For The Well-bred Medieval Woman
MANNERS - ETIQUETTE - ACCEPTING GIFTS - TABLE MANNERS
- RULES FOR THE TABLE
were a very important part of a medieval woman's life. The common
misconception of a rough and rude society with little polish is
a widely-mistaken belief. It is true that medieval life could
be violent and dangerous but people from all walks of life were
bound to adhere to a certain amount of daily courtesy. To fail
to do so was social peril and could cost a person their life for
an insult, whether real or perceived, against a person of higher
The late medieval poem, How The
Good Wife Taught Her Daughter gives motherly advice for general
deportment in public:
And when thou goest on thy way,
Go thou not too fast,
Brandish not with thy head,
Nor with thy shoulders cast,
Have not too many words,
From swearing keep aloof.
For all such manners
Come to an evil proof.
for the well-bred woman
and ones place in society was everything in the medieval world.
One might hope to advance through material gains but had little
hope to do so without the correct courtesy and manners. A woman
was always expected to be the epitome of good manners no matter
what her status in life and the higher a woman was born, the more
essential it was for her to act appropriately. Manners which were
appropriate for a man were not always appropriate for a woman.
Indeed it was completely unseemly that a woman swear for any reason
whatsoever. It would bring great shame upon her father or husband.
The medieval writer, Robert of Blois, admitted that ladies needed
to know how to behave, but that it was difficult for her-
If she speaks, someone says
it is too much. If she is silent, she is reproached for not
knowing how to greet people. If she is friendly and courteous,
someone pretends it is for love. If on the other hand, she does
not put on a bright face, she passes for being too proud.
Women were instructed to be gracious
in their deporture and not wriggle their shoulders, looking straight
ahead with a tranquil and measured air. Robert de Blois also wrote
Ladies should walk erect, with
dignity, neither trotting nor running, nor dallying either,
with their eyes fixed on the ground ahead of them. They were
to be particularly careful that they do not regard men as the
sparrowhawk does the lark.
Hair was almost certainly to be covered
in one of the latest fashions outside the house. For a great deal
of the medieval period, to go out with a bare head when one was
not a child could have a woman marked as a prostitute. Unless
one was a washerwoman or a engaged in manual labour, the same
could have been said for arms. They were never bare. If a gown
with wide sleeves was worn, then another with close fitted sleeves
was worn under it to prevent this happening. A woman's neckline
may be low, as low as her armpits, but no lower.
When out in society, is was important
that a woman's hands not be touched by a man who is not of her
family. Hand-holding was quite inappropriate. When traveling outside
the home, it was acceptable for any woman to walk arm in arm with
her female companion or a male member of her family. A woman of
good breeding did not venture out alone. A
working woman or a mother in a small peasant household may have
cause to go out alone, but only when unavoidable. Where possible,
she would send a son on an errand on her behalf or seek the security
of another woman's company when going to the bakehouse or to the
creek for washing.
A woman who entered a conversation
with a stranger would only gain herself a bad reputation and to
accept a kiss from a male friend or acquaintance or from a man
who is not related by blood or marriage, even on the cheek, would
have had tongues wagging and have ruined a woman's reputation.
In the middle ages, a woman's reputation was everything.
One must never address a social superior
first, especially if one was a woman, and an appropriate greeting
must be given. It was considered the height of rudeness to avert
your gaze to a man or woman who ranked higher than oneself. Honesty
was judged by the directness in the eyes and to hide ones face
was interpreted as dishonesty and ill-intent. It was also unthinkable
for a woman to turn her back on a social superior. She should
wait for the person to pass or have removed herself from the room
When introducing a person, should
there have been no man to do it for her, convention dictated that
a woman must introduce the highest rank to the lowest and then
vice versa. This is still true for introductions today. An error
in the order of introduction could have been a grave insult indeed.
Should a woman have found herself in the company of important
people and another important one arrive, she must bow and move
away to permit the newcomer the privilege of standing closer.
It was always better to err on the side of caution in this regard
as it was better to appear humble and meek than ill-mannered and
When a woman entered the house or
room of a person of equal standing, a woman ought bow. If of higher
standing, she must kneel on the right knee. Should she have been
presented to the Queen, she knelt at the door, entered only halfway
and knelt again. Only if she was motioned further might she have
The Medieval Art of Love by Michael Camille tells us a
little about love's gifts, what may and may not be freely given
to a lady without being inappropriate. He tells us of a text by
Andreas Capellanus which states-
A lover may freely accept from
her beloved these things- a handkerchief, a hairband, a circlet
of gold or silver, a brooch for the breast, a mirror, a belt,
a purse, a lace for clothes, a comb, cuffs, gloves, a ring,
a little box of scent, a portrait, toiletries, little vases,
trays, a standard as a keepsake of the lover, and so to speak
more generally, a woman may accept from her love whatever gift
may be useful in the care of her person, or may look charming,
or may remind her of her lover, providing, however, that in
accepting the gift it is clear that she is acting quite without
This also gives us an insight into
what kinds of items were freely available at that time.
Medieval people were very religious and prayer was an integral
part of the day. A prayer would certainly always be said before
any meal even when eating at home. Hands were always washed both
before and after a meal. Even people with little in the way of
tableware were conscious of basic hygiene and good manners. Mothers
have, after all, changed very little over the course of time and
always sought to instill the best manners she can in her offspring.
There is little hope of social improvement with no manners and
should one be called upon to serve a person of higher rank, it
was imperative that offense not be given, even unintentionally.
feast would begin by less important people washing their hands
before going to the table. To fail to do so was the height of
rudeness. The upper class and guests of honour would be seated
by a servant. A washing bowl would be delivered to them at the
high table. The chaplain would say a prayer before any of the
food is brought to the tables. Communal plates were usual and
meant to serve four people at once. The guests at the high table,
however, only had to share with one other person.
The image at right shows a scene
from the Duk du Berry's Tres Riches Heures, illuminated
1412-1416. Food and fine clothing show a standard of living above
the average man. The Roman de la Rose, a famous French
poem from the 13th century, gives advice to a woman in her table
She ought also to behave properly
at table. . . . She must be very careful not to dip her fingers
in the sauce up to the knuckles, nor to smear her lips with
soup or garlic or fat meat, nor to take too many pieces or too
large a piece and put them in her mouth. She must hold the morsel
with the tips of her fingers and dip it into the sauce, whether
it be thick, thin, or clear, then convey the mouthful with care,
so that no drop of soup or sauce or pepper falls on to her chest.
When drinking, she should exercise such care that not a drop
is spilled upon her, for anyone who saw that happen might think
her very rude and coarse. And she must be sure never to touch
her goblet when there is anything in her mouth. Let her wipe
her mouth so clean that no grease is allowed to remain upon
it, at least not upon her upper lip, for when grease is left
on the upper lip, globules appear in the wine, which is neither
pretty nor nice.
Rules for the table
- Persons of lower rank stand upon the head of the house and important
guests entering or leaving the room
- One uses one's own knife which was brought with oneself.
- Forks were cooking utensils. Never eat with them.
- Food is picked up by stabbing with the knife but NEVER did the
knife go to the mouth. The food must be removed with the fingertips
- Do not make many selections and gather them to your plate.
- Keep your elbows off the table while eating.
- Do not belch or spit at the table.
- Do not stuff your mouth full.
- Do not dip meat or fingers directly into the salt bowl. Use
the knife tip.
- Do not leave a spoon in a dish when you were finished.
- Do not use the knife to pick your teeth.
- Do not take all the choicest morsels for yourself.
- Meat should be cut from the joint.
- Bread should be cut, not broken and the upper crust offered
to the guest.
- It is acceptable to select fruits, tarts and morsels with one's
- A spoon should be used for broth. Do not lift the plate to your
- Under no circumstances eat the trencher (plate of stale bread).
- Napkins to be placed over the left shoulder or left wrist and
- Do not wipe your mouth on your sleeve- use a napkin.
- Take a cup with both hands to drink if it is shared.
- Wipe your mouth on a napkin before drinking from a shared vessel.
- If you are offered a drink from the host's cup, do not pass
the cup around.