In the Middle Ages, rich people loved to have feasts.  A generous knight invited many guests, and gave them so much food that the table almost collapsed under the weight.

Tables were usually just boards laid across trestles, covered with a cloth.  People in very wealthy households ate from wooden platters (plates), but usually food was put on slices of bread called trenchers.  The bread was cut by a servant called a panter.



Everything had to be done with great ceremony.  On the table there would be a salt nef – a huge salt-cellar in the shape of a ship. I mportant guests sat 'above the salt'; less important guests sat lower down, 'below the salt'.  Fights would break out if someone tried to sit at a higher place than he or she deserved.

There were strict rules about how to behave at feasts.  Etiquette (good manners) was essential.  Most people ate with their fingers, as forks were not used very much in the Middle Ages.  Certain fingers were used to hold certain foods, and hands were carefully washed between courses.

Meals were organised by a servant called the chamberlain.  In some houses a servant called the groom of the hall carried in the dishes and took away the dirty plates.  In very wealthy households, however, meals were served by the sons of neighbouring knights, who had been placed in the lord's household to learn how to behave.  Carving the rneat was the most skilled task, and the carver was the son of the lord himself, or a favourite servant.  A butler poured the wine.



A big meal might have three or four courses.  Each course would include up to ten different dishes, which were eaten in turn. People ate such things as porpoise, minnows, tripe, peacocks and swans.  Cooks liked to give the guests surprise dishes – for instance, a pie containing four-and-twenty blackbirds, which flew out when the pie was opened, or a dish full of frogs, which hopped across the table when the lid was lifted.  Between each course, servants carried in a 'subtlety' – a food sculpture in the shape of a saint, for instance.

During meals, guests were often entertained by musicians, jugglers, acrobats and jesters.  Pets wandered about the table.  Sometimes, platters had rude or romantic poems written on them.  At the end of the feast, guests had to make up a tune and sing the verses on their plate.

As each dish was served, some of the food was put to one side.  At the end of the meal this – together with all the leftovers – was given to the poor people of the village.



Study this webpage, then answer the question sheet by clicking on the 'Time to Work' icon at the top of the page.


The following websites will help you research further:


The Knight:

Mr Donn's site

BBC Hands on History advice on how to hold a medieval feast


• Good page on medieval etiquette 


• A website on medieval recipes 

• British Library webpage on medieval food 

• If you wish, you can see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original Middle English - your extract begins on page 2, eleven lines down.  (You should be able to make out what it says if you compare it to the translation in Source 2.)






1  A January Feast

In this picture from the Très Riches Heures (c.1415), Jean, Duc de Berry, holds a feast to exchange New Year gifts.



In the painting:

Can you see Jean, Duc de Berry, seated at the head of the table? 

Look for:

•  the great fireplace (with the fire burning behind a screen); 

•  an aumbry (a cupboard for the cups and serving plates); 

•  a tapestry hanging on the wall; 

•  the table; 

•  the tablecloth; 

•  a huge net; 

•  pet dogs on the table; 

•  a man in a blue cloak with two mazers (wooden drinking cups); 

•  and some round wooden platters on the table.

Can you also see a man using certain fingers to hold the food? 

Can you find the carver, the butler, and the chamberlain (with a stick) inviting the guests to 'Approche (come in)'?

Historians think that the guest wearing a floppy light-blue hat is Paul de Limbourg, the artist who painted the picture.



2  A Feast at the Court of Camelot

This imaginary description of a New Year feast is from the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.   It is very long and difficult, but it is worth studying because it contains many parallels to Source 1, and because it shows what medieval knights thought important (including things which we would not think very important at all today).

A medieval feast such as that described here would be regarded by a medieval knight as the best time imaginable.

This king lay at Camelot nigh on Christmas

with many lovely lords, of leaders the best,

reckoning of the Round Table all the rich brethren,

with right ripe revel and reckless mirth.

There tourneyed tykes by times full many,

jousted full jollily these gentle knights,

then carried to court, their carols to make.

For there the feast was alike full fifteen days,

with all the meat and mirth men could devise:

such clamour and glee glorious to hear,

dear din in the daylight, dancing of nights;

all was happiness high in halls and chambers

with lords and ladies, as liked them all best.

With all that’s well in the world were they together,

the knights best known under the Christ Himself,

and the loveliest ladies that ever life honoured,

and he the comeliest king that the court rules.

For all were fair folk and in their first age still,

          the happiest under heaven,

          king noblest in his will;

          that it were hard to reckon

          so hardy a host on hill.


While New Year was so young it was new come in,

that day double on the dais was the dole served,

for the king was come with knights into the hall,

and chanting in the chapel had chimed to an end.

Loud cry was there cast of clerics and others,

Noel nurtured anew, and named full oft;

and see the rich run forth to render presents,

yelled their gifts on high, yield them to hand,

argued busily about those same gifts.

Ladies laughed out loud, though they had lost,

while he that won was not wrath, that you’ll know.

All this mirth they made at the meal time.

When they had washed well they went to be seated,

the best of the barons above, as it seemed best;

with Guinevere, full gaily, gracing their midst,

dressed on the dais there, adorned all about...

         the comeliest to descry

          glanced there with eyen grey;

          a seemlier ever to the sight,

          sooth might no man say....


Thus there stands straight and tall the king himself,

talking at the high table of trifles full courtly.

There good Gawain was graced by Guinevere beside,

and Agravain with the strong hand on the other side sits,

both the king’s sister-sons and full sure knights;

Bishop Baldwin above, he begins the table,

and Ywain, Urien’s son, ate alongside him.

These sat high on the dais and deftly served,

and many another sat sure at the side-tables.

Then the first course came with crack of trumpets,

with many a banner full bright that thereby hung;

new noise of kettledrums and noble pipes,

wild warbles and wide wakened echoes,

that many a heart full high heaved at their notes.

 Dainties drawn in therewith of full dear meats,

foods of the freshest, and in such files of dishes

they find no room to place them people before

and to set the silver that holds such servings on cloth.

          Each his load as he liked himself,

          there ladled and nothing loath;

          Every two had dishes twelve,

          good beer and bright wine both.