TO we modern Arthurians, the Mediaeval Banquet is an opportunity to eat and drink to excess, give our finery an airing, maybe dance a little, and mingle with other people as weird as ourselves. Originally, banquets may have shared many of the same features, but to a feudal society that revelled in symbol and spectacle, their significance was far greater. Sharing a meal has always been a way of demonstrating a group's harmony, and in the Middle Ages the banquet became a highly crafted form of political art - edible propaganda.
The meal was a demonstration of a structured society. Each individual was placed appropriately to his or her station above or below that most crucial of social markers, the salt. It was an assertion of the blessings of order in a heady atmosphere of indulgence. The banquets credited by mediaeval romancers are splendid, emphasising his wealth, generosity, and seniority, all vital qualities for a feudal monarch.
Arthur's court was famous for its custom of not dining before a miracle or strange adventure had manifested itself, but for lesser mortals these interludes could take other forms. In 1378 at a banquet in Paris given by the King of France for the Emperor Charles IV there was a most impressive spectacle: a ship with a live crew sailed up the hall to a model of the city of Jerusalem. A mock battle was then fought, ending with the defenders being hurled from the battlements. Here too there was a political significance to the action: it served to stir up enthusiasm for a new crusade.
The food itself was also used to impress and entertain. Between each course a "subtlety" would be served: a particularly impressive dish designed to display the cook's skill and ingenuity. For example, Arthurian banquets have included a boar's head, a sword embedded in a mound of gingerbread, and marzipan squirrels as three such dishes. These would serve as treats between the courses. The chief aim of this extravagance was to display the host's wealth, and consequently the food served would reflect this with an abundance of meat and spices, which were always rare in mediaeval times. Indeed, some spices were so expensive they were kept under lock and key, while black peppercorns were literally worth their weight in gold. Another great luxury was fresh fruit, but only when served out of season. One's heart must go out to Queen Guenevere on considering how, after taking great care to provide fresh apples for an exacting guest with aristocratic tastes, she was accused of using them as a poison.
But if it was the host's duty to provide plenty, his guests were obliged to show their appreciation through their courtesy. Manners were a means of displaying, and possibly improving, one's standing in the social hierarchy. The lower orders knew their place, but for their betters, etiquette was of great importance. For those who needed to learn how to behave properly, not born and bred to such matters, there were books of etiquette. One such is John Russell's Book of Nurture; written in the mid-fifteenth century, it contains essential pointers for servers and guests which include prohibitions on picking bits out of your wine, belching too loudly, spitting so far as to inconvenience anyone except your immediate neighbours, scratching (particularly in your nose), vomiting too loudly, and picking your ears or nose at table.
At Arthur's Table each November it is to be hoped that all our guests will be sufficiently well-bred not to need such instructions, for it was rules of behaviour such as these that, from the earliest times, helped distinguish the civilized from the uncivilized, the knights of Arthur's fabled court from the barbarian Saxon hordes which menaced it.
This article originally appeared in Ceridwen's Cauldron
no 15, Michaelmas 1989.
Rhiannon Davies, after leaving Oxford, founded the Cardiff Arthurian Society.