The term “medieval feast” probably brings to mind images of a King Henry VIII-type figure (even though he wasn’t medieval) chowing down on a turkey leg, then tossing the bones to the dogs and emitting unpleasant bodily noises. It amazes me that people understand the complex rules of courtly life, yet they think that medieval man was lacking in basic table manners. This is probably tied to the idea that medieval people were also lacking in education and general hygiene. Much of the information contained here ought to be common sense, since many conventions are the same as they are today, yet much of this information will probably be surprising to many readers.
Forks, if they were used at all, were used only for serving, and late in the period at that.  Fingers were the most common eating utensil, but this does not mean that people grabbed handfuls of food. To dip one’s fingers in sauces or quickly grab a handful of something was disgraceful.  For those expected to have good manners, only the first three fingers would carefully touch the food, and it was wrong to “put both hands into the dish.”  Obviously, hands were washed before eating.  Scratching or touching one’s ears, eyes, or nose while eating were forbidden.  Licking one’s fingers, likewise, was never polite.  Napkins were dictated to be used frequently to keep one’s mouth and hands clean , never for wiping away sweat or blowing one’s nose. 
Knives were the most common utensil, but they were not always provided by the host—in many places and times, each person would carry his own knife with him, which was expected to be impeccably cleaned.  Contrary to popular belief, this knife would not be used as a hunting knife, then carried, bloodied, to the dinner table. The knife would be used for nothing but eating, and this knife was not to be inserted in one’s mouth like a fork.  All food was to be cut with care—biting a chunk of meat was not polite.  Knives would often be shared.  Sometimes spoons would be shared as well, in which case, it would be carefully wiped before returning it to its dish.  As today, knives were never to be used as toothpicks. 
Dishes, as in what we would commonly call a “dinner plate,” were rare. A viral e-mail has stated that medieval diners used wooden trenchers that were often rotten from lack of cleaning and would lead to a disease named “trench mouth” in its honor. Wooden trenchers were a common dining implement, but like everything else, they were carefully cleaned. In early periods, a slice of bread was normally used as a plate. Trenchers were often shared between two people—in fiction, either two people of similar rank, a husband and wife, or siblings would share with each other.
Just as plates and cutlery were often shared, drinking utensils were also often shared. When sharing, it was polite to always wipe one’s mouth before taking a sip and to never drink with food in one’s mouth. 
Sometimes bread would be dipped into sauces. Dipping bread that had already been bitten was impolite, just as it is today.  Multiple sources say that one should never pick out the best piece from a dish, but take whatever is closest.  Chewing noisily or so that the food was visible was likewise impolite , as was smacking one’s lips  or slurping.  Bones should be placed on one’s trencher, not dropped on the floor.  Cats and dogs should not be allowed near the dining table  (and thus, throwing bones to the dogs would be appalling). Some conventions haven’t changed. One should not put one’s elbows on the table.  One should not fall asleep at the table.  One should not talk with one’s mouth full. 
Eating with one’s helmet on was not allowed (I’m not sure if this reference is to an actual helmet or to other types of headgear).  The text doesn’t mention any other pieces of armor, but I have found no references in medieval literature to characters eating while armed. Eating with hats on was also discourteous, and once the hat was removed, the hair underneath should be well-groomed.
Remember all of this and have a laugh at the expense of the uneducated masses the next time you see Sir World of Warcraft chowing down on a turkey leg at the renfest or have dinner at Medieval Times (note: I’ve never been to Medieval Times, but from the comments of others, I can guess how most people behave).
- Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenic and Psychogenic Investigations (Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell. 49, 59.
- Ibid., 50.
- Ibid., 56.
- Ibid., 50.
- Rickert, Edith. The Babees’ Book: Medieval Manners for the Young: Done into Modern English from Dr. Furnivall’s Texts (London: Chatto and Windus, 1908). 27.
- Elias, The Civilizing Process, 77.
- Ibid., 49.
- Ibid., 105.
- Rickert, The Babees’ Book, 19.
- Elias, The Civilizing Process, 49.
- Ibid., 50.
- Rickert, The Babees’ Book, 28.
- Elias, The Civilizing Process, 50.
- Ibid., 57.
- Ibid., 67.
- Ibid., 70.
- Ibid., 73.
- Rickert, The Babees’ Book, 19-20.
- Ibid., 25.
- Elias, The Civilizing Process, 57.
- Ibid., 74.
- Ibid., 76.