Making merry the medieval way

07/11/2014

Making merry the medieval way

Nobody did a feast like a mediaeval man of means and across London the tales of opulent wassailing are woven into the hearsay of every historical venue’s storybook. At Merchant Taylors’ we’re no different – we’ve been entertaining people since the fourteenth century and our reputation for putting on a decent party has stayed firm since we first opened our doors in 1327. We thought we’d have a bit of fun by looking back at the kind of feast that might have made up a Merchant Taylors’ shindig 700 years ago.

In 2014 our food is celebrated as amongst the best in the City thanks to a head chef who has developed the most inspiring and carefully sourced menus in the Square Mile over a period of 30 years – Richard Trant is our own culinary hero but we wondered what he would have served up 700 years ago.

Think about it, like every grand building in the Middle Ages our Great Hall was the perfect setting for a party. Unlike modern planners the guys then understood the importance of having a big space to feast, frolic – and to think. Feeding guests in mediaeval times wasn’t just for fun, roughly speaking it was an early version of a modern day conference and a chance for powerful people to impress and do business. The ruling elite used feasts as occasions to give out rewards and the upwardly mobile had to be seen to be dishing it out if they were to stand any chance of joining nobility. In truth the world of the upper and middle classes centred around dining – and doing it properly.

And the etiquette for getting it right was fixed in daunting annuls for feast makers to ignore at their peril. The detail of how to do things included instructions in books such as ‘The Book of Carving’ which insisted that wenches should ‘place the salt on the right side of your Lord’s seat, and the trenchers to the left of the salt. Then take the knives and arrange the loaves of bread side by side, with the spoons and napkins neatly folded by the bread. Cover your bread and trenchers, spoons and knives, and set a salt cellar with two trencher loaves at each end of the table … then serve your Lord faultlessly.’

But once the detail was in place the events tended to take on a mood of big jovial indulgence. There are tales of real lions, peacocks, live rabbits, dancing children dressed as savages and the occasional naked serving wench but this description of a feast held by Richard II is more typical –‘with many a gallant lord and lovely lady … they brought the first course, with the blast of trumpets and the waving of banners, with the sound of drums and pipes, of song and lute, so that many a heart was uplifted at the melody. Many were the dainties, and rare the meats, so great was the plenty, they might scarce find room on the board to set all the dishes. Each helped himself as he liked best, and to each guest were twelve dishes served, with a great plenty of beer and wine.’

Those with the money to host these big occasions spared no cash in making them more amazing every time  and while much of the impact was made by ever more fantastical entertainment, the food was equally important and abundant. A weighty way to honour a visit from a Hungarian king in the Middle Ages offered guests seven courses, ‘starting with toast of the finest bread, dipped in wine, followed by capon paté and hams of wild boar, with no less than seven kinds of pottage, all served on silver plates. Then came ragouts, made of every kind of game bird and wild bird, including swan and geese.’

‘More pottage followed and some dishes gilded in real gold and the next course included delicate tarts, sweet dariols and fried oranges. Desserts of hippocras and wafers were topped by a last course of sugared heraldic menagerie, sculpted stags, lions, monkeys and various other birds and beasts, each holding in its paw the coat of arms of the Hungarian King.’

Such opulence may be rare these days but most of us still love a great party and at Merchant Taylors’ our claim is what it’s been for centuries – anything is possible and we go out of our way to create everybody’s best party. Our only disclaimer is that real lions and naked staff are likely to be discouraged!


(Thanks to Anne Sharp, illustrator, for her wonderful canvas Kings and Castles – banquet. Also to Linda Alchin for the monochrome illustration, from her history website)

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