He took a last mouthful of potage, wiped the worst of the mess off his spoon and replaced it in his purse.The Tawny Sash
I may have mentioned before the common misconception (born of Hollywood) that table manners were non existent during the times of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Wrong! Sitting down to eat with unwashed hands was an absolute no-no.
But it was only when I started researching the civilian aspects of 17th century life that I discovered cutlery was pretty much BYO. Only in the houses of the wealthy were you likely to find cutlery for your personal use (possibly silver) beside your trencher.
If you were incredibly lucky, you might have encountered knives with musical notes on the blade, known as notation knives. This would enable grace to be sung before and after the meal. The one in the possession of the Victoria and Albert museum was the inspiration for this scene from The Tawny Sash.
“Did you ever see the singing knives from Italy?”
“Nor will you, for they are gone. The first Marquess bought them. Fine silver knives, the blades engraved with musical parts, with Latin prayers. They are a part of the birth right of the present fifth Marquess. They have disappeared and who would take them but one of the Protestants in the garrison, for their private gain?”
You were unlikely to encounter forks except in the grand houses belonging to a handful of “early adoptors” – gentry who had seen them in France. Forks, for those who used them, were for pinning down your food while cutting it with your knife. Nobody at that time thought you should put the fork, if you had one, in your mouth!
The use of forks was similarly frowned on in the American colonies in the 1630s, but the gradual increase in their use, combined with the change in the shape of knife blades, led to different fork etiquette evolving on each side of the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. Americans cut food up and then switch the fork to their right hand, while Europeans “hang on to their knives” as an American character in a novel complained.
Knives and spoons, on the other hand were in universal use, but that did not mean they were necessarily provided by your host. Carrying your knife and spoon was like carrying your mobile phone today. Soldiers carried them on campaign. Civil war armies supplied their soldiers with snapsacks (a kind of kitbag) but no cutlery.
Roundhead soldiers screamed abuse at other men rifling through their handful of belongings, while their comrades tried to drag them away. Horn spoons, eating knives, odds and ends of match and ribbon, a cup, a wooden fife, a small soldiers’ bible and a tattered blanket, all strewn in the mud.
(The Tawny Sash)
In the Great Hall of a manor or castle, everyone ate together in the sense of under a single roof. What we now call share plates were the order of the day. People ate in “messes”, usually of four. The word “mess” has survived in this context for the military.
Everybody ate from their own plate, but if a bowl of soup or stew was brought to the table it was shared between the four people, who all ate from the same dish with their spoons. At the end of that course, hygiene consisted of wiping your spoon on a napkin before reusing it for the next course.
As to the idea that floors were covered in dirty rushes and dogs chewing bones, contemporary books of etiquette prohibit throwing bones on the floor (or spitting). Left overs from each person’s plate were placed in a “voider” which was removed, and the table cloth brushed, at the end of each course. Diners were to wipe their messy hands and mouth on their shoulder napkins, not on the tablecloth!
And after dinner and supper “the place to be swept and kept clean and sweet, with perfumes, flowers, herbs, and boughs in their season,” instructed the young Viscount Montague in his “book of orders and rules“, a last ditch attempt to make his sloppy household staff behave properly.