How to attend your first medieval feast
So you’re attending your first medieval feast. Maybe it’s being run by a medieval club, or a theme event. Medieval dining is a foreign culture for modern people and it can help to know a few things heading in. I’m sure the first thing that medieval feasts conjure to mind is a barbarian with a turkey leg in his greasy fist, gnawing flesh from the bone. Well we’re here to tell you that not only is that bad manners, but turkeys are from the ‘New World’ and aren’t medieval.
We’ve tried to write this guide with many types of feasts in mind, so not all aspects will apply to all events.
Things you must have
- Costume. People will understand that it’s your first feast so don’t worry that the outfits not complete or accurate. Strictness varies between events, so check when you book.
- Bowl and plate. If choosing one, make it a bowl. You can put dry foods in a bowl, but you can’t put soup in a plate! Plain wooden bowls and plates from charity shops are an okay start. Those woven-wood bowls are better than modern plastics in a pinch.
- Cup – Probably made from clay, glass, pewter or silver (depending on your status) in period. An aluminium tumbler or a simple glass tumbler are good cheats until you can get a period replica.
- Spoon. For your first event, a plain table spoon out of the cutlery drawer will do. A knife and fork are optional extras.
Things which are nice to have
- Knife – some food may benefit from additional carving.
- Cushion – Medieval benches are hard and the longer you sit, the harder they get.
All feasts will require a booking, and most will require payment up front. When booking, be sure to note any dietary requirements. (i.e. vegetarian, gluten intolerant, dairy-intolerant, allergies.) Most feasts will work hard to make sure there are dishes everyone can eat, but if you are majorly allergic to many things, you may have to simply bring your own food. This happens, and if you do suffer a tricky range of food intolerances, you’re probably accustomed to bringing your own food to places. There’s no need to advise your likes and dislikes – there will be a variety of dishes to suit all tastes.
When you arrive:
Typically there will be a table at the entrance with someone with someone to greet you (sometimes colloquially, ‘the troll’). You will need to sign any releases required by the event, and then pay if necessary. Generally cash only at this point. Copies of the menu and ingredient lists can often be found here for perusal before the event. If you forgot to mention anything which could impact the event (like, deadly allergies) this is the person to talk to.
When you get inside the hall, some seating places may have baskets, plates, bowls, or cups at them. This signifies that this place has been taken, and you will need to find another seat. There will often be a “head” table, this is for the King and Queen or others high in the mock-hierarchy so don’t sit here either.
If you aren’t sure, ask someone else sitting down where you can sit.
Benches and Trestles – Beware of medieval furniture!
Benches are evil. If you find the seating is on wooden benches, first place down your cushion.
If you are first to take your seat, move to the middle so those joining you can slide in from the ends.
When arising from a bench, it is courtesy to announce to your bench companions that you are getting up, so that they can be prepared for the weight to shift and they don’t go falling off the other end when you get up and the bench overbalances and becomes a see-saw. To avoid being tipped on the floor, slide inwards of the bench’s legs.
Some feasts will use trestle tables. This is a board, balanced on two trestles. While medieval, they can be incredibly unstable if pressure is applied unevenly on the edge of the trestle. Don’t lean your elbows on the table, or you’ll upset it. (Yes, this is where that rule comes from.) While sitting up without a seat-back can become tiring for us modern folk, don’t lean your arms, elbows or bosom on the tabletop, or drinks will be spilled.
Once everyone has a seat, clear everything but your bowl, plate, cutlery and cup off the table. There’s about to be a lot of food and there won’t be room for anything not necessary on the tables.
Most feasts will start with bread, cheese and maybe some nibbles on the table to start. Don’t fill up, there’s a lot more food to come.
Most feasts will be at least three courses, and each course will have several dishes in it.
You may be served in a “mess” which is basically like group style serving between a certain number of people (normally 6-8). When a new dish arrives, be mindful of how many are in your mess and take slightly less than your portion to start with. In period, the dish was offered around the mess by strict social hierarchy but in our egalitarian society we usually just share the choicest morsels though basic courtesy.
If waiters bring a large pot of food around your table to serve from, turn out to them with your dish so they don’t have to pass the serving ladle over your head and drip gravy in your hair.
If a feast is particularly short on wait-staff, there may be a central serving point for tables to come up, one at a time, and be served each dish.
Medieval dishes were served in bite-sized portions, ready to be eaten with your spoon. If anything arrives in portions too large for your spoon, it’s more medieval to cut it all to size with your knife before you start eating, then pass those portions to your mouth with your spoon. The food can be held in place for cutting with the spoon, or with a fork or ‘pricker’, a single-tined medieval tool of undetermined purpose. Don’t use your fingers where you wouldn’t in modern dining, and don’t use your knife to get food to your mouth.
Forks, where used, were typically for eating finger foods which were sticky or staining.
Medieval feasts often had sweet and savoury foods together (fruit in meat pies is common) so you may see foods which look more like desserts mixed between the savoury courses.
Expect to find a salter somewhere on the table: a dish, sometimes lidded, containing ground salt for seasoning your food. You’re unlikely to find pepper though. Adding pepper is the cook’s job in medieval dining.
If this is a re-enactment feast, there may be a “Court” or other speeches and formal proceedings. As this is your first event, clap when others clap, and try not to look too bored. They’ll get back to the food soon enough. There may also be performances between the removes, songs, poems, theater etc.
Many guests will be enjoying the immersive atmosphere of medieval dining, so it’s not usually polite to bring up modern topics totally unrelated to the meal. This might seem strange and restrictive at first, but there is typically plenty to discuss about the food and the event without straying to football scores, what you do for a day job and what your favourite video game is.
In some events, there may be people portraying the king and queen, baron and baroness or lord and lady of the manor. Although alien, these social hierarchies were a part of medieval culture, and so they are often re-enacted. You might see some people bowing, curtseying or otherwise acknowledging the highest status couple if they are passing in front of their table. This is never required of you, it’s just a way of enjoying re-enacting medieval social customs. Similarly, you can expect a lot of ‘m’lord’ and ‘m’lady’ing at a medieval feast. You don’t need to respond in kind and you certainly don’t need to launch into your own ‘forsooth’ ye olde medievalle speake, but if you are stuck for something better than ‘G’day Mate’ or ‘Howdy Partner’ to say to people, then ‘m’lord’ and ‘m’lady’ will get you through.
Your server is not automatically a peasant, and is especially not a “wench” just because they are serving you. It was common for some nobles to serve at tables as part of learning to be a noble. You can ask how they would like to be addressed, but there will probably be a lot of servers, so m’lord and m’lady will hold you in good stead.
Under no circumstance should you go into the kitchen. Maybe you have a friend in the kitchen. Maybe you need to ask a question. Do not go into the kitchen. Questions can be asked from the door (don’t block the door though…), but do not go inside. Despite often being staffed by amateurs, the kitchen at a feast is as busy and dangerous as that at a restaurant and you will quickly make yourself unpopular if you cross that threshold.
Cleaning Up and Packing Down
Many feasts will provide a washing up tub for people to come and use at the end of the meal, before the last sweet course so that dessert can be eaten from a clean bowl, or sometimes even between courses. If this washing up station has any tea-towels for drying, it certainly won’t have enough, so bring your napkin or own tea-towel up with your dishes.
Once the lights go on, it’s time for the pack down to commence. If this is a re-enactment group event, it’s good manners to help put chairs and tables away at the end of the event.