Meals & Manners



It snewed in his hous of mete and drynke;
Of alle deyntees that men koude thynke,
After the sondry sesons of the yeer,
So chaunged he his mete and his soper.
Ful many a fat partrich hadde he in muwe,
And many a breem and many a luce in stuwe.
Wo was his cook but if his sauce were
Poynaunt and sharp, and redy al his geere.
(General Prologue, I.345-54.)


  In the fourteenth century, feasts became ever more elaborate and ceremonial, with many courses, each marked by a "sotelte" -- an elaborate, often allegorical, construction which helped define the "theme' of the feast. For a royal feast in 1387 (which Chaucer might have attended, though perhaps not at the high table) and an archepiscopal feast (with descriptions of the "soteltes") in 1447 see:

Feasts in 1387 and 1443

It is hard to believe that people actually ate, much less enjoyed, so many dishes and so many courses. Not every one was priviliged to partake of such abundance, even at the feasts: some menus specify that those seated elsewhere than at the high table are served with a different menu, with fewer dishes to each course. Nevertheless, the tables of the nobility even on ordinary days were characterized by an abundance of different dishes.

This is demonstrated by the expense accounts for an embassy from Aragon, which spent 58 days in England; their expenditures for food and lodging are recorded for each day:

Expenditures of the Aragonese Embassy

Given the high fat content of this diet, the peasants may have been better off than the nobility. The humble fare of the poor old widow in the Nun's Priest's Tale has litle in common with the that of the Ambassadors from Aragon or the guests at royal feasts:

Ful sooty was hire bour and eek hir halle,
In which she eet ful many a sklendre meel.
Of poynaunt sauce hir neded never a deel.
No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte;
Hir diete was accordant to hir cote.
Repleccioun ne made hire nevere sik;
Attempree diete was al hir phisik,
And exercise, and hertes suffisaunce.
The goute lette hire nothyng for to daunce,
N' apoplexie shente nat hir heed.
No wyn ne drank she, neither whit ne reed;
Hir bord was served moost with whit and blak --
Milk and broun breed, in which she foond no lak,
Seynd bacoun, and somtyme an ey or tweye,
For she was, as it were, a maner deye.
(Nun's Priest's Tale, VII.2832-2846)

The Franklin would not have been happy with such a diet. For some of the dishes that might have appealed to him, adapted to the modern kitchen, see:

Pleyn delit: medieval cookery for modern cooks, ed. Constance B. Hiett, Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler. 2nd ed. Toronto, 1996 [TX 162.H53 1966].

For an excellent treatment of food and feasting in Chaucer see "> A Chaucerian Cookery, by James L. Matterer.


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Table Manners:


She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe;
Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe
That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.
In curteisie was set ful muchel hir lest.
(General Prologue, I.128-32)

Books of manners -- courtesy books -- were a popular genre in the later Middle Ages, as manners and language became increasingly important in defining the "gentle" classes. The Roman de la rose devotes a great deal of attention to the mattes, notably to the table manners proper to a would-be lady, portions of which are echoed in the portrait of the Prioress in the General Prologue:

The Duenna's advice on table manners

The genre of the courtesy book may have had its origin in the monasteries, where young boys were trained to take their part in the community. One such, the Latin Vrbanitatis, intended originally for young monastics, was translated into English in the fifteenth century:


A similar work is "The Little Childrenes Little Boke," which is especially interesting because of its association of good manners with religion (as in the Middle English poem Pearl), and its frequent reminders that manners define social class (at least as it is perceived by others):

The Little Childrenes Little Boke.

The two English texts listed above are from The Babees Book, ed. F. J. Furnivall, EETS 32, 1868 [Wid 11472.32.1], a fascinating collection of such materials.

For an interesting study of the importance of courtesy books to an understanding of the literature of the time, see:

Jonathan Nicholls, The Matter of Courtesy: Medieval Courtesy Books and the Gawin-Poet, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1985 [PR 1972.G353 N5 1985].


Life and Manners in the more general sense:


  For a very good collection of source texts see Paul Halsall's Internet Medieval Source Book. Among the texts listed are these:

  • Medieval Jewish Life (of interest when thinking about the Prioress' Tale).
  • "The Goodman of Paris" -- a citizen of Paris in Chaucer's time -- presents a charming image of his household and his May and December marriage, quite different from that in the Merchant's Tale.
  • Life of Students at Paris (earlier than the time of the clerks in the Canterbury tales) but one suspects a continuity of rascality):

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