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When we sit down to a formal dinner here in the United States, there are manners you are expected to follow like sit up straight, push your chair in, place your napkin in your lap. All of this small niceties are called collectively dining etiquette and they represent the rules for how we are to operate socially when eating a meal. Which begs the question: What about Shakespeare? When the bard sat down a meal with his friends, perhaps at the Mermaid Tavern, or even for a state dinner somewhere like Whitehall Palace, were there conventional behaviors he was supposed to follow when eating a table for a formal dinner? To find out Maura Graber, Director of the RSVP Institute for Etiquette is back with us again this week, to share the history of dining and proper behavior at the table for the 16th century.  (This is Part 2 of our two part series on Napkins and Table Manners with Maura Graber. (Listen to Part 1 on 16th Century Napkins)

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Maura J. Graber is an author, consultant, and the site creator and editor for the Etiquipedia Etiquette Encyclopedia, a free online resource for all things etiquette and etiquette history. Maura has been teaching Etiquette since 1990 and runs The Rsvp Institute Of Etiquette at the historic Graber Olive House in Ontario California. Her books, “Reaching for the Right Fork” and “What Have We Here?” are best sellers among those who study etiquette, antiques for the table, and dining history. Most recently she has worked as a historical Etiquette Consultant for Julian Fellowes’ HBO show, The Gilded Age. 

I’ll be asking Maura Graber about:

  • Were individual diners expected to bring their own cutlery to the table when they eat? 
  • What about drinking vessels, what kind of glassware or drink cups were available on a 16th century table? 
  • What kind of plates were used, and were there multiple size plates like bread plates, or dipping plates for sauces? 
  • …and more!

At The King’s Table by Susanne Groom

The Joy of Eating by Katie Stewart

Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser  

“The Bean Eater” by Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) | A man eating at a table with just a knife and a spoon. | Public Domain | Source

Cutlery At The Table

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger, author of several instructions on 16th C table manners | Public Domain| Source

It was common for individuals to have a knife on their person. This was considered a standard defense weapon, as well as the primary utensil for eating your food. In our episode with Brigitte Webster, you will actually see how knives were given as wedding presents, which is the most likely explanation for where Juliet gets the dagger she mysteriously produces in that play.

When a diner arrived at the table to eat, they were expected to bring their cutlery with them. Maura explains,

Most men carried a knife or a dagger of some sort. Back then, they didn’t have alot of utensils at the table. They would share a bowl of soup btween two people. If you had a spoon, it was crudely made unless you ad a lot of money, Forks weren’t a thing in England until the later 1600s, early 1700s, so travel utensils were something people had in England. It took at least 100 years for them to gain popularity (forks, that is) in Europe from italy. They became much more popular in France and Holland before Germany or England.  


“Truly, madam, if God have lent a man any manners, he may easily put it off at court: he that cannot make a leg, put off’s cap, kiss his hand and say nothing, has neither leg, hands, lip, nor cap; and indeed such a fellow, to say precisely, were not for the court; but for me, I have an answer will serve all men.”

— Alls Well That Ends Well (II.2)

Screen capture of a page from “Galateo: A Renaissance Treatise on Manners” by Giovanni Della Casa (1503–56), Victoria University (Toronto, Ont.). Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies | was published posthumously in Venice, Italy, in 1558, to great success | This section is discussing the rules about keeping your hands clean at the table | This book was published in 1575 in English by Robert Peterson and according to scholar Bruce Smith, it would have been available in book stalls in Shakespeare’s London. (Source: Smith, Bruce (2001). Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. Bedford. p. 384.) | Image Source, pg. 39)
15-16thC Drinking vessel, tooled in leather. This is called a “Canteen,” labeled at Lardsatter.com as “covered in tooled leather, made in Tyrol (?) c. 1500-1515” | Understood to be public domain in the United States due to age | Source
Portrait of Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael (1483–1520) | Public Domain | Source

15-16th Century Drinking Vessels

When you sat down to a table and wanted something to drink, the vessel for containing your beverage could vary widely depending on both the occasion as well as the affluence of your host.

If you didn’t have much money and in one of the lesser pubs or taverns or in someone’s home that wasn’t grand, you’d have pewter or brass tankard, or even a leather cup. It was designed to be shared with other people. A cup bearer would stand behind you and hand it to you to drink, and then they’d clean it between people.  

Another publication on manners that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime was a book published by Baldassare Castiglione. He wrote Il Cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier, a book on manners and questions of the etiquette. It was very influential in 16th-century European court circles. (Burke, Peter. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. Penn State University Press, 1995).

This is called a “costrel” which is the word defined as “A flat, pear-shaped drinking vessel with loops for attachment to the belt of the user.” It is stamped with the letters “TG,” This artifact is at the Museum of London.
“1549, Il Cortigiano, Del Conte Baldessar Castiglione. Novamente stampato, et con somma diligentia revisto con la sua tavola di novo aggiunta. Con priuilegio. In Vinegia [Venice], appresso Gabriel Giolito de Ferrari MDXLIX” (1549) | Public Domain | Source

The Museum of London explains that as a drinking vessel, leather was selected on purpose material because “Leather was an ideal material to make drinking and serving vessels as it was light, strong, waterproof, and wouldn’t shatter when dropped.”

Just a side note from Cassidy here, that’s completely unresearched so take this as off the cuff meditations here, but there are several references in Shakespeare’s plays (Alls Well That Ends Well, in particular), where the characters are talking about the manners at court versus the manners of the ordinary man and how there’s not only a vast difference but the manners at court are often disparaged, or called out as a performance rather than any real indication of civility. I think there definitely could be an influence of Castiglione’s work to that banter, given Castiglione’s general approach that “To perfect oneself is not selfish, but fulfills a public and private moral duty for the individual to act as a model for others.” (For the Renaissance (i.e., Classical) theory of Mimesis (imitation) see, for example: Edward P. J. Corbett, “The Theory and Practice of Imitation in Classical Rhetoric”, College Composition and Communication, vol. 22, No. 3 (1971), pp. 243-250 and G. W. Pigman, III, “Versions of Imitation in the Renaissance”, Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 1-32.)

Again, that’s just me talking out of thin air there, but a potential research project for you if you’re looking for something to explore.

“King Philip II of Spain banqueting with his family and courtiers (The Royal feast).” by Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531–1588) | This painting is interesting because it shows the use of forks at the table in the 16th century. You see the woman in red holding one and then there’s another resting on the plate in front of Charles V.| Public Domain | Source

“Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court.”

— As You Like It (III.2)

Pierre de Moucheron (1508-67), his Wife Isabeau de Gerbier, their eighteen Children, their Son-in-Law Allard de la Dale and their first Grandchild | by an Anonymous painter, 1563 | Public Domain | Source

Dinner Plates

When sitting down to eat, food was often passed around on large serving plates and shared between people who would take a portion from the communal plate and place it on their individual serving plate. The material that these plates were made of, like drinking vessels, varied by class and occasion. Someone like Shakespeare would have used a wooden trencher on an ordinary basis, but likely would have enjoyed finer plates made of more precious materials at fancier dining occasions.

In the 15th century, you had wooden trenchers, and prior to that that there was kind of like a large round loaf of bread that softened up as you were eating it, and kids were told to “leave their manners on their trencher” meant to leave some leftovers for the poor a t the gates. By the 1500s they had wooden trenchers to replace bread, and by the 1600s, 1641, the first actual plate as we know it today made of a round ceramic or porcelain was made. Shakespearea would have used a wooden trenchers.  

Screen capture from The Erasmus Reader By Erasmus Roterodamus, Erasmus, Desiderius, d. 1536| This section is providing direction about how to share large plates of food being passed about the table at a meal | Image Source, pg. 113

Seating Arrangements based on Status

Where you sat at a table depended on your station and relation to the host. Maura explains that the container for salt on the table was considered the line dividing between upper and lower class at the table.

“ Above the salt “ (Salary comes form the word for salt, sometimes Romans were paid in slat needed it to survive) Spices were expensive, so if you were “Above the salt” Meaning you sat with the spices in front of you and everyone else can see the salt cellar and you behind it, that meant that you were the privileged few. If you were below the salt, you were much lower in rank and class.  


Bildnis der Familie des Basler Zunftmeisters Hans Rudolf Faesch und der Anna Glaser (“Portrait of the family of the Basel guild master Hans Rudolf Faesch and Anna Glaser”) by Hans Hug Kluber, 1559 | Public Domain | Source

“What foolish master taught you these manners, John?”

— Henry IV Part II (II.1)

Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) by Paolo Veronese | Public Domain | Source

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!