Pleasures of the Table:


Setting a Table during the 14th & 15th Centuries

Lady Laurencia of Carlisle

Copyright 2005, Bonnie E.M. Stewart

Taught at Pennsic XXXIV

Tablecloths

The table cloths I have seen in illuminations have always been white, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t ranged from basic utilitarian to beautifully ornate. The plain tablecloths were probably a piece of white linen with a finished edge. I have seen a couple of examples of a plain cloth being draped along the edge of the table (see Fig. 2 from Vie et miracles de monseigneur Saint Louis ). The fancier cloths have a woven pattern that gives a diamond or square shape depending on the orientation of the cloth on the table (and the artist). Cloths such as those in Gaston Phébus’ Book of the Hunt or Lancelot du Lac et la quête du Graal are good examples (see Fig. 1 from Lancelot du Lac et la quête du Graal.). The tablecloth shown in Lancelot du Lac also has a fringed border and a blue decorative border of checks and animals (probably birds).

Fig. 1 Fig. 2

Plates & Chargers

Plates or chargers are seen less often in manuscripts than bowls and I haven’t seen any examples from the archeological record yet. In illuminations they appear as flat, round dishes on tables; the larger ones have wide rims that food is placed on (Fig. 4 from Lancelot du Lac et la quête du Graal.).

Fig. 3 Fig. 4

Bowls

Bowls are very common and show up in almost all the images I have of meal tables. The bowls vary considerably in style and have a wide range of uses. They are seen as communal serving dishes and as personal dishes used in lieu of a charger.

Fig. 5 Fig. 6 Fig. 7

Drinking Vessels

Drinking vessels varied from simple mugs to ornate goblets. I have divided up the three most common examples and have called them the mug, the beaker and the goblet. Mugs being used for daily needs and for a more formal look such as the scenes portrayed in manuscript illuminations, beakers and goblets are more appropriate.

Mugs Several extant examples of ceramic baluster mugs have been found at archeological sites such as London and York (Fig. 8 from The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), but they rarely show up in manuscripts. The artifacts that have been found are red or yellowish colored ceramic with a green glaze. I use a ceramic mug for an everyday drinking vessel as it is easy to walk around with at events and not spill anything.

Fig. 8

Beakers Beakers look very much like a modern tumbler with an dimple in the base. Most have a narrow base leading to a flared rim. They can be made of glass (Fig. 10 from Egan, Plate 6), pewter or even silver (Fig. 9 from Musée du Louvre). They can have smooth sides or any number of decorations such as bubbles, pinched edges or glass prunts (Fig. 10).

Fig. 9 Fig. 10

Goblets Goblets can be seen in illuminations and in the archeological record. The examples we have are made of glass and are colorless or to have a blue-green hue. They have the basic look of a modern wine glass with circular base rising up into a narrow stem and then a wider bowl. One extant example has a flat bowl with a pinched decoration (Fig. 11 from Museum of London) while an example in Vie et miracles de monseigneur Saint Louis has a much more triangular shape to the bowl of the goblet (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11 Fig. 12

Utensils

No forks! That’s right; I have not found an example of a fork being used as a table utensil in the 14th and 15th centuries yet. Eating without one is not as hard or as messy as it seems, it just takes practice.

Spoons Some extant examples of spoons from the 14th and 15th century are made of silver, but these may have been for ceremonial purposes. Pewter would have been much more common and accessible. The spoon during this time was significantly shallower than modern spoons. The bowl of the spoon came in a variety of shapes as did the end (or knop) of the spoon (Fig 14 Egan, pg. 246). Some examples show the knop as a simple ball, an acorn, or a human shape (Fig. 13 from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Fig. 13 Fig. 14

Knives Knives are a necessary item at the medieval table. They serve for cutting and slicing all types of foods. Servers are shown using them as well as the guests at the table.

Fig. 15 Fig. 16

Ewers/Jugs

Ewers and jugs were used for holding liquids, for washing hands and for beverages. In many manuscripts at least one ewer or jug is shown on the table. I have not seen many illuminations specifically showing the act of hand washing, but there is written evidence that the practice was common. In picnic scenes such as The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus, jugs are pictured sitting in a stream to keep beverages cool.

Fig. 17 Fig. 18 Fig. 19

Salt cellars Salt was a very important and valuable spice during the 14th and 15th centuries. It was displayed at the table in prominent containers. There are examples of gold salt encrusted with jewels as well as pewter salts with cast canine figures as handles on the lids (Fig. 20 from The Victoria & Albert Museum & Fig. 21 from The Cloisters Collection).

Fig. 20 Fig. 21

Bibliography

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Baluster mugs) http://www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk/PotWeb/PotChron4-02.html

Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis. British Library Images Online. http://ibs001.colo.firstnet.net.uk/britishlibrary/index.jsp

Cloisters Collection, The 1983.434 (Salt cellar) http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_Of_Art/viewOnezoom.asp?dep=7&zoomFlag=0&viewmode=0&item=1983%2E434

Egan, Geoff. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 6 The Medieval Household Daily Living c.1150-c.1450. The Stationary Office, London. 1998.

Grandes Chroniques de France. Bibliothèque nationale de France 2813 http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/manuscrits/aman5/i2_0074.htm

Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus, The. Hackberry Press, 2002.

Lancelot du Lac et la quête du Graal. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Anthèse, Arcuiel. 2002.

Museum of London Picture Library (14th century glass goblet) http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/MOLsite/piclib/pages/bigpicture.asp?id=120

Museum of Fine Arts Boston: Helen & Alice Colburn Fund 1988.291 (Acorn spoon) http://www.mfa.org/artemis/fullrecord.asp?oid=59393

Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Musée du Louvre (Beaker) http://www.rmnphoto.com

Victoria & Albert Museum. Museum # 4474-1858 (Salt cellar) http://www.images.vam.ac.uk

Vie et miracles de monseigneur Saint Louis. Bibliothèque nationale de France 5716 fol. 187. http://expositions.bnf.fr/gastro/grands/105.htm



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