Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Medieval feasts were much like our modern dinner parties. They started light - with soups and salads - and moved on to heavier foods and then, of course, dessert! The more formal or special the occasion, the more extravagant the meal (think: Henry VIII's stuffed swan!).
In order to recreate an authentic medieval feast, you'll need to understand the basics of medieval dining: etiquette and menus. You might also consider integrating various decorations to help your home have more of a medieval feel, as well as forgoing some of our modern conveniences (such as silverware). The level of authenticity is entirely up to you -- just remember to have fun!
Mind Your Manners
Medieval feasts were also governed by their own rules of etiquette. These were especially important in the courts, where social rank governed nearly everything an individual was capable of doing in life. So, in order to have a proper feast, you should probably consider enforcing some select rules. This could also be beneficial if you decide to role play during your meal - a great idea if you've got a group of friends who can really get into character! (It's advisable to inform your guests of this feature before the event, so they can come prepared. Having printed cards at each person's place will also help to remind them of certain manners, as well.)
Two main sources of late medieval etiquette come from The Boke of Keruying, written by Wynkyn de Worde in 1508, and the Boke of Nurture, written by John Russell around 1430. These works primarily inform us about etiquette in manor houses during the Tudor period. They describe in detail how to set the feast, skills needed by servers and carvers, and were also intended as handbooks for the pages who served the most important guests.
Unfortunately, these two books often contain conflicting advice. This is likely the result of regional customs or differences between households. Also, some methods are not well explained, often omitting the basics that were obvious to people living in medieval households but are not evident to us now. So, many scholars of medieval etiquette tend to rely on common sense in order to properly teach us about the rules.
Often, creating a medieval feast required LOTS of servants. For example, the feast for the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1466 had 57 cooks, 115 scullions, spit-turners, and other assorted staff in order to feed 200 guests. Hopefully, you aren't having this large of a feast (or, if you are, you've got help in the kitchen!). Thus, there are some aspects of medieval feasting that will probably not be replicated. You might not have people to serve the food, and elect to have everyone serve themselves.
Some important medieval etiquette tips that you might include are:
- No forks. They hadn't been invented yet, so most people utilized their knife as both a cutting tool and for the functions of a fork. They did have spoons, which can also be used by your guests.
- Guests were numbered into a group (called a 'mess'). These groups ranged from 2 to 6 people each, who shared the food placed in front of them. Thus, you would need multiple serving trays of the same item for large parties.
- 3 courses was the norm for British feasts, though some medieval feasts had up to 7 courses. Choose the amount appropriate for your occasion and abilities.
- Each course, however, had a mix of foods. The separation between appetizers, main courses, and desserts had not yet occurred. Again, choose what best fits your party.
- The hall was usually decorated with hung tapestries. At one end of the hall was a raised table for the lord, his family, and distinguished guests. On the lower level were two table where everyone else sat, positioned down both sides of the hall so that the lord was in full view at all times. Note that guests only sat on one side of the table so as to make serving via servants easier. (For modern uses, using one long table with guests sitting on both sides is perfectly acceptable, especially for guests sitting in 'messes' and sharing platters of food.) Cushions were provided for important guests, with everyone else sitting on stools.
- A person's seat depended upon their status (as well as their manners, how well the lord liked them, and their age). Generally, the Lord would be seated first at the head table, while everyone else stood waiting to sit. The order of your guest placement is entirely up to you!
- No one ate anything until the Lord had taken his first bite. Also, guests did not begin a course until the entire course had been served to all guests.
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- When food was shared or served from a common platter/bowl, people only used their left hand to touch the shared food. Primarily, you used your fingers to eat off the bread plates, while using your knife to cut food, spoon for pottage and brothers, and a cup/mug to drink from. Pronged forks only came into use in the late Tudor period, just before the Renaissance.
- Unless you were the Lord, you were expected to bring your own knife, spoon, and drinking vessel. These were generally made of wood, bone, or clay (though knives were often made of metal).
- Dishes were served in the order thought to be important. Medieval physicians often argued over whether light or heavy foods were served first, though these debates were often ignored in medieval households. Often, the meal order was: fruit, pottages, roasts, lighter tarts, pastries and pies, and ending with wafers, cheese, and candied fruits.
- Medieval meals followed the Christian calendar, which dictated certain days for fish and certain days for "flesh" (meats).
- Between courses, a removen was used to clean the tables. During this time, there were often entertainments provided for the guests, such as staged pageantry, musicians, the court fool, jugglers, etc.
The Menu: Main Dishes and Sides
We know quite a bit about medieval menus. One such menu comes from Alice de Breyne in 1413, and included a boar's head, broths, woodcocks, pheasants, partridges, roasted mallard, wine thickened with egg yolks, open pork pies, stuffed chickens, and poultry with sauce.
We also know from medieval recipes that many dishes were highly spiced. The Forme of Cury, written around 1390, details dishes that were spiced with pepper, salt, cloves, mace, cinnamon, ginger, and dyes. These spices were used in great quantities, but you can use them to your taste. We also know that fresh fruit was used to dress meat, fish, and poultry.
Your menu items might include:
- Freshly baked white bread (baguette or loaf) with bowls of whipped butter. A good type of bread is Focaccia, toasted at 250 degrees for 20 minutes to become crispy. Present on a cutting board or in baskets. Alternatively, you may also present scones (there are many recipes to choose from) served with various spiced jellies.
- Sugared Almonds. Serve in small bowls set on the tables before the meal begins.
- Honey-Mustard Eggs. Hard-boiled eggs, cut in half with yokes removed. Blend the yolks with honey and French mustard, then spoon back into the cut halves.
- Chilled Strawberry (or other fruit) Soup.
- Pottages (a soup of meat and vegetables). Ham, leek, and pea soup is one example.
- A roasted animal of some sort - ranging from chickens and pigs to peacocks and seals. However, since finding this type of game can be hard (and expensive), I suggest sticking to modern types of meats served in a medieval style. This mainly includes roasted meats, but there are other recipes which may be of interest.
- Fish, especially eel, tench, or tuna.
- Turkey legs!
- Pork pot pies, stuffed with pork, bacon, and layered between pastry dough. Season with salt, pepper, sage, or other spices.
- Capon with Orange or Lemon Sauce is a chicken stewed in wine, fruit, and spices.
- Malardis is a roasted duck recipe, served with fritters and brawn.
- Ragouts of game and wild birds, including swan and geese.
- Fried oranges (or other fruits).
- Meatballs with a honey mustard glaze and sprinkled with saffron.
- Spiced wine.
- Cheese. A popular cheese was Wensleydale, which can be traced back to Norman times.
However, also keep in mind what was not typically served at medieval feasts: fresh fruits and vegetables, green salads, and drinking water. Medieval physicians feared that these foods were the cause of putrified fevers (though we now know this to be false).
The Menu: Sweets
While you will probably still opt for the wedding cake, consider serving other desserts for those guests who do not like cake, or as an alternative to cake.
One alternative to the traditional wedding cake would be to serve a Sotiltees (also spelled "soltetie"). In medieval times, these were sculptures of food that came in various forms - castles, ships, or scenes from fables. While traditionally served before the main course, you could consider a sotiltee as an alternative to (or form for) your wedding cake. Traditionally, these are purely sugar pieces, but can be adapted to cake form given that you have a well-trained baker.
Cherry Hearts. These are small, heart-shaped tarts filled with cherry sauce (a recipe for cherry tort is the modern equivalent).
Fresh fruits were very common, including strawberries and grapes. However, medieval tradition disliked the idea of eating raw fruits. Commonly, fruits were baked or cooked in wine and spices.
Chocolates. Chocolate became fashionable after its introduction by the Spanish in the late fifteenth century, as an import from the Americas. Chocolate could be served as bite-sized pieces (shaped or not) or as an end-of-the-night party favor for guests, given its traditional delicacy status.
Croquembouche is a traditionally French dessert of small cream puffs filled with lemon cream and arranged in a tall cone-shape and then glazed with caramel.
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Questions & Answers
Question: Are these recipes really what medieval Tudor people ate?
Answer: It is based on known Medieval recipes. There are some historians who published actual recipes found, though thy are rather bland at times.
Anonymous on July 03, 2019:
gelen coco on April 20, 2012:
ii think of having a mideavle weading cake would be great cuz its pretty fancy looking and it has all kinds of good details and sooooo....pretty looking ha=)
Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 31, 2011:
I think having a medieval wedding celebration sounds like so much fun. And the food you have selected here sounds great also.
Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on December 31, 2011:
Well as long as chocolates are part of the fare, I am interested. And cheesecake ain't to shabby either. :) Liked this hub and voting up!