Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Table Manners

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. [1] 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. [2] 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.” [3] Obviously, hands were washed before eating. [4] Scratching or touching one’s ears, eyes, or nose while eating were forbidden. [5] Licking one’s fingers, likewise, was never polite. [6] Napkins were dictated to be used frequently to keep one’s mouth and hands clean [7], never for wiping away sweat or blowing one’s nose. [8]

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. [9] 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. [10] All food was to be cut with care—biting a chunk of meat was not polite. [11] Knives would often be shared. [12] Sometimes spoons would be shared as well, in which case, it would be carefully wiped before returning it to its dish. [13] As today, knives were never to be used as toothpicks. [14]


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. [15]


Sometimes bread would be dipped into sauces. Dipping bread that had already been bitten was impolite, just as it is today. [16] Multiple sources say that one should never pick out the best piece from a dish, but take whatever is closest. [17] Chewing noisily or so that the food was visible was likewise impolite [18], as was smacking one’s lips [19] or slurping. [20] Bones should be placed on one’s trencher, not dropped on the floor. [21] Cats and dogs should not be allowed near the dining table [22] (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. [23] One should not fall asleep at the table. [24] One should not talk with one’s mouth full. [25]

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). [26] 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.[27]

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).

  1. 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.
  2. Ibid., 50.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 56.
  6. Ibid., 50.
  7. 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.
  8. Elias, The Civilizing Process, 77.
  9. Ibid., 49.
  10. Ibid., 105.
  11. Rickert, The Babees’ Book, 19.
  12. Elias, The Civilizing Process, 49.
  13. Ibid., 50.
  14. Rickert, The Babees’ Book, 28.
  15. Elias, The Civilizing Process, 50.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 57.
  18. Ibid., 67.
  19. Ibid., 70.
  20. Ibid., 73.
  21. Rickert, The Babees’ Book, 19-20.
  22. Ibid., 25.
  23. Elias, The Civilizing Process, 57.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 74.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., 76.


Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Table Manners — 6 Comments

  1. But while turkey was not available swan was, so turkey can be considered a somewhat acceptable substitute as many (Americans at the least) have a problem with the idea of eating swan, and it isn’t really easily available.

    As to Henry VIII not being mediaeval, I believe that mostly depends on which scholar you ask as I have heard dates for the end of the middle ages/start of the Renaissance anywhere from the early 1300s in Italy (being when Boccacio, Dante and Petrarch lived/wrote), 1450s or 1517 in the Holy Roman Empire (invention of movable type or Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses) to 1534 or 1559 for England (creation of the Church of England and coronation of Elizabeth).

    • True indeed. As my degree is in literature, for my writing I mark the end of the Middle Ages linguistically at 1500(ish) when dealing with English-speaking areas. Nearly all of my sources consider Henry VIII a post-medieval figure, and due to many factors, a different perspective is usually taken for defining the end of the Middle Ages in different countries.

      Whether Sir World-of-Warcraft is chowing down on a swan leg, chicken leg, or turkey leg, the important idea here is that tearing off chunks of meat with one’s teeth and throwing the bones over one’s shoulder would not likely be an acceptable practice.

      • What point of reference is generally used to determine the end of the middle ages and beginning of the renaissance for English language literature? I was under the impression it was the Elizabethan period with Milton and Shakespeare.

        The turkey leg comment was mostly directed at David Brly.

        • I would define the end of the middle ages in England as ~1485 and the accession to the throne of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, and the end of the Wars of the Roses. It is after this period that the first evidences of a modern nation-state in England begin to appear and stay. Before this period some of the elements had appear, but not lasted due to various reasons, but especially the instability of the 14th and 15th centuries in England. The date changes, however, when you go to different parts of Europe. I think in Italy you could define the change to the Renaissance/Early modern period as early as 1350ish, just after the Black Death. You could make a case for Boccaccio being one of the first truly “Renaissance” writers. This illustrates the problem with trying to label historical epochs, there is simply no clean way to do so.

          And if you are trying to find a suitable, modern, substitute for swan, I suppose turkey works as well as anything. My point was simply one of historical accuracy, Renaissance festivals can serve what they wish, as accuracy and Renaissance festivals have little to do with one another.

        • All of my professors and many of the works I’ve read divide periods of English-speaking regions by language shift. The Anglo-Saxon period is usually marked as ending around 1150 (the invasion took place in 1066, but the date is set a little later due to the amount of time it takes for a language to shift). The end of Middle English and the beginning of Modern English is marked by the Great Vowel Shift. The internet gives an enormous range of possible dates for Great Vowel Shift, but my professors defined it at 1500. When I compare themes and styles of writing, I think this seems an appropriate period. Henry VIII is right on this line, but he ascended the throne in 1509 and much of his influence comes after 1500, so I have always seen him defined as a post-medieval figure.

          I think most scholars would probably argue that any clear line of definition between medieval and Renaissance culture is a farce, but for blogging purposes, I find it convenient to orient the reader by using one or the other.

  2. Also, they wouldn’t have eaten turkey in the Middle Ages as the turkey is indigenous to the New World, specifically North America and some parts of Mexico; therefore it would not have been available in Europe until 1504/05 at the earliest.

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