The kitchen: like modern houses today, the size, construction and facilities found in a medieval kitchen varied greatly from one household to another. Some small (middle-class) dwellings had a large kitchen-living room to prepare and eat in, while in the largest and grandest halls there might be several purpose built rooms for the kitchens, as well as a bakery, a room to dress meat in, and rooms for storage.
Sometimes these rooms were detached from the main dwelling and all the cooked food had to be carried some distance into the great hall; although by the late 1400s most kitchens of this type were being built within the main residence – these early kitchens were timber-framed and roofed with thatch, slate or tile, even those within the stone walls of castles. Stone built kitchens were very expensive, and only a few were built entirely of this material.
To help clean spills good drainage was essential in a kitchen, and so the floors all sloped away to the edges; while large vats full of dirty water, to clean down the kitchen, sat putrefying and smelling of the rotten foods washed off the plates, bowls and utensils etc.
Most of the cooking was carried out in the main kitchen, while separate pastry/baking, meat preparation and boiling houses did specialized dishes or steps in the recipe. In the richer households there would be a smaller separate ‘privy kitchen’, responsible for the food served to the lord and his family or main guests.
“The best description of the contents of a medieval kitchen was written by Alexander Neckham in the twelfth century. Despite this early date, comparison with inventories indicates that many fifteenth-century kitchens were equipped in a virtually identical manner.” From Peter Brears excellent work, ‘Cooking And Dining In Medieval England’, 2008, published by Prospect Books.
Kitchen equipment compiled from Alexander Neckham in the 1100s: A net, fork, spear, light hook or basket to catch fish; Pickling mixture for fish in a pickling vat; hot water vat for scalding fowl; a pit dug to discard waste and filth; a small table to pick over vegetables; a cupboard to store spices and bread flour; pots, tripod, mortar, pestle, hatchet, stirring stick, a hook, cauldron, bronze vessel, small pan, baking pan, meathook, a griddle, small pitchers, a trencher, a bowl, a platter, a pepper mill and a handmill, and a large spoon for removing foam and scumming.
Setting up the hall: Medieval peasants ate where and when they could. For the retainers of a rich man it was very different, they ate with the Master in his Great Hall, (until the rich removed themselves, from the middle of the 1500s, to eat most of their meals in a separate ‘lord’s chamber’, eating in the great hall only for feast occasions).
On these feast occasions the usually bare hall would be hung with tapestries. At one end of the hall was a raised dais with permanent table for the master, his family, and distinguished guests. On the lower level the rest of the household sat at trestle tables, positioned both sides down the length of the hall, which would be taken down after the meal for entertainments and sleeping.
In order for the servants to reach everyone the diners sat on one side of the table only, on long benches, with cushions for the most important guests, and small stools for the least; with expensive cloth hanging almost to the floor off the main tables. The Master of the feast sat at the centre of the top table, with an ornate salt vessel placed to the right of him.
Order of Seating And Good Manners While Eating: the place where someone was seated at the feast, and the ‘mess’ they were included in, depended upon that person’s status, (also on their good manners, how well they were liked, and how old they were). The Lord, or the most important guest, sat first, while everyone stood waiting to sit, and no one ate anything until the Lord of the house had done so first; neither did people start to eat until the whole course had been served to the table, which could take some time.
When food was expected to be shared, served from one container or bowl etc., this was worked out previously by the marshal of the hall – food was prepared and served to a set number of people called a ‘mess’. In 1430 John Russell stated that a ‘mess’ of the most important people at a feast numbered 2 people, while groups of knights and abbots etc. should be served in groups of 3, and all the lowest ranks of people should be served in a mess of 4. In the mess people were only ever expected to touch the shared food with their left hand.
Bring your own cutlery: unless you were part of the Lords table you were expected to bring your own knife, spoon and drinking vessel. The ‘top table’ of important people had these implements laid out for them, they also had a Carver and page boys to serve and carve the foods brought to them, while everybody else, at the lowest social levels, was very often left on their own after the food was brought.
“The carver must know how to carve and how to handle a knife properly and how all kinds of birds should be carved. Your knife must be good and your hands must be clean … make sure you never put more than two fingers and a thumb on fish, meat or fowl.” From, ‘The Book of Carving’, Wynkyn de Worde, 1508.
Primarily you used your fingers to eat off bread plates, (trenchers) while you used your own knife to cut up your food, a spoon for the pottage and broths, and a cup or mug to drink out of – pronged forks as we know them did not exist until much later, and were only widely available towards the later part of the Tudor period.
Spoons and cups were often made out of wood, bone or clay, and normally the metal knife had a bone handle. These would be used and carried by the person on their belt, whenever they dined out of their own home. Metal plates, wooden bowls and ceramic traps etc. were used, and in the very richest households these were a status symbol of wealth, ornately carved or made of precious metals.
Order of dishes: The order the dishes were served in, and the types of food in each course, were thought to be important. It was particularly argued over by medieval physicians who worried whether light or solid food should come first or last; (yet in truth this ‘medically’ correct sequence was probably ignored by many, accepted by only a few and unknown to the rest).
Physicians thought fruit should open the meal, then pottages were thought to be best served next, (getting the body ready for the main dishes) with roasts at the centre of the sequence, lighter tarts, pastries and pies next, while wafers, cheese and candied fruits closed the meal with hippocras wines.
Although of course the food served is also dependent on it being either a ‘fish day’ only menu or a ‘flesh day’ menu, which was expected to be observed throughout the strict medieval Christian calendar, and during specific feasting and fasting periods.