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 social standing.
The late medieval poem, How The Good
Wife Taught Her Daughter gives motherly advice for general deportment
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
Social standing 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 that
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.
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 backwards.
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 rude.
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 gone closer.
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
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,
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 manners:
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
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 to eat.
- 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
- 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
- It is acceptable to select fruits, tarts and morsels with one's fingers.
- A spoon should be used for broth. Do not lift the plate to your mouth.
- Under no circumstances eat the trencher (plate of stale bread).
- Napkins to be placed over the left shoulder or left wrist and used.
- 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