barbered...., draped in some form of Roman provincial dress
But, says Adam, “The custom of reclining took place only at supper. There was no formality at other meals. Persons took them alone or in company, either standing or sitting.” 

Apollinaris' description of his friend's table was modest compared to what he describes in a poem improvised (supposedly) for the emperor Majorian (reigned 457-461), probably in Arles. He describes a round table covered with linen
whiter than snow; crown it with laurel, ivy and green vine shoots. Flowers of laburnum, saffron, and starwort, rosemary, privet, marigolds, fill large baskets and with your fragrant garlands cover the armoires and couches. Let a hand perfumed by sap of balsam tame our disordered hair, and the thick smoke of Arabian incense rise to the peak of the house's roof. And soon, when night falls, let numerous chandeliers be lit high in the arches under brilliant paneling, and let the lamps with swollen bellies, knowing nothing of viscous oil and fat, cover us only with Oriental balm.
Note that even in this elegant Roman setting, flowers play a key role in the decoration.

(The Roman supper was served in a triclinium, named for the three couches set around the table. The term is still found later, but meaning in a general way a dining room.)

Apollinaris also gives a glimpse of festivities at the end of the Empire, involving ample participation by the guests themselves:
It is agreeable, in light rounds, to give oneself up to a mad play of our tired limbs, and to imitate the Maenads in our stumbling steps, in our clothes, in our voices. Let superb Corinth, seated between two seas, send us its learned musicians, its skilled harp players, whose harmonious fingers, while they accompany their song, make the strings sound as the bow makes the violin speak.
Though descriptions of Roman dining abound, these are rare glimpses of fine dining in Gaul itself. Otherwise, Adam, referencing a variety of classical sources, gives this overview of Roman entertainments at meals:
In the time of supper the guests were entertained with music and dancing, sometimes with pantomimes and play-actors with fools and buffoons, and even with gladiators; but the more sober had only persons to read or repeat select passages from books (anagnostae vel acroamata). Their highest pleasure at entertainments arose from agreeable conversation.
Much of this would be found in later medieval meals.


We would not today think of baths in association with dining, nor Roman decadence with the Franks. But the Franks took over a country still filled with thermes (hot baths) and given the German custom of washing before eating the Roman custom of bathing before meals must have seemed natural enough.

In his biography of Radegund, Fortunatus mentions the thermes in her husband, Clothar I's, palace; no doubt other Frankish kings had them as well. Several centuries later, Charlemagne so loved bathing that he had his palace built near thermal springs.

While it is likely that these royal Franks followed the Roman custom of bathing before dining, the one specific reference to this regards members of the clergy; that is, people who were probably of Gallo-Roman culture. Gregory (c. 538 – 594) tells of two hard-living bishops who fell asleep, drunk, at dawn, woke at nine (the "third hour of the day"), took a bath and then sat down to eat until the evening.

Bathing was hardly universal and the connection with dining probably faded with the centuries. But it lasted longer than one might have expected under the Franks.

Washing hands
An enduring custom in a time when people still ate with their hands was to wash them before the meal. When one of Theoderic's officers offered St. Portianus (d. 533) pure wine (merum) and asked him to wash his hands, he was effectively inviting him to dine; Portien refused his hospitality on the pretext that it was not yet meal time.
Gregory shows King Gontram (reigned 561 - 592) roundly chastising two bishops at a meal and then “as the latter stayed silent, the king washed his hands, received the bishops' blessings, and sat down at the table with a cheerful face and an open manner, as if he had said nothing of his complaints.”
This seems to have been done even for brief refreshments or ceremonies. After a long attempt by Gregory to convert a Jewish man, Chilperic asks for his blessing and orders that water be brought “for the hands” (aquam manibus porrigi jubet). Gregory then washes his hands, takes bread, gives thanks to God, and offers some bread to the king, before drinking wine and taking his leave. This breaking of bread was part of giving a blessing and still held in Charlemagne's time:
Once he asked a bishop for his blessing and he thereupon, after blessing the bread, partook of it first himself and then wanted to give it to the most honourable Charles: who, however, said to him: "You may keep all the bread for yourself"; and much to the bishop's confusion he refused to receive his blessing.
It does not seem however that it was considered rude in earlier times for the priest (in this case Gregory) to first take the bread himself.

The right to present the cloth used to dry the hands to a superior was considered an honor, as in the life of Austregilus (d. 624): “He was very pleasing to the king, and beloved of all his comrades in arms, so much that he himself offered the towel with which the king was accustomed to washing his hands; and from this he was called Mapparius.”

A napkin (mappa) at this point was probably mainly for washing and drying the hands, as above. Note that Austreligus handed the king his towel at the proper moment; more typically others of any rank would probably have gotten them from servants (or possibly inferiors in rank). Napkins as a ready part of a table setting were a long way off.

How did people – not yet using forks – keep their hands clean during the meal itself? It may be that servants stood ready to bring more water or it may simply be that, eating with their hands, they expected these to be at least slightly unclean until the end of the meal. In eighteenth century England, diners were still using the edge of the tablecloth itself to clean their hands. (Linguet) Terence Scully and others have suggested something similar in the late medieval period, using runners along the edge of the tablecloth: “The main cloth was, in French, the nappe, and the sanitary cloth was properly the longiere or 'runner'; the modern English napkin seems to derive its sense from this use.” (Bouts' “Alterpiece of the Holy Sacrament” (1464-68) shows such a runner.) The original word, however, (longière) is uncertain in meaning and at any rate is rare even in that later period. Nothing records a similar practice in this earlier period, though a tenth century image from the Codex Egberti does show a table with a separate surface from the hanging folds around the sides, which might arguably have been used for this purpose.

Typically such passages only refer to cleaning the hands, but Fortunatus shows Radegund cleaning both the hands and mouths of the poor to whom she served food: 'When they were gathered around the table and the dinner service laid out, she brought water and napkins for each of them and cleaned the mouth and hands of the invalids herself."

Did this mean simply giving them water to wash out their mouths (in which case they may have spit it out on the ground)? For cleaning the mouth later in meals, the Romans had already had toothpicks of lentisc wood, or sometimes used quills for the same purpose. In a more simple vein, Gregory tells of a man who “made a sharp point on a stick such as people often use to clean the teeth”. But Fortunatus' reference here is a very rare one to cleaning the mouth before eating.


Beyond the washing of hands, no ceremonial is mentioned even for kings in early medieval accounts. But by Charlemagne's time, this had become established, even for Charlemagne, whose preference over all was to live simply. A bishop was unwise enough to criticize Charlemagne's taking his one Lenten meal at the eighth hour (roughly two o'clock, though it varied with the season). The emperor invited him to refrain from eating until all the palace officers had been fed.
Now while Charles was eating he was waited upon by dukes and rulers and kings of various peoples; and when his banquet was ended then those who served him fed and they were served by counts and prefects and nobles of different ranks. And when these last had made an end of eating then came the military officers and the scholars of the palace: then the chiefs of the various departments of the palace; then their subordinates, then the servants of those servants. So that the last comers did not get a mouthful of food before the middle of the night.
The bishop was thus made to understand that Charles ate his Lenten meal early out of consideration for others.

Note in the above something often found later in the Middle Ages: people of rank served people of higher rank. Typically, it was considered an honor to do so.


The Franks typically sat down to eat. Gregory: “At the banquet, as we were seated together.” (Ad convivium, dum pariter sederemus.) They sat on either stools or, more often, benches – bancs, hence, "banquet". In one grisly episode, Fredegund, tired of trying to get three Franks to stop quarreling, had them all seated on the same bench during dinner, then, once dinner was done and they were all drunk, had them killed from behind with axes.

Benches could be covered with rugs; Gregory recounts Waddon's anger at finding his orders to cover his benches had been ignored. This may have been decorative but in winter months would also have served to warm them somewhat.

The Roman custom of reclining still continued in some higher circles; Gregory also writes of a man “then reclining at the table”. (Erat autem convivio recumbens.)

Gregory may be the only writer too to note another custom: in a modest Gallo-Roman household, the husband, having put out chairs for two priests, then sets the “stool on which his spouse was to sit.” (sellula, in qua conjux ejus resideret,)


In the anecdote above, the three intended victims stayed on their bench after “the tables were carried off according to the custom of the Franks”. These were probably, as they would be in later centuries, boards on trestles. Among Gallo-Romans, however, tables remained fixed, and they could still be decorated with flowers. Fortunatus goes on at some length about one:
See this quantity of brilliant flowers which smiles upon you pleasantly. The country barely offers as many roses as this table. The milky white lilies stand out there on a purple background, and the one like the other embalm this place with their fresh perfumes. It is on this ground dripping with dew that the dishes are set out. Why do roses cover what the tablecloth usually does? It is that a table without a tablecloth, but with varied and fragrant flowers in its place, must be more pleasing. On the walls carpeted with garlands of ivy, and where masses of roses spill forth their splendor, one no longer sees the chalk with which they are daubed. Such is the richness of the decor offered by these gracious flowers, one would think the fields to green even under roofs.
(This passage is sometimes interpreted as meaning the table itself was decorated with inlaid flowers, despite the mention of fragrance.) Note that, in the midst of all this exuberant floral decoration, Fortunatus mentions a tablecloth as otherwise being standard in the time.

Frankish and Gallo-Roman tables then remained somewhat different, at least in these earlier centuries.

Finally, though meals were typically held at tables, Gregory mentions one informal presentation when, summoned by Chilperic I (reigned 561 – 584), he finds him standing next to a bower made of tree branches with, before him, a bench laden with bread and various dishes. Such a “coffee table” presentation was probably not rare among the highly mobile Franks.


Fortunatus shows Radegund cutting up food for the poor and feeding some with a spoon:
Then three trays laden with delicacies would be carried in. Standing like a good hostess before the diners, she cut up the bread and meat and served everyone while fasting herself. Moreover, she never ceased to offer food to the blind and weak with a spoon.
In the late medieval period, food was cut up in great households before being served, but it is rare to see such an early mention of the practice. Nor is it clear if she was doing for the poor what was normally done for the better-off or just being particularly attentive. But the practice made sense in a time when people had fewer implements and largely ate with their hands.

Fortunatus also provides an idea of what constituted a basic setting. When Radegund served food to the poor, she made sure they had plates, spoons, little knives, small cups, drink and goblets. Forks, found fitfully among Roman utensils, would not appear at French tables until well after the medieval period.

Nor were spoons necessarily common at simpler tables. Certainly some spoons were expensive, valuable enough to be left in wills. St. Remy famously left spoons in his will engraved with his name (cochlearia, tria quae meo nomine sunt titulata). This custom already existed under the Gallo-Romans:
The custom of inscribing names on silverware, a custom which seems to have prevailed in Christian families of the fourth and fifth centuries, was practiced simultaneously and alternately with that which consisted of printing on domestic utensils all sorts of images, symbols or signs of the religion of Christ.
Spoons have been found near Bordeaux which bear inscriptions, such as a phrase, a cross or the owner's name. But Gallo-Roman spoons (of different sizes) have also been found decorated with ornaments, but not engraved.

These examples all show spoons as precious objects. But one of the priests invited by Gregory's Gallo-Roman couple uses a spoon in their modest household. This was unlikely to have been of silver, though it might have been of iron. Poorer diners might also have used wooden spoons, but these would not typically have survived.

Another option might simply to have grabbed a twig or a leaf. Anthimus (early 6th c.) was theoretically writing for a king in northeastern Gaul, but in describing a dish of beaten egg whites, he says to eat them with a spoon or “a new growth”. The Latin term for the latter – novella – typically means “new”, but in one very rare case refers to young grape vines. (Suckau) He seems to be suggesting that those without spoons can eat this with either the grape leaves themselves or with a vine or a twig. This is a reasonable enough idea; apes in nature use twigs to eat from termite hills. Both Virgil and Pliny write of skimming the foam off defrutum using leaves. As practical an idea as it is, however, no one but Anthimus records anything similar in the period.


Food and entertainment have long been associated, as shown above with both the Germans and the Romans. This was as true in the early medieval era, even if the entertainments changed somewhat.

Even in a poem on Easter, the pleasure-loving Fortunatus describes the music at a feast:
When I hear the babbling of the cithara, and strings of the lyre modulate gracious airs; when I see brass instruments give forth pleasant song, and finally the Pan pipe charm the ears, I want as well, though I am only a stupid guest received among you, my mute pipe to speak.
(Though he does go on rather unexpectedly to speak of “thousands of unfortunates consumed by tears” and of St. Martin and even Gregory (of Tours), his friend.)

Consider by the way that a number of Fortunatus' poems are on meals or other celebrations. An Italian, he found entree among the French elite because of his skill with words. In a time before television or recorded music, he was probably considered in the same light as, if not a rock, at least a minor pop star. His work can in a sense be considered an heir to the improvisations of a Gallo-Roman like Apollinaris, which gave such pleasure to an emperor.

In a secular context, even religious music or readings could serve as entertainment. When Gregory was dining with King Gontram,
Toward the middle of the meal, the king ordered me have my deacon, who, the evening of the mass, had said the responses to the psalms, to sing. As the deacon sang, the king ordered me to have all the priests present sing before him, assigning each the part which was part of his task. I passed the king's orders on to the priests, and each sang as he could the response to the psalms.
Food was then brought in on silver plate (confiscated from Mummol), probably for the main service.

Gregory also tells of Merovechus asking him to read to him while they were seated at the table. Centuries later, Charlemagne liked to hear readings while he ate:
During the meal there was either singing or a reader for him to listen to. Histories and the great deeds of men of old were read to him. He took delight also in the books of Saint Augustine, and especially in those which are entitled the City of God.
The Germanic bards had not disappeared and in fact in some areas this may have been their heyday. In the life of St. Ludger (742-809), while he and his disciples were eating in Frisia: “a blind man was presented, whose name was Bernlef, who was much loved very much by his neighbors, because he was affable, and knew well the acts of the ancient kings, singing [psallendo] of their struggles [to a harp]”. Psallendo can refer to either accompanying oneself on a harp or simply chanting; but the Frisian law specifically refers to those who play harps (and fines anyone who hits them the same as for a goldsmith, a quarter more than usual), so it is likely that this bard played a harp. (Anderson) This custom then endured among the more Germanic groups.

One activity one does not find – except in the Church's condemnation of it – is the kind of dancing mentioned by Apollinaris (or for that matter any other physical activity). This still had a pagan association, even if Fortunatus briefly writes of a vision of “sacred dances”. This silence in the written record does not necessarily mean that dancing did not exist in some circles, but it was not, in these early centuries, something to be written down. Otherwise, song, recitations, readings and instrumental music all had their place at various tables.

The early French table

As thin as all this data is, it does give a rounded, if not complete, picture of dining in early medieval France. Some continued to bathe before eating, at least in earlier centuries. Washing hands was, and would long remain, a prelude to any decent meal. In some cases, so was cleaning one's mouth. Napkins were mainly used as part of the initial washing, but were only offered as needed.

People sat on chairs, benches or stools, often covered with rugs, and at tables which might be removed after the meal or might be, as today, regular furnishings of the dining room. In some circles, the Roman habit of dining while reclining on one's side continued.

Tables might be covered with cloth, but also decorated with flowers, which for a long time were the most distinctive decorations. The typical settings were of a spoon, possibly a knife and drinking vessels of one or more kinds, and a plate. The latter might be of multiple materials, as might the serving vessels. Spoons might be luxurious and engraved, or simple. It is possible that people – probably the poor - also used improvised utensils, such as twigs or leaves.

Entertainment might consist of reading, recitations, singing, or instrumental music. Dancing, at least officially, disappeared for some time. Probably comedy and theater did as well, as the Church, struggling to wipe out paganism, took a strict stance on diversions which later would again become standard.


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